I’ve been always waiting for this day to write something about my family. In school we had to write essays on family. I still remember how much I hated all those days. It used to be the most boring thing to do. Days and years have passed and then suddenly I felt the urge to write something about my family. I don’t remember what exactly I used to write in the essays back in school. But I’m sure I never wrote what I’m going to write now.
I’d really love to write a novel someday about my family…
Let me start with my grandmother, my father’s mother, Saraju Bala Das. She had died in 1986, when I was just 13 years old. I never spent much time with her. But I grew up with fascinating stories about her since my childhood days. Her life is one of the most enchanting ones I’ve ever heard.
She had lost her parents at a very early age and was brought up by her maternal uncle. This part of her life is least known to anyone in my family because perhaps she herself never told anything to anyone. None of her children had ever seen or heard about any of her relatives. The only time that she went to her uncle’s home after her marriage was when her uncle had expired. She had taken my eldest aunt, then a toddler, with her and this aunt happens to be the only one who had seen at least a few of my grandmother’s people from her maiden life. From the very fact that she was kept illiterate till marriage – and she remained so till her death- we all could deduce very well that she didn’t have a good life with her uncle’s family. She was married off to my grandfather, who had been already married twice by then and had four children three of whom were even older than my grandmother at the time of her marriage. The first marriage of my grandfather had been sometime in the early childhood and the first wife had died even before he became an adult. The second wife survived longer and bore the four children. After the death of the second wife people had advised him to marry once again just to have someone to take care of the family. It was an arrangement, that my grandmother’s uncle had done in lieu of some financial benefit, that my grandmother got married to Rajendranath Das, my grandfather when she was still in her early teens.
My grandfather never had much time to spend with my grandmother. He was a practicing Ayurveda and stayed away from home for most of the time. My grandmother adapted herself into his family. All his three daughters, all older than my grandmother and already married with children, did welcome her into the house and called her ‘Ma’, something which even I remember. Very soon she engrossed herself completely into the various household activities. She became famous for her culinary skills and very soon she used to be invited to cook for the whole village in marriages – something that she kept on doing relentlessly.
Gradually she had six children, my father being the second youngest one. Her kids never got much of her time as she used to be always busy in work. My father was raised by one of her step-sisters, the youngest one from my grandfather’s second marriage.
Gradually her kids grew up and got married. By the middle of 1940’s the eldest two kids, one son and one daughter were married and settled in Calcutta. The other four kids were still in our ancestral village of Gaila in the Barishal district of present Bangladesh, when it was getting more and more clear that staying in Bangladesh would become difficult in coming years. The political unrest had already begun, communal riots were getting more and more common. People were hearing harrowing stories of Noakhali riots, where Mahatma Gandhi himself had to go in person to calm down tension. Finally when the partition happened it was decided that my father and his elder brother and sister would leave for India for good leaving behind their parents and new born toddler youngest sister.
I still remember how many times I wanted to hear each and every details of the last day at Gaila. My uncle, father’s elder brother, remembers each and every minute detail of that day even after sixty years. After that fateful day my father and his two siblings never met their mother for the next seventeen years and their father ever. My grandfather had decided to stay back in Bangladesh despite the threat to their lives because he preferred that more than the ignominious life at relatives’ place or refugee camps in Calcutta. But he didn’t want his kids to risk their lives. But there was no one to take the three young kids – my father five years old, his elder brother and sister twelve and nine years old respectively – to Calcutta. So finally they sailed off on their own, banking just on their fates, to India on an eventful and never ending journey on steamers and trains amidst all unknown and hostile people and fear of getting killed anytime. I believe my father was too young to understand the enormity of the events. My uncle had a much tough time because he knew where they were headed. He knew very well that he might not see his parents ever in his life. At the tender age of twelve my uncle seemed to grow up a hundred years just in a few days.
