How Green Was My Father’s Valley – Aditi Datta

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A journey to the picturesque Sylhet, the land and home of my ancestors, had been a magical experience that helped me rediscover my roots and myself

ADITI DATTA

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] usually do not cry. But When I do, it becomes a little messy. There have three occasions when I have cried a lot and felt wretched and miserable. One was in 1999 when my father passed away at the age of 72. I cried again in 2008 when Ma left us for ever leaving my two older brothers and myself all alone. I cried again with a pinching pain in my heart when my older brother, who is not very old, had a massive stroke last year that left his right side paralyzed.

All such incidents leave a lasting impact and makes a person tough. I thought I would not have to cry again. But I was wrong. I cried again silently when I visited the place of my father/great grandfather/great grandfather’s ancestral place in

No one had hurt me. No one took me for a ride. But standing next to a huge place where my ancestors once lived left me overwhelmed with emotions.

I came to Sylhet as part of my official work. After work, I thought I would check into a hotel, have dinner and check in the morning if there’s anything left in Puran Lane where my father and his ancestors lived. But then I began wondering what I would do in the hotel, all alone. I thought I would be wasting my time. I felt Puran Lane was calling me out. I left the room, got the directions from hotel reception.

Down memory lane in Jaflong, Sylhet
Down memory lane in Jaflong, Sylhet

While in Delhi I had checked out Google Earth and found that a road called Puran Lane indeed existed. I took a rickshaw in the evening and got dropped in Zinda Bazar.

After 10 minute walk from Zinda Bazar point, I asked a shopkeeper about the directions to Puran Lane. ‘This is Puran Lane. Whose house are you looking for?’ He asked.

I said I just wanted to roam around and see Puran Lane locality. He looked at me strangely. I told him I am an Indian and my father, grandfather and great grandfather had lived here. One of them was Raibahadur. He looked at me and asked him to accompany him and showed me the house of my great grandfather. He in fact introduced me to one Shombhuda who was the grandson of the late Ishan Sen who in turn was our grandfather’s neighbor. He told me he knew less about us but his older brother would know more. What followed next was just smooth.

Jaflong can be a natural tourist spot inside Division of Sylhet, Bangladesh. It is situated in Sylhet district
Jaflong is a natural tourist spot in Sylhet district, Bangladesh

Emotions did run high. Shombhuda’s older brother was reminded of all the stories of my grandfather late Dr Satish Chandra Datta. How he was disciplined to the core and used to meditate a lot! Adjacent to the house was a big pond where he would meditate and do his ‘jap’. The large pond where he used to meditate is filled up and now there are apartments and now stands a Sylhet Central College.

His cousin Promod Chandra Datta, former Raibahadur’s plot, houses Sylhet’s Diabetes Hospital. I was also shown the house of my grandfather’s neighbor Pochu Sen who had decided to stay on in the erstwhile East Pakistan. He was picked up by the Pakistani Army and killed near the airport in 1971. His body was never found. But when I was small, I remember my grandmother discussing how Pochu Sen was blindfolded and asked to dig his own grave before being shot dead. I saw his grand house.

Now it houses Government offices. I was told that my father was addressed as their ‘kaka’ meaning uncle and how they attended my first (Jethu’s) uncle’s marriage when he was very small and that he was part of borat (Bridegroom) party. That was 1940s.

My mother came from a very prosperous family. She got married to my father because he was a doctor. That was his only wealth after the partition of India in 1947. His education was his only pride. He did not own a land till the day he died. But he was born into a prestigious, illustrious and prosperous family who have been living in Sylhet since 12-13 century. My mother would sarcastically say that my father came from a poor family and all that he said about his house and wealth was farce. But my mother was wrong.

My father was right. He indeed had everything. But Partition of Indian subcontinent left him with no proof. But my brothers and myself knew father was right. I cried because how hard it must be for someone to have all and then become nothing. How hard it is to prove and tell your own wife that he had it all and seen all. How hard it is to see your house be occupied. How hard it must have been for my grandfather who fortunately did not live long (died in 1952) to leave their birthplace forever.

As far as my memory goes, my father and my grandma as well uncles did discuss that there was no religious animosity between two communities as they were growing up. The Pathshala (school) where my father attended had Muslim teachers who were nice and cordial just as you expect a teacher to be. I do not remember my grandma and uncles discussing about any major event that led to Partition except when leading up the independence when communal violence broke out. I remember my father telling me the day India became Independent, he hoisted a Pakistani flag in his house so that people think that they are not supporting India. Sylhet was one of two places where a referendum was held. My uncles voted number of times especially my fourth uncle who was finally caught.

My pishi (bua) went home and changed saris a number of times to vote couple of times. The ink on the finger could be erased by washing it with soap water. That was referendum. But then Hindus were outnumbered and it went to Pakistan. Long after the Partition that is after my grandfather passed away in 1952, my father came to Sylhet with my grandma. My grandfather owned acres and acres of land in a village called Mirasi.

