I was not an oral historian when my father was around. He remains among those I have never interviewed. But after I became a practitioner of oral history, I have been delighted by the number of times he has turned up in the context of my interviews with others – predictably in interviews with family members but surprisingly also in interviews with people who I discovered came from the town my father was raised in. What would it have been like interviewing my father, I sometimes wonder – would I have brought my professional patience and listened to his endless stories about the many types of fish that were available in that town which now lay on the other side of the border – in Bangladesh? Would I have the wisdom to quell my irritation and try to understand why he would repeat so many times details of the grand feast that the Nawab of Dhaka had treated his victorious school hockey team to? Would I really be attentive and find meaning in stories that were so familiar already?
My father, Jyotirmoy Choudhury (known to his family and friends as Benu) was the first born of my grandmother, Ashalata and my grandfather, Harendra Mohan Choudhury. My grandmother was still in her teens when he was born and had left him to the care of her parents, Prakash Chandra and Suruchibala Dasgupta in Comilla while she travelled with her husband to the Gua Mines where he worked as a doctor. During an oral history interview I conducted some years ago with my father’s youngest aunt, Madhabi Roy Choudhury, I learnt that he was much indulged by his grandparents. He was allowed to have as many pets as he pleased – dogs, cats, ducks, chickens and other birds and even a monkey. I had heard about the monkey and it had impressed me the most. I also knew that the monkey was called Madhu and that he had died strangulated on the rope he was tied to. My heart-broken father had given his pet a grand farewell with a proper sraddha to which friends, neighbours and relatives were invited. This story was repeated often to stress how much his grandfather, Prakash Chandra spoilt him. I learnt more about this incident from Madhabi Roy Choudhury, almost 20 years after my father was gone. The funeral of his pet monkey had also initiated the shutting down of Baba’s menagerie. As his aunt put it, “You, know, our father treated your father like a son, not as a grandson. But after the monkey died, our father said, “Stop keeping these animals – it is very painful when they die this way. And so, he had to stop.”
My father studied at Comilla Ishwar Pathshala. He matriculated around the time World War II began and decided that he wanted to join the army. My uncle, Mrinmoy, who grew up with his parents in Gua Mines, Chiria Mines and Burnpur, tells me this about this episode during the oral history interview I did with him in 2009. “One of our mother’s uncle was an army recruiting officer and I think that’s how your father got this idea of joining the army right after his matriculation exam. But our grandfather opposed this. Your father had a first division – he was a good student. Our grandfather got him admitted into Intermediate Science [ at Comilla Victoria College]. But your father took a deliberate decision not to take the last examination and therefore did not clear his Intermediate Science.” In exasperation, his grandfather sent him to his parents, who by then had settled down in the Steel town of Burnpur. If I had interviewed my father, this conflict is certainly something I would have asked about.
My father came to live with his parents in 1940. He was 21 and headstrong. Thwarted by his grandfather from joining the army, he now attempted to find a way of earning a living. From my uncle’s recollection, “Our father had asked at the factory if he could work there and he was told that they would be recruiting apprentices six months later. But your father did not want to wait, he went and stood in the queue for khalasis – unskilled labourers – that the factory was recruiting at that point. And he joined as a khalasi on a daily wage – earning 15 annas – at the Melting Shop of the factory. He had to carry cylinders on his back, shovel coal into the furnaces.” How did our grandfather feel about his eldest son joining the factory as a labourer, I asked my uncle, after all, he was a respected doctor in the same town? My uncle answered with a laugh, “The recruiter was Ashok Chatterjee and he knew our father well. Mr. Chatterjee had first tried reasoning with your father – he had told him that this is a tough job – you have to carry a lot of heavy stuff. But he was stubborn, your father. In the end, Ashok Chatterjee called our father at the hospital, to ask what he should do, and our father said, if he is unwilling to listen to advice, let him work.” Now, when I think about this, I wonder if his parents who had hardly spent time with their first born had felt helpless before his obdurate determination.
