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The Octogenarians: From Partition to a pandemic

They are the ones who have seen it all—Partition, riots, a famine. Now, as covid-19 casts a pall of fear and gloom, these men and women in their 80s reveal what survival really means

Hardev Singh Akoi/representational photo. (Photo by Rohit Chawla)
Hardev Singh Akoi/representational photo. (Photo by Rohit Chawla)

"How old are you?" Sabita Goswami, 81, a former journalist who covered the Assam agitation as a field reporter in the 1980s, asks me over the phone as we are wrapping up our interview. “I am 30," I reply. She lets out an audible chortle. “You will grow with age and you will soon have the courage to fight everything…like I did."

The elderly are considered a high-risk category as the covid-19 pandemic continues to sweep the world, and India. On 2 June, Lav Agarwal, a joint secretary in the Union ministry of health and family welfare, said India’s covid-19 fatality rate stood at 2.82%, with senior citizens constituting 50% of the total deaths. Effectively, 10% of India’s population, in the 60-plus age group, accounts for 50% of coronavirus-related deaths—many of them already have pre-existing medical conditions.

Still, as younger generations look to this as an apocalyptic time, it is the elderly who provide tales of resilience and, indeed, context for the durability of both human life and the world.

“It’s like the flip side of a coin. With experience comes resilience, knowledge and grit to face a crisis but also wear and tear and rigidity in belief systems," says Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist Shwetambara Sabharwal, who is seeing elderly care as a concern among her clientele. “While they have seen wars, destruction and earthquakes, they have also seen peace and recovery, growth and rebuilding of nations. Their memories include the pain and fear but also the light at the end of the tunnel. They know life goes on. The younger lot is still to overcome fear and go through that tunnel," she adds.

Mint profiles four octogenarians from different parts of the country who have seen and survived upheavals or decades of systemic discrimination—riots, wars, Partition, famine, the Naxal movement, caste oppression—to understand what the pandemic means to them, and by extension, what it might mean to us all.

Prafulla Chakraborty
Prafulla Chakraborty


Prafulla Chakraborty, 87

Kolkata, West Bengal

From the Bengal famine to the partition of Bengal and now cyclone Amphan, this retired lecturer has seen many upheavals

When Amphan hit, Prafulla Chakraborty and his wife Chandana, 75—who live by themselves in a fourth-floor apartment in Kolkata’s Beliaghata—were prepared. They had filled degchis with water in case supply was disrupted, dug out old candles gifted to them by their daughter-in-law—“fashionable candles", as they call them—to deal with any power outage, and told the domestic help not to come in.

Once the cyclone made landfall, the 25-year-old wooden windows with glass panes were no match for the winds tearing through at over 160 kmph. The rooms on the northern and eastern sides were flooded. There was no electricity for two-and-a-half days.

Literature and music have always been Chakraborty’s fallback and this calamity was no different. He weathered the storm by helping around the house and sitting down to read and write his memoir by the light of aromatic candles. Appropriately titled Gaaner Taane (The Pull Of Song), it is being published as a monthly series by a local magazine, Ekush Shatak. “I keep telling him, ‘You are so old! Stop writing all the time, you will spoil your eyes,’" jokes Chandana, who is an avid reader herself. “He always says ‘this is my last book’ but I know it isn’t true."

Days after Amphan, when he speaks of covid-19 over the phone, the calm voice tells tales of circumstances far worse. In 1943, when the Bengal famine hit, nearly three million people died of starvation, malaria or other diseases as a result of malnutrition, displacement, unsanitary conditions and poor healthcare.

Chakraborty’s father, who died when he was just 3, had been the only doctor in their village in East Bengal. “At that time, there was the cholera epidemic in villages. There was only one other ‘doctor’ and he was not a degree holder. People used to arrange for a celebration of puja for different forms of Kali to get rid of the epidemic," he laughs. “And now in independent India, in 2020, every village has a hospital, doctors. I have faith in science."

