Crossing the Border

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It was perhaps 26th of February 1948. I am really not sure of the date, but it was certainly a few days short of 1st March. Within the family, the decision to migrate from Pakistan to India had been taken. A tentative date for the move had been fixed at 28 March. I had already transferred my name from the rolls of Sanmilani High School Jessore to Bongaon High School just across the border. The transfer was only on paper. It was not possible for me to commute across the border every day even if the distance was only 17 miles. I was scheduled to appear for the Matriculation Examination of Calcutta University slated for 19th April 1948. Normally the examinations should have been conducted by the end of March, but those were unusual times. 19th April was therefore not too far out of schedule. I had to prepare for the test on my own. The household was in the process of being dismantled slowly. Any thing that was not essential for our existans was to be given away. (There was no question of ‘selling’ out house hold effects. There were no buyers left in town). Physical labour associated with this dismantling process added to my high pressure preparatory studies had made me physically rather tired. I was after all only a little over 13 years old in February 1948. By nine thirty that evening I had dozed off over my open books.

I was shaken awake by my second elder sister, my Monidi. Baba wants you in the front room. We had no ‘Drawing Room’ or ‘lobby’ in this house. After we were dispossessed of our house two days after Radcliff drew a border that put our town into Pakistan, we had shifted to a small rented house where the luxury of nominated rooms didnot exist. Of course even this house had four rooms, but the rooms were small and our house hold goods in crates and bundles occupied more than half the floor space. So we had the front room where apart from piles of luggage we had a few chairs for visitors, a room for Baba and Ma, a room for the Girls, and a room for the books where I had half a charpoy to sleep on, sharing the other half of the charpoy with the encylopedia and Baba’s medical books and journals. I looked at the small table clock on my study table, feeling ashamed that I had dozed off over my book. It was about ten thirty, which was certainly rather late on a winter night. I could hear voices from the outer room. Obviously some one had come calling at this late hour. It made me curious. ‘ke eshechhe re? (who has come?) I asked Monidi. She pushed me to get me out of my chair. ‘ Saiyed Mamu has come. Go to Baba quickly’ she wispered. I closed my books and ran to the outer room.

In the outer room I found Saiyed Mamu and his wife. I am sorry about not being able to identify Saiyed Mamu by any other name. I knew him only as Saiyed Mamu. He was a classmate of my Ranga Mama, Ma’s second younger brother when my Dadu (Nanaji) was in Barisal and that was back in 1939-42. Saiyed and Ranga Mama had become close friends and had kept in touch even after Dadu moved out of Barisal. We all knew this person well. After his graduation he had got into Bengal Provincial Civil Service and had opted for Pakistan. He was now the Sub Divisional Officer (SDO) for Jessore Sadar. He had assumed his post immediately after the partition and had come home to pay his respects to Baba and Ma as soon as he had reached Jessore. From then on, he had been a regular visitor to our house, but a visit so late at night was quite unusual. After the partition, Baba had taken a long time to decide whether we would migrate out of Pakistan. Jessore was peaceful and there was no threat to our lives or property. There was only one very major harassment that we had had to face; our house was requisitioned by the government immediately after partition. How ever, that was before Saiyed Mamu had arrived as the SDO. Over the last six months, slowly Baba’s attitude had changed and he had decided to opt for migration. Baba and Saiyed Mamu had had long discussions about it. It had been decoded that Saiyed would use his official influence to make the migration smooth. He had arranged for permission for two trucks to carry our household goods across the border. The border at Benapole/Petrapole was under his control at the Pakistani side. We were therefore not much concerned about our moving out, for which 28 March had been fixed as the target date. That date was a month away.

As I entered the room Saiyed Mamu exclaimed ‘oh here he is’ as if every one was just awaiting my arrival. I looked at Baba and he gently asked me if I was sleepy. Indeed I was sleepy but I denied the fact. Saiyed Mamu said that there was a job to be done. In about an hour a passenger train from Khulna to Sealdah was due to pass through Jessore. I was required to pack Baba’s Microscope and Ma’s sewing machine, take those to Bongaon, leave them with Baba’s friend uncle Sudhangshu, and come back by the morning train. I understood the task but did not understand the urgency. What was up? Mamu then explained the situation to me. From 1st March, the border check post was being taken out of his control and was being transferred to an ‘Ansaar’ para military force. These guys were unpredictable. There was a standing order in existence that movement of ‘machinery’ across the border was to be barred. In our household goods, only these two could qualify as ‘machinery’. Since our planned move across the border was still a month away, it would be safer to get these two items across before the border check post went out of his control.

I did not need to inject any opinion. A decision was taken by the elders. I put the sewing machine into a small suitcase, wrapped the microscope inside a small bedding, put on a shirt, slipped on my sandals and was ready to go. At that time of the wintery night there was no chance of availing a rickshaw. Ma handed me some loose change, perhaps ten or twelve rupees. I slung the bedding on my back, picked up the suitcase and walked to the railway station which was just under a mile away. By nine in the morning next I was back in Jessore after having accomplished my task. Movement across the border by road rail and private transport like bullock cart or horse carriage or even cycle rickshaw was still unhampered. Passports were not needed. Visa was not heard of. Currency notes and postage stamps were still what they used to be before the partition. Of course some currency notes and postage stamps overprinted with ‘Pakistan’ in black lettering had started circulating. Some brand new one anna and two anna coins of Pakistan were also in circulation in early 1948.

