Footloosing Frontiers

BY ARUNDHATI GHOSH

Episode 1: Borders as Rivers, Rivers as Bridges

Ichhamoti is a woman seeped in desire. When a river that flows across the border of two nations born out of the pain of partition, the struggle for freedom and the suffering of millions, carries that name, it takes on many worlds of meanings. Ichhamoti meanders between India and Bangladesh, rippling down right atop the political border drawn on maps, on one side of the little town of Taki, in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. In December 2021, I visited the river to see what stories it had in store.

Taki is a sleepy town, under Hasnabad police station, about 70 km from Kolkata that takes 2 hours to reach by car. City dwellers come here for picnics and most write-ups about the town online regale readers with stories of its green paddy fields and blue skies. It is where people from polluted metropolises come to breathe. Taki has narrow roads, congested neighbourhoods, and many old and dilapidated heritage buildings. I stayed at a property right next to the river, in a room with floor to ceiling glass windows, determined to stare for hours onto both its banks – one that was home to my father’s family in Bangladesh, and the other that is mine by birth in India. As I sat down with a cup of tea and gazed out, I saw large bodies of water hyacinths floating away quietly, slowly, almost as if they have always been witness to life on both sides.  

I decided to take a boat from the bank and set out onto the river. Anil babu, the boatman was a local man and knew many stories. He showed me three rivers – Kalindi that goes towards Bangladesh, Bidyadhari flowing towards the Sunderbans, and this Ichhamoti which comes down from the north cutting right through the heart of what was once a unified Bengal. The sangam or the place where the three rivers meet is sacred, he said, because milan or coming together, is sacred. There were many boats on the river. Each bore a flag – of India or Bangladesh – for visual identity so that the border security forces of the two nations can distinguish them. I saw how big the river was, and how small the flags. I thought how quiet rivers are, and how loud flags. I waved at a boat bearing the Bangladesh flag and they waved back.

As we moved further down the river, I could hear the laughter of children, and Anil babu showed me a grove of trees on the other side that is a favourite picnic spot for families. He continuously referred to the two countries as two banks – epaar and opaar – this side and that side. It brought back memories of Baba who refused to mention Bangladesh as a separate country while talking about his childhood home there. He always referred to it as opaar – that side – the other side, as if talking about a past life, or of another birth. That life tied me too to that bank in an inexplicable way. I looked at my phone. Google map was working and I found myself on the other side of the border that goes right through the river. I had crossed a line. It is so poetic to have a river on the border, I thought, so fences cannot be built.

Thakur Dalan in Taki.

On the second day, I decided to get to know the town a little bit – so I stepped out, took a rickety ‘toto’, and visited the ‘top attractions’ as suggested by Sameer, the young and enthusiastic driver of the vehicle. First, we went to the Taki Rajbari or the local palace, now in utter ruins. I was told it is rented out for film shoots and found the evidence in the form of cardboard cutouts of palace guards lying inside one of the derelict rooms. There was a large family in the backyard who had hired the space for a picnic. The palace lay open to the onslaught of the common folk. All palaces must come to such ruins – that is our only hope, I thought. Next, we went to the Jamidarbari, the house of the landlord of the area. At one side lay the structure of a once magnificent Thakur Dalan, or altar for worship. Sameer said this was perhaps 400 years old.

From the ruins of royalty, we then moved to the Library at Taki. There was no one around, perhaps due to the restrictions of the pandemic. This 100-year-old institution had a quote by Haraprasad Sheth on its wall that pointed to the need for understanding each other’s religious beliefs. In a little town on the borders of India and Bangladesh, at a time when both countries are struggling with religious intolerance, this simple sentence on an old library wall rang very true.

A quote by Haraprasad Sheth on the Library’s wall in Taki.

I am a big fangirl of Kali, so next, we walked into the Trishakti temple. There were three female deities – various incarnations of Shakti – the blue-skinned Tara Ma, the black-skinned Dakshina Ma, and the yellow-skinned Bagala Ma. This was an old temple and I had never witnessed all three goddesses together. While Kali has many roops or forms, my favourite is the dark-skinned, naked goddess of the night, who roams around funeral grounds destroying evil on earth. Standing at the temple looking at the three goddesses I remembered how obsessed Bangalis are with skin colour and the shame of nudity. There is a song of worship of Kali, Shyama Sangeet, that asks her to wear clothes – baswan poro ma; and another that denies her dark skin – Shyama ma ki amar kalo! Even goddesses, I thought, cannot save folks going headlong towards their doom. It was quite late in the day, so we decided to get back to the hotel for some fresh ‘fish fry’ and rice. On the way back when I shared with Sameer my worry for people seeing them all without masks, he laughed it off saying that there had been very few corona cases in Taki.

That night I sat on the banks of the river watching the lights on the other side.  Anil babu, the boatman had told me of a most amazing phenomenon that happens on this river every year on Dashami, the last day of the Durga puja. As residents of Taki start preparing for the immersion of the idols of Durga and her four children, the same plans are also set in motion in Satkhira on the other side of the border in Bangladesh. From both banks, the idols are put on boats and brought right up to the international border in the middle of the river for bishorjon or immersion. The border is lined with boats of the border security forces. The residents of both countries wave at each other, share sweets and shout the customary slogan of aschhe bochhor abar hobe – we will do this again the next year. Separated by destiny and politics, they rejoice a shared cultural space on that one day of the year. Anil babu also told me that up until the late nineties on this day people from either side of the border were allowed to visit the other side. Stalls were set up by local folk like a mela and everyone went on a shopping spree. Stories were exchanged and friendships were made. Though all that has now stopped, sharing of the river as a space for joint celebration continues.

Rivers have always connected people. Is that really what Ichhamoti, the river seeped in desire covets? That we imagine borders as rivers and rivers as bridges?

Arundhati Ghosh is a cultural practitioner and lives in Bangalore. She is a poet in Bangla and can be sometimes convinced to write in English.