1971, Kolkata

The red passenger train arrived at Sealdah Station. The train compartment had been emptying out –at stops- for fifty kilometers before the train entered Kolkata city. By the time of arrival, there were 10-12 people in the 3rd class compartment: Arif, his elder sister, her husband, three nieces and nephews, a friend and several other emigres.

Sealdah was the same as ever, as it seemed back in Arif’s childhood, when he got off the Dhaka Mail, holding his mother’s hand. The station is so vast, with so many thousands of people! So many people lie sleeping on the platform, which is home to them.

At first, Arif had been amazed at the sight of these people, when he was old enough to understand. How could so many people live on the filthy floor of the platform?

They used to live in Kushtia, East Pakistan, then. It was a small town, with a small rail station too, called Kushtia Court Station. The station came alive for a while when a train arrived, and it was all quiet again, after the train left. 

By comparison, Sealdah had been surprising, and Arif had asked his Ma, “Who are they?”

Tersely, his Ma answered, “They’re refugees.”

Arif didn’t know that word, being just six or seven, and never having been one. He imagined refugees must be a particular race of people, like Punjabis, Biharis or Bengalis.

That day, at Sealdah Station, the memory of Ma suddenly came to Arif. It had been eight years since she died.

His mind had been struck unawares by the term ‘refugee’ on April 13, while crossing the border near Kasbah Station in East Pakistan. It had brought tears to his eyes, and the tears flowed. In a choking voice I had whispered for my mother’s ears, “Now I know what a refugee is, Ma.”

The epithet had hounded him in Agartala as well, when 10-12 stayed up all night, crammed into a ten by twelve feet room. All night, every now and then, a loud sigh came from one or another. 

What is to be? Will I be able to go to war?

Will Bangladesh be free? Will I ever go back to my homeland? 

Will those I left behind still be alive? Will I see them again? 

Will I be able to roam my beloved Dhaka without fear or suspicion? Will I be able to take a full breath? 

Will I be able to enjoy yogurt at Maranchand’s shop? Will I hang out at Cafe Taj, at the Maghbazar crossroads?

Remembering about Cafe Taj, Arif laughed out loud, without intending to. When the military were rampaging on the 26th of March, they had come to the Cafe Taj and told them to close the restaurant because there was a curfew. The owner had humbly submitted that the restaurant had never been closed for even a minute, ever since it opened. It was open day and night with crowds of people, and so the Cafe Taj did not even have doors. How could it be closed?

Dharma-tala station is a three- to four- hour journey from Agartala. Arif came to Dharma-tala on a truck, with fifty or sixty other Bengalis. The rail journey to Kolkata would begin here. 

Seeing the railway station at Dharma-tala, Arif was wide-eyed. On the station’s veranda and around the platform, wherever there was a paved area, it was occupied by refugees. Thousands of people had spread gamchhas or sheets. Arif spied a few bamboo or leaf mats. This was all they could carry as they left the homeland.

Again, without intending to, his thoughts went back to Dhaka, to the back veranda of the home he had left. He had been sitting on a bamboo mat, leaning against the wall, just the other day, absorbed in reading the novel “Exodus,” by Leon Uris. It is the heart wrenching story of Jews in exile during WWII.

Tears had welled up in Arif’s eyes. He had thought to himself if this could have happened in the life of a nation. How despicable was Adolf Hitler? The villain deserved his childless fate and his Nazi cohorts were despised in the end.

Freedom of thought had prevailed and freedom loving people had taken hold of the rudder of human civilization.

Arif could not have imagined even in his wildest dreams, that a similar misfortune of being uprooted awaited him, just two months after reading The Exodus.

The rail line from Dharma-tala in Tripura to Lamding in Assam, is known historically as the Pahar –Hill- Line, named by the British, of course, who built the railroad. Arif was told by an Indian Railway employee that no other railroad in India had so many tunnels along the way. Every now and then the train would plunge into the pitch dark of a tunnel.

Emerging from the tunnel, one could see the rail line descending the hillsides in steps. The line that the train had been on was higher, and would be traversing the lower part in a few minutes. Arif had hardly ever seen such a pleasing sight before.

He had resolved that if the land ever became free, he would return for a visit. Arif could wonder if Bengalis succeeded in this war to exist as Bengalis, what would be his place? His eyes had moistened, in a fantasy of independence!