Parting ways

What must it have been like to live through the partition? To watch your closest friends leave, one by one, and know that your time will come soon? To adapt to new living conditions, and create new social circles at a time when caste and religion were of paramount importance?

To weep when you gave away your property and cattle that you valued so much, because you were leaving for good? To realise that you will never return to the village where you lived all your life, never live in your house, and never farm on your lands again?

A Life Long Ago (translated from the original Dayamoyeer Katha) is a moving tale of the partition in East Bengal, and tells the story of 12-year-old Dayamoyee, a Kayastha Hindu girl, who lives in Dighpait. Her parents, who work in a school in West Bengal, leave her in East Bengal under the care of her widowed aunt, who becomes her foster mother.

With a family ‘divided’ by political lines (or as the author says, “passports and visas stood in our way”), and the village around her slowly changing, Dayamoyee tries to understand what is happening to her world. As she leaves East Pakistan, she suppresses all of her memories of Dighpait, and is completely unwilling to remember her life there between 1951 and 1960. The death of her family retainer in the 1990s brings a surge of memories, and she narrates the story of her childhood.

The whole book is narrated from the perspective of the young Daya (one of Sikdar’s childhood names) and it paints a vivid picture of the partition, what this young child went through, and of her struggles to understand the situation. Growing up away from her family, she finds it tough to relate to her parents, her brothers and sisters, and has stronger bonds with her foster mother and the people of the village.

She is particularly attached to Majam, a Muslim landless peasant who works as their retainer.

The issue of identity is central to the book, as Daya tries to understand the differences between people of different castes and religions. In her innocence, she states, “There is far too much fuss in our village on matters of caste.

” She accepts certain things at first, and later makes matter-of-fact observations: she and her aunt travel with a group of people, enjoy their journey with them but don’t eat the food cooked by them, because they belong to a lower caste. When she visits the house of a Muslim, she and her aunt are given fresh fruits and raw milk, but cannot drink a single drop of water because it will pollute them. There is true poverty, as the Hindu priest is forced to accept rice grains from a Muslim family. The children of different castes and religions play together, but those belonging to the upper castes have to take a bath before they go back home.

But perhaps paradoxically, there is genuine affection among people from the different social groups. “There was grave hurt and resentment, but no one ever doubted that there was also warmth and deep affection,” she writes. There is contempt for the refugees (or ripuchis) but also the understanding that when they leave, they will be ripuchis themselves.

The young protagonist also shows a great deal of sensitivity; she is moved when people leave the village to go to Hindustan; feels some guilt when she gets new clothes and food but her less fortunate neighbours don’t; and has no mood to eat or play when the family of Majam, the retainer, is starving.

These sensitive comments make a stark contrast to the matter-of-fact observations at other places, as she succinctly narrates tales of people who left, of those who were ostracised, of those who were driven mad by the effects of partition.

The book is successful in transporting the reader to life in those times. However, at times, while you feel that certain parts flow smoothly, some others seem abrupt. As with most translations, it is difficult to pinpoint whether this is due to the original text, or if something was lost, unfortunately, in the rendering.

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