“Taki, Taki, Taki,” sounded the conductor with metallic thumps on the moving bus. The wet tires hissed and screeched to a halt. Hordes of people with luggage piled on their heads, children on their hips, rushed for a seat in that empty vehicle- forgetting they all had a ticket in their name. The driver turned from the framed deities - fresh marigold and incense stick in hand - murmuring prayers as he saw his passengers jumbled at the door like a fist trapped inside the mouth of a bottle.
Jhinuk was the only one in the crowd, tackling blows and elbows with a grin so wide that she drew suspicions of being a pick-pocketer. She allowed herself to float with the heaving bodies, swaying unawares, till she trickled forth with a start. Only her red suitcase was stuck behind. Then her glass bangles jangled, back and forth, back and forth in what seemed to be a tug of war and off she went flying deep onto the aisle floor.
A window seat had been her demand and she saw her father guarding two seats, asking her to get inside fast. Goading her on from outside the window was her mother, her two sisters, a snooty brother and a handful of neighbours. Squinting at the January sun, their eyes were oblivious to the commotion of a terminus like Park Circus, Kolkata. From her seat now she could see the outside walls at the farthest end. Slogans of Poriborton: a change from the existing thirty four years of Left rule was splattered on the wall with red soot along with overlapping posters of the most-awaited Bollywood movie of that year – ‘Bodyguard.’
The engine had vibrated to a start and her mother held out her hand. Jhinuk caught it through the bars in the window. The woman broke into a deep howl - so loud that it could blur the parted from the departed. The accompanying women tried to console her and wiped her tears with her saree. Jhinuk, who till that moment had felt nothing at all, wilted a bit within. For the first time it dawned upon her, that while she had awaited this journey for months, cradling a peal of anticipation in her belly - she was going away to get married.
The bus honked and started to move, wheeling towards the main road. Hands waved, picking up the little ones who were coaxed to say, “Tata-Tata!” Her mother started walking along in quick steps, squeezing tight the palm in her hands. The bus picked up speed, blowing the air- hot and grainy- on her face. She released the grip, calling out, “Jhinuk… Don’t forget your Maa!”
This couldn’t be as formal a see-off as they were making it out to be. Her bidai. There were no shehnais, no bridal makeup, and no groom. The henna on her palm, of course, had blossomed into a coffee rich brown, suggesting that her man would be loving. But a wedding without most of her family is not how she had desired it to be. After spending fifteen years of her life yearning for Salman Khan, a movie star from Bollywood who was still a bachelor in his forties, Jhinuk had given her consent to this marriage. The boy was a carpenter in Bangladesh, and she had spent many nights dreaming of him since – herself clad in a blue chiffon saree. One of the reasons she had agreed to the marriage was the photograph of the groom. Not that he was one of the ‘six best-looking men’ in the world or had ‘six-packs.’ But the studio-clicked portrait sent for the match, had the groom flanking a life-size cardboard cut-out of the actor himself- his arms flung around his neck like they were buddies.
Two hours into their ride, the bus had now travelled off the city limits. The conductor clicked for tickets no more. The poultry crammed into the netted baskets had fallen silent. Even the disjointed torsion in the faces around had dissolved into an absent-minded surrender. With a kerchief dropped on his face, her father snoozed, his mouth puffing beneath in sonorous gusts. The repeated gaze from a young boy - white sneakers and black sunglasses- meeting her reflection on the window glass swelled her heart. Too late. She was going to belong. The molten sky had shed the fluff off its chest and looked grim, proud. But the unhindered earth, outside the window, ran and regaled in miles with bursts of promiscuous green. And from the look, she could tell they were not alone. Many were set to course past the International border into Bangladesh that night. Illegally.
A farmer in his own nation in Bangladesh, her father had lost many harvests to the floods. But when the water entered their home and the receding soil began eating into their morsels, a path was taken, travelled by many before. It had been decades since. And yet there were nights when he sat up screaming from his sleep, refusing to put his foot on the floor - floating with utensils, his toothbrush, and dead fish. That was a bad dream, he had to be reminded. There were now safe. They were in India. Over the years, the city of Kolkata had hardened itself with towering bricks and walls, but it had also filled the cracks and crevices of the hands that shaped its changing form. And though they had moved with the thought of returning one day, the chasm had widened way too far for them to leap back. Their grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins were still in Bangladesh but born in India, Jhinuk believed that she was an Indian.
