Story of a refugee grand mother, of identities and displacements #Sundayreading

In times of displacement, do we leave our former selves behind and create new identities? In this moving personal history, Garga Chatterjee profiles his Bengali grandmother whose true self was unmasked only by a tragic stroke .


I have crossed the border between the two Bengals multiple times. In February 2013, I took back my maternal uncle Bacchu mama to his ancestral home in East Bengal (now part of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh). He had fled after his matriculation exams, a little before the 1965 war. Then we reached his modest, 2-storey, tin-shed erstwhile home in the Kawnia neighbourhood of Barishal Town. And here this mama of mine began to touch and feel the dusty walls and stairs. He is by far the jolliest person I have known. This was the first time I saw his eyes tear up. The story that follows is of his paternal aunt, or pishi.

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Dida and her husband - mid 1970s
Dida and her husband – mid 1970s
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Having taken an active interest, and in some cases an active role, in anti-displacement agitations of various hues, what rings hollow to my privileged existence is the trauma of such an experience. I know the statistics, the caste break-up of the internally displaced, the pain of being transformed from sharecroppers to urban shack dwellers – raw stories of loss and displacement. The “on-the-face” aspect of the accounts, unfortunately, has a numbing effect. When a populace is numb to the explicit, its sensitivity to things hidden is virtually non-existent. In spite of my association with causes of displacement, in my heart of hearts, I don’t feel I inhabit them. I can empathize but can’t relate. Nobody I have grown up with seemed to have any psychological scar or trauma about displacement – at least none that was carried around, although I grew up around victims of one of the biggest mass displacements of all times. I am talking about the partition of Bengal in 1947.

The narrow path was a metaphor for my dida’s connection to her new world

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Dida or Jyotsna Sen - early 1970s
Dida or Jyotsna Sen – early 1970s
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Growing up in Calcutta in the 1980s, visits to my maternal grandparents’ house were a weekly feature of my life. We lived in a 30-something-strong joint family, firmly rooted in West Bengal, very Ghoti. For Ghotis, the East Bengalis are a people with a culture less sophisticated than their own. In later years, especially post-1947, the term ‘Bangal‘, which used to mean East Bengali, also came to mean refugees, and hence evoked a certain discomfiture in West Bengal, if not outright animosity.

With time, however, social ties were built between certain sections of the two communities. I am a child of mixed heritage – I have a Ghoti father and a Bangal mother.

The people of my mother’s extended family had their displacement stories – not really of trauma, but of a sense of material loss – the money they couldn’t bring with them, the land they had left behind, the travails of some families they knew, etc. Calcutta subsumed much of their former selves. An exemplary figure here is my maternal grandmother, my dida. She was married off to my maternal grandfather, my dadu, who I hear opposed the marriage at that time, if not the match itself (both my parents were teenagers). When she came to Calcutta in tow with her husband, she was still quite young. My mother was born in Calcutta.

I have a Ghoti father and a Bangal mother

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The author and his dida
The author and his dida
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They lived in a rented place near Deshopriya Park. There was an air of dampness about the place. It was connected to the metaled road by a longish, narrow path, gritty and dimly lit, a metaphor for my dida’s connection to her new world, in that connecting to the mainstream required a certain tortuous effort. Inside that house, it was strange and intriguing to me. The lingo was different – they spoke Bangal (a Bengali dialect) with a Barishal twang (Barishal was one of the more pupulous districts of East Bengal) called Barishailya. Dida said chokh(‘eye’) as tsokkhu and amader (‘our’) as amago. I used to pick these up and relate them delightedly to my Ghoti joint family to regale them. Now I don’t think it’s hard to imagine that many Bangals didn’t like the fact that other people found simple pronouncements in their dialect amusing and even comical. (Some comedians have used this aspect in Bengali comedy: I am reminded of black clowns with artificial and heightened mannerisms who regaled white audiences.)

She bought her groceries at a bazaar full of grocers who were refugees from East Bengal

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Dida cooked well and was known for it. But what did she herself want to be known for? My mother related to me how her father was a great lover of letters and sciences. This was somewhat true – sometimes I abhorred going to him because he would not only tell me to do a math problem but also ask me why I did it that way. He tried to get all his children formally educated – a Bangal signature of the time. Markedly different was his attitude towards Dida – I remember numerous instances of “ o tumi bozba na” (‘You wouldn’t understand that’). On her 50th marriage anniversary, her children got together for a celebration. The couple garlanded each other. She looked happy with her self and her world. “ Togo sara amar ar ki aase” (‘What else do I have but you people’) was her pronouncement. Something happened a few years later that made me question the exhaustive nature of her statement.

