Last updateSat, 22 Jul 2017 6am

You are here: Home | Agenda | Migration & displacement | Partitions of the mind

Partitions of the mind

By Priyanka Nandy, Garga Chatterjee and Somnath Mukherji

More than 60 years after Partition, and close on a century after East Bengalis first began to migrate to West Bengal, the gulf between the displaced Bangals and the local Ghoti Bengalis in Kolkata has not been bridged. Bracketed together within the collective ethnic identity of 'Bengali', the 'provincial' Bangals and the 'urbane' Ghotis retain fiercely the markers of their identity -- in terms of language, culture and cuisine. These are three narratives of the deep and cryptic traumas that accompany displacement

Rehabilitation in the mainstream

Time, they say, heals every wound. It seems to me, however, that often the way to 'heal' afflictions of socio-cultural difference in a multi-ethnic milieu dominated by one particular ethnic or cultural group, is to impose a code of behaviour that seeks to regulate the activities of all participating members of the milieu, and thereby establish a reassurance of sameness, at least in the functioning of the public sphere. The behavioural code is drawn heavily, if not exclusively, from the social practices and philosophical principles of the dominant group, although there are often cultural concessions -- usually at a later stage of this process of 'assimilation' -- to minority groups in the form of institutionally-approved celebrations of some specific markers of their culture(s) of origin.

These are not, however, the processes my great-grandparents went through when they settled in Calcutta towards the turn of the last century. Within British India they and their new neighbours/friends/colleagues were bracketed together within the collective ethnic identity of 'Bengali'. And yet, within this universal Bengali society, the difference was rather marked. Unlike a very large section of Calcutta's corporate workforce (as it was then), my great-grandparents were urban folk, having recently shifted base from Dhaka. However, at that point and especially some time after, when Hindu refugees from the newly-formed Islamic nation of Bangladesh poured into India, 'Bangal' (1) immediately invoked a constructed rural, or at least provincial, collective identity. This in turn represented a set of negative social qualities: cultural inferiority, quarrelsomeness, opportunism and a brash loudness, all of which threatened the contemporary social fabric of Calcutta. It was, in short, the standard citizen reaction to refugees and unwanted immigrants. And this attitude found best expression in the two most prominent points of ridicule that the Bangal community faced -- their language and their cuisine.

Remarkably often, food becomes a way of expressing ethnic -- and therefore socio-cultural -- uniqueness, as well as the channel of first and sustained communication between the culture of an ethnic minority and that of other such minorities within the same social system and the dominant ethnic group. Indeed, local varieties of pizza toppings and customised Chinese food are global symbols of a simplified process of assimilating the dominant culture, whilst keeping the memory of a unique identity rooted in a different culture of origin intact.

This was not the case with Bangal cooking. Instead of becoming a 'channel for communication', meals at Bangal homes -- sharper in flavour and with greater emphasis on spices than on sugar, as opposed to the normative 'Ghoti' cooking -- became an unconscious ritual of self-affirmation. Growing up as I did in a house full of people constantly and sometimes unconsciously negotiating this daily practicable aspect of cultural difference, I recall several instances of people sighing over the complete lack of taste Ghotis had in fish and of the bland sweetness of their platter. At the same time, we were trained not to comment on the difference in taste in meals we were served at the homes of Ghoti friends and neighbours, primarily because it was rude but also, I always thought, because two generations down, it still drew attention to us as cultural aberrations. This concession to public tact did not, however, stop the collective private disdain for Ghoti cooking -- and therefore for the Ghoti way of life -- from being passed onto successive generations that have no personal memory of life in the homelands, and who, in practice, prefer the blander platter of these more health-conscious times.

Looking at my personal history through the eyes of an amateur social anthropologist (as those of us trained in the liberal arts are often wont to), it is the Bangal attitude towards their linguistic tendencies that I find more difficult to categorise.

