The idea of ‘return’ holds different meanings for different people caught in different circumstances. Calcutta-based Supriyo Sen’s Abar Ashibo Phirey (Way Back Home, Bangla with English sub-titles, video, colour, 120 mins, 2002) is a wrenching and liberating journey into the heart and soul of an elderly Bengali couple – the director’s parents – as they go back in time, space and the emotions to a home they lost decades ago following the Partition of Bengal.
Sen: “Some years ago, India and Pakistan celebrated fifty years of their independence. Ironically, these celebrations made many people silently grieve for their homeland because fifty years of independence also meant fifty years of Partition. I decided to observe independence in my own way – I would take my parents back to their motherland (in Borishaal, now in Bangladesh) after so many years.”
A work so heavily dependent on memories, on nostalgia, on an excruciating pining for what can never be physically regained, could have easily slipped into the maudlin or the mundane. But the director’s restraint, his sense of strictly-observed distance, and his balanced approach to a tragic fact of history, combined seamlessly to produce a document of historical truth and moving human drama. In the past thirteen years of its existence, Abar Ashibo Phirey has been variously read, especially by Bengalees living on either side of the border dividing West Bengal and Bangladesh – from an emotion-charged quest for one’s roots in a positive and life-affirming way to a gripping ‘road-movie’ to a challenging experiment with visual imagery, editing, and the art of creative questioning of personal pains and political perfidies committed on this or that pretext.
Sripodo Sen, who was 77 when the film was shot, and Gayotri Sen, who was 65 then, both originally belonged to educated, well-to-do families which had called Borishaal their home for generations. Both are seen making the journey in the cherished hope that they might come across people they had known in their youth or find out what had become of the houses they had lived in, the tree-lined village ponds in which they bathed and swam, or the schools they went to.
For Gayotri Sen, however, the agenda is more focused in that she is in search of a favourite older cousin who did not come to Calcutta after Partition with the rest of the family because she had fallen in love with and married a Muslim policeman by the name of Sikander Ali. That cousin was sweet-natured, good-looking, good in studies, and an accomplished singer. She was fondly called Komola-didi by her younger cousin, Gayotri, and much-liked by everyone in the family.
Yet, after her marriage, the same Komola became a pariah; no one could even stand her name being mentioned. Gayotri was too young to understand why her Komola-didi had fallen so low in the opinion of the elders. Be that as it may, Komola Dasgupta, the daughter of an established Boidyo family, became Alea Begum after her marriage. But there was no way she could forget the customs and rituals of the religion into which she had been born.
After much searching, Gayotri Sen is able to find her ancestral village, but, sadly, not the object of her quest. Instead of Komola-didi, Gayotri finds her daughter, Minu, and the latter’s children. Minu tells her aunt that her mother had passed away a few months ago. Minu, a mature woman with grown-up children, reminisces with tears in her eyes how there wasn’t a single day when her mother wouldn’t talk of her parents, her cousins, and others of her lost family.
The re-union is brief but rewarding for the aunt and her niece, victims of a political conspiracy hatched in distant places like New Delhi, Simla or London. The images of the relatives holding on to each other with tears running down their cheeks are devastatingly real. But the aunt cannot leave without visiting the grave where Minu’s mother rests. Candles are lit, silent prayers are said. Gayotri and Minu wave goodbye to each other, saying perhaps they will meet again. But both must have known that it was not to be. Gayotri Sen passed away in 2014 without visiting her beloved Borishaal village again.
Like his wife, Sripodo Sen is also shown finding his village after some effort. There is a sense of utter satisfaction at coming back to his original home at long last. There is deep sadness in his voice but also great joy. The contradictory feelings are there in his eyes as long as he is shown roaming around his village or talking to people he had never seen before. The director’s father cannot contain himself as he visits B.M.College, Borishaal’s famous seat of learning where he did his graduation studies. He recites a few lines from Bengal’s great poet, Jibonanondo Das, who was teaching at the college when Sripodo Sen was a student there.
Some of the present-day students of the college gather round him as he reminisces about those good old days. He mixes his spoken Bangla with a fair amount of English – well-chosen and finely-articulated – as the young men watch him with interest. The emotions associated with re-visiting the peace and turmoil of what was once home come across vividly, memorably.
Abar Ashibo Phirey is a ‘road-movie’ in not just the physical sense – the travel by car or steamer or cycle-rickshaw or on one’s own legs – but also on the mental plane; the memories of the distant past are constantly flitting in and out of the monologues or the conversations between the principal players. If the memories of being uprooted from one’s family or ancestral moorings are strong, in a sense, stronger still are the memories of the long years of bitter struggle to find a place under the sun in a new land, new environments, new surroundings, and a new milieu fraught with unendurable anxieties. Sripodo Sen, who is more voluble and assertive than his wife, dwells at length on the insults and deprivations that the ‘refugee’ – referred to in officialese of a particularly disastrous kind as ‘a permanent liability’ – had to silently endure.
