Nabanita Deb Sen, former wife of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, has written a lyrical piece in the Indian Express on the occasion of Independence Day. For those who are not aware of her, she is a remarkable intellectual. Having graduated from Presidency College of Kolkata she did MA from Jadavpur University. She then obtained a Masters with Distinction from Harvard University. Later, she had several assignments in universities of the US, England and Europe. She authored several books in Bengali and English. She is a socially active person and is currently doing an assignment for the Central Government. While her former husband is a Bharat Ratna, she has been honoured by the award of Padma Shri.
Almost the same age as me her and my memories of the Independence Day of 1947 were of the images that were recorded by the pre-teen eyes of both of us. The period was synchronous but we were locationally separated by hundreds of miles. She was in Kolkata that was generally the scene of action of the Independence movement. Kolkata was, after all, the former capital of British India and was considered the first city of the country. I was way out in the backwaters of Central India in the native state of Gwalior.
Gwalior was a sleepy place and nothing much would disturb the even tenor of life. People were, by and large, happy with the feudal dispensation. Though there was rationing on account of the then concluded World War they did get all the essentials. The Maharaja had contributed his forces for the British effort along with the Allies hence there were cut down on supplies but, as one remembers it, one could and did get by.
There were, however, no demonstrations for independence, at least, not until immediately before the month of the Big Day. There were few instances of communal killings creating short-lived panicky situations. Perhaps the state police were on alert and they would see to it that normalcy is restored. Normal daily activities continued; vegetable vendors would call out, we children would go to schools and my father, a professor, would go to the college and so on.
It was on the 15th August that my father decorated the verandah overlooking the road. He, too, was a product of Presidency College, had taken part in the “Swadeshi” movement and was a nationalist to the core. We all helped him with preparing buntings, wrapping red cloth around the pipes supporting the tin shed, hanging framed pictures of national leaders on the wall and sticking the tri-colour wherever we possibly could. Father installed lamps that we had at strategic places to illuminate the verandah.
Fortunately it did not rain that day. When dusk fell father switched on the lights and our front verandah lit up like never before. Passers-by would look up and appreciate the effort. But not many were enthusiastic about this Big Day. One does not recall any exuberance; only a few of father’s students reacted positively. They, obviously, saw what it meant; others probably thought Independence was not going to make any difference to them. It would be the same old feudal rule – howsoever good it might have been.
Nabanita Deb Sen was, however, in Kolkata where, both the sights and sounds that she encountered were rich and copious. She remembers the radio blaring out the midnight speech of Nehru from every house. But, then Independence brought traumatic times for the people. Families were torn asunder and the city was full of refugees from what was till then East Bengal and on that day becoming Pakistan. As a child, she says, she had seen roads flooded with refugees, some of them walking skeletons and begging for, not rice, but its starch that is generally thrown away. She also remembers to have seen those skeletal forms fighting for wasted food in the bins with dogs. Remembering the Great Calcutta Killing she recalls how her father’s close friend was chopped and packed up in a packing box. Fond of this uncle of hers who used to frequently play with her she could not eat for some days
Nabanita also remembers how beautiful parks were dug up for trenches in which she and her friends used to play. In anticipation of the Japanese air attack glass doors and windows were painted black and baffle walls were erected to ward off, presumably, the splinters of bombs. The city was full of military camps and the “endless plying of heavy military vehicles had chewed up the roads.” Nabanita recalls that even then she remembers to have played with friends on those streets since the playgrounds and parks had become army camps.
Belonging to a distinguished family of intellectuals, her experiences in those days of childhood were sensitive and poignant. Her father, Narendra Dev was a poet, author, translator and was author of the first Bengali work of cinematography and he married her mother who was a widow in those conservative times. Her father seems to have been overwhelmed by the powerful poet that was her mother who wore Khaddar and was a child widow.
Nabanita’s memories stirred my own and I recalled my mother speaking of Anusheelan Kendras which were generally meant for boys. Their aim was to inculcate a culture of fitness – currently a rage among young people of both sexes – among them. Members included revolutionary journalist Barin Ghosh, founder of Jugantar newspaper and his elder brother Aurobindo Ghosh, later known as Sri Aurobindo of Pondicherry Ashram. Some of this part of the history has been recaptured in the tele-serial that is currently being aired on Zee Bangla with the title of “Netaji”. Netaji, it seems, got mixed up with some of these people, includingthe famed Bagha Jatin (Mukherjee) whod was hanged eventually. Netaji’s fiery disposition against the British appears to have been imbibed from Anusheelan Samiti members and those who were involved in the “Swadeshi” Movement.
Bengal was the crucible where the love for the country and “Swadeshi” cult were nurtured and numerous young boys gave up their lives in the hope of freeing the country from the British yoke. Independence did not come cheap; it came at the cost of many young men who were intellectuals and morally upright. Unfortunately, what we see today is some of the undeserving enjoying the fruits of freedom that was won after great sacrifice by numerous young men.
Independence Day, therefore, is a day that is joyous and also sombre when those unknown and unnamed martyrs need to be remembered.
While 15th August 1947 was by and large placid in Gwalior Kolkata faced the brunt of the Partition. Though freedom had to be celebrated, the celebrations were naturally muted because of those who were left with nothing and had nowhere else to go.