An excerpt from Shankha Ghosh’s Partition novella, ‘The Rows of Areca Nut Trees’
By Shankha Ghosh
Translated by Mosarrap H Khan
The following excerpt is from Shankha Ghosh’s Bengali novella, Supuriboner Sari (The Rows of Areca Nut Trees). Ghosh wrote two novellas – Sokalbelar Alo (The Morning Light) and Supuriboner Sari (The Rows of Areca Nut Trees) – that narrate everyday life in undivided Bengal leading up to the Partition of India (1947), through the point-of-view of its young-adult protagonist, Neelu. I have translated both these novellas from Bengali and the excerpt is from my unpublished manuscript.
Unlike Partition in the western part of India, where it became synonymous with violence, the event and associated violence have been strangely rendered muted in the eastern part. Consequently, we find a large gamut of accessible work that documents the Partition of Punjab. In contrast, creative and critical works on the Partition of Bengal are sparse and have been mostly confined to Bengali speaking readers, because of lack of translation into English.
In the excerpt, which is the last chapter of the second novella, Neelu and his family are about to leave his maternal grandparents’ home in East Bengal. It’s 1947 and the country has already been divided. This will be Neelu’s last visit to his ancestral village, which was an annual affair during Durga Puja. Neelu is uncertain about leaving behind his village, his grandparents, who have decided to stay back in East Bengal, and his friend, Harun.
This translation is to commemorate the 70th year of India’s Partition and independence.
Chapter 12 from Supuriboner Sari (The Rows of Areca Nut Trees)
It was Dwadashi, the Twelfth Day of Durga Puja. Today Neelu and others would leave. Since morning, he was lying down quietly in the attic. Something so terrible had happened yesterday and still no one could figure it out. People were silent in the house.
When he looked out of the window, he saw the Chha Aani House in the distance and on the right, behind the kacheri house, the rows of areca nut trees. Phulmami’s cane basket with the doll and notebooks was lying next to the window. Instead of the notebooks with poems, Neelu picked up the doll from the basket. While petting the doll, Neelu wondered why Phulmami didn’t take the doll along, though she loved it very much.
Where did Phulmami go? Suddenly he remembered his friend, Kehsab, who was lost forever; he remembered Basudi, who had gone far away. Why did everyone go away?
It was a very clear sky today, glittering bright. The sky didn’t know of the happenings in their house!
Hearing his mother call, Neelu came down the stairs slowly. When he entered the middle room, he saw a slim man sitting on the cot in front of Ma. The man had close-cropped hair, a thin face with high cheekbones, and only his eyes were glistening. When he saw Neelu, he asked, “Is this your son? He has grown so much.”
Ma beckoned with her eyes to come close. Neelu moved forward reluctantly. Ma said, “This is Bishumama. Do pranaam to him.”
Oh, he had so many mamas! He had no idea who this Bishumama was. Perhaps he was the same man that Nitai Dutt had spoken of the other day in the Bene House. As he approached Bishumama, he held Neelu’s hand and pulled him close. He said, “No, no. You shouldn’t do pranaam. You shouldn’t touch my feet, maamu. Sit here.” Then he looked at Ma and said, “Why should he touch someone’s feet he has never met and seen in life? What do you say, maamu?”
“But he had seen you before.”
“What? What did he see?”
“He had seen you once. However, that was a long time ago.”
“Seen me? Where did he see me? I can’t recall seeing him before. Has my memory become so weak? Could be because of the way they beat me in jail!”
“You haven’t lost your memory. It’s true that you hadn’t seen him. But he had seen you.”
Neelu looked at his mother in wonder. When did he see Bishumama? He couldn’t remember anything!
Ma continued, “You wouldn’t have seen, Bishuda. But we saw you. Even Neelu saw you. He wouldn’t have recognized. Remember the night when you were caught; you couldn’t escape despite jumping from the deck of the steamer. You were running up from the first floor to the second and, then, to the boatswain’s room. The police were running after you. We all saw it and even Neelu did. Do you remember that sudden splashing sound of jumping into the river, Neelu? My chest was thumping in fear. People in the steamer thought you were a dacoit. But I recognized you even in an instant by looking at your eyes…”
As Ma continued, Neelu vaguely remembered the picture from that early morning a long time ago. Was this the same man? Really? His face was covered in beard. He remembered Ma saying that day, “The English police are hounding those who love the country and work for it.” Did the police chase this man that day? So many people were chasing him?
