It is easy for an Indian to hold the world against a Bangladeshi. Switch on a TV screen and there are images of marauding cricketers in yet another shade of green, taking our ‘men in blue’ to the cleaners. Then there are images of beady-eyed jihadists, caught on the verge of shedding innocent blood. Most Bangladeshis in India are illegal immigrants, at best, disliked for eating into an Indian’s resources and opportunities, but more frighteningly, many have been found guilty of indulging in subversive activities that range from petty crime to terrorism.
I am what one might call a probasi (non-resident) Bengali. I was born in Delhi, 31 years ago. I missed the passionate protests that followed Lord Curzon’s religious division of Bengal in 1905. I missed the ‘tryst with destiny’ that promised to define a nation and a generation oh-so-long-ago. And I missed the whole ‘jai Bangla’ fervour that seized not just the two ‘Banglas’ on either side of the border but even the rest of India during the Bangladesh Liberation movement in 1971. I’ve grown up believing that Bangladesh owes India and her soldiers an incalculable debt for liberating the land and its people. And yet I’ve grown up reading about how almost every terrorist outfit that operates in India uses Bangladeshi soil as a launching pad for its missions. Incidents like the one near the border with Tripura, where a BSF officer was abducted and hacked to death in April 2005 would leave me seething in impotent rage. Leaders like Khaleda Zia, with their anti-India rhetoric didn’t endear Bangladesh to Indians either. With Bangladesh consistently topping the charts as the most corrupt nation in the world for almost half a decade, it only seemed like just vindication of our collective sensibilities. I could not relate to the nostalgia and strong sense of being ‘one people’ that defines my parents’ generation. My maternal grandparents and their children were refugees from Bangladesh who were forced to leave a land they called their own because they prayed to a different God. And yet, while they were grateful to India for giving them shelter and sustenance, their heart seemed to beat for the banks of the Padma, where the paddy grew sweet and the hilsa ‘so’ big. Their children, including my mother, and perhaps their entire generation speak of Bangladesh with a wistful longing that I couldn’t relate to. I couldn’t understand why they would stop and talk to a Bangladeshi rickshaw puller or a maid, for in whom they saw a fellow ‘Bengali’, I saw a potential terrorist. As a child growing up, I did not dislike Bangladeshis because most of them were from a different faith. Nor did I hold a grudge against them for driving out my grandparents, for I did not inherit that hate and also realised that the same fate or worse would’ve befallen many Muslim families from West Bengal. What I couldn’t stomach was the apparent ingratitude and apathy.
Then I met a Bangladeshi. Not in Kolkata or Khulna, but by the Trevi fountain in Rome. My wife and I had escaped from a party, and were taking in the sights before ending up at the fountain where we were approached by a little man – from his accent – apparently fresh off a plane from Dhaka, selling souvenirs. As we got talking, with some trepidation, I told him we were Indian Bengalis. Immediately, he called out to his mates, five of whom came running in. I didn’t believe they would have the gall to raise a finger but I was on my guard. But instead, he smiled, handed me a ‘Roman Holiday’ T-shirt and then ushered us into a cafe. Some one brought us coffee while another brought us ice-cream. They wanted to know about Kolkata and Delhi, Amitabh and Aishwarya, Sourav and Sachin. They kept talking about shared pride in India’s successes and how nice it was to speak to someone in Bangla in Rome, so far away from home. In the warm after glow of a setting sun and rising sentimentality, while leaving, I insisted on paying for the coffee and the ice-creams, but couldn’t refuse them the souvenirs they presented or the beautiful flowers they gave my wife. In New Jersey, a few months later, I was dropped off at the hotel by a Bangladeshi taxi driver who insisted on not taking more than $30 for a $60 ride from New York City. And he kept saying, “Aamra aki toh!”(we are the same). I was mystified. Here were a people I had abhorred without knowing, and expected them to do the same but all I got from them wherever I met them was affection bordering on the fraternal. In these often terrible times, we often become victims of a ‘fear and hate’ psychosis that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the only way around it is to get to know ‘them’ better. I realise that there is only one world, and there is one only one ‘me’, and every association of mine is a question of chance or choice. And since chance is no one’s fault, one could at least choose to view the world with an open mind . . . and heart.