Termite Eaten Memories

My mother has been complaining a lot these days about termites, she says they have been all over the house and are eating it up from within, “a jerk of earthquake and the house will collapse”. They had infested one of our wooden tables slowly over years. It looked fine from the outside but with a nudge the entire table dismembered into dust. Such is the termite’s prowess of unmaking.

Since the past couple of months I have been thinking a lot about home and ways in which it archives the passage of time. In one such afternoon of sluggish enquiry, I learnt about my great-aunt for the first time some forty years after her death when I discovered an old trunk in my house. The trunk was brought by her when she migrated from Sylhet to India (Assam) because of the partition of 1947. Coincidentally, the day I discovered this relic of the inglorious history turned out to be the anniversary of the country’s independence. It was on the 15th August 2018.

While growing up it was routine affair for me, to sit and listen to stories of people and places of the familial past. It was often finding things around the house such as the trunk that would unspool into hours of stories, often refurnished, forever new and forever incomplete. My primary raconteurs were Appa, my grandmother, who died three years ago at the age of 80, and Chotodadu, my granduncle, who predicts that he will only die at the age of 88.

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One morning some years ago I followed Appa around the house while she limped and bickered, and her sari slowly undraped behind her like a white river. She hurriedly settled down to clean up an Almirah, and insisted that I should leave her alone. However, in a couple of minutes her irked screech was abandoned midway for a tender tone, the one she always assumed while explaining something utter relish, for I had priced out from a corner of the Almirah a bundle of red passports. The moth eaten copies of Indo-Pakistan passports belonged to my Great Grandfather, Great Grand Mother, Borodadu (my grandfather) and Chotodadu. These passports , she explained to me were issued in the aftermath of the partition of India (from East-Pakistan), for its victims to travel back and forth through the freshly carved borders at ease, to smoothen the abruptness of migration of families who had left their homes, lands and localities. Immediately after the partition, one however didn’t need any passport; one had to only go through a check post with required documents. Except if you were carrying any newspaper from the other side of the border that would certainly be confiscated. When Chotodadu and Borodadu had gone back to their ancestral village Norton (Sylhet) in 1948 for the celebration of Durga Puja they didn’t need the passports. This was the first Durga Puja after they belonged to a new country where their ancestral home didn’t belong anymore. I asked Chotodadu about what the mood was like there during the festivities, if people were disheartened after the hope that the Sylhet referendum would ensure Sylhet’s merger with India was betrayed. “Not at all”, he replied, “nobody believed the certainty of partition, they thought Pakistan was temporary, that it wouldn’t last very long, and the lands would eventually re-unite”. It was only since 1954 that these passports started to be issued, marking a point in history where a chasm between belonging to a Desh that meant attachment to one’s home, and a Desh that meant affiliation to a State or nation- a cartographed territory was being sharpened.

Most of the memories of their ancestral home in Sylhet or the Desher bari as it is still referred to comes from during the time of the second world war. The wrath of the War or the fearful anticipation of it unfolded into different histories in different parts of the world. Assam too was seething in anticipation of a Japanese raid. Trenches were built near houses, and evenings were spent in blackouts. My Great grandfather, Great grandmother and their children lived in Guwahati back then. My Great Grand Father was a Lawyer there, and they lived in the old neighborhood of Panbazar, while the other members of the joint family lived in the Desher bari of Sylhet which was then a part of Assam. The city of Guwahati at that time was being depopulated, fearing aerial bombing. Families of ‘working men’ were sent off to the villages, Borodadu, Chotodadu and their other siblings spent the longest duration time in the Desher Bari then. The time following this was tumultuous, the decolonization was gaining momentum, and as independence drew closer the fate of Assam remained uncertain.

During the partition the house of Panbazar became a shelter for most of the extended family and acquaintances, the ones who left their homes and stayed here until they could settle to the newly allotted lands and make new homes there. The people didn’t start coming in immediately after the partition but during the 1950s following the communal riots. Almost every other day the house would be simmering with the tide and ebb of new guests, this went on for of about a year.

While my grandfather’s father and mother were the resident hosts for waves of people coming in, my grandmother, Appa, and her family had a different experience of the times, they had to depart in more immediate sense of the word. Appa often told me the story of the day her father permanently left their home in Raigor, Sylhet. The migration of a family was finalized when the family deity was removed from the house. It was a winter morning when my grandmothers’ father left the house with the deity placed in a basket under his arms. When he reached Dewaan Bagaa (a Tea garden in Barka Valley, where their kins lived) he heard the news that Gandhi had been assassinated. Her father decided to celebrate Gandhi’s death by cooking duck, for he believed Gandhi was responsible for the breaking away of the country, for him having to leave his home. This burden of responsibility on Gandhi wasn’t borne out of a conviction of him having actively caused it, rather from an intimate expectation that he, being the Mahatma, was the one who could have stopped it. My grandmother used to story to correlate the date of their final departure from Sylhet.

