My grandmother fled from the horrors of Partition. What she couldn't outrun was the patriarchy
India gained her Independence amid the violence of Partition. But did my 92-year-old grandmother ever win hers?
Like most grandmothers, Amma is obsessed with my hair. “It needs a vigorous oiling,” she says, twisting intractable tendrils around bony fingers, tugging at split ends. “You need to braid it more,” she scolds, as she secures it with a rubber band. Bit rich coming from her, I jibe, pointing to her own black-and-white hair that has dwindled over the years into a wisp at her waist. It looks like the fragment of a cloud: What once was, what could have been.
It was this long, Amma pronounces, indicating my hip-length mop. It’s a humid May evening, of a tumultuous 2020; we’re sitting on her antique Calcutta bed. “It made me very beautiful. That was why they asked me to stay home,” she says, preening as I giggle. What was she afraid of? I ask. But I already know the answer, like you know the bits of floating family history you’re fed along with mouthfuls of fish-rice as children, unconvinced of their greatness. I know, just like I know that most of Amma’s stories are coloured in furious crimsons — crimson trains running between crimson towns, across invisible new borders, on crimson nights.
Amma fled from one part of Bengal to another, before they became East Pakistan and West Bengal respectively, in November 1946. She was accompanied by her sister-in-law, infant niece, and a male family friend deputed to “protect” them.
Even as she became a Partition statistic — a small blip in a bloody history — she witnessed much of the turmoil through a cotton veil, a “ghomta” she clutched to her thumping chest, as she jhik-jhiked into an unfamiliar new land.
That camouflaging ghomta aside, Amma wasn’t asked to wear saris until after she turned 15. Phrases like asked to, allowed, permitted, forbidden, did-as-told, congest her narrative. “What did you wear then?” I ask. “Frocks and half pants,” she says. Past the age of 14, girls and young women were expected to wear saris.
Amma recounts her mother’s style of draping a sari: “She never wore a blouse, she kept one shoulder bare.” She remembers her mother framed in a single piece of taant, silhouetted against the Bikrampur sky of her childhood.
Amma was the youngest child but one in a family that included three other sisters and a brother. There were also cousins, aunts and uncles — all of them staying together in a house called Aamtoli Panditbari (which literally translates to ‘the house with the mango orchard where the pandit lives’) in the 1920s and ‘30s. They were poor; Bikrampur (in present-day Bangladesh) was nowhere close to the nearest industrial hub of Dhaka. Their only supposed sign of eminence was that Amma’s grandfather was a Sanskrit scholar (pandit).
Amma’s childhood memories are a 92-year-old romanticisation of poverty in the lap of a seething, rupturing motherland. “Baba would bring home chomchoms and rosogollas from the bazaars in the evening, wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper, reporting the latest massacre and how far it was from us,” she tells me, then launches into another memory: “We shimmied up mango trees to pluck and eat the fruit whole.”
But the happiest days were when her Baba taught her cricket, instructing her to spider her little fingers over her cousin’s hand-me-down cricket bat. “I was never a bowler,” she says, with evident pride. “I kept wickets and fielded too, but I’d never bowl.” Amma subconsciously raises her palms as she speaks, flicking them forward like the follow-through on a straight drive: “See? See? I would hit. Like this. And like this.”
It has been a whole hour, a whole day, several weeks, years, since this story began. Yet, sometimes it feels as if we haven’t moved forward at all. Time is quieted in the strange new COVID-esque world beyond the wrought-iron bars on Amma’s window sill.
“What were the names of your friends?” I ask, and Amma recites them — an all-Muslim list of names in an undivided Bengal in an undivided India, although divisive politics was already a reality. “We heard of Hindus and Muslims fighting all the time, as we grew older,” she says. “The fights were getting worse. Sometimes, borda (older brother) would come home in the evenings and ask us to shutter all the doors and windows — some British soldiers had lifted a woman to rape her. We didn’t know whether she was Hindu or Muslim.”
The news filtered down to Amma and her coterie of girlfriends through the channels of home and school. When they walked to their classes, in 1930s Bikrampur on the brink of Partition, Amma and her friends would ask each other: “Look how bad things are. Will we be able to stay?”
Will you stay or will you go? Will you be on this side of the border or that? Will you stick to the places where you put down your roots and built your homes, or become part of an exodus? Life-changing decisions whose reverberations would be felt across generations being made against a backdrop of small-scale riots: cycles of violence sprouting in Hindu- and Muslim-majority Bengal with such rapidity that keeping track of who was on which side or who instigated it, was impossible. Suffering. Carnage. Rotting debris that constituted someone’s entire life savings.
Amma was taken out of school by her grandfather when she was in Class Five. “I was only 11, and I cried and cried,” she says. Of that day, she remembers that her grandfather carried an umbrella as a shield against the hot sun; its blackness distracted her. He told Amma it was her last day of school: “He said, ‘It’s too unsafe for you’.”
