I was standing on the bridge of one of the world’s last paddle steamers as it pulled away from Dhaka’s frenetic ferry terminus at Sadarghat. This ancient ship’s master, Abdul Salam, cut a striking figure in his dapper white uniform and his bright orange beard. Salam steered his vessel through the Buriganga, thick with boats large and small, motorised and not, towards the quiet waters of the Dhaleshwari. Chatting with him and his second mate, Riajul, it quickly became clear that all three of us were from Borishal. More accurately, my father was and I had never been. Borishal had been not so much a place as a placeholder I had carried around like a gauzy heirloom. But the moment on that bridge was far from gauzy. The two grizzled sailors were transformed; they exuberantly proclaimed me as their own, the late sun glancing off their brimming eyes. They were going to carry me to Borishal, the land of my grandmother’s dreams, to which no one from my family had returned in 61 years.
My father was a refugee from what is now Bangladesh. Bapi crossed over to Calcutta with his mother and several younger siblings in early 1948. Like many of his ilk, he rode the storm with a brawny mix of intellect and industry, and carried his large family to the harbour of middle class. I don’t know what he thought when he saw us kids get addicted to TV serials like Buniyaad and Tamas in the 1980s, which reopened 1947’s western gash and tattooed the wounds on the national psyche. We breathed with Anita Kanwar’s Lajjo, savouring on our tongues the contours of unfamiliar words like “praaji” and “beeji”. If Bapi felt that stories from the other gash should also play on the national airwaves, he never mentioned it.
And he always made it clear that he felt no urge to return to his birthplace.
Decades later, I had felt the urge and had acted on it, returning to India after 13 years in the US. Perhaps having negotiated the fraught landscape of my own return, I felt equipped to take on the journey Bapi would not, even though I could barely imagine his landscape.
The bus to Dhaka was full of Bangladeshis returning home, flush with shopping from Calcutta. Shortly after leaving town, the bus hurtled north on Jessore Road, witness to millions of emaciated, broken bodies, dragging themselves towards Calcutta in late 1971. In my mind, our bus pushed upstream on that excruciating exodus of the living dead. To distract myself, I outlined my travel plan to the friendly man sitting next to me: board an overnight ferry from Dhaka that would take me to Jhalokathi via Borishal; once there, ask around and track down Bapi’s ancestral village, Bikna. He thought this was sheer lunacy. His surrogate anxiety poured out in a torrent: this was July, the rivers were all in spate, ferries capsize all the time, and the countryside is a sea of mud. For the rest of the 12-hour ride, he helpfully painted lurid pictures of the dangers of travelling in monsoon Bangladesh.
Just two hours in, we were at the Indo-Bangla border where we had to get off the bus, exit the gate at Petrapole, walk across no-man’s land, and enter Bangladesh at Benapole. An international border encourages the anticipation of ‘otherness’. If there is an otherness to rural Bangladesh, it escaped me. An equally laden monsoon sky swooped down on equally verdant paddy and jute. And then I noticed an eerie absence. The smiling eyes and luminous skin of the women of rural Bengal were nowhere to be found.
On the steamer to Borishal, my sailor friends had spread their word: “She’s going home, after 61 years!” The excitement amongst the crew was palpable; it had become their project. Someone volunteered that he knew exactly where Bikna is, and would direct the rickshaw-wala once we moored at Jhalokathi in the morning. There was speculation: how can there not be at least a few relatives around? And when they see her, will they let her go? I happily rode the waves these men cradled me in, and wondered if Bapi would be as easily unmoored. Perched on the bridge, I was glued to a brazen sunset against a cloud-flecked sky. Just as the oranges and pinks faded to pale blue, the moon rose over the majestic Meghna. Silhouetted in the moon-dappled waters, a lone fishing dinghy lit its oil lamp.
The commotion outside woke me up at 5 am. It was still dark out. The powerful beam of the steamer’s searchlight pierced the fog: we were docking at Borishal town. As kids, my grandmother used to tell us that Borishal is our “desh”—that chameleon word that can mean so many different things. She used to say, within Borishal district, past Jhalokathi town, there is village named Bikna. As these names rolled off her tongue, her angular face would soften with a mix of pain and pleasure that wouldn’t escape us even as kids. So here I had arrived at that “desh”, which is perhaps not a place at all but a state of mind.