Ma said, “You have become very thin. Did they hurt you? At least, they released you! And, you have achieved what you had fought for! The country has attained independence.”
The corner of Bishumama’s lips formed a faint smile as he said, “Yes, we have won freedom. But, Khuki, did we struggle for this? For this broken country? Did we fight against the British for the Partition of the country? Do you remember? When you were Neelu’s age, I had once said this village will become our country one day, a real country. You were taken aback. You had said, ‘What do you mean by ‘becoming ours’? It’s already ours.’ Because I was young, I couldn’t make you understand what I was actually trying to convey. Do you understand now? I heard you are leaving today and you will never return to this village. I heard you have been planning to resettle this house somewhere else. Why not? Most of the old people from the village have left or are leaving. What’s next? Is the village already ours? Where is my village? Where is my country?”
Neelu’s heart was beating fast. He looked at Ma and saw tears rolling down her face. She was looking down. Neelu moved closer to Bishumama, as if he wanted to say something. But he could never quite find what he wanted to say.
A little later, wiping her eyes, Ma asked, “What will you do now? Must be staying here?”
“Do I have it in my fate?” Bishumama said, “No, I can’t stay.”
“Why? Where will you go?”
“It’s not decided. But our work is not over yet. You never know; we might start playing hide and seek again!”
Ma gave out a sigh and said, “Again?”
Sejomama entered the room. He looked at Bishumama and said, “Oh, Bishuda, you? Have you heard everything?”
“Yes, Pramila. What should we do now? Yesterday, we searched for her through the day and night. What to do now!”
“You can’t find her like this.” In a quiet voice, Bishumama said, “You have done whatever you could. The police stations have been informed. Now all you can do is wait patiently!”
Hearing this, Sejomama lied on the bed with his face down.
They were supposed to start at three o’clock. The boat was tied to the ghat. This time, too, it was Rahamat’s boat. Last year on this day, Neelu was running between the house and the ghat along with Jhumpu, Alo, Ranjuda, and Sonadi. He was enjoying the game of packing. This time there was no such hurry. There was no excitement in going back. As if the people he wanted to speak to before leaving were not to be found anywhere. Neelu was walking about slowly from one room to the next – the room in the east, on the west, and on the terrace with the attic. Could it be that he or they would never step into this house again? Never?
For the rituals of leave-taking, a mat was spread on the floor of the middle room. Ma and Boromami hadn’t returned from the kitchen yet. Boromama was walking about in the courtyard with a bent head. In his room, Grandpa was busy writing something in his long accounts book. Grandma had brought a small earthen pot of water and placed it before the mat. Then, she brought a large earthen pitcher filled with water. Grandma kept on repeating, “Come and get ready for the leaving-taking. Don’t make it late.” And Sejomama came panting with a bagful of lemons and said, “Since Bouthan can’t tolerate the movement of the boat, these might come in handy…”
Boromama entered Grandpa’s room and said in a low voice, “It’s time for us to take leave.”
Dadu looked up once and said nothing.
Keeping quiet for a while, Boromama said again, “Would you think once more? Everything changes. Shouldn’t we change ourselves with the situation?”
Grandpa looked up once more. He said nothing. He concentrated again on his long accounts book covered in red cloth.
While coming out the room, Sejomama said, “Don’t worry. I will bring Ma and Baba after a few days. Let me first get things in order!”
Rahamat called out from outside, “Make it fast, babus. It’s time for the high tide.”
Sejomama told him, “You carry on. We are aware…”
Grandma called everyone, “Come here, all of you. Now take leave. This is the auspicious moment.”
From the youngest to the oldest? Or from the oldest to the youngest? Grandma said to Neelu, “Yes, yes, from the youngest to the oldest. You sit first.”
Neelu sat on the mat. The rituals of leaving-taking were not that difficult to follow. Sitting on the mat, they must touch the feet of the elders one by one; the elders would bless them by touching paddy and grass to their forehead. Then touching their forehead on the floor near the sindoor-smeared pot of water with the mango leaves, they must ask for leave. Next, bending down and seeing the reflection of their own faces in the water-filled pitcher, they would have to say in their mind: “I will come again”. After that, they must get up and walk straight out of the house without looking back.
