Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Memories and a book review: Victory Colony, 1950

 What are your deepest fears? Can you even comprehend why you have them? One of my most long standing fears is the fear of being displaced, whether by a man-made calamity such as a war, or by natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods! During the India-China war of '62, I was very young, and we were living abroad, but I do remember much parental glumness at the time. The 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan were a lived reality: living in Delhi meant that you were vulnerable. There were trenches dug in the common gardens of our colony, and all our windows were darkened with black paper. My father worked in the Chief of Army Staff's secretariat, so he certainly knew more than he ever let on. We lived in Lodi Colony, our flat overlooking Meher Chand Market, which was a very local, downmarket kind of market back then, not the swish place it has become in this millenium. The war of 1971 had just been declared on the radio, my father had not yet returned from office, and some moronic shopkeeper had lit a bonfire on the roof of his shop. It was early December, and cold, especially since the market backed onto part of the Ridge, a forested area where the calls of the jackals would terrify me. (This area was later absorbed by the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium).  My intrepid mother, all five feet of her, marched down to the shops and made sure that the fire was immediately put out, and that we were not likely to be bombarded that night due to sheer carelessness!

My knowledge of Delhi's geography was largely formed by bus rides and by the buses themselves!   The destination boards held names of places which sounded exotic until they became familiar. Naraina, Najafgarh, Safdarjang, Madras Hotel, R.K. Puram, Janakpuri... As the city grew, the range and extent of bus destinations grew too. I remember asking my father where EPDP Colony was. It sounded rhythmic, euphonious even. We knew about Partition, although our U.P. origin family did not suffer directly because of it. The Punjab part of the story of Partition was far more familiar to us Delhi folk. EPDP stood for East Pakistan Displaced Persons, a legacy of the peculiar creation of a country with two distinct wings, separated by another country. This colony was formed in the early sixties, and renamed Chittaranjan Park in the eighties. 

Living in different parts of the country has been enriching! My recent years in Kolkata introduced me to the culinary, and other rivalry between the Bangal and the Ghoti. I discovered that many of my friends had ancestors from across the River Padma. Bengalis were not the homogenous mass I thought they were when I was in school! (Quite incidentally, I went to a school with a large Bengali population.) A brief visit to Bangladesh in 2011 was also a revelation. Our visit to Sheikh Mujib Ur Rehman's house was heartbreaking, the site of a massacre, where the blood stained stair case speaks of the horrors of the violence unleashed upon an entire family. The countryside was exquisitely beautiful, as were the exquisite weaves and handicrafts, yet the history of this young country has been a painful one. Let me ask you here to travel back in time, when Bangladesh was not even a dream, to a time when East Bengal was made into East Pakistan, and a vast number of people came to West Bengal as refugees. 

Bhaswati Ghosh writes about this period in her book, Victory Colony 1950. Amala and Kartik, the children of fisher folk, have lost their parents in a fishing accident, soon after which the horrors of Partition are unleashed. Their Muslim neighbours shelter them until such time as they can be helped to catch a train to Kolkata. The two youngsters get off the train at Sealdah station, an overwhelming, immensely crowded, stinking, noisy place, a huge contrast for those coming from the quiet, coastal countryside. Amala goes to look for some food for her younger brother, Kartik, who is faint with hunger. She comes back empty handed to find her cloth bundle where she had left it, but her brother has vanished. She is devastated. Manas Dutta and his group of friends are college students who are working as volunteers to help settle the refugees. When the howling Amala is threatened by the police, Manas insists on taking her, and other refugees from the station, to the Gariahata Refugee Relief Centre. He has all the necessary approvals. Innoculations are administered and formalities completed before they can leave for the camp.

Life in a refugee camp is by no means easy. Amala is housed with an elderly couple, who become her surrogate family. She is tormented by the absence of her brother, but dares not share her story with others. Going back to Sealdah Station to look for him is her secret goal.

Bhaswati's detailed descriptions make each scene come alive. You can see the old barracks and the tents that make up the camp, and taste the watery gruel that is the only food on offer. You feel the acute pain of those whose lives have been overthrown by a turbulence not of their making. When Manas tries to find out about her life in her village home, Amala snaps "What village, ha ? Do I have any village, Babu? What stories do you want to hear? Why? To see if my mouth bleeds when I tell them? Or so you can feel happy it's not your story?"