Chakraborty was born in the Faridpur district of what is now Bangladesh—a place he remembers fondly and vividly. Situated by a tributary of the Padma, fish was available aplenty in the village and Chakraborty lived a life he describes as “carefree". But it all changed abruptly when the country was partitioned in 1947.

Chakraborty’s elder son, Pradipto, 49, who lives in Gurugram, Haryana, has never seen a photograph of his paternal grandparents, who died long before he was born. It was one of the many things his father had to leave behind when his siblings and he (his mother too had died by the time he was 10), fled in 1948, after the partition. “This is something my mother keeps speaking about as well—she has never seen her in-laws, not even in a photograph; the rush in which my father and his brothers left ensured many such things were left behind," he says.

When tensions between Hindus and Muslims were simmering, and West Bengal was carved out of the Hindu-majority districts of the Bengal province, Chakraborty was 15 years old. “We took a boat to Madaripur and then by steamer we reached Kolkata. We left everything behind, most of our belongings and our land and home," he says. With nowhere to go when they reached West Bengal, the siblings spent two nights at the train station, eventually finding room with some relatives temporarily.

“Due to the partition, the regions that suffered most in the country were Punjab and Bengal. But the Central government made all arrangements for the refugees in the north, gave them land, money, jobs. But the refugees who came from East Bengal, we did not get anything," he says, terming it a “failure of the Congress government".

They had to rebuild their lives from scratch. Chakraborty did odd jobs. His education stalled, he worked at a glass factory, a jute mill, and eventually with Philips for a few years in the company’s accounts department.

Through all this, Chakraborty would spend his meagre salary to get training in Rabindra sangeet. Eventually, he moved to Jamshedpur, where he got married and started work as a music tutor at the Calcutta Club, and then to Ranchi, where he finally completed his education and became a lecturer of Bengali literature at Ranchi University.

Since the lockdown began, Pradipto has been using the example of his father and father-in-law—a Punjabi who crossed from Pakistan after Partition—to give his daughters perspective on these difficult times. “My older one is in class XII and she’s very upset, she was looking forward to her final year of school—going out, having fun. Now she’s depressed," he says. “We told her, ‘Look at what dadu and nanaji faced. And they have seen the worst times—no infrastructure, starting from scratch. Here we are in AC rooms watching Netflix.’"

Chakraborty, who still sits with his tanpura in the evenings and does riyaaz twice a week, says his daily routine did not change much during the lockdown. But one thing worries him. “It is very uncertain when I will get to meet my four grandchildren (his younger son lives in Bengaluru and has two daughters too); right now we can’t travel to see them," he says. “I wonder when we will all be together again."

Sabita Goswami
Sabita Goswami

FEARLESS IN THE FIELD: Sabita Goswami, 81, Mumbai, Maharashtra

This retired journalist who reported on the Assam agitation is as unafraid of covid-19 as she was of massacres and militants

Sabita Goswami is keenly aware of current events but it is the way she presents her perspective that is truly striking. “They say old people should stay home through the coronavirus but people over the age of 70 have already lived their entire lives," she laughs.

“I have lived a full life, haven’t I?" asks Goswami, who grew up in Assam, her voice quivering slightly from age and a stroke, neither of which have been able to subdue the spirit that prompted the question. You can almost hear a smile breaking through the pauses—it’s one of those rhetorical questions that are amusing because they are so obviously understated.

The 81-year-old with neatly clipped hair, a style she has sported for decades, lives in Mumbai’s Chembur with her elder daughter and grandsons near the erstwhile RK Studio—a locale she adores given her proximity to “film artists of yesteryear".

Looking back, it’s difficult to describe a life this full, so scattered anecdotes and lasting takeaways is the approach she adopts.

Goswami was the Assam correspondent for the BBC for close to 40 years—a field reporter through one of the most turbulent and violent phases in the state’s history, the Assam agitation, which began in 1979. “I was the sole woman reporter on the field then," says Goswami. “People would wonder what I was doing—I would tell them I was a social worker. I used to move around everywhere, all the nooks and corners. Wherever there was an agitation, strike, I would be there," she adds.

