by Navine Murshid for AlalODulal.org
“This was the only glimpse that I had to the frenzy that Partition and famine caused in the lives of my closed ones; in Nanu’s paranoia, I saw the fear of starvation, the fear of losing family members, and the fear of the unknown.”
Calcutta 1943, October
Ghore ghore bhikhari, haha (beggars at every household)
Ghore ghore bhikari
Control permit blackout!
Shob jinisher barlo dwor, (prices rise of all things)
Calcutta 1943, October.
“This is the rhyme that was interspersed with chants of ‘Bande Mataram’ in Calcutta in those days. Without realizing it, we’d hum it too.”
These were Nanu’s (grandmother) words. She would rarely talk about her life in Calcutta or Murshidabad pre-partition, but she would hum this rhyme absent-mindedly often enough that it is now ingrained in my memory. As children, my sister and I would sing it too. We thought it was a funny rhyme because Nanu would always smile when she sang it. It was much later, as an adult really, that I realized that the smile masked a history that she wanted to forget but couldn’t.
The simple rhyme sums up the times: poverty, hunger, riots, power cuts, inflation, repeat—the infamous Bengal Famine of 1943. Nanu would talk about the power cuts—how it was a way to prevent riots from spreading, how she and her sister were alone in Calcutta, away from their family in Murshidabad. She didn’t like talking about the famine, but it stayed with her at the back of her head and resurfaced as she began to show signs of Alzheimer’s in her old age.
She would lapse into her early years and in those times her strongest urge was to pack—her clothes, her belongings—into small bundles. She would get paranoid about thieves and muggers who would rob her and leave her penniless. She would perceive non-family members as spies and/or rioters. She found everything suspicious and conspiratorial, and would speak of “going home.” This was the only glimpse that I had to the frenzy that Partition and famine caused in the lives of my closed ones; in Nanu’s paranoia, I saw the fear of starvation, the fear of losing family members, and the fear of the unknown.
It explained many of her habits—of force-feeding us as if there would be no meal forthcoming, of always saying that we were too thin and suffering from malnutrition, making sure to give us a “phoo” (short prayers recited and blown on our foreheads) before we went anywhere, of being anxious all the while we were outdoors, even if it was just to play. We would joke that she didn’t want any of her children and grandchildren to be productive citizens—she just wanted all of us to sit at home all day. In retrospect, I think that is exactly what she wanted because that was the only way she could ensure everyone was safe.
We never really figured out what she meant by home, though. Did she mean her parental home in Taranagar, Murshidabad? The small hostel in Calcutta near the refugee camp? Or did she refer to Rajshahi, the place where she migrated to with her mother after Partition? Or did she refer to Chittagong, the place she married into and where she raised her children? What does home and belonging mean for someone who has been uprooted so many times—during Partition, during the Bangladesh’s Liberation War, when she got married, when her husband died, when her health failed her, when she took turns living with her six children? Can anyone really come to terms with war and starvation?
Nanu led a “normal life” since 1971, according to those who knew her. By normal, they mean she showed no visible signs of the wartime trauma she experienced, she was unaffected by the violence she witnessed. Yes, she pretended everything was fine, like most people in her generation. But her past wouldn’t leave her. It found expression in the many rhymes and songs she hummed while she went about her daily chores. The only other one that I remember, albeit partially, is the following:
Biye korle shami hoy, agey jantam ami
Dekhi, geruwa chhara, nengti pora, biye- na-kora shami, mori hay re
Kolkata shohor bhoole bhora .
You get a husband (swami) when you marry, I used to think
But I see robe-less, underwear clad, unmarried swamis everywhere.
My, my, Calcutta is a city of mistakes!