Saturday, July 15, 2017


A Name for a Life

I had met her in my adolescent years in Durgapur. She would be a frequent visitor to our home on Mirabai Lane. I still remember her tall, statuesque silhouette on our verandah on dusky summer evenings.  She would be impeccably clad in a white “kora” saree with a pencil-thin border of black or navy blue, her hair in a low bun that touched the nape of her tall neck where it met her broad shoulders clad in a boat-necked blouse, her only other accessory that I distinctly recall would be a raven-black handbag with an oblong and rectangular shape with firm circular straps that would remain strung around her elbow. Now that I think about it I never saw her without the handbag. There was a firm erect posture to her figure that remained unchanged when she sat down; my mother would reminisce about how the nuns in her college in Shillong possessed similar stance.  There was a distinct sense of respect that she commanded and received at our home; maybe, I remember this because of Ma’s hushed demeanor when Mrs Saudamini Ghoshal (for that was her name) would visit us.

Much later I would come to know why there was such a hushed tone of awe and homage around Mrs Ghoshal at our home.  I knew later that she would come to get the paperwork for her appointment as primary school teacher in one of the elementary schoolsrun by the steel plant township that we lived in.  Her story and her past intrigued me because she was so different from the people we lived with in our small township where a woman’s identity particularly was predictably recognizable through her husband and his work position in the steel plant.  Here, on the other hand, there was no such predictor; Mrs Ghoshal was indeed a free agent; her story unconnected to the expected pattern had an independence that was quite attractive to my adolescent years.


Narayanganj in present day Bangladesh had always been a bastion of the erstwhile Hindu population that later found its way to West Bengal and India.  Saudamini’s story began in Narayanganj where she lived a happy, uneventful life with her husband and two children. Bimalendu Ghoshal worked as an assistant manager in Mahalakshmi Jute Mills, one of the earliest jute enterprises in the town.  He had married Saudamini and settled into a fairly predictable life of regular work at the mill and the nurturing of two young children, a boy, Sadhan, and a baby girl, little Shinjon. However, this was not to last. The mid-60s had proved fairly stable in post-independent East Pakistan.  However, this changed drastically with the rise of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Pakistani politics and the inevitable conflict with West Pakistan and the “Rajakars” (the West Pakistani expatriates in Bangladesh) who began to organize pogroms aimed at the intelligentsia, mostlyBengali Hindus at first and then spread to liberal, educated Muslim Bengalis. 

In one such fracas in the early spring of 1968, the Ghoshals were caught up and forced out of their home into a huge open ground next to the banks of the Sitalalakshkhi River where a large number of Hindus had converged to seek refuge from the organized persecution and violence.  However, this proved to be a death trap for most; in the melee that ensued the Ghoshal saga turned tragic in the worst possible way. The family separated with the husband falling victim to stab wounds that he succumbed to.  The children were with their mother who now faced the toughest moment of her life – a moment that extended to several days of fear, grief, and harrowing witnessing of the torture of her son. 


Sadhan was thirteen when he experienced this brutality.  I pick up the story at the point when Saudamini distraught, terrified, and convinced that she has lost her severely injured son arrives at the General Hospital with a paltry police protection with her children.  By this time, the paranoia is complete among Hindus with rumors raging that that no hospital in Narayanganj is safe as the majority population is determined to continue those with the pogrom. 

In fact, this is her argument to the nursing staff trying to take Sadhan to the emergency room and admit him.  Saudamini is adamant that he would be poisoned by the staff there.  The altercation continues until a middle aged gentleman in white coat comes in and introduces himself by the name of Dr. Bhowmick,  a general practitioner attached to the hospital. The word she used later to describe him was “Soumya” (literally a combination of grace, dignity, and erudition in Bengali).  He immediately took charge of the situation and firmly, but gently took Sadhan under his care and into the examination room. 

What followed was a week to ten days of prolonged struggle to save the young boy’s life with Dr. Bhowmick assuming the role of both practitioner and mediator between the distraught and paranoid mother and the predominantly Muslim caregivers in the staff.  At every step of each surgical treatment for the injured child, he had to convince the mother that all intentions were indeed to treat him and not otherwise.  Based purely on her instincts of being under the care of a Hindu doctor, she allowed the treatment to continue.  She did question his Hindu background, asking for his full name, his father’s name, his ancestral home and its whereabouts, all to establish his genuine credentials as a fellow-Hindu.  Diligently, he told her he was Abhilash Bhowmick, son of Ananta Bhowmick, of Sandikona Gram, Netrokona sub-division of Mymensingh district.Satisfied with these responses to her queries, the mother completely gave into his persuasions and thus Sadhan’s series of surgeries ensued which eventually helped him survive his injuries. 

Weakened and traumatized, the family consisting of the mother and the two children returned home to more grievous news that their husband and father had fallen prey to violence and had died.  The extended family from India reached out desperately to make arrangements for bringing in these three survivors and as it so happened, one of her younger brothers was employed in Durgapur Steel plant and within a year they were united and Saudamini came to live in our township. 

Her narrative was so tragic and fraught with the unspeakable pressure of violence that it seemed to overwhelm the survival and spirit of resilience that the three also demonstrated.  Sadhan and Shinjon grew up to become quite successful and lead happy, ordinary lives like the rest of us.  However, the narrative does have a “coda” that for me always seemed to possess the most powerful twist.  Months after Sadhan’s release from the hospital, Saudaminihad re-visited the office of Dr. Bhowmick to give thanks for his support. She had been told there was no Dr. Bhowmick employed by the hospital.  The familiar doctor’s office had the nameplate of an Anis Bhuiyan who had been the attending physician for quite a while.  The nursing staff explained that it was Dr. Bhuiyan who had assumed a Hindu name and identity if that allowed the mother regain her confidence and allow her child to be treated. The staff had been forbidden to reveal the truth as long as the patient remained in the hospital.  And all this because he was confident that, if treated, the child could indeed survive.  In the midst of raging inhumanity a quiet professional had taken a decision that his identity was interchangeable as long as it restored life and health to his patient. His name, his ancestry in return for the opportunity to save a life.

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