Having seen so much violence—Goswami says she counted 674 bodies when she rushed to cover the Nellie massacre—and faced threats from militants and agitationists, there is only one time she was truly rattled. “I had gone to cover a bomb blast at Guwahati station, I saw a body, face down, with his intestines and entrails coming out the back. I couldn’t eat that night," she says. “Otherwise, I fear nothing."

Goswami grew up in Tezpur, Assam, and describes herself as a “rebel within the family"—she married early, in 1962, despite protests from relatives. This was also the year of the Sino-Indian war and China had crossed over to capture Indian territory. Unprepared, with few to no supplies, Indian soldiers began to retreat.

“I remember knitting sweaters for the soldiers," she laughs. “When soldiers were marching through our town, we saw them, they barely had any warm clothes. So we used to give them sweaters, blankets and other supplies from our homes."

After a short stint in Goa, where she wrote about the beach town’s sociocultural fabric for Blitz, she moved to Guwahati, and her career as a journalist really took off. In a time of telex and fax, she would fly reels across through contacts in the airlines or dictate stories to Mark Tully (BBC’s bureau chief in Delhi at the time) over the phone.

“She provided the BBC with extensive coverage of the violent 1983 Assam state elections and the Ulfa and Bodo insurgencies," writes Tully in the foreword to her memoir, Along The Red River, published in English by Zubaan. “A person of great integrity and high professional standards, she had a wide range of contacts throughout the Northeast and made a point of travelling to the remotest areas to ensure authentic coverage."

In February 1983, a source informed Goswami about a “big war" in his area—the remote village of Chaulkhowa Chapori. Assam was on the boil, the agitation was at its height. Goswami says there would be three-four bomb blasts nearly every day. She called intelligence officers to inquire about the violence the source had described. They had no idea.

Goswami got on to a boat from Guwahati to Chaulkhowa Chapori and when the boat hit the shore, and women and children ran towards her, she pretended to be Bengali.

More than 500 men in the village had been killed—she describes seeing “skeletons" and the “injured bodies" strewn across. Goswami rushed back to Guwahati and filed an eyewitness report for the BBC. No other journalist had reached the spot till then. She broke the story.

Her daughter Triveni Mathur Goswami says their mother inspired both sisters to pursue a career in journalism. “Her work always came first but she was an all-rounded woman, she was also a great and present mother." Growing up in Guwahati, they remember the times when she would be out on assignment and they would lose contact with her for 10-15 days. “She had gone to cover an assignment in Gorkhaland, interviewing Subhash Ghisingh, the leader of the Gorkha National Liberation Front, in his hideout."

A proponent of justice and human rights, her first response when we speak about covid-19 is the plight of migrant workers. “This is a humongous humanitarian issue and they have made it political, so people suffer," she says. This is also her view on the National Register of Citizens issue that unfolded last year.

Goswami’s tone as she shuffles between past and present is reminiscent of the way she responded to an imprisoned agitationist years ago in Guwahati when she went to meet her nephew (who was reportedly in prison for a political crime). “When I get out of jail, I will come to your house with a revolver," he said.

“Most welcome," she replied.

Sohan Singh
Sohan Singh

THREE RIOTS AND A LOT OF LOVE: Sohan Singh, 81, Delhi

Between Punjab and Delhi, this former postal service employee has seen violence at close quarters. Yet, with no grand claims to bravado, he’s afraid of the virus but continues to live with all that life has taught him—compassion and service

Maine apni zindagi mein bilkul paas se teen dange dekhe hain (in my life, I have seen three riots up close)," says Sohan Singh, who lives in north-east Delhi’s Gokulpuri, where riots broke out in late February. “First it was the riots during the time of Partition, then the 1984 riots, and then the riots in February," he adds.

“It is always deeply distressing—someone spends their whole life building their home and within seconds you loot it, burn it down, kill and plunder," he says. “But where there are terrible people, there are also pockets of love, and it is those pockets that gave me the passion to be the person I am today," says Singh.

