There has been a significant increase of interest in the Partition of India since the fiftieth year of Indian Independence in 1997. It is a crucial time to reflect, look back and weigh what India gained or lost as a result of such disruption. Bengal, like Punjab, was partitioned at the time of the formation of the new nation Pakistan and the reconfiguration of India as a nation. However, unfortunately, as per the research that I have done so far, it appears that the works available for retelling the story of Partition on the Bengal side is far less than that of the Punjab borders. However, the experiences of Partition on the eastern front was very different from that on its western border.
Urvashi Butalia rightly pointed out a serious gap in the historiography of Partition – the omission of the experiences in Bengal and East Pakistan (Bangladesh), which, in her opinion, required detailed attention in their own right (Seminar, vol.420, August 1994). The focus that was given mainly covered the history, politics and social background which led to Bengal’s Partition, but the actual experience of the people who were affected by Partition has perhaps not been explored in much depth. Such narratives can be recovered from oral histories and interviews or gleaned from the fiction which retells the violence, the trauma, the small acts of humanity which the people, riot-torn or dislocated or those who found themselves in the ‘wrong’ country, experienced. My interest in studying Partition triggered by a personal experience. As a child, I heard a conversation between my mother and our domestic help.
She was asking for leave as she had to visit her native place. I remember clearly her mentioning of the word ‘Desh’ instead of village while referring to her native village. I got really confused. ‘Desh’ means country and not village. So why was this woman repeatedly using the term country as a synonym for the word native village? It was then that I realized the complexity of nation, identity, and sense of belongingness with one’s homeland. Her original native village was a different country.
She was a refugee from Bangladesh, who now lived in West Bengal. So the idea of one’s own place becomes a whole country rather than a specific place. So even though she might not have been able to actually ever go back to her country, but by referring the new home in the alien country as ‘my country’ rather than ‘my village’ somehow fulfills that sense of absence. Whenever a Bengali from erstwhile East Bengal (later East Pakistan and now Bangladesh), meets another Bengali, she /he would always ask in the course of the introductory conversation, ‘Where are you from?’ A closer reading of such a question could be deciphered as ‘Are you from East Bengal or West Bengal? Which district?’ The sense of dislocation and displacement which accompanies the declared refugee or undeclared refugee from East Bengal, remains evident in this question, which further sets the stage for establishing a sense of identity along regional lines in the land of the Padma, which triggers a whole familiar process of longing, nostalgia and loss for those ‘good old days’, against the current ones of endless struggle and recreating their identities from the scratch.