A Science Graduate from University of Calcutta, Mridul Dasgupta is a journalist and poet with 50 awards to his credit, including the National Writers Award (1975), Panchimbanga Bangla Akademy Award (2000), Rabindra Puraskar (2012), among others. His published works include Jalpai Kather Esraj, Evabe Kandena, Gopone Hisar Kotha Boli, Surjaste Nirmito Griho, Sonar Budbud, Dhannkhet Theke, Nirbachito Kobita and Kobita Songroho (poetry), Kobita Sohay and Saat Panch (prose) and Jhikimiki Jhirijhiri, Aampata Jampata and Chhora (rhymes).

We have been soaring over this territory down the ages.

Mridul Dasgupta

I was born in Serampore, the sub divisional town of district Hoogly in West Bengal, one of the states of India. This town, situated in close proximity of kolkata, the capital of West Bengal is quite old. It is much older than kolkata. I will let you know of that later. First, I will tell you about what I have seen in this town since my childhood.  Before the arrival of the British, the Danish traders made this town the hub of their activities. They built a port in this town on the bank of the river Ganga.  They also dug a canal for navigation of vessels. The canal known as Danish Canal, almost clogged by now, still survives with a narrow stream of water flowing through it. With the entry of the Danish traders the town came under the dispensation of the King of the Denmark. They named the town Frederick Nagar after the name of their King. An Iranian warrior, Murtaza Pafam became the commander of the Danish troop that guarded the town by dint of his expertise in the art of war. His descendants still continue at Serampore. They live in the street named after Murtaza Pafam. One in this lineage used to write verses both in Persian and Urdu. In my adolescent days when I had just started my poetic pursuit, he took care of me as a friend. As a poet he used a pen name, Kalim Srirampurii. He expired a few years back.  I never considered him a foreigner, still less a non-Bengali.

The British missionaries began to visit Serampore during the rule of   the Danish King. The forerunners among them, William Carey fell in love with this town and the budding and lively intellectuals of the then Bengal. With his endeavour the Serampore College was established in 1818. The college used to offer post graduate degrees in Theology and some other disciplines. Thus it was recorded as the third University of Denmark and first in Asia.  Students from some countries of Asia used to come to this college to do their post graduate studies. Students from different states of India also visited this college. The Ceylonese students would hang on with the South Indian students. They would go in group to the cinema halls to watch the Bengali and Hindi movies. I had the opportunity to solicit care and affection from some Ceylonese students. They offered me Ceylonese stamps of that time. They never seemed foreigners to me. Even to these days many students from Sri Lanka, Thailand and Japan visit this college.

Many people from Afghanistan stay in Kolkata and its suburbs. Tall, handsome, some of them wearing turban on their heads; they are known as Kabuliwala, though many of them might not have any relation with Kabul. During winter we could find them camping in Serampore. Even to these days they visit this town off and on. They traded in Hing, Walnut and Currant. Some of them played the role of moneylenders. They have quite a large habitation at Cossipore area of Kolkata. Who am I to talk about their relation with West Bengal when no less a person than Rabindranath Tagore himself made  Kabuliwala ( a character of one of his stories)  immortal in one of his storie?.

In my college days, Jay Chhetri was my classmate. His father was an eminent communist leader of Nepal who was deported from Nepal by King Mahendra, whereupon he took refuge in India under the political tutelage of Shri Jawaharlal Nehru. He became a labour leader at Ranigunge. We, a few students from the Pyarimohan College of Uttarpara went to Nepal with Jay and enjoyed royal warmth there. The Nepalese people are engaged in various professions in India, particularly in large numbers in Indian Army. No Indian ever considers the famous actresses Mala SInah and Manisha Koirala, foreigners. Shyam Thapa, the soccer giant has turned into a Benagli.

With the commencing of winter, the traders from Bhutan, particularly the womenfolk visit and set up markets of woolen garments at Wellington Square and Hatibagan in Kolkata. They also put up their markets in district towns of West Bengal, including Serampore.  Their frequent visit to this town made them pick up our language quite easily. I never treated them for foreigners.

