Foreword: She is in her late Seventies. She comes every morning, climb the steep stairs of my house and greets me with her smile and the typical Bengali accented ‘Kaisa hai’?? I always reply with a smile…”Bhalo….Apnar Kemon’. (Just because I know that she is from west Bengal and it also gives me an opportunity to hone my Bangla speaking skills). She attends to the chores like washing, cooking, cleaning the house etc. in return for either a monthly salary or one-time assignment payment in the building I live in. I always wondered, what makes (forces) her to work in such an old age. She almost looks like a stick, malnourished, white hair, sunken eyes and wrinkled skin. We always talk about random things, mostly a reason for annoyance for the other people of the building as it would mean lesser time for work and more ‘chit-chatting’. On one of those conversations, she told me about her story, encompassing two countries and many decades.
Here it goes……
“I was born in a poor peasant family in Barisal district in the northern part of Bangladesh. We were a happy family. Though we lived in hand to mouth existence, we never had to starve. We also had the regular supply of fish (Barisal district is known for Eelish fish-the favourite of all Bangla speaking people in the world). But then the leaders of the Indian Nation decided to divide the beautiful country into two. Though, I never understood the reasons behind the partition, I knew that it was bad. I also wondered how a line suddenly drawn in the middle of a nation could divide hearts that had always been together.
I was 14-15 years then and was already married for a year and was pregnant with my first child. I wanted to stay back in Bangladesh, in those neighbourhoods where I have grown up. But I was given little choice, as my dad and the other male members in the family decided otherwise. But they had a reason. As we were Hindus, we lived in constant fear and my dad had received threats from the Muslim counterparts. The riots had increased and the roads had felt with flames and dead bodies. I was very scared too but still did not want to leave. It also made me wonder how the same neighbours who had till then laughed together suddenly were angry for each other’s blood. Many fled with whatever they could hold onto. All of us were unsure of what lies ahead, confused, angry and sad. But my dad told me that a dream lies ahead in the western part of Bengal and we will be able to live a decent life.
One gloomy day, we decided to take the journey across to Kolkata. The clouds were dark, and it was pouring and I thought may be the skies cried that day. We, along with many others were cramped in a back side of a truck to a certain point and suddenly after a point we were dropped off and suddenly someone shouted out that we are on the Indian side. I had no time to bother about that because; I was in deep pain as just wanted a place to rest. And we were brought to Coopers Camp (200km from Calcutta) and dumped into makeshift camps. I looked at my dad and he assured me that, it would just be a few days’ affair. We lived there for weeks, months and then for years. I gave birth to all my four (two sons and two daughters) children in that small camp. I also married off both my daughters from the camp. Days in the camp were never so easy and I always remember it as a bad memory. There were many days when we use to go hungry. My dad decided to go back to Bangladesh and sell the lands we had so that we could have some money. He left but never came back. Our lands were gone and my father got sick in Bangladesh and passed away. I could not even go and attend my dad’s funeral. All I could do is shed tears and pray for him.
After my father’s death, we gave up hope that things in Cooper Camp will change. So, my husband and I came to Delhi along with our children. Since then, we have changed four slums and currently stay in a slum in Dacca. Last year, my husband passed away with TB. Since then, I had to take up the responsibility of the family. Out of my two sons-one is always bed-ridden and survives on medicines. The other son has turned into a drunkard. My daughter-in-law also has not been doing well and has to take care of the family. Two of my grandsons also have not been old enough to start working. The eldest, recently has enrolled himself as apprentice in a mechanical shop last month. He has not started earning yet. Thus, I have to keep working till I am able to. I think my work shall only stop with death…But till the moment I can work, I refuse to let my grandsons go hungry…..!!!”
I noticed that she had tears in her eyes when she was telling me the story. My eyes were also moist. I told her that I went to Bangladesh as a part of my work and was there for almost 8 months. As soon as she came to know that, she kept pestering me with questions. She lighted up like a kid and started asking me those innumerable questions. I patiently tried to give her convincing answers to all of the questions, though I knew that I won’t be able to do so, no matter how hard I try.
She patiently listened to me and again asked, “How is my motherland?”, “Did u like staying there?” I just smiled and said YES…!!!.
“Naani……!!!”, my neighbour called out for her. She suddenly realised that she had spent a lot of time talking to me and gets ready to leave. She slowly stands up and walks towards the stairs….suddenly stops, turns back and say, “If you visit again, Tell my Motherland that I miss her a lot..!!!”.
I look at her and quietly say “Yes, I will….” She had a contented smile……………..!!!
N:B- To Naani………..who refuses to get tired….(With love-The Author)