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‘Inherited Memories: Third-Generation Perspective on Partition in the East’ review: Remnants of a separation

Literary Review

Literary Review

How do conflicts and the mass movements they trigger impact societies? The Goethe-Instituts in Kolkata and Dhaka launched a collaborative project in 2015 called ‘Inherited Memories’ to find out whether there was a ‘culture of remembrance’ in relation to the Partition of 1947 like the ‘Erinnerungskultur’ in Germany, and which traumas and memories were passed on from generation to generation. While the west (Punjab) did see memorialising, the east (Bengal region), which had witnessed two Partitions and a liberation war, deserved much more attention than it was given.

That is the gap Inherited Memories seeks to fill, by talking to children and grandchildren of Partition refugees and understand how memory is “passed down, what is retained or lost, and how it is owned and shared by subsequent generations.” In the introduction, Firdous Azim says “these are the memories of third-generation descendants of migrants/ refugees, who have no direct experience of life before the 1947 Partition... The story they weave is complex, with many strands, where differences pertain not only to religion, but also to ethnicity and language.”

Identity battles

Since 1940 onwards, says Meghna Guhathakurta in her essay, the people of Bengal were caught in battles around the question of identity politics. “First, the movement for a nation that would be a safe haven for Muslims (Pakistan), and then the Language Movement for Bengalis that matured into the movement for an independent state. People in this region found themselves being hurled from one nationality to another within a span of four decades.” Some like Kazi Jahanara Islam, whose grandfather worked in the Air Force and was first in Pakistan and then came away to Bangladesh, rued the fact that because of the separation of two countries (India and Bangladesh), “an unexplained distance” crept into blood relations as well despite both being predominantly Bengali.

Being positive

Dolly Akter’s ancestors are from Bihar and she heard stories about Biharis who had moved to Bangladesh being called ‘razakars’ or people who have tortured Bengalis. In reality, she tells the interviewer, they were just inhabitants of Calcutta who had to move when the situation became volatile and it was a few years before East Pakistan became Bangladesh. She remembers her grandfather’s love for India though his father had to move to East Pakistan on a night when the long knives (or ‘da’) were out. He got separated from his sister in the process. Dolly likes to see the positive side of things, the fact that she can speak both Hindi and Urdu is an advantage, though her mother tongue is Bengali. “This has been possible because I’m a Bihari. Many feel shy disclosing their identity as Bihari [in Bangladesh], but I don’t feel that way.” But as Khaled Hussain, a campaigner for the citizenship rights of Biharis in Bangladesh, there is an underlying “sense of loss and dispossession” despite the “intensity of the struggle to belong to Bangladesh.”

M. Haque “describes a life of easy movement,” right up to the 1990s, when one could go across the border to India and be back in Bangladesh the next day for breakfast. For Hindu Bengali migrants who moved from East to West Bengal, they passed on stories “full of nostalgia of pristine rural life, and accounts of greater prosperity.” What is the truth of these pasts? It lies, as Azim poignantly writes, in “what we hold in our memories, in the stories we tell each other.”

Inherited Memories: Third-Generation Perspective on Partition in the East ; Introduction by Firdous Azim, Zubaan, ₹645.


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Printable version | May 18, 2022 9:35:00 am | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/inherited-memories-third-generation-perspective-on-partition-in-the-east-review-remnants-of-a-separation/article38077510.ece