It was during my post-graduate days at Calcutta University that I was made aware of the existence of Bengalis of another kind—the Ghotis (original inhabitants of West Bengal, somewhat similar in sound and sense to Ghatis of Maharashtra, and staying in north Kolkata in large numbers where I went to study).
I found out that I am a Baangal (my ancestors belonged to what was first the eastern part of unified Bengal, then East Pakistan and now Bangladesh, and had left home and hearth during Partition). In hindsight, it is somewhat strange that I got to know the difference so late in life, especially when people tend to become aware of such things rather early on. This had something to do with the fact that no one at home discussed the part of our family history that was spent in what is now another land. The memories were perhaps too harsh to recount as they made peace in a new country.
Like my parents, Sunanda Sikdar, too, was born on the other side and spent the first ten years of her life there. She came to live permanently in India in 1961. Unlike my parents, when she finally broke her silence on times spent and life lived in East Pakistan in the 1950s, she did it with such cadence and candour that it touched hearts of not only those who have lived through and survived that turbulent period in history but also those who have undergone, to quote Milan Kundera, ‘the struggle of memory against forgetting’.
A Life Long Ago (translated from Dayamoyeer Katha, awarded the Lila Puraskar by Calcutta University in 2008 and the Ananda Puraskar in 2010) is Sikdar’s story. It is also the story of her village Dighpait, and those who inhabited it and turned her girlhood days into compelling narrative. There’s her widowed aunt who brings her up singlehandedly as her parents were both teachers in West Bengal, the family retainer Majam, whom she called Dada or older brother, Muslims and Hindus, the higher castes and the low-born— a whole host of characters who bring to life rural Bengal of that time.
Bhuli pishima is one of the most fascinating characters in the book. ‘She had had a huge influence in my life widowed at ten, this young girl learned to read and write in very difficult conditions. She hardly had any opportunity to read. However, I don’t think she needed very many books for either wisdom or knowledge. She revelled in her life.... She would see the mountains, touch the sea and marvel that she was able to do all this in her life.’ Imagine, a widow in Bengal in the ‘50s, bound by stringent rules, but with a gypsy heart!
Dighpait was where life was for Dayamoyee, till her aunt prepared her to move out. On her way to Hindustan, Dayamoyee resolves she will never talk about the home that she left behind. She suppresses her memories of the first ten years of her life till Majam’s death in the early ’90s forces her to break her resolve. This book is the result.
But A Life Long Ago is much more than an account of a girl’s growing up years and the tears she shed thereafter. It raises fundamental questions about class, caste, religion and equality. The Hindus, mostly land owners, were tied down by caste and gender rules. The upper castes feared being polluted by the those belonging to the lower strata and both regarded the Muslim as the absolute Other.
‘Netai da and Gour da were our neighbours. They lived next door. Their mother was very fond of both my mother and me. Netai da organised a visit to the Kali temple at Khaguria. We travelled in a group but in separate boats, one for them and one for us....We could not eat any food that they had cooked because they were of a low caste.’
Yet, in times of great distress these barriers fell apart. Foes turned friends and help came from unexpected quarters. As Partition stubbed out lives and livelihoods, Dayamoyee lived to tell the tale. Listen in.