If Bangals were adamant about the superiority of their platter, they had an acute embarrassment about their dialects. One probable reason was that while eating was almost always a private activity, language and speech were anything but. To prevent discomfort and humiliation, as the Bangal saw it, most of the group developed two distinct linguistic identities. When in the public domain, the average first-generation Bangal spoke as best an adoption of the normative Calcutta-Bengali as he could manage. The private language, spoken within family homes and with 'people like us', was the dialect of their villages or districts, except that they had never thought of it as a dialect but as the language Bengali. And herein lies also, I think, the second reason for the gradual death of the various dialects of contemporary Bangladesh in Calcutta.

Bangalbhasha (the Bangal language), as the native inhabitants of Calcutta termed it, was not one unified language at all, but an umbrella term for several distinctive dialects from various parts of current Bangladesh. Bangals were well justified in considering their individual dialects as 'languages', because each dialect was almost completely incomprehensible to non-native speakers. And the displaced people who spoke them made no effort to creolise their separate tongues into a uniform Bangalbhasha -- to appropriate and internalise the label, as it were -- to better withstand the assimilating effects of the dominant Calcutta-Bengali. Several Bangal children of those times were therefore not just faced with the task of perfecting the 'official' Bengali of their peers and teachers and textbooks, but also with the task of negotiating between two dialects, almost as distinctive as two languages, at home. There was, at that time, not inconsiderable tension and a subtle battle for superiority between members of joint families who had grown up in separate districts and thus spoke differently. It is not that surprising, when one considers the depth of this linguistic dilemma, that a certain number of second-generation Bangals withstood the temptation to establish their unique identity and take refuge in an incomprehensible mother-dialect in the face of peer ridicule, choosing instead to adopt the more stable language of those very peers -- indeed, the language they had to speak whenever in public -- Calcutta-Bengali.

The first decade of the 21st century marks a century of my family's settling in Calcutta, and perhaps six decades of the Bangal phenomenon as we identify it today. Within these short years, the venom of the Ghoti-Bangal divide has all but melted away, the dialects dead, and apart from the occasional cooking of dried fish (called shutki) and the use of a few dialect words, the apparent Bangal-Ghoti divide is at an end. Yet those few initial decades of fierce self-distinction have left their mark on our social behaviour. The matrimonial column still lists the place of the family's origin in short (EB for Bangals and WB for Ghotis) to indicate that while inter-community marriages happen, there is still a hierarchy of preference, and non-conformity to it is greeted with tight smiles. This despite the fact that even in the oldest Bangal families, at least the last three generations have been born in Calcutta or around and have likely never set foot in Bangladesh. Vague apprehensions about 'their' ways of life and 'our' inability to adapt to 'their' sensibilities are hardest to dispel.

Yet oddly, the three personal histories I have read on the subject are curiously devoid of references to these experiences. Two of these books are family chronicles, written by two of my great-uncles from different branches of the family. Both gentlemen were academics, although neither of them were social scientists. They both wrote what can only be called a personal account of history, with great attention to the lives of individuals inconsequential to the shaping of history (which is to say, my family), but experiencing every stage of it. One of these touches briefly on academic life in Dhaka, because the author was a student and later a professor of some renown; the other is bereft of any references to life in Bangladesh. Now personally, I do not set very great store by genderlect, but disappointed by my family -- the same family that orally related several stories of cultural encounters -- I thought perhaps the book by the female author Nilima Bhattacharya might deal in some detail with those issues that had dominated my perception of my Bangal identity whilst growing up.

Bhattacharya was born in Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) and lived there till her late teens, after which she moved with her husband to Gujarat, and finally settled a few years later in post-Partition Calcutta. Her book, Smritir Otol Theke (From the Depths of Memory) is a delightful, if occasionally uneven, personal narrative meant to chronicle the history of her branch of the family. She tells anecdotes, speaks of the personal ramifications of political catastrophes and events, provides enticingly intimate details about her relatives, and never once loses her own voice throughout the course of the narrative. But on the functional aspects of being a cultural alien in what was the land of her own ethnicity, Bengali, she too is silent.

