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Dhaka Tribune

Living between two countries: Memories of my grandmother

In all these years, there was a constant absence of her times spent in the country which came to be known as Bangladesh from the 1970s but in her mind, was simply her “desh,”

Update : 26 May 2022, 07:42 PM

My grandmother died in 2011 aged 83 according to the official records. Her adolescent years were spent in a country slowly coming to terms with the prospect of becoming two and in her youth, she shouldered the responsibility of the family now trying to find their feet in a country younger than most of its residents. She found employment with  Calcutta Telephones and worked with distinction till her retirement.

In between all this, she became a mother to her two children and then grandmother to me and my cousin. She was held as formidable in the familial circle, who was always consulted and asked for advice on matters of the world and widely respected in every neighbourhood she had ever lived in. And in all these years, there was a constant absence of her times spent in the country which came to be known as Bangladesh from the 1970s but in her mind, was simply her “desh,” a concept that the European model of the nation-state would fail to grapple. She lived between two countries, two cities to be more precise, between Calcutta and Sylhet -- her moorings and anchorage in the former and the riverine wanderings of memory in the latter. 

Throughout my growing up years, I was regaled by her repository of stories of the time she spent at Sylhet and there was something of a repetitive quality in her ruminations. By the time, I had stepped into young adulthood, I had already known most of her recollections by heart and could complete some of the stories even before she reached the bottom of that narrative staircase. But as is the case with people who have nothing but stories to hold on to, it did not deter her one bit. As I grew older, I realized that she is stuck in a time loop. Her fondness for Bangladesh is not one for the physical landscape, but more for the temporal canvas. She kept going back to the time she prior to her coming to India before the partition riots broke out but in all the years that followed, there was seldom any effort on her part to keep herself up-to date with the happenings of her mother country, the political and the social landscape and how the country has evolved after its independence from Pakistan. This is a duality I did not understand for a long time. But then, years later, it did dawn on me, that for an entire generation belonging to the Indian subcontinent, this was quite natural. They held on to their memories as prized possessions, always afraid that the photographic film of their past would spoil themselves with too much exposure to the present. 

The thing that struck my cousin and I, the most was the peculiarity of the Bangla our grandmother spoke. We understood the dialect but, at the same time, were aware that the words came out different, the stress was on different parts of the utterance and even though it made total sense to us, we just could not speak in her language while responding. That language was never alien, never intimidating, never daunting, and, although we later realized that this variety was spoken in a country lying across the borders, it was never foreign. My grandmother, whom I called Tatai, and who shall be referred to with the same here on, was the repository of that language along with her siblings. Now that none of them are alive any more, that dialect is not spoken in our household. We bring out certain phrases and words and sprinkle it in our everyday Bengali, much like garnishing and adding exotic spices to a dish. But to think that people like Tatai were only a storehouse for a language would be to take a reductive view of things. They were careful curators of a culture that seems to be losing ground on this side of the border. Globalization has led to the effacing of boundaries on one hand and concretizing differences on the other. The subtle nuances of cultures have been erased, with a standardization of language and culinary habits and we are in danger of being homogenized under a rubric which can be easily understood and categorized. To expect that such nuances and subtleties would be carried forward in the familial space which itself is under threat as an institution in today’s world would be idealistic but one can only hope that the stories that have been passed onto us like family heirlooms are told and written about and circulated. 

As I look back and dust the cobwebs of my memory, two things stand out from her narratives: Tatai spoke a lot about the economic affluence that her family enjoyed before they had to leave everything behind and come to India. The servants, the stables, the horses, and the coachmen were all symbolic of a situatedness in the upper echelons of the social ladder. Now, on the flip side of this is the common complaint of the original residents of West Bengal, the “ghotis” as we call them, that whoever had arrived from the other side of the border, came with a glorified family and economic history and stories of being landowners and “zamindars.” I do not know if my grandmother had also fallen prey to this myth-making of sorts and whether she was one of the many such grand-mothers/fathers who regaled their audience with these extraordinary tales only to be smirked at in their absence, but I never doubted the sincerity with which she stuck to the finer details. It was an exercise in storytelling, something repeated over and over for an audience, gaining an element of veracity and finality that no amount of cross-checking and interjections could puncture. 