 Over time, Amala and the other refugees do settle into a routine, where they are assigned certain duties in the camp. There are characters that claw at your heart with their pain, survivors of unspeakable violence that has robbed them of their sanity.

Manas comes from a well to do family, and lives with his widowed mother, grandfather, and a loyal staff . His mother is not very happy about his social service activities, especially as she is steeped in tradition and doesn't care for her son mingling with lower castes. A sensitive young man, Manas is often struck by the contrast between his own life and the lives of those in the refugee camps. His diary entries reveal his sensitivity: So many people have been left without anywhere to go. God knows how many more are to come. All of them had a home, a patch of land, cows and hens to call their own. Now all they possess are small bundles of clothes and a few utensils if they are lucky. oh and the flesh and bones on their bodies. That's about it, for they have even lost the dignity of being a human. I don't understand why this was necessary to gain freedom. I won't be with them forever, but misfortune will not leave them anytime soon- that I am certain of.

 After a while, the government grants start drying up and food rations dwindle. Malnutrition is rampant, and yet, 'despite such bickering over the belly's fire, it amazed Manas to see how admirably civil the camp atmosphere remained.' Also, 'The very fact that these men and women didn't look beyond what each day brought helped them survive what was essentially an unlivable life.'

There is a great need for economic activity to help sustain the refugees. One step is the setting up of sewing classes. Manik, one of the volunteers, has a widowed aunt (his mother's cousin) who is willing to teach the women in the camp. Bhaswati paints a vivid picture of Manas's first meeting with her. 'It also seemed to him as if he could talk to Chitra about anything, ask her any question without offending her...Manas realised how different it was from when he was with his mother. There, he struggled to find common ground for a two-way conversation. He rarely shared the things he was most passionate about with her; she just wouldn't get it, wrapped as she was in her cosy world of gods, gold, saris and neighbourhood gossip.'

After several months in the camp, with its diminishing government support and inconveniences, the younger members of the camp realize that there is no going back, and they will have to make a life for themselves in this new country. With the help of a local Left Front leader, they had set up a new colony by occupying a large tract of unused land some twenty kilometers away, near Shibpur. The land reportedly belonged to a local zamindar. Of course they are attacked by the zamindar's men and clashes between the groups continue for several days. The state government intervenes and settles the matter by promising monetary compensation to the zamindar. Thus Victory Colony is born.

Rich in it's details, Victory Colony 1950 is a book that needs to be read and re-read. It is, ultimately, a book about the triumph of the human spirit, of love, adventure, commitment to ideals, about individuals who make a difference. Bhaswati's writing is often poetic, always elegant in its simplicity. Do read this beautiful book. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Denizens of the Seventh Floor

It's been five years since we moved to this apartment up on the seventh floor, more or less identical to the one we were staying in, two blocks away in the same complex. Our seventh heaven! And then you realize that apartment blocks also have many non-human residents. The day we moved in, I was absolutely shocked to discover ants crawling into the biscuit container, within hours of our stuff reaching this flat, and getting into all kinds of foodstuffs almost by magic. When we told our landlord's niece, who lives close by, and who was our go to person for all apartment related issues, she said this was the first she was hearing of ants. Pest control was called, and the ant issue was sorted. Every year, when a cockroach or two manifests, we know it's time to renew our pest control contract. 

And then, we discovered a squirrel getting into the chimney's exhaust pipe. It would, very charmingly, skitter up to the balcony with bits of fluff, clamber up the gas pipe, and hop into the exhaust pipe. (It had a cover, but the gaps were large enough for a little squirrel to get into). I love our desi squirrels, they are small and charming, unlike their rather intimidating giant American cousins. However, I had heard horror stories of my cousin's air conditioner wires being destroyed by squirrels, so this little creature wasn't welcome. My helper opened up the exhaust vent and pulled out a huge bundle of fluff and cotton waste, and a tiny baby squirrel, which, sadly, didn't survive. That was the last of the squirrels visiting us. 

The house lizards mostly live in the balcony, a big fat one lurking on the screen door.                              