In an interview I conducted with her, I asked her why she does not speak of experiences she must have had. I was, I told her, a fourth-generation Bangal, unable to eat more than two chillies with a meal or speak more than a few words in my mother dialect, but an inherited sense of difference still contributed towards my sense of identity. As a first-generation settler, did she not think issues of everyday difference merited a place in her narrative? The language problem, she must have faced that? "Yes... and no," she said, after thinking awhile. The Bengali of the textbooks that she read in her native Chittagong, she said, prepared her for the 'other' Bengali. Besides, she arrived in Calcutta after spending several years in Gujarat with her husband. Her worry was not so much that her children would speak a 'different' Bengali, but that they would not speak Bengali at all, having spent their formative years in Gujarat. Also, she gently reminded me, some things are more important than personal struggles with new words for old.

And thus I was reminded once again of the obligations a writer feels when he or she has the privilege of chronicling history. Traditionalist historians, especially amateur ones, feel no compulsion to play social anthropologists. Social constituents have therefore not found a place in conventional historical narratives. If paragraphs in textbooks are taken at their word, the enormous exodus of people to and from Bangladesh after the partition of Bengal in 1947 caused riots, deaths, rapes, murders, lootings, fires and a fractured nation. It takes into no account the cultural ramifications of the event that are still palpable 60 years later. Indeed, the first students of these textbooks were quite possibly living through the immediate cultural and social consequences of the events they read about, and yet, several years down the line, several years of practising differences, the need to chronicle these practices, to sit down and compare notes, is inexplicably absent. An attempt at contributing collective secondary memories of the process is therefore, perhaps, the only reparation we can offer ourselves. Even if we don't seem to want it.


Journeying back home

Having taken an active interest, and in some cases active participation, in anti-displacement agitations of various sorts and hues, what does ring hollow to my privileged existence is the real trauma of the experience. I know the statistics, the caste break-up of the internally displaced, the pain of being transformed from sharecropper to urban shack-dweller -- raw stories of loss and displacement. The 'on-the-face'-ness of the accounts, unfortunately, has a numbing effect. With a populace numbed to the explicit, its sensitivity to things hidden is nearly non-existent. In spite of my association with the causes of displacement, in my heart of hearts I empathise but don't relate. Nobody I have grown up with seemed to have any psychological scar or trauma about it -- at least none that they carried around with them, although I grew up with victims of one of the biggest mass displacements of all times -- I am talking about the partition of Bengal in 1947.

When I grew up in Calcutta in the '80s, visits to my maternal grandparents' place were a weekly feature. They were Bangals to my father's extended family -- we lived in a 30-something-strong joint family, firmly rooted in West Bengal, very Ghoti. Bangals are East Bengalis, a less urbane people with a culture less sophisticated in the minds of the Ghotis. In later years, especially post-1947, the term also came to mean refugees and hence evoked certain discomfiture, if not outright animosity, about the presence of Bangals in West Bengali minds. With time, ties -- political, amorous and otherwise -- were built between certain sections of the two communities. I am a child of mixed heritage, with a Ghoti father and a Bangal mother. Much of what I have said, except the last statement, is generalisations, but they are useful in terms of broadly demarcating the space within which the narrative is set.

The people of my mother's extended family had their displacement stories, not really of trauma but a sense of material loss -- the money they couldn't bring with them, their land that had been expropriated ever since, the struggle of some families they knew, etc. Calcutta subsumed much of their selves now that they were here and most of them had been here in Calcutta for most of their lives. The character of importance here is my maternal grandmother, my dida. She was married off to my maternal grandfather, my dadu, who I hear was visibly unhappy about the marriage at that time, if not the match itself -- both were teenagers. When she came to Calcutta along with her husband, she was still quite young. My mother was born in Calcutta.

They lived in a rented place near Deshpriya Park. There was a certain air of dampness about the place -- it was connected to the metalled road by a longish and narrow path, not revolting but full of a strange smell of dampness. The path, gritty and dimly lit, was almost metaphorical of my dida's connection to her new world -- connecting to the mainstream required a certain effort. Inside that house was strange and intriguing to me. The lingo was different -- they spoke Bangal (a Bengali dialect) with a Barishal twang (Barishal is one of the larger districts of East Bengal). Dida referred to chokh (eye) as chokkhu and amader (our) as amago. I used to pick these up and relate it to my Ghoti joint family. Now I don't think it is hard to imagine that many Bangals didn't like the fact that other people found simple pronouncements in their dialect amusing and even comical. (Some comedians have used this aspect in Bengali comedy. I am reminded of black clowns with artificial and heightened mannerisms who regaled White audiences.)

