Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Memoirs of Tungeshwar (Part II)

Gayatri Sen continues the trip down memory lane and recalls her final hours in East Pakistan. By then, growing mistrust, violence and religious riots, had already unsettled the peace of her homeland

Tungeshwar holds a special place in my heart even after all these years. Not only because it was the place where I spent my childhood and the early formative years, but also due to the fact that it was a nature’s abode. There was lush greenery all around and the meadows were spread like a carpet. The village was skirted by a forest which came to life with the onset of spring. Palash flowers, with their signature bright orange flame-like colour in full bloom, adorned the trees and it seemed that the entire forest was on fire. I am not sure whether the forest is still there. Trees are always the first casualty of marauding human habitations and the fate of the palash forest remains unknown. I would have perhaps gone back to my village, had the ominous looking barbed wire fences not blocked my way. Now, in the latter part of my sunset years, the longing only increases with each passing day. Even if there’s a will, there’s no way.

Fishing was a major occupation in Tungeshwar
Spring ushered in two very important festivals in that part of East Bengal (now Bangladesh). One was the Vasudevotsava and the other Vasantotsava. Both these festivals celebrated spring, which also coincided with the new rice sowing season. The epic love story of Radha and Krishna was presented in the form of kirtan (rural music in the form of versed chants) were sung in our thakurdalan (the common dais for all religious festivals). I and my siblings would sit together and arrange the raw materials for the bonfire, mostly dry wood, leaves and twigs, to be burnt later in the evening. The village elders said that the fire symbolised the triumph of good over evil. The children used to burn aubergines and potatoes in the fire and eat them together with salt. It was almost a delicacy for all the village children.

On the day of Dol Purnima, the idols of Radha and Krishna used to be taken out from our mandir (a large worship room) and decorated with seasonal flowers and leaves. The head priest observed fast on that day, and performed the puja of Basudev, our ancestral deity. After the puja, he would smear the Basudev idol with abeer (a special coloured powder, usually made from palash) and offer bhog (a religious offering of cooked food, usually vegetarian) to the deity. The idol was then placed in a palanquin decorated with palash flowers, and taken out in a procession in the village streets. People in the procession sang devotional songs, danced in rhythm, and marched along the palanquin. All the while, the men folk kept applying abeer on the deity. 

After moving through the village roads, the procession would end at the thakurdalan. The Basudev idol was placed on a cradle decorated with palash. We children would sit at a distance from the crowd and watched the musical rituals that followed. We smeared abeer on the feet of elders and then played among ourselves. 

The spring festival typically involved a musical soiree in our family where no outsiders were allowed. I still remember the deep melodious voice of my elder brother Niranjan Sen. He was a loyal socialist with revolutionary leanings during his college days. My cousin brother Srinivas, who had a rich repertoire of songs, kept us mesmerised the whole night. Bordi was a Sanskrit scholar and had an exhaustive knowledge of raga and Rabindra Sangeet. She always motivated us and other children in the family to participate in such programmes.

Agriculture and fishing were the two major occupations of the people of my village. It also had a separate ethnic and cultural identity from the rest of East Bengal. Tungeshwar was a Hindu majority village and we hoped that it’ll be merged with Assam (India). But the 1947 referendum split our village. One part was to remain with East Pakistan, while the other was to go to India. Baba preferred to stay back. I too didn’t want to abandon the soil on which I was born and spent my wonderful childhood. 

The period after the referendum was marked by tension, large-scale violence, and mass killing. The Partition had no institutional sanction, unlike many other twentieth century genocides. A strong communal line was drawn between Hindu and Muslims. Paranoia got the better of us because the violence was inching closer home. We suddenly became insecure over the repeated Hindu-Muslim riots and the fact that there was no assurance of life and property. Every night armed groups attacked and torched homes in neighbouring villages. I couldn’t sleep most of the nights. The air was heavy with the cries of help and the wailing of women, which meant that another village was up in flames. I would put my fingers in the ear and bury my face in the pillow. The adults would stay up all night praying to Basudev.

The palanquin was a popular mode of transport in 19th century Bengal
We soon ran out of resources. My elder brothers and sisters had already left the village for Kolkata. Violence was now routine and our family income declined. None dared to venture out for work. Many Muslims, who were almost an extended part of our family, became radicals overnight. Those who believed in Sufism suddenly turned to religious hatred. With meagre income and declining resources, Baba started curtailing the customs and traditions. Some of them were stopped entirely. We could see the pain in his eyes on those special days of religious significance when customs were followed. Palash no more set our village on flames. It was the real fire now. Or maybe the colours merged with the flames of the burning villages. The cuckoo, which once signalled the arrival of spring, fell silent under the riot and chaos of death that was so commonplace now. I, Tapas and Sita used to cling to each other, and hold each other’s hands for support, while sleeping at night. Even the slightest sound on the roof above sacred us. We thought some enemy has come to take our lives.  

During the last part of my stay at Tungeshwar, the Dol Utsav was observed without colours. Only the Basudev idol was smeared with a little abeer, the palanquin was sparsely decorated, and the procession had only ten people. It was not taken around the village. Fears of violence had gripped our psyche. We dared not pursue our cultural traditions any more. We felt that we were in an alien land and prayed to Basudev to protect us. 

With the political situation worsening everyday, Baba began feeling increasingly insecure and sometime in 1950, decided to send us to Kolkata, a place about which we knew less and imagined more. All of us believed that Kolkata was safer and we could live sans any fear with our head held high. Arrangements were made and one day, Sita, Tapas, and I left Tungeshwar forever. Tapas, who was just in his teens, was the eldest among us, and led the way. Sita and I wore burqas and masqueraded as Muslims. Many Muslim villagers knew our real identity but shielded us from attackers. They told them that we were their sisters. Some of them even guided us to the border. 

Bullock carts, a short train ride, and finally walking towards the real partition—an invisible, indistinguishable line that largely remained in the minds of the political class and pimps of a united India. There was nothing that could distinguish between East Pakistan and Indian soil. We never realised the moment we crossed over to India. The villagers who had accompanied us had stopped on their tracks quite some time back. I halted and turned my head. The lush green paddy fields and the coconut grove beyond, was foreign land now. (Concluded)

For the first part: Memoirs of Tungeshwar

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The writer is a freelance contributor. Comments personal