“Darling, are you mad?” asked Tapati.
“Well no,” I said gently. “You can say I am a Maverick or a contrarian.”
“I don’t care,” Tapati said angrily. “Who would have thought about moving out of England at your age? We are well settled here. And, by the way, where is home?”
I still think my home is in the village in Bangladesh. The house does not exist anymore. The people who lived in that are either dead or elderly and infirm. I was one of the youngest member of the joint family, and I am in my sixties.
Tapati said, “You won’t be able to relate to them. They are bogged down, by ill health, poverty and loads of daily hassles. We have a comfortable life here. It is not a sin to live comfortably.” She was inconsolable.
I can understand her sentiments. To me she is the voice of most of my acquaintances who live here. I refuse to call them friends. I don’t have friends anymore. The golden days of my youth are over and it has taken away the friends of those days. Don’t get me wrong, many of them are alive, we chat and talk about old days when we meet. But what was not important to me in my twenties, is important to me now that I am in my sixties. At the end of the day, they belong to a different culture. For them, this is their home, be it by birth or be it by adoption. For me, it isn’t. It never was.
I was born in Ichapura, a small village in Bangladesh. The name Ichapura means fulfilment of wishes. I had one big family with plenty of ‘brothers’. Some of them were cousins, even distant cousins, and some were just neighbours. Similarly we had lots of uncles and aunts and ‘sisters’. But relationship doesn’t matter, it is the feeling of kinship that matters.
We had three small courtyards, bedrooms, vegetarian kitchen, non-vegetarian kitchen, milk room and the temple (a room for Puja1). We also had our own pond. We had both flowering plants and big trees that bore fruits. And although we didn’t have cars, we had our own boats, big boats for shopping and small boats for commuting.
Yes, it was almost like Venice. There were plenty of canals all around. Madhav2, Kanai2 and I went rowing in the canals. Generally we were careful and came back home before dinner time. Otherwise, we had it. If caught, we were beaten black and blue. No, that wasn’t child abuse. That was disciplining.
The nights were beautiful. Especially on full moon nights, our village was transformed into a fairy land. There were paddy fields and jute fields all around. In the rainy season the fields were submerged in water. We could navigate the small boat through the fields. There were small ripples in the water as the boat went past. This is a unique beauty of the village of Bangladesh. I have been to many different parts of the world, and I have seen pomp and splendour. But I am yet to see something as magnificent as the rustic beauty of the village at night.
During the day, the same canals were transformed into busy thoroughfares. We used to take our boats and go shopping. Our servant Govinda2 accompanied us. We could see the clear water of the canal. There were unknown plants underneath. Just next to the market, we had a small post office. The postal department where mulling the idea of setting up a new post office. My father sent postcards to sixty three people in the village to ensure the post office was built right in our doorstep.
Govinda, our servant was a part and parcel of the family. He was my friend, philosopher and guide. He could climb up the coconut tree like a monkey. I asked him to teach me the skill. He said, “It’s easy. Just tie your two feet with a rope. Now embrace the trunk of the tree. That’s it. Off we go.” It wasn’t as easy as he made it appear. I grazed my chest when I tried it. But perseverance paid off and I learnt how to climb the coconut tree. “It is wonderful if you can climb up the coconut tree,” said Govinda. “Why? “ I asked him. “You can touch the sky from the tree top,” he said. Besides, if you look down, you’d see all your uncles have bald patches on their head.” “No, not Chhotka3,” I said. “Yes! He also is balding. The bald patch is the size of a coin only. It will grow!”
Now, I need to put my skills to test. One night, I climbed up a tree in our neighbour’s house. I got a bunch of coconuts and was coming down. Suddenly the householder woke up. I threw away the bunch of coconuts and dived straight into the pond. After that I had to stay in my uncle’s place for a few days. I did get beaten up when I came back, but the blow was not that severe. Rangakaka asked me, “Why do you have to steal from the neighbours? “ There are plenty of fruit trees in our house.” Well, we did climb up our own trees to pluck fruits, but that wasn’t daring enough. On the night of NastaChandra4, it was customary to go out and steal fruits and flowers from neighbours. Apparently the tradition is rooted in the Puranas5. For us it was just a night of fun.
