Remembering a Refugee City
By Debjani Sengupta
If a person very close to us is dying, there is something in the months to come that we dimly apprehend – much as we should have liked to share it with him – that could only happen through his absence. We greet him at the last in a language that he no longer understands. – Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street
My father, Ashutosh, first came to Calcutta some years before the country’s partition, when he was barely sixteen, in search of work. It was a place where one could find employment, a metropolis of dreams and destinations. It was also a city that was manageable, yet unprepared for the onslaught of the rootless streams of humanity that were to cross the newly made borders in and after 1947. ‘I have seen foxes playing by the Ballygunj station. Behala tram depot was a wild lonely area. It took the partition for the city to grow…all the suburbs that you see today…Behala, Jadavpur, as well as the northeastern areas…. were the result of the struggles of refugees like me, we made Kolkata what it is today,’ my father had once told me with detached pride.
In undivided Bengal, before the partition, though not yet its present size, the colonial city had offered education and jobs for the Hindu middle classes from the eastern provinces like Jessore, Barisal, and Khulna. Educational institutions like the Hindu College (later Presidency College), Ripon College, and Scottish Church College were filled with students from East Bengal while the merchant and trading houses, the government offices had many employees who hailed from the east. Every year they traveled back home, crossing the river Padma, waking up the sleepy villages with tales of the multihued city. In return, they carried back to the metropolis their language and cuisine, their love for football, the sights and smell of rivers like Shitalakshya, Dhaleshwari, Meghna and the tug and pull of memories. Living in cramped ‘mess-bari’, or rented rooms, they dreamt of making it big in the city. For so many young men who flocked to the city, like my father did, on a shoestring budget, dreaming of a new life, Calcutta was a city of infinite possibilities. Yet nobody had thought the forays in this modern metropolitan space were ever going to be permanent; their ‘desher bari’ was there, one could always return home. That first time in Kolkata, my father had returned too, because he missed Narayangunj so much. In this, he was following a family tradition. My grandfather, who graduated in 1918, had left a government job in Bihar to come and settle in Ramchandrapur in Tippera district where he had worked as an assistant headmaster in the village school. After the communal riots in Tippera, he decided to settle down in Narayangunj, which he was to leave in 1949. In 1947, my father was still in East Bengal, living with his parents, running a small business while some of his brothers lived in Calcutta, studying or earning a living.
However, the partition of the country in 1947 made it abundantly clear that in the city of Kolkata, the journey of the Hindu East Bengali, culturally and psychologically, was a one-way journey. They came to the city and never did go back. ‘I was compelled to sell my shop in Narayangunj to come to Kolkata. Those days the airfare between Dhaka and Kolkata was fifty rupees. I had to buy tickets for all of us…We came to stay at my elder brother’s government accommodation in Garcha where my younger siblings also lived. Ten of us were cramped together in a small two-roomed flat. But I knew this was to be my new life, a life of struggle. I was completely broke, unemployed. I didn’t even have money for a tram-ride. I remember walking to Shyambazar from Garcha one day, nearly eight kilometers each way….’
It never failed to amaze us how much my father still remembered of those slow days of pain, fear, and grit. He remembered watching the refugees on the Sealdah station platforms and the anger he felt when they were sent to camps outside the city or even outside the state. A reporter from Amritabazar Patrika had described the station in the months after the partition: ‘On Thursday I spent a few hours amongst the refugees in Sealdah station. The refugees have come by train to Sealdah. As long as they were not sent elsewhere, they will continue to live here. As soon as they arrive they will stand in a queue to be inoculated against cholera and other diseases. Then, along with all family members, they will have to stand in front of the office of the relief and rehabilitation department where they will be given a certificate stating they are eligible for shelter in relief camps. When all this is over, only then will they spread whatever bedding they have on the South platform and wait for transportation to the camps.’1 My father too saw the endless streams of people crowding the railway platforms and the city pavements. Overnight, the regal city had turned into a refugee city; and my father felt like a refugee too: dislocated, abandoned, and bewildered.
By 1951, my father had managed to find himself a livelihood; he had reclaimed the city. When he first came to the city in 1940, he had lived in a ‘mess-bari’ with his elder brother who worked at the Imperial Library in Central Avenue. But he had not taken to Kolkata much and had decided to leave. However, the city had marked him out as its own. By 1949, the last of his family had come over to this side, never to go back. My grandfather was heartbroken to leave Naranyangunj and complained that the fish and vegetables never tasted the same on this side. My father was more reconciled to the separation and the exile; what he saw around him made him so. ‘I knew we would never go back to what we had left behind. I realized that in my heart, soon enough.’
The waiting rooms of history were emptying millions on the city pavements, on railway platforms, on the open spaces of the bustling metropolis: the battle was on. He needed to find a foothold in the precarious city; otherwise, it was so easy to go under. Calcutta, that had once been the proud imperial capital with stately buildings, was turning into a humungous laboratory churning out endless newspaper reports of refugee plight. Parks and abandoned vacant lots housed the desperate men, women, and children who coped every day with the dereliction and futility of it all. Refugee colonies were mushrooming in and outside the city and not an inch of open space remained that did not carry upon it the traces of desperation, misery and trauma of a hundred uprooted lives. The struggle to find shelter and livelihood left indelible marks on the city’s willing or unwilling inhabitants. The dereliction and violence of those years continue to live on in the city’s psyche to this day.
My father had never really felt at home in the city that so many like him had ‘made’ with their blood, sweat, and fear. Their tangled dreams and despairs had shaped the city just as the city slowly changed my father. He grew old beyond his age. His shoe sizes changed. As did his bangal tongue, his spoken language from East Bengal, that he had to banish ruthlessly for fear of derision. Relentlessly, he was made to forget what he had left behind, his playful childhood and his pitifully brief adolescence. He never, ever went back to East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh in 1971 through another round of orgiastic violence. And he never talked of it until sixty years later. In 2005, when I was leaving for Bangladesh on a visit, he asked me to visit Narayangunj just once. He wanted to believe he had returned, although in a way he would never have once imagined.
In some strange way, my father’s itinerant exiled life has left its traces deep within me. I moved from Kolkata to settle in the country’s capital, not as a refugee but a modern-day migrant, someone who needed to survive in a place at once familiar and strange. The remains of that journey that my father had undertaken on the birth of this nation had somehow managed to gestate within me, and many years later, after my father’s death in 2007, I finally got down to join the pieces of that history of movement and misery that 1947 signified for so many families like us. My father’s negotiations with a metropolis, made up of small victories and smaller disappointments had come together in mine. Separated by time and space, each of these (his)-stories yet veered towards the other, drawing within their folds the many enigmas of arrival and return that had survived beyond our collective memories and our collective forgetting.2
- Quoted in Prafulla Kumar Chakraborty, Prantik Manob, Kolkata: Protikkhon, 1997, page 19. Translation mine.
- This reminiscence uses my father’s interviews from an essay that I had written for the Tehelka titled ‘A Metropolis of Destinations, A City of No Return,’ 4:16, 2007.
Debjani Sengupta is the author of ‘The Partition of Bengal: Fragile Borders and New Identities’ (CUP, 2016) and is the editor of ‘Mapmaking: Partition Stories From Two Bengals’ (Amaryllis, 2011).
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.