The second phase of refugee influx into West Bengal, especially by the once powerful caste group, namashudras, continues to be ill documented in social science literature of the day. Through the narrative of a young caregiver, Bharati Das, Parimal Bhattacharya makes an important intervention in documenting these lives, as well as, through the trope of a video recording, makes marginalised voices heard.
Ma, my mother, was suffering from pancreatic cancer, stage four. Obeying her wish, we had shifted her from the hospital to our ancestral home at 16 Vidyalankar Road. She had spent three-fourths of her life in this address and, despite our misgivings, she had a point. Ma had the right to spend the few remaining weeks of her life in a place and among people she could still claim as her own before the cruel, plundering time. We set up an intensive care facility, as far as practicable, at home and got in touch with an agency for round-the-clock attendant service. They sent us two women who divided the days between themselves.
Bharati Das was the one who usually worked the day shifts. She was in her early thirties, married, and she came from Majdia, two hours’ journey from our home by suburban train. Bharati was a lively, caring woman who did more than the job required of her, like cooking a special stew for the patient or washing her clothes. Perhaps it was part of her professional grooming, but what really mattered was that she soon wormed her way into Ma’s feeble heart. Bharati called her mashima, aunt, and Ma waited for her arrival every morning with lucid arousal. A rare calm would light up her pain-ravaged face when Bharati would prop her up against the pillows and would comb the few remaining strands of her hair, and talk to her as if Ma was a pubescent girl.
Relatives were dropping in to see Ma, some of them surfacing afterages. One day I took out my Sony handycam to capture a family reunion. But perhaps, at a subconscious level, I wanted to archive the fading images of Ma. Bharati was greatly excited when she saw the fist-sized machine that could capture real time, its raw images and sounds, and regurgitate it instantly on a tiny screen. But I think what really intrigued her was the camera’s inability to make a distinction between the memorable and the quotidian, the momentous and the banal, a self-conscious face and a doormat, a well-modulated voice and a chair scratching the floor. She was moved by the veracity with which it captured the listless antics of our pet cat Ganga and, emboldened, asked me one day:
‘Can it show me as I am?’
Thus happened the film that I transcribe here word for word. I mounted the camera on a high stool and turned the LCD screen towards her, so that Bharati could see herself being captured by the machine. I think that was what prodded her on: it was as if she was speaking to a mirror, a mirror with a memory.
‘I was five when we came to India. I was called Alpanaon that side. Father gave me the new name, Bharati, when we got our new ration cards here. Bharati, because we were now in Bharat. (smiles) My uncles had settledon this side before us. Their children did their studies and got married here. A cousin works in Hyderabad, in the factory where Charminar cigarettes are made. Crossing the border, we first put up at Netajinagar. Do you know Netajinagar? It’s on the branch line between Ranaghat and Gede. Netajinagar, Taraknagar, Bankimnagar … halt stations all, one after the other. Earlier there wasn’t any, only miles of mango orchards. The stations came up when people began to come from across the border and settle in the orchards. In the beginning the trains wouldn’t stop. But people pulled the chains to get down. So what’d the rail company do? It was they who stood to gain if people bought tickets, taina? I have seen three floods at Netajinagar – one big, two small.Last time it occurred, we had to spend two whole months on the railway track. The Party gave us GR (government relief). We had regular floods in our village in Bangladesh, but I don’t have any memory of them. My father used to pull a van rickshaw there. One day the miyas burnt it. They threatened to burn our house too. So we sold off everything and crossed the border.
(takes a pause, wipes her face with the end of her sari)
‘I have studied up to class four at Netajinagar Sukanta Smriti Prathamik Vidyalaya. Then we shifted home to Natunpalli. It was a new village of bangals (migrants from East Bengal) on the sandbank in river Churni, it didn’t have a school. It didn’t have anything, only sands all around, and clumps of tall reed. We built our huts with them. The place was teeming with wild jackals. Once a jackal carried off a baby. There are seven weaver families in our village, the rest are farmers. Earlier we didn’t have patta of the land, but now we have them. Now we have electricity, roads, everything. Even a few pukka houses. We grow three crops a year. But these days the returns from farming are low. So all the boys of Natunpalli go to other states to do centering (shuttering, a part of civil construction work). Two of my brothers work in Tamil Nadu. But wherever they go, they’ll return home at least once every year, during the Baruni Mela.