Thirsty wasps fly all the way up too, to drink from the pots!   

We are, very occasionally, blessed by a visit from sun birds, singing lustily, at a volume that belies their tininess. Happiness is a visiting sparrow. Happiness is not our unwanted guests, the prolifically pooping pigeons. 

They are the most unwelcome visitors. I have no visceral hatred of pigeons per se. They are birds with an interesting history, as messengers, as pigeon post, bred by pigeon fanciers. Their gleaming, iridescent, rich green, purple and magenta neck feathers are beautiful. I even find their guttural, throaty gutur goo sounds pleasant. We used to put out water for them, but then learned that their dropping are toxic and can cause serious respiratory diseases, so we stopped that practice. I didn't like the thought of them dying of thirst, so although the wretched birds are not good to my potted plants (they land their fat heavy bodies on delicate stems sometimes), they come every morning and drink from the pots once I've watered them. They seem to be territorial: our housing complex is probably home to hundreds of pigeons, but they seem to have an allotment system that works. There is a group of three which visits my balcony every morning, and hopefully drink their fill. (They seem to thrive in family groups of three: I remember my younger son, then five, and I naming the greediest one Piggyon, the lurking one was Suspigeon, and the third, unimaginatively, was Friend Pigeon).

What's the problem then, you may well ask.

This is the problem! They have not only ruined the balcony fan (it no longer works), but find it a convenient spot for both dozing and pooping. This is totally unacceptable to me. I have now morphed into the mad woman who can be seen, several times a day, chasing the pigeons with a stick. One evening I cruelly chased off a sleeping pair, and felt quite guilty about it. Fortunately, the guilt didn't last long. Even my poor helper gets sick of the amount of pigeon poop she has to clean. These past couple of weeks have me peeping out of the screen door every time I visit the kitchen, making sure there are no pigeons on the fan. They do try their luck every morning, and then seem to give up, by eleven or so. Have I successfully trained them? I don't know. But I seriously wonder, who exactly is the bird brain out here???

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Book review: From Son to Stranger

 Much neglected though it has been, my blog turned 13 years old on the 29th August. A milestone indeed. Being part of a community of bloggers has been very enriching, and the friendships forged in those days, with originally faceless, like-minded people, have continued for over a decade. (Facebook has now made us able to recognize our formerly faceless friends!)  One such blog friend is the redoubtable Ritu Lalit, who used to blog at Phoenixritu, and now at http://blog.ritulalit.com/.                                                           

 We lived in different cities, and I vaguely hoped to bump into her once I had moved to the NCR, although Faridabad, where she lived, didn't really seem to be in my orbit. And then she moved,  and meetings with her and other Gurgaon friends were planned but didn't happen. In December 2018, I ventured to Quill and Canvas, to attend a programme with the authors of Escape Velocity, a beautiful collection of short stories written and published by the Write and Beyond group. I was absolutely delighted to see Ritu there, and once the programme was over, we decided to have lunch together, at a restaurant in the same mall. 

Ritu told me about her latest project, the book she was writing about parents who were estranged from their adult children. It is a book that I wish did not need to be written, but sadly, it does. And none does it better than Ritu Lalit. She writes with courage and honesty, sharing the intensity of her emotions and the ways she found to overcome the emotional trauma of estrangement from her older son. In searching for a community who shared this grief, she set out methodically to research the issue, with a well thought out questionnaire. Initially, very few parents cared to respond, but over time, and with the promise of complete anonymity, she found herself inundated with responses. 

She cites statistics, coping mechanisms, tragic stories where old parents are robbed of their property and then abandoned, stories where the elderly parent turns the tables on the greedy offspring, the camaraderie and grief of the residents old age homes, Japanese concepts of Satori and Kensho, her harsh inner critic, blame games, the stages of grief, journaling as a way of coping, meditation, positive affirmations, and so much else. The most heart breaking are the unsent letters she writes to her son, whom she continues to love and cherish, despite being completely cut off from him. It is a rich and warm and wonderful book. I read it as soon as it was published, but it has taken me time to process, not helped by the lockdown, of course. It is one of the most unusual books I have read, well worth reading. Powerful insights on both parenting and Life!