In large parts of the film, either Sripodo or Gayotri re-live the past through reminiscences that are more sad than bitter. They are never vengeful, because neither has forgotten that in the midst of the blood and butchery of the Partition days, there were also instances of members belonging to the majority community who did not forget their commitment to human values. For instance, Gayotri remembers how Komola-didi’s husband, Sikander Ali, personally undertook the arduous task of ensuring safe passage of the Dasguptas to Indian soil. The viewer can also make out from her words that the common Muslim citizenry of erstwhile East Bengal (which was to become East Pakistan following Partition) were conditioned to living in peace and harmony with their Hindu neighbours and would not have behaved as they did in those dark days if it had been left to its own devices.
It was only when self-serving Muslim League politicians stepped into the picture that communalism erupted and lakhs of Hindus were forced to leave their country, very often with just the clothes they were wearing. People in this country whose politics is to fish in troubled waters are known to raise a hue and cry every once in a while over the sufferings that refugee families had to face, conveniently forgetting the many cases of camaraderie and comradeship but for which the history of the time would have been even more grim. Perhaps, it would be correct to say that the Sen couple did not forget the past; perhaps, they could not bring themselves to completely forgive either; but through their personal and collective sufferings, they gradually came to understand better the many shades of human nature and the many expressions that history can come up with.
There is much meaning in what the director Supriyo Sen says : “Partition is difficult to forget but dangerous to remember… It took half a century to make a mere twelve hours’ journey.”
Call her by any name you like – Komola Dasgupta or Alea Begum or Komola-didi or Minu’s mother or Gayotri’s cousin – it is she – the ‘absent one’ – who is most vividly present in the film. The eager search by the director and her parents to find her gives Abar Ashibo Phirey the edge and suspense of a documentary thriller – if such a thing exists. And the heightened suspense is there right till the moment of discovery that she has been dead for some months prior to the arrival of the film party to the village where she had lived all her life, loved her husband, and raised her children and even seen the faces of her grandchildren.
The family as a binding force – and even more so in the face of traumas and tragedies so grievous as to turn into legends and folklore with the passage of time – is represented in this film with remarkable restraint which, if anything, reinforces the poignancy of suffering. Far from disappearing from the scene with her death, Komola-didi comes to be enshrined in the hearts of the visitors as her daughter talks about her dead mother.
Through the vehicle of a ‘road movie’, the director takes us on a journey through generations of his family on both his father’s side and his mother’s. Sen : “Right from my childhood my mother used to tell me stories of her village, the river and the friends she had left behind. She told me about her gifted and beautiful favourite cousin who was abandoned by her family for marrying a Muslim boy. She was a rebellious girl and a role model to teenagers of the village. When everybody left the village, she decided to stay back with her Muslim husband. Nobody knew what happened to her after Partition…”
The director’s father was, however, not so lyrical when recalling that past which he remembers more as a nightmare and the beginning of an ominous present. Sen : “When I grew up my father explained to me how a nation was politically cheated by groups of powermongers, and how inner conflicts within the Bengali society were used by these powermongers to cause fratricidal riots. All these stories had an intense impact on both my conscious and my sub-conscious. It was as if my whole existence was tormented by the perceived fact that three generations of Bengalees – my grandparents’, my parents’ and my own – were bearers of a big coffin called ‘freedom’.”
In a questioning spirit, Abar Ashibo Phirey goes into the beautiful and bewildering histories of his own family. But what is even more important, he excavates the past gently but firmly to find answers to certain vital questions relating to the political and social history of the sub-continent since 1947. Many of his doubts remain unresolved, which however does not take away anything from the energy and the imagination employed to get to the eye of the storm.
As is to be expected about a film of this nature, old wounds are opened and fresh debates begun. But the viewer can see if he watches the film with care that the exercise is more to understand history and come to terms with it as far as it is possible, than to apportion blame. If anyone is to be blamed, it was the inscrutable, conspiratorial nature of the turn of events of the time which threw up its own larger-than-life figures with an uncontrollable appetite for power, what if a few million humble souls were sacrificed in the process.
Perhaps, Supriyo Sen has the right to have the last word on his film: “My film is my personal journey to my roots; a journey that strengthened my opposition to the politics of divisiveness.” Untramelled ambition divides; art, deeply felt, unites.
( Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.)