House Keys

By Rimli Sengupta 0

As Rimli Sengupta leaves India, having already left once before, she reflects on other, more fraught border crossings. On the talismans refugees hold fast to, symbols of lost homes and new beginnings

I often parse people in terms of moves from the home country. Zero if you’ve never left. One if you left and never returned to stay. Two if you did. Three if you left again. And so on.

I feel towards the zeroes in my life like one feels towards children. I envy their continuity, their community, the absence of a double life. I want to protect their unfounded confidence. The ones are usually with wherewithal, settled in places with clean air and hollow interiors where other winds blow. They tend to get easily defensive. The twos have sniffed out the hollow and taken action that they thought would fill it, but ended up cracking open other wounds in the process. Because they are dug-up and chastised adults, if they haven’t tipped into bitterness they can make good company. The threes and above, vanishingly few, are in the realm of borderline lunacy. I know exactly one four: an utterly shredded man. As for me, after 15 years as a two, I have just turned three.

The above taxonomy is a partial sketch. There are important variables missing. Such as whether the move was forced, by violence or war. My father, for example, was a one: forced. And I am a three, unforced. These facts are not unrelated.

Moves are like births. We see the person emerge, in an orange life-vest bobbing in the Mediterranean or past the clinical calm of an immigration hall. But what came before remains a mystery.

I have just moved. We are not friends yet, my new home and I. Out the window an unfamiliar city heaves. It brings thrill and dread, like dating late in life. It makes me think about home. This home, that home. Other homes. Other moves.

Illustration by Salil Sojwal

Illustration by Salil Sojwal

A woman sits under a shady tamarind tree. She is slender and attractive, even in a plain red-bordered white cotton sari, even on a day like today. Her horn-rimmed glasses add to her gravitas. She sits amidst an amorphous pile of luggage, her children strewn in a famished heap. She scans her surroundings. Her boys are 16, 14 and 10; the two oldest have gone in search of food. Her girls are eight, six, four and two. She’s three months pregnant, but she doesn’t show. There are other things she doesn’t show. Her rising panic, for instance. All that is familiar is behind her. A lot of what she loves is with her. And the future is a black hole.

That’s my grandmother Dida at the Goalando ferry terminal in March 1948. The 16-year-old is my father, Baba. The family waits for a train to cross over into freshly severed India. They could easily have been at Teknaf in the Burma-Bangla border in October 2017. Or a number of other borders at other places and at other times: Palestine ’48, Bosnia ’92, Syria ’13. It would be the same story.

It was only afternoon but much had already happened. The family had left home early that morning in a rowed skiff. After following a canal for three hours they arrived at the Padma river. The boat docked by crunching into a sandbar and they scrambled. The soft river sand, blistering hot already, sucked at their legs. They scrambled because on the other side of the sandbar a steamer had arrived and was filling up fast. The steamer jetty was a jerry-rigged affair: a swaying contraption of ropes, planks and bamboo, with the Padma churning below. The boys darted ahead with the luggage and staked out a spot on the back deck. Dida had just settled with the girls when the steamer set off, brimming with its load of the unmoored. The family was afloat on the mammoth Padma, its far shore barely a hair.

The steamer reached Goalando at 3pm. The train to Sealdah wouldn’t arrive for a few hours. The disgorged crowd scurried, desperate for a rice meal. There had been none on the long sail. Goalando was a bustling terminus, connecting the rail and ferry systems. A row of food shacks sold all manner of hot meals. Thousands thronged them, the lines grew long. Dida had settled her family under the tamarind tree and sent her two eldest for food. The boys came back empty-handed. The lines had turned riotous. Hunger was laced with mounting anxiety: the upcoming train ride was overnight or longer, and there was to be no hot food on it either.

Help came, as it often does, from unexpected quarters. Across the street from the tamarind tree was a warren of hutments: Goalando’s red light area. The women had noticed the stranded family. With the threat of salty language, they cut a path through the crowd and helped the boys secure two vats: rice in one, fish stew in the other. Not just any fish—the Padma’s ilish, closest to the Bengali heart. The ravenous family inhaled the food. Their new friends served and fussed over them. They played with the girls. They praised Dida, for her beauty and her strength. They wished her well and shed a tear for her, on the eve of her leaving home forever.

