Beyond Borders: When a Journalist Found Her Long Lost Relative
My maternal grandmother’s family comes from Sylhet city in northern Bangladesh. Sylhet is a region which is covered by mountains, lush greenery and clouds, very similar to some of the northeastern towns of India.
After the partition, my grand parents, then a newly-wed couple, decided to migrate to India following religious persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh ( then East Pakistan). In the early 50’s, my grandfather got a job as a professor in a college in Shillong, then a part of Assam.
In the pursuit to find a country of their own where they won’t be persecuted for following a particular religion, my grandparents left behind all their property and belongings and crossed over to the Indian side.
At a time when the majority Muslim neighbours and family friends had turned to foes for minority Hindus, my grandparents couldn’t have trusted anyone so the migration plan wasn’t revealed to anyone. In the middle of the night, the couple snuck out of their own home with a suitcase of photographs, few set of clothes, certificates and important documents. My grandmother carried her wedding Benarasi which our family has preserved till date.
Most of my grandmother’s relatives left Bangladesh during early 1950s. But one of her uncle’s family decided to stay back. They lost touch with each other during this separation. My grandparents never visited Sylhet since the exodus.
I grew up in Shillong, hearing stories about Sylhet, its beautiful weather, tea gardens and culture. None of my grandmother’s children including my mother visited Sylhet – a wound that no one was willing to open.
The pain of partition, separation from your roots and loved ones, was a topic that was not discussed on the dinner table. But there were always stories of happy memories and festivals, and all the people from that region that I have met pride themselves as Sylhetis, a dialect of Bengali.
Finally in April 2015, I got an opportunity to visit Dhaka for work. It was then I decided to go to Sylhet and find my granny’s lost family. I had only one piece of information — a landmark called “Ramer Dighi” which was a waterbody half the size of a small lake. My grandmother’s ancestral house was located just near that. I Googled and found Ramer Dighi on the maps and was extremely excited.
My grandmother Cherry gave me an old group photo of the entire family which I carried with me. Most of the other people in that photograph were dead but there was a possibility that my granny’s cousin Shukla who was eleven year old then in the photo was possibly alive.
I set out on my journey with my American photographer friend Allison Joyce, on a train from Dhaka to Sylhet to find out my long lost family and its roots.
We were the only two women who were travelling without any male companion in that train. The ticket collector found that extremely amusing. Concerned about our safety, he asked his assistant to take care of us during the six hour journey. We were stuffed with pineapples, boiled eggs, tea, coffee and munchies throughout the journey. The assistant gifted me a handmade bamboo fan.
After checking into a hotel in Sylhet town, I coordinated my plan to find my granny’s cousin Shukla with Mr. Harun Rashid Choudhury, a retired official and a Sylhet resident, who I contacted through an acquaintance in Dhaka.
The next morning, we set out with Mr. Choudhury, armed with our cameras. We reached the Ramer Dighi area and started asking about my grandmother’s cousin. We were directed by a shopkeeper to go further in the lane and ask someone else.
I tried looking for familiar things that I had heard about the place but was in shock. Ramer Dighi was reduced to a tiny pond which was covered by tins from all sides. The only way I took a photo was by peeping in through an inch-long opening. Buildings had overtaken the beauty of the place.
We stopped by another house and Mr. Choudhury asked a passer-by about my granny’s cousin. She was curious and looked at both Allison and me with surprise and asked us to follow her. She took us to a house and asked us to wait in the guest room while she went inside inform the owner of the house.
After a few minutes an elderly woman entered to the room and lit up the room with her warm smile. Once I introduced myself, she looked at me for a while with a mixed feeling of love and surprise. Then she disclosed that she was the one who I had set out to find. She was the little girl standing in the left wearing saree in that family photo I carried along.
The next few hours were spent in answering as Shukla enquired about the entire family with childlike curiosity. She was curious to know if some of her cousins and relatives were still alive. That where their children were settled in.
During the entire time we spent, she kept the photograph in her hand and informed me that the photo was taken in the very place where we were sitting. But it was the old house which was six times the size of the present one.
The old house was burnt during the riots at the time of Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Shukla and her family went into a hiding for a month before they were rescued by Indian soldiers and sent to the Balat refugee camp in Meghalaya, India.
India had played a pivotal role in the Liberation War and helped Bangladesh gain its independence from Pakistan.
When I asked Shukla about her experience of war and living in the refugee camp for 10 months, she told me that “no one should ever have to go through that hell” before breaking into tears. It was a time that she didn’t want to recall.
The ancestral house that stood on a two acre land was burnt down by Muslim fanatics during the riots and all their belongings were looted. She couldn’t even preserve a photograph to show her grandchildren how she looked in her younger days. It is then I realised why she was holding on to the photograph that I had taken with me. She saw her younger self once again after decades. The house that we were sitting on was re-built from scratch on a small piece of left over land that was not occupied by miscreants.
We spent the next few days exploring the local market, the Surma river, the tea gardens of Lakkatura and Malnichura. Shukla insisted that I stay in their house and check out of the hotel, but I told her that I couldn’t leave my friend alone who came all the way with me just to find her.
The day before leaving Sylhet, we were invited for a seven course lunch. I met some new relatives who were told about my visit and took leave from their jobs to come and see me. The hospitality and love that I received was over bearing. In the evening we organised a Skype chat with my grandmother Cherry in Kolkata. The two cousins met online after more than six decades of separation even though they lived just 558 km away from one another.
Both sisters looked at each other and remarked on their appearances and how they were not able to recognise each other. Shukla then teasingly stated that Cherry was a strict disciplinarian and was always running after her younger cousins with a stick. Both of them laughed profusely. The next hour on Skype was about their children, grandchildren and which of their contemporaries were still alive. With her eyes welling up, Cherry said: “I cannot bear the pain of returning to Sylhet to see that everything was gone – forever. She confessed how much she missed Shukla and requested her to visit Kolkata.
The partition of India not only divided the country but it broke many families into fragments on both sides of the border. It uprooted thousands of families and left them stateless. My mother’s family was just one of them.
(Smita Sharma is an Indian freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer based between New York and Kolkata.)
(Allison Joyce is an American documentary photographer.)
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