How to travel back in time with a grandfather | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 22, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 22, 2018

How to travel back in time with a grandfather

For my grandfather, home lies across August 15, 1948 in a two-storey post office building in the district of Murshidabad—which just so happens to not be in Bangladesh. Large insignias of Trinamool Congress's Jora Ghas Phool line its walls in faded orange, green and white. Probably the last and only fresh coat of paint the house has seen in years.

At first it was just the post office, flanked by two rooms, railroad-house style. Then it grew wings on the east and the west, followed by another floor, but it never seemed to have enough space to spare for a living room. It just had a post office. Long after the countries split and the postmaster (my grandfather's dad) died, the post office was where guests came and sat, where tea and biscuits were served. The guests gathered on the narrow wooden waiting benches, while the host took the dead postmaster's straight-backed chair lording over his empty desk.

Choosing to not be Indian was a pragmatic decision when the time came to pledge allegiance to Jinnah or Nehru—Karachi was where his job was. Home had a hearth but empty it would have been had he not given up his nationhood.

Home's time is up but grandfather is trying his best to inject back some purpose into it to allow a few more miles. This time he put off getting new dentures until he went back to his village. A brand new set of pearly whites to better reflect the euphoria of being home.

When I joked about how the star dentists of Dhaka would feel if they knew he had crossed political boundaries for the services of a part-time dentist who sits in a village pharmacy in Beldanga, he simply laughed flashing his newest purchase. Then we sat down for lunch and he took his dentures off to chew with his gums— painstakingly so. The teeth were only for laughing—did I mention that he had crossed countries to get them?

For home is hard to reach, and harder yet for a body that has been adamantly stuck at 87 years for the last few years refusing to cross into the dangerous 90's. He travels alone, at least once every year taking the 'refugee route' down Jessore road. We usually make excuses to not accompany him—work, life—what's home for him just means a rather dull holiday in a tiny village-town for us.

But this time was different. This was the time of the year when my grandmother had just about lost control of her legs. Her nerve degeneration was voraciously fast and her lucidity flitted in and out. They were just coming to terms with the fact that she was never going back to her in-law's, and seeing her like this forced him to accept his diminishing health as well. The urgency to go back to his village was even greater.

Queues at the immigration office can stretch out for hours, if not miles, so we wanted to be at the no-man's-land gates by 7 am when the border opened. A few minutes late would mean my grandfather would have to stand in line for hours. To make it in time, we got dropped off at the Jessore train station while it was still dark. Note that there are direct buses to the Benapole border from Dhaka but we chose the train because toilets are a must-have when accompanying older travelers. To go to Benapole from Jessore, is a short bus ride.

We were hardly the only lightbulbs who fought to reach the Benapole border before the clock struck 7 am. If anything, we were late—we walked in on people folding blankets and stifling yawns. Many had been waiting here since before dawn, and the whole feat was rendered even more incredible by the fact that the immigration office absolutely reeked of its out-of-order bathrooms. A few sad bottles of foreign liquor sat in a corner steeping in the stench, claiming to be a duty-free shop.

The first difference you observe as you cross the border into the Indian side is the amount of women on the streets, going to school or work. Early morning Benapole had only a few women on the streets, silent as shadows, often looking like shadows too. Bongaon on the other hand had throngs of women on the streets riding bicycles with a purpose. “Female students here are given bicycles by the government if they finish tenth grade,” my cousin explained to me later. Definitely goes a long way for retention.

Our first stop in India was the train station, where my grandfather got into a heated argument with the tuktuk driver who took us there because “that is not the fare I gave the last time I came” and had to be calmed down with a cup of steaming tea drunk out of clay receptacles. The best part about drinking tea out of these was that the moment you were done with it, you smashed the bhaar against the pavement—it was the ultimate expression of satisfaction.

From Bongaon we took a local train to Ranaghat, sharing our benches with women going to work. They kept their hands busy knitting and popping amlaki into their mouths at regular intervals. Orange-clad Shiva worshippers holding red hibiscus flowers stepped into the compartment and disappeared into the crowds.

The train from Ranaghat to our village was four hours later. This was the town featuring the famous Adarsha Hindu Hotel from Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's novel with the same name. I mildly expressed my interest to go check it out but grandfather told me to sit tight “in case the train came early”. So I sat on my suitcase for four hours watching women knit sweaters placidly around me, while he paced up and down, hopping from platform to platform and rattling station staff about when the train would arrive.

When it did arrive, however (stopping for a grand total of three minutes), there was barely space for an ant, and I have no idea how I lifted two suitcases and an old man into the train, while 20 other people were trying to get on and off at the same time through the same doors. As we squeezed into the tiny space in front of the toilet (again the stench of urine seems to have been my one constant throughout the journey), a tiny woman leisurely settled on my shoes. And in the midst of all this chaos, daily commuters brought out decks of cards, chanachur and more knitting and amlaki.

By the time we reached his town, we had been traveling for 22 hours straight on empty stomachs and were reeking of piss. That is where home came in, bearing steaming plates of rice and cauliflower curry, piping hot tea and freshly-made beds to crash in.

And a toast to that until grandfather is too old to travel back home and home ceases to exist.

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