From the roof of this two-story house the landscape of Bangladesh can be seen across the Ichamati River. It was a Sunday afternoon. Sripada Sarkar and I were sitting on the roof of their house looking at the river.
Sripada Sarkar was ten years older than I and I used to call him Sripadada. He was living in a joint family with his parents, his elder brother, his sister-in-law and his nephew. He had another elder brother who was living in Bangladesh. He also had two sisters both were married and living in Bangladesh. He finished his school, college and university education at Satkhira district in Bangladesh. He was working as a lecturer in a college before moving to India where he started working as a school teacher.
In their house they used to call people by their relation and not by name. For example he used to call his nephew as “Bhaipo” (means brother’s son). His sister-in-law used to call him as “Thakurpo” (means son of god). Sripadada used to call me “Chotobhai” (means younger brother).
The view from the roof of this house was excellent. Even though the river was wide but still people from the other side of the river could be seen. But overall, the areas on both sides of the river were sparsely populated, especially on the Bangladesh side.
“Is it possible to travel to Bangladesh just by crossing the river here”, I asked. I was trying to start some conversation with him. I did not have any real interest to know if one can travel to Bangladesh by crossing the river or by road or by flying. Sripadada generally did not talk much and the easiest way to make him talk was to ask question after question.
“There is no check post here, but I think if you want to travel to Bangladesh you can cross the river at Hasnabad which is another 3 kilometers from here or you can cross the land border at Itindaghat, which is closer to Basirhat, which is 13 kilometers behind. Every year during the Bijoya Dashami they open the border in Hasnabad to allow people to meet their relatives on each side.”
“If you cross the land border from Itindaghat”, Sripadada continued, “and travel few kilometers you will reach a small town called Bhomra. But if you cross the river Ichamati from Hasnabad, you will reach another small town called Debhata. Every year during the Durgapuja boat races are organized on Ichamati River in Hasnabad. People from both the countries participate in that race. This is done to create good will and harmony among people. The purpose of opening the border for few hours during the Bijoya Dashami is also the same. All these places across the border are in Satkhira district but the Satkhira District town is much closer to Bhomra as compared to Debhata. Almost every teacher in my school is from that district.”
“Do you sometimes feel like visiting the place where you grew up”, I asked, again trying to keep the conversation going.
“I will never travel to Bangladesh ever in my lifetime. People like me who lived there once probably would never like to go back or visit under any circumstances. Greener does not make it better.”
“But you lived the best part of your life there, you should be able to cherish that memory” I asked.
“It only brings back sad memories.”
“You know Chotobhai”, suddenly he said, “I liked a girl in Bangladesh. Her last name was Mukherjee, she was a Brahmin, same cast as yours”.
“You were in love!” I could not hide my surprise. He always appeared to me like a person who would abide by his parents’ wish for marriage. It was like a discovery for me.
“Does that sound improbable to you”, he sounded little comical.
“No, don’t get me wrong. I always find that you rarely talk. But when you are in love, she would expect you to talk something. You cannot remain silent all the time, right?”
“But what do you talk when you are with your friends in Calcutta?” he asked.
“Well, we discuss so many things.”
“Like what” he asked.
“We discuss sports, movies, books, and sometimes we discuss about foods of different restaurants and many other things.”
“Players play games, actors and directors make movies, authors write books, cooks cook food in restaurants, what is there to discuss about these things?” he asked.
“Well, we discuss about these things all the time and we discuss about them very seriously.”
“Take sports for example”, I continued, “we discuss about the football clubs of Calcutta, who should be the coaches for which club, which player should join which club, which player got how much money during the year, what mistakes the players made while playing, whether the center-forward passed the ball too late, which player is the best in delivering free kicks etc.”
“We discuss about cricket even more seriously. For example, why Gavaskar should not have taken the risk by taking short runs in test matches, why he should have given Kapil Dev to bowl more number of overs, who should be the opening batsman of the Indian team etc.”
“Regarding movies we discuss very serious things like who is better between Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen. We also discuss about Hindi film directors and actors like Govind Nihalni, Amol Palekar, Sreeram Lagu, Girish Karnad etc.”
“We also discuss about books, sometimes, not that we have the habit of reading much.”
“We discuss about restaurant foods, the restaurant has to be the least expensive of course.”
“And you discuss about them so seriously as if your opinion is going to make a difference?” he sounded sarcastic.
“Well, you may know”, he continued, “When you are with a girl, whom you like, you do not need to talk. You two just sit together near a river and watch the river flowing or sit on the grass and time goes by. It is an amazing feeling.”
“Absolutely no talk!” I could not control my surprise.
“Not like that, we used to talk little in between, but just by knowing that we are beside each other made us feel good” he said.
“So you two used to talk, may be few words. I thought you two never spoke to each other and still fell in love” I told.
“Not like that”, he smiled, “but there was no such compulsion that she has to speak 20 words per minute and I have to speak at least one word more than her.”
“What happened to her, your family did not accept her or her family did not accept you?”
“While living in Bangladesh we started realizing that it was not a safe country for us anymore. For the slightest disturbance of any kind our community was being targeted, our temples were desecrated; authority was not at all serious to protect us. While working as a lecturer I came to India to meet some distant relative of ours. The purpose was to find out if I could get some job so that we could migrate here. There was a huge demand for school teachers at that time and because of my teaching experience I could get a teacher’s job at a school in Taki without any difficulty. I joined the school immediately.”