Dida cooked well and was known for it. What did she want to be known for? My mother related to me how her father was a great lover of letters and the sciences. This was somewhat true -- sometimes I abhorred going to him because he would not only tell me to do a math problem but also ask me why I did it that way. He tried to get all his children formally educated -- a Bangal signature of the time with imprints still continuing. His attitude towards dida was markedly different -- I remember numerous instances of "O tumi bozba na" (You wouldn't understand that).

On her 50th marriage anniversary, her children got together for a celebration. The couple garlanded each other. She looked happy with herself and her world. "Togo sara amar ar ki aase" (What else do I have but you people) was her pronouncement. Something happened a few years later that made me question the exhaustive nature of her statement.

Things happened in quick succession after that. The brothers and sisters split. The turn of events resulted in dida staying with us. Our joint family had ceased to exist too. By now, I was a medical student. Dida's diabetes was getting worse. So I spent time with her. I remember her trying to speak (and failing miserably) our non-Bangal Bengali dialect, to my paternal grandmother. She did try to mingle, for circumstances demanded that she did. At the time, I thought that she was extraordinarily fortunate. With my new-found sensitivity towards 'identities', I thought she must have been very happy to speak Bangal until now. She did her marketing at a bazaar full of grocers who were themselves refugees from East Bengal. Her husband's extended family was essentially her social circle and they all chattered away in Bangal. They ate their fish their way, and did their own thing. In spite of being displaced from East Bengal, she had retained her identity, her 'self'. Or so I thought.

She suffered a cerebral stroke sometime later. A stroke is both tragic and fascinating. It cripples and unmasks. Social beings that we are, who care about what words to speak to whom, what state of dress or undress to be in where and when, etc -- this complex monument of pretence can come crashing down in a stroke. She had been for a day in what would medically be termed a 'delirium', characterised by, among other things, speech that may be incoherent to the rest of us. She couldn't move much and spoke what to us was nearly gibberish -- names we didn't know, places we hadn't heard of. To ascertain the stage of cerebral damage, one asks questions like "Who are you?" "Where are we?" "What is the date?" I was alone with her when I first asked these questions. "Who are you?" "Ami Shonkor Guptor bareer meye." (I am a girl from Shonkor Gupto's family). I repeated my question, and she gave the same answer. She couldn't tell me her name. Shonkor Gupto wasn't her father but an ancestor who had built their house in Goila village in Barisal, East Bengal. She recovered from the stroke and remembered nothing of the incident. When I asked her later, she replied "Jyotsna Sen" or "Tore mare ziga" (Ask your mother). "Who are you?" and "What's your name?" had become one and the same, again. She died sometime later. Another stroke felled her.

Displacement brings trauma with it. And the trauma can be cryptic. It can be hidden. It can be pushed down, sunk deep with the wish that it doesn't surface. But displacement from home is a strange phenomenon, resurfacing in odd ways. And often an involuntary journey away from home is a journey away from one's self too. The journey of displacement is hardly linear. It is more like a long arc. In most cases, the arc doesn't turn back to where it started from. The journey looks unhindered by identities left behind. But we can sometimes peer deeper. Nobody called my dida by the name Jyotsna Sen -- she merely signed papers by the name. She had a name by which people called her before her marriage -- Monu. This name had become hazy after her marriage and journey to her husband's house, and then essentially lost after she migrated to Calcutta. She had been doubly removed from the people, the household, the organic milieu that knew Monu. She had three children, four grandchildren, a husband, a new city. Where was she? And when all this was shorn away, what remained was a teenage girl from an East Bengal village -- a place she hadn't been in 60 years, maybe the only place where she would have been much of herself. Monu of Shonkor Gupto's house.