To her, Bangladesh was a past, which haunted their present lives. Once a year, her parents or some of her neighbours crossed over to the other side to visit their relatives. Some went to attend a wedding or a festival. And though stories narrating the horrors of the border were whispered between the walls, the children of these cross-border families looked forward to such an adventure. Anybody who returned safe, naturally earned a special place, a respect among their tribe. A brush with mortality gave them an adult status which many secretly vied for. The transgressors came back with stories about the chase by the Border Security Force (BSF), their torture methods and the ordeal of those who were caught and detained. The children often suspected each other of adding imagination to their stories which grew taller around the lantern which brought them together on quiet evenings. But the credibility of their accounts increased when some of the people they knew did not return.
The cell phone in the nylon bag resting in her father’s lap vibrated with a cranky Bollywood score - “Udd Udd dabangg dabangg dabangg” - jolting his drool along with the passengers in the adjacent seats. The disgruntlement on his face showed that he would have preferred to be dead than be disturbed, reinforced further by the shroud on his face. He used it to wipe the sweat and spoke with his eyes closed. The slapdash manner in which he muttered his responses, in yes and no, suggested that he was speaking to someone familiar. He handed the phone to Jhinuk and threw back his head, his eyes still shut.
“How far? Not reached?” said her mother.
“Arey-arrey…see how these two are snatching the phone. Wait, they are saying they want to speak to you.”
“Di, are you thinking about our jamaibabu?” There was giggling from the other side, in chorus. “Need I tell you?”
“Ish, showing off already.”
“As if I care.”
“Then why else would you go running running to get married to him?”
Her eyes had met the boy in the reflection again and she said, “Will talk later. I’m on the bus.”
She looked at him once more, then at her father who had drifted off, this time without the cloth on his face.
When the marriage proposal had come for Jhinuk, what had impressed her parents was the two-storey house which belonged to the groom’s family. Something they did not have - even to leave behind. As for Jhinuk, besides the photograph, the prospect of acquiring a legal citizenship offered promise. Her birth certificate, ration card and school leaving certificate, like that of her illegal migrant parents, had been procured from India. But she was nevertheless a Bangladeshi. Only officially an Indian. They were accused of stealing jobs, adding to the population count, eating the grains meant for the poor. It was all too confusing, and she hated her in-betweenness. There were days when this dubiousness was forgotten. But too often some news of their relatives from the other side or a cricket tournament between the two countries or a mob situation in the city brought her to question her identity.
“Jahehnum e jaa,” her mother would yell, forbidding her to learn to live like others. Jhinuk, in return, would argue that by the same logic our real homes were then jungles since we all began as apes. And the jungle belonged to none. They scolded her for talking too much, for asking too many questions.
Wait till you see a live mob. Wait till the police come knocking at our doors. Wait till you get married and go to your in-laws’ house.
She was tired of this waiting game which had consumed their entire lives. But she also did not know what lay beyond. In protest, she would trot around singing the National Anthem (of India) and rattle the names of the freedom fighters who had fought the British. Though what held her in awe was that the two Bengals had fought them together, from the same side: as one. They were one.
The marriage, the elders agreed, could settle this itchy matter once and for all. That Jhinuk could find peace and be reconciled to her identity of a true Bangladeshi. She too had nodded in agreement with her bring-it-on attitude. For no matter how much she loved her India, she was her illegitimate child.
An agent who dealt with the matters of the border was then consulted. While he guaranteed a safe transit, he advised that only two people travel at a time. That way the risk was less. That way, the entire family would not be finished at once. This was her chance for a brush with mortality. It was therefore decided that only Jhinuk and her father would travel to their ancestral home for the wedding. And in a month’s time, a grand reception would be thrown for all in India with the groom and the new bride. A VIP treatment, therefore, for the rest of her life was what Jhinuk could expect from those at her maternal home. Those were the same people who had belittled her earlier.
Now she would have a legal status to flaunt, a story to tell.
The Sal forests were now smudging the horizon beyond the rice stalks and jute fields. Jhinuk tried freeing herself, peeling her back from the rexine-seat as a sticker printed on a sheet. Though it was January, the chill had already bled from the air and it was getting hotter. The tin ceiling of the bus glimmered with countless stars shining from her glass bangles, alternating between blue- yellow- blue, restless to her touch. Miles away from home an uncertainty was creeping into her heart.
A diesel-powered rickshaw van was waiting for them at the bus stop in Taki. The conductor had hauled the bus and stood rubbing the snuff on his palm. The passengers descended in a single file - Jhinuk behind her father, her red suitcase beating against her knees tinkling her anklets with each stride. An empty road sentinelled with coconut trees lay unrolled before her. It brought cars back from the oblivion which bolted past them, rumbling the tar beneath.