At home, we used to steal sugar canes and naru6s. This was kept on a platform called kar7. Fulkaki used to keep a strict vigil. So stealing these was an ordeal. These homemade sweets tasted like heaven. The molasses were made from the sap of the date palms in our orchards. The milk came from our cows, Kali8 and Dholi8. Govinda used to go up the date tree and make a cut with the cleaver. He would tie a small earthen pot around the tree. Next morning, the juice would be collected from the pot. But there were many claimants to the juice. We climbed up the tree and drank it directly from the pot. It tasted so sweet. Govinda used to keep a little bit aside for himself. The juice used to ferment after a while. This is called Tari, an alcoholic drink. But even after this, there was plenty of it left for making sweets.
Govinda was, as Mejokaka said, an all-rounder, a versatile genius. Snakes were a problem especially in the rainy season. Our courtyards would be flooded with water and fishes would come straight from the canal. Govinda told us stories about how he and his family were once stranded on a rooftop during the floods. A snake was also stranded there. When the water receded the snake went away.
He told us that most of the snakes are non-poisonous. There were snakes in the property called bastusaap9. They must not be killed. In fact he showed me snakes on several occasions. I mistook them for dried leaves.
As it was a joint family, there were undercurrents. Being kids, we were not aware of them. My mother had to work very hard. She was exploited by others. Maybe this was because my father did not earn much. He did try his best though.
He worked at the office from ten to five, he used to sell insurance policies, maintain the accounts of a small shop, and write books in Bengali. This is because he appreciated the value of education. My older brother is an engineer. My father had to spend more than half his income on Dada’s education. My aunts used to tell my mother, “You are wasting your money on him. Do you think he will become a judge or a magistrate?” One of my aunts, my Mejokaki, was very beautiful. She spent the better part of the day arranging her hair, and using various homemade skin care products to beautify her face. Another aunt, my Fulkaki, was very proud because she had rich and well placed relatives. My mother came from a poor family. She endured it all, both the back breaking work as well as the snide comments.
I lived in the village for the first five years of my life. After that, I went to the town for studies. But we used to come home for the vacations. Usually we came home by steamer. We used to catch a ferry from Goalanda steamer Ghat. But when we came home for the Durga Puja10, our home coming was a big ‘event’. The Puja was celebrated in our house, and everybody in the village came for Prasad11. We used to go home in a big boat with fruits, vegetables, rice pulses, oil, ghee, sugar, spices and even goats. Luchi12 and vegetables were cooked in the boat itself. We enjoyed our meals while sitting on the roof of the boat. We went down the river Buriganga, past Narayanganj, into the river Shitalaksha and then onward to the river Dhaleswari. From here, we entered the canal which took us home. The villagers were agog with excitement when they spied our boat.
We left the town and came back to our village when there was political unrest. The Japanese forces dropped a bomb in Singer Bil near Brahmanbaria. The atmosphere of our village had changed. Patriotic feelings and feelings of nationalist pride swept through the village. I too joined in the August revolution of 1942. We marched towards Taltala steamer station chanting Vande Mataram13. We went past Madhyapara, Malkhanagar and asked students of all schools to join us. Our numbers swelled. My friend Shibu severed the telegraph cables. Then the news came that one of us had been killed in police firing. And we stopped short in our tracks.
But that was only the beginning. I stopped going to school and became involved with local freedom fighters. I sneaked out of home and participated in political meetings and processions. I went to jail. Being political prisoners, we enjoyed high status amongst other inmates, we were not the common run of the mill people charged with felony or robbery or even murder.