In 1947, at the time of Partition, Singh was an eight-year-old living in a village called Kotla Sahya in Gurdaspur, Punjab. His father was a farmer, and Singh would help rear cattle and assist in the fields.

Then the violence struck. Singh recalls bloodshed from all sides: “The Muslims would attack the Hindus and Sikhs with their weapons, and the Sikhs and Hindus would attack the Muslims using whatever they had—kirpans, tools, anything," he says.

But the violence has not been what has stayed with Singh from Partition, even though the memories come flooding back with each passing eruption of inter-religious conflict. There were five Muslim families in his village, and Singh says it was his family that ferried them to the camps set up in neighbouring towns so they would be safe from attack.

In fact, until as recently as 10 years ago, a family from Singh’s village, which migrated to Pakistan during Partition, would visit the family’s home in Delhi whenever they made a trip to the Capital.

Singh moved to the Capital after he completed his matriculation and joined the postal service. He lived in Gokulpur, where he would walk in the fields nearby every morning before leaving for office.

On the morning of 31 October 1984, while he was out for his customary stroll, Singh’s neighbour called him frantically, asking him to return home at once. The prime minister, Indira Gandhi, had been assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. This resulted in targeted violence against the community—the epicentre of the attacks was east Delhi.

“We saw a truck filled with coal being set on fire, and Sikh drivers being picked up by their arms or legs and being thrown in alive, we saw petrol-doused tyres hung around the necks of Sikhs who were running towards our colony for safety," he says. “Bohot zulm dekha hai in aankhon ne (these eyes have seen so much cruelty)," says Singh. Suddenly, his train of thought breaks: He turns to what he holds dear—kindness.

The Hindu families in the colony took in the 60-70 Sikhs from the area. For three days, they provided shelter, spending their nights guarding their homes from looting. “Our elders decided that the youth should cut their hair so that if the rioters come in they will not be recognized and stay safe," says Singh’s son Mohinder Singh, 53.

Eventually, when the army moved them to a nearby camp for a few days, it was those same neighbours who came to take the Sikh families back home.

Since 1984, Singh has devoted his life to service—both religious and social. As president of the local gurdwara samiti after he retired from service in 1997, he has spearheaded much of the work done by the samiti. It is these stories and spirit, his son says, that inspired him to be of service during the riots in February.

The family lives above Mohinder’s electronics shop and when the violence began on 24 February, they saw the seven-eight Muslim households in the vicinity being attacked and burnt. “There were entire families, there were children and they were scared inside their homes—crowds outside were chanting Jai Shri Ram." Mohinder and his son got on their motorbike and ferried over 60 Muslims to safety—they tied turbans around the heads of each person rescued to conceal their identities until the situation was safe.

“Our father has always taught us to be practical, to be compassionate and to be of service to others. Between his teachings, our religious teachings and what we have seen through the society around us, we knew we had to help in any way we could," says Mohinder.

Today, the elder Singh spends most of his days at home. His age has made the morning walks he would look forward to impossible, and the covid-19 pandemic has further restricted movement. Despite all he has witnessed, the virus scares him. “A riot is a threat to your life and so is this virus, of course, but the fear of both things is entirely different," says Singh. “There is no vaccine, there is no treatment, everything is unknown and uncertain." Mohinder says his father instructs them on precautions now that the shop has opened—wear a mask, maintain distance, don’t let people too far into the store.

“It’s partly out of fear but mostly out of love," he says. An accurate assessment of emotions that have consistently driven the octogenarian.

Mary Manjulabai
Mary Manjulabai

A PERSISTENT CONFLICT: Mary Manjulabai, 84, Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh

Having lived through an armed uprising and still navigating caste oppression, former lecturer Mary Manjulabai continues to combat much more than the pandemic even today

"Do you think living alone as an 84-year-old is easy? It is not. But the life I have lived has prepared me for it all," says Mary Manjulabai over the phone from Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh.

Though she maintains she was far more “docile" in her younger days, one particular memory really stands out.