Things happened in quick succession after that. The brothers and sisters fell out. This turn of events resulted in Dida staying with us. Our joint family had ceased to exist too. By now, I was a medical student. Dida was getting worse due to her diabetes. So I spent time with her. I remember her trying to speak (and failing miserably) our non-Bangal Bengali dialect to my paternal grandmother. She was still trying to fit in, for circumstances demanded that she do. At the time I thought she was extraordinarily fortunate. With my newfound sensitivity towards “identities”, I thought, she must have been very happy to speak Bangal until now. She bought her groceries at a bazaar full of grocers who were themselves refugees from East Bengal. Her husband’s extended family was essentially her social circle and they all chattered away in Bangal. They ate their fish in their own way. In spite of being displaced from East Bengal, she had retained her identity, her “self”. Or so I thought.

She was speaking gibberish – names we didn’t know, places we hadn’t heard of

[box9]She suffered a cerebral stroke not long afterwards. A stroke is tragic as well as fascinating to observe. It cripples and unmasks. The social beings we are, who care about what words to speak to whom, what state of dress or undress to be in where and when, all this complex monument of pretense comes crashing down with a stroke. For one whole day Dida had been in what would medically be termed a “delirium”, characterized by, among other things, a speech that was incoherent to the rest of us. She couldn’t move much and spoke what we heard as gibberish – names we didn’t know, places we hadn’t heard of. To ascertain the stage of cerebral damage, one asks questions like ‘Who are you?’ ‘Where are we?’ ‘What is the date?’ I was alone with her when I asked her these questions. Who are you? “Ami Shonkor Guptor bareer meye.” (‘I am a girl from Shonkor Gupto’s family.’) I repeated my question, and she gave the same answer. She couldn’t tell me her name. Shonkor Gupto wasn’t her father but an ancestor who had built their house in Goila village of Barisal in East Bengal. Later, when she had recovered from the stroke, she remembered nothing of this incident. When I asked her later, she replied “Jyotsna Sen” or “Tore mare ziga” (‘Ask your mother’). ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What’s your name?’ had become one and the same again. She died some time later. It was another stroke that felled her.

Displacement brings trauma with it. And the trauma can be cryptic. It can be hidden. It can be pushed down, sunk deep with the wish that it doesn’t surface. But displacement resurfaces in odd ways. And often an involuntary journey away from home is a journey away from one’s self too. The journey of displacement is hardly linear. It is more like a long arc. In most cases, the arc doesn’t turn back to where it started from. The journey looks unhindered by identities left back. But we can sometimes peer deeper. Nobody called my Dida by the name Jyotsna Sen – she merely signed papers with that name. She had a name by which people called her before her marriage – “Monu”. This name had become hazy after her marriage and the journey to her husband’s house; and it was essentially lost after she migrated to Calcutta. She had been doubly removed from the people, the household, the organic milieu that knew “Monu”. She had three children, four grandchildren, a husband, a new city. Where was she? And when all this was shorn off, what remained was a teenage girl from East Bengal village – a place she hadn’t been in 60 years, maybe the only place where she had been much of herself. Monu of Shankar Gupto’s house.

At this point, I wonder whether she silently bled all through her years in Calcutta. Would she have bled similarly if she had made choices about her own life, or if she had actively participated in the decisions that changed her life’s trajectory? The speculative nature of the inferences I draw from her “unmasking” story is not a hindrance to imagine what could have been. A little looking around might show such stories of long-drawn suppressions all around – suppressions we consider facts of life and take for granted. Who knows what she would have wanted at age 15, or at 22? Where was her voice, her own thing in the whole Calcutta saga that followed? The picture-perfect 50th anniversary clearly didn’t capture who she was. Her husband believed she had had her due – what more does one need, he would have thought. My mother assumed that with the well-intentioned husband that her father was, Dida must have been happy. The identity-politics fired lefty in me had thought she hadn’t been displaced enough, given the continuity of her Bangal milieu! But a part of her lived repressed.

In the microcosms we inhabit, there are stories of displacement, failed rehabilitation and denial of life choices. It is my suspicion that on learning about the Narmada valley displaced, a part of my Dida’s self would have differed vehemently with the Supreme Court judges, who upheld the prerogative of “development” over the costs of displacement.



1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The Mommy Market #Sundayreading | kracktivist

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