The author as a child with her parents and brother in Delhi
IT IS THE SUN’S RAYS BLINDING ME that really bring home the fact that I am in a new place. Not simply a new city, or a new country, but a geographically alien place, where I am bedazzled by the sun’s light directly in my eyes, skimming the horizon, as I look down a street. Here, the sun at noon barely grazes the tops of the houses, which hunker in perpetual twilight, and my shadow is enormous behind me, stretching out like a languid, pixelated ghost. At the top of the avenue, the sun’s light spills down the long length of the street with glorious profligacy. The lone people walking down its length towards me are backlit with a blinding phosphorescence, like survivors of an inferno, or like angels. I am aware, viscerally, of the tilting of the earth on its axis away from the sun, angling away like a vexed child.
This has been a strangely untethered year. Perhaps it has been the same for many people, as the world has taken its first stumbling steps towards a sort of normalcy, after these years of hibernation and fear. But certainly, moving to a new continent brings about an unmooring that is elemental. Here in London, even the animals collude to add to this feeling of disorientation. One evening a fox slinks down the street ahead of me, his feral stealth disguised in the rust brown of his coat, blending in with the fallen leaves. In the gloaming of another evening a raucous flight of bright green parakeet, fugitives from a local zoo, screeches past the skittering clouds, loud, brazen, and incongruous in this quiet neighbourhood of red-brick Victorian houses, gabled roofs, and high-stepping labradoodles.
In London I drift in the slipstream of busy, coiled lives. I will myself into anonymity and eavesdrop on conversations, guiltily, like a child. I tilt my head slightly to catch the cadence of languages, the murmur of confessions, like the scratchy staccato of a radio trying to catch a frequency on a channel. It is always a delight to hear a language I can understand, even if only a little —French, Spanish, Italian, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and the sibilance of Bengali. None of these stolen snippets are earth-shattering revelations. They reveal the drab scaffolding of people’s daily lives, the white bones of their days. What is revelatory, however, is the diversity of the tongues spoken. It is impossible to ignore Empire when you wander around listening to the languages of Londoners. In this mongrel city, the voices of its people form a polyphony, singing of dislocation and hope.
There has been a fair amount of angst in Britain this year about the legacy of Empire, further fuelled by seminal events such as the death of Queen Elizabeth II. But these questions and discussions are just the beginning, for there have been long periods of silence about Britain’s troublesome past. British historian David Olusoga talks of a ‘cultural blind spot’ that exists around the darker episodes of British imperialism. In India too, with the anniversary of the 75 years of Independence, there have been discussions about Partition, loss, intergenerational trauma and the silence and shame that almost always surrounds these painful memories.
It is only now, here, that I finally take stock of the silences in my own life. Of the void that surrounds my father’s life around the time of Partition, of the dizzying jump that takes place in familial recordings from my father’s childhood in an idyllic Bangladeshi village to mine in the genteel backwaters of 1970s Delhi. In between the two, there is a space and a silence. For my father there was partition and loss, years of toil, and then emigration to London.
GO HOME, G,” a kindly overseer once told my father when he heard he had passed his bar at law while working two shifts alongside his studies. All foreign workers in London were called by the first letter of their unpronounceable names. “Go home, mate,” he told my father, telling him he would never get a job in England worthy of his education in 1960s Britain. And so, casually, with a throwaway phrase, my father’s fate was reversed, from immigrant to migrant and they went home, this Bangladesh-origin man, the French woman, and the London-born child, to a place that was foreign, yet home. Calcutta.
From Calcutta, my family soon moved to Delhi. The ostensible reason was that my French mother was melting away, quite literally, in Calcutta’s clammy torpor. Later on she would tell me, this Parisian woman who had never previously experienced a climate warmer than the south of France, of a heat so intense that she felt it transform her into a different creature. An othering that was alien in its strangeness for one day she looked down to see sweat running along her arms and her reaction was one of baffled horror—I never knew you could sweat on your arms, she told me, almost ashamed. All her encounters with India were shaped and hollowed out by my father’s silences. The sari she was expected to wear at my grand-mother’s place, as she struggled to sit cross-legged on the floor.The dollop of yoghurt on the thaali she looked at in bemusement, as the others scooped up the food expertly with their fingers while she burned with shame.
In Delhi, my father shed the last of his Bengali roots, and his allegiance to his Bengali family. In the disarray of Delhi, my father reinvented himself. An anglophone, bespoke suited, cosmopolitan man replaced the dhoti-wearing Bengali gent. Of the trauma of partition, of the lost home, family, and status, we heard nothing at all. Only on one occasion did I see what it had cost my father to leave everything behind. Standing on Shillong Peak during a family holiday, I noticed him standing small and alone in the rolling mist, looking down with tears in his eyes into the distant, dusty plains of Bangladesh. I never asked, and now I will never know, what that land had once meant to him, nor the language he used to conjure it up in his mind.
In Delhi I would grow up without that charmed Bengali heritage, which can move grown men to tears over the recollection of a particularly touching Rabindra sangeet. Only rarely would I sometimes sense it in my sun-blasted Delhi childhood. Lingering in the shadowed corridors outside closed doors, all children being inherently prodigious spies, I would hear low conversations in Bengali from the bearded, serious men gathered inside the rooms, during the weekly ‘meetings’ I was forbidden from disturbing. Also in the rustling, whispering silks of the ladies in the Bengali neighbour’s house where we were invited, every cold January day, to celebrate the austere, pale-gold Goddess of learning, Saraswati.
A meagre, beggar’s basket of bengaliyat then that I soon learnt to be ashamed of, because of its easily ripped façade, shrugging it off and cleaving to myself the brash parvenue status of ‘Delhi girl’. Even now it is the language that I mourn for most. It sometimes returns to haunt me in strange ways and it is years before I realise that the term of endearment I have muttered distractedly to my daughters is shonar meye, golden child.
ARE YOU NOT lonely?” I am asked most often, warily, almost fearfully, in London. And it is true that after decades set to the rhythm of other peoples’ rhythms—school drops, play dates, hobbies—I find my days strangely inchoate. I also find myself, remarkably after these years of parenthood, unheeded. Except for my dogs. To my dogs I am an oracle. In their pared down existence, they now track me with an intensity that veers on the religious, or the lunatic. When I leave the house, they look at me with desolation in their cataract veiled eyes and I am beginning to understand what it must be like to be a god. Historian Rebecca Solnit has written that “silence is what is imposed, and quiet is what is sought.” When we are silenced, our agency is denied and we are rendered powerless. But quietude is a different beast entirely. It is capacious and generous. It is a deity and it is to be tended to with grace, because with it comes revelations.
With a throwaway phrase, my father’s fate was reversed, from immigrant to migrant and they went home, this Bangladesh-origin man, the French woman, and the London-born child, to a place that was foreign, yet home. Calcutta. From Calcutta, my family moved to Delhi
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One day I get an email from a paternal first cousin who lives across the world, entirely out of the blue. It is the pandemic, I think. People have emerged from it benighted and bedevilled, rash with words that need to be spoken, uttering truths, like prophecies, furiously. Did I know, she writes aggressively, that in his youth my father was a champion wrestler, an excellent singer of kirtans, and a fine mridangam player? She goes on to write a great deal more. About her parents who were left entirely undone and unmoored by partition. Who were so broken by the loss of their place in the world, that they fractured the lives of all those around them. That they carried their rage and their grief like a parasol, draining the light from their lives and furling the lives of their children. That they used language and remembrance like weapons, to bludgeon the innocence from their futures.
To be stunned, writes author Anwen Crawford in No Document, is to be thunderstruck. The word comes from thunder. And so it should because it is a cataclysmic thing to have to reckon with such unsolicited truths. But there is a lot that I now understand. My father chose not to let in the grief and the rage. He refused to let it define the marrow of his days, and the heft of his ambitions. He left it behind, in that place that was home, but now foreign, Bangladesh.
IN LONDON I live in a neighbourhood that I have been approvingly told is just scruffy enough. It is barely this side of that invisible but fatal line that divides it from bourgeois. To me, after the multitude of Delhi, it feels strangely unpeopled. Except for a small stretch of high street, which remains resolutely animated at all hours of the day, like the timber façade of a movie set. In the streets of the neighbourhood, all is quiet in the shortening days. At certain times of the day, there are small gaggles of school children heading home, though the numbers are risible compared to the crazed crowds at pick-up time at any self-respecting Delhi school. Early in the afternoon there are tiny, mannikin-like children in improbable uniforms—tartan skirts and green hats. Later on in the evening there are teenagers—disarticulated long-limbed boys whose bodies have not yet caught up with their deep voices, and beautiful, smouldering girls, all in huge black jackets the size of parachutes.
The silence of my father has liberated me. It requires no reckoning from me, and fear does not crouch in its pleated form. The rootlessness of my family has given me the world, all of which I can claim as mine. I can write of different times, of disappeared lives, the enamelled voices come to me clear as glass, untainted by any compulsive love or ownership. My life is unbraided from theirs, and my past is a wide expanse. There has been a price to pay, of course. There is no beloved lexicography of food in the rooms of my mind, no cartography of family to furnish the dark. “We are volcanoes,” Ursula K Le Guin once remarked. “When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.”And if not quite mountains, I reason silently with Ursula, perhaps there might at least be hillocks.
There is a nagging worry that follows me through these cloud darkened days. Autumn is the worrisome word bandied about airily, almost cheerily. Magazines urge me to wear tones of plum, ochre, russet and chocolate brown to celebrate the season and aesthetically match with the falling leaves. But for me, this is akin to darkest, deepest winter. Dusk falls frighteningly early, the guttering light truncating the day into an unstructured, yawning span of evening and I must rearrange the architecture of my days.
What dark days lie ahead, I wonder. Winter is coming.