“I will come again” – these words got stuck in Neelu’s throat even as he tried to utter them in his mind. It was not true. Would it be right to say them?
One by one Ma, Boromami, and Boromama left the house. All of them were walking northward to the canal. Sejomama was holding grandma to help her walk. She had to be held because she started crying loudly at the end after keeping quiet for the whole time. No one could look at her. They were not looking at each other either. Neelu turned back once to see his grandpa walking behind them at a distance, with the end of his dhoti wrapped around him.
If one were attentive, one could hear a sweet murmuring sound of the high tide approaching the canal. Listening to that sound, Neelu walked over the wooden plank laid on the mud and got on the boat. Sitting there, he washed away the mud from his feet. Everyone was climbing on to the boat. Grandma had wiped her eyes by now. In a drenched voice, she asked, “Did you take the small bundle of coconuts? And the areca nuts?”
Grandpa once said to the boatman, “Don’t make it very late. And send me news once you are back.”
Punting in the mud, Rahamat said, “Don’t worry, master. There’s nothing to fear. Rahamat will be with them.”
The boat moved away slowly from the banks. It was oscillating, making a creaking sound. Neelu had already climbed on the covering of the boat. Boromama was standing on the prow. Ma and Boromami were sitting covering their mouth with the anchal of their sari. The boat was now moving westward. After removing the quant, Rahmat was now steering. Yaqub and Yaseen were rowing the oars.
Sejomama shouted, “Neelai, we will perform the immersion of the idols during the next Puja in Calcutta. You must memorize your dialogues.”
Neelu smiled a little and shouted, “In that house?”
“Yes, yes, in that house.”
The kacheri house, the mandap, and the shadow of the house were moving away from sight. Did I offer my pranaam to them while leaving, thought Neelu. He felt like genuflecting on the ground and offer pranaam to them the way he had once felt while lying on the wet earth under a tree. He had felt more fulfilled then, as if he had everything with him. Praanam to you, earth. Pranaam to the lone sthalapadma plant in the corner. Pranaam to the slippery ghat at the pond. Pranaam to the ramshackle boat lying on the bank of the canal. The boat was now moving past the ghat of the Chha Aani House. In a little while, it would cross the Ghosh House, the Big House, the Northern House, the Library, and, then, the edge of Haatkhola. Pranaam, earth; pranaam, culvert; pranaam, drums and bell-metal dish. The tin-shed, the mopped courtyard, Haatkhola – pranaam to you all.
The boat would now take a left turn and enter the river, leaving the canal behind. When the boat was about to take a left turn at the corner of Haatkhola, he found someone waving a green handkerchief, sitting on an upside down massive earthen barrel. Who was that? Neelu was shocked to see Harun! He was sitting there. Harun shouted, “Neelai, I’m here. Here! You must come again next year. Would you come? Would you come? Come again. Would you?”
Getting off the earthen barrel, he was walking along the bank of the river. Harun kept on repeating, “Why aren’t you talking? Would you come again?”
Neelu didn’t reply. While taking leave, he had seen the reflection of his face in the water of the large pitcher but he couldn’t say anything. He didn’t reply but looked into Harun’s eyes without batting an eyelid from the roof of the cover in the moving boat. Gradually, Harun’s eyes became blurred, Harun appeared vague, and the whole village became hazy and disappeared in the distance. Boromama said, “See, the large forest of areca trees. This is the boundary of our village. After this, the end…”
The end? Yes, the end. Pranaam to you, the end. This afternoon of Dwadashi, pranaam to you. Pranaam to the ripple of river water in the mouth of the canal. Basil plant and shrine, pranaam to you. Pranaam to you, Phulmami. The rows of areca nut trees, pranaam to you.
In his mind, Neelu wanted to say, “Harun, I will be back.” But he was unable to say anything. The boat took one more right turn, made a creaking sound, and, then, slowly started moving straight westward.
Mosarrap H Khan is a founding-editor at Cafe Dissensus. Twitter: @aberration007
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