“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”
– Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s First Prime Minister
Red Fort, New Delhi, August 1947
At the stroke of the midnight hour, when India woke to freedom, it also woke up to the incipience of an enmity that would plague generations to come.
It is surprising to see how nationalism often equates with hating another. Unity is often acquired through shared hatred. The story of nationalism in India and Pakistan is no different. It is an unspoken, unwritten rule that one is not a true nationalist unless they absolutely abhor what lays on the other side of the border. The mutual hatred is so deep-rooted that in both countries, the very term “India-Pakistan” automatically stands as a metaphor for severe rivalry. It was perhaps the toxic circumstances of partition that poisoned all our hearts, and for the generations that came next, we simply passed on the toxicity. The thing about hatred is that it is much like radioactive waste. It remains in the air and passes on through our respective DNAs.
For families that went through the ugliness of partition, abhorrence took a different shape altogether. Partition was chaotic. People were butchered in the name of religion, and families were thrown out of their houses. After spending generations on land that they called home, people were forced to cross borders. Mass immigrants fleeing from war and bloodshed became refugees on what they assumed was the safer side of the border. But being stripped off their land, home, and honor, and having witnessed the death of numerous faces they knew, deep scars made a home in everyone’s heart.
Punjab at the west was split into two halves; half of it remained in India while the other went to West Pakistan. In the east, Bengal became West Bengal in India and East Pakistan, which later became independent Bangladesh. The partition’s base was religion. Hence, huge religious turmoil took over on the land, which was yet to recover from the exhaustion of colonialism. While Muslims had to flee to Pakistan (East or West), the Hindus living on the other side, also had only two options; either escape to India or stay back and die. My great-grandmother was so deeply traumatized that she passed on a rule within the family that the forthcoming generation can marry whosoever they desire to, but marrying a Muslim, let alone a Pakistani or Bangladeshi, would result in ostracism from the family.
I don’t have much memory of my great-grandmother, but from what I remember, in her last few years, she always talked about Bangladesh. My mother once told me that earlier she never used to speak about Bangladesh. She was hurt, and that was her way to conceal the pain. My great-grandfather was the one who had the hardest time adjusting. Or probably, he never really did. He spent his days in the memories of Bangladesh. He had a big black-and-white photograph of their palace on the wall opposite to his bed. But eventually, in order to heal, the photo was removed and was never spoken of again.
A few months back, while researching for my thesis, I stumbled upon that same photograph, but on the internet. It wasn’t a palace but the palace door–Singha Dwar. I took a closer look at the photograph and saw that there were people sitting right outside the door. I stared at them for some time, trying to recognize if it was any of my ancestors. But camera quality wasn’t that great a century ago.
I remember my childhood summer days at my grandparents’ place. My grandfather never missed an opportunity to tell us what his house looked like in Bangladesh. He must have been quite young when he lived there, but his memory of that place was strong. Over the years, I learned they lived in the Mymensingh district. We were Zamindars of the Gauripur Estate. Jugal Kishore Roy Chowdhury was my grandfather’s brother and Brajendran Kishore Roy Chowdhury was his son. My grandfather, Gitindra Kishore Roy Chowdhury, was supposed to inherit the title next.
“We had tree plantations within our property and a school that my grandfather built. There was a drawing room with an attached kitchen. It was for general visitors. Then there was a corridor leading up to the palace. The palace had a separate drawing room with a kitchen. It was for our special guests and eminent people, close family or friend, or the British officers and ladies my parents were friends with. Then after you cross that, there was a Thakur Dalan; big open space with a stage where Durga Puja was celebrated. Behind it were the rooms where we lived” he continued to describe what his home was like while an ingenuous smile danced on his lips and his eyes glimmered with melancholy and nostalgia.
“The famous Bengali Sarod player, Allaudin Khan, was brought up in our estate, under my father’s guidance. He had great regard for all of us until his last day,” he said with great excitement, which was soon replaced by a regretful sigh.
“Look where we have fallen now.”
Stories of our glorious ancestry were always a rollercoaster ride of emotions, which eventually ended with a series of exasperated sighs.
