Mandira Chakraborty writes about the transistor radio that saved her grandfather’s life during the partition of India, and the many migrations that it witnessed.
On a long and windy winter morning in a sleepy staff colony in Niwar a funeral procession was winding its way precariously towards the Niwar river with the intent of reaching the shallow part adjoining its western banks where there was a proper place for burning of corpses. The procession was short but grave. Not that the death of an old rootless man weighed heavily on the minds of men who were carrying the hearse or those who were walking silently beside, but that several practical arrangements were to be kept in mind such as the buying of wood, the expenses to be incurred in the procurement of funereal objects, the wind blowing right and left that was certain to make difficult the catching of proper fire and that would surely extinguish the flames many times during the six hour ordeal, were considerations which mature people could be expected to mull over. Afterwards there was the returning home and taking baths which made things more arduous, the month being December and the place being situated in the dense jungles of Madhya Pradesh, near the township of Katni which has now been ranked as a district separate from Jabalpore district; all this had to be undertaken and casual leave applications to be submitted a day later to the Manager of the Factory citing proper reasons for absence. The gravity of the ceremony may be compared to the passing of a statesman, but as a matter of fact it was only the father-in-law of the Accounts Manager who had passed away and not the Chief Justice of India. For the tightly huddled community that had grown around this refractory unit in a scenic location in Madhya Pradesh which today’s urban population would die to go and visit, emotions were not inconvenient objects to be filed away in the dark recesses of the mind but to be expressed, acknowledged, even flaunted to a degree as driving forces of realtionships that were forged so strong and thick that neighbours were more kinsmen than one’s own relatives.
The old gentleman who had passed away was a Bangaal, a refugee from Bangladesh as we call it today, or East Pakistan as our grandparents called it. The deceased was my maternal grandfather and when he was not embarrassing me during our customary evening strolls by sitting down near a canal to relieve himself after properly winding his Poita(sacred thread) round his ears, he would be instructing me in the games of ludo (and several methods of cheating thereof), chess, and word puzzles. The gentleman who had suffered the sudden displacement of partition had to silently endure the ignominy of depending upon the only daughter they had, my mother, for subsistence when the Calcutta relatives unceremoniously dumped the husband and wife duo after their daughter’s marriage to a Cost Accountant with bright future, my father. The burden was difficult and the load was made heavier by having to relocate to a remote village in Madhya Pradesh for my father’s job. Twice displaced, once from East Pakistan to Kolkata, and then to a completely hindi speaking area, land of Khottas (khottago dashe) as the narrative went, my grandparents, by now well over fifty and perplexed about life, stuck to a few possessions they had managed to transport across the border during their exodus from Bangladesh, which included a transistor radio, a few kansaa utensils with my grandma’s name etched at the bottom, a stick which the old gentleman used for walking and a pair of spectacles with the left eye-glass having acquired a degree of frostiness commensurate with the mystification in their perspective on life.
I have no idea about their weltanshauung in those days, having not yet acquired any of my own. All I remember is that speaking in Baangal was expressly forbidden to them by their daughter; it had been unanimously decided that because I was going to be brought up in a hindi first-language area probably for the next decade or so, I had to be home-schooled in my mother tongue which was in an already delapidated state because bengali-speaking children like me in the colony would be frequently heard phrasing questions like, “Ota ke hochhe re?” or “Ma, ami siri diye koode jai?” I had heard tales of vast kottahs of agricultural land in their village home in East Pakistan, and palm trees lining up the shores of large ponds with rohu, katla and prawn. Apparently, delicacies fit for gods’ palates would be concocted from these creatures of the water, and the gentleman’s favourite dish was a large head of golden prawn, fried in ghee and to be had with piping hot rice and mixed to make a heavenly manna unimaginable for mortals of West Bengal or ghotis, as they frequently referred to the decadent Bengalis of Calcutta. Grandpa would be glued to his transistor radio, an instrument delivering news as well as cricket match commentaries. This transistor radio had, in fact, saved their lives as we were expressly forbidden to forget. After all their relatives had been safely packed away in those days of riot-torn East Pakistan, one fine morning Forid miyaan, my grandfather’s assistant supervisor with the government in those days, relayed to my terrified grandparents that an attack had been planned on their house at night and that he should leave immediately, should he and his wife want to escape being buried in their own backyard, with no possessions, nothing that could arouse possible suspicion of an escape plan. “Boudi and you should walk along the farmlands with this transistor radio in hand, and should anyone ask you where you were going, you should say that you were going to get the radio repaired from the town. Dada, you should leave immediately with Boudi, because I can neither guarantee you protection nor escape,” is what they were told to do and they did accordingly. In our house this was renamed the transistor-radio march.
Both my grandparents died in lands too foreign to resemble their own. However, the old gentleman couldn’t escape the consequences of being a Hindu Brahmin even in his death. The sacred thread he would flaunt to his fellow elderly men in broken hindi in Niwar, P.O. Katni, District Jabalpore, and so carefully wrapped around his ear on his squats near canals and bushes landed my father in trouble after he had passed away. The local Hindu brahmins demanded that the shraddh ceremony had to be conducted according to the rites of the land because no ordinary mortal but a brahmin himself had passed away and it was a matter of great pride for my father to be able to host twelve brahmins to the funeral feastings. My mother and grandmother on the other hand were adamant that they had to perform the rituals of Bengalis. Thus my grandpa, who lived and died many times during his life received two sets of funeral offerings, one in bengali and another in Hindi, both as per proper high caste Bengali/Baangal/Brahmin male patriarch and to top it all, I, who had accompanied my mother on the day of last rites near the river Niwar on the eleventh day, had the honour of planting a Charminar cigarette on the banks of the aforesaid water body and watched the smoke go up and up, as offering to the hassled soul dragged across states and boundaries of barbed wires, whose last wish of procuring a lighter for his cigarettes from Calcutta the next time they visited, remained unfulfilled.
Mandira Chakraborty is a poet who teaches English at Bethune College, Kolkata. She can be reached at email@example.com.