On the road to Karimganj

Bishwanath Ghosh's footprints along the Radcliffe Line reach Karimganj, severed from its parent Sylhet by just a short ferry across the Kushiyara. The azan call from either side of the border, though, sounds quite the same...

Updated - November 16, 2015 08:43 pm IST

Published - November 16, 2015 04:27 pm IST

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The distance between Agartala and Karimganj is barely 250 km, yet I spent an entire evening agonising over how to get there.

The easiest way of getting there was by road, but the driver I spoke to said it would take me more than 10 hours — “so bad the road is” — and accordingly quoted an exorbitant sum. There was a passenger train too, that also took about 10 hours, but apparently a seat had to be booked well in advance with the help of a handkerchief. Passengers, I was told, went to the station early in the morning to claim their seats by placing handkerchiefs or other inexpensive belongings.

The two scenarios kept alternating in my mind: 10 hours on a bad road, and 10 hours in a train where I, even if I got a seat, could not take a bathroom break without worrying about the safety of my belongings — or losing the seat. The 250 kilometres seemed insurmountable.

Finally I decided to fly. The air tickets — from Agartala to Guwahati, and Guwahati to Silchar — cost me less than what the taxi driver was demanding. From Silchar airport, Karimganj is just 55 km away — perhaps a drive of 45 minutes, at the most an hour? Pleased with myself, I shut my laptop and ordered a drink. I spent my final night in Agartala listening to the sound of rain.



The highway from Silchar to Karimganj is not just potholed, it is actually an unending collection of potholes masquerading as a road. Such a picturesque setting — the green fields and beyond them the mountains, white clouds hanging over their peaks — ruined by the bumpy ride, with the car wobbling ahead at the speed of 10 km/hr.

So I was in Assam — in Barak Valley, to be precise. The valley consists of three districts, Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj. The region has a strong Bengali population which is fiercely protective about its language and culture. In 1961, 11 people were killed by the police during protests against the imposition of Assamese as the sole official language of the State. Following the incident, Bengali was allowed to be the official language in the Barak Valley. All signboards are in Bengali or English — I could have been somewhere in West Bengal or Tripura.

It took me four hours to cover 55 km. The hotel I walked into was right on the highway, and it had called itself a “landmark of luxury” on its website. Luxury was precisely what I needed at the moment, but then pictures can be deceptive.

The receptionist wore a ‘you need me more than I need you’ expression as he ordered me to fill in my particulars in a register, and when a boy showed me into my room, I found the sheets stained, the dustbin and the ashtray not cleared, and the towel resembling a doormat. The hotel, if anything, stood for the antipode of luxury. But I knew I would be fine.



Every city or town has a centre: you visit the centre and form your own mental map of the place, and with that map as the guide, you navigate its streets. But the town of Karimganj has no centre, for its centre lies across the border — in Sylhet, in Bangladesh. People of Sylhet speak Sylheti, a dialect of Bengali not easily comprehended by people from other parts of Bengal. It’s a thriving dialect, commonly spoken in Bangladesh, in parts of Europe that have a sizeable Bangladeshi migrant population, and also in Karimganj.

Karimganj — historically, geographically, emotionally — has been a part of Sylhet, which in turn was a part of Assam until 1947. During a pre-partition referendum, a majority of Sylhet’s Muslim population voted in favour of joining Pakistan, therefore Sir Cyril Radcliffe joined Sylhet to East Pakistan.

But in doing so, he left a tiny Sylheti-speaking town, separated from the rest of Sylhet by the river Kushiyara, on the Indian side: he obviously found it more convenient to let the river serve as a natural boundary in that part of Assam. And thus the town — Karimganj — was severed from its parent region. It was a partition within partition.

I now stood by that river, watching, for the first time, Radcliffe Line assume a definite — and watery — form. Until now, it had been an imaginary line. Across the river, lay Bangladesh.

The air was laden with a citrusy fragrance. Labourers carried sacks of a wild variety of orange from a truck and deposited them on a boat flying the Bangladeshi flag. Once the boat reached its capacity, it headed for the opposite bank, making way for another boat, on which the labourers now dumped the sacks. And then another boat — and then another.

The export of the fruit, carried out solely on the muscular strength of the labourers and the boatmen, went on with clockwork precision under the watchful eyes of a harried-looking official from the customs department. He hadn’t noticed my presence for a while but when he eventually did, he stopped me from taking pictures.


“But why, sir?”

“You are standing on Zero Line, so no pictures. Normally we don’t allow people to even stand here.”

He was sweating and was clearly irritable, so I put my camera away. But I saw nothing wrong in standing by the river and also taking pictures of the river and the boats crossing its breadth. For that matter, the border posts at Attari and Hussainiwala and even Agartala sit on Zero Line, but visitors are encouraged to take pictures there.