The days in Calcutta were full of hardship but filled with life and hope. The next decade, when India was also struggling through its infancy after birth, shaped the life of my father and his siblings. Away from their home and parents, they were raised by their elder sisters. Finally by the mid-sixties my father had become an engineer from Jadavpur University and his elder brother joined the shipping corporation in Calcutta. That was when my grandfather had expired and my grandmother came to Calcutta along with her youngest daughter. My father saw his mother and sister after almost eighteen years. It’s beyond my imagination how my father would have felt when he met his mother after so long. I never asked him about this. Neither did he ever say anything about the day.
After that my grandmother survived twenty more years, saw each of her kids getting married and settled in life. She had seen all of her grand-sons and grand-daughters and also a few great-grand-sons and great-grand-daughters in her lifetime.
Till the last day she remained illiterate. But she never lacked any maturity. All her kids used to always seek her advises in most of the family matters till the last day of her life. Even I never felt that she couldn’t write her own name. She knew most of the mythological stories to the finest details. She used to enthral us with so many stories with moral values that I kept on wondering what actually, if any, she has lacked in not getting a formal education.
My father, Nikhil Kumar Das, is perhaps one of the best examples of the theory that education is the only thing that can alleviate a society and civilization from poverty and darkness to prosperity. I believe there’s only two classes in the world – educated and uneducated. Everything else comes from that. An illiterate person belonging to an upper caste is just an outcaste in front of an educated Dalit. In today’s world education is perhaps more important than ever. In today’s world education is power.
My father was just a refugee – one of the million faceless and nameless entities that kept pouring into India after the partition. The term ‘refugee’ is perhaps something whose meaning is understood only by them who have been refugees themselves. It’s perhaps best understood by a tree which has been uprooted from its own soil of hundred years and planted somewhere else in a different climate and soil. The tree dies in the new soil. But the refugees don’t die easily. They keep on fighting for their survival, just like animals. Anyone who has seen a refugee camp would understand that it’s nothing better than a barrack of animals. When the entire struggle is just for the mere survival then all the superior human instincts seem to die. But very strikingly, most of the people, who have been refugees at some point of time, struggle through their lives, put the traumatic past in past and move ahead with great strides. Perhaps the nature puts some more life into their lives and they somehow just cease to die, cease to give up. That’s the story of most of the refugees. It’s this ‘refugeeism’ that makes them successful. And this success comes mainly from education. When you lose something in life you feel bad. You just keep on thinking of what you’ve lost. But when you lose everything in life, you don’t have anything to feel bad about. You don’t have anything to miss. But you have everything to dream of – everything to aspire of. Each and everything that you get in life becomes a prized possession. You understand how precious is even the day’s light, a night’s calm and the water’s life. You don’t take anything for granted in life. And it’s this zeal to survive, this zeal to achieve or attain even the minutest things in life that makes you appreciate that education is indeed the only thing that is their wealth.
My father was brought up by his elder sister and brother-in-law in a house with some other twenty people of various ages – all of whom had had a traumatic journey from Bangladesh. My father, aged only seven years, along with his sister of ten years and elder brother of fourteen, set out for the fateful journey from Bangladesh, leaving behind them their parents, their homes, their houses which they never saw ever in their lives. The journey – that they never knew how painful or ruthless it could be. They had to wait in the queue for seven days just to get the ticket for the ferry that would take them to the nearest railway station from where they would catch the train for India. They just had a few days’ ration of puffed rice and jaggery. After reaching the Sealdah station in Calcutta, my father couldn’t come out of the train, which was to return to Bangladesh with Muslims from Calcutta. When the train started moving, my uncle would have shouted in panic and my father was just thrown out of the window. He fell on the platform and got crushed under the feet of the rushing people. When he could be finally rescued he had already broken a few bones of his rib – the marks of which are still there. My father’s story might not have been the most traumatic one in the house where there were many other people with similar stories to tell.
