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The Children of Partition: Recollections of Refugees
from East Pakistan (1947-1970)

Sumallya Mukhopadhyay

In this essay, Sumallya discusses the memories and experiences of young refugees from East Pakistan at the camps and colonies set up in West Bengal after the 1947 Partition. The three interviews discussed by the author offer valuable insights into childhood, the loss of family and community, desperate circumstances of migration, and the nature of memory in recollecting experiences.

I was around three or four years old. My mother asked me to hold her hand, and with my younger brother on her lap, we ran across the borders to West Bengal [1].

When I asked Reena Biswas to describe the migratory route of her family, she chose to frame her narrative in this manner. Interestingly, she hastened to mention her age. It seemed that she was a bit confused regarding the year they left Satkhira, East Pakistan [2] to migrate to Hooghly, West Bengal. She smilingly said, “It has been so long!” She rummaged through her memory and settled on 1970: “We migrated before the (Bangladesh Liberation) war; it must be around 1970, I think.” However, her father could not leave East Pakistan with them. They were fishermen by caste, and one day, as her father was out on fishing, he was bitten by a snake which forced him to be completely bedridden. In order to provide food and succour to the children, Reena’s mother accepted her aunt’s offer to come and live with their family at the fishermen’s colony behind the historic Bandel Church in Hooghly.

Unsurprisingly, Reena hardly remembered anything related to her life in East Pakistan. So, she channelised her narrative to deliberate at length about what she had witnessed after settling in West Bengal. While working as an ‘ayah' [3] in houses bordering their locality, her mother also received vocational training at the Bansberia Permanent Liability Camp. During that period, Reena’s younger brother fell sick. She recalled that since the adult members of the house were mostly engaged in working outside, no one was there to look after him. He passed away within two years of their arrival in West Bengal. After losing her son, Reena’s mother asked her to accompany her in the every day work. She narrated how her mother started early in the morning and performed the duties of an ayah; after lunch, both of them would go to the camp. In the camp, her mother would sew blankets which were sold in the market by the camp authorities. Reena vividly recollected the afternoons spent in the camp, watching aged women, clad in white, silently working on the sewing machines.

I liked going to the camp. The collective sound of the machines wafted in the air. It was pretty secluded, with huge trees adorning the area. The women barely spoke to me, and I spent my time observing them. Later, my mother would tell me their stories – how the women lost their husbands and had no one to take care of them. I realised that the camp was all they had to fall back on.​

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Photo of Reena Biswas (Source: Sumallya Mukhopadhyay)

Reena’s memories make a departure from the conventional stories that individuals remember from their childhood. As a refugee child, her stories are exceptional, in a sense that they are rooted in the harsh reality surrounding her life. Her narration offers a rare glimpse into the lives of women who were categorised as permanent liabilities by the Indian State. It must also be borne in mind that the protracted nature of the Partition in the Bengal borderlands led to the construction of multiple camps in West Bengal. The camps accommodated the different types of East Pakistani refugees who kept migrating to West Bengal for almost two decades after 1947 [4]. The Permanent Liability Camps were designed to shelter abandoned women and their children. Reena did not remember meeting children in the camp. But, as a child, the images of women, who covered their heads, rarely uttered a word, and worked tirelessly, had remained etched in her mind. For the most part, her childhood was spent following her mother, and patiently learning skills that would come in handy later in her life.

In her seminal work, The Other Side of Silence, Urvashi Butalia argues that the history of the Partition has very little to say about children. After all, the subject of childhood is a difficult topic to deal with. In most cases, childhood memories are filtered through the prism of the adult experience. She opines that the framework of oral history provides a unique opportunity to record the narratives of the children [5], but it has its ethical complications as well. For instance, the interviewee/narrator occupies diverse narrative positions; there exists an epistemological dilemma regarding the fact that the adult ‘I’ is speaking on behalf of the child 'I' [6]. One of the methods to negotiate with such sensitive issues concerning childhood is to acknowledge that the narrators are adult survivors of childhood trauma. Rather than authenticating the validity of the ‘facts’, it is essential to make sense of the individuated struggles of the narrators. In reference to childhood experience and oral history, Deidre Michell rightly observes that “what is crucial when it comes to listening to adults about their childhood experiences is to suspend all knowledge and understanding of the wider context and focus on the individual level; on what was going on for the child” (emphasis mine) [7].

