“Modern Indian women do not like to wear the saree Bula’di. It is 2011 and not 1971. We prefer jeans and a top. Further, the saree is neither sporty nor comfortable. It restricts one’s mobility,” smartly commented twelve-year-old Nehusta. “Stop calling your grandma Bula’di, child. Please call her granny. You address your elder sister as ‘Di’ and not a lady sixty years older than you,” sternly interrupted the little girl’s mother, bringing down the novel she was gravely reading. “Maya dear, leave her be. I like being called Bula’di. It makes me feel younger. It’s no fault of your daughter when everyone in the locality calls me Di,” spoke up the old lady in defence of her grandchild.
The three generations of women sat on the balcony of their three-storey ancestral home at the interjection of Baldeo Para Road and Raja Dinendra Street in the Indian city of joy, Kolkata, soaking in the warm rays of the mellow sun on a pleasant autumn afternoon. On this sunny day of rest, mommy wanted to complete the novel she had been trying to finish for the last six months amidst all her hectic office work and homely duties. Daughter Nehusta sat with a pair of her old jeans, making gashes in it with a snap-off sliding cutter and granny just sat there looking out at a group of children playing at a tube well on the opposite side of the street.
“Well, my child, you would be surprised to know that I was the queen of mischief when I was your age. I used to climb the tallest of tamarind trees and swim in the turbulent waters of the mighty Buriganga wearing a saree, and I was dam sporty,” reflected the old lady with a smile remembering some childhood memory of joy and then she fell silent as the radiance of happiness on the wrinkled skin of her archaic face turned into a pale glimmer of sadness, while her gaze shifted from the frolicking kids on the opposite side of the street to the old conch shell bangle adorning her right wrist.
“There was, however, one night forty years ago when I swam like I never had or would need to ever again in my life, “ reflected the ageing lady, blankly looking at the worn ornament on her wrist, lost in some old and haunting memory of a not-so-distant past.
“Why do you wear the Shankha Buladi, aren’t widows supposed to break these conch shell bangles when their husbands die,” curiously enquired the twelve-year-old, only to infuriate her mother. “Nehusta! Stop with these nonsensical questions,” pounced Maya to stop her daughter from opening up old wounds on her mother’s soul that had perhaps not healed even after four decades from being inflicted.
“Anyways, I should not have even asked, as both of you prefer never even to speak about grandpa. Funny that we don’t even have a picture of him. Did he even exist,” smartly commented the little girl with a rhetorical look. “Nehusta! Take back what you just said. Do not say things you have no idea about,” shouted Maya, this time dropping her novel and getting up from her chair, ready to discipline her daughter, who had crossed some forbidden line.
“I was born in this house, and when I was about four years younger than you are now, I was married off. A little eight-year-old child-bride leaving her home in Calcutta and travelling with her eighteen-year-old husband and unknown in-laws to start a new life in Dhaka was not unusual in 1947,” spoke up Bula’di, stopping her daughter from punishing the cheeky girl.
“Mother, you never speak about this. You don’t have to do it now,” said Maya with a plea of concern. “It was the last month of the year. India had just got its freedom from the British four months back. The country was now divided into two nations. India in the middle, and the newly formed Islamic Republic of Pakistan comprising West Pakistan in the northwest and East Pakistan in the northeast side of the country. It was both a time for joy and sorrow, a mixed era of triumph and defeat at the same time,” reflected granny with moist eyes.
“West Pakistan had a majority of Muslim Punjabis whereas East Pakistan was more diverse with a sizeable population of Hindu Bengalis. The Government and the majority in the West looked down upon those in the East. They called the East a low-lying land of low-lying people who polluted the area with non-Muslim values,” said Buladi, doing her best to explain the religious-political scenario of the time, the result of an age-old Hindu-Muslim conflict.
“My parents were traditional and overprotective. I had a strict upbringing in this house. My husband, on the other hand, was the kindest man I had ever known. He treated me like a child. We lived like brothers and sisters rather than husband and wife. It was in my in-laws’ house that I tasted real freedom, learned to climb trees, swim, and live a happy life,” spoke up Buladi, this time lighting up with the glee of a happy memory.
“My in-laws were conch shell bangle merchants, and business was booming. We had the most beautiful three-storey house in the Shankharibazar market of old Dhaka. The ground floor was used for business while we lived on the first and second floors of the house. Everyone in the neighbourhood was engaged in businesses related to conch shells items. I spent the next twenty-four years of my life there. On the banks of the Buriganga River was our second home, a five-acre farmhouse where we used to go very often. It was here where I learned to climb trees and swim in the river,” reflected Buladi with the happiness of a rewarded child.
“This conch shell bangle is the only surviving relic from that time. I have nothing else with me from that life,” softly spoke the old lady as the smile on her face turned to a reflective grimace of sadness. “Why Buladi, I mean granny, what happened? I did not know we had relatives in Bangladesh,” spoke up Nehusta with newfound excitement. “No, my child, we do not have any relatives in Bangladesh. All of them died on the dreadful night of 26th March, forty years ago in 1971,” said Buladi, while silent tears beaded her crinkled cheek-line.
