Pages from the Past

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Somya was researching Partition stories with the hope of writing a book. Her fascination with the subject escalated as she delved deeper. One day, a friend, Paulomi Sen, invited her home to meet a lady whose grandmother had suffered from the throes of Partition, the great divide that ripped the Indian subcontinent into multiple nations. The ripping, like all acts of violence, was characterized by brutality and angst. The lacerated wounds refused to heal over generations. And all this happened in a land that had earlier, for multiple centuries, witnessed syncretization of different cultures, creeds and religions.

Paulomi introduced Somya to the grand daughter of the Partition victim, Mona. Mona was a PhD student in her mid-twenties. She had been born and brought up in Singapore. She spoke with a Singlish twang at times with a mild smattering of ‘lahs’ but by and large she stuck to Queen’s English, quite different from the expat Indians who flocked to Singapore in the new millenia.

Somya belonged to the expat category. Singapore had been a difficult country for her to fathom. People had seemed cold and distant when she moved to Singapore in 1991. But what she eventually realized that people just did not know enough about all of India. They were mostly focused on the Southern Indians who were very different from the Northern, Eastern or Western culturally and in appearance. The consciousness had started creeping into the Singapore mindset as the number of expats increased. Somya herself was from Eastern India, West Bengal. That complicated things further as they associated Bengali, her mother tongue, with Bangladesh and Bangladeshi workers. Culturally, she was closer to a Bangladeshi than to a person from Southern India as their food and habits were more similar. A little more than two hundred years ago, when the lines had not been drawn, her ancestors had been chased out of Dhaka by a ruler who historians have described as ‘depraved’ and ‘ cruel’. Her ancestors had made a home in the Dutch colony of Chinsura that fell into the portion of India when the country was sliced. Somya’s family continued Indians and others became East Pakistanis in 1947 and subsequently Bangladeshis in 1971.

Mona was a person of Indian ethnicity but a Singaporean. She valued a past, she said, because the country was young compared to the antiquity of India or China.

As they talked, Somya learnt that Mona’s mother had migrated to Singapore long before she was born. The story grew more and more complex and interesting.

She said, “My mother was a child of the Partition, born in 1948. Actually, my grandmother’s past had forced the family to move out of Calcutta and eventually many of us moved out of India… you know lah… how it is for some families…”

Somya waited for her to continue but Mona was clearly struggling to explain things that may have been unpalatable to her or her family. She was also fumbling with her bag and pulled out a diary from it.

“This is the diary of a tenant who stayed in our ancestral home in Calcutta for some time. There are only a few entries. I have book marked them for you. Most of it is just appointments and meetings. Perhaps, it is best you read it yourself… But please don’t tell anyone that the story is about our family lah. You know how people are lah… “

Somya assured her that her book was fictitious and the diary would only help her recreate a fictional character.

“It was brave of you to come forward with the story in any case,” she concluded.

“ No lah. I came forward because I think that people need to understand that holding on to anger and shame is destructive. One needs to let go of the angst and move forward towards the creation of a better world… you know lah… You can return the diary to me when you finish. There is no hurry. But my family should not be mentioned… please lah…”

“That is a promise,” Somya reassured her.

Somya returned home with the diary and started reading. The diary belonged to Mr Debnath Mukherjee. There were a few written entries only… it was mostly filled with cryptic time schedules for meetings, appointments and deadlines, as Mona had said, except for the entries made on particular dates.

The first entry was located in the middle… on the date of 25 th April, 1973.

Calcutta, 25 th April, 1973

I have decided to write down these strange occurrences in this diary to maintain a record. I have never experienced anything this weird.

I was praying in the prayer room upstairs today when I felt someone had entered. I turned around and stared in surprise.

Before me, stood a woman who looked like the Goddess Durga herself. She was of an indeterminate age; anywhere between twenty-eight and forty-five I would say, clad in a white saree with a red border. Her parting was filled with sindoor. On her forehead was a big bindi and her lips were reddened with betel juice. Hip length hair fell in dark ripples down her back. Her feet were defined by the alta on it. Her head was partially covered with the pallu of her saree. Strangely, her clothes seemed a bit damp though I never touched them. In her hands, she held a copperplate of offerings for prayers with flowers, sweets, a small brass or copper container with water and a lamp. She smiled at me and beckoned…

I felt compelled to follow. I followed the mysterious woman.

She led me to the courtyard. It seemed to have changed completely… what had happened? I moved as if in a trance behind her.

A huge bonfire burnt in the middle of the courtyard. And a sturdy Brahmin priest in a traditional dhoti was feeding the flames with papers and books and shouting, “Om Agni swaha! Om Agni swaha!”He seemed to be in a tremendous rage. He seemed larger than life with his pent up anger and violence. I could sense it…feel his bloodshot eyes and angst. Some women sitting and wailing added to the tragic and frightening effect. A woman dressed in bridal finery lay on the floor in a faint. She looked exquisitely beautiful too, so young and so innocent.