On hearing that I am interested in interviewing individuals who migrated from East Pakistan, Himadri Sekhar Sarkar invited me to his residence in Kolkata.  During the interview, he shared his experience of settling down at a squatter colony in South Kolkata [8]. He was just three years old when his family migrated from Comilla, East Pakistan to West Bengal in 1949. His family stayed at the Sealdah Railway Station for about a month or so. Despite being a child, he remembered seeing refugees fight among themselves to secure some ration and medicines for their families. Scarcity of space forced the refugees to sleep on their trunks. He said, “Do we not see homeless beggars sleeping on pavements or under bridges? You can say that ours was almost a similar condition. We were left stranded at the railway platform.”

One wonders if Himadri actually remembers the exact details as faithfully as it had happened. Or are these reconstructed from the accounts of others around him? After all, the nature of memory is such that it is transient and malleable, and it undergoes a process of constant making and re-making, susceptible to forgetting and alteration [9]. However, it soon becomes clear that not only does Himadri remember specific incidents, but also accurately points out the year when they took place.

In 1950, Himadri Sekhar Sarkar’s family could manage a place at the Vidyasagar Colony near Baghajatin [10]. On being asked about his days spent in the refugee settlement, he talked about the colony.

Ours was not the only colony in the area. Within touching distance, there were other colonies too – Gandhi Colony, Netaji Nagar, Bijoygarh, Azadgarh, so on and so forth. But unlike the neighbouring refugee habitats, our colony had no high school for the refugee students. We had a primary school where I started my education. It was a makeshift school built in a cowshed. The roads were narrow; the area was very congested, and the houses lacked privacy.

In the initial segments of the interview, Himadri’s was a somewhat generalised and distant re-telling of various episodes surrounding the Partition. The recollection of his life in the colony prompted him to talk about his mother and sisters. They had just two rooms in which around nine members of the family had to put up. Since they had no washroom, his mother had to take bath in public and change in the room almost before everyone: “I cannot tell you how unbearable and humiliating it was for her.” Soon he confides in me that one of his sisters died without any treatment in 1954. “It was my first encounter with death,” he said, “and I felt so helpless!” As he tried to fight back his tears, Himadri admitted that remembering those moments still made him sad and despondent: “I try not to think about them, yet the memories are still alive.”

The children of the Partition, who crossed the borders, might have failed to grasp the gravity of the unfolding situation. It does not, however, mean that they remained untouched by the sudden demise of a family member. The abrupt, chaotic break-up of the family and community had an enduring impact on their minds.

In another interview, Uma Majumdar said, “You might say I was perhaps too small to realise the changes. Even now, I cannot comprehend how things changed so fast, so drastically!" [11]. She was talking about going back to East Pakistan in 1950 and 1952 to take her examinations. After her marriage, her father insisted that Uma must finish her schooling and pursue higher studies. She said, “The ‘curse’ of the Partition fell on me, and I had to get married at an early age.”

Let me tell you one thing which never got recorded anywhere. Most people know about the riots. They still talk about them. But, due to the riots, unmarried women were terribly unsafe. In Brahmanbaria [East Pakistan], around a hundred young girls were married in one single day. The husbands needed to have just one qualification – they had to be from India.

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Photo of Uma Majumdar (Source: 1947 Partition Archive)

Uma Majumdar was deeply saddened to think of the marriages, especially because they had taken place under such extraordinary circumstances. Around the same time, she was also married to a man who hailed from India [12]. The engagement was just an excuse to help her migrate, leaving her parents behind in East Pakistan. When she came back to Brahmanbaria after three years, she remembered that people eyed her with suspicion. Ironically, her friends also treated her differently, for she had come from India. To highlight the contrasting situation before and after the Partition, Uma Majumdar dwelled on some of the festivals she had seen at her ancestral home. In East Pakistan, her home was beside the river Titas. Every year, on the day of Manasa Puja, various kinds of boat competitions took place near her home.