Even as one 11-year-old girl’s dreams of school were ending, so too were those of many others. Amma’s girlfriends too were taken out of school, or dropped out. Most of them moved away and she never heard of them again. The rioting got closer and closer to home.
I look at my grandmother’s face, its intricate web of laugh lines, as she describes how her father taught her how to do sums and a little English at home. I am reminded then, of a little me teaching a much older her on the same antique bed decades ago, transliterating Bengali words into English. Little phrases, a greeting here or there – ‘how are you’ to kemon acho, ‘will you come’ to tumi ashbe – to coax her eager brain into learning. I think of how she pored over her copy books, tracing the crests and troughs of the letters, getting ink on her nail.
As if she has read my mind, Amma asks if I will do that again — “write the English for Bangla words in my foolscap notebook? I will read it every night before bed.” I feel my heart seize at the undisguised longing on her face; I wonder what else she has had to give up to time.
Had her brother and male cousins been similarly affected by the violence in undivided Bengal? I ask. No, she says, and smiles.
I will her to be angry, but Amma has rarely been angry at circumstances. Even though 11-year-old Amma wasn’t angry, I imagine her crying in her bed for days, perhaps years, as she watched brothers cram for finals, wishing she could undergo the ‘suffering’ too. I imagine myself telling her many things — but everything I want to tell her is filtered through the prism of today, alien to her world of mangoes and bloodshed.
Amma’s agency was snatched from her several times in the course of her life. For instance, when they moved from Bikrampur to Dhaka — “a boat ride, a steamer ride and a short walk away” — to begin new lives, hoping for safety in larger buildings. Amma’s large family was rented a house by an affluent Muslim family. Years later, when Amma’s parents were desperate to take a train into new India, this same family sheltered them for days and had them escorted safely to their carriage. “Our landlord and landlady wept when we were leaving. They also threatened to stand in the way of anyone who would obstruct our passage,” Amma recounts.
Amma wasn’t asked what she wanted as she was being hoisted onto a train leaving Dhaka in November 1946, “there was no other choice”. The infamous Calcutta riots of 16 August 1946 (also called Direct Action Day or the 1946 Calcutta Killings) had (officially) killed 4,000 people, the violence triggered by political demands for a separate Muslim homeland – which meant a divided Bengal. Communal tension enveloped the city and spilled over into neighbouring districts that are, today, part of Bangladesh.
“There were rumours that the British would draw an actual line demarcating land between people of two religions. We couldn’t fathom how that would happen. How could we – how could anyone — choose to uproot their life for a new place?”
No one asked Amma, therefore, if she’d like to stay or go, and she reached “India”, a place she knew nothing of. She was married four months after Independence (“We went down to Hedua Park to see the celebrations on 15 August. It was unparalleled. I had never seen so many people looking so happy, waving the Indian flag. Everything was free that day – ice creams, horse rides — but dada insisted we pay”).
No one asked her if she’d like her children to hold on to her mother tongue. I’ve grown up hearing Amma and my father speaking two very different versions of Bengali. Amma speaks ‘Bangaal’, a less-watered-down version of the Bengali language that is still spoken in many regions of Bangladesh but is virtually non-existent in West Bengal. Baba and my two uncles – and consequently my cousins and I – speak a slightly more Anglicised, “more refined” dialect, as do most others who identify as urban “Indian Bengalis”.
What, then, of the Bangladeshi Bengali that still lives on in Amma?
To Amma, there were no markers of difference between the two, but they opened up after her marriage. Her in-laws and husband pointed out – not unkindly, she insists – that her three boys would benefit from the language of the new intelligentsia, the Indian Bengali. “They said they didn’t like the dialect I spoke and that I should refrain from speaking Bangaal in front of my sons. Don’t you see how your uncles and father can barely speak any?”
But Amma can, and does. Did she not forget the forbidden tongue over the many decades of neglect? I ask, to which she replies: “How can one forget the language of one’s motherland?”
My grandmother went back one last time in the ‘50s, to visit her parents before they moved to Calcutta. Everything had changed, but when her father shadow-batted to coach my father like he had his own daughter, she whooped like the 11-year-old girl from a pre-independent India she’d once been — but really, from a time frozen in memory. She couldn’t help herself then, she says, and she leaped to their side to snatch up the bat for her moment in the sun.
And that’s how I want to think of her when I think of her at her happiest: free-willed, speaking her own tongue, carefully tracing on paper transliterations of Bengali to English – joined in solidarity by the ghosts of a hundred 11-year-old girls who gave up their education and agency to the injustices of history.
Urmi writes on gender, culture and health, and is the author of a forthcoming book on survivors of sexual violence. She tweets @UBhattacheryya
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