A Letter to Fatema Bano

Calcutta, 1947

It was a humid summer afternoon in Calcutta. From her balcony, Fatema could view numerous flags fluttering in the wind, from the terraces of the nearby buildings. What a sight to behold it was!

The Indian national flag flew freely, proudly for the first time in some two hundred years. Albeit, this freedom has come only with a hefty price tag; Partition of the nation.

The country was hit by a sudden catastrophe, and the bloodshed that followed was unimaginable. People belonging to different religions, who had co-inhabited peacefully for several generations suddenly turned into foes, overnight. Villages were burnt, thousands were killed mercilessly. Trains were attacked brutally and would arrive at the destination with nothing but compartments full of corpses lying in stains of rotten blood. Fathers killed daughters with their own hands to save them the horror of rape.

The air was heavy with smoke arising from burnt abodes.

And the water tasted like blood.

“Fatema, are you even listening to me, why don’t you hurry up?”A tense and annoyed Noorajahan called out to her daughter.

But how could she hurry?

How to leave behind the world she had built here?

How to leave without seeing that face once, without holding those hands once?

Probably for the one last time!

Fatema’s father, Suleiman Ansari was a Muslim aristocrat settled in Allahabad. The family lived in a posh locality with a predominantly Hindu population with whom the family had always enjoyed a cordial relationship. However, in the wake of the recent developments, Ansari started feeling unsafe there. All his brothers and cousins were settled across Pakistan, and hence, after much contemplation, he decided to leave Allahabad. Accordingly, with just the bare essentials and some important documents in hand, the family arrived at Calcutta from where they would take Fatema along and travel to Lahore via Delhi.

Fatema was studying at the prestigious “Bethune Girls college” at Calcutta and stayed in the hostel. After their arrival at Calcutta, Noorjehan, Fatema’s mother was supposed to go there, and come to the Sealdah Railway station along with Fatema.

As she was busy packing, suddenly, something flew in through the window and landed on the floor. Startled, Noorjehan picked it up. It was a letter, addressed to Fatema, wrapped around a pebble.

Flabbergasted, she quickly went through it. Little did she know that she was in for a rude shock.

Her motherly instinct had sensed something amiss in Fatema, but to even think that the girl could be in love with a Hindu boy was beyond imagination.

Holding the letter, she stood still, not sure how to react.

Should she confront Fatema, or silently destroy the letter and move on?

She was in a fix. Just then, she heard Fatema’s footsteps approaching the room.

Frantically, she hid the letter underneath the mattress and decided against telling anything to Fatema. They were anyway leaving the place for good.

“Fatema. I have packed your belongings, we should leave now” She said mechanically, pretending as if nothing had happened.

Trying hard to fight back tears, Fatema nodded, with her heart still faintly hoping for a miracle.

Her parents were ardent lovers of all things beautiful. From the sprawling mansion to the fleet of cars, the carpets, the vases, the pearls and the silk, every single thing they owned was unique, beautiful and exotic.

Everybody in the family was blessed with pure caucasian features, and Fatema was clearly a misfit therein.

Her childhood was spent in being taunted and pitied over her looks. To shield herself, she would remain confined within her room. Books became her sole companions. This phase of her life later proved to be a boon in disguise.B y dint of intensive reading, she had acquired an enviable command over English and Urdu literature. After matriculation, she secured admission into the prestigious”Bethune college” in Calcutta, the oldest women’s college in India and breeding ground to many contemporary women intellectuals.

It was this city that made her realize her self-worth; that beauty and wealth are not the only assets to boast of, but Intellect is one too!

Articles penned by her were published in local magazines and were highly appreciated by the experts and the intellectuals.

The libraries, the theatres, the bookshops! She was a free soul there.

It seemed to be place that she forever belonged to.

And it was the place where she found love, in Benimadhav.

Fatema and Benimadhav met for the first time in a book fair, where Fatema had won a writing contest. Benimadhav too had won a debating competition held during the same event. It took them only a few hours to figure out that they had much in common. They would meet regularly at book fairs and literary fests held in the city. Madhav, an avid reader himself, was smitten by the knowledge and creativity possesed by Fatema.

And Fatema!

She found that one person, who’d respect her for the person she was, and not judge her on her looks. They’d talk for hours about books and music, history and politics, share their deepest secrets and darkest fears. They’d talk about their childhood and their career plans. And in the process, there developed a unique bond between the two. They’d find solace and comfort in each other’s company. Fatema knew she had fallen in love, and believed Madhav too, would confess his feelings to her one day. She waited patiently for that day to come. What was the rush anyway!

But instead, came this day of devastation. She hadn’t met Madhav in a few days. And now, all of a sudden, she was required to move to another country, and Madhav wouldn’t know anything about her whereabouts.

At that moment, all she prayed for was one, just one sight of the man she loved, and to be assured that they’ll be alright.

Later that evening, crowded far beyond its carrying capacity, the”Kalka mail” was ready to leave Calcutta. All windows were sealed meticulously to avoid attacks. Men carried sharp weapons for defence, lest the need arose. And women hid tiny poison viles in the knots of their pallus. Babies wailed incessently. Inside one of the compartments, which she shared with some thirty other women, Fatema sat still with a splitting headache and a broken heart.

Madhav! will he ever know that she loved him?

And will she ever know whether he loved her or not? She knew it was a question that’ll haunt her forever. Perhaps, till her last breath.

She closed her eyes. Somewhere deep within her, something had died.