My uncle goes on to tell me the story of my father’s progress at the factory. Some months after he had started work, he was taunted by Jabbar, a Pathan worker for being a “puny Bengali” while trying to lift a heavy load. I am amused by this characterisation because the evolution of this particular colonial stereotype that contrasted frail Bengalis with sturdy Panjabis and Pathans was an intrinsic part of my PhD thesis. Until this interview which took place in 2009, I had no idea that this nineteenth century stereotype about the weak Bengali that originated in the Martial races theory propagated by the British had proliferated well into the 1940s. My uncle also alerted me to the deeper sense of resentment that my father faced when he joined the factory as a daily wage worker. One day, he got into an altercation with Jabbar who at this point teased him because he was often asked to stand-in for the foreman. “Ha! do din ke badshah – kal to fin ake hamare sath ita pe baithoge!” [“Ha! You are only a king for two days – tomorrow you will again sit with us on the bricks!”] Mr. Berrow, an Englishman, who was the Assistant Manager witnessed this fight and decided to intervene. He was fond of this brash young man and had occasionally given him other responsibilities which he had discharged well. Besides, this young worker was educated, spoke English fluently, and was therefore, useful. He gave him a small promotion and then another until he finally became permanent and then became an officer. By then he had matured.
“Your father was full of energy. He would cycle to Asansol 6 kilometres away to buy huge baskets of mangoes for the family.” My uncle told me. I recall that my father had told me how he would ride more than 200 kilometres to Calcutta on his motorcycle to watch English movies. My aunt, Barnana adds her memory to my uncle’s recollections: “He always looked out for us – the women. He would peep into the kitchen find out what we were doing, find out what we needed. That was unusual in those days.” Not only my aunts, my cousins who called my father, Jethu baba, enjoyed playing and talking to him. One of my younger cousins would seek my father’s permission to attend school socials when her father refused to let her go.
My father’s indomitable vitality and his sense of adventure remained with him even as he grew older. Throughout my school life, every holiday, we travelled all over India – literally, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Puri to Bombay and to various places in central India. In July 1961, he took me and my mother to visit his grandparents in Comilla, then in East Pakistan. After the Partition of India, my father’s grandfather had opted to stay on in East Pakistan and the family visited whenever possible.
Travels with my father were most often by train (though we also travelled by bus, by taxi to Badrinath and by air when we visited Comilla). Our train journeys were often interrupted with what were called “break journeys” as my father enjoyed meeting his countless relatives en route his holiday destination. These holidays were memorable not only because of the places we saw and the people we met but also because of a few misadventures. I recall that Baba had taken my mother and me to see the temple at Rameshwaram in December 1964 and we were on the last train that made it across the Pamban bridge before the Dhanuskodi Cyclone struck, washing away the bridge and the next train. We had a lucky escape. It was during that same trip that he made friends with Mr. Mishra who was also travelling with his family on the train to Calcutta. Mr. Mishra was short of cash and my father helped him with no hesitation although they had never met before. After that, the Mishras became family friends and we would often visit them in Bhowanipur whenever we were in Calcutta. My father made friends easily, and he helped and cared for people. I guess that is what made him unforgettable to many.
In 2017, I met Mr. Jatish Chakrabarti as part of a project on Dr. Triguna Sen, the first Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University. During the interview I found out that Mr. Chakrabarti was from Comilla and knew my father as a young boy. He was eight years younger than my father but obviously admired him for his dynamism and open-hearted approach to life. A couple of years ago, my friend, Nina’s mother, Manisha Purakayastha, recounted her close interactions with my father when we met to talk about the book she has written commemorating her father, Dhirendranath Dutta. Dhirendranath was a Member of the Pakistan Parliament and former Minister who had been martyred in 1971 before the Liberation of Bangladesh. Manisha mashi was from Comilla too though much younger than my father. She called him “dada” and Baba treated her like a younger sister. Manisha mashi and her family lived in Burnpur. Her husband, Kalyan worked at the Indian Iron and Steel factory like my father. But we felt very close to the Purakayasthas because of the Comilla connection. I still remember, how in March 1971, my father came home from the factory, looking agitated, anxious, and quite lost – “They have killed her father!” And we all rushed to console and spend time with the stunned Purakayastha family. When I meet Manisha mashi, so many decades after her father’s gruesome, and tragic death, she surprises me by telling me that her father, Dhirendranath knew my father from his Comilla days and was very fond of him. He was an early elected member of the Bengal Legislative Council in 1937 from Mymensingh. My father’s grandfather, Prakash Chandra Dasgupta knew him from Comilla and he too belonged to the Indian National Congress.