When I was released from prison the situation in our village was challenging. Everyday news started pouring in. One of the doctors in our locality was asked to go and see a woman in labour late at night. It was a ploy. The minute he stepped out of his home, goons pounced on him. He was killed. Two of his sons came out to help him. One of them was murdered. The other one managed to escape by jumping into the canal. In fact he swam underwater for a prolonged period of time, until he was out of sight of goons. His daughters ran away from home barefoot.
Armed robbers attacked another house. They were the richest family in our locality. The robbers entered the house and stabbed two boys to death. The lady of the house took out all the ornaments from the almirah and scattered it all over the floor. While the robbers were busy looting the gold, everybody escaped from the house. Then another friend of ours was killed. We took his dead body to the crematorium in a boat. From the sides of the canal we were attacked with stones.
We were furious. We decided to strike back. Some of our friends developed a novel technique. While riding on the cycle, they would stab the target person in the stomach when he was coming from the other side. They made a triangular cut to finish off the job. I also took part in arson. It was really a very turbulent time.
Our house was attacked too. Dada had a revolver. He fired it in the air. The goons mocked and said, “Well, it’s a blank. Don’t you have any bullets?” But, they did not advance any further that night. We knew our time was up. We cannot face the mob with a single revolver. We would be overpowered. They will come back again tomorrow night.
We made up our mind. At that time lots of people were trying to cross the border to go to India. We joined them. We went partly by foot, partly by train. We could hardly take anything with us. Throngs of people are also trying to cross the border. We saw a priest trudging along with the Shalgram shila14 in a tiny bag tied around his neck. Some people went with families, some people went with strangers. The only positive aspect of this terrible experience is how strangers helped out. I got separated from my family. I went to the refugee camp with strangers. I was reunited with my family thanks to their efforts. Just a couple of days back I had a big bowl full of milk every day, but now I don’t know where my next meal is coming from.
Hang on a minute, I would not say we lost everything. We had the support of the family, and we had our wits. We should not ask for more.
Govinda refused to come with us. He stayed back. Some of our relatives stayed back too. Most of them were elderly women. Some of them were forced to come later, and their plight was even worse than ours. My mother released Kali and Dholi before we came. We don’t know what became of them.
We all moved in with one of our relatives who was working in Kolkata. His small house was cramped. Finances were tight. Dada lost his job and had to wind down the business. Although he was an engineer, he started doing odd jobs to make ends meet. I continued my studies thanks to his sacrifice.
I joined a college and lived in a mess. When I was hungry, I used to drink water from the jug. That was the nadir of my experience. Soon I made friends, and cigarettes and alcohol started flowing in. Rangakaka heard about this. He promptly came to my mess and boxed my ears. This is “prestige puncture”15.
After graduation, I took up a small job. The salary was meagre, and the atmosphere at work suffocating, but I had no choice. My colleagues used to make fun of my accent. I was a Bangal16, while they were Ghoti17. Some of them said that we should be sent back “home”. They regarded us as intruders. They were wary that we would take away their jobs and grab their properties. They stayed locally, but over the weekends, they headed home in the countryside. I wished I too could go back home, to the village with leafy trees, canals and boats.
But the job gave me financial security. I could think about starting my own business. Firstly that would supplement my income. Secondly, I would be able to interact with people outside my workplace. The environment in my workplace was toxic.
Well, I needed money to start a business. My family, though hard up, pooled in the money. My shop was small, and I started slowly, but gradually I built up a group of loyal customers. I was happy that I could finally support my family. But I did not stop there.
Some of my friends were already settled in England. We thought that we would try our luck. My shop was up and running and that should provide me the necessary cash. In those days one pound was worth four rupees. But then, you could buy a lot of stuff with four rupees.
Seven of us decided that we will make the voyage to England. We will travel by ship. Everyone in the family was against this idea. They told my father, you will lose your son for ever. Only Dada had confidence in me. He regarded it as an opportunity for growth and development. I am very proud to have a brother like that, a brother who has supported me through thick and thin.
