Looking Backwards: 1947 and After
When the white crescent on green flag was hoisted in Dhaka, as the Raj took leave, I was yet to be born. The only family story I have heard of that day is that my Dada -- really my Nana, my mother's father -- lit a cigarette. He was not a smoker.
Lighting a cigarette can have different meanings. Some smoke to calm their nerves. Some light up after they make love. I was never a habitual smoker. Now and then I smoked with friends, enjoying their company. One winter I even tried cigarettes to ward off cold.
For my grandfather, it was an act of celebration.
There would have been others that day smoking with different feelings. For many, their lives turned upside down, that day was not a happy one.
I was born in Dhaka seven years after Dada's cigarette became ash.
My hometown, in that first decade after 1947, saw a new mix. Houses of many Hindu residents, with deep roots in the city, emptied out as the families felt pressures, hot and cold, to leave for India. Some of those houses, and other newly built ones, such as Azimpur Colony, were filled by Muslims coming across the new border. White men vacated positions of authority. Poorer migrants from Bihar streamed in.
My immediate family, on both my father and mother's sides, was not much affected. My father's roots were in rural Chandpur, my mother's in Bikrampur and Narayanganj. My older siblings, the children of my mother's first husband, had relatives in Pirojpur. We were solid Bangals from East Bengal. My father, mother, and older siblings' father -- they had settled in Dhaka in the '30s or early '40s.
Each had spent time in what was now West Bengal. Stories from that other side trickled down in conversation. They recalled a life splashed with a bit of romance.
In his late teens, my father jumped on boats, first to Rangoon, then to Calcutta. The capital of Bengal must have seduced him more; he returned there for college. He joined the Calcutta Police. In 1942, he quit and moved to Dhaka. In his twilight years, I asked him why. He said he didn't like it there any more. Perhaps it was desher taan, the desire for closeness with the delta of his childhood. Or he might have felt tremors from the volatile mix then churning in Calcutta: the pressures on the police from the Quit India movement and communal tensions swirling in the air. He alluded to resentments among colleagues. Meanwhile his heart had found other attractions: designing boats, tinkering with cars, and the desire to try his hand at business.
In my childhood, he spoke of life in a metropolis far more glamorous than the small town that the Dhaka of that time. This would be confirmed from the Calcutta Statesman that we received until Pakistan banned Indian periodicals. I learned to read English from that paper.
My mother's family had lived across Bengal since Dada worked as a school inspector. In her stories, one place stood out: Darjeeling. As a child, she spent some seasons in that hill station, and she spoke of cold and snow, as well as the joys of being a Bluebird and being a princess in a school pageant. Just as we received The Statesman, my Nanibari just up the road read the Calcutta Ultorroth. This monthly was popular for cinema news and carried an entire novel in each issue.
Both my father and grandfather marked Pakistan's birth by starting businesses. My father launched Pak Motors, a car dealership. The name would later attach itself to the local bus stop, becoming today's Bangla Motors after 1971. My grandfather opened Azad Pharmacy.
With the names they chose, both men appear to have welcomed Pakistan. My grandfather chose Azad, ('freedom' in Urdu), a word popular at that time. My father chose Pak, though not quite Pakistan.
The opening of businesses by two Bengali Muslim middle class men signalled that they, like others in their class, recognized in that moment an opportunity.
Both businesses collapsed within a few years. Neither man had the mettle for business. In the end, both ended up renting storefronts. The rentier mentality afflicted the Bengali middle class, a group not quite ready for the rigours of capitalist enterprise. Though not as bad, it's still around.
Still, the two men and their families would prosper in the coming years. To some extent, to people of this class, Azadi did deliver.
Of course 14 August 1947 was not just a day marked with promise. Though officially it was independence, we knew it as Partition.
The background to Partition was marked by distrust and hostility that exploded into unspeakable violence between Hindus and Muslims who had long lived side by side. There would continue to be riots afterwards, big ones in 1950 and 1965. A vivid image from that later one stays in my mind: Hindu families running through our neighbourhood with mattresses on their heads.
I grew up in a household free of communal feeling. While I can't be certain of adult conversations, I do not recall hearing words hateful toward Hindus, or for that matter, anyone with different beliefs. My parents shared other prejudices of the Bengali middle class, but our doors were open to people of other faiths. I recall an Ihudi man visiting our house, though no one else seems to remember him. Our first doctor was Horsho Babu. Nibaron and his fellow carpenters built boats, windows, and doors. An Anglo-Indian lady Mrs Ellis tutored me in English. The larger neighbourhood itself was mixed. The land where the Sonargaon Hotel stands today was home to a community of Hindu potters. A cremation ghat was right across the road, along the khal that has been filled up. It was probably during the 1965 riot that Hindus left.
For sure, there are believers without communal prejudices, but in our home I feel communal feeling was absent because religion itself played a minimal role. My father's religious practice was limited to taking us to annual Eid prayers, sacrificing a cow or goat on Kurbani, and buying lamps and sparklers for Shab-e-Barat. When I reached my teens, my father stopped going to Eid prayers. I was relieved since my world outlook was then being shaped by a new arrival into the house: Unwin paperbacks carrying Bertrand Russell's sceptical philosophy.
My mother was slightly more religious, but she didn't pray much until later in life. She fasted a few times. We were free to join or not. Early on, she hired Shiraj Munshi from the nearby mosque to provide us with Arabic lessons. But soon Shiraj Munshi was wandering the streets naked. He suffered from schizophrenia and was packed off to Pabna Mental Hospital. When he returned, the cycle repeated. Our lessons ended. I find it curious that rote memorization of a language I did not comprehend still left me with one sura imprinted in my brain. Yet despite almost having been a math major, I can stare at an equation today with no idea how to solve it. The brain works in mysterious ways.