But what no one took with a pinch of salt was her reminiscing of her friend Syeda. A young girl of my grandmother’s age, we were told that they were in school/high school together. Little nuggets of information had been handed over to us, their favourite haunts, their after-school activities, etc. But even on repeated persistence, we had been given no insight into what happened to her just prior to the days of Tatai’s coming to India. Neither were we told why she had not kept in touch with her once she had settled in her new homeland. Syeda remains the girl of middle teens, forever young, and forever in school. This is a memory which I believe my grandmother did not want to tarnish. And she perhaps wasn’t the only one caught in such a dilemma. 

In some way or the other, exiles -- be it forced or voluntary -- are averse to the idea of growth or replenishment, working very hard to preserve that original idea or vision of their life before they made the journey. In that vision, their friends do not age, the trees around which they played or spent their childhood are not struck by lightning or the years, the shops from where they bought the knick-knacks still standing in their worn- out grandeur. Because if these were to be upgraded, for want of a better term, then people like my grandmother would have nothing to hold on to anymore. Their riches lie in the stories and memories preserved in thenaphthalene in their hearts. You take those away from them, you leave them with nothing to call their own. This is perhaps one of the reasons why I never found her interested in the socio/politico/cultural life of the post independent Bangladesh. She just did not want to keep along with the changing times. That was not a country and province she could identify with. Rather her identification was with things more abstract. The first storm of the monsoon, the famed “Kalboishakhi” in Calcutta always paled into insignificance, no matter how ferocious and devastating it was, compared to the ones she had seen in Sylhet and Dhaka. We grew up thinking Bangladesh had a better moon, a more potent wind and sharper drops of rain. 

In 1999, Bangladesh was playing their first Men’s Cricket World Cup in England. I remember sitting in front of the television on a June afternoon and Tatai all excited. A group of supporters were being asked their expectations from the team and they signed off with the cry, “amar desh, Bangladesh.” The excitement had travelled the seven seas through the electronic medium to my grandmother who was now visibly excited. This cry, for her, was both a unifying force and an emptiness. Something that always struck me was how the erstwhile residents always spoke of their identity being tied to a city or a province. The country has not yet registered in their scheme of things -- they speak of it in terms of belonging to Sylhet, Cox Bazaar, Dhaka, Chittagong to name a few, but never by the country’s new name. Added to this is the inter-city and the provincial rivalry that has its own spice. Even in case of a prospective marital alliance, it is not enough to have the bride/ groom’s family fail from the other side of the border, but they must belong to the city/ province which would pass the litmus test of being acceptable by the other. There is a hidden pleasure in seeking people from the same region. Once the customary efforts of trying to locate common friends and familial connections have met their futile end, these associations thrive on a shared fondness for food and language, interspersed with a collective sigh regarding what was once had and what is now lost. This is something that has still survived, cutting across national boundaries, a war and a new country coming into existence. 

What does time do to memory? How does memory keep on re-inventing itself with the years going by? And does the sharpness of the wound soften over time? Or do we keep imagining and playing out the scenarios of all those years ago in our heads, rehash them in conversations so that the freshness remains, which is paradoxical in nature, because what one is preserving is not freshness per se but rather a montage of events trapped in time. These are some of the questions that have plagued me for a long time now. Tatai died in 2011, and in her final days she hardly spoke of the past, her siblings (all but one were dead by that time) or even the stories that we had grown up hearing and knew by heart. I also could never ask her if she ever dreamt of her native place. If she did, that was the only place where not only people did not age, but landscapes were not divided and labelled. Dreams are Janus faced, and much like memory as Dickinson put it, is like “jubilee and knell.” With globalization extending its tentacles, borders have been erased. And yet, certain borders have been reinstated and concretized. I do not know if I would be able to recognize Sylhet from my grandmother’s stories. But I know that if ever I visit Bangladesh, I will not be alone. My grandmother would be with me.

Only, for her, it would be a return. 

A few years ago, an uncle of mine visited Dhaka and at a family gathering expressed his excitement at the prospect of the upcoming journey. From his demeanour, one could make out that the visit meant a lot to him, something like a pilgrimage. Tatai, never made that journey, never expressed her desire to do so. Behind it was perhaps a fear -- what if the negative that she has been preserving and nurturing in her mind develops into a picture that is no longer recognizable. What if the Sylhet in her memories is at odds with the Sylhet that has evolved and developed over the last few decades? These were questions that were too overwhelming for her. We were fed the consolatory story in our childhood that the dead become stars and that they watch over us. If that is true, I wonder which country my grandmother is shining upon. 

Sayan Aich Bhowmik is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Shirakole College, West Bengal. He is the co-editor of Plato’s Caves Online, a semi- academic space on literature, politics and art. He has recently published his debut collection of poems, I Will Come With A Lighthouse.

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