My grandmother’s screwdrivers

On World Refugee Day, Somnath Baidya Roy remembers his grandmother, and pays homage to the resilience of refugees everywhere.

These screwdrivers once belonged to my grandmother Sudhamoyee. She was the most affectionate person ever, but she was also a tough cookie. I have seen her sleep with a huge machete under her mattress as is wont of a woman who survived the infamous Noakhali massacre. On this World Refugee Day, I want to honor my ancestors and all refugees worldwide with the story of her screwdrivers. My grandparents are from Noakhali, Bangladesh. Before WW2, they were living in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon in Myanmar) where my grandfather was a highly placed government servant. At that time, about half the population of Rangoon were ethnic Indians. But after WW2, anti-Indian sentiments complemented by discriminatory citizenship and residence laws and communal violence made it impossible for my grandparents to stay there. So, one day they locked up their house and left with just the clothes on their backs and took a boat to Calcutta, India. My father was 10 years old then. Some members of my extended family including cousin Niranjan stayed back expecting things to go back to normal. That did not happen. So, a few months later Niranjan also decided to head out for India. Before doing so, he dropped by my grandparents’ house where he found my grandmother’s Singer sewing machine. He was very fond of my grandmother and felt that this is something a lady like her could use to rebuild her life in the new country. So, he picked it up on his shoulders and walked all of the 2200 km (1400 miles) through the mountains and jungles of northern Burma and northeastern India and delivered it to my grandmother who had then taken shelter in the home of a distant relative. Sounds hard to believe but you should never underestimate the heart of a refugee. My grandmother held on to the sewing machine and used it till her last days to repair old clothes and make new ones. It broke down at times, but she was handy enough to fix it herself. Last year, while rummaging through the junk pile in the attic I came across the sewing machine again after 32 years. I had no use for it because I don’t sew but I grabbed the screwdrivers from the toolbox. I have been using them regularly since then to tinker around. Just last week I cracked a coconut with a hammer and the large screwdriver. It works as well as a machete.

This post is published with permission from Somnath Baidya Roy’s facebook post available here.

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