Kolkata,1997

As the car moved through the streets of Kolkata, Septuagenarian Fatema Bano’s mind started travelling down memory lane. Fifty years back, after a horrifying train journey, her family had landed in Pakistan with almost nothing in hand. Her father owned some paternal property in Lahore, which was sold off to arrange capital for starting a business. He had luckily, managed to carry a few of his vital property documents, and as per the government policy for rehabilitation of displaced families, he was allotted a bungalow in Lahore, in lieu of the property owned in India. A seasoned businessman, he was soon able to establish himself in Lahore. Gradually, normalcy returned into the family.

Routine set into Fatema’s life too. But she had transformed into a different person altogether. A brilliant student already, she’d invest all her time and energy in building herself. She knew she couldn’t fail Madhav, the only person who trusted her when nobody else did. Consequently, she went on to become an extremely successful educationalist and one of the most accomplished women of Pakistan. Fame, prosperity and recognition followed. Yet, surrounded by numerous eyes who’d look up to her in reverence, or in amazement, her heart cried for that one pair that’ll look at her with tender affection, the pair of eyes Madhav had. But nowhere were those to be found.

Nevertheless, life moved on.

And Fifty years after leaving this country, she finally had an opportunity to set her foot here again. She was invited as a resource person for a seminar to be held in Delhi.

In the meantime, her alma mater, the Bethune College in Kolkata were planning an alumni meet. The organizers somehow learnt about her presence in Delhi and sent her a special request to grace the occasion.

And how could she miss this opportunity to visit the city that gave her wings, and the only man she loved all her life!

She agreed at once and consequently, with special permission from the concerned authorities, she was here today, on the way to Bethune’s. Kolkata was nowhere close to the”Calcutta” she had once lived in. The buildings, the traffic, the way people dressed and greeted, everything had changed completely. Yet Fatema felt a strange connection with the city. As if it was only yesterday she had left this city. So familiar, so welcoming it seemed.

After an eventful day at the meet, when Fatema had retired to her room at the guesthouse, one of the caretakers informed that someone had requested a visit with her. Fatema obliged, wondering who’d want to meet her in Kolkata.

There were two women. The elder one was about the same age as Fatema and the younger one, presumably her

granddaughter. Having offered them to sit, Fatema initiated the conversation.

“I am sorry, but I simply couldn’t recognize you. Would you mind introducing yourself?”

“I am Chitra Banerjee, retired principal of Belapore college, and an alumni of Bethune’s. Fatemaji, I have travelled a long distance to meet you today. Firstly, though it might sound weird, would you mind telling, that did you, by any chance, stay at the room no.46 at Bethune’s women hostel during 1947-48?”

“Yes…but..”

“And do you know someone named Benimadhab?”

Ah, that name!

Even after Sixty long years, it seemed to have the same effect on her soul; calming, and soothing, and comforting.

But who was this woman? Madhav’s wife?

Her heart sank for a moment. Somehow, she always believed firmly that he’d never marry.

Chitra broke the silence.

“I joined Bethune’s in 1948 and was allotted that room which was previously occupied by you. While arranging the room, I found this letter, written to one Fatema by one Benimadhav, tucked inside the mattress.”

She paused for a while, and then continued.

“Somehow, my conscience didn’t allow me to throw it away. I always had this strange intuition that I was the connecting link between Fatema and Benimadhav. And today, as I was watching a local news channel where the function held at the college was being broadcasted, I saw your name, “Fatema Bano from Pakistan” being displayed on the screen. I immediately knew I had to come here, to see you, to give this to you”

She took out a piece of neatly folded paper and kept it on the table. Then, holding Fatema’s hand, she said softly-

“I should take your leave now, take care”

Fatema didn’t answer.

She couldn’t move for some time. And when she could, she picked the letter with trembling hands, carefully, as if it was the most precious thing she owned.

The paper had taken a yellowish hue, and the writing was barely legible. She started reading.

Dear Fatema,

I am leaving for Chittagong today. I’ve asked my friend Raghu to somehow deliver this letter to you so that you don’t worry unnecessarily about me.

There’s news that the situation is extremely tense there. As only the elders and the women of the family reside there, It is solely my responsibility to ensure their safety. I really wanted to meet you before leaving. But it doesn’t seem feasible now. I promise to meet you as soon as I’m back. Fatema, the times ahead are going to be tough, and anything can happen to anyone of us. Dear, I had wanted to tell this to you in person, but somehow, I feel the urge to confess this to you now itself. You are the purest soul I’ve ever come across in life, and the only woman whom I’ll love with my utmost honesty. Nobody else will ever take your place in my life. No matter which turn our lives take, I’ll always remain indebted to you. Let’s pray that we overcome these turbulent times. Take care, until we meet next.

With love,

Benimadhav.

A drop of tear fell on the paper. Memories of that cursed day, when she had to leave this country wishing for just one last look of her beloved Madhab till the last moment bought her goosebumps. How she wished she could go back in time and assure that young, devastated Fatema that he too, indeed loved her. She wanted to show it to the forty-year-old Fatema who’d often want to talk her heart out to Madhav, that probably, he too wanted the same. She wanted to assure her Sixty-year-old own self who’d spend her evenings in solitude, that someone, somewhere, longed for her company too. For the first time in many years, she was at peace, that came from knowing the answer to a question she thought she’d never have. A feeling she wanted to embrace till eternity. Resting her head on the back of the sofa, Fatema closed her eyes. And drifted slowly into a deep, deep sleep.

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Sukanya Sarma

Sukanya Sarma is based in Guwahati, Assam and currently working with the rural banking sector.
She's always been an avid reader, and tries to write occassionally as a way to stress-busting.

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