I spent my childhood listening and being engrossed in the tales of Mymensingh district, the Zamindari, partition, and my family’s new beginning in India. My interest in the subject was piqued, and I eventually started wandering through the internet, trying to find concrete evidence of my family’s existence in Bangladesh. With every successful search, my dejection for partition increased a little more. If only the partition hadn’t happened, I’d probably be living in a palace, surrounded by such classy people like artists and writers.
I often tried visualizing the trauma all these people, who had to cross the border, must have gone through. Though it was impossible for me to understand the agony in its full depth. One thing definitely made its home in my mind. Despite having an amiable relation with Bangladesh, if the agony in these refugees and immigrants, including my grandparent, can be so deep, the angst against Pakistan is definitely far too deep and tangled to decipher. In my young and uninformed mind, the hatred seemed justified.
India and Pakistan have only two shared interests–Cricket, specifically India VS Pakistan, and Kashmir.
Before 1947, India stood united against British rule. Over two centuries, many Bravehearts fought until the last drop of their blood spilled and mixed with the soil. But as the fight for freedom slowly advanced toward completion, we found a new enmity to fight against each other.
Multiple political interferences acted as catalysts to this increasing friction, and when the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the Indian Independence Act in 1947, it divided the country into two independent dominions: India and Pakistan (East and West on either side of India). The colonizers felt Indians were incapable of handling such a large kingdom, which, ironically, Indians have been handling very well until they interfered and colonized us all. Sir Cyril Radcliffe proudly drew demarcation lines passing through the States of Punjab and Bengal. Very conveniently, Kashmir was left as a breeding ground of eventual dispute.
Kashmir, adorned with graceful ornaments of nature: snow and glaciers, mountains and curvy paths, valleys and rivers, green grasses and ever-blooming roses, is often called the Heaven on Earth for as if a piece of Heaven that fell from the sky, and made its home on the top of India. But the vicious hatred between the countries turned the piece of Heaven into a sweltering war zone.
Seventy-one years of freedom and partition have gone by, and there seems to be no end to the ever-growing hatred between the countries. The newspapers are frequently flooded with news of attacks on borders, of soldiers dying, villages being bombarded, etc., and soon after that, the social media is flooded with demands of yet another war. Those demanding are mostly the ones hiding in the safety of their homes and offices. It can be said that something similar happened during the partition–some demanded separate nations and a whole other bunch of families suffered.
Ever since Independence, the fire at the borders never burned out. One attacked the other, and the other retaliated. While both the countries rejoiced in their armed forces’ actions, many bodies returned home wrapped in their respective national flag. While for some, all this action was an energetic action they’d watch on TV like some movie or read about it like a novel, for the others it was a grim reality stealing their night’s sleep.
There were continuous endeavours made to restore peace at the border, but never to any success. Ceasefire commands were ordained at the borders from time to time, and for a brief period, everything became quiet and normal. At least the civilians never received any news of trouble at the borders. However, the serenity met with a sudden disruption when India was shaken back into sense by the news of the Uri Attacks. On a tranquil September predawn in 2016, when the lingering somnolent hours of the night were leisurely transitioning into a break of a new day, heavily armed Pakistani militants, disregarding the prevailing ceasefire orders, infiltrated through the borders into the Army base near the town of Uri situated at Kashmir. They attacked the Indian Army in a pre-dawn ambush. Following that attack, 20 soldiers came back wrapped in Tiranga, leaving the families in shatters, and the country numb.
The news channel live telecasted the honorary cremation ceremony. The country watched the broadcast with a grief-stricken heart. Our leaders stood in a corner with their heads lowered as a sign of respect for the fallen heroes, while men in uniform carried their once colleagues on their shoulders, wrapped in a shroud. Soon the shroud was replaced by the tricolored flag of India, and the families of the martyrs started visiting one after another. Every member of the family maintained their strong will while wearing a grim expression on their faces. It was, after all, unsuitable for them to break down, for they were the parents, wife, siblings, and friends of these brave men. But for a 9-year-old girl, the Tiranga wrapped body was not of a soldier or a martyr, but a father who was taken away too soon. I remember seeing the girl. Her face turned red, eyes swollen and bloodshot, but her head was held high with some mysterious pride that I was unable to comprehend. A daughter lost her father. A situation worse than my worst nightmare. She slowly walked towards her father while she wept uncontrollably and hence gasped for breath. She stood in front of her father and screamed. She did not scream out her agony, but her respect for him. At that moment, that girl took away all my admiration. These heroes of the war were given a 21-gun salute, and the National Anthem was played when their bodies were offered to the fire. As the funeral pyre consumed the bodies, the entire country stood silently in unison.