“Why, what happened to them? Did they fall sick? Was there an accident,” little Nehusta bubbled with volleys of questions. “The seed of what happened was perhaps already there in the hearts of the very first men that walked on earth. It is hatred for what someone else believes. What happened on the night of 26th March 1971, however, took twenty-four years to build up,” reflected the old woman, lost in some deep and disturbing thought.
“It all started with classification and symbolisation, where people were divided into – us and them. Followed by discrimination and dehumanisation where the minority was equated with vermins or diseases. Then there was organisation, the creation of specific groups by the Government to probe the weaker section, which was followed by polarisation, the use of propaganda to turn the majority against the minority. Finally, persecution – theft, murder, massacre, and mass extermination. No, my child, there was no sickness or accident, only genocide,” bleakly spoke the old lady while beads of tears lodged in the worn crevices of her wrinkled facial skin.
“That does it. That’s enough mother. Nehusta it’s time for your afternoon siesta. I won’t take no for an answer, get going child,” spoke Maya sternly sending away her daughter from the veranda, realising that her mother needed to share what she had kept buried in her heaving bosom for more than forty years.
“Mother, Nehusta is too young to hear all of this, but I am glad that you are speaking about this at last. Please tell me more about what happened. I want to know about my father,” said Maya softly, holding her mother’s hands.
“I opened my eyes only to feel excruciating pain. Somebody had struck me on the forehead, and I could not remember what had happened earlier. I felt dizzy and nauseated. The blood from the wound on my head had dried and caked around my eyes, making it difficult for me to see. I forced my eyes open and through a veil of red, I saw a man standing a few feet from me. My hands and legs were tied to the bedpost as I lay there helpless. He was not the only one. More of them came into the room taking their turn one by one. None of them was gentle. They were filled with hatred. They punched, kicked, and spat while they ravaged. I fell unconscious only to wake up to the torture over and over again. The cycle of trauma continued till there was not a piece of cloth left on myself or a breath of life left in me. They left me for dead,” said Buladi as tears streamed down her old face.
Maya had fallen silent. She did not know what to say. She only cried with her old mother, hugging her, and kissing her on the forehead. Buladi continued, “my torture had loosened the ropes that bound me to the bed. A few hours after my violators had left me for dead, could I muster the strength and courage to free myself, get up, wear a saree, and get out of the room. Outside in the courtyard of our home, I found the lifeless bodies of my loved ones lying in their blood and gore in the aftermath of an unspeakable carnage.”
“I somehow made it through the burning streets riddled with lifeless cadavers of people everywhere to our farmhouse on the banks of the Buriganga. There I hid for four days before recouping with my injuries and taking the decision to swim across the river in search of safety. I started swimming at night, and I swam as I had never before. At far I could see the shoreline burning and could not decide where to hit land. I could not guess where it would be safe. I stayed in the water for twelve hours and then lost consciousness,” said the old lady remembering a memory she had tried hard to forget.
“I woke up to find myself on a boat. A poor fisherman had rescued me from drowning. The fisherman was a Bihari Muslim, a community supported by the West Pakistan regime, but he was kind at heart and not a violent man. He hid me in his boat. Earlier that month, 300 people from his community were slaughtered in rioting by Bengali mobs in Chittagong. The Government used the ‘Bihari Massacre’ to justify its deployment of the military in East Pakistan to exterminate the Bengalis,” said Buladi, now more composed in her thoughts and words.
The old lady continued, “I don’t remember how many days we were on that little boat. We travelled through five rivers, Buriganga, Dhaleshwari, Kaliganga, Brahmaputra, and Padma to finally reach Charghat in the Rajshahi district of Bangladesh, where we landed on Indian soil in the Hazrahati Mirganj village in Murshidabad district of West Bengal. Many people helped me from there and I reached this house after a week of travel.”
On the dreadful Thursday of 25th March 1971, The Government of Pakistan launched ‘Operation Searchlight’, a military crackdown to extinguish the flame of Bengali people’s call for self-determination in East Pakistan. On the afternoon of 26th March, the Pakistani army attacked the Shankharibazar area of old Dhaka. Buladi’s in-laws were among the hundreds of Bengalis killed on that day. During the nine-month-long Bangladesh Liberation War that followed, the Pakistan Armed Forces and pro-Pakistani Islamist militias from Jamaat-e-Islami killed between 300,000 and 3,000,000 people and raped between 200,000 and 400,000 Bengali women, in a systematic campaign of genocidal rape.
“I am so sorry mother. I simply cannot imagine what you went through. Now I understand why you never spoke of this before. I wish you had a photograph of father, only if I could give him a face, somehow, I would feel complete,” sadly reflected Maya still holding her mother’s hand.
After deeply thinking for a moment Buladi held her daughter’s face in her shrivelled palms, kissed her forehead and said, “the man I married in this house in December of 1947 was not your father Maya. He loved me very much but more like a little sister. God had made him that way. Your father was one of them who had me on the night of 26 March 1971. I do not know his name or face. You might be a ‘War Child’ but you are mine and I love you more than anything in this world.”
Copyright © 2022 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. Some characters, incidents, places, and facts may be real while some fictitious. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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