Garima Bakshi, a student with NYU’s journalism program, wrote an article that chronicled our member, Putul Chanda, a senior from Bangladesh and our center in Jamaica, known as the Desi Senior Center. In the article she tells the history, not just of our senior’s life, but that of Bangladesh’s protracted and traumatic fight for freedom. Putul Chanda is not the only one of our seniors who has been through the travails of war and displacement – several of the elders who attend the Desi Senior Center have had similar experiences. Chanda, however, was willing to talk about her life. The second and last installment of Bakshi’s article is reproduced. To read Part 1, click here. Both installments have been edited for length and clarity.
Putul Chanda once told me that she was the only Hindu at the Desi Senior Center, and everyone else was Muslim. Aunty’s assertion of her Hindu identity made sense. She had come so close to forsaking her religious beliefs in order to protect her life that it was natural for her, so many decades later, to feel proud of the fact that she had managed to retain the faith she had grown up with.
“You Hindu or Muslim?”, she asked me. On learning that I too was a Hindu, her eyes lit up and she happily agreed to let me take a picture of her.
I never noticed any animosity between her and the other members of the Center. On the contrary, it seemed that Putul Aunty was very well liked and respected among her peers at the Center, and she treated them with equal respect. None of them could forget the genocide of ’71, but forty-five years later in a different country, their common Bengali identity united them more than their different religious identities divided them.
Putul felt relieved leaving her ancestral village. Once again, the journey proved treacherous. As they waded through the Ichchamati river, the river that, in Bengali literature, is said to grant wishes to passersby, Putul’s wish was to make it safely into India. The route was notorious for bandits and murderers who would rob not just money and jewelry, but also abduct women. The family was wealthy, so they were traveling with a darwan, a bodyguard, who swore that as long as he was alive, nothing would happen to any of them. They hardly slept, but on the rare occasions when they did, they had to sleep wherever they found open space; on a verandah, in a jungle, even in the marshes, always keeping an ear open for gunshots that would cause them to scatter.
They survived on the fruits and wild berries they picked from the fields and forests they crossed along their journey. Sometimes, while crossing towns, they would manage to procure roti, dal, and vegetables, but towns also meant that there would be more soldiers. On these rare instances when they sat down to eat a proper meal, they would be interrupted by sounds of soldiers approaching, accompanied by gunshots and screams. Putul would discard her uneaten meal, and run as fast as she could to find a hiding spot.
By surviving off of the land this way, they managed to make it to Jessore, a town that bordered India on the west. India would only be a few days now, Putul told herself. From Jessore they afforded themselves the small luxury of setting out again in a bullock cart. Riding in the cart did not do any favors to Putul’s back, which had developed a constant pain. Traveling through rocky inner routes and rickety passageways to avoid the highway which would have considerable army presence, they soon had to abandon the cart and set off on foot once again.
As she made her way towards India, Putul, her stomach churning, saw the discarded babies and children that had died due to starvation and exhaustion, their bodies reeking of death, flies and vultures preying upon them. Old women and men that had been abandoned by their families because they were too weak to complete the grueling journey sat on the edges of paths, hoping for and awaiting their own deaths. “There is no Bangladeshi family in which at least one or two people didn’t go missing”, Putul said.
Mr. Hussain, who had been listening intently, nodded vigorously. He once told me that the reason he couldn’t talk freely at the Center was because he believed a particular staff member to be hailing from Pakistan. On being told that the staff member in question was actually from the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, he opened up a great deal. He had been the Agricultural Secretary of the district of Dinaspur in Bangladesh, and considered himself an expert on the topic of the ’71 War, having fought in it himself.
Putul continued. She was thankful that dada’s (her elder brother) resolve to get the entire family across the border was firmer than a rock. Her mother was too old and feeble to carry out the exhausting journey on her own, so dada and Putul’s uncle broke off a branch from a bamboo tree, tore their clothes to create strips that they used to bind Putul’s mother’s arms and legs onto it, and then carried one side of the pole on each of their shoulders.
The exhausted family finally reached a small canal, that was, as they found out, close to the Indian border. Any glimmer of hope they had preserved instantly vanished when they were told that there were no boats to take them across. Hundreds of fleeing Bangladeshis had crossed that canal, and once the army found out, they stole all the boats that were being used to transport people across the water.
The banks of the small canal were not safe by nightfall because the soldiers would plunder camps and kidnap girls to rape and then kill them. Dada’s legs were painfully swollen and he, like Putul, was developing a painful and consistent back pain, but he vowed that he would only rest after reaching India.Putul had reached a stage of utter exhaustion and hopelessness, and was beginning to give up her inner resolve. Then they noticed the banana trees that lined the shores. Desperate to finish their trek to safe shores, Putul, dada, and the rest of their family feverishly broke off branches of banana trees and tied them together to make a raft.