My first impression of England was dark and gloomy. It was cold and rainy. How I missed the sun! The nights were long and the days were short. It’s only when spring came that we realised how beautiful England was. There are parks everywhere with lakes and ducks.
We used to go on walking trails in the woods and in the meadows. Some of them were a bit too muddy for my taste. But when daffodils were in full bloom, wild flowers like the daisies, the forget-me-nots and the dandelions, I could connect with nature once more.
It was much later when I learnt to drive, we used to drive down the meandering roads. We were not seeing England through the eyes of a tourist, it was a lived in experience. The English coast along the North Sea has lots of castles. One of them was the Barnard castle which commands a beautiful view of the North Sea. In the Lake districts, you have the Lakes and the mountains. This reminded me of Cox Bazar in Bangladesh where you had the mountains and the coastline.
We went to the Holy Island where the monks lived. It gets cut off from the mainland during high tide. We tasted mead, the alcoholic drink traditionally prepared by the monks. Again I was reminded of the Math18 which I frequented in Calcutta.
I liked the food, although most of my friends from Calcutta didn’t. We often had fish and chips on Fridays. Asparagus and caviar appears to be a delicacy here. We had kochur loti19, which is very similar to asparagus. Caviar is simply roe of fish, which is cheap and readily available in Bangladesh. Interestingly, salmon in England and the hilsa of Bengal are very similar in certain ways. They are both fishes of the sea which swim up the river to spawn. Although my friends complained that the food is bland, it doesn’t have spices, I was always game when I had to try new things, be it food, or be it a way of life. My cultural experience in England was transforming. I watched musicals, pantomimes and even concerts. Back at home, the only entertainment was jatra20.
You may have noticed that I never mentioned my sisters or sisters in law. I only mentioned some aunts in the passing. It is not that they did not exist, I had loving sisters, but they were always in the background. They played with dolls and make believe cooking games. Some of the other games they played like pittu21, rumal chor21, kumir danga21, lukochuri21 and kitkit21 . All their games were childish. We played with marbles and gulli danda21. When they grew up, they mainly gossiped with other women or played cards. They were interested in cooking and children and hair care, which did not bother us.
Here women freely mingled with men. They worked in offices, played tennis with us, and joined us in parties. In England for the first time, I could count on women as my friends. I had many friends, both men and women. I played tennis with some of them, I watched movies with some of them, I went out for drinks with some of them and I worked together with some of them. The group with which I came by ship remained my strongest pillars of support. Prasanta da22 in the mess was very friendly. He made sure that we felt at home. As always I enjoyed playing cards. Only this time this was accompanied by cigarettes and beer. We soon became friends with everyone in the mess. These friendships were lifelong relationships. Whenever we met anyone who spoke Bengali, we instantly became friends with them. I guess when a community is uprooted, they have to stick to each other and help each other in crisis. Otherwise they cannot survive.
It was a cold and dreary afternoon. I met Philipa in the park and we sat down on a bench. I could not hold back my tears. My father had passed away seven days ago. But worse still, my family did not inform me. I heard about it from Prashantda. I told Philippa that I must go home to be at the side of Dada and my widowed mother. A flight to Calcutta would be expensive. I borrowed the money from my friends and left immediately.
I came home on the day of the Shradha23. My Dada had his head shaved, and my mother was wearing a borderless white cotton sari (thaan24). I was heartbroken. I too shaved my head and joined Dada in the rituals. I was angry and upset that I had to learn about my father’s death from others. I have always sent money from England when they needed it. I am not a cash cow, I am a part of the family.
We all had tempers. But there was a genuine sense of connection amongst all of us. Actually I felt this connection was threatened and the showdown paradoxically reaffirmed my sense of belonging. I am living in England, but that is a temporary residence. I told my mother that I didn’t want to go back to England. I wanted to stay with her and my family. But it would not be a wise move. My family felt I ought to get married and I agreed. It was getting a bit lonely in England. Tapati had been a good wife to me. We are a happy family with three children.
