Partition of Lives: Memory, Trauma, and Nostalgia of East Bengali Refugee Women in West Bengal
By Subhasri Ghosh
Any momentous occasion is a time to look back, to reminiscence. As India celebrates 70 years of Independence, we look back at the lives of those whose homeland changed overnight at the stroke of a pen. For them time remains static, frozen at 1947. I aim to focus on the dual aspects of memory, one of trauma and another of nostalgia, of East Bengali refugee women who crossed over to the state of West Bengal through extensive use of personal recollections and written memoirs of women migrating to West Bengal following the Partition in 1947. As Gyanendra Pandey treats history, “… as one kind of practice of recollection.” To retain the original flavour of the memories, I have relied upon first-hand narration.
Memory of Violence
I wish to draw attention to the fundamental difference between the types of violence in Bengal and Punjab following Partition. Though both regions went under the scalpel in 1947, Punjab was scarred much more by violence, as compared to Bengal. In the days immediately following Partition, the violence in Punjab was explicit – with large-scale looting, arson, defilement of minority women, and plain massacre. In Bengal, while the pre-Partition days witnessed widespread riot and killing in Calcutta and Noakhali, no repetition of the same magnitude and intensity accompanied the announcement of Partition.
The word ‘violence’ in the context of Bengal has a different connotation. Violence in Bengal was more of an implicit nature. Migration from East Bengal was provoked often mainly by an intense fear psychosis, the phenomenon of ‘what if…’ This is what I mean by implicit. Saving the honour of women, life and property were no doubt the deciding factors. Whereas in Punjab, the actual occurrence of widespread violence prompted the exodus, in Bengal it was often more of hearsay that prompted people to leave. However, it will be a denial of truth to dismiss the existence of explicit violence in Bengal. The most pronounced evidence of post-Partition violence of an explicit nature occurred three years after Partition in 1950, when riots scarred large parts of East Bengal, primarily Barisal, with the echo being felt in the industrial suburbs of Calcutta. The following extracts, gleaned from interviews with surviving inmates of the still-existing Permanent Liability (P.L.) Camps in West Bengal testify to the horrors of that carnage.
Sonaibala Mali (Bhadrakali Women’s Home)
I lived in a village in Barisal. My husband, my father, and paternal uncle were all hacked to death in broad daylight – I was around 16 years old when the killing took place… I could not sleep a wink; those scenes haunted me for years. The police rescued us – my mother, brother, and five sisters – and brought us to Barisal town.
Lilabati Dutta (Dhubulia Camp and Infirmary)
The Hindus of our village in Barisal were singled out and killed. I can still vividly recall that fateful day when my entire family was wiped out. It was around eight in the morning. Nearly fifty Muslims (from outside and from our area) stormed our locality and killed my mother, paternal uncle, aunt, brother, and sister. On my in-law’s side, my father-in-law, my mother-in-law, and sister-in-law were butchered. The houses were ransacked and torched. Only I managed to escape the dance of death. With my infant son, I hid amidst the water hyacinths … the miscreants poked the water with bamboo poles to find me, but somehow, by the grace of the God, I could deceive them. I stayed immersed for two days.
Binodini Halder (Chamta P.L. Camp)
I was a widow, living with my daughter, in my father’s home in Barisal district. I saw with my own eyes, how the Hindus were slaughtered at Muladi (1950) in Barisal. They were locked up in a godown and hacked to death. Naren Bhattacharya, a resident of our village, was killed by his own students who came disguised as policemen. Village after village were torched down.
Nevertheless, there is no denying the fact that direct experiences of violence were not as horrific and widespread in Bengal as it was in Punjab in 1947-48; for example, there was no train carrying corpses between Calcutta and Dacca. The oral and the written testimonies of many women reveal that they had no direct experience of physical violence. Some even acknowledged that the neighbouring Muslims, with whom they had for generations shared a cordial relationship, urged them not to leave. But they left everything behind to begin their ‘tryst with destiny’ in a new state and a new country, the reason being the fear of living in perpetual tension, “when a tap on the door could mean death or for women, rape.” I present here some first-hand narratives of women, ranging from the still-suffering inmates of the P. L. Camps to well-settled ones, living decently with their dear ones, which underline the impact of gnawing fear.
Saraswati Biswas (Chamta P. L. Camp)
Our village was not affected by the riots. The local Muslims assured, “You stay put, and we will guard you.” But I was a young widow with two small kids (a son and a daughter). The village elders (primarily Hindus) advised against my stay. Hence, I came along accompanied by my sister-in-law.
Lilabati Ghosh (Bansberia P.L. Camp)
Our area remained more or less peaceful. But news of violent incidents in other areas scared me. I was alone at that time, since my husband had gone to his company’s head office in Calcutta. However, the coolies and the labourers (mainly Muslims) working for the company pledged me all help. I had already sent my daughter and son to this side. We could not sell off our possessions in Goalando.