They used any energy they had left to row to the opposite bank, but once they reached, they found that their struggle wasn’t over yet. Disembarking from the raft, Putul put her feet on the ground. As she tried to take the next step, she found her foot stuck; the more she would try to free it, the more it would sink. She was stuck in five feet of quicksand, and all she could see for miles and miles was more of the sucking mud. Putul wondered if the gods were playing with them, using them as mere pawns in a sadistic game.
At her vivid description, Shakhwat Hussain gasped, his eyes enlarged. Leaning in slightly, he admitted that his struggle was nowhere close to being as arduous as Putul’s, simply because he hailed from Dinaspur, a district very close to the Indian border. So, when the time came for him to flee Bangladesh, he simply crossed over into India, aided by his status as a student muktijhhoda.
Putul Aunty continued. They battled the kalamatti (black mud) for what seemed like a lifetime, Putul’s mother still being carried on a pole. Dehydrated and ravenous, they were all looking death in the eye, using their desperation to will themselves forward. Their bodies gave up, but their minds didn’t.
It was 10 PM when the kalamatti finally lessened. Putul no longer felt anything after overcoming an obstacle except an anticipation of the next hurdle. She could see little huts scattered around. She approached one of the huts and asked the man inside for a glass of water, the first she would have in days. She asked him, “India kauto door? How far is India?” The man waved his arms, demonstrating, “My kitchen is in Bangladesh, but the rest of the house is in India.” Pointing to a pillar that ran across his living room, he said, “That’s the border demarcation pillar right there. You’re safe now.”
Putul had never been more elated in her life.
She noticed a muktijhhoda camp nearby, and knew that she would be safe now. They reached the camp where they changed their damp clothes, and collapsed onto the bare ground, devoid of meals or mattress. When they woke up after what felt like days, they were greeted by sunshine and the beaming face of Putul’s younger brother, her chhotu dada.Chhotu dada had fled to India during the partition of ’47. He had met no one in the family since then, but they had been in correspondence through occasional letters and rare phone calls. When he heard that the rest of his family were trying to flee Bangladesh, he had searched all the mukti bahini camps in the area, until he saw the sleeping shapes of his family members in the camp at Boira, recognizable to him even after 25 years.
Gasping at this positive turn of events, Putul Aunty’s enthralled little audience cheered. Beaming, she rushed through the rest of her story.
Putul’s family went with chhotu dada to Krishnanagar in the Indian state of West Bengal, where the stashes of cash they had somehow managed to travel with were declared invalid. However, the Indian government gave them rations. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had decided that India would intervene in Pakistan’s civil war, supporting the Bangladeshi mukti bahini’s demands to create a new nation-state comprising of ethnic Bengalis.
Putul Aunty paused, and looked at me. “Thanks god to India, to Indira Gandhi. Because of India’s kindness so many people are alive today. Indira Gandhi’s name will be chiseled onto my heart till the day I die.”
Shakhwat affirmed this dramatic statement, “If it wasn’t for the alliance with India, with Indira Gandhi, we wouldn’t have gotten independence so fast, and crores more people would have died.” Like Putul, he said he would always be eternally grateful to India.
The Pakistani forces had two territories to defend; West Pakistan from the Indian forces, and East Pakistan from Bengali rebels. Unable to match up to the combined forces of the Indians and the Bangladeshi rebels, on December 16, 1971, Pakistan officially surrendered, making East Pakistan the country that is now called the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
Putul stayed with her family in Krishnanagar until the war was over. After the war, dada decided that it was time for her to finally finish her education. So, he went back to Bangladesh with her, and after she finished her education, arranged a marriage for her to a Hindu Bangladeshi freedom fighter. Her husband, like Hussain, was recognized by the Government of Bangladesh as a freedom fighter. After his death in 2004, the pension he received annually for his services to the country went to Putul, who will continue receiving it her entire life.
Having finished her story, Putul became silent, a satisfied look on her face, the cup beside her conspicuous due to the lack of tea inside it. Putul Aunty had gone through more life threatening adventures in the course of a few months than most people I knew had encountered in their entire lives. I felt humbled by her complete lack of self-awareness – she didn’t seem to think that what she had gone through was unusual in any way- as well as honored that she had decided to share her story with me.
I felt like I had to say something. “So, what made you shift to New York?”, I asked both Shakhwat and Putul. Hussain, currently residing with his son and his family in Queens, is here with his wife for lung therapy. He had severe lung and kidney problems, and was told that the best treatment would be available in New York. He might go back once he has fully recovered, but he loves New York and the lifestyle it affords, so he might stay on here with his family. Putul Aunty came to New York in 2012, to live with her daughter.
Currently, she is considered a refugee in India, a muktijhhoda in Bangladesh, and an immigrant in New York. She likes it here, but it’s just not like home.