Ma was happy that I was able to react at a short notice and undertake the transit on my own. I think she was being constantly surprised at the speed at which I was leaving my childhood behind and reaching adulthood. In the next fortnight I ran around and got the paper work done for hiring two trucks. I must admit that I received enormous help from the office of Saiyed Mamu. I was told which truck owner was to be contacted and how much should I accept as charge for loding and transportation. I was told which forms to fill and what clearances to seek. I ran around and did the physical work of collecting forms, filling them, getting them signed, and coalting all the paper-work. While I was thus running around, Baba and Ma were packing what ever was to be taken with us. Since we really had no secure accomodation to go to, these decisions about what to pack became rather difficult.

One of the most heart-renching decisions was about leaving the books behind. We had a huge collection of books; some books were quite rare and out of print. Ultimately we were able to convince the town library to take our books in as is with all the book shelves and almirahs. I pined for the childrens encyclopedia shishu bharati and Sri Dinesh Sen’s set of history of Bengal Brhat Banga, but I had no say in the matter. Baba’s dispensory with its complete stock of medicine costing three or four thousand rupees was given away to his compounder, who planned to shift the whole stock to his village and set himself up as a doctor sahab. The remnants of our old Chevrolet Tourer 1928, rusting away through non use since 1942, was towed away by a kabadiwalla’s bullock cart much to my sorrow. Ma gave away her stock of children’s clothes. We could not foresee occasions of gifting them to new borns or toddlers in the near future. We packed all the foldable teakwood furniture and gave away all the charpoys chawkis and clothes horses. Our two cows had to be gifted away too. Furniture given away included my inherited study table now coveted by my brother.

Needless to say, all these activities impinged on my preparatory study. I knew that I would have to appear for my matriculation in a state of under-preparedness, but I did not know how not to.

At long last the appointed day arrived. Two rather decrepit 3 ton lorries rolled up in front of the house early in the morning. The loaders atop the lorries transferred the packed stuff on to the vehicles quite effortlessly. My bicycle was initially meant to be discarded. Where were I to ride a bike in Kolkata? But there was space on the lorries and there was tears in my eyes. No one was sure whether the border guards will let the cycles pass, but both the cycles, one for Baba and one for me were loaded on. Our neighbor Sri KN Ghosh had fed us dinner on the previous night. Once again, breakfast and packed lunch came from his household. One by one many of Baba’s friends came up to say goodbye. Baba’s compounder bid a very emotional goodbye. By about eleven O’Clock we rolled off. Thakuma ( My Grand Ma), Monidi and I crammed into the cabin of the first truck. Baba, Ma and my brother came in the second. Mr Sudhir Singhi, my fathers friend and a whole time worker of Satsang, rode at the rear of the second truck with the loaders. He came along to Kolkata to see us through the journey. The seventeen miles to the border took about an hour to cross. Even though the border check post was no longer under the control of Saiyed Mamu, he had sent one of his men to see us through. The halt at the check post was for about half an hour. Nothing was unloaded or inspected. One of the Ansaar fellows had his eyes on our cycles, but his friends eased him off. I am sure the presence of Saiyed Mamu’s staff helped. By about twelve thirty we were on Indian soil. We no more had a home but we had a homeland. We had very little money but we had lots of hope and aspiration. We were ready to work hard, but we had heaps of challenges ahead of us. It was daunting and exhilarating at the same time.

Two miles after the border at Benapole / Petrapole was the town of Bongaon. The drivers and their mates wanted a lunch break. I had to get down and part company from the rest of the family. My examination was to start in 21 days. I was to stay with uncle Sudhangshu till my examinations were over. His house was in a narrow road where there was no room to park two trucks. Uncle Sudhangshu came to the main road to fetch me. I got down from the truck, touched the feet of my elders, took my suitcase down and marched away to my adulthood in my new and free country. After the crew had their lunch the rest of the family too drove away to Kolkata.

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3 responses »

  1. I have often wondered what effect this transition must have had on the way Baba views life. Undoubtedly an effect it must have had on the children-my aunts who were older and therefore had a larger store of memories of friendships and neighbourlinesses and activities, my father-an unusually serious and observant and (according to his doting aunts!!!) highly sensitive young boy and my uncle, who though still a child must carry memories of the momentous happenings!
    Baba, why dont you ask them all to write down what they remember of that night, those days, that transition and add it to your memoirs as a consolidated recount???

  2. I am writing to you as the editor of http://www.indiaofthepast.org, which aims to capture personal memories of Indians and India that are at least 50 years old. There are several stories here that would seem to be suitable for my website. I am professor of economics who lives in Bethesda, a suburb of Washington, DC. Please explore my website and contact me at scmathur@gmail.com.if you would like to make a contribution to my website. With regards, Subodh Mathur.

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