One day, out of the blue I received an urgent letter from Dada. My mother is ill. Immediately I went to Kolkata. She had a bad bout of fever and chest infection. Fortunately she survived, but she was very weak. I brought her with me to England despite vehement protests from the rest of my family. My mother could adjust to all types of situations. With a little help from Tapati, she could cope with the bitter winters and the way of life in an alien land. She found Tapati to be a patient listener. She chatted about the good old days back in Ichapura.
But she did not live long after that. After two years she died in a local Hospital in England. At least I had the satisfaction that she received good care before she died. I again went back to Calcutta to spray the ashes in the river Ganges. This was her last wish.
Now that my parents were both dead, my urge to come back home to Dada became stronger. I have never felt homesick before. But now it has become unbearable. I wrote a detailed letter to Dada. I wanted a home away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Dada suggested that I bought a small plot of land. Later when the price of land will appreciate, I might be able to sell it at a profit. Or if there is development of transport and communication I may build a small house there.
I was very happy. Finally, I will have a home again. Maybe we can continue the tradition of Durga Puja in this house. Just like the good old days. Things were fine, until one day I suddenly got an agitated call from Dada. Miscreants are taking over the plot. They had fenced off a part of it. I came to Calcutta and started a court case. Little did I know that the case will go on for years. It wouldn’t be possible for me to come from England and continue the fight in court. I didn’t realise it until five years down the line when both Tapati at home and my boss at work were exasperated.
I was torn between the desire to fight the injustice and to move on with my life. It was taking a toll on Tapati and the children. The other party knows that we will give up sooner or later. I felt that my dream to have a village home again has been shattered. But we must move on.
After the loss of this land, I felt an urge to visit Bangladesh. It was an emotional journey for me. It was retracing the steps I took years ago, when we left the safety and security of our village. Overnight from being a scion of a reasonably well off family I became a pauper.
I needed a passport and Visa to visit my own home. What an irony! We took a flight to Dhaka. Flying has become so commonplace today. When we were children, it was a rare luxury. From Dhaka we went to Narayanganj and then we took the ferry for our village. We got down at Taltola ferry station. I remembered coming here chanting Vande Mataram as a school student.
We made enquiries and finally found an old friend Mohammed Kadir. His vision was dim and he looked old and weary. But he also remembered the good old days and we chatted over tea and puffed rice.
“Look Tapati, that’s a Hijal tree!” And that’s a Mandar. “And that’s a Gab.” Tapati smiled because I was as thrilled as a school boy. My connection with nature has helped me cope with the problems that rocked my life. England, my second home, has also been very kind to me. We had an apple tree in our garden. We went to strawberry farms to pick strawberries.
One of the locals showed us the area. Our home is now a fallow land. You don’t need boats to travel anymore. Boats are used only during the monsoon. I took photos with my camera. I also dug up the soil and took a little bit of it with me. Now I will always have a piece of my home with me. I know this is the last time I am seeing my home. I won’t come back again. It brings a flood of memories. And I wanted to cry.
Tapati asked me, where is home? Do you feel that this is your home? I feel my home’s in England. I have lived there for so many years. When I lived in Kolkata that was my paternal home. England is the place where I have built the home with you and the children.
I could not answer her. My concept of home and my concept of family is much more expansive. I don’t know where my real home is. Is it this village, is it the refugee camp, is it my uncle’s house where we stayed for a few days, is it the mess, is it my landlady’s home in England, is it the plot of land which I bought in a village, is it Dada’s house in Kolkata, or is it my house in England. My concept of home has undergone massive shifts, yet the desire to go home remains as strong as ever.
However, when I went back this time, many of my uncles were dead. Dada was much older than me. He too looked old and frail. When I inquired about his health, he dismissed it, saying that he was fine. I sensed things were not ok. He had been smoking heavily, and his lungs were in bad shape. I wanted him to have treatment. He refused. I even said that I wanted to take him with me to England. He refused. Both Dada and I were obstinate. We had always been like this. Finally I relented. I said, “If you are not coming with me, I will come and stay here with you.”