A history graduate, she vividly remembers applying for a position at the Satyavathi Devi College in Kakinada, where she has lived over the last few decades. Manjulabai walked into a room to be interviewed by a panel of three visibly upper-caste Hindu men—tilaks and lone tufts of hair. “I am a Christian but my grandparents were untouchables, belonging to the Mala caste, and eventually they converted to Christianity. But nobody looks at me as a Christian," she says. “They always looked at me as untouchable."

“What is democracy?" the panel asked her. Manjulabai nervously rattled off the textbook definition. The panel seemed satisfied.

She began speaking again: “But so far there has been not a single example of democracy in the world. Nowhere in the world, not one single country, is there rule of the people, let alone by the people and for the people." The men were stunned. Manjulabai got the job.

Today, as she navigates a pandemic and caste discrimination even within her building complex—occupied largely by residents from the landowner Kapu caste—she is thinking of putting together a book on Hitler in Telugu.

“Casteism exists in independent India. Every sincere, decent human being must agree with this statement," says Manjulabai. “When we start looking, we will certainly know there is discrimination, and to this discrimination, there is no beginning and there is no end."

Manjulabai’s life has been subsumed in identity-related conflict. She recalls being chosen for a post but not being allowed to join by the principal of a college in Tirupati, “a Brahmin named Rajyasree", despite clearing an interview with the selection committee. Some years later, recalls the mother of three, her youngest daughter, Anitha, came running home one day, having heard from a student that they belonged to the Mala caste, “crying and begging that I tell her that it isn’t true, that we weren’t untouchables!"

Though she spent many years in Telaprolu, a village dominated by the Reddy caste where Manjulabai’s father was a schoolteacher, the foregrounding of caste for her, personally, happened over time. “Earlier, I would never fight back against casteism, but now, as I get older, I have decided I will not take anything lying down."

She never consciously “identified as Dalit" until 1985, when a Madiga settlement was attacked by a mob of 2,000 Kamma men in Karmachedu village. That is when Manjulabai started wearing her identity on her sleeve.

Till the lockdown began, Manjulabai was a fierce speaker for the Dalit movement in the slums of Elwin Peta in Kakinada. This is “a place where everyone has a political bent; “and rallies,agitations and arrests were commonplace," writes Manjulabai’s daughter Sujatha Gidla in her book Ants Among Elephants. A staunch Ambedkarite, Manjulabai is not part of any group but uses her pension to support Dalits targeted by caste Hindus who need legal assistance. “There were a couple of kids—their heads were shaved off, a garland of shoes put around their necks and they were paraded across the street," says Gidla. “The fight for justice after this has been going on for 20 years. And other activists gradually lost interest, but she’s the only one remaining who continues to help," she adds.

Over the decades, Manjulabai has been witness to multiple conflicts—whether it was the armed Naxal movement, the fight for a separate Telangana state, caste or labour uprisings. They have taught her love, loss and given her the power to endure.

Fondly called papa, which means baby in Telugu, Manjulabai was born in Visakhapatnam—the youngest of three siblings. Her eldest brother, K.G. Satyamurthy, with whom she shared a special relationship, filled in as a parent—her mother died when she was three years old and her father, who served in Iraq during World War II, was absent for several years.

Satyamurthy was part of the dissident faction of the Communist Party—expelled years later when, as Gidla explains in her book, he highlighted caste-based discrimination within the party. In April 1980, he formed the People’s War Group along with Kondapalli Seetharamaiah. He remained underground, always on the run.

This cut off Manjulabai from her closest friend and comrade. “He never used to come to me. All through those years, there was always police surveillance on my house. He never used to correspond because I would have lost my job," Manjulabai recalls. She would worry constantly—read the newspapers to see if there was any news about him—until he died from illness in 2012.

Today, she takes her temperature every day, washes her hands often and bathes twice daily to combat the virus to the best of her ability. “I am very disorganized but I think one day I will put on paper the book I want to write on Hitler—he was an evil man, resulted in so much violence, and people need to know about him, especially today," she says.

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