My Parents’ World The Partition of Bengal: Inherited Memories

Documented by a filmteam, Tunazzina Shehrin is visiting her grandparents‘ home in Kolkata.
Documented by a filmteam, Tunazzina Shehrin is visiting her grandparents‘ home in Kolkata. | Foto: Goethe-Institut

My Parents’ World – Inherited Memories is the first Internet platform between Bangladesh and West Bengal / India to deal with the consequences of the Partition of Bengal in 1947. The interviews show how the memories of the grandparents still characterize their grandchildren’s generation.

For more than eight million people, the division of the Indian subcontinent into the independent states of India and Pakistan meant resettlement, flight and expulsion. The gigantic population exchange was accompanied by excessive violence leading to the deaths of more than a million people. To this day, the wounds of division are palpable in many areas; to this day, they shape the politics in South Asia.

The Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan Kolkata and the Goethe-Institut Dhaka, together with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta, the Research Initiative Bangladesh and the South Asia Institute of the Universität Heidelberg, started the project My Parent’s World – Inherited Memories with the goal of commemorating the migration of an estimated eight million people and to keep the memories of the Partition of Bengal alive among the grandchildren of the refugees.

It explored recollections of the third generation of the 1947 Partition of Bengal by means of interviews and oral history research. Young researchers from Kolkata and Dhaka investigated how these “non-objectified memories” and subjectively conveyed stories characterize today’s grandchildren of the witnesses of the partition. From 20 interviews with students from Bangladesh and West Bengal, the first freely accessible collection of a multi-perspective historical portrayal of the Partition of Bengal has emerged.

One of the interview partners is Anusree Biswas. Her grandparents came from Khulna, now she lives in India.



Anusree Biswas, you live in North 24 Parganas, India. Both of your parents’ families migrated from Khulna, Bangladesh.

The border of Bangladesh is only 15 minutes away from my home. The border is defined by a narrow river. Just by crossing the river you get to another country – it is so close that we can see it clearly.

When the Partition of Bengal occurred, East and West Bengal came to be and those who lived there kept on living on the other side. There is hardly any connection with those who stayed back. Since my grandfather came here, we have become residents of West Bengal.

My grandfather was attending class 9 in school when he came to India. So he continued studying here, found a job, got married and stayed here for his whole life. My grandfather’s parents stayed there but they kept in touch.

My grandmother’s home was in Bangladesh, too. She even got married there and then left after her marriage. She left due to issues with Muslims.

Our family was quite well-off in Bangladesh, but they had to leave their property behind and came to India with nothing. When the Muslims left this place [India] and arrived there, they took all of my family’s properties.

My mother’s grandfather, my grandmother’s dad, had a leading position in the village. He had a good job, which the Muslims didn’t like. Anyway, the Muslims somehow got to know that my paternal grandparents were about to leave the place and to come here. After hearing that the Muslims knew about his plans, my grandfather stayed home without moving out and he sent all his family members one by one across the river.

How did he do that?

By hiding in the darkness. If they had found out, they would have shot and killed them. This is what happened. Grandpa moved out late night with many people guarding him and they let him cross the river. My grandmother told me that while he was crossing it, they saw that the color of water had turned into red.

If the country was not partitioned, I mean in undivided Bengal, people like us who lived there were sharing a kind of unity. We are members of the same family. I mean, the sons of my grandpa’s brother, who stayed there, are also relatives of mine and we share the same blood. But now that they live there, we can say that they are entirely foreigners to us. Bangladesh means another country, another nation. We are not in touch with them.

We are close relatives yet so distant, that is very sad. Also my mother’s uncle’s home is there. Some of them still live there. Whenever they visit us, they either come illegally or through obtaining a proper visa, which is valid for one month and they have to go back within that period. They have to stick to the rules.

So you have said that your home is “here” on this side, but what if you are asked “Where is your home?” What is the first thing that comes to your mind? Where is home?

In India.

India? You do not think that it could be on the other side of the river?

No, not at first. Only on a second thought. Sometimes I feel like I can just cross the narrow river and visit my relatives.

How do you feel about something that happened so long ago? Do you feel that you are a Bangaal [people from East Bengal] in your culture, in your daily stories, in pujas, festivals, customs, etc.?

What the word Bangaal means, has no bearing in my family as I have not experienced it. When I was in class 11 at a school in Namkhana, my friends started calling me a Bangaal as soon as they realized that we were originally from Bangladesh. I would say that I have never heard anyone addressing my family as Bangaal. I sensed they used the word with a little contempt. Even as a child, I too had a strange feeling towards people being called Bangaal. Their culture and way of talking are totally different. They do not really make a proper use of the language.

You clearly have inherited some memories about how your grandmother came, how much they struggled. Will you want to pass on these memories to your next generation? What sort of memories will you pass on?

Of course, I would like to pass on these memories of how they came, how they struggled, how they established themselves. Perhaps it will not be of any use. But I want to let them know we are originally from Bangladesh, that we came here and lived our lives here. It would be nice for them to be aware of that in case someone asks them, like you are asking me today. The next generation may also need them one day. They should not feel blank. Let them know at least something, so that they can talk about it.

I never went to Bangladesh but I needed to narrate these stories today.

You have been hearing these stories for a long time. Did you enjoy them?

I enjoy them a lot.

Why?

I have never really known why. But it feels like Bangladesh is very close to me. If something bad happens there, I somehow feel it is my country, too. This is how I feel, I do not know why.



The interview was conducted by Prama Mukhopadhyay.