Soon the train arrived and there was fresh bedlam. The crowd surged, thronging the doors. Dida’s boys dove through the unbarred windows and secured a seat, before pulling in the luggage and the girls, also through the windows. Dida clambered up the steps of the railcar, carrying her two-year-old. This was hard with no platform and the first step several feet off the ground. Dida and the girls were settled atop their luggage with difficulty. The boys hung on to the upper racks. They were the lucky ones. As the train began to move, many bags were left behind, many men barely hung on to the door handles.

Night fell. The train had no electricity. The heat was intense. Outside was a mild March night, but inside a jam-packed crowd sweltered in the dark, in its own heat and angst. People lit the occasional match to check on their group. Dida’s family had, unwittingly, chosen to move during a period of relative calm: after the tense months that followed August 1947 and before the tidal wave that followed the massacres of Borishal in early 1950. Their train experienced none of the violent horrors of the journeys at the Lahore-Amritsar border. But it was dark. And they stopped at every station. Wailing children kept the petrified adults distracted. Some, overcome by fatigue, even dozed off.

In the morning they arrived at Darshana, the border crossing. The train was detained here all day for extensive, and rude, inspection by troops of the newly formed East Pakistan Ansars. Food and water were scarce. Women suffered the interminable wait until darkness to relieve themselves. The train was released in the late evening and reached Gede around 9pm to another round of checking, this time by Indian authorities. It finally left for Sealdah around midnight and reached the following morning.

After two days and two nights, the family had arrived in Calcutta. From Sealdah station they shared a 12-foot truck with two other families, piling atop their luggage. As the truck juddered and moved, Dida’s four-year-old girl let out a wail; her mountain was wobbly. Dida gave her a bowl of puffed rice to pacify her. The truck careened through the streets of North Calcutta and Dida got her first glimpse of the city that would be her home for the next 50 years. But she wasn’t thinking that far ahead. Her focus was on the place a contact had found for her family. It was a house in the northern outskirts occupied by refugees, one family to a room. They soon arrived and found their room was 10’x10’, on the ground floor, with the door partially blocked by the stairwell, under which the cooking would have to be done. And the only window was next to a fetid drain.

But the family had crossed over, unhurt and intact. This would be their defining event, here on out. But Dida didn’t register the moment. It was lunchtime. She fell into setting up the kitchen. Home, to her, was where she could feed her family. This one happened to be a dank spandrel. But it would be home for the next 11 years.

*

The family survived, and then thrived, against serious odds. Like many of his ilk, Baba rode the storm with a brawny mix of intellect and industry and marshalled his family to the harbour of middle class. In a photograph from March 1963 the family glows. The children are strikingly handsome. They go, or have been, to decent schools and colleges. One plays the sitar, another sings, a third is an athlete. Baba, the eldest, is a newly-wed. At the centre is Dida, who meets your gaze with a strength that is quiet and formidable. A half-smile plays on her lips, as if to say: I think we made it.

I grew up in a rental home that felt spacious, although there were nine of us in three rooms. Across four decades, we filled it with homework, friends, love letters, heartbreaks, graduations, weddings and children. Through it all, Baba doggedly refused to return to his ancestral home for a visit. The reason is best described by a Bengali word that doesn’t translate: obhimaan—something like the sting of a broken promise. The crossing had marked him and he leveraged it as fuel. We didn’t know, but it seeped into us growing up.

Baba had been marked in other ways: he had commitment issues when it came to owning a home. When he passed away at 85, he had been a homeowner for all of five years. His was a fine flat: roomy, with plenty of light and air. To him, though, it was a scab to be picked at daily. He called it his babuibasha—weaver bird nest. “I’ll sell it off!” he’d fume. By the time he bought it, he had been looking for nearly two decades. His children already owned homes. My exasperated mother, increasingly nervous in a rental with old age looming, called it his game of neti neti—not this, not this. The label was arch, but apt. Baba’s search had indeed been propelled by neti. He could not locate the this that he looked for in a home. Perhaps he didn’t want to. I’ve often wondered if Baba’s neti was really the flip side of his obhimaan.