Eleven days after the Uri Attack, with the break of news of Surgical Strike carried out by the Indian Army against Pakistan, justice was served, or so everyone claimed. This time Pakistani blood was shed. Pakistani army men wrapped in their Flag were sent back to their homes, and we celebrated the joy. I couldn’t help but think about some little girl in Pakistan who must be receiving her father’s dead body. But what can one say when we are always taught that–“all is fair in love and war.” However, while not everything about love is acceptable, hatred knows no boundary.
My great-grandmother once tried going back to her old home, the palace of Mymensingh, after the situation calmed on both sides. Her husband, my great grandfather, refused to set a step on that land, but someone had to go. When they crossed the border, they could only bring so much. They packed their bags with things that will take care of their basic needs and wrapped them in dismay of fall from glory and displacement from home. But it is rather peculiar how humans, quite more than often, create a strong bond of emotions with inanimate objects for the nostalgia of it. She had to go back to bring the exquisite utensils and silverware, the antique furniture, clothes, and jewelry; all of which was a reminisce of their royal past, and a remembrance of their ancestors and acquaintances who lived with them under the same roof and died of natural and unnatural causes.
Before going back to Bangladesh, she sent a message to one of their old employees; the most trusted one, notifying him that she will be visiting for one last time and if he can make arrangements for her brief stay. After he responded to her through an overwhelmingly emotional letter, proclaiming his forever loyalty to the Roy Chowdhury family, she packed her bags and left for the foreign land which was once her home.
Her first day in Bangladesh went peacefully. She reached there by late evening and decided to go to the palace the other day. That evening, she spent with her employee’s family, recollecting the memories of days which are gone forever, and filling her up on what all happened after they left. The chaos, the bloodshed, and the absolute fall of humanity. She found out about all those she personally knew getting killed by those who were once their neighbors or colleagues or even friends. She couldn’t sleep the entire night. Her mind kept showing her pictures of the chaos she herself witnessed. She dreamt of the faces she once knew but are now either dead or are the cause of these deaths.
The next morning, she could feel eyes on her, judging her every move, eyeing her every action. The person she was staying with sensed that, too. He decided to warn her against it, but she refused to listen.
“It is not safe, Karta Maa. We should go back home. They might not do anything to you as long as I am with you, but after I leave, your safety can be compromised,” he said while still addressing her the way zamindar ladies were addressed.
My grandmother said that apparently my great-grandmother was quite touched by him calling her “ma” along with addressing her as “my lady”. It is a form of utmost request given to the lady of the house. Ma; the one who nurtures all regardless of their social status, caste, class, or religion. Not every lady was addressed like this. Some were mere “my lady” for their sanctimonious behavior. This was respect earned, and these people held it with great value.
I decided not to judge anyone or anything, in consideration of the time we are talking about and the social structure of that particular time.
“It’s okay, Shafique. Our entire lives got compromised because of them. I am willing to take that risk,” my great-grandmother said, and he remained silent.
She went to her palace and packed some of their belongings and decided to come back the next day for the rest of the things. On their way back, Shafique was sitting on a different rickshaw with some of my great grandmother’s bags, while my great grandmother was on a different one with the rest of her luggage. Shafique could sense a rise in tension around the air. The peculiarity of everyone’s gaze didn’t miss my great-grandmother’s attention, either.
At the T-point of the alley which leads to Shafique’s home, a letter wrapped on a medium-sized roadside pebble dropped at my great grandmother’s foot. Someone took advantage of the busy street and carefully aimed the pebble at her feet in the rickshaw. She picked it up to read what it said. There was just one line written on it –
“We will give you tonight’s time to go back to where you came from. You don’t belong here.”
