Translated into English by V Ramaswamy, Adhir Biswas’ Memories of Arrival: A Voice from the Margins brings together four books of a migrant’s story of displacement and exile in one volume. The author, though half-starved, gets an education. He finds possibilities, delighting in the city of Calcutta, making the most of what he can. He finds a place in the book world, finally emerging as the distinguished editor and publisher of Gangchil and Doel.
Adhir Biswas writes quietly and tersely, with much unsaid, to depict a life where the past and the present keep coalescing with dreams of the old place and the dreaminess of the new land. His story has much in common with that of migrants who leave a village or a small town to come to a big city and live in its shadows.
The following is an excerpt from the book.
Who said that? The shout rang out just as I turned my eyes away from the rats and looked in the direction of Curzon Park. As I looked past the clump of cacti, I could see it clearly. A bald-headed man. Yes, it must have been that man. His eyes were penetrating. He wasn’t merely speaking fluently, but it was as if each word had been severed with a sharp knife. I had never heard such perfect pronunciation even from my teachers in East Pakistan. Baba had done well to bring us here. Calcutta was truly beautiful. It was like the language of books being spoken! The speech of people in East Pakistan wasn’t good. If I hadn’t come to India, where would I have heard this language?
But why had he come here to sever words? Did he come to the park to pick up fights? But looking at them, these people didn’t appear to be of the fighting type. Wearing sparkling white; white as storks. Tight-fitting pyjamas and panjabis. The girls were wearing single-bordered saris. The girl who was as tall as a betel-nut tree seemed to be speaking well.
‘What’s happening here, Dada?’ I asked the man beside me.
A play? A play without a stage? Was this the norm here? Without saying any more, I kept watching. Kept listening.
Like me, many others headed in that direction.
The players’ hands came together to form a circle, held together by what seems to be a chain of arms. In the centre was a solitary man. Arey, what did he say? It sounded like a vulgar abuse! Actually, I was watching the arms intertwining. What did it remind me of?
The man’s tight-fitting trousers were great! If you went to some crowded street, you could spot people wearing such pants. A bluish colour. Faded. As if it was made of some old cloth. Dirty. But despite all that, it was great! Was that man the leader? Fair-skinned, his bare feet almost white.
Did anyone possess trousers back in the village? I couldn’t remember. Did Moulvi saheb’s son wear them? I couldn’t remember that either. I was in the high school there for a year. As soon as I passed the annual exam, I had left.
In school, everyone wore pyjamas. I had seen those from my extended family too wearing pyjamas. Here I was observing trousers, which kept slimming below the knees and then widened just before reaching the ankle. Bell-bottom trousers! But what was the name of the kind of trousers the man had on? ‘Arey, it’s Badal Sarkar.’ said a man as he stopped beside me.
‘Is the bald-headed man’s name Badal Sarkar?’
He must be someone famous. So he was, but the hair on his head was very scanty! As if one could count the number of hairs on his head. Borda’s head too was becoming like that! But his words were fine indeed.
Everything he said was true. Now I realized that it was indeed a play. I had never seen this when I lived in the village. I was seeing so many new things. These people were Calcutta folk. Rather, let’s see what they do! At the end of the play, would they do namaskar to us, those of us who were watching?
How beautiful the girl was! What a beautiful face! She was responding promptly. Exactly on cue. I gazed only at her. As if she had arrived just a little while ago from the laundry, wearing a freshly-laundered, unbleached sari. I kept gazing.
We didn’t have anyone in East Pakistan. All of us had come over to India. Lying in the darkness of the room in the basti, I was unable to sleep. So many thoughts flitting through my head. A fistful of rice and two rotis at noon. After just a little while, hunger stalked my whole body. I became ever more angry with Baba. Why hadn’t I forbidden him to leave the country? What had we gained by coming here? Baba and my dadas were running around frenetically. After all, Baba used to bring home two kilos of rice after setting out with the bag carrying his scissors and razor, and going from one village to another! The same Baba was now shuttling between houses. ‘Do you want me to work for you?’ But what would he do? What did Baba know either, what work could he do?
Mejda stood in line at a factory. Borda worked in the Corporation workshop. His salary was one hundred and twenty-five rupees. Chhorda was learning the job at a barber shop. Mejda and Baba were both looking for work. If I didn’t get admitted to school, I would set out too. What work would there be for me? In a teashop? Casual labour was taken on at the Philips factory. They could get a meal for a sicci. Dada was aware of all that too. He stood at the netted passage in front of the factory gate. After waking up in the morning, I too left with Mejda. What other work did I have after the morning’s roti dipped in tea! But they didn’t want to take me.
Past the basti lay Convent Road… There were so many people like us! The officer arrived. He used to call people, one by one. Either by calling out someone’s name or pointing to someone and saying, ‘You come!’ Right then…
But Mejda didn’t get work. Did the officer find out that we were from East Pakistan, that we were refugees? We continued to stand there even after the gate was shut. What if …! Then after a while, we separated when we reached the Entally police station. ‘Go home, Ratan!’
It saddened me to see Mejda walking away. As if he were leaving and wouldn’t return! That made me blame Baba once again. Baba had now become a major target for blame. Why did we come here leaving behind my Ma who was consigned to flames at the crematorium! Would Baba even understand?
Calcutta of 1967 belonged to Naxalbari. Which party was that, who were the people in this party? One heard the name of the party a lot. What was the colour of their party flag, I hadn’t seen it yet. Did Naxal mean red? There was fear everywhere. Fear stalked the streets of the city.
Mornings are peaceful in every land. It was the same in Calcutta too. That’s why I am no longer afraid. As I walked, I thought about such things, I turned around to look at Mejda. I couldn’t see him. Had he gone to stand in line in some other factory?
I was seeing Calcutta on foot. I didn’t go too far. I was familiar only with Moulali… Once I was there, I could orient myself, Sealdah was in the north. The twin-spired church was in the south. As well as Mother Teresa’s Mother House. And in the east was CIT Road. Beyond that was completely familiar. That’s how I roamed around. If I were admitted to school, perhaps I wouldn’t be able to do that any more…
Once I emerged from the basti and set foot on the road, my feet headed towards Dharmatala. It was a straight road, along the tram line, to Dharmatala. Going there meant — the Maidan. Curzon Park was in that green. It was nice. There was so much in all these places that it seemed it would take me many days to see it all. That was fine, I would see it little by little…Even from afar, the Monument in the Maidan was visible. As one passed by it, there was the stench of piss, a litter of coconut shells and peanut shells. Beyond that lay Curzon Park. That was within the Maidan too. Actually, I had been coming here for the past few days. I came to see something else. To tell the truth, to see that girl. The girl with a sari of unbleached cloth. The slender girl, tall as a cane branch, the sari-clad girl with large eyes!