I remember how he took grandma in a palki (palanquin) to go to the village. Why he went there? My father wanted to close the chapter in East Pakistan and make the peasants who tilled our land for centuries the real owners. They did not want anyone to cheat them. But the peasants were sad and told my father that they cannot take the land and cannot afford to buy it. They argued for some time and then my father told them “if you cannot take the land because you do not have money then give ma one taka and the land becomes yours”. They gave my father a taka on the ground and my father picked it up and they left. While narrating this to us a number of times my father’s eyes would well up with tears. My father tried closing the Sylhet chapter in 1952 for ever but closure is not easy. Not for him and not for me either.

History cannot be erased from a mind because his daughter stood in front of the place where he once lived more than sixty years later. His daughter is the only person in Dottoporibar to come here. I wanted to see what it feels to be at a place where your ancestors lived and died. More importantly to feel and think my father walking up and down the lane, playing with his four older brothers, running, going to school together.

I can just imagine. My uncles are dead. My aunt is no more. My father and mum no more. Who do I tell that history? For me it is important and so I am writing it. But then I am seized with anger and wonder why they lost hope? World has become small and closer. And life could be beautiful. That there is hope and that they should have held themselves and pulled themselves through the hard times. But then I was told the situation in 1947 prior to independence was very bad. When communal riots broke out, I remember my grandmother telling us the stories of how situation was tense and

how people were being targeted in the trains on either side of the border on the basis of their religion.

 

JAFLONG

 

I went delirious after visiting Puran Lane and when the Sylhet Police Commissioner, a thorough gentleman, offered to show in and around of Sylhet, I was a bit hesitant. I had initially said no but then I thought if they are reaching out to me why not.

We headed to Jaflong at 8 am in the morning. I was told it was 2-hour drive away from the main town. The road to Jaflong was beautiful with greenery all around on either side of the road. Dotted with numerous tea gardens, meadows, sheep and cows grazing, Jaflong is a natural tourist spot in Sylhet Division. It is situated at the border between Bangladesh and the Indian state of Meghalaya. It is just below the mountain range. It is also famous for its stone collections and is home of the Khasi tribe. (Wikipedia). I did not know this. I did not know where I was heading to except the name Jaflong which when I finally got there, was able to connect the small dots.

I remember my father and thakurma (grandmother) telling me that my grandfather who was a doctor would often go riding on horse in different places treating patients and come after a week or few days. Grandpa was reclusive by nature more so because of his troubled relationship with his father also used to attend auctions organized by the British in various places. On one such auction, he had bought a silver chhooner dani (small bowl for keeping lime) of a Jaintia Queen along with a dao (a Silver Blade) used for animal sacrifice probably.

On another occasion he had bought an American Bayonet of civil war or of World War I. This could not be brought to Kolkata during the partition as it could not be easily hidden unlike gold or silver and also because of the fear of being caught with an arm.

My father loved the bayonet and before leaving the house in Puran Lane had hidden it somewhere in the terrace. I remember him telling us if those who occupied the house, found it, they would not think good or positive about the family. But that was a family treasure which we lost forever. The silver ‘chooner dani’ is still with us.

As a child I would try to clean the white lime still stuck on the chooner dani but in vain. I also used to think the auction of the personal belongings of Khasi Queens must have been so painful. What happened to them? Why did the British auction their prized possessions?

I also wondered why on earth would he travel far and wide in various places, how did he go to auction houses in Meghalaya? Now I know. Since Jaflong is only 2-hour drive by car, reaching there on a horse and be back in a week was not that hard in early 1920’s or 1930’s. I had pictured my grandpa to be a little crazy. Now I know he was not.

In Jaflong, I got to see the Meghalaya and Bangladesh border. The Border Security Force patrolling and most importantly the Jaintia and Khasi Hills and the zero point. The green hills and the flowing river looked wonderful. It was serene and calm. My grandma used to pray a lot and along with some of her idols, we also inherited a set of small round crème/white and black colored stones that is kept next to idols even today and watered every day.

I do not know why it is watered but I do it as well till date. As a child I used to wonder where would the stones be coming from and what was the significance. Jaflong famous for its beautiful hills and river is also known for stone collection answered my puzzle that was in the back of head somewhere but no one knew or could answer.

My trip ended just as all beautiful things come to an end. I had intended to visit Mirasi in Hobibgunj district and see the paddy fields and check if anyone knew my grandfather anymore or at least my father but just did not have enough time.

Sylhet revived me with all the stories/anecdotes of my father, uncles and grandma. I could fit all that in a picture frame. The journey to Sylhet and back allowed me to weave a story and connect the loose ends which I have written down. It was an emotional as well as a fascinating experience. If only my father was alive, I would have told him how green is his Valley even today.

Aditi Datta is Senior Program Officer, Police Reforms Program, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and is based in New Delhi

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