At this point, I wonder whether she silently bled all through. Would she have bled similarly if she had had choices about her own life or, at a bare minimum, if she had actively participated in the decisions that changed her life's trajectory? The speculative nature of the inferences I draw from her 'unmasking' story is not a hindrance to imagining what could have been. A little looking around might reveal such stories of long-drawn suppressions -- suppressions we consider facts of life and take for granted. Who knows what she would have wanted at the age of 15 or at 22? Where was her voice, her own thing in the whole Calcutta saga that followed? The picture-perfect 50th anniversary clearly didn't capture all that she was. Her husband believed she had her due -- what more does one need, he thought, for her. My mother thought, with the well-intentioned husband that her father was, dida must be happy. The identity- politics-fired lefty in me had thought she hadn't been displaced enough, given her Bangal milieu! But a part of her lived repressed. In the microcosms we inhabit, there are stories of displacement, failed rehabilitations and life choices denied. It is my suspicion that on learning about the Narmada valley displaced, a part of my dida's self would have differed vehemently with Supreme Court judges Kirpal and Anand (2) -- stances which often elude the nuanced mind of the intellectual.


The refuge of a refugee

I have always wondered how a tribal woman, with part of the sari drawn over her head and a child balanced on her tilted pelvic girdle, faces an armed police battalion. This image has been etched deeply in my mind from the struggles of Narmada, Jadugoda, Kalinganagar and other places. While on the one hand, the image tells the story of the power wielded by the State and corporations, on the other it conveys the individual and collective suffering that fuels the courage to put the last bit of security on the line -- one's physical self.

Cyril Radcliffe's line ran over the hearts and the secured existence of my maternal family as it did for the millions others who were living in undivided Bengal. My maternal grandparents with their seven children and a large joint family found themselves alienated in their own desh (country is a close translation but refers to political divisions in the system of nation-states, while the connotation of desh is also a socio-cultural demarcation, besides the political) during the partition of Bengal. A landowning prosperous family's survival was threatened by the fault lines in society which Radcliffe's cartographic demarcation was allegedly trying to mimic on the ground.

Although my grandfather stayed back till the outbreak of the first Indo-Pak war in 1965 to continue his law practice, all his children came to Calcutta in 1950. My mama (maternal uncle) was 15 years old -- old enough to feel the indignation of becoming a foreigner in one's own home and young enough to be crushed by the certitude that the road to the annual Durga puja in their ancestral home in Murapara was being closed forever.

Holding on to existential truths we will never know, millions of refugee families survived the most adverse conditions. Bangal (referring both to the people and the dialect of East Bengal) is still the dialect used in my Mamabari, and my mashis (maternal aunts) have not stopped using the term 'amago desh' (our country) to refer to their native land. Gradually, the responsibility of running the joint family fell to my mama who was also heavily influenced by the leftist movement sweeping across Bengal. Through all his familial and political struggles there was always one place that he would return to in a carefree child-like simplicity -- the evergreen village of Murapara. It was, in some sense, the refuge he would seek in the seclusion of his mind.

Fifty years after the family left East Bengal, one of my mother's cousins went back to Murapara with a video camera. For the first time I got to see the green fields of Murapara, people who had grown old but very distinctly remembered my mother's family, especially my grandfather and my uncle. The video showed the dilapidated house that was home to generations of the prosperous Banerjee family. My mashis wept like children when they saw the video, as if the pain that had been buried deep down for 50 long years had found a meaningful outlet. But my uncle, though hardened by struggles of life and politics, knew well that the grief of watching Murapara on the screen would overwhelm him and perhaps take away the refuge that he had so carefully carried with him for 50 years; the refuge that gave him solace and strength to negotiate the difficulties of a hard life in Calcutta. Fifty years of time and an arbitrarily-drawn political boundary had not severed his psychological ties with Murapara. He does not live in the past but the past lives on in his heart along with the present.

My paternal grandfather, whom we refer to as bhaiya, was working in the railways in Burma since the 1920s. Bhaiya was born in Burma and, except for a brief few years, had always lived in Burma. It was there that five of his 11 children were born. My grandparents with their five children had packed their suitcases for a two-month Durga puja holiday to be spent with the children's grandmother in Jamshedpur, in the autumn of 1941. Little did they know that the puja would alter their lives forever.

