A microbe. And that’s what it took to bring the human species down to a lockdown. We have been thrown into the COVID-19 pandemic, something this generation had never experienced in this magnitude before. Normal life as we knew it is suspended indefinitely. The whole of humanity is in this together without any exceptions of caste, creed, religion, colour, race, political orientation, sexual orientation- one and all in a way which we witness only in movies. The image of a gigantic UFO towering over the earth fills my vision. I only wish the world came together not under such dire circumstances but in a manner which was more pleasant. We were not prepared to handle this crisis and it’s almost like taking one day at a time but also having to plan and prepare for the next several weeks. Tesco yesterday breathed panic. It was the morning after the government announced of indefinite school closure. I had run out of milk and came home without one. The milk aisles in Tesco and Co-op were empty. I didn’t have the time to search elsewhere as I needed to get back to start my work-from-home day.
Later in the day after I picked my girls up from school, the girls and I sat in the car on my driveway. Lots of pressing questions poured out from their bewildered minds which couldn’t wait: When will it be over? How long will schools remain closed? Will school not open before summer? Is Friday going to be the last day of my year 6? Now that the France trip is cancelled, will the France trip take place next year? How will I finish my GSCE curriculum? What will happen to work experience placement? I answered them one by one as we entered the house and followed the ‘after school’ routine. I tried my best to not dampen their spirits yet be honest: a skill parents have to learn to use almost every day yet never quite master it!
My answer to one of their questions threw them off guard and me too. The curious minds of children are always undermined. Often than not I put myself in their minefield and by then it’s already too late to reverse my steps. The mine explodes. They asked, “Did you ever have to go through this kind of situation when you were growing up Mamma?”. I thought hard and then I said, “Maybe not exactly like this but we also had a situation when our schools closed down for a year and everyone had to stay indoors for days, weeks and months together during curfews”. I had to explain what curfews and blackouts meant. I had to explain to their horror-stricken faces how people were assaulted, killed, abused because of their ethnic origin. “Did anybody you knew got killed?” they asked. “Yes. Our neighbour” I said. Our neighbour, a humble man with a family of two little kids, sold pakoras in his roadside makeshift shop. They were aghast to know that their dad’s youngest uncle was also pulled out from his shop and beaten up so badly that he had to be admitted in critical care and only barely survived. Their eyes widened with terror when I said that their dad and I were attacked in a street by a group of boys with knifes hidden in their leather jackets and how we narrowly escaped.
“But why Mamma? Were you not in your home country? In India?”
I said I was in my home country, but we were the second generation of Hindu Bengali refugees from Bangladesh living in a place belonging to the ‘tribals’ and where, we the ‘non-tribals’ were not accepted. I had to explain in short, our complicated history starting from Bengal partition which made my grandparents homeless and flee their homeland which is now Bangladesh and cross over to Shillong, the capital of the state of Meghalaya in North East India. And how even being in India they and their progeny were not safe and still are not. I told them how as we were growing up in Shillong we were subject to discrimination, called derogatory terms like “dkhar” meaning ‘outsiders’ lost the rights to purchase land or property amongst the other covert and overt animosity. I told them how Bengali families after the 1979, 1987 and 1990s unrest in Shillong had to again flee for their lives and go elsewhere. They understood the reason why my parents, their grandparents sold their house in Shillong and now live in Kolkata. As I spoke, my words got bolder with the raw emotions making their way in. I told them that they are the fourth generation of the ‘homeless’, or the ‘displaced’ Bengalis. We are the demographical truth of being the migrants. We are the political truth of being the ousted. We are the social truth of being the unwanted. We are the emotional truth of longing to have a place to call ‘home’.
My girls were shocked to hear all that I said. They exclaimed, “That sounds like terrorism!” and accused with concern in their eyes, “but why didn’t you ever tell us about all this?”. The look on their faces reflected confusion and amusement when they remarked, “How are you able to say all the horrific things you went through so calmly without any emotions just like how people tell a story from a movie or about something that have happened to others?”. They went on: How do we not know about it? How does the rest of the world not know about it? We know about the Holocaust, we know about Vietnam war, world wars and even if one person is killed in America or in the UK the whole world comes to know! How did the rest of India not know about the years and years of crime against a whole population? Why did India not do anything about it? Why didn’t any one fight for justice? Why did you not talk about it, Mamma?
The disbelief in the eyes of my girls pierced the steel wall in me. A stoic wall which we Bengalis in Shillong had built perhaps to cope against what we went through. We, who never voiced out or even thought we had a choice to voice out. We were living in a well of fear, surviving day to day placidly until we could get out of Shillong and get back our self-respect. When we left Shillong, we left behind the responsibility of standing up against the wrongs done unto us, the wrongs done against humanity arising out of narrow racial or ethnic insecurities. We were tired. We left to find safety and security never to look back to those dark times which haunts us in our memories and nightmares. In many, including me who grew up in the perpetual fear of being persecuted on racial grounds, those dark times have left a permenent imprint on us as PTSD and we live with it.