‘You haven’t heard of Baruni Mela? Really? (surprised, looks around the camera) You don’t know Matua Mela? We are the Matua, the Namoshudra, but actually we had been Brahmins. That was long time ago. Besides, I don’t know that story very well. Let me tell you about Baruni Mela instead. Every year, on the tenth of Chaitra, all the Matuas, wherever they are, will gather at Thakurnagar, the birthplace of Harichand Thakur. It’s our biggest festival. People will come from all parts of Bengal, even Bihar and Assam, and take a dip in the holy tank of Kamanasagar. We at Natunpalli would hire trucks and set out early in the morning. It’s like going to a Party rally at the Brigade Parade Ground. My brothers would carry big drums and climb atop the truck’s cabin. Wherever they are, they will return home on this one occasion.
‘Yes, home. Of course it’s our home! (puts her arms akimbo) My father’s home was in the land of miyas, we haven’t seen it. We stayed a few years at Netajinagar, but that was a colony. Where one has a roof of one’s own, and a land to farm, that’s a home. Taina? So much has changed at Natunpalli since we first went there, one has to see to believe. Everything has been built bit by bit, before our very eyes, with our own efforts. Now we have a temple of Loknath Baba, even a high school. Issh, had it been there when we were young!
‘Can’t read English. (smiles shyly, bites the lower lip) The school wasn’t there when we were young.
‘Before I joined this center, I had worked at a nursing home in Chakdah. I’d have got a permanent job there if I could read the doctors’ prescriptions and the names on medicine bottles. So many girls are working as nurses after taking a two-month training. Even in this center, those who can read English have higher rates.
‘No, it’s not possible anymore. (stifles a sigh, looks away from the camera) How can it be? I wake up at four in the morning, take a bath, wash clothes, cook my food. It takes two hours by train to come to the center. Then they say – go here, go there. They give us the bus fare, but we have to carry our own food. I return home between eight and nine at night, or later, if the reliever is late. Then again a bath and washing the clothes, even in winter cold, if it’s a shitting-pissing case I am attending. The routine goes upside down when I work the night shifts. Don’t know how long I can go on, perhaps as long as my body will carry.
‘I now stay at my father’s place. (takes a pause, begins to coil the end of her sari around a finger) I was married once, but I’ve walked out of it. My husband has another woman …These? (points to the white shell bangle on her wrist and the vermilion on her hair-parting) But why should I throw them away? The marriage isn’t broken, he comes from time to time to ask for money. (narrows her eyes, the hint of an impish smile hovers at the corner of her lips) Besides, these have some advantages, you know, so many types of wicked men are around.
‘A family of my own? I never give it a thought. But my nephews are growing up, the little one is very sharp. I’ll send him to an English medium school, whatever it costs. Last year mother had a stone in her kidney, I spent eight thousand rupees. I hope to build a pukka room some day, so that we won’t have to move to the school building during a flood. That’s it, don’t wish anything for myself. In this job we can’t do up ourselves in style, or else Madam will turn us out. She has a temper!’ (laughs)
When Ma died, Bharati was by her side. It seemed she could sniff the smell of approaching death and, minutes before the doctor lost the pulse, asked me to pour a spoonful of Ganga water between the blue, quivering lips. Ma was sinking, and a feeble gurgle was emanating from her larynx. Then it stopped, but still she responded to my frantic calls by twitching a muscle on her brow. Then Bharati touched my wrist and whispered:
‘Don’t call her from behind, Dada. See, mashima is stumbling on her path.’
I stopped calling her. Ma’s eyes rolled towards the sunlit window and became still. Bharati pinched them shut,expertly and gently, as one snuffs out a candle.
Like Bharati, Ma, too, was a migrantwho had found a refuge at 16 Vidyalankar Road. Bharati lent a modicum of ease and grace to her last transit. Ours is a land of a million tales of transit and survival. Some are stark, others less so, their outstanding elements embedded in their very ordinariness. Like Bharati’s.
Now as I rerun the seven-minutes-twenty-two-seconds recording, I am struck by a fact. Bharati must have had a rich storehouse of experiences about different types patients and their families. But she had never uttered a word of it. Perhaps her professional ethic forbade her. Or perhaps, for her, this world of pain and filth and appointments with death was like the world of dreams that visits us nightly and leaves with scarcely a trace. Transiting between them, keeping the two worlds apart, was her strategy for survival.
Parimal Bhattacharya is a bilingual writer whose most recent book No Path in Darjeeling is Straight: Memories of a Hill Town has been published by Speaking Tiger in July this year. This piece is an excerpt, translated by the writer, from his book ApurDesh: Ekti Atmakahini (Ababhash, Kolkata, 2016).