In the sixties of the last century, we were students under Secondary Board. I studied in Serampore Union Institution. In this school Bengali was the first language, English, the second and Sanskrit or Urdu was an optional language. Since most of the Hindu boys used to choose Sanskrit, I preferred Urdu, also because of my close camaraderie with Mumtazauddin and Mahshin. I can still recall Alef, Be, fe, te. A maulavi teacher used to teach us Urdu. One Punditji used to teach Sanskrit. I cannot remember their names anymore. Maulavi Sahab was an Urdu- speaking man. However, due to his long stay in Bengal, he could speak Bengali that sounded very sweet to our ears. We were told that he was originally from Lahore.  He got the job of a teacher in our school just a few years from 1947 when the country was divided and power was transferred to the two dominion states, India and Pakistan. He loved the school and the town and could not leave for Pakistan. The entire community of students of the school felt a special attraction for his fez cap, beard smeared with Mehendi and perfumed cotton plugging his ear-holes. On our beseeching he would sometimes take out the cotton from his ears and apply perfume on the lobe of our ears with it.

Every year on the eve of Eid festival, Maulavi Sir invited us to his house; we were a small bunch of boys who would always hang around him and salute him for no reason. We went to his house in group and greeted him: ‘Eid Mubarak, Sir.” Cooked Saviyaan (long pasta) in milk and breads made from rice were so delicious to make our mouth water. Once during such a visit we met some of his relatives who had come from Pakistan. I was amused to see his elder sister in round framed specs, resembling my paternal aunt, perhaps fairer in complexion but equally loving. Her son, nephew of our Maulavi Sir, a lively aged man spent the entire day with us in merry- making and chatting. This time, the people from Pakistan seemed more attractive to us than the sweet dishes. On our way back home, we, a few boys, still in class seven, were discussing, why after all this senseless war with Pakistan!

The famous Grand Trunk Road passes through the heart of our town. Sher Shah had built this road for the movement of troops from Peshwar to Howrah, on the bank of the river Ganga and in close proximity of Kolkata. The road has since been named after him; the Sher Shah Suri Marg. Phurphurasharif is at a stone’s throw away from Serampore. Every year the Muslim pilgrims would come from various places, and their buses would move through our town. We used to wave our hands when the Bus carrying the Pakistanis would pass.  The pilgrims in the bus were mostly from the then East Pakistan; now they come from Bangladesh.

I never had the opportunity of meeting anyone from Maldives at our town. But once in Dhaka, when Al Mehmood was the chief of the Art Academy, I saw a young lady coming to his office room for buying paintings by Bangladeshi artists. Mehmoodbhai took her for an Indian. She, however, told that she was from Maldives.

Well, in the context of whatever I have said till now can I not claim that since long, I mean well before 1985, when the SAARC was formally founded, we had been witnessing year after year another kind of conferences of SAARC taking place in this small town of Serampore? Even today, if one wishes one can watch the same scenario.

Now, I would tell you something about the great antiquity of this town. The country- wide famous Ratha-Yatra or the Festival of Chariot that takes place at Mahesh, a part of this town is as old as six hundred years. There is historical evidence that Sri Chaitanyadeb Nimai had pulled the ropes of the Chariot 500 years back at Mahesh on his way to Puri. Close by, at Baidyabati is situated Nemaighat on the bank of Ganga. The famous novel ‘Radharani’ by Sri Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay begins with Radharani visiting Mahesh to watch the Ratha-Yatra. The river Ganga has taken a turn at Serampore. Therefore, both on the east and north of the town flows the river. I have already mentioned that the Danish traders had put up their colony in Serampore in the year 1755. The British missionary William Carey had established Serampore college and also put up a printing press, Serampore Mission Press in 1818 when the town was still under the rule of the King of the Denmark. An employee of this press Sri Panchanan Karmakar fashioned the first printing types in Bengali. For the first time in India, books and journals in Bengali and English were printed and published from this press. The first English Newspaper, ’Hikki’s Gazette’ and first Bengali daily ‘Samachar Darpan’ were both put out from this press. The Danish had built a Church in 1805; Saint Olaf Church. The buildings structured by them still exist today in the town. The erstwhile Danish Governor’s house has become the Sub Divisional Court, today. Recently, the National Museum of Denmark, the West Bengal Heritage Commission and the Hoogly District administration have jointly started restoration of the heritage buildings.