I turned towards my strange guide seeking an explanation. My guide had disappeared from my side…

Where was she? Was she among the wailers?

I looked around. Suddenly, I saw her.

There she was … by the side of the old brahmin…

I could not move or call out… what was happening?

The flames from the bonfire leapt higher and higher. Everything was covered in a haze of smoke and the chanting filled my head till I felt myself ready to swoon…

Suddenly, everything was back to normal. I could move. There were our potted plants and the swing and my birdbath. I could hear my wife’s voice from the kitchen calling out to check if I was ready for tea. My wife had obviously not seen or experienced anything different. I did not alarm her by telling her about my strange ‘encounter’.

I was intrigued and shaken by the whole incident. I decided to write to my landlord and ask him if he knew what was it that I had witnessed. Did this house have an unholy mystery concealed seething in the superficial calm of its ambience? Was it safe for my family and me? Or should we move house?

My landlord, Mr Avinash Bhattacharya, lived in New Delhi. He wrote back quickly, urging me to continue, saying there was nothing dangerous in the house and he would describe the incident to me when we met.

I decided to give him a chance to explain himself and agreed not to move out if there were no recurrence of such events.

New Delhi, 23 rd June, 1973

Thankfully, there was no repetition of the weird experience I had this April in the house I rent in Calcutta.

We are in Delhi for my children’s summer holidays. We are staying with my elder brother, Manibhushan Mukherjee, and his family, comprising of three sons and his wife. Today, I went to visit my landlord. My twenty-six year old nephew who works for a law firm in New Delhi came with me. He took me to the landlord’s house in Chittaranjan Park after lunch.

Avinash Bhattacharya seems to be a kind man. He had a strange story to tell.

It seems in 1947, his parents from Noakhali (now part of Bangladesh) took shelter in his home during the Partition, leaving behind their eighteen-year-old daughter, Gouri, to the mercy of ruthless kidnappers who raided and razed their home and their tol (village school, mostly religious). His father was the pundit (learned teacher) who ran the tol. Gouri had been married for four years but was childless. She had been visiting her parents during Durga Puja that year. As the flames of hatred and violence devoured the village and burnt their home, some of the Islamic hooligans picked up the beautiful Gouri and carried her off. The helpless parents were forced to flee holding on just to their lives. The father and mother managed to evade the fire, blood and fury and make it to the safety of their son’s home in Calcutta.

Avinash had just bought the home he had been renting. By then, he had a son and daughter. His twenty-two year old brother also lived with him. He himself was just touching thirty. His other sister was twenty-seven and safely living with her in-laws in Jamshedpur, Bihar. Only Gouri remained unaccounted for.

The family lodged a report in Calcutta. But the police could do nothing. Six months passed. The Bengali New Year was limping its way towards their home as the bereft parents tried to adjust to life in Calcutta. Mr Bhattacharya’s father could not stop looking for his sister, Gouri, on his own. Her in-laws, who had also fled to the safety of India, visited them. They assumed Gouri was dead. They praised her to the skies but were certain she was no more. Only, her own father could not stop feeling that she would return.

And then, one day, she did.

It was the 5th of April, 1948. The cold nip in the air had given way to flowers and blooms all around. But, the pundit, instead of visiting the gardens in Calcutta visited police stations and the railway stations in the hope of gathering news about his youngest daughter, Gouri. How could she just disappear?

That day, he found her at the railway station. It seemed that she was being sent to West Pakistan by her kidnappers along with two more girls. They were all made to wear burkhas. Despite that, Gouri’s father recognized her walk and managed to rescue her with the help of the police and crowds. The kidnappers were handcuffed and taken away. Avinash was a bit fuzzy about the whole episode, probably because he was not present.

Gouri had become shrivelled and dark with manhandling. Many men had handled her. But she was regaining her strength and looks under the loving care of her family. They rejoiced at her recovery. Her father decided to invite her in-laws so that they could take her back to her own home.

The Bengali New Year on 15th April was one filled with hope and happiness for the Bhattacharya family.

On twenty fifth April, Gouri’s husband, Mukund, and her father-in-law were invited to lunch. They lived in Vardhaman now. They took a train to Calcutta and it was only after resting and lunch that the pundit had sprung the joyous surprise on them. Only they did not find it joyous, they left without so much as wishing her well. Her father-in-law declared her to be ‘impure’ and ‘unclean’ for having survived the trial. Her husband, his father’s obedient son, left his wife for life in a lurch for good and followed in his father’s footsteps… except he had tears in his eyes when he left. Again Mr Bhattacharya was at work and he could not describe the scene exactly.

But when he returned from work a little early, around 3.45pm in the afternoon, he found the scene I described being enacted. The enraged pundit, who had tried to justify the ‘purity’ of his daughter by calling her heart untouched and clean, was burning all his religious books, which condemned the abused girl as ‘impure’. His sister was lying in dead faint dressed in bridal finery. She had been decked up for her husband and in-laws as she would be starting her life anew… but now… now there could be no fresh start.