Surabala Das (Bansberia P.L. Camp)
We had cordial relations with our Muslim neighbours. When the riots started, we asked whether they would harm us. They promised, “We won’t touch you. But we can’t guarantee about the Bihari Muslims.” I was around 16-17 at that time. I came along with my husband. We carried no valuables. At that point of time we didn’t anticipate that this would be our final journey.
Sunanda Ghosh (Jamshedpur)
We did not face any difficulty in 1947, so we stayed back. The situation deteriorated later when Bihari Muslims became active. They came to our village, held meetings and incited local Muslims to drive away and kill Hindus. But the Bengali Muslims said, “We shall not touch them. We have eaten their salt, we cannot betray them.” We did not experience that calamity ourselves, but we did hear about these from others… Our Muslim sharecropper Taisheik took us to his home. He said, “I will protect you, even if I have to die for that.” But somehow we never felt it was safe to stay back. We came to the nearest town Jamalpur under military protection. Our family left Jamalpur for Darshana on the border by train provided for the refugees. From there we walked quite a stretch to enter Hindustan. Finally, we landed at Cooper’s Camp in Ranaghat.
Thus mostly, it was the apprehension of a catastrophe and not any actual calamity that drove these women to this side. The trauma of leaving one’s bhitamati was compounded by the severe struggle for existence on this side. Here, of course the experience of those displaced in the west converge with those of the east because women belonging to both the regions struggled and fought relentlessly to chart out their new lives in new surroundings.
Memory of struggle and settling down
We came over to Chandmari Camp in Nadia district. Our camp-life was fraught with hardships. Tents were pitched in the middle of a sprawling field with grasses five to six feet tall!! The toilets were about half a mile away though the tube-well was quite close by. Thus started an altogether different life—a life full of struggle… We finally got permanent accommodation after three months. These were essentially army barracks abandoned after the Second World War. Once we were settled, friends and relatives started pouring in, in search of help. Our financial condition turned from bad to worse; since we had to support our relatives also… it was difficult to make ends meet.
Me and my brother … we found refuge in my paternal uncle’s home in Calcutta. We had a tough time adjusting ourselves to our new lives. Used to living amidst luxury, here in Calcutta, we were huddled in cramped rooms along with other relatives. But we were helpless.
Home on the other side
This struggle to survive and move forward in an unfriendly clime made the refugees increasingly nostalgic. Even after finding some sort of material stability on this side, the tug of the motherland on the other side of the Padma remained as strong as it had been in the initial days.
Yes, I still do feel the tug of the other side, which still exercises its charm on me. The pain of uprootment is still raw. It has been 51 long years. But the desire to visit the other side has not waned a bit. Well, we have never faced any untoward situation in East Bengal. Perhaps that is why I do not nurse any grievances. I have fond recollections of my childhood days in the idyllic village surroundings. I have heard that the locals have occupied our house. Perhaps if I go back now I will be disillusioned. But even then I still nurse the wish to go back.
Even after forty long years when I look back, I can still vividly recount my days back in East Bengal. Yes, I have found material stability here… but how can one forget her motherland? Alas…if I could have spent all these years in East Bengal only! By now, I would have been able to build some sort of a reputation, what with my father being a famous doctor of the area and our family owning huge landed property. But here, we are nameless, faceless figures in the sea of people. In this concrete jungle everybody is busy with their respective lives…people are running after money…we have become selfish. I miss the relaxed life back in my motherland.
Sarama Dutta Majumdar
It all seems to have happened yesterday… though so many years have passed by. I am now in the twilight of my life. But I live in my past… the Shiva temple and the Kali temple at Ramna with the chant of mantras fleeting in… I want to go back to those days. When I close my eyes, I have this dream…I could hear the bells ringing… the exams have started… I am running towards the examination hall, but how fast I run the distance never seems to lessen. I wake up and realise that it was a dream—the manifestation of my desire to go back but the inability to do so. I have not forgotten anything, nor will I ever forget.
These narratives prove that East Bengal still pulls a chord in their hearts and has not allowed them to accept the reality. It is interesting to note that women like Hena Chaudhuri and Anima Dhar had spent the better part of their lives on this side, and strictly speaking, have vague recollections and dim memories of their villages and homes. But they live with these, and add as well to conjure up the concept of an ‘ideal life’ amidst the sylvan surroundings, which may well be imaginary. Their trauma of being cut off from the natal set-up becomes enmeshed in the nostalgia for a lost homeland. They remain prisoners of the memories of their homeland – the Padma, Meghna, and Arialkha, the beauty of nature, the relaxed village life, and the atmosphere of peace, tranquility, and camaraderie.
