Both of my husband’s parents immigrated to West Bengal as very small children from what became known as East Pakistan at the time of India’s independence –now the country of Bangladesh.
If you saw the movie, Gandhi, you might remember the scenes depicting millions of people, Hindus and Muslims, moving on foot from the newly formed country of Pakistan to India, and visa versa. It was known as the Partition, and some say it was devised by the British to leave the region in a state of discord –and therefore weakness.
The fear was that Muslims wouldn’t be fairly represented in predominantly Hindu India, so, against the advise of Gandhi and others, Pakistan was created to provide Muslims a country where they formed the majority.
Refugees on both sides left everything behind and traveled on foot hundreds of miles to an uncertain future. My mother and father-in-law were among them, as toddlers carried in the arms of their mothers.
My husband’s paternal grandfather, a minister in the court of the regional Hindu king, was killed amidst the chaos. His wife and children escaped by submerging themselves in a pond and breathing through hollow reeds.
Over 60 years have passed, and still neither side is satisfied.
In fact, so much of each country’s money is now spent on its military (to protect it from the other), that little is left over for things like infrastructure, education and disaster relief.
The following is not the story of nations but of a Muslim boy I met while visiting my in-laws in predominantly Hindu India.
It’s about the ideology of partition.
It was Autumn in the state of West Bengal. The weather had cooled down and the town of Krishnagar was buzzing with anticipation for the annual Jagaddhatri Puja festival.
This is a time when the various areas of the town raise funds to create neighborhood pandala, elaborate, temporary temples constructed with bamboo scaffolding and often covered with intricately carved banana tree bark, coconut husks and/or plenty of flowers.
It’s like the Rose Parade –except it’s not a parade. In order to see all of the pandala, you have to take a bicycle-rickshaw or Bus #11 (that is, you have to walk) through the town.
In each pandala is found a deity of Jagaddhatri, constructed especially for the festival using clay from the nearby Ganges River. When the festival is over, she is ceremoniously placed into the river to dissolve back into the earth.
Frequently, you also find a small band of traditional musicians playing harmonium, mridanga drum and, my favorite, shenai. A shenai is a small reed instrument similar to an oboe, and it emits a sound so sublime it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
Some saints say it’s the sound a liberated soul hears upon entering the spiritual world.
Anyway, it was in this festive environment that I was introduced to my husband’s family, their friends, and to the places of his childhood.
Among them was a teenaged boy named Bacchu Sheik, who worked as an electrician in my in-laws’ home but was considered a family friend. His father, who is Muslim, had gone to the same primary school that my husband attended years later.
Though Hindus and Muslims generally live segregated lives in India, there existed a warmth between the families that transcended their painful, respective histories.
When I got to Krishnagar, you’d think a visiting dignitary had arrived. Nearly every day, my husband and I were invited to dine at another of his friends’ homes. I was gifted with silk saris, salwar kameez outfits and gold jewelry. As they were considered belated wedding gifts, there was no question of my refusing them.
But of all the homes we visited, there was something special about Bacchu Sheik’s…It was a very modest structure in the Muslim part of town, and it housed all of the members of his extended family –each of whom came to greet me when we arrived.
They spoke no English, and I, no Bengali. So I just sat by my husband in the dimly lit, multi-purpose room, a little embarrassed, as Mrs. Sheik brought out coffee which had been purchased especially for my (American) benefit and was, in all likelihood, beyond their means.
It was accompanied by glucose biscuits, milk sweets and all the affection one would afford a returning family member.
On the day we were to leave, young Bacchu came by the house to deliver some parting gifts: two clay figurines of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and a set of beautiful Radha-Krishna icons mounted in a decorative, bell-jar encasement.
In other words, he gave us cherished objects of Vaishnava Hindu culture.
The boy was gone before I had a chance to thank him personally.
But if I had, I would like to have told him, Salaam alaikum.
Peace to you.
This post was inspired by the controversy surrounding the proposed building of a Mosque in the neighborhood of the former World Trade Center. A civil discussion about it is welcome. Or share whatever is on your mind.
- What role does partition play in your life?
- Is the ideology of partition present in modern culture?
- What is it in human nature that brings us to it?
Have a great weekend, everyone! Be kind and be well.