Mr Bhattacharya saw the chaos and his heart wept for his young sister. He rushed himself to get a doctor.

The doctor had the girl carried to the bed and examined her with care. At the end of the examination, he congratulated her parents for their daughter’s pregnancy.

Gouri had been impregnated by the unholy seeds of a rapist!

Her mother passed out clutching her heart. The doctor stood there. He could do nothing. By the time he reached out  to her, she was no more… that was 25 th April, 1948, twenty-five years ago.

However, today, the biggest shock I had today was seeing the girl who had been decked in bridal finery and one of the wailing women, enter the room with tea and snacks!   They had aged but I could recognize them. Gouri was still alive as was her sister-in-law who had helped dress her. She was Avinash’s wife.

After Gouri came in, nothing more was said. The story had been related while the women were preparing tea. Gouri’s daughter joined them a little later. She had been watering the garden. She was really beautiful with fair skin and black hair and tawny eyes. I could see my nephew gape at her!

I was dying to know the rest of the story. After the women served us tea and joined us, there was no possibility of finding out anything. The conversation moved to generalities like the weather and how beautiful a city Delhi was.

I looked at my watch and indicated it was time for us to go. Mr Bhattacharya smiled and accompanied us down the drive to the gate. He lived in a bungalow with a garden. My nephew had parked his car outside the main gate. As we walked out, I could not help ask Mr Bhattacharya, “Was that not Gouri, girl in a faint decked in bridal finery?”

“ Yes,” he replied, “and her daughter. You mean you recognized her from your vision?”

“ Yes,” I responded. “How are they now? What is it they do?” I blurted out.

“ To conclude my telling… You will find all your answers there. We were forced to leave Calcutta because of the scandal. I took a transfer to Delhi and my younger brother to Bombay. My father died before we left Calcutta, before the child was born. We do not really go there anymore. I use my home as an investment. Here, we pass Gouri off as a widow and her daughter, Mala, has grown up believing her father was killed during the Partition… but there will be a time we will have to tell the child the real story…”

Calcutta,10th August, 1975

My elder brother is very upset. My nephew, Nikhilesh, the one who drove me to Mr Bhattacharya’s house, has eloped with Gouri’s illegitimate daughter, Mala. Mala was doing her PhD in History from Delhi University. It seems Nikhilesh had been smitten by her the first day he saw her! He met her again and now he has married her.

My brother is very angry, especially now that he knows the girl’s background, which has been explained to him by his son in a letter. My brother has sent me a photocopy of the letter asking me for an explanation if I have one. I am gluing the letter to the diary.

The letter

Dear Father,

By the time you get this letter, I will be in Singapore.

I am marrying the girl I love, Mala, and we are leaving for Singapore tonight. By the time you get this letter, I will be in Singapore. I have taken a posting here. I told you that I will be going on tour and left.

Mala is the love of my life. I cannot live without her. Yet, you are both so against a love marriage that I cannot even mention her to you. That is why I rejected all the matches you suggested.

I also need to tell you that Mala’s mother was a victim of abuse faced during Partition. Hence, Mala’s father is an unknown factor. Her mother passes herself off as a widow. Mala, as of now, still thinks her father died during the Partition, killed by Muslim mobsters.

Mala’s family will have already received the note that she would have left for them two days ago. I posted my letter on the way out as I wanted to take no chances.

If you find it in your heart to accept Mala and me, please write to us at my office address in India and they will forward it to me in Singapore.

We would love to live with your blessings, love and goodwill.

Regards, love and best wishes,

Nikhilesh

After that the entries ended.

Somya was left thirsting with curiosity to know what happened in the aftermath in Singapore.

The next Saturday, she contacted Paulomi again saying she was through with the diary and would like to return it to Mona.

This time Paulomi asked Somya to meet them in her office in the NUS campus. She was a professor at NUS and Mona was her student.

Somya reached there just as Mona entered for her discussion with Paulomi. Mona was surprised to see Somya, who returned the diary to her and asked, “ Would you like to share the rest with me?”

“ There is nothing more to share. My parents lived happily here. No one from both the sides contacted my parents. My mother did write to her mother and send her the address. In response, my grandmother sent her blessings by post, and died in 1980. My father received a letter from his uncle, blessing him but making it clear that the family was upset. My father’s family never contacted him.”

“Does your mother know her past?”

“ She does now. Her mother wrote to her all the details when she sent her blessings and said it was better that she stayed where she did, making a fresh start. By what I figured out she had not been much of a mother to mine… always caught up in her own world of angst and anger. My mother did not have a very happy childhood but she gave me a fabulous one… The outcome of the revelation, I have heard from my father, made my mother sad for a few days. I have only had love and support from my parents as far as I can remember. It was a wonderful childhood for me. I think my parents had too much happiness between them to let the past destroy the present.”

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