As opposed to this nostalgia, for the residents of the P.L. camps, trauma is still an existential reality, heightened even more by governmental apathy. Their yearning for a lost home becomes subsumed in the struggle for survival. It is not true that they do not indulge in any nostalgic retreats. As Sishubala Das of Chamta P.L. Camp rues, “My heart aches for my bari back in East Bengal. For years, I cried for my lost home. I never remarried, in spite of repeated requests from my parents because I wanted to cling to my husband’s home. But alas! By a strange twist of fate, I was forced to sell off that precious home and leave forever.” But their daily struggle perhaps does not give them the time to do so. In fact, unlike the previous set of narrators, many of the inmates consider West Bengal as their home, like Labanya Mukherjee, “I have lived the better part of my life here. I spend my time, sitting on the banks of Ganga and reading the Holy Scriptures. I wish to spend the rest of life here only.”
Deprived of immediate family links, they had looked up to the government to play the traditional patriarchal role of their father, husband or son and to look after them in their needs. Indeed, as their testimonies stress, some of the inmates ‘voluntarily’ opted for a life in the P.L. camps. Although they had close relatives on this side, refugees like Labanya Mukherjee, Lilabati Ghosh, Surabala Das chose the camp life. Some even turned anti-establishment by siding with the communists in a bid to improve their lot. The coming of the communists to power, however, did not bring about a significant change in their lives, which still continue to revolve around the four crumbling and damp walls of the camps, on a paltry dole of Rs. 200 a month. The recollections of these women capture the trauma in all its aspects – the severance from the native soil, uprooting from their bhita (ancestral home) followed by the arduous journey across the Radcliffe Line to this side, the disintegration of the family set-up through death or ‘government screening’, trauma of being labeled a special category of refugees – the ‘P.L.’ – and finally ending up at the P. L. Camps where the suffering continues.
Binodini Halder (Chamta P. L. Camp)
I migrated with one of my elder brothers, his wife, my elder sister, her son and my six-year old daughter. My mother stayed back in East Bengal with another elder brother. We could not dispose of our property, before we left.
We arrived at Sealdah Station where we stayed for a week. Puffed rice and jaggery supplied by the government were our only food. During screening, our group was split up. While some were shifted to a camp in Medinipur, my daughter and I were dispatched to Asansol. Both my elder brother and elder sister, who had sons, were rehabilitated later in Halisahar. Time and again, I applied for rehabilitation. But being a single woman with a small daughter, I was not considered fit. I was actively involved with the UCRC struggle and was even jailed twice. Alas! Nothing concrete came out of our long struggle. Now, I live in abject poverty. Our rooms have never been repaired – rainwater seeping in through the roofs floods the rooms. There is no provision for safe drinking water, no electricity. The government has done nothing to lessen our misery. Tell me, is Rs. 200 sufficient for survival?
Surabala Das (Bansberia P. L. Camp)
From Faridpur, we arrived at Burnpur via Sealdah. My husband set up a shop and began selling copper utensils. We lived quite comfortably in a house in Chinsurah. But my husband died soon after. I came over to stay with my younger brother-in-law. My mother who had migrated before us and was staying at the Ranaghat camp, advised me to get myself admitted to a camp. Her logic was, “You have a small daughter; you have to educate her, get her married.” I, too, thought when there is an opportunity, why not make good use of it. The superintendent of the Ranaghat Camp, where my mother was an inmate, advised me to go over to Bongaon border to collect the refugee slip and enroll myself. I did accordingly and was transported to the Babughat Transit Camp. I longed to stay with my mother. But I was singled out as a P L. Hence I was not to be shifted to Ranaghat. For three months, I stayed in Babughat, before being shifted to Bhadrakali Camp.
The camp was housed in abandoned military barracks. Five to six families jostled for space in a single room. The mortality rate at the camp was quite high. The dead bodies were dumped in a truck and taken away. Out of concern for my daughter’s well being, I decided to send her to my mother. When the situation turned normal, I brought her back.
As breakfast, we were served puffed rice, while lunch was a frugal affair of cooked rice, dal and a vegetable. Lactating children were given milk. We were provided with hair oil and detergent soap. Gradually the system of dry dole was started, but the quality was too bad. UCRC leaders like Saraju Bal and Sishu Dutta protested against the poor quality and finally the supply was discontinued. When our doles were stopped, the UCRC provided us with the necessary rations.
I was actively involved in movements led by the UCRC. Apart from agitating against the poor quality of rations, we also demanded articles of daily need like buckets, mugs, and lanterns. But alas! Our fate has remained more or less unchanged. It is true that the Communist Party has done a lot for us. The amounts of cash and dry dole have been increased, but these are simply not enough. I used to supplement my dole income by spinning yarns – both at Bhadrakali and Bansberia. But after a few years, the scheme was stopped at Bansberia.