The questions to me from my girls disturbed me even under England’s dark overcast sky of a possible Coronavirus apocalypse, some twenty years and eight thousand miles away from my Shillong time and space coordinates. Even under the shadow of this health calamity looming over the human race, their words echoed in my ears, “You should talk about it, Mamma. You should tell the untold stories”.
8 thoughts on “The lockdown which unlocked the shadows”
We are the demographical truth of being the migrants. We are the political truth of being the ousted. We are the social truth of being the unwanted. We are the emotional truth of longing to have a place to call ‘home’.
Each word hit home. Keep sharing, Shonali…those untold stories need to be told
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Thank you Anna. The voice within will find its way out.
This well written blog resonated with me having gone through the same experience in 1979.
I have shared it because it needs to be shared widely. Yes, the story needs to be told. Those of us who were dispersed throughout the world in that recurring storm have bloomed where we have planted ourselves. May be it was a blessing in disguise. However, it doesn’t make the pain of leaving your home and all that was close and dear to you any easier.
I understand that the ones still in the region, cannot speak up for fear and repercussions as they live there and run their businesses. The need of the hour is for all non-tribals in Shillong, to get over their differences and collectively protest all the wrong doings and the apathy of the government. Only then can we expect to see any change in the place we still regard as home.
Thank you for your touching write-up Shonali.
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Thank you for sharing my story Shamita. And yes it’s not only my story, it’s the collective voice of everyone who have shared the same experience in Shillong or elsewhere. Thanks again for expressing your thoughts and for your appreciation.
Thank you Shamita for your words and thank you for sharing.
Reblogged this on Seasons of Life! and commented:
The apartment I live in shares one of its boundary wall with a well-known school. As a result, my balcony opens to the school field. With the ongoing pandemic and schools being indefinitely shut the field is being renovated. Children in India and in many parts of the world are attending classes from home – one of the many positive outcomes of technology, even though it doesn’t replicate the experience of being physically present in class. This reminded me of my school days when we had a similar experience in my hometown, Shillong. We could not attend classes for one whole year. Those were days before mobile phones and Internet happened. Perhaps, television and landline telephones were the only technology we were exposed to. I remember collecting assignments from school, completing them at home, and then submitting for evaluation.
With this thought, today I share Shonali’s story, which outlines why schools didn’t happen for one whole year. This post is part of the series of personal stories I am bringing to you in context of the Hindu Sylheti Bengalis who been left homeless since the partition of the state of Assam, more than seven decades ago. As mentioned before, my aim is to raise awareness about the marginalized community of Hindu Sylheti Bengalis. I do not intend to paint a loathly picture of my hometown Shillong and its people. Shillong is too dear to me, it’s my home, the place where I was born and raised.
Shonali writes, “We left to find safety and security never to look back to those dark times which haunts us in our memories and nightmares. In many, including me who grew up in the perpetual fear of being persecuted on racial grounds, those dark times have left a permanent imprint on us as PTSD and we live with it.”
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Thank you for sharing this. You really said it well when you said “How do we not know about it? How does the rest of the world not know about it? We know about the Holocaust, we know about Vietnam war, world wars and even if one person is killed in America or in the UK the whole world comes to know! ”
It isn’t even like some world events that we in North America hear about but don’t delve deeply into because there’s so much to know. This did not exist at all until I just started hearing of this from my friend Neel.
Living in a large and diverse city like Toronto, it makes me think just how little I know about the stories of people I pass on the street or share a ride on the bus with – and not just the small family stories. Big stories shared by whole regions too are being silently carried by people all around us and we have no idea.
Thank you for sharing this. Stories like this are so important – especially in troubled times. Of course it’s important to know and to not forget, but stories like this can also teach us here in the present wherever we may live – about what can happen when divide ourselves into “us” and “them”.
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Thank you so much Todd for visiting my story and for your thoughtful comments. So true when you say “ Big stories shared by whole regions too are being silently carried by people all around us and we have no idea.” Unfortunately, there are a lot of dynamics which play when it comes to bringing stories to the forefront and a pivotal one being political. Our community is highly underrepresented because we do not belong to the conventional minorities who the media, mainland and mainstream of India likes to sympathise with. Being refugees our community has learnt to be non-aggressive and be contended with the little. It has also learnt to be silently resilient something which always frustrated me when I was younger. Hope our voices reach out far and wide and we will be heard. Really appreciate your sensitivity.