 

The river was precious to our village because it was a source of income to many. I do not remember the exact day, but every year we offered puja to the river. On Manasa Puja, multiple sailors would come with their customised boats and compete in races. Our home was just beside the river. So, our friends and relatives would come to visit us and watch those annual boat races.​

After migrating with her husband, Uma did not get another chance to witness the boat competition. Of so many things she had lost, the memory of the familial gathering persisted long with her.

Peter N. Stearns remarks that childhood can vary from one society or one time period to the next [13]. One understands that the experiences of those who were trapped on the wrong side of history during the Partition, are punctuated with a sense of displacement and dispossession, of loss and longing. Through the agentive act of giving voice to their life stories, these individuals are finally getting a chance to recover their lost childhood. The process helps them reconcile with the past and evolve with a renewed sense of themselves as important actors in the historical play that plagued South Asia in 1947. Most importantly, it underscores how aptly oral history narratives can capture the myriad phases of the refugees’ lives, giving due weight to their stories as forms of documentation through which history can be better perceived, studied and evaluated.

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Notes

  1. Reena Biswas interviewed by the author on 28 June 2018

  2. I use the term ‘East Pakistan’ to refer to the geographical area that is at present Bangladesh

  3. The general perception is that an ayah is a woman who is employed to look after a child in its own home. Reena’s mother mostly worked as an ayah, but also served as a maid in some other houses. Since she specifically uses the word ‘ayah’ during the interview, I have stuck to it.

  4. Ghoshal, A. (2021). Refugees, Borders and Identities: Rights and Habitat in East and Northeast India (1st ed.). Routledge, p. 81-117.

  5. Butalia, U. (1998). The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. Penguin Books, p. 249.

  6. Musgrove, N., Leahy, C. P., & Moruzi, K. (2019). Hearing Children’s Voices: Conceptual and Methodological Challenges. In Children’s Voices from the Past: New Historical and Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Palgrave Macmillan p. 19.

  7. Michell, D. (2019). Oral Histories and Enlightened Witnessing. In Children’s Voices from the Past: New Historical and Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Palgrave Macmillan p. 216.

  8. Himadri Sekhar Sarkar interviewed by the author on 15 August 2020

  9. Rigney, A. (2012). Reconciliation and Remembering: (How) does it work? Memory Studies, 5(3), p. 254

  10. Vidyasagar Colony was one of the many squatter colonies that mushroomed in South Kolkata following the 1947 Partition. For a detailed analysis of squatter colonies formed by refugees, see Sen, U. (2018). Unruly Citizens: Memory, Identity and the Anatomy of Squatting in Calcutta. In Citizen Refugee: Forging the Indian Nation After Partition, Cambridge University Press p. 161-200.

  11. Interview with Uma Majumdar, conducted by Raikamal Roy on 4 February 2015, The 1947 Partition Archive. Tata Trust. Web. Accessed on 4 June 2021 [https://in.1947partitionarchive.org/story/1424]

  12. Scholars like Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon, Kamala Bhasin, Jasodhara Bagchi, Paulomi Chakravarty, Devika Chawla, Anam Zakaria and Aanchal Malhotra have convincingly demonstrated how the women were the worst sufferers of the Partition. In reference to the narratives of Reena Biswas and Uma Majumdar, one can argue that the gendered nature of the Partition persists even with respect to children as well.

  13. Stearns, P. N. (2017). Introduction. In Childhood in World History (3rd ed.), Routledge p. 3.

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Sumallya Mukhopadhyay is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, New Delhi. His area of interest includes, among other things, the politics of dispossession in narratives related to the 1947 Partition of Bengal. He has been awarded the International Oral History Association Scholarship (2020) and TATA Trusts – Partition Archive Research Grant (2021). His latest publications are forthcoming from Narrative Culture (Wayne State University Press, March 2022) and Routledge Series on Migration (Routledge, 2022). He can be reached at mukhopadhyay.sumallya@gmail.com.