My mother was influenced by her father, a practicing man of faith. But she filtered out the narrowness of his beliefs. In the late 1960s he published a book of his travels to Turkey and England where he visited his sons. I doubt I read the book. In 1965 he had thrown me out of his house for wearing a badge supporting Fatima Jinnah, the opposition candidate against then president Ayub Khan. I returned only when my grandmother insisted. About twelve years ago, I opened Dada's book, only to be horrified by its contents. It was filled with vitriol against Hindus and Jews.
My father and Dada were almost of the same generation. I wonder how they were shaped so differently in their religious and communal attitudes. Both came of age in the village. What was there in their surroundings that fed different spirits? Both worked for the colonial government, sharing a loyalist attitude towards the Raj. What was there in their work and social experiences that led to divergent attitudes? They are both dead now. My interest in their makeup came too late to probe how they were formed in the first half of the 20th century.
Even though 1947 did not directly shake up our family, that time saw choices outside that would affect our family in the years to come.
After Partition, a young man migrated from the UP to accept a teaching job in Dhaka University. He was interested in delta landforms. His family stayed in India, though after his move a few came to East Bengal. The young man did not move because he believed in a Muslim state. His political leanings were secular and he would sympathize with the language movement.
In the mid-50s, my oldest sister became his student. Later they married. At the wedding a band played the shenai. This would be the first 'mixed' marriage in our family. My Dulabhai came from a Shia family and he spoke Urdu and English. The couple built a close relationship negotiating differences in culture and language. During the decade that followed, they spent several years in the U.S. Their two children were born there.
In March 1969 he died of a heart attack in Dhaka. Later that year, my sister emigrated to the U.S. with her children. They had planned to move when Dulabhai was alive. This was a decision driven by opportunity, but in the atmosphere of rising nationalism, with the possibility of its edges turning ugly -- a lesson absorbed during Partition -- there was also worry about the space for their family in the uncertain future. The children would grow up as Americans, and to the extent they look at their roots here, they consider themselves more South Asian than anything else. Perfectly understandable.
The late 60s brought two newcomers into the family. Two older brothers married women with either roots or relatives in West Bengal.
My younger bhabi, with roots in 24 Parganas, introduced us to shuddho Bangla. Until then we'd happily conversed in our Bangal dialect. My bhabi was appalled at how we spoke. I learned to code switch, speaking shuddho with her and Bangal otherwise. Without her, I doubt I would have absorbed shuddho Bangla into my tongue. Today the awe of a 14-year old facing a pretty bhabi is long gone, so when we meet now I insist on speaking our 'uncivilized' dialect. She isn't so amused.
My older bhabi came from Chittagong, with roots in Shahzadpur, but she had relatives who chose to stay in India. In 1971, that connection proved to be a lifeline.
Today the legacy of 1947 we recall most is that freedom from the Raj brought new shackles. The groundwork was laid for another clash, this time a war.
With the crackdown on 25 March 1971, my oldest brother rebelled inside the army. The Pakistan military picked up my bhabi with her two infant children. They were held in Dhaka cantonment, later released into my Dada's house. From there, they fled to Agartala and later joined her relatives in Calcutta.
In April many of us took refuge in Dada's village in Bikrampur. Later another brother and I escaped to Agartala. While he joined the Mukti Bahini, I went to Calcutta. Even before my older brother's family arrived, I was welcomed by my bhabi's relatives into their Park Circus home.
Though not as bad as the camps, life was difficult for most refugees who arrived in Calcutta. I recall the trials faced by my friends. Housing was scarce. Even when they found a room, there was no place to take a bath. I am eternally grateful that a family connection gave me a place to sleep, eat, shower, and enjoy new friendships. The circumstances that brought me there were tragic, but otherwise I may never have met these generous people. Through them, and others in the neighbourhood, the world of Calcutta and India opened up to me.
Calcutta was my first big city experience, and I was spoiled for life. I was delighted to see women on the streets in a way that didn't exist in Dhaka back then. I don't know how we behaved, but the male gaze there didn't seem to have that starved edge that is still prevalent in Dhaka.
In so many ways Calcutta was kind to us. Though I would only live there for six months, this city, once home to my father for sixteen years, became a sort of home to me. I have only visited twice since the war, and yet each time, I find comfort there. Perhaps another reason is that I fell in love there for the first time -- though in typical Bengali fashion, I never found the courage to voice it.
We would return to a free but ravaged Bangladesh. Many, especially Hindus, returned to find their homes looted. Some never returned.
This should have been the last time that people here would be forced out for religion. Unfortunately it was not to be. To our shame, we could not guarantee security to the Hindus among us. The Pakistani Enemy Property Act would stay under a new name, there would be riots again, and with Islam declared the state religion, minorities would find themselves second-class citizens. Confronted by those who swagger that this is Muslim Bangla, Hindus still feel pressures to leave.
With liberation we undid the new chains imposed on us, removing one hateful legacy of 1947. When will we put behind us that other legacy of Partition that still sees some people forced out carrying memories of neighbours turning on them in hate?
It would help if we talked about it more. When the 60th anniversary of that day just came by, we acted as if August 1947 only mattered to India and Pakistan, not to us. How so far from the truth.
Mahmud Rahman is a Bangladeshi-American writer currently on an extended visit to Dhaka.