“The greatest journeys are the ones that bring you home.” The Namesake (Movie)
When my grandparents packed their battered suitcases and made the most difficult journey of their lives – the one of leaving their home behind for ever – a little part of Bangladesh must have had surreptitiously sneaked into their luggage and travelled all the way with them in the chugging trains, choc-a-bloc with people who didn’t have an address, suddenly unwanted and unsafe in the only place they had ever known, journeying to a strange land they had only heard vague stories of. And when they unpacked their suitcase, that little piece spread out like an aroma, and made them feel at home once again at Calcutta, India, even if it took a while.
But then, whenever they were mobbed for stories by the kids in the family, which was almost every day, they always chose to skip the parts about the brutality they were helpless witnesses of, how heavy the burden of the ‘refugee’ label was, the sacrifices they had lost count of, and how they rebuilt their lives and established an identity, day by day, penny by penny, in a foreign land. In fact, I don’t think they ever allowed the word ‘Partition’ to escape their lips in our presence.
Instead, they would paint magical pictures of the faraway land that was their home. And at the end of each story-session, I pined to see Bangladesh as much I pined to see Prince Charming’s palace. Mom had said I could visit the Palace only in my dreams, because no train or bus went to the magical land. And I had assumed the same for Bangladesh. For me, it was a place that existed only in stories, in dreams and in wishes. After all these years, as I sit down to write this, I repent never having thought of asking my grandparents why they didn’t ever go back to their hometown. But now, it’s too late.
However, it’s not too late to make that journey I always dreamed of as a child – the journey to the faraway land where I now know that buses, trains and flights take you. As a matter of fact, it’s not that far away either.
My grandparents had exactly one photo album each – which summed up their childhood and adolescence in Bangladesh. And an older cousin had actually convinced me that the world was black-and-white when our grandparents were young. It was a source of endless fascination for us – the one photo of my grandfather’s parents, sitting solemn-faced on wooden chairs in their small house, flanked by their eight children – my grandfather, one of the smallest, in shorts, on his mother’s lap. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to go to that house with my grandfather, have him show me where he built that swing in the huge garden; the tree he used to steal apples from with his three friends, even though he was not fond of apples; the small room he shared with his four brothers; their long walks to the banks of the beautiful Meghna River; all of which he had painted pictures of in his stories, because there were no photos. But no camera could capture an image as vividly as his words had; and I always felt I could find my way around his home in Brahmanbaria, a small district in Bangladesh, in the dark. Four of his siblings are still alive, and I would love to take them back to their childhood home with me. I have a feeling that their dim eyes would light up like bulbs and their wrinkled faces would spread into wide, toothless grins. And their children, spread all over the world – if only we could all put aside our busy lives and exotic vacation plans for only a few days and set out in search of our past together just this once, won’t that be pure heaven?
There was a very similar photo in my grandmother’s album too – she and her five siblings with their parents; my grandmother being the oldest, her ten-year-old slim frame wrapped tightly in a plain saree – her baby sister in her arms. The photo was taken in the backyard of their house in Comilla, and you could see a part of the umbrella-shaped mango tree, under which they used to sometimes fall asleep in summer, she told us. I believe that if I sit beneath that tree and concentrate hard, I would hear her tinkling laughter as she gossiped with her sisters. And the melancholy tune of the shehnai from when she – a mere child of sixteen – had got married to my grandfather in the same backyard, under the same guava tree where she used to organize elaborate weddings for her dolls not too many years back. Her three surviving siblings – her baby sister and her two brothers – must join us too. How else would I find the sprawling meadows by the gurgling stream where they used to picnic in winter as children? I bet they would feel young enough to run and skip and hop across the meadows, picking up nuggets from their childhood scattered all around. And their children, and their children too – half of who I haven’t even met – how difficult would be to convince them? Worth a try.
Why only them? My aunt should see the house where she was born, where she spent two short years of her life before she made the journey with her parents, too young to ask questions, the transition blessedly easy for her. I bet her eyes would sparkle when she walks the yard where my grandmother used to rock her to sleep. I am sure her son would love to join us too. I have seen him staring intently – not once, not twice, but at least a hundred times – at the one photo of his mother in the album, when she was just a few months old, only the top of her head covered in tiny curls peeking out from the bundle of blankets, sleeping blissfully in our grandmother’s arms. I have seen how my cousin would hold the album at different angles, clearly trying for a better look at his mom’s face. He would never know how her mother looked when she was an infant, but maybe, being in the same corner of the room where the photo was taken more than 60 years back would compensate for it in some way.
And my dad! I can’t let him go through life never once looking back to see where he came from. I won’t believe he didn’t wish to see it for himself as much as I did when he used to hear the same stories as a little boy. I can already picture him sitting, with a beaming smile and sad eyes, at the exact spot where my grandfather used to study as a boy with his brothers, by the dim light of a single kerosene lamp. And Mom has to be there, so that Dad can tell her all those stories for the nth time.
I staunchly believe that we should make this journey once in our lifetime. After that, even if we never see each other again in our lives, we would still be bound by the strongest bond this world can offer; because in our hearts, all of us would know that no matter how far we branch out, we are all held together by the same roots that run deep and strong and are unshakably firm.