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The Waiting Rooms of History

Posted by bangalnama on July 6, 2009

Do you remember, Kolkata
That green passport, my dark green shirt;
Arriving, drenched, at Sealdah Main
That day on the train from the border
I saw a shoeshine boy for the first time in my life.
It was a thrill, my dream city,
My first tram-car, my earliest first-class,

First class Kolkata,
Where pet clouds hover over every roof.
Within every window
A mystery of darkness and light.
My green shirt, my ragged shoes,
Fear in every step.
Madmen with beggars, beggars with drunks,
Processions, rainbow hued, horizon stretching.
The crowded teashops, the futile mob on the road.
On windy afternoons dry leaves scatter,
In the sunlight, tram tracks glisten
Pale as ivory,
Reaching nowhere.
Sometimes I feel,
I am no longer within your limits,
Nowhere can I find that city of mine
Where, between two lamp-posts, in a long penalty kick
Someone sends the football moon to space
While shadowy figures in the gallery yell,’ Goal, goal.’
These twenty years,
I have found nothing in common with you, Kolkata.
My torn dreams, my ragged pieces of poetry
In dirty paper bags the tramps
Have collected them all.
Those dream-words
Have been sold like rubbish.
Not a single mystery window opened anywhere
Nowhere could I reach the clouds on the roofs.
Only the color of my shirt,
My shoe size changed,

(That Green Passport: Tarapada Roy,
translated by Debjani Sengupta)

My father first came to Kolkata when he was sixteen, in search of work. Kolkata was the city where one made good, a metropolis of dreams and destinations. It was also a city that was manageable, still unprepared for the onslaught of the rootless streams of humanity that was to come over in and after 1947. ‘I have seen foxes playing by the Ballygunj station. Behala tram depot was a wild lonely area. It took the Partition for the city to grow…all the suburbs you see today…Behala, Jadavpur…. were the result of the struggle of refugees like me, we made Kolkata what it is today’ my father says with a detached pride. In undivided Bengal, before the Partition, though not yet its present size, the city had offered education and jobs for the middle classes from East Bengal. Hindu College, Ripon College, Presidency College, Scottish Church College were filled with students from the East while the merchant and trading houses, the government departments had many workers who hailed from East Bengal. Every year they traveled back home, crossing the Padma, waking up the sleepy villages with tales of the multihued city. In return they carried back to the city their language, the nostalgia for their land, the smell of their rivers Buriganga, Dhaleshwari, Padma, Meghna, the tug and pull of memories. Living in cramped mess ‘bari’, or rented rooms, they dreamt of making it big in the city. The poem I have quoted above was true for so many such young men, who flocked to the city, like my father did, on a shoestring budget, dreaming of a new life. Nobody had thought the forays in the modern metropolis were ever going to be permanent; their ‘desher bari’ was there, one could always return. My father had, because he missed Narayangunj so much. In this, he was following a family tradition. My grandfather, who graduated in 1918, left a Government job in Bihar to come and settle in Ramchandrapur in Tippera district where he worked as an assistant headmaster in the village school. After the riots in Tippera, he decided to settle down in Narayangunj that he was to leave in 1949. In 1947, my father was still in East Bengal, living with his parents, running a small business.

However, the Partition made it abundantly clear that in the city of Kolkata, the journey of the East Bengali, culturally and psychologically, was a one-way journey. They came to the city and never did go back. ‘I was compelled to sell my shop in Narayangunj and decided to come to Kolkata. Those days airfare between Dhaka and Kolkata was fifty rupees. I had to buy tickets for all of us…We came to stay at the government accommodation my elder brother had in Garcha where my younger brothers were already living. There were ten of us cramped together in a small two-roomed house. But I knew this was to be the new life, a life of struggle. I was completely broke, unemployed. I didn’t even have money for a tram-ride. I remember walking to Shyambazar from Garcha one day, nearly eight kilometers each way….’ It is incredible how much my father still remembers of those days; the days of pain and fear and grit. He remembers watching the people on the Sealdah station platforms and the anger he felt when they were sent to Dandakaranya refugee camps. A reporter from Amritbazar Patrika described the station in the months after the Partition: ‘On Thursday I spent a few hours amongst the refugees in Sealdah station. The refugees have come by train to Sealdah. As long as they were not sent elsewhere, they will continue to live here. As soon as they arrive they will stand in a queue to be inoculated against cholera and other diseases. Then, along with all family members, they will have to stand in front of the office of the relief and rehabilitation department where they will be given a certificate stating they are eligible for shelter in relief camps. When all this is over, only then will they spread whatever bedding they have on the South platform and wait for transportation to the camps.’ My father too saw these endless streams of people on the platforms. Everyday he was thankful he was not one of them. By 1951, he had managed to eke out a living in the city; the city was his. When he had first come to the city in 1940 he had lived in a ‘messbari’ with his elder brother who worked at the Imperial Library in Central Avenue. But he had not taken to the city much and had decided to leave. However, fate had decided otherwise; the city had marked him out as its own. By 1949 the last of his family had come over this side, safe, never to go back. My grandfather was heartbroken to leave Naranyangunj, and always complained the fish and vegetables never tasted the same here in the city. My father was more reconciled; what he saw around him daily made him so. ‘I knew we would never go back to that fertile green land we had left behind. I realized that in my heart, soon.’ The waiting rooms of history were disgorging millions on the city pavements; the battle was on. Daily he needed to find a foothold in the precarious city, it was so easy to go under. But like the lonely protagonist of the poem, he never really felt at home in the city that many like him had ‘made’ with their blood and sweat and fear. The city turned my father from a poetry loving man to a mechanical, self-absorbed one. He grew up. His shoe sizes changed. Relentlessly, he was made to forget what he had left behind. He never, ever went back to East Bengal, later Bangladesh. And he never talked of it until sixty-five years later. Before I was leaving for Bangladesh on a visit in 2005, he told me to visit Narayangunj, just once. He wanted to know he had returned, although in a way he would never have once envisioned.

-by Debjani Sengupta

[This article first appeared in Tehelka, April 2007 (with a different title). Readers are free to use the article, but the writer must be acknowledged.]

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