Leaving Sylhet Behind

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Unpartioned Lives

We share an excerpt from ‘Unpartitioned Lives: Sylhet and After” where the author Adhip P.N. Majumdar shares his poignant memoir recounting his family’s departure from their ancestral home in Sylhet, navigating the tumultuous times of the Partition of India in 1947, and finding refuge in Nagaon, Assam.

I  started my memoir with the story of leaving our ancestral home and our house in Sylhet town, situated now in Bangladesh. This house was built by my grandmother, whom we addressed as Thamma (an affectionate abbreviation of the formal Bengali word thakurma, meaning paternal grandmother). Sylhet was then a part of Assam, a province (state) in undivided India. However, after the Partition of India in 1947, Sylhet joined, by referendum, the Muslim majority of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and most of the Hindus left for India.

After a long struggle, India gained independence from the British in 1947 but not without trauma. Before leaving India, the British, in consultation with the major political leaders of the day, decided to divide the country into two according to Hindu and Muslim majority. Since the Muslims were mainly concentrated in some western and eastern parts of India, Pakistan comprised two land masses, West and East Pakistan, separated by about 1000 miles of Hindu majority India.

After the Partition in 1947, our family got scattered. I was only about 6 when we hastily abandoned our house in Sylhet town. Life in Sylhet was becoming quite unnerving and sometimes very dangerous and unlivable. There were Hindu-Muslim riots, which occurred frequently. I remember seeing groups of rowdy people passing by the main street in front of our house chanting either “Allah Hu Akbar” (God is great) by the Muslims or “Vande Ma Taram” (I Praise Thee, Mother) by the Hindus. An incident that occurred at this time made a lasting impression on me.  Our house in Sylhet town was L-shaped with a veranda in the front facing the main street. There were a few cane chairs and a small cane table on the veranda for us to sit and watch the people go by. I remember seeing my aunts and uncles sitting with or without their friends, commenting on passers-by. There was a good size front yard that had a big mango tree which provided a welcoming shade. The front yard ended on the main street. If I remember correctly, our Thakur Ghar (Prayer Room) was the first room on the left as one entered the house. The Thakur Ghar had a small window at one side, secured by vertical iron bars and placed at regular intervals. The reason for describing the layout of the Thakur Ghar will soon become evident. One morning I saw a big crowd gathering in our front yard, all holding long sticks. It was quite a sight. I was told that a Hindu-Muslim riot had broken out and the crowd in our front yard was Muslim from nearby villages. Everyone was busy shutting doors and windows except one of my uncles, whom I addressed as Rangakaka, who at that time was chatting with friends at the tailor shop, diagonally across our house. Rangakaka was stuck at the tailor shop, which also lowered its shutter for fear of vandalism. I remember hearing that a batch of Muslim hooligans had attacked the Manipuri (an ethnic group native to the state of Manipur) colony located across our house. Manipuris are devotees of Krishna and pride themselves for being orthodox Hindus. I also heard that the attack was very serious in nature and a number of Manipuris were gravely injured. I remember becoming very curious and going to the Thakur Ghar, where I somehow managed to lift the hinges and opened the window to see what was going on outside and whether I could see Rangakaka at the tailor shop. As I was standing by the narrow window holding the vertical bars, pushing my face between two bars, I saw a young muscular Manipuri man, whose face was covered with a blood-soaked bandana, running with a machete towards the bunch of Muslims on the main road which also had blood on their clothing.  Mesmerized by the scene, I saw with astonishment that the young Manipuri man raised the machete over his head and brought it down forcefully on the shoulder of a Muslim man and immediately turned and ran back. Blood spurted from the deep cut, a horrible sight that I haven’t forgotten to this day. At that very moment, my grandmother Thamma came to the Thakur Ghar and yanked me away, and took me inside the house. This was my last recollection of Sylhet.

Soon after that incident, our whole family decided to leave Sylhet. I don’t remember how we all got separated and who went where. But Thamma, Pishimoni [my younger aunt], Manji (my younger brother), and I got into Pishamoshay’s (my older aunt Pishi’s husband) big Chevrolet car, and came to Nagaon, a small town in Assam, which was in India, to live with my older aunt whom we called “Pishi”. Pishi, who was very pretty and highly educated, was the younger sister of my father. She was the Headmistress of the Girls’ High School at Karimganj, a small town in Assam, when she was married to a wealthy businessman whom we addressed as “Pishamoshay” and who owned the Electricity Supply Company in Nagaon. Pishi and Pishamoshay lived in Nagoan with their 3-year-old son Sanju.  Both Pishi and Pishamoshay welcomed us with open arms. So began our unsettled, tumultuous lives in India.

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