I have met many people who knew Baba and would share their reminiscences of him, bringing him alive through their retelling of some incident or other. Most of these were funny, heart-warming anecdotes and spoken with genuine affection and admiration. But Baba’s temper was legendary too. And he was also often foolishly generous with the little money he had. But most people were ready to overlook these flaws. As time passed, I remember noticing that he became less agitated and more at peace with himself. In the lapst six years of his life, as he battled cancer and emphysema, his earlier vigour and vitality metamorphosed into a quiet strength. There was in him, a calm, grounded energy that enabled him to face his pain with great forbearance. In the last year of his life, I remember him sitting up almost every night, struggling to breath – the iron ore dust from the factory had left his lungs in a permanent state of inflammation – and yet he was so quick to shine his flashlight to make it easy for me to locate the bathroom switch in the dark whenever I got up. He did not have to do this, I recall thinking. It was also bothersome to take assistance from someone who was so unwell. Today, twenty-five years after his death, I can recognise in that gesture, his characteristic kindness, his deeply caring nature. I remember too that he was very aware of what lay ahead and while still in Santiniketan, where he and my mother had settled after his retirement, he thanked my mother and me and told us he had had a good life. Rooted as he was in his larger family, he asked that I arrange to take him “home” to Burnpur. As I planned the journey, Rampukar dada, a cycle rickshaw driver who was very fond of him and called him Baba too, spontaneously volunteered to accompany us. By then my father ‘s cancer had spread and he resembled the starving Buddha. The journey from Santiniketan was painful and difficult, yet it was one that he bore with amazing fortitude. On 30th April 1995, within a week of returning to the Burnpur house, he was gone.
My father, Jyotirmoy ‘Benu’ Choudhury would have completed a hundred years today – 23 September 2020. It took me a long time to figure out the correct date of his birth. The passport I have with me, with which we had travelled to Comilla in 1961, declares him to be a Citizen of India and states his date of birth to be 10 September 1921. But he always told us that he was born in 1919. My cousin, Soumitra, unearths my grandfather, Harendra Mohan’s diary which has a page that states the dates and times of birth of my father and his nine siblings. That diary records Jyotirmoy’s date of birth as 6th Ashwin 1327 according to the Bengali calendar. Our calculations show this to be 23rd September 1919 which was a Tuesday. Something seems wrong with that as our grandmother always said that he was born on a Monday. Soumitra solves this by looking at the time of birth, since he was born at 4.55 am, before sunrise on the Tuesday, the day of his birth was considered to be on the previous day, that is on the Monday.
I have tried here to reconstruct a fragment of Baba’s life through the memories of others who knew him and while listening to them speak, I learnt to listen to my own memories of my father and what they told me. As I began to put together these memories, I noticed how the focus of what I was listening to began to change. What was earlier an exasperation with interrupted travels to touch base with relatives, I began to understand as his way or reconstituting a sense of an extended family. In his childhood and youth, he had witnessed the coming together of relatives and those with whom the family shared distant bonds of kinship for family festivals. But after Partition, such meetings happened on a much smaller scale. For him, meeting with relatives who were now scattered all over India was a way of making his life whole again. When he met his relatives, he would change into a dhoti and chat away, slipping into the dialect that was spoken in the district to which none of them could belong again.
I realise now that what was earlier just a nostalgic anecdote from my father’s past was perhaps an effort on his part to communicate a sense of place that was important to him. It was something he wanted to pass on to me. I remember being puzzled by his unalloyed joy when he heard that I had bought some frozen Pangas fish from a small Bangladeshi shop on Gray’s Inn Road in London in 1992. The Pangas catfish was not available in India and he used to tell us how easily it was available in his village in Merkuta and also in Comilla town. My tasting the Pangas was for him like the sudden sharing of a memory of taste. And this memory of taste brought with it other memories – of water bodies and markets that he had so freely roamed as a child. It was as if all that was familiar in his childhood had suddenly come alive because I had tasted something that belonged to his past. As if the divisions that had come up with the Partition had been momentarily transcended and he could, for once enjoy a moment of unbroken sense of continuity between his own life and mine.
I have long forgotten the taste of Pangas but that sense of continuity between my father and myself has grown stronger over the years. I am grateful every day for all that he taught me by example. Those lessons remain alive even today.
Thank you, Baba. And Happy Birthday!
I thank my cousin Soumitra Kumar Choudhury, my uncle Parthasarathi Dasgupta for photographs and captions.