Crossing the Line

People

Crossing the Line

Illustration: Namaah

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efore she got married and moved to India, Madhuri Dutta lived with her rambunctious extended family in a hundred-year-old “Bangla Batton”-style house in the centre of Sylhet. In the June of 1947, she started her married life in quiet Shillong with a quieter man. Soon after, her beloved corner of East Bengal became East Pakistan and Madhuri Dutta became a guest in her own land.

Her annual trips to Sylhet became the highlight of the year, even if she now needed a passport to visit. She got herself one and registered her three tiny daughters for travel on the same document. Her husband never accompanied them.

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Every year at the start of winter break, preparations would begin in full swing for the three-week-long visit to Sylhet. For the children, especially five-year-old Malaya, it was nothing less than an adventure: the initial bus journey from Shillong to the border at Dawki, waking in no-man’s land and crossing over to the Tamabil check post in Bangladesh, and, from thereon, a final car journey to Sylhet. But even at the end of this long journey, when Malaya would arrive at the Sylhet house, her fatigue would vanish at the sight of those sloping timber roofs, sunlit courtyards, lime-washed walls, and secret rooms with dark wood-panelling. Three weeks would pass by in the blink of an eye.

It was the winter of 1954 when, once again, the excited girls bid goodbye to their reticent father and prepared for the annual voyage to Pakistan. Among the many bags they helped their mother pack, there was always a crate of oranges.

The sweet and succulent oranges of Meghalaya that were famous all over the north-eastern states of India, were in demand on the other side of the border too. With three large suitcases, a big bag full of food for the journey, and a cone-shaped basket of oranges, the four women set out for their holiday.

At customs in Dawki, their bags were checked and cleared to go forward. They walked into the no-man’s land between the two countries, two porters bearing their luggage. At the Tamabil customs post in East Pakistan, as the same process of checking bags and baggage resumed, Madhuri noticed that it was taking the officers exceptionally long to give