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Lives changed by Partition

Niyoti Sarkar, a 70-year-old retired teacher, imagines life without the India-Bangladesh border.

india Updated: Aug 15, 2012 01:31 IST
Hindustan Times

'I imagine life sans a boundary line'
Niyoti Sarkar
Retired teacher
Golakganj, Assam

Unless her feet revolt, Niyoti Sarkar, a 70-year-old retired teacher, makes it a point to trek to the India-Bangladesh border - 1.2 km northwest of her house in Golakganj. "I just try to imagine life without the boundary line," she says. Niyoti crossed over in 1953. She was 11 at that time, old enough to remember and be troubled by memories.

Her father, Shashi Mohan, the last of the family to cross over in the 70s, would keep making the same journey as well, driven by nostalgia.

Golakganj, 295 km west of capital Guwahati, is a laid-back town of 12,000 people. A commercial hub before the Partition, it had a railway link with Kolkata via Lalmonihat (in Bangladesh), a river port and an airport at Rupsi, 12 km to its southeast.

The Sarkars were based in Sonahat, now in Bangladesh, and barely 3 km northwest of Golakganj. Shashi Mohan owned 801 bighas (107 hectares) and had a mansion that local kings used as a stopover en route their hunting expeditions in the Dooars. "What we have left now is 75 bighas (10 hectares) that happened to be on the Indian side of the Radcliffe Line. Less, when you factor in the land that fall in no-man's land," adds Niyoti.

This land has been divided among Shashi Mohan's 12 sons and daughters, and the descendants of his brothers. Each have too little to make it count agriculturally. "Fortunately, our grandfather had the foresight to buy a small piece of land in Golakganj so we have a shelter," her nephew Ashish, 40, an electrician, says.

Ashish's father Kamakhya Prasad lost much of what he had inherited trying to live by the lavish standards Shashi Mohan had set.

"Most members of our family shifted to India by 1953, but my father stayed back until the 1971 war. His employees in Bangladesh took over everything," Niyoti says, hoping to be compensated some day for the land lost.

But Golakganj isn't the only border town affected by Partition. Sonahat's golden gloss, say the Sarkars, has faded as well. It hasn't, however, been easy to reconcile their past glory with their present lot, marked by the struggle to make ends meet.

"Maybe we are better off. Maybe not," says the 70-year-old, refusing to draw neat lines around their life and complete the picture.

- Rahul Karmakar

'We fear drugs more than war'
Swaran Singh
Utensil seller in Attari, Punjab

Swaran Singh, an 89-year-old seller of household utensils in an alley in Attari, Punjab, embodies the tragedy that was the Partition. A resident of Nath village in Sheikhupur district in Pakistan, his loss of home was compounded by the death of his parents and 15 other relatives.

A police officer at a post 20 km from his village, he was tipped off by his Muslim colleague about the massacre in his village, and urged to leave. Singh did, chopping off his hair, an important part of his identity as a Sikh, hitchhiking to Lahore, and then via Attari, to Amritsar.

At Attari, he saw the white drums demarcating India from Pakistan, fought back his tears, and moved to Kapurthala. In 1948-49, when the land records arrived from Pakistan, he moved his wife to Attari, bought land, and started a shop on a plot given on charity.

"In those days, on one single day, I sold shoes worth Rs. 1,000 as many families that settled in Attari had come barefoot," he recalls.

Now a town of 15,000 people on the border, Attari looks as if it is still in the grip of post-traumatic stress. Rundown havelis, a ramshackle senior secondary school, a primary health centre running on hope, without trained staff, the only difference has been in land prices. An acre that cost Rs. 100 in 1947, now sells for Rs. 80 lakh.

Today, the town, once populated by 'coolies', is plagued by unemployment. Also, it will be doomed, he continues, if drug addiction is not checked. This is the "bigger fear", he says, not another war.

The long whistle of a train makes him pause.

"That is the Samjautha Express," he says, betraying no expression of irony.

- Harkirat Singh

First Published: Aug 15, 2012 01:25 IST