The front side of the Olaf Church is enhanced by a few decorated cannons of Danish period. When I was in class seven, a few of us went to the Olaf Church; the Princess of Denmark, then only a girl in her teens, had visited the church to inaugurate the embellishment of the cannons by applying the fast touch of a paint on them. She is now the queen of Denmark.

However, these cannons from Denmark came a cropper in 1845 when the British gave a roar with a chain of cannons set on the other side of the Ganga. History tells us that the Danish had sold out the town to the British at a pittance, at rupee one only! Eleven years hence, came India’s first war of Independence, the “Sepoy Mutiny”. It is said that some of the rebel soldiers swam across to Serampore and mingled into the human habitation for making sudden forays into the enemy camp after the manner of Guerilla warfare. After passing of one and half century those Pandeys, Singhs and Roys have turned into Bengalees. My friend Rajaram Roy claims to be the descendant of a rebel soldier. He is presently the Treasurer of Hoogly District Congress Committee.

Very recently, I have gathered further historical information about Serampore. The unfinished autobiography of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was published last year. In the pages 64/65 he has mentioned about Serampore. Mujibur Rahman was then a student leader in kolkata. During the dreadful riot immediately before the Independence in 1947 Mujibur was quite anxious about his brothers and sisters living then in Serampore. He has narrated his hurried anxious movement and lastly his sigh of relief:”There has been no riot in Serampore”.

Let me now say a few words about our district. The pioneers of Bengal renaissance were born in Hoogly district:  Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Sri Ramkrishna, Haji Mohammad Mohasin. The village Birsingha was under the Arambagh sub division of Hoogly when Vidyasag was born in this village. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay was the district magistrate of Arambagh when he wrote the novel ‘Durgesnandini’.

Notwithstanding, the glories of having such a town of Serampore and such a district of Hoogly, why then do we, I and my younger sister and brother feel so much drawn to the district of Barishal which was once a part of undivided Bengal and presently in Bangladesh? Well, this is indeed the historical trauma we faced in the middle of last century which even today has not faded out. We have been told from our early childhood that it is our native place. To me, it is not a country, state or a definite geo-political area; rather a faraway village cloaked in greenery and hemmed in by rivers and canals. It is hidden deep inside my heart. Our seven-coloured family flag waves in its firmament.  Being split into two by the Indian independence in 1947, my father, still a youth, left the village Gaila Phullashree in Barishal for India, and arrived at serampore of West Bengal. My mother, still in her adolescence, left with other members of her family, their village Kalia in Jessore and came to West Bengal. Not only we, thousands and thousands of families had come to West Bengal, having been uprooted from their original soil in  East Bengal. In these long years after Independence the people belonging to these uprooted families, having shared the happiness and sorrows of West Bengal and becoming a part of it, have mingled into its society. We are now well settled. The people who came after the partition, from East Bengal to Kachhar of Assam and Tripura have also gradually mingled into the respective societies.

Nonetheless, like a Chinese who always remains a Chinese wherever he is born, I remain a Barisalite, though I was born in Serampore in Hoogly district.

An insecure Bengal endures in the Indian Territory. Under the former Pakistani regime many people had migrated to India in the decades of 50s, 60s, and 70s and then in the subsequent period from Bangladesh. Under the Refugee Rehabilitation Scheme of the Government of India they have secured shelter in the Dandakaranya, an area depicted in the Ramayana and also in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra. They live in an environment which is completely different from Bengal; the soil is barren, the nature is diverse, the culture is alien. In the backdrop of a conflicting situation, approximately one lakh Bengali refugees from different districts of Dankaranya, the home of Adivasis, left for the Marichjhapi island in Sunderbans in West Bengal. They had built their village there by clearing a part of the dense forest, inhabited by tigers. The left front government pushed them back to Dandakaranya the very next year in the month of May. Whether force was used in the process is debatable. However, the number of people who did not leave Dandakaranya for Marichjhapi in March 1978 was no less than two lacs. Taking together these three lac people have by now come across three generations. This insecure population of Bengali refugees in the central India has thus swelled up many times.  Kolkata or West Bengal does not bother about them; no question about Bangladesh taking the trouble!

