The first Partition of India in 1947, which represented also the second partition of Bengal after the reversal of its first division in 1905, was marked by the epic outflow of Hindus from East Bengal to West Bengal.
The epilogue to that story was written in 1971, when it was the turn of Bengali Muslims from East Pakistan to join Bengali Hindus in seeking refuge in West Bengal. In 24 years, the reason for dispossession and displacement had changed from religion to language.
While the vast majority of refugees spent months in harrowing conditions, professional and other middle-class families were often hosted by middle-class families in West Bengal who could afford to do so. It was not unknown for the family of a Bengali Hindu, who himself had come from East Bengal in 1947, to share its basha with a Bengali Muslim family.
The Bengali Muslim knew that he would return home if Bangladesh won the war. His Hindu host kept dreaming of a bari relegated forever to the nostalgic lay of a lost land. Nevertheless, East Pakistan's departure from West Pakistan inaugurated a new relationship between the two Bengals.
I am blessed to have been a part of that new reckoning although, at 14, I was too young understand what was happening to me.
But there were intimations of Bengali immortality.
Baker-ul Haque came to live next door to our flat in Nasiruddin Road, Park Circus, Kolkata, in 1971. A year younger, he overtook me in historical time with vivid stories of how he and his family had escaped Bogra, trudging through forests as the Pakistani air force strafed fleeing civilians, people fell dead on the left and the right, his mother held on his elder sister's hand, he grasped his younger sibling firmly, his father led on, and all of them made their way -- to me.
I doubted specific details of his heroic journey, but not his visceral courage. I witnessed it when my pet dog chased him to the terrace. Baker climbed on to the parapet, and kept walking on it back and forth calmly. I held the dog back, and I implored Baker to climb down. He smiled at me insouciantly. It was only when he saw tears in my eyes that he relented. Once he was safely down, I wanted to give him a hearty kick, but settled for a hug instead. Epaar Bangla wins when Opaar Bangla is safe.
Baker and his family lived in the second-storey flat which the writer Syed Mujtaba Ali had occupied earlier briefly. Given his literary reputation, I was advised to stay away from him, but he was rather fond of me and I invaded his rooms whenever I found the door ajar.
The family which stayed with my own family was that of Lutfar Rahman, an Awami League Member of the National Assembly from Khulna. Chachaji smiled a lot but was fierce, chachiamma was benign to a fault, their elder son Ornob took after his mother and their younger son Tulu took after his father. Both brothers, who were much younger than I was, became mini-companions on laughing excursions to the terrace on which Baker had reduced me to tears.
The birth of Bangladesh (which happily and sadly saw Baker's and Lutfar Chacha's families returning to Bogra and Khulna) was my rebirth as a Bengali. It is only in the years to come that I would understand the reasons for the ontological security of Bangladesh: it is a sated or satisfied nation because its borders guarantee the two conditions of its existence -- that it be Bengali and Muslim in co-determinate measure -- with provision being made for the rights of non-Bengalis and non-Muslims.
Indeed, so successful has Bangladeshi nationalism been that its majority population finds it unnecessary to seek links with West Bengal to achieve cultural completion. That attitude is reciprocated in West Bengal, whose incorporation into the Indian political ethos makes Bangladesh its closest neighbour, but a neighbour nevertheless.
I am different. The ghoti, the native West Bengali, in me, whose linguistic identity is incomplete without intimate conversations with the bangals of East Bengal/East Pakistan/Bangladesh, looks across the border within Bengal constantly. To witness the truculent integrity of a divided land is to un-see its partitions eventually.
My family made a trip to Bangladesh to Lutfar Chacha's home in Khulna across the land crossing in Benapole. Of course I enjoyed the royal spreads at breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. But what filled my eyes was the sight of Ornob, Tulu and their little sister (who had arrived by then) strutting about their home as if it was theirs. It was theirs. Bangladesh belonged to Bengalis.
Bangladesh restored in me my extended sense of myself, my identity as a resident of Epaar Bangla who sought completion in the autonomy of Opaar Bangla.
Years later, I visited Baker in Bogra. At dinner, chachiamma sat down just the two of us together. Naturally, I got the larger piece of fish in a bowl. I cooked up an excuse for Baker to go and look for something. I exchanged the bowls. He returned to eat. When we started on the vegetables, he exchanged the bowls. That insouciant smile again. I hate him. He has outwitted me always in spite of being a year younger than me.
Later, I paid a visit to Narayangang to meet Asma Mami, an Urdu-speaking aunt on my mother's side. I saw and touched the pock-marked walls of her house. The army had fired on it, she said. In fact, a group of soldiers had come visiting one day. They became very polite when they discovered that she was a true Pakistani who could serve up the perfect shorbot in the midst of a civil war. They left after having warned her to beware of the treacherous Bengalis around her.
When they were safely gone, she opened the iron doors of the garage where she was sheltering several Bengali mothers and their children. "If only some child had cried out," she laughed. Asma Mami proves that Bangladesh belongs not only to Bengalis but to all those who make Bengal their land of choice. They might speak Urdu or Pashto or Lugha Ya Kiswahili. Even English. But Bangla is a must. This cannot but be.
My tragedy as a probashi is that Dupaar Bangla has become a land of vicarious tangibility. I can still touch Bangla, but only through the refracting lenses of an ageing mind. I am a vicarious Bengali.
I have lost touch with Baker, whose beautiful handwriting on a postcard, sent when he was a postgraduate student of Bangla at Dhaka University, made me fall in love with the soul-shaped script of our common linguistic destiny. I do not know where Ornob and Tulu are today. Where are Asma Mami's daughters, who served the Pakistani soldiers shorbot while women nearby prayed to the Creator to shield their modesty and, even more, the lives of their children from calamity?
Oh, how I wish that they would write to me to say that what they experienced and I heard are not footnotes falling out of the text of history.
Baker, Ornob, Tulu, my Urdu-speaking cousins, if you read this piece, please write.
I am still me.
Asad Latif is a Singapore-based journalist. He has a Masters from Cambridge, and was Fulbright Scholar at Harvard and Jefferson Fellow at the East West Centre in Honolulu. He may be contacted at email@example.com
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