Conditions have gone from bad to worse. The local boys have stolen the doors and the window panels and set fire to the rooms. How can one stay amidst such goonda raj? But where will I go? Staying with my daughter and son-in-law does not look good.
It is in these narratives of agony that we hear in the P.L. Camps, where the merciless displacement of the past and the cruel deprivation of the present converge that we decipher the relevance of Gyanendra Pandey’s thesis on the confluence of memory and violence. In this context we can recall Pandey’s reflection on the nature of remembrance fuelled by Partition, “… Partition was violence, a cataclysm, a world (or worlds) torn apart.”
Thus, memory, both hymnal and elegiac – the former invoking nostalgia and the latter evoking trauma – layer the narratives, making them palpably human and poignant. The narratives I have presented here – oral testimonies and written memoirs – crisscross with one another to construct that complex structure of feeling in which several emotional conditions prevail and interpenetrate. For those who did experience violence, the situation is even more intricate, because here the dark times of the past and the present are countered occasionally by glimpses of dreams yet to die. It is this dream which urges an emaciated 85-year-old Lilabati Ghosh of Bansberia P.L. Camp with no surviving kith or kin to pine for rehabilitation – the dream of having a home of her own has not waned a bit.
Again, those who have managed to find a decent rhythm of life here are also not estranged from their past, which continues to haunt them. In short, a chiaroscuro of varying tones of light and dark envelopes the lives of these women where trauma and nostalgia, remembrance and reality ceaselessly intertwine.
 The interviews were taken as part of the project, ‘Trauma and Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India’ headed by Dr Jasodhara Bagchi and Dr Subhoranjan Dasgupta. The first volume of the project was published under the title, “Trauma and Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India” (Stree) in 2003 and the second volume, in 2009. The interviews cited here, were taken by the author and Smt. Debjani Dutta.
 Gyanendra Pandey, Memory, History and Violence: Reflections on the Reconstruction of Partition (Calcutta, 1999).
 For a detailed first-hand account of the 1950 riot in East Bengal, see Pravash Chandra Lahiry, India Partitioned and Minorities in Pakistan (Calcutta, 1964)
 The Permanent Liability Camps, as the very name suggests, houses special category of refugees, namely, women without any able-bodied male member to look after. There are nine Permanent Liability Camps still existing in West Bengal.
 Interview, November 2005
 Interview, December 2005
 Interview, November 2005
 Meghna Guhathakurta “Families, Displacement, Partition”, Refugee Watch, September 1999.
 Interview, November 2005
 Interview, December 2005
 Interview, June 2000
 Interview, March 1999
 Interview, June 2000
 Interview, June 2000
Sarama Dutta Majumdar, “Daccar Dinguli” in Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, op. cit.
 Interview, November 2005
 Interview, December 2005
 ‘Government screening’ refers to the procedure by which the refugees, on arrival at the border, were questioned and on satisfactorily establishing their claim of fresh arrival, were issued interception slips to qualify themselves as ‘bona fide refugees’. To those dependent entirely on the government for food and shelter, a special type of interception slip was issued which entitled them to admission in camps. They were then asked to report to the nearest reception centers, where they were further checked and moved to the nearest available transit camp. Here they were again questioned, classified according to their profession or occupation, and given cards and sent to the Relief Camps, Permanent Liability camps or Colony Camps.
 Interview, November 2005
Pandey, Remembering Partition, p. 7
Butalia, Urvashi, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 1998).
Guhathakurta, Meghna, “Families, Displacement, Partition”, Refugee Watch, September 1999.
Hasan, Mushirul, (ed.), India’s Partition: Process, Strategy and Mobilization (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001).
Lahiry, Pravash Chandra, India Partitioned and Minorities in Pakistan (Writers’ Forum Private Limited, Calcutta, 1964).
Majumdar, Ramesh Chandra, Amader Sei Dacca Viswavidyalaya (Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta, 1974).
Menon, Ritu and Kamla Bhasin, Borders &Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition (Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1998).
Pandey, Gyanendra, Memory, History and the Question of Violence: Reflections on the Reconstruction of Partition (K.P. Bagchi & Company, Calcutta, 1999).
Pandey, Gyanendra, Remembering Partition (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001).
Interviews with Anima Dhar, Hena Chaudhuri, Sunanda Ghosh, residents of Chamta P.L. Camp (Nadia), Dhubulia Camp and Infirmary (Nadia), Bansberia P.L. Camp (Hooghly), Bhadrakali Women’s Home (Hooghly).
Subhasri Ghosh is Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Asutosh College, University of Calcutta. Reach her at email@example.com
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.