I know yet a more pathetic episode. It was 1986. I was leaving for Dhaka by bus for the first time. I was buying my ticket for Dhaka at the ticket counter at Benapole, the Bangladesh border town immediately following our Bangaon town by night service launched by the Five Star Transport. I found a youth of my age was asking for a ticket for Dhaka by presenting a Bangladeshi 20 rupees note. He said that he did not have any more money with him. He was speaking in an Urdu-mixed jumbled Bengali dialect that any Urdu speaking Muslim would usually use in Kolkata. He seemed an Indian to me. The transport worker, however, would not give him a ticket at rupees twenty only. The fare was Rupees 80/-. Hence, the youth took out an Indian note of rupee ten. After further persuasion he hauled out a Pakistani Five rupee note. During this row I offered the remaining cost and purchased a ticket for him. The boy,  Niyaz became my friend. Sitting by me he was sobbing during the night journey. On my request he narrated to me the tragic story of his life. He did not have any country, he said. His father was an officer in the Pakistani army, posted in Dhaka Cantonment. Niyaz was a student of a Convent School in Dhaka. When the liberation war started in Bangladesh, the students of the convent school could not anticipate it. There was a great disturbance outside. The gatekeeper told them one day that the liberation movement had started. Mummy did not visit Niyaz on three consecutive Sundays. Restless Niyaz left one day his hostel and dashed for his home. Alas! Their house was deserted. Very soon he could gather that his father was killed in the war. His mother had left in her car, where to, nobody could tell. On the suggestion of their chef, Suleman Chacha, he escaped to India. He could manage to get a job in a bakery in Kanpur. He fell in love with a young Hindu girl, living in a nearby slum. She became pregnant. They ran off and got married at Agra. Now he wanted to cross over to Pakistan through Atari border to look for his mother. The agents at the border successfully escorted the female group to Pakistani territory. The boys’ group was seized by the rangers, who handed them over to BSF. The BSF forced them back to Benapole border. Since then Niaz is running from Dhaka to Amritsar, from Amritsar to Pakistan in search of his mother and wife. But since the disturbances by the secessionist movement of Khalistanis started, the Indo-Pak border came under very strict surveillance. He made every effort to cross the border. Perhaps, unrelenting, with his muddy feet he is even today rummaging the entire borderland of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. On this tragic episode, I have written a story, which has been published in a literary journal in Kolkata. It will also be published in a literary journal in Dhaka. The Urdu poet Nilam, a friend of mine will translate it into Urdu.

There has not been legendary literary creation in Bengal commensurate with the intensity and horror of partition and creation of two independent dominions, India and Pakistan. One of its reasons is that the great novelists Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay, Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, Satinath Bhaduri, Manik Bandyopadhyay – all of them belonged to West Bengal and as such could not feel the sufferings of partition.

 I read Sadat Hasan Manto in my college days. Toba Tek Singh and his other stories moved me. On partition, Manto left Bombay and went to Pakistan. His stories are indeed the historical testimonies to the horror of that time.

The entire subcontinent is under the sway of the great epics, The Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Gandhari, the royal spouse of King Dhritarashtra belonged to Gandhar; she was princess of Kandahar, as it is known today. The Arabic tales and the Persian fables got wide expanse in this land. This territory is filled with innumerable folktales and fables. The Vedas, the Gita, the Korans, the Bible, the Tripitak, the Granthsahab have inspired millions and millions people of this land.

Human sufferings, the sad cries and tears are carried from one era to another, from one land to another only through literary creations. The message of peace and brotherhood emanates from the poets’ calls and ring through the hearts of millions. Every speck of dust of this vast land, of these islands and countries of South Asia is saturated with history. This territory has a heritage of thousands of years.

Poets are free and unbounded. I am a humble seeker. We have been proudly roaming across this vast territory. We have been soaring down the ages.