Professor of South Asian history Joya Chatterji states in “The Fashioning of a Frontier,” that the events of partition are still unfolding to this day. Partition also impacts the descendant and diasporic generations in my family.
I was born in Chuadanga, Bangladesh. But I did not know where it was until I was nine and looked it up on a map in a Bengali language planner my uncle gifted me from my first visit to Bangladesh.
“Maa, where are we from?” I asked when we returned from that visit opening the planner and pointing at the map of Bangladesh districts written in Bangla. I could not read the script back then.
“Here,” She pointed at the district she grew up and the one I was born in. It was colored yellow like the golden fields of mustard flowers we passed by riding in a rickshaw to my grandparents’ home in the country side.
Partition Enters My Consciousness
The history of partition and borders had still not fully entered my consciousness but was beginning to. I had very brief encounters with the history of partition. The first time was in a world history class either in sixth or ninth grade. There was a black and white photograph of the mass exodus of the population exchanges of Punjab, but we had never covered it in class. If I didn’t take a curious skim through the textbook I would have never seen it otherwise.
The other times were through a few Bollywood films such as Gadar, Border, Refugee, Veer Zara. But without the knowledge around the history and politics of Partition, I still could not piece together or comprehend the plots completely. I never thought about how those films related to me and my family history.
Even when we had Bangla TV channels (from Bangladesh) it was the history of 1971 that dominated for obvious reasons. I don’t remember any programs about the partition on the Bengal side. I was oblivious. (Though I hear a documentary called Simantorekha by Bangladeshi based director and researcher Tanvir Mokammel is currently under production).
When I was 19, I visited Bangladesh a second time, after a ten-year gap from my first visit. During this second visit, discussion of the border came up as we planned to visit family friends in Kolkata in coming weeks.
“Oh, we’ll just drive across the border,” my mother said to my Pishi (an unrelated aunt we originally met in NJ) in Kolkata on the phone. “Oh, then we’ll just take the train through the Darshana-Gede border.” Everyone we knew in Kolkata was pushing for us to fly in instead, and so was my family in Bangladesh. Booking flights was going to be an added expense, but they said the border wasn’t safe, not for a group of women traveling alone with US passports.
“No,” my aunts and uncles said. “It’s not safe. They’ll charge you a lot of money knowing you have US passports. Border security is such a pain. You need to be careful. They can hold you there for no reason for hours. If you really want to, you can take the train, but we can’t go with you because we don’t have the proper documents. But the train is also dangerous. People try to derail it.”
We never made it. Our $600 worth of approved Indian visas went to waste. And my Pishi would pass away three years later from cancer. I would not see her again.
I questioned why Pishi called herself Indian when I was young. I thought everyone who was Bengali or spoke it was from Bangladesh. The reason I was given was because she was Hindu. I had always been confused about it but did not have the capacity understand. It simmered in the back of my mind.
Discovering a Border Identity
The second visit to Bangladesh fueled those simmering flames. After returning, I transferred to Syracuse University where I frequently visited the South Asia sections of Bird Library, went to many classes and lectures on south Asia, browsed online resources, and found films by Ritwik Ghatak on partition and displacements on the Bengal side.
When I looked at that map again, I realized my family was from a border district along the Radcliffe or ‘zero-line.’ I became obsessed. Why didn’t I know? How could I find out just now? All I could think after finding out was why my family treated it like nothing? Or why they could not explain it to me? I would hear jokes growing up about people’s kitchens being in India but their bathrooms would be in Bangladesh. It wasn’t funny to me anymore.
After a lot of questioning and interrogation, I found out my mother has relations from her father’s side of the family on the other side of the border in rural areas, but she has lost complete contact with them. My great-grandparents would house Pirs, Sufi spiritual guides, from India and go to into Kolkata to do shopping right before big events. My great uncle married into a family in Kolkata, but he has not been in touch for years after the division. I asked if we could track him down to which my mother said, “we could try, but we are such strangers at this point.”
The border was originally proposed to be a porous one but that proposition never held up. The West Bengal and Bangladesh governments came up with border patrols to control possible smuggling of goods and arms. Many innocent people have died by being shot or beat up by border patrol just for going to see their families on opposite sides of the borders.
There have been other partitions prior to 1947 notably the partition of 1905 where my parent’s district, Nadia, was put into the West Bengal Hindu majority even though it was recorded Muslim majority by a few percent. But in 1947, the eastern portion of the district was split off and given to East Pakistan while the rest of Muslim majority Nadia remained with West Bengal. This called for the need of an ongoing population exchange. Nadia, taking in refugees from various parts of East Bengal/Pakistan, eventually became Hindu majority.
This is another matter which frustrates me. The statistics. What were the parameters of classifying Hindu and Muslim? What about those people like my grandmother who prayed five times a day but still gave rice offerings to the Earth Goddess — Maa Khaki — who would later be accused of shirk (idolatry) by the new “religiously reformed” generation for her folk and Hindu influenced rituals.
I have a tough time swallowing Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Indian nationalism. Celebrations of 1947 and 1971 Independences are painful to be around. It’s more on the bitter end of bittersweet. I mourn for the separation of family and culture on the other side of the border and the reorienting, recasting, and undergrounding/loss of beautiful and bizarre folk beliefs and practices to fit new stifling ideas of religious and secular identity.
I honestly believe being removed from or inheriting only partial forms of my family’s folk culture has been detrimental and is one of the roots of my anxiety and psychological distress. I can’t readily find myself a guru or murshid with local knowledge of where I was born. Gathering in community to sing regional folk songs about spirits and deities is not possible. My choice for the time being is to learn about them and recreate them the best I can to fit the contours of my life in the U.S.
I am not trying to romanticize the past as some utopia or ignore pre-existing conflicts. I just think it could have been different.
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Nazia Islam is a writer and artist from California. She is a Bengali folk culture enthusiast who enjoys learning about Baul music. Some of her visual poetry can be found on Instagram, and she writes at https://naztanu.wordpress.com/.