My grandmother hailed from the district of Khulna, which was formerly a part of East Bengal, and is currently part of Bangladesh. My father was the youngest of seven children. Therefore, he wasn’t even born during those turbulent times which shaped the destiny of our nation.
However, he still remembers his mother telling him stories about the times when she had to flee across the border from Bangladesh to India right after the Partition happened to divide the vast subcontinent into three separate nations, namely India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. All my aunts and uncles had been born by then. My father recalls his mother telling him how she and all her young daughters had been handed daggers and bombs by the men from the Congress office. During those dreadful times, it had been common practice for fanatics of both the communities to seize young women and forcibly subjugate them on fear of rape or, worse, death by mutilation. The bombs and daggers were however not weapons of self defense against violent and bloodthirsty mobs…they were weapons of suicide, the most merciful and quickest way out of humiliation. According to my grandmother, young girls would often jump out of the trains and commit suicide rather than expose themselves to the humiliation of being married or raped by the Muslims.
My grandmother had been pregnant with my father when the Partition was about to begin. When seeds of imminent disorder were in the air, the Congress workers in the village advised the people to start leaving for Calcutta, especially the ones which had young girls. At that time, my eldest aunt was about fifteen years old, a ripe marriageable age at that time. My grandparents escaped right before the Partition occurred. But even before it happened, the communal riots had already started. Thus, the Hindus started escaping in large numbers. According to my father, however, in Khulna, the intensity of communal hatred was never that high. The two warring communities lived in relative harmony. However as the Partition neared, the doors of certain houses were marked with crosses to indicate that the women of these houses would be carried away soon. As soon as this started happening, the impetus to escape grew more and more intense.
There was great fear among all the refugees traveling to Calcutta. According to my dad, my grandparents would hear screams for help from the other compartments. By a miracle, no one entered the compartment where my family was staying. All the people who were carrying valuables would hide their gold and jewels inside scooped out vegetables and old tin cans. Just before leaving for Calcutta, my grandmother had called in certain goldsmiths to hollow out vegetables and insert the family heirlooms within! It was a day’s journey to Calcutta, and when my family finally reached, there were hordes of relatives waiting to receive them.
It is but a common story among the millions of cross border refugees who survived that ordeal. A story of fear, fortitude and immense relief waiting at the end of it all.