The van-driver began stacking the luggage in the centre, piling them high. Across the road, a tourist group with backpacks and bulky cameras were buying mineral water from a tiny tea-stall. Their khaki shorts and golden tresses had become a point of contention for the rest. Jhinuk knew that they were from a phoren land and not just any neighbouring country. In the last few years, more of them were sighted in the city. They worked in tall towers which shone like mirrors in the daylight sun. Her own neighbour, employed at a driver centre, often boasted about driving these people to work, to the malls and the hotels around. And she saw a similarity. They too came from outside India, they too lived with their families, they too worked here and had made a home in this country. Yet everywhere they went they were given a grand salaam. But then yes, they weren’t poor like her after all.
Her father nudged her with a green Sprite bottle filled with water and said, “Don’t finish it.”
Jhinuk drank from it and splashed some on her face.
“Not getting the signal,” he said, sticking the phone to his ears. What did your Maa say?”
“Must be getting worried. No tower here.”
“Try a little later and see.”
“Achha listen,” he whispered, bringing himself closer. “This is the border area. Don’t trust anybody here. There could be people watching.”
“Like I’ve come here to make friends.”
“Not friends, but it is for you to start a family that we’ve come until here. May God ensure that everything goes well.”
The van-driver made way for her to be squeezed between two more families who sat with their legs dangling from the edge. Her admirer from the bus had also joined them, white sneakers and black sunglasses, the music in his earphones audible to all. The rikshaw-van hollered through the quiet lanes, cutting through rows and rows of colourless homes, terracotta roofs growing gourds, municipal schools, playgrounds with boys splattering the ball, and walls festooned with dung cakes. It was serene as any other place.
Crickets were chirping from the bushes and swamps when they arrived at last. The air was heavy with the scent of fresh trodden grass. It was a layover in transit. The place looked like a tiny clearing amidst a large acre of mango plantation. Jhinuk could feel her muscles stiffened by the long ride which had left its motion swaying within her.
A naked dangling bulb at the entrance of a brick house lit up the mossy-smooth steps leading to the main door. The room inside was small, painted in green with an inbuilt shrine for several Gods and Goddesses. From a low-lying cot, people looked up at them with the matching blankness in their glowing eyes. No exchange of greetings. No words. All they shared was a common fear for a common destination. This was the border area in Hasnabad on the northern fringe of West Bengal cutting out the soil of Bangladesh.
At one in the morning, they were jostled from their sleep by a knock at the main door. It was time. Most of them had slept on the damp floor, their bellies filled with a meal of curried eggs and rice. The drinking water had already changed its taste. Jhinuk had stayed up listening to an owl hoot which escaped from the trees, stunning her senses with its precocious rapture. Even the red-swollen eyes and the finger-patted yawns betrayed an unspoken alacrity.
A man began addressing the group assembled before him. He said that he had an important announcement to make, and everyone was to listen carefully. But then he stopped short looking at Jhinuk. He eyed her in detail. Heads turned to find her.
He asked her to remove her bangles, her anklet, her jhumkas – all at once, all jingling too much.
A murmur spread through the room like dry leaves rustling on the grass. He was the main Agent. He risked his life and got the maximum cuts. But he couldn’t make her take off all that she loved. She looked at her father and the exaggerated modesty on his face which belied his otherwise rough temper. He was folding his hands, in gratitude towards him. Women in the crowd came forward to help.
“These are mine,” she protested.
“Is this some picnic you’ve come for?”
“Don’t you dare touch!”
“What drama, just see.”
“Easy… easy there. I’m not a human bomb.”
“Going for your wedding, aren’t you? Talk like that and your mother-in-law with rub your mouth with chilli-paste.”
“Leave it now. Poor thing.”
“Why, didn’t you find anyone suitable this side that you are going there to die? What on earth —”
“Hush there! Put five women together and see the racket they can cause. Aren’t you done yet?”
Their large hands, quick, were working in a flash. They peeled off her jhumka, her anklet and her glass bangles – blue- yellow- blue, broken and crushed to dust. Jhinuk stood with her bare arms, weightless and exposed. Feeling alone. The border did not discriminate. But if caught, it was worse for women. The agent informed them that the BSF had grown more vigilant that night. They had been spotted patrolling the area armed with snipers, rifles, and a resolve to shoot at sight. The entourage had to lay low, in wait. A few hours, days even perhaps.