Japan invaded Burma in December 1941, which was soon followed by air raids on Rangoon. The distance from home must have seemed bitter-sweet to the family. The same distance that insulated them against the military aggression prevented them from taking a last look to mourn the loss of their home. My grandmother had left a box of good saris and jewellery and a Singer sewing machine with a Gujarati salt merchant in Rangoon for safekeeping. Eight years later, both the trunk and the sewing machine found their way back to my grandmother in India, as if to restore some faith in humanity in the hearts of the displaced family and to edify the last feeling of comfort they had experienced in Burma.

My jethu (father's elder brother) was 11 years old when the puja holiday was instantly turned into an alienation trip from the land where he felt the security of home. Through the 65 years since then, having struggled through life raising his younger siblings, he too had fenced off his refuge, surrounded by teak trees, somewhere in the suburbs of Rangoon. Perhaps he would seek refuge in this abode through the tumultuous decades of the '50s and '60s; through the hardships and uncertainties in a displaced family's search for livelihood and security; through the perceptions of insecurities that had never ceased since the puja of 1941. If you talk to him today he still has vivid memories of Burma, and somewhere in the suburbs of Rangoon is still the safest home. It is as if he can return to Burma and his present would play out all over again, only with an added sense of security.

Last December, a musical group represented by people from both East and West Bengal, marked the independence of Bangladesh. They traced the history of Bengal running through the arrival of the British, the battle of Plassey, all the way through Partition and finally, Bangladesh's independence in 1971. Accompanied by a few images, the choir touched some unknown strings in my heart. I felt my eyes welling up and a pain emanating from deep within. Why was I feeling this anguish for a land I had never visited and which, in my consciousness, signified a different country? Whether it was outrage at the injustice of Partition that morphed into pain, or a non-intellectualisable primordial need to belong to a place circumscribed by language, culture and community I will never know. In my feeble attempts to analyse my reaction, I did not rule out the possibility that the angst of displacement could be genetically coded!

I had once befriended a few children who lived on the streets of Delhi. Sita was about 10 years old and her family had come from Rajasthan many years ago in search of a livelihood. The term 'home' (ghar) came up in Sita's narration as much as it would from a child belonging to an urban middle class family. My mind could never grasp how the open space beneath a flyover could be described as home -- surely Sita understood that she was homeless, I thought. It was only after a few days of interaction with them that I realised that it was my mind that had narrowly defined a home as four walls and a roof at the least, precluding Sita's space from being described as a home. And yet I realised, Sita would lose the little sense of security that she had come to associate with the open space beneath the flyover if she were to be evicted from there.

Home symbolises a physical and psychological shelter for the present and the future. The primordial nature of this need can be understood from the 'nesting instinct' that an expecting mother experiences before the onset of labour. She feels an urge to get the home in order and make it fit to receive the newborn. Neither evolution nor modernisation has been able to mask this innate need in human beings. The loss of someone's psychological shelter resulting from displacement is difficult to assess, let alone compensate.

The loss of home and hearth entails an abrupt change in the perception of being secure. It is this abrupt loss in the sense of security that forever preserves the homestead of a displaced person deep within his heart and mind, untouched by the daily sufferings and drudgery, indeed time itself. It is the most cherished refuge of the refugee.

Priyanka Nandy is a graduate student at Jadavpur University, India, and observes contemporary multicultural societies. Garga Chatterjee is a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard University, USA. Somnath Mukherji is an activist with the Association for India's Development (AID)


  1. Within Bengali society, 'Bangal' denotes the Bangladeshi diaspora and refugee groups settled in West Bengal, chiefly in Calcutta. The retaliatory term of the Bangals for natives in the Indian state of West Bengal is 'Ghoti'
  2. Justice Kirpal and Anand, in their majority decision, disposed off the Narmada Bachao Andolan's public interest litigation and allowed resumption of construction on the Sardar Sarovar dam and an increase in its height to EL 90 m, resulting in the further displacement of families, in addition to the thousands already affected

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008