It all began a couple of months ago, when I was told that my student visa to India had come through. According to the visa’s terms, I could go only to Kolkata, where I was to study Bengali for three months, the irony of a Pakistani doing that in Kolkata not being lost on me. Given that I grew up in Karachi and Lahore, I was grateful that I was even granted an Indian visa, a rarity for Pakistani citizens. I was to go to Kolkata from Chicago, where I now live, to study Bangla for my doctoral research ‒ and to soak up the Bengal monsoon.
The last thing I expected was to run into people who were related to me. After all, Kolkata was far away from Etah in UP, a town near Aligarh from where both my grandfathers migrated. It was also far from Ajmer, where my dadi, my paternal grandmother, grew up, and equally far from Agra, my maternal grandmother’s, hometown. In any case, I did not have permission to go to any of these places. The two neighbouring countries give each others’ citizens visas only for specific cities, for pure business, you know. What else ought a Pakistani have to do in India, and vice-versa? Thus, my three months in India was to be family-free. Or so I thought.
For the first one-and-a half months, my days were quotidian: I made some friends, had addas with them and learnt Bangla. One day, while I was speaking with my father over the phone about ancestries and migration, it suddenly occurred to me, apparently out of nowhere, that my aunt’s parents-in-law were from Kolkata ‒ a bit of trivia that had been buried in my memories of childhood. What reason did I have to remember this about my aunt, choti phuppo, my father’s younger sister?
But I had remembered it, subconsciously, and it came back to me as I sat in Kolkata, feeling homesick during Ramzan. None of my family members was here and none of them remembered this fact, even as they expressed curiosity about the city. I was in Kolkata, and therefore it occurred to me, reminding me that nothing can replace geographic memory ‒ memories that come gushing at you in certain spaces ‒except perhaps memories of belonging, like the memories my grandmother had of Ajmer, or rather Ajmer Sharif, as she always called it.
Memories of belonging
Yet I also knew that the entire extended family of phuppa-jan, choti phuppo’s husband, and my uncle, the one whose parents were from Kolkata, lives in Karachi and speaks Urdu, although his mother sometimes says she longs to speak in Bangla. His family, apparently, all migrated to Pakistan in 1947. Who could be here? I called him nevertheless. I was surprised. He spoke to me of Kolkata as if he had lived there. He had not. He had only visited it 48 years ago, he told me.
“My father’s family lived in Behala [a locality in south-west Kolkata]. His brothers and sisters, namely my uncles and aunts, and my paternal family were all there, but most of them came to Pakistan,” he continued, adding in quick succession: “And my maternal family ‒ my mother, her sisters, her brother and his wife, they lived in Khidderpore [in central-west Kolkata]. Their kids still live there. It’s near Mominpore, just off Diamond Harbour Road, on Mayur Bhanj Road, named after this old Raja. It’s near the harbour. The address is […], the house is called Rumi Cottage. My mother’s father, my nana, built it. He was a marble trader. You will see some marble used in the house. Just ask anyone when you get there. They all know. It’s a very old house.”
How did he remember all this? I did not ask. Perhaps memories of belonging function in time that is not countable in years.
Phuppa-jan’s only surviving aunt, his mother’s brother’s wife, mami-jan; her children, who are phuppa-jan’s cousins; his mother’s sister's daughter, Feroz aunty, another cousin, and all their families live in Kolkata. But he hasn’t met them since I do not want to remember when. The first and second generations have never met each other, with the exception of two cousins. So it was not surprising that they had trouble recognising one another when they finally did meet each another, on Eid, when I went to Rumi Cottage, using the precise directions that had come pouring out of my uncle.
All photos: Courtesy Taimoor Shahid
They met each other through photos and the phone. My cousin, phuppa-jan’s eldest daughter, Nimra, sent me photos from Karachi over WhatsApp. Her family had all carefully posed in the photos, meant as they were as a substitute meeting. I showed them to everyone in Kolkata. Phuppa-jan’s brothers and their families, who had gathered for Eid in Karachi, posed for us as well. Nimra took those photos as well and sent them to me.
The Karachiwallahs 1: Nimra, her siblings and cousins.
“This is phuppa-jan with your khala [mother’s sister],” I told Feroz aunty and the others.
“She hasn’t changed, but looks so thin,” mami-jan, phuppa-jan’s and Feroz aunty’s aunt, the elder of the house, said. Everyone agreed.
The Karachiwallahs 2: Nimra's father, phuppa-jan (left),
and his mother, who grew up in Kolkata.
“This is Imran chacha, phuppa-jan’s younger brother with your khala,” I continued as more photos arrived in my inbox.
“His beard is better now. He had such a long beard when I last saw him,” Feroze aunty commented.
“This is Numair chacha, phuppa-jan’s youngest brother,” I said, pointing to him in the photo.
“He looks exactly like khalu-jan, his dad. Look, look, Mini, he looks exactly like him,” Feroz aunty drew the attention of her cousin, mami-jan’s daughter.
“These are all the kids,” I said as I showed them a happy selfie that Nimra had taken of all her paternal cousins. “This is Nimra, phuppa-jan’s eldest daughter ‒ the one sending photos; this is the younger one, and this is their son. These are Imran chacha’s girls, and these are Numair chacha’s boys,” I said, as everyone in Rumi Cottage bent over to look into my phone.
Mami-jan, her daughter, Mini, and son, Hafeez, his wife, and their ten-year-old son, Feroze aunty, who is mami-jan’s neice, and Danial-da, Feroz aunty’s sister’s son, all found a way to peek into the small screen of my phone. “Is this Numair’s son? He looks exactly like his dad!” Feroze aunty exclaimed. “Yes,” I replied.
I also took photos of my Kolkata family, similarly curated them and sent them to Nimra. “Take one with me and my son,” mami-jan told me, as she posed with a firm grace. “Let me see if it is good. Oh, it is very good,” she said approvingly. We took several more photos. They all turned out to be good.
The Kolkatawallahs 1: (from right to left)
Mami-jan, phuppa-jan's mother's brother's wife;
her son, Hafeez; Hafeez's son; me; and Hafeez's wife.
The Kolkatawallahs 2 (main photo, above article)
Feroze aunty, Phuppa-Jan's khala's daughter; me;
Danial-da, Feroze aunty's sister's son; Mini aunty, Mami-jan's daughter
It was strange. Everyone slipped into comfortable smiles, the poses came together well. The Kolkatawallahs all gazed through the camera all the way to Karachi, just as the Karachiwallas in Alnoor gazed through the transparent lens to Khidderpore. It was endearing and intimate, but also sad, even though the exchange had been accompanied by the standard reactions of joy. It was as if everyone had already made peace with the course of a history that had torn their families apart.
Perhaps everyone had surrendered to the daily ordinariness of the two nation states, the impossibility of travelling between the two, and the ordinariness of this impossibility itself.
“Everyone is asking, who all are they? They are unable to recognise anyone,” Nimra messaged me. I had sent the photos without descriptions, assuming they were not needed. The Karachi family did not recognise anyone except mami-jan, who was the only one alive from her generation.
“This is Hafeez uncle, mami-jan’s son, with his wife and their son,” I began explaining. Phuppa-jan had never met Hafeez uncle ‒ he was born sometime in the past 48 years.
“This is Feroze aunty,” I added. Phuppa-jan had last met her when he was five.
“Abbu thought Hafeez uncle’s wife is Feroze aunty. She can’t be so old, he said,” Nimra wrote from Karachi. I wondered what Feroze aunty thought of phuppa-jan, with his greying beard and hair. How could her five-year-old cousin already be so old? Perhaps that’s what crossed her mind but she did not say it. But now, his youngest child was thrice as old as he was when she last saw him. She just looked at the photo of him silently. Half a century had elapsed, but time had stood still for them.
As I clicked more pictures, Hafeez uncle told me: “Take photos of the house too, for your phuppa-jan’s mother, my aunt, in Karachi. Show them to her and tell her that the house her father built in 1924, where she grew up, is still intact,” Perhaps he wanted to add: “…but her home, not so much.”
Why? Why was the home not intact any more even though the house remained? Feroze aunty, the eldest of the cousins, elder to phuppa-jan, did not have a direct answer, but said to me: “Khala’s in-laws were doing so well here. They had such a huge house in Behala, twenty to twenty-five bighas of land ‒ eight or nine acres ‒ two ponds and a mosque of their own, but they left everything. I still don’t understand why they left.”
Perhaps, I did understand, or I thought I did, but who am I to judge either choice ‒ of leaving or staying back? We did not experience history as they did. How can we judge their decisions?
Weight of one choice
My extended family migrated from India around Partition. My paternal grandparents moved to Lahore and maternal ones to Karachi. They left comforts behind. My dada turned from a young man given to luxury to becoming an assistant bullion keeper in the Pakistan mint, a clerical position. His father, a senior court official of the Indian government, left his estate to his cousins. My nana’s father, a senior lawyer from Agra, also left his career behind. Both my grandmothers’ families had similar stories.
Yet, I never saw any of my four grandparents longing for the early days. My dada and nana had studied at Aligarh Muslim University and Agra University respectively, both founded for the elites of United Provinces. But I rarely heard them talk about it with longing, if they ever talked about it at all. Even these details of their past I gleaned only now as I inquired about them last week.
It is as if they never migrated. It is as if they never long for the past. It is as if their childhood never was ‒ unlike phuppa-jan’s mother from Kolkata, who still talks of her childhood as if it had just elapsed. But perhaps my grandparents long for their past too, or had longed for it at one point in time, and never told us. Who knows? Who can know?
Yet I know that their children long for their ancestral land more than their parents did; their grandchildren, even more. “Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances,” said a poet once. Perhaps it is the increasing distance of separated generations and the decreasing belonging to ancestral lands that makes us long more than our elders ever did. Perhaps our kids will long for the past even more as they belong even less to it. Or perhaps it is all just nostalgia for an imagined home, a home taken away, a home divided, and a home that never was, yet always is and always will be.
Two countries, one frame: the third generation meets.
That is perhaps why during my visit to Rumi Cottage, I felt strangely at home. I had a homely Eid instead of what I thought would be a miserable lonely one. What is Eid, after all, without family? I found that family on July 18, here, in Kolkata, in this hundred-year-old house whose history changed drastically in 1947, again in the 1965 Indo-Pak war, and then finally in 1971, when Bangladesh became independent after a long war.
At home, across the border
Yet it had also remained the same. Intact. Like an old anchored ship, albeit rusted. Today, in that place, I was fed biryani, qourma, parathas, shami kebabs and of course sheer khorma, laccha, and siwayyan ‒all the dishes that I am used to eating on the other side of the border, at phuppa-jan’s home, at choti phuppo’s in-laws in Karachi, where I spent most of my childhood Eids because I always found them more enjoyable than those in my own home.
It is only fitting, then, that I took equal delight in spending this Eid with their cousins in Kolkata. I tried eating for all of them, the same dishes that separated cousins eat on either sides of the border, and perhaps I succeeded.
(All names of people have been changed, except the author's.)
Taimoor Shahid is a doctoral student at the University of Chicago's department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations. His has translated two Urdu classics into English, The Madness of Waiting and The Dangerous Man. He tweets, sometimes, at @mohjema.