We forget all too soon the things we thought the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.
Convincing Tapati was more difficult. She will be missing the children and her circle of friends here. She will miss the freedom she enjoys here. She will also find it hard to adjust to the system there, the maids, the relatives, the mosquitoes.
“But, we need money to survive,” argued Tapati. “I don’t think you will get a pension from here.” “Even if I get a pension, it will be a paltry amount. But, I do have some investments and savings. That might help.”
“If money is tight, I can start giving tuitions,” said I. “And you can start a home delivery.” Tapati was aghast. She said, “My brother is the CEO of a reputed company, and my sister’s husband is a medical director of one of the most important hospitals of Kolkata. And you want me to do menial jobs for earning a living?”
I said, “There is no shame in doing blue collar jobs. If we can survive on our savings, well and good, if not we will have to do things to make ends meet. Or I can start a shop. Basically that will be coming full circle.”
I know where Tapati is coming from. She was born in a wealthy family. I have been through it all. The hardships, the ups and the downs. I am not afraid of challenges. I think I’ve given Tapati what she wanted life. I have taken her on tours around the world. She has seen the Eiffel tower, the Niagara Falls, masterpieces of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelle Angelo. I have provided for our children’s education. Now I feel a sense of emptiness, a hollow feeling inside. I must go back, back to my roots and reconnect with my family. For me, my mind is made up. “Done,” said I. “We catch the next flight back home.”
- Puja worship
- Madhav, Govinda, Kanai are all names of Lord Krishna. Balai or Balaram is Krishna’s brother.
- Paternal uncles were either Jyatha (older than father) or Kaka (younger than father). Jyathi or Kaki were wives of Jyathas and Kakas. When someone has many children, it is customary to call them Boro (the eldest), Mejo (the second one), Sejo (the third one), Choto (the youngest one). Also, Ranga (red), N (? Ninth) Ful (flower) or Kutti (very small).
- NastaChandra Literally Nasta means ruined and Chandra means moon. On the fourth lunar night of the month of Bhadra, seeing the moon is considered ruinous.
- Purana: Literally it means ancient or old. It is a genre of Indian literature including legends and folklore.
- Naru: small sphere shaped sweet made with coconut and jaggery.
- Kar: raised platform, which you had to access using the ladder. Mainly used for storage.
- Kali refers to the black one and Dholi refers to the white one here.
- Bastusaap: Bastu is homestead and Saap is snake. A snake traditionally living in the homestead should not be killed.
- Durga Puja: Worship of the Goddess Durga. It is the most important socio religious festival of Bengal and Bengalees even today.
- Prasad: Food offered to the deity which is later consumed by the people.
- Luchi: Deep fried flat bread made with flour.
- Vande Mataram: Vande means to salute and Mataram means mother. Vande Mataram was the rallying call of the freedom fighters.
- Shalgram Shila: Shalgram Shila or Narayana Shila is a stone that is worshipped as God Narayana.
- Prestige puncture: prestige or status is compared with a balloon. Just as a balloon pops when it is pricked, the act made me lose my status in the eyes of my friends.
- Bangal: a person who came from East Bengal
- Ghoti: a person who lives in West Bengal
- Math: monastery
- Kochur loti: yam
- Jatra: Literally means journey or procession. It is a form of folk theatre.
- Traditional Indian games: Pittu (seven stones), Rumal chor (handkerchief thief), kumir danga (the crocodile and the bank) lukochuri (hide and seek) kitkit (hopscotch) gulli danda (some similarity with cricket)
- Da: This is the abridged form of Dada meaning brother. It is customary to call slightly older men with whom you are friendly as brothers.
- Shradha: A memorial service performed without the remains of the dead person.
- Thaan: Borderless sari usually white, traditionally worn by widows.
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