It was here for the first time that Jhinuk realised what she was doing was wrong. It was a mistake. If she was an Indian by birth, the only one among them perhaps, then it was she who was encroaching. She was a criminal trespassing into a nation that may have rightfully belonged to her. Others were merely on a journey back home. They were welcome there. At the stroke of the midnight hour, some sixty years ago, India was partitioned. A new nation was birthed. What was theirs could no longer be ours.
But those in that room had spilt over – flotsam and jetsam in a divided Bengal. She had begun to wonder if it was all worth a cardboard cut-out after all. And though she was still within India for the first time she felt a strange fondness for her home. An urge to see her mother. How much she had loved her behind that façade of her rebellion. How she had lived, like never to depart from her. Her marriage certificate crowning her as a real Bangladeshi citizen now appeared paper-thin, thinner than the fallacy of a cardboard hero.
That night she dreamt of floating on the Ichhamati river, a bog merely for a stretch. She sat cocooned inside the agape hollow-bark of a coconut tree, its branches working as oars to cross the murky chasm of her in-betweenness. The jarring call of whistles, the distant orb of flashlights, the scratchy thistles – all threatening to awaken. Her dream was muddled and carried the strange smell of animal hide. She also saw the white sneakers leaving footprints ahead on the soft mud.
When she woke up, however, she found her head heavy on a soft pillow and all around her were the walls of her ancestral home in Dhaka. Her aunt from the album stood at the foot of the cot, thronged by an army of her cousins.
“Jaak, finally you’ve opened your eyes. Recognise us?” said her aunt, in a chirpy voice. “Someone go, inform her Baba. She’s awake.”
“Has she even seen us that she’ll recognise?” said another unidentified woman. “That country she was born in, you see.”
Jhinuk wasn’t sure if she was, where she thought she was. Her head was pounding. “That year, your Baba decided to leave suddenly,” said her aunt. “Look at us, are we starving or what? At least, now you are here.”
“I don’t understand. Where’s Baba?” “He must be coming, don’t worry. You arrived burning with fever. Don’t you remember?” In her wakefulness, she realised that she hadn’t been asleep. That night after the Agent had left them, she had been discovered shivering, babbling words. The trauma of being singled out like a criminal and stripped of her ornaments had left her delirious. She had travelled the entire stretch supported by others and had even crossed the border that night but had no story to remember.
It was the morning of 7th January 2011, three days to her wedding. She sat on her bed trying to remember how she had crossed the border last night. Outside her window, the clothesline was bobbing under the weight of a sparrow; inside the tea by her bedside was had already grown a brown skin.
Later that day, when Jhinuk sat munching puffed rice served with family stories from before her birth, that the news came in. The women dropped the towels and petticoats they were folding for the wedding trousseau and rushed to the television set in the living room.
A fifteen-year-old Bangladeshi girl, Felani Khatun, * had been shot dead that same morning at the India Bangladesh border.
They huddled close, sucking the air in gasps. Every channel was covering the story. A photograph showing her dead body hanging upside down from the barbed fence flitted on the television screen. Travelling from a different route, she had to climb over a high mesh, when her clothes had got entangled in the wire. In a fit of panic, she had started screaming, which alerted the BSF officers, and they had opened the fire. She had remained there hung for hours and was reported pleading for water. The bullets on her chest had eventually bled her to death. Like Jhinuk, she was also travelling with her father to Bangladesh for her wedding.
Jhinuk watched the news channels playing the story repeatedly as the anchors fiercely discussed the fate of such cross-border brides. How her father, who had crossed first, must have cried at her funeral. Her bidai. Blue- yellow- blue desires blotched into black, forever. But unlike her, Felani was a Bangladeshi. She was no trespasser. She was barely returning home. They had travelled the same night - distanced by a few hours, a few miles and an entire lifetime.
That moment ushered the beginning of another wait for Jhinuk. The distance back home, she realised, was more than the few miles between them. How far she had travelled. So far, that her time and place in India were irrevocably lost. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw Felani in her mind- uprooted. And the merciless border. She could never let that happen to her. And that meant, perhaps she could never return. The world around had stalled to heartbeats and it beat with the parting words, “Jhinuk… don’t forget your Maa!”
*Felani Khatun was a 15-year Bangladeshi girl who shot dead by India’s Border Security Force on 7th January 2011. She was travelling to Bangladesh for her wedding.
2021 marks the tenth year of her death anniversary.