It was my very first midnight, and what a midnight it was! Every house in our neighbourhood had all the lights on, and radios blaring in English. Ours, too. My parents were listening closely. And all the children were on the streets — including me.
Ma (the feminist poet Radharani Debi, who wrote under the pen-name Aparajita Debi) dressed me up in a white frock and white sports shoes and took me to the Monimela Club, where all the children had gathered, dressed in white. Each of us was given a tricoloured flag with a blue charkha printed in the centre, to hold high as we marched through the streets singing Bande Mataram and periodically shouting “Jai Hind!” from the core of our heart. From now on, we were a free country. India was not under British rule anymore!
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I was nine when India had its tryst with destiny. And Nehru was telling us all about it, his voice booming from every radio in every home, echoing down the streets of Calcutta. It was a midnight like no other.
Our childhood days were not easy. Apart from being under foreign rule, we also went through traumatic times in Calcutta. Bengal and Punjab bore the brunt of Partition. Households were torn apart as the price of freedom. Calcutta was full of homeless, landless people from East Bengal. As a little child, I saw living skeletons walking the streets, begging — not for rice, but for the starch water that is thrown away after cooking rice. I saw those skeletal humans fighting with street dogs for the wasted food in the dustbin across the street. It terrified me. Feeling all this suffering as a child, without quite understanding all of it, I was growing up, weathering enormous inner questions to become an independent Indian.
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All the suffering was man-made, including the horrible famine of 1943, World War II, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s own way of seeking freedom, and the Great Calcutta Killings of August 16, 1946, which left an indelible mark on my mind. I had overheard that Haren Ghosh, a close friend of my father Narendra Dev (poet, translator and author of the first Bengali work of cinematography), with whom he had started Calcutta’s first cine club, was chopped up and stuffed into a packing box. I was eight, had been fond of this playful “uncle”, and could not eat for days.
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Our lovely green playgrounds were dug up for trenches in preparation for the World War II, when the Japanese were expected to bomb us. Beautiful homes were masked with baffle walls for protection. And all our glass windows were painted black and taped with paper strips to protect us from splinters.
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But we were kids, even if we were growing up in difficult times. We turned trenches in the playground into imaginary rivers, and made up new games. We used the ugly baffle walls to play hide and seek. We sang absurd songs: “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni/ Bomb feleche Japani/ Bomber bhetor keute saap/ Saheb bole, baap re baap! (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni/ We’ve been bombed by the Japanese/ Inside the bomb sits a big fat snake/ It makes the British tremble and quake!)”
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We did not know what war meant. But for a whole year, most privileged families of Calcutta had moved their women and children out to the suburbs. The city was full of military camps, and the endless plying of heavy military vehicles had chewed up the roads. But we played on those streets anyway, since the playgrounds and parks had become army camps. We played and fell and came home with bad bruises. The military were everywhere. After the war, Calcutta bustees saw a lot of blue-eyed, golden-haired Bengali kids.
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In our Monimela Club, the children were being prepared to fight for freedom. We were taught Bratachari songs and dances, from the socio-cultural movement for “those who had taken the vow” to build a better society. These were actually physical exercises, along with chhora-khela (dagger-play) and lathi-khela (lathi-play). We were told about the lives of freedom fighters and were prepared to lay down our lives for our motherland.
The rite of preparing to fight for freedom, which generations had observed, was now over. My father’s family was closely connected with the freedom movement. Long before our children’s Monimela, there was the Anushilan Samiti, a militant nationalist movement with an accent on physical culture, which sprang from local youth groups and akhadas.
Members included the revolutionary journalist Barin Ghosh, founder of the Jugantar movement and newspaper, and his elder brother Aurobindo Ghose, the revolutionary who later quit politics to found Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry.
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In a sepia photograph in our family album, two tall and lanky teenagers are seen wrestling. They are my father Narendra Dev (who became a poet) and my uncle Nalindra Chandra Dev (who joined the Ramakrishna Mission). So much for the militant philosophy of Anushilan Samiti! They had to take an oath of celibacy, because the only woman in their lives had to be the motherland. My uncle maintained it as a sanyasi. My father maintained it till he was 43, then broke his vow for a powerful poet and child widow who wore khaddar, who would be my mother.
Later, Anushilan Samiti changed its stance and joined the Gandhian movement. The main office of the Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee (BPCC) was in our ancestral home, No. 1 Muktaram Babu Street in north Calcutta. My uncle Rajendra Chandra Deb was its president, and important Congress leaders and workers of the time gathered there. I have heard that Subhas Chandra Bose, Jatin Das, Rashbehari Bose, Chittaranjan Das, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi were regular visitors. After the BPCC office moved, the space became a Khadi Gramodyog shop. And after my uncle passed away, the street was named after him, and the address changed to 1 Rajendra Chandra Deb Road.
Although I arrived rather late on the scene, I do remember seeing Sri Aurobindo at Pondicherry when I was four, and seeing Gandhiji twice in Calcutta, once in Park Circus Maidan, and once in Lake Maidan, as I rode high on my six-foot father’s shoulders, above an ocean of human heads. Gandhiji was seated high on a bamboo machan so that all of us could see him, hear him, and join him in singing Raghupati raghava raja Ram. When I was three, I was fortunate enough to see Rabindranath Tagore — who wrote our national anthem Jana gana mana and renounced his knighthood following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre — several times at Uttarayan, his home in Santiniketan.
Incidentally, he named me Nabaneeta when I was a few days old. And to this day, he is my mainstay, emotionally and intellectually.
My school was named after a great nationalist hero, a leader from the other end of the country: the Gopal Krishna Gokhale Memorial Girls’ School. Freedom was in the air, and children were looking forward to an independent India with a wide vision. In school, apart from prayer songs, we sang patriotic songs like “Bolo bolo bolo sobey, shoto beena benu robey, Bharat abar jogotsabhay shreshtho asan lobey.” Children were taught to pray for the freedom of India. It had become a part of our being.
The marching song I really loved was, “Qadam qadam badhaye ja/ khushi ke geet gaye ja/ ye zindagi hai qaum ki/ to qaum pe lahraye ja.” This was what I sang, but may not be how the song actually goes! We sang at the top of our voices, “Chalo Dilli pukarke/ qaum-e-nishan sambhalke” (I have forgotten the rest) — another Netaji marching song that I found the liveliest. So, on the first Independence Day midnight procession, we sang not only Bande Mataram and Jana Gana, but also Qadam qadam badhaye ja. On our first night out, we were pouring out our little hearts to Bharat Mata, who was finally released from slavery. Returning to bed after the procession, I was sure the sunrise would be brighter and different! Because on August 15, 1947, the sun would rise on a new horizon, on a new India.
And it did! Ma woke me up, saying, “It’s Swadheenota Dibas, Khuku! Won’t you hoist the flag?” “Of course I will, Ma.” We ran up the stairs to the fourth-floor terrace where Baba was fixing a huge khadi flag on a tall, polished brass pole shining like gold in the early morning sun. It was, in fact, a broken brass railing! “Jai Hind!” I saluted the flag. We held the string together as the flag went up, unfurling into the pink-and-gold early morning sky. The sun of freedom was shining on it. Magnificently.
Poet, novelist and teacher, Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s honours include the Padma Shri.