Upon seeing the letter, Shafique made no more delay. He ordered his wife to pack all my great-grandmother’s belongings and sent her back to Kolkata, accompanied by his son.
“Generations of my family have worked at your place, Karta Ma. We have been loyal to you. In return for that, can I ask for one thing?”
“What do I even have any more to give? I cannot even promise a monthly pension to you anymore.” My great grandmother said to him, as I was told by my grandmother.
“It is not pension or money that I want to ask for, my lady.”
“What is it?”
“Don’t come back to Bangladesh for at least a couple of generations. Things aren’t going to get any better any soon and I will not be around forever to keep you all safe.”
That was the last time anyone from my family ever set their foot in Bangladesh. Even though they had it in their heart to visit Bangladesh, but the 1970s Liberation War, followed by execution and exodus of Hindus from that side of the border, put an end to their hopes.
However, I sometimes walk virtually and imaginatively through YouTube videos and some random books and excerpts I find online that talk about my ancestors and their time in Mymensingh.
I wouldn’t know homesickness until I left home in 2018. That too, I wasn’t thrown out of my country, nor did I escape a bloody massacre. I simply chose to move abroad for my further studies. I made a choice. I had a choice.
Vande Mataram! Vande Mataram!
Sujlam, Suphlam, Malayaj Sheetalam.
Shasya Shyalam, Mataram,
Vande Mataram. Vande Mataram.
– Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay
Mother, I bow thee! Mother, I praise thee!
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
Bright with orchard gleams,
Cool with thy winds of delight,
Dark fields waving Mother of might,
Mother, I praise thee!
– Translated by Sri Aurobindo
In 2018, I got my acceptance from Old Dominion University for MFA in Creative Writing. My happiness knew no boundary. I was finally on my way to walk the path I always yearned for; the path of storytelling. At first, it was slightly dicey. I knew I couldn’t afford to live and studying in the US. But, to my good luck, I was then offered an assistantship which made the impossible possible. Now, it was just a countdown until I flew abroad.
Before I left home and traveled across continents, my parents wanted to go for one last trip with me. My flight was from Delhi, so we decided to make a short trip to its neighboring state, Punjab. My primary attraction was the Golden Temple; the eminent spiritual site of Sikhism, and the infamous Jallianwala Bagh, wherein April 1919, British officer Colonel Reginald Dyer, open fired upon thousands of unarmed Punjabis who were having a peaceful festive gathering. Men, women, children, infants none could escape the raging bullets. Some died almost instantly, but some spent hours waiting for their impending death.
Before leaving, I wanted to visit these two holy shrines–one made holy by faith and worship, and the other was made holy by the blood of my countrymen who eventually gave birth to numerous revolutionaries who fought against the colonizers till their last breath.
After Golden Temple and Jallianwala Bagh, we just had one more place to visit; another memorial left behind by the British–Indo-Pak Wagah Border.
My parents and I reached Wagah Border around 4 pm and pulled into a parking lot a little far from the gates. It was an exceptionally hot and humid day. There was hardly any wind, and it was hard to breathe. Northern heat can be notorious. As we entered the gate, I saw the huge tricolored Indian flag, Tiranga, touching the sky and waving ahead of us. The three colors on it, saffron, white, and green, glowed vibrantly, and the 24 spokes of the Ashoka Chakra right in the middle, prominent and distinguished. Right behind it I could see the deep green flag with a white crescent moon and a star on it, and a vertical white stripe at the hoist. This was the Pakistani flag.
The crowd was huge and excited, and from time to time they kept roaring Vande Mataram, I Praise You My Mother, where “Mother” means India, and Bharat Mata ki Jai, Long Live Mother India. I turned around to see the over-excited faces and spotted a group of men who I had caught lecherously staring at and teasing a couple of women a few hours back. At the border, suddenly they were the hyper-nationalists who showed off their patriotism through their loudness. Their hyper-masculinity made me nauseous. I whispered to my mother, “If they love our country so much, why don’t they join the army? Or do something good within the society, like respecting women maybe?”
My mother smirked and replied, “Joining the army requires valor, and respecting women requires an enlightened mindset. These have none.”