Perhaps the two countries could think of a joint ‘river ceremony’ taking place every sunset: that would not only produce a spectacular sight but also turn Karimganj into a tourist destination, thereby improving its roads. But as of now, the Kushiyara means nothing — absolutely nothing — to the town of Karimganj: it is just the watery equivalent of a barbed fencing.

I decided to stay put, having put my camera away. I waited to see if the customs man had a problem with my very presence on the riverbank, but he went about his work and forgot about me. And so I stood there, watching many more boats with oranges and many others with passengers take off for the opposite bank.

If I was carrying my passport and had a visa, I could easily be in one of those boats, paying only Rs. 30 to cross over to Bangladesh. It would have been so much fun — and more rewarding — to cross the border on foot or on a boat than flying to Dhaka. I would have understood the Partition, and its ridiculousness, better that way: how, until 1947, we were all one people who now stood divided by an imaginary line. To fly to Dhaka would mean arriving in a foreign country as a foreigner, with no connection to the soil that emotionally binds Indians and Bangladeshis.

“These orange-like fruits that you are carrying,” I asked one of the labourers, “what are they called?”

“Hatkora,” he said.

I put the same question to another labourer.

“Shatkora,” he replied.

“Shatkora or hatkora?” I asked him.

“Shatkora! Shatkora!” he replied, wiping the sweat off his eyebrows.

“Where do they come from?”

“They come from Mizoram. And now they are going to Bangladesh.”

I googled up the name right there. It turned out that both names are acceptable, hatkora and shatkora, a sour-bitter citrus fruit that lent a unique flavour to Bangladeshi meat dishes and made them extremely popular in the West.

I had just put the phone back in my pocket when I heard the azan being called out, over several loudspeakers, in the town of Karimganj. It was time for devout Muslims to pray. Simultaneously, I heard the azan being called out from across the river.

It was a magical moment, to listen to the calls for prayers rising high into the sky — way above the humans, above the vegetation, above the geographical boundary — making you wonder which call came from which side of the river.


Since Sylhet was bound to go to East Pakistan, it was assumed, quite naturally, that Karimganj too would be gone along with it. For two days, August 15 and 16 of 1947, when the rest of India celebrated Independence, Pakistani flags flew over Karimganj.

Only on August 17, when the Radcliffe Line was made public, did its people realise — much to the relief of the Hindus and the nationalist Muslims (who were opposed to Jinnah’s Muslim League) — that Sir Cyril had kept Karimganj in India. One of the families that felt relieved on that day was that of Kamaluddin Ahmed.


Professor Kamaluddin Ahmed, who retired as the principal of Karimganj College in 2001, lived in a neighbourhood called Kanishail, “barely a kilometre away” — as he told me over the phone — from my hotel. “Once you reach Kanishail, you will find a tyre shop, they will tell you where my house is,” he said.

That evening I got onto a cycle-rickshaw outside my hotel and asked to be taken to Kanishail — and instantly felt sorry for the elderly and emaciated rickshaw-puller. The roads inside Karimganj are as just as bad as the road leading to it, and I felt sorry that he was going to pedal through all the potholes.

Twenty minutes later I asked him, “Have we reached Kanishail?”

“Not yet, but we are almost there.”

We were riding through near-darkness. There was a power-cut — a frequent occurrence in Karimganj — and the road was deserted.

“Have we reached Kanishail?” I asked him again.

“Yes, we have,” the rickshaw-puller replied, “where exactly do you want to go?”

“I am looking for a tyre shop, but I don’t see any.”

“You want to go to a tyre shop?”

“No, to someone’s house, but I am not sure where he lives.”

“Whose house?”

“Professor Kamaluddin Ahmed.”

“Ah, you should have told me before!” the rickshaw-puller said. We were at the professor’s home in less than a minute.

The professor, who taught history, seemed glad to have me over. A man brought us tea and biscuits.

“I was born in 1941, so I was still a child when the Partition happened,” Kamaluddin Ahmed said, “I didn’t understand much of what was going on, except that we were going to be independent.”

“All I remember is that Eid was round the corner — we were living in the village at the time — and our family was hoping that Sylhet stayed with India so that we could celebrate Eid. My father was a member of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, which was strongly against Partition, whereas the Muslim League wanted Sylhet to join Pakistan.

“Our family feared that if we came under Pakistan, we would be excommunicated by the Muslim League. It so happened that the boundaries were announced on the day of Eid, and my father became a hero in the village.”

“But after the Partition, did your family ever consider moving to East Pakistan?”

“That was out of the question. This was our land. Our ancestor’s graves were here. We would have rather died here instead of migrating to another land. But many of our friends went to Pakistan, so did some of our relatives. The relatives, however, came back. Home is home, after all.”

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