It would be three more hours of sailing to Jhalokathi. I settled on the bridge and watched a watery dawn break over a waterworld. We sailed along the meandering Kirtankhola river, its shores dotted with rain-trees, their enormous canopies nearly touching the water. The massive Padma river system flows over Borishal district en route to the sea, covering it in a dense filigree of smaller rivers and canals. In between the canals was an improbably green land chequered with grey, where the shallow beels reflected the monsoon sky. Salam had come up and we shared the scene in silence. Then he said, “This Borishal of ours, yours and mine, there is no place quite like it.”
As I disembarked at Jhalokathi, my sailor friends accompanied me to the rickshaw stand. A small crowd gathered as the story of my “return” gathered steam. Finally, the rickshaw-wala over-rode the chatter: “Yes, yes, Bikna. But where in Bikna?” This is the moment I had been dreading. I really didn’t know where in Bikna. I had come all this way on the wings of ancient memory shards. So I tenuously ventured: isn’t there a banyan tree where the Bashonda canal branches off into a narrower canal that enters Bikna? The ensuing silence was deafening. Then someone suggested, “Take her to Shashodhar Nath, he’s an old-timer, he’ll know.”
Shashodhar Nath is an acid and profound man, with a tower of dreadlocks on his head. He was born in Bikna and never left in his 75 years, except for a few months in 1971 when the retreating Pakistani army’s massacre had reached a fever pitch. He said that he had known my family, and, yes, he knew exactly where their homestead was, though no one from the family remains and the house is long gone. So could he please take me there? He abruptly shut down and became extremely cagey. He gave me detailed directions but wouldn’t accompany me.
Following Nath’s direction for just a few minutes, I jubilantly walked into my mental map. There it was: the banyan tree where a narrow canal branches off to enter Bikna. And like every banyan tree in the Subcontinent, it had its attendant group of hangers-on. This group, though, was unduly hostile. I was struggling to tame my rising bile, when a woman volunteered to be my guide. I followed her as she walked at a brisk pace, all the while muttering, “Coming all this way, ah, the mysteries of root-ache!”
We walked on a brick-parquet path along the canal, over a bridge that Bapi had said was bamboo but is now cement, past the Kali temple he knew as a child that now lay in ruins, past homes and women doing dishes at a pond. And finally through a break in a hedge, we emerged at a clearing. “This is where the house stood,” she said. A large atchala home, my grandmother used to say, eight roofs. The lot was now a paddy field, an iridescent green carpet of new shoots. I walked on the raised aisle and tried to channel the ghosts of my ancestors.
A gaggle of kids had been following me around. One of them, Saiful, a bright-eyed boy of ten, asked: “Was this your family’s land?” Yes. “Are you here to take it away?” So this, then, was the key to the hostility and cageyness. The guilt-riddled insecurity of squatting has to be truly pervasive to touch a ten-year old. And this fear had been recently amplified because Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League had just swept the Islamist BNP from power and promised to investigate the return of absentee property upon proof of ownership.
I assured Saiful that I wasn’t going to take the land. But maybe he could get me a handful of earth? He jumped into the paddy and held up a fistful of runny mud—not at all handy for transport. So I asked him to come back up and get me some of the sticky earth from the aisle. He made me a 3 inch ball with a few blades of grass in it. As if on cue, the skies opened up.
In the end it was clear that Bapi had been right all along: there wasn’t much to do upon return other than measure what was lost. Every child of refugee parents in Bengal grows up hearing stories of the “other side” and much of that is burnished gold. My grandmother told us about the acres of paddy, the mountains of fruit, the plethora of fish, the festivals year around. I can’t dispassionately judge what Bikna was like 60 years ago, but today it is a sleepy, rural speck to which I felt no connection and had no trouble leaving behind. This underscored what I had learned as a returnee to India: that returning is just another journey.
The ball of earth travelled well in a paper envelope in my pocket. It was still moist when I was back home in Calcutta a couple of days later. Bapi looked dislocated when I handed it to him; he was unsure what to do with it. He briefly placed it within his shrine of gods until the rationalist in him took over and he set it out on his terrace garden in a small planter. The season was of rains. And the grass, that most resilient of plants, struck root.