As we progressed towards the stadium near the border gates, the crowd was further divided into two sections; male and female. It took nearly an hour for us to finally reach the inspection cabin. Upon the inspection, we exited to a road that approached a huge gateway that had written on it in bold letters “India’s First Line of Defence”. My heart filled with enigmatic pride. I am not sure what was I so proud of. It must have been the ambiance bleeding into me. As we walked closer toward the gate, the Indian Flag and the Pakistani Flag behind it became visible again.
We passed through the gate and entered an elliptical stadium, which was divided into two halves. One half laid in India, and the other was in Pakistan. I didn’t want to sit too far from the Radcliffe Line. I asked my father if he could arrange something for us to sit as close as possible to Pakistan. I wanted to see what Pakistan looked like, what Pakistanis looked like. My father is an officer in the Ministry of Defence. He showed his ID card to one of the military men who took us to the VIP seats that were just a few feet away from the Radcliffe Line. I could see Lahore as clear as I could see Amritsar. I could see Pakistanis sitting at their share of Wagah Border stadium.
I stared at the Pakistanis for quite some time, trying to observe them. They looked nothing different from us. Brown skin, black hair, most women wore Salwar Kameez, and almost everyone had the similar expression of pride and nationalism, as I reckoned I had too while sitting at the border. I looked beyond the people observed the scenery behind them. Huge trees with parrot green leaves, slightly dusty, for it was the month of August, and Punjab was a dry state. The soil beneath us was dry and light brown. There was patchy grass, and cows wandered around. I looked above at the sky. It was clear, the perfect shade of azure, with a few big clouds loitering around. My eyes fell on a tree. It was in the area between the barbed wires of the two countries. On the no-man’s-land. It was a huge tree and half of its shade was in India, and the other half in Pakistan. Birds flew to that tree from both directions. Nature was oblivious to the rules of partition.
A loud drumbeat shook me out of my thoughts. The army march had started. Soldiers from both countries started marching and performing well-choreographed stunts. Their actions and gestures clearly showing that though this act was supposed to display friendship, yet they clearly were threatening each other. If two Pakistani soldiers marched toward the border and demonstrated their power with their body language, one Indian soldier would march toward them, stand at an appropriate distance from the border gate and flex his muscles in a gesture saying, “I alone am enough to tackle not just two of you, but multiple others like you.”
Everyone was so engrossed in the act that no one noticed it was getting dark, and the sky was filling up with clouds. The sky began to rumble as the armed officers continued with their display of power. The rumble grew louder, and the sky became darker, but the audience continued cheering for their country while ignoring the voice of nature. My attention broke when a drop of water fell on my head. I looked up and this time it fell on my face. Then again on my head, my face, my hands, and it started to rain heavily. Immediately, everyone got out of their seats, trying to find a shade. But all that was of no use. The heavy downpour had everyone drenched from head to toe within a few moments. I looked around at the people running and overreacting as if the rain would melt them. I made no efforts to run or hide. The day was particularly hot. The scorching heat not just made my skin feel burnt, but it also made it hard for me to even breathe. The cold raindrops soothed my skin. I could breathe. People started taking out tricolored umbrellas. It was amusing how everything there was tricolored; umbrellas, hats, caps, everything. I was looking around in amusement when my eyes fell on the Pakistanis. They were drenched, too. It was raining where I was standing, and it was raining where they were standing. Years of abhorrence and bloodshed, enmity and struggle to bring each other down, melted away in front of my eyes when the demarcation line and the barbed wires couldn’t stop the rain from pouring on both sides. We divided nations; we divided people. We celebrated each other’s death when we even divided the blood; Indian blood and Pakistani blood. But we couldn’t divide the drops of water falling from the sky, neither could we divide the sensation of how it felt on our parched skin.
When the clouds gathered in the sky and decided to pour on the dry earth beneath our feet, it rained on all of us.
Originally from Madhya Pradesh, India, Roudri Bandyopadhyay is a nonfiction writer currently based in Norfolk, VA, where she is completing her MFA in Creative Writing at Old Dominion University. Prior to this she worked for a few years as a journalist, but has always kept her passion for the drama and glamor in mythology and classical Indian literature— which she tries to make part of her storytelling. Her stories most often deal with themes of feminism, social stigma, and political relevance.