On the other hand, for my grandfather’s father the dominant emotion was a yearning to eventually return to the village. It was decades later when it was finally accepted and ingested that there would be no return to the desher bari that vines of nostalgia grew across home and crept down the subsequent generations, somewhat romanticized with the luxury of being able to do so. Remembrances take many methods; one was Mejodadu’s, who from his childhood memory made a sketch of the Desher Bari. With no photographs as such, that became our only visual template to accommodate inherited memories and imaginations. The other was Chotodadu’s, who, used to make me and my cousins create model of that sketch of the house using Lego and everything else that we could gather from around us, sand, pebbles etc. The best one would win the biggest chocolate. Mejodadu once jokingly remarked, ‘why is Benu (Chotodadu) spilling over with so much nostalgia, given he has spent the least amount of days in that house’! Mejodadu was a repository of stories, however he, like most of the other people, Borodadu for instance, died before I could ask them many of these things. In fact in the last few years I met Mejodadu so seldom that there wasn’t much opportunity to ask him either, his toothless ramblings was absolutely incomprehensible on the phone. I went to Calcutta two years back, when he was dying. The day he died I only hoped that it would be as sunny and bright as he once described to me what the day of his death should be like.

Chotodadu, my granduncle looking at his brother’s sketch of their Ancestral home in Sylhet

Mejodadu’s sketches, the Indo Pak passport and the trunk are amongst the few things that embody the memories of the movements across spaces. Another such thing is a family deity at home. It was in the shape of a plate and called ‘Bhabani shankarer Tati’. A copper plate layered with white and red sandalwood past applied on its surface over years. The plate along with being an object of worship that was brought during the migration of the family also brought with it an interesting story about itself. An ancestor of, named Jagannath Shiromoni was enquired one day by his caste- discipline what day it was in the lunar calendar, to which he replied in hubris, that it was the full moon. Little later he discovered it was rather the opposite, it was the night of no moon, however because he had already declared that it was full moon and his words couldn’t be wrong, he summoned the moon in this plate to show his caste discipline. This story, one of reassuring the caste superiority-despite of being wrong he couldn’t be wrong, moreover he couldn’t be wrong to his disciple, a hierarchy lower in the caste ladder-speaks emphatically of the fact that objects are anything but benign, and that remembering is remembering to remind, remembering to domesticate and remembering to reaffirm in quotidian ways, ones assumed social positions. When the last remaining members finally left their Desher Bari they came to Guwahati with this copper plate where the moon was shown.

The family deity- Bhabani shankarer Tati- which was brought in from Sylhet during the Parititon

The Desher Bari had been emptied of most of the inhabitants by the 1960s. Gyanadadebi, whose name is written on the trunk in red along with her address ‘Norton gram’, had come to the Guwahati with her husband ( my great uncle ) when she must have been around 75. Everybody else had gradually moved to India by then and. It was during then, mostly out of a fear that when they die there wouldn’t be any one (implying anyone of the caste/clan) to do their last rites that they decided to leave their home and come to Assam and spend the rest of her life here. They came carrying this trunk, from which I found her wooden mirror and portrait of a young woman, who, I discovered was her only daughter, Nirmala. She had died very young during childbirth.

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Home archives the passage of time in many ways. While earlier I used to think of it as the stories of people and places, now it is the gradual erasure of the story-tellers, their inconsolable absence emphasized by their mute photographs pasted across the walls, and the incomplete afterlife of all these things which in their reinvented use or disuse have become memorabilias of futile yearnings.

Then there are these termites, expanding their nest across the walls in a mockery of cartography. There is also the banyan tree that has emerged from corner of worn out wall, the dense moss that covers the terrace, and the rodents gnawing off old papers and clothes. This is another archive of time, one that is thriving, one that makes you realize that decay and death can be as alive and breathing, and that erosion is also an act of being. For the walls wounded with photographs of the dead which reiterate that remembering is rooted in the realization of not having it any more, the termites and their sprawling nests are its pulsating arteries.

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Paloma Bhattacharjee is a Research Assistant at Department of Museology of National Museum Institute

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