“After working in the school for few weeks”, Sripadada continued, “I took leave for few days. I went back to Satkhira, Bangladesh. Since I had a job by then, things looked very positive. With a source of income in India, I could make my entire family move. Two of my sisters were already married and my eldest brother who always thought that one day Bangladesh will realize her mistake and merge with India remained in Bangladesh and rest all agreed to move to India. All I needed to do then was to rent a big house and send a signal to my family so that they could move to India together. It was decided that my other elder brother who was married and had a child will also find a job after coming here. When everything looked bright I went to meet her.”
“The same Brahmin girl, Mukherjee” I asked.
“Who else it could be”, Sripadada said.
“Again two of you remained silent all the time staring at the river and counting waves”, I asked.
“No”, he smiled, “this time I spoke. I told everything in detail, about every bit of the plan. Then I asked her if I could meet her father asking him for her hand”.
“You never met her father before?” I asked.
“No. But it was known to both the families. There were not too many families left in our small town and the number was dwindling, so cast did not remain as a barrier, at least for these two families.”
“Then what happened”, suddenly I found it very interesting.
“She declined and asked me to go to India and never meet her again. I looked at her and found that her cheeks were getting flooded with tears, she was not even trying to wipe it out lest it became obvious; she turned her face away from me to avoid any kind of eye contact. We sat for a long time. She never looked at me again. I finally stood up pretending to leave her. But I watched her from a distance to make sure that she did not jump into the river or not been attacked by any local. When I realized that she had reached home safely I went back home.”
I was surprised. It appeared to me that something was missing, it did not add up to. In the first place, if her parents had found a groom for her during his absence she would tell him, after all they were never engaged, and the most important of all is that why would she cry? And if she did not love him anymore she would not meet him alone and sit so long together.
“Why did she change her mind all of a sudden? You went to India only for one month or so, what possibly could have happened in such a short time”, I asked.
“She wanted to tell me something, which I already knew but probably she never thought that I knew it. Even if she knew that I knew it, probably she still wanted to tell me by her own mouth. But my sudden visit to India, immediately finding a job and making an immediate plan to shift the family to India, all these events happened so quickly for her that she could not figure out how to say those to me. After all it was a very difficult subject to talk.”
I was completely lost and gave a blank look waiting for him to continue.
He waited for a while probably trying to figure out how to resume.
“There house was being robbed multiple times”, he started, “his father was a poor Brahmin, whose only source of income was to do puja into people’s houses. He had two grown up daughters, one of them was the one I talked about and the other one was two years older than her. He also had a son who was still in school. “
“But Sripadada, what robbing the house had anything to do with her sudden change in behavior”, I asked.
He again waited for a while. I observed that he is not looking at my eyes, his face looked very different, I could observe from the side.
“There house was being robbed not for stealing any material goods, they had nothing, no jewelries, no costly furniture, nothing. It was the house of a poor Brahmin priest. Locals used to raid their house at night as robbers for other purpose. I knew it and that was another reason why I was in a hurry to move to India so that along with my family I could also move her family to India, so that two families could be saved. She and her sister were the victims for no fault of theirs. They were very poor, as a result of which they were at the mercy of the locals who took full advantage of their precarious situation.”
“So you are saying that if she could have told you those things by herself and after listening from her if you still would have proposed to her, things would have turned in a different way”, I asked.
“Yes, I think so. But things happened so fast, it did not give her enough time to prepare herself. After all it is an extremely difficult thing to talk.”
“Then instead of leaving her once and for all why could you not tell her that you knew everything that she had gone through, that it was not her fault, and she was the same person and would always remain the same and you could not live without her”. I immediately realized that I did not even think a second before telling those words to him. If I would have thought, either I would not have spoken those words to him or told in a different way.
He suddenly fell silent. His silence appeared very disturbing to me. After all it was me who was at fault. I should not have spoken so direct on such a sensitive matter. I was completely at a loss about what to do next. It was night already, I had a plan to stay in their house that night and leave for Calcutta the next morning, but realizing that things had become too sensitive and not knowing what to do next I was thinking if I could try for the last bus to Calcutta. Being Sunday, probably the last bus had left by then, I thought; so the only remaining option would be to take the train. Sripadada probably realized that I was feeling very uncomfortable by his sudden silence. With a gesture of his hand he asked me to be patient. I turned my head and saw tears in his eyes. I never had any prejudice to believe that a man should not cry and that crying is the prerogative of women only. But the very thought that I made someone cry was very disturbing. After all this family was so nice to me, I always felt as if I am in my own house whenever I visited them. I used to visit their house frequently and every single time I felt the same warmth in their behavior. I started looking at the land across the river. I could see complete darkness, not even a streak of light could be seen, as if it had metamorphosed into nothing or rather into a possibility.
At last he spoke; his eyes were still wet and swollen. “Probably that is what I should have told her and not come back without her. But I could not think of these words at that moment. If I could I would.”
Author: Mintu Ghoshal
Follow him on facebook: mintu.ghoshal.9