My father’s brother-in-law was a clerk with the Port Commission in Calcutta. His income was for sure not at all sufficient to feed an extended family of 20 people – forget about any luxury or even expensive education. Still, my father could complete his engineering. At every step he did make use of all the benevolence of the people and government. And yes, I should tell very loudly that he achieved everything without any reservation. Whenever I see people arguing that reservation is the only way to uplift the poor or lower caste, I just want people to know of my father. What you need is good schools and good teachers – both of which were available to my father. The key to education is not reservation but the dedication of the teachers, an atmosphere for learning and above all the urge to learn. It really makes me sad that neither of these requirements is satisfied in today’s world. The government schools in rural areas are just home ground for creating cadres and most of the teachers are just as irresponsible as the government. So I don’t see anything improving in the near future in the status of the poor illiterate people, because they would be still deprived of education.
Despite the daily struggle and the constant strives for survival, my father, like most of the people around, also developed strong cultural qualities. Most of them had good interest in literature and music. All my interest in books came from my father. Here also the teachers played a very critical role in developing these aspects.
Today we are among the upper middle class or might be even the rich class. That’s really rags to riches. All this has been possible just by one thing – that’s education. Illiteracy is a greater poverty than lack of resource to buy food. I say this because it’s perhaps much easy to arrange for resources for the poor people to buy food, but it’s much tougher to make them educated and alleviate their social status. When my father came to India from Bangladesh he was the lowest ladder of society. But now we’re among the highest ranks – just because my father got the right education.
My mother, Dr. Silpi Das, lost her father when she was only 12 and was in class 8. Her father was probably 40/41 years of age at that time. She was left alone on the cruel world of uncertainties along with an ever sick mother What to do, how to do, where to stop education or continue, how to look after the ailing mother – etc. hundreds of questions were reeling around without any solutions. But she had strong determination and strong urge for education and since then struggles began – to do all the day to day house hold activities to run and maintain the family, take care of her mother, go to schools and colleges – no amusement, no parental cares which normally a kid of her age gets and needs and facing all sorts of social stigma and cruelties of a man dominated society. But she did not give up, fought and fought against all odds and in the long run she could convert all stumbling stones into stepping stones.
Thus she could complete her Masters after her marriage and PhD while working and having one kid of 4 years, i.e., myself, and one in her womb.
It is only due to her strong urge for education and her perseverance, perseverance and perseverance alone that she could finally achieve so much – all without any reservation and without any help from others.
Till today she associates her with academic and scientific research works holding a very senior position as Senior Scientist in Botanical Survey of India keeping and maintaining a very low profile. She did forego her promotions three occasions as all promotion was associated with transfer. She thought her transfer could have disturbed the education of her kids.
That’s all about my parents…. that’s all about my conviction in the belief that education only can change a life and impact many other.
My brother, Sourav, five years younger to me, had a terrific musical sense as a kid. Most of my cousins sing quite well. So it’s not very unusual of anyone in my family to have some aptitude in music. But still, his aptitude at that age was quite unusual. I don’t know whether he himself remembers any of that now. At some point of time I and Sourav decided to become a music composer duo, inspired by Shankar-Jaikishan and Laxmikant-Pyarelal. Actually that was the time when I started learning violin in early eighties and Sourav, merely five-six years old, started playing an old harmonium all of his own. We both started appreciating the fact that creating a good music is something much greater than anything else in life. We’d taken up the ambition so seriously that we started listening to the afternoon “Man Chahe Geet”, listeners’ choice, program of Hindi Movie songs in Vividha Bharati, once we’re back from our schools. After a short while we could identify the music composer of most of the songs just from our acquired knowledge of the distinctive styles of the different composers. In fact we’d also composed a few short music pieces.
But then life flows with its own turns and bends. He had started learning Hindustani Classical Music on violin, carried on with it for quite some time. But finally had to give it up slowly due to studies. Even now most of the time we discuss music whenever we happen to catch up over phone or mails.
He is married to Sharmishtha. Interestingly he is the one who had actually arranged our marriage.