In Dialogue with Dipali Chowdhury

There is a face, a heavily wrinkled one that stares out of a window every day, for a good part of the day, as if in eternal longing for someone’s return. She looks ancient, her eyes failing her as she squints at the newspaper, trying yet again to make sense of what is written about the world that seems to have forgotten her. Her days are long and often devoid of fulfilling conversations. “When I don’t have people to talk to, I engage with my memories.” She says. I look at her as she flips through the papers again. I feel as many of us occasionally feel when we get to stop once in a while in our fast-paced lives; guilty for not giving her enough time and attention. Home quarantined and more often these days in a pensive, reflective mood, I consciously decided to do my bit to dedicate the time at home to get to know my grandmother differently at this point of time in both of our lives. I decided to spend some time every day to consciously listen to her. Little could I have imagined then that I would find such a gold mine of wisdom in her narration of her own story. It all began one morning a few days back.

“Aloka, stock up the refrigerator with food supplies! Do it soon. We are going to face crisis in the coming days.” Amma sternly instructed Aloka, our decades old household chef. Yes, I prefer calling her our household chef and not household help because her culinary skills deserve more respect. As I picked up my cup of tea from the table, Aloka mashi whispered with her characteristic smirk, “Your grandmother seems to be under the impression that we are at war or something!” I looked at her with a quizzical expression, mouthing faintly, “Why? What is she saying?” To which Mashi replied, “She has been talking about famine and war or something since morning.” Being a student of conflict and community identities as they play out across cultures in conflict zones specifically, instinct pushed me to probe. “Today’s conversation will be a little more targeted. “I decided. As I took my seat beside her, she turned to me grasping my hand with a sense of urgency. “What is it amma?” I enquired. “History is repeating itself it seems Ritu. I feel like I am back in time during the period of the Second World War! It was like this! We were all supposed to stay home and there was no food after some time.” I quickly fumbled around for a piece of paper and a pen. “Tell me more. What happened then?”

“It was the year 1941. I was barely 8 years old. The Second World War had begun and was at its peak during those days. I remember the trenches that were dug out in our courtyard to create makeshift bomb shelters. Those shrill alarms would signal us to leave our homes and scramble into the shelters for cover. As a kid, we were taught to fear the Japanese. All I knew then was that the shrill alarms were the warning signs announcing the arrival of the Japanese who wanted to bomb neighbourhoods. We were in Dhaka and heard of horrific bombing episodes in Kolkata, just across the border.” She stopped to catch her breath. I handed her some water.

“During those days we were home all the time. The schools and colleges were all closed. Markets were closed and due to the war, supplies were dwindling. Our family suffered. We were six sisters, one brother and then as was customary in joint families, we had our uncle’s kids too who lived with us. We survived on sweet potatoes for a while. Then my father arranged for us to move to Dharmanagar in Tripura where we stayed for a year. We were sheltered by a woman who was called Guru ma as she would home-school children at her place. We studied under her supervision but most of the time we played. We didn’t understand much. We were young.” She paused to glance out of the window as if searching for more memories only visible to her from some far-off place.

“Did you move to India permanently then?” I asked

“Oh no no! There was no India in the early 1940s. It was still a dream for many. We came back to Dhaka after the war in 1945 where I completed my studies till standard X.

More trouble started in 1946. It was the pre-partition times and communal tensions were rising across Dhaka and adjoining areas. Our Muslim neighbours would give us intelligence and protect our family. We lived in a Muslim dominated locality. Communal riots were the order of the day. With Partition and independence of India, things became worse for us.” Her eyes glistened as she reached out for some more water.

“We had to flee and take refuge at the Dhakeshwari temple near our home along with two other Hindu families. The priest supported us, fed us and took care of us for three months. We could see our house go up in flames across the open field on one side of the temple. My father fell sick witnessing the loss of our home. Those were difficult days. We waited for things to get better.

After some time, we moved to a Hindu ghetto called Tikatuli Wari and stayed there. In the meantime, things started getting worse in erstwhile East Pakistan. Finally, in 1950, my relatives arranged for us to move to Agartala in India. Only my father stayed back. He was too proud and rooted to leave his homeland.”

I patted her hand as she continued, “I was a bright student. I had topped my school and had received a scholarship in Dhaka but then I had to let it go when we moved. In Agartala, I managed to bag the Refugee scholarship to pursue my studies and worked hard to adapt to the new circumstances. When I was 19, I was married off and moved to Kolkata.” Through her narrative, I could slowly trace the seeds of her indomitable spirit. Her patience, perseverance and will were clearly shaped, crafted over these difficult times. Later when she would be bed-ridden and face the shock of losing her child ,my mother, this very same spirit and her incredible capacity for adapting to her circumstances would push her forth to become the towering matriarch that she emerged to be in our household.

“I completed my graduation after marriage and took up the first teaching job that I was offered. I stayed at that job for 37 years till I retired. Your grandfather didn’t have a stable job so it was my job that brought some stable income to our family.”

“Tell me more about how you got involved in community work Amma.” I pressed on. I had faint childhood memories of a group of ladies assembling at our home to pack clothes and books into boxes for distribution camps. Sometimes I would be the youngest member at those meetings, hopping around from one lap to the other as the ladies would shower me with all the attention.

“It was Indira, my colleague and friend who pulled me into this idea of forming our own organization. There were ten women who founded Sarada Mahila Samiti. I joined soon after. We would have gatherings to discuss faith-based teachings that were related to social justice and service mostly. We also had general faith-based discussions. I served with this organization to help poor and needy people, particularly children with resources, education. We also helped underprivileged girls and women with resources. I liked helping out. Now I can’t do anything anymore. I miss those days.” My grandmother mused. I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and pulled her into a hug. “You are managing the house and supervising us you know! That’s quite a task. We are not the most obedient ones.” She chuckled a little and patted my knee.

As I returned to my room, memories flooded back to me. This was the same woman who had brought up my mother and my aunt to be career-oriented, successful and independent women. She was the one who was a celebrated teacher and mentor with a huge following of students and colleagues who would seek her counsel for years after she had retired and had taken to her bed. Having battled osteoporosis and bone cancer, my grandmother had emerged to be stronger than ever as she faced her final shock at the age of 77. As she looks out of the window every day, somewhere she still sits hoping for my mother to come home, the daughter who she had learnt to lean on in the autumn of her days. A mother who had once almost single-handedly brought up two children, at the age of 77, she pulled herself up again to try and fulfil my mother’s absence in mine and my sister’s life to whatever extent possible.

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