The wrinkles that used to appear next to the corners of his eyes when he smiled had turned into wrinkles of worry and anxiety. Age and the events of yesteryears had caught up with Debendranath Roy Chowdhury. He had become a chain smoker despite his wife’s daily pleads to start thinking about his health. The crooked old man was sitting and sipping tea on his front porch in Dhakuria, with a cigarette in his right hand, and a copy of the Statesman newspaper on his lap. The family had not been back to their estates in Vikrampur since that fatal night thirty years ago when they fled from the village manor to the town house in Calcutta.
As he was reading the news about the atrocities in East Pakistan, his eyes filled with tears. Hundreds of thousands of people had so far fallen victim of the genocide. India supported the Bengali nationalists, and many East Pakistanis were trying to cross the border in order to live better lives in Calcutta.
He remembered his own final journey across the border thirty years ago. That moment when his servants had banged on his front door in the middle of the night to warn his family about the squad that was chasing and killing Hindus of the village. His family might be the next victims if they did not leave. What a relief it was when they first could see land from the steamer on the Padma river. It was not Debendranath’s first time on the other side of the river. He had spent many years in Calcutta studying and working when he was younger. Despite this he had mingled feelings towards the city, mainly because it was becoming increasingly judgemental towards East Bengalis.
‘Oh Debu, I cannot stand to see you like this.’ His wife Shilpa touched his shoulder with her hand. Since he had retired fewer and fewer words had been exchanged between the two of them and he was often found sitting on the porch reminiscing in his solitude. The five children the couple had brought up, had until recently been living at home, but for the past years both their sons had been abroad. Several of their friends had fallen victims of the Naxalite movement, and their parents expected them to return less and less for each day that passed. ‘Don’t you understand? Don’t you know, no one will ever ask how many friends we lost or what property we left behind. No one will ask how many temples I locked before getting on the carriage that fatal night or how many paintings we left hanging on the walls. The day we moved to Calcutta we became one with the farmers of our village. We share a common life event, the Partition, and what was before that has little significance. Oh, I wish you could allow yourself to forget.’
He wrote in his diary that afternoon. ‘I came back to you thirty years ago. I never realized it would be my final journey. You, city of parties, laughter, slackness and drunkards sitting on park benches in broad daylight. You, city of segregation, poverty and reconstruction. You who made me suffer and cry evening after evening until I became stupid because you judged on the surface and had not done your home work properly. I know it is not the fault of your present, but at times I cannot help but thinking how many people you have killed in the past for the same reasons of what East Pakistan is now witnessing, communalism. You deprived me of dreams. You kept me away from dreaming for several years. I have walked through your streets for the ten thousandth time now. You city of conceit and solitude. I cannot see your open-mindedness or your beauty any more. All I here are voices in my head telling that I am from the wrong side of the border, and that I have sucked out your money and order. Voices that remind me of every little atrocity I have encountered in life. I have given up, become a chain-smoking, anhodenic, diabetic and stopped caring about the people around me. You swallowed me into you black hole. Most of all, I became mechanical. They started calling me a machine…they put me in the class of those militant men that only wanted to gain power. During the years, I have been here now, I have not made a new acquaintance, I have seldom smiled and I almost never laughed. ‘
After coming to Calcutta he had felt alienated. It was a city which had changed a lot since his student years in the 1920ies. All of a sudden it was the base of thousands of men from the Allies. Soldiers could be seen everywhere. In 1943 when Kidderpore docks were bombed, his family were in his wife’s sister’s home in Tollygunge. They felt the shaking from under the bed, where they were seeking shelter. The size of the city had increased by millions of people since the second Partition of Bengal, and south Calcutta had become gentrified to large parts. People were not very respectful towards East Bengalis, let alone compassionate about all they had gone through. It was hard to find a job as a solicitor despite his frequent visits to the bar library in hope of finding new clients. The last ten years of his active professional life, he had had few clients. In order to be able to support his family he had to tutor higher secondary students and young Law students, but for a good few years now he had been retired.
His own family, for the sake of their own sanity, had given up all hope to find back their property in East Bengal the very day India left the British crown in 1950 and zamindars left their property and taxation rights. Neither had they set foot across the border since 1941. Times had changed also in Calcutta. Many foreign companies had moved out and the streets were full of beggars and hawkers. After short walks through the streets, one would find all portions of exposed skin covered with a thin layer of dust from the streets and the smoke and exhaust. Debendranath’s only joy in life had become the morning walk to the ration shop where he fetched the daily yoghurt and milk bread, and the evening walk to the nearby Lake Market and his daily visits to the Ramakrishna Mission library. Apart from that, he would just sit at home and count the hours between the meals.
In the evening Debendranath decided to make a trip to his friend from the past Jyotish Ganguly in North Calcutta. Debendranath used to be a frequent visitor of those parts of the city in the 1920ies. In 1925 a week after Sarojini Naidu became the president of the Indian National Congress, he first met Jyotish Ganguly. Debendranath was a stout gentleman in those days, newly graduated from Presidency College and a freshman at the Department of Law. As was often the case with the enthusiastic Debendranath Roy Chowdhury, he had participated actively in the class discussions and felt exhausted after a long day. There were many things nudging to get out from the back of his mind. Times were turbulent. The first partition of Bengal two decades ago had left Paris of the East without its role as the administrative capital of British India, and Calcutta had become another name of activism and nationalist terror. During his study time the young gentleman had spent most of his time in the old bungalow in Ballygunge, which belonged to the family. His older brother had just finished his law studies in Calcutta and gone to train as a barrister in England, and the youngest brother had moved to Calcutta to pursue his MBBS at the Calcutta Medical College.
Today, as ever so many times before, the old friends Jyotish Ganguly and Debendranath Roy Chowdhury were engaging in deep political discussions over a cup of tea and an egg roll at the Indian Coffee House in College Street. Jyotish Ganguly, unlike Debendranath, had taken part in the swadeshi movement and had been jailed for a year by the British. He also used to co-own a flight company by which he had helped refugees from Dhaka during the Partition. He was an elated and passionate old man. After a long discussion with his friend, Debendranath realized he could no longer sit at home. His mission was to help the refugees from East Pakistan that were going through the same fate as he had done decades earlier.
That evening after his daily visit to the Lake Market and the Ramakrishna Mission library, he passed by Bedi Bhavan, which housed many refugees, to leave two bags full of fresh vegetables. From that day, everyday on his way back home, he would pay a visit to Bedi Bhavan and leave fresh vegetables at the door step. When he went home in the evening that day, he told the cook to prepare dinner for twenty people. He packed the food in boxes and walked out in the late evening to distribute the food to the beggars under the bridge in the market area Gariahat. Shilpa had overheard the conversation between Debendranath and the cook while preparing the spices in the kitchen garden. Her face lit up in a proud smile.