*

When packing for my recent move, I found myself asking the same question that the Palestinian writer Ziad Bakri did before fleeing his home during the 2014 Israeli blitz on Gaza: “Which part of ziad, of my soul, should I take?” My home was not being shelled. In fact, I was not even dismantling it. I was leaving for another one, like a polygamist. But I still had the same question. What we take is perhaps that which most clearly spells home. Because we do seem to rebuild homes from the barest bags. And with the oddest objects. Like the copper pichkari—squirt gun—that Dida carried during the crossing, tucked inside one of the amorphous bundles.

It was a gift to Baba from Dida’s family when he was five, with his name embossed on its smooth surface. It had travelled on the boat, the steamer, the train, the truck. Then over the decades from one rental to the next. When we were kids, Dida would bring the pichkari out on Holi, scrubbed with tamarind until shiny and pink. It never worked very well; the brass piston gummed up easily. But I remember her thrill as we played with it. Perhaps it was the thrill of having kept a promise she had made to herself.

When I first left the country, bound for graduate school, I had carried an aluminium trunk full of textbooks. At Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport, the trunk’s heft sheared it off the conveyer belt and smashed it against the floor. Its hinges gave way and my books—covered protectively with the white side of old calendar pages—were flung everywhere. As books they were dated, I quickly learned. But arranged on a rack in my dorm room they gave unexpected succour. In an oddly infantilised life, they channelled my familiar adulthood.

I relied on books again to channel familiarity when I returned 13 years later. Except this time I brought back an entire library. It inadvertently ended up serving yet another purpose. Getting those 60 or so boxes released from the Calcutta port was my re-entry baptism by fire. It was how India made me her own again, by eating a bit of me and giving me useful calluses in return.

For my recent move I have done the equivalent of carrying a toothbrush. Being many-homed feels strangely like having no home at all.

*

When Dida first told me the story of the crossing I was still in college, living at home, watered by similarly rooted friends. I remember being struck by the gold-hearted hookers of Goalando. Nothing remotely similar had ever happened to me. I felt a stab of envy at what seemed to me an adventure. The story has come back to me many times since. It wasn’t until much later that I realised what Dida had really said: home is not so much a place as a placeholder; carry it to be on the safe side.

But there was something else that Dida had carried. The day before leaving home, she had scrubbed all her heavy brass utensils with alluvium until golden. She had stacked them neatly and cleaned the kitchen. The morning of departure, she locked the house and tied the key bunch neatly to the end of her sari and threw it over her shoulder with a practised “thunk”. Then she boarded the boat with her children. She had expected to return. Everyone did.

I have seen those keys decades later—an ellipsis in rust. I bet there were a million such keys, from both the gashes in the Subcontinent. Perhaps worthy of a memorial, like the shoes in the Holocaust museum in Washington DC. But we never built one. And now there’s a fresh swell of such keys the world over. I believe a bit of that rust rubs off on the children of refugees. I know it has on me. I don’t feel a taut pull towards any of the several keys that I carry.

*

I have been watching the eruption at the Burma-Bangla border. Exhausted humanity oozes like lava—clotting and cleaving now and then, but moving, always moving. Their drenched and muddied clothes cling to their bodies. Their amorphous bundles sag. They walk on raised aisles that snake through a water world. Slim dinghies scoot like water bugs and throng the aisles. The surrounding land is improbably green. This is perhaps why I’m drawn to this border. Because it so resembles the other one, not far, that my family had crossed. That exodus too had moved west, pouring out of instead of into Bangladesh.

I want to tell the distraught Rohingya mother in the photograph: your children will survive. They will be scarred by this passage, yes. But after the dust settles and the tsk-tsk fades, those scars will be fuel. This will not be your only photograph.


This article was published in the Jan-Mar 2018 issue of The Indian Quarterly. The theme of the issue was “Home”.

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