UNLESS HER feet revolt, Niyoti Sarkar, a 70 year-old retired teacher treks to the India-Bangladesh border 1.2km northwest of her house in Golakganj. “I just try to imagine life without the boundary line,” she says. Niyoti crossed over in 1953. She was 11 at that time – old enough to remember and be troubled by memories. Her father, Shashi Mohan, the last of the family to cross over in the Seventies, would keep making the same journey as well, driven by nostalgia.
Golakganj, 295km west of capital Guwahati, is a laidback town of 12,000 people. Once a commercial hub, before Partition snapped its communication links by rail with Kolkata via Lalmonihat (in Bangladesh), it had a river (Gangadhar that meets the Brahmaputra yonder) port and was serviced by the now-defunct Rupsi airport (India) 12km southeast.
The Sarkars were based at Sonahat, now in Bangladesh, and barely 3km northwest of Golakganj. Shashi Mohan owned 801bighas (107 hectares) and had a mansion that local kings used as a stopover en route their hunting expeditions in the Dooars. “What we have left now is 75bighas (10 ha) that happened to be on the Indian side of the Radcliffe Line. Less when you factor in the 150m that falls in the no-man’s land,” adds Sarkar.
This land has been divided among Shashi Mohan’s 12 sons and daughters, and the descendants of his brothers. Each have too little to make it count agriculturally. “Fortunately, our grandfather had the foresight to buy a small piece of land in Golakganj so we have a shelter,” her nephew Ashish, 40, an electrician, says.
Ashish’s father Kamakhya Prasad lost much of what he inherited in trying to live by the lavish standards Shashi Mohan had set. “Most members of our family shifted to India by 1953, but my father stayed back until the 1971 war. His employees there (Bangladesh) took over everything,” Niyoti Sarkar says, hoping to be compensated some day for the land lost. The buzz in Dhaka about ‘vested property’ has fuelled this hope.
But Golakganj isn’t the only border town pulverized by Partition. Sonahat’s golden gloss, say the Sarkars, has faded as well. It hasn’t, however, been easy to reconcile their past life with the present one, marked by the struggle to make ends meet. “Maybe we are better off. Maybe not,” says the 70-year-old refusing to draw neat lines around their life and complete the picture.
(This appeared as an Independence Day special in Hindustan Times on 15 August 2012)