Last year, around this time, my son came home and announced that they will have a story telling competition in school, and the theme is communal harmony. We had to give him a good story, as he definitely wanted to clear the prelims. I had a real life story ready for him, about the experience of my grandmother’s brothers during the riots of Bengal in 1946, a year before India gained independence at the cost of partition.
My ancestors hailed from the east of Bengal, now Bangladesh, and erstwhile East Pakistan. Dadubhai, my paternal grandfather, and his brother had gone to college in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and found jobs in and around the city. His uncle was a well-established lawyer here, and the rest of the family had moved to Calcutta long before 1947. Didun’s brothers studied or worked in the city, but her parents lived in Noakhali town near Dhaka, where her father had been the headmaster of a high school for many years before retiring. He was greatly respected in the town, where most men had once been his student, and he had no intentions of moving to Calcutta. Didun was visiting her parents, when the riots broke out in Calcutta, and the usually mild natured, peace loving Bengalis experienced widespread carnage, the repercussions of which spread far beyond the city. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_Action_Day)
Two of Didun’s brothers were travelling back to Calcutta from Noakhali by train. They were both students at the Calcutta University, and lived with their newly-wed eldest brother and sister-in-law. The family was sending several items of necessity for the newly-weds, among which the biggest piece of luggage was a rolled up double bed mattress. The brothers were in a coupe with two other young men, and the coupe was quite filled with their luggage. The young men got talking, and it turned out that the other two passengers were medical students, enrolled at the Calcutta Medical College. The journey was progressing pleasantly until the train suddenly came to a halt. There was a lot of noise outside, and peeping out of the windows, they could see men rushing towards them brandishing swords, knives and choppers, shouting “Inshallah!” The two would-be doctors quickly took control of the situation. They shut the door of the coupe and shuttered the windows. They pulled out lungis from their bags and asked Didun’s brothers to wear them. They put the mattress against the shuttered windows and piled up their luggage next to the door. They quickly knelt down on the bunks and started reciting from the Quran loudly. Soon there was loud banging on the doors and windows, but they shouted out “jenana hai!” (women here), as Didun’s brothers trembled. When the train finally reached Calcutta and the police came and helped them out, there were dead bodies everywhere, and the train’s floor was drenched in blood. The mattress was in shreds, as people had thrust into it with swords. The two young men hugged their fellow passengers and thanked them with tears.
We helped Ujaan prepare the story with enough dramatic effects and he went on to win the competition. He was delighted, and when he repeated the story to Didun (who is now 91), she was quite thrilled. She had told me the story long ago, among many other anecdotes of her life. Not being a great storyteller herself, she had never narrated this story with such animation. Hearing it from her great grandson with all the dramatic effects made her remember those days all over again. The pain of the riots, the tension that the family had been through, the relief when the news of the brothers reaching safely finally arrived, all of it came back to her. I could see that she was actually happy with the remembrance, as time had smoothened out the rough corners and only the glow of nostalgia remained.
But this post was not about this story, in fact, when I began, I didn’t even think I would write the story. But stories have a way of making themselves being told, and so this one just came out. Post facto, I am happy that it did, because this is a good way to collate stories from one’s life, and here I just archived one leaf out of Didun’s book of life.
Two days back Ujaan told us that they would be having a story telling competition again this year, and his teacher had told him to go prepared with a story. She had also told him that given is record of last year, he must make it to the finals this year, and hopefully beat the competitors from other sections. We asked him what the theme this year was, and were quite taken aback when he replied “communal harmony of course!” We did not understand what the “of course” was about, and we definitely did not comprehend why the school would want to have story telling competitions on the same theme for the same set of students every year. Kids have a fantastic way of seeing reason in everything that their school does, and Ujaan quickly explained that this was only fair. Firstly, this was for the third to fifth standards, and so it was not true that “exactly” the same students would be participating every year. Moreover, what was the guarantee that the same student would do well every year? He had won the first prize from his class last year, but this year it could be someone else. And anyway there were always some new students in every class. So he was convinced that this was a good idea, and we had the job of finding a new story for him. Ayan tried telling him tat he can repeat last year’s story, as there would be new people around anyway, but he would not hear of it. So I turned to the internet this time, and I found him a good story, and he made it to the finals. Now he wants to win the contest again, and he is sure to try hard. But this entire exercise set me thinking.
In inculcating communal harmony among the students, the school is definitely trying to mould them into good future citizens of the country. The intention is undoubtedly noble and fair, and this is something we have been practicing as a nation for years. We preach communal harmony on Independence Day, Republic Day and Gandhi Jayanti. We conduct essay competitions, drawing competitions, elocution competitions, dance and music competitions to spread the feeling of unity and communal harmony, patriotism and tolerance among our children. But then, in order to explain what we mean by communal harmony, do we not introduce them to the idea of communal disharmony? Do we not inculcate the idea that some of their friends are different, because they, or rather, their parents, practice a different faith? What does a ten year old understand about religion? When we teach him that he should love his friends equally and share with them equally, irrespective of whether they are Muslims, Christians or Sikhs, do we not plant a seed of differentiation? Do we not create a situation when the child can begin to ask why they should be different anyway?
The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that sometimes, teaching about equality can indeed have an adverse effect on a child. The idea of harmony can only exist if there is an idea of disharmony, just like light cannot be perceived as a bliss unless we experience darkness. Asking a child not to discriminate can actually plant the idea of discrimination where it did not exist in the first place. Perhaps we should keep such teachings for the more “matured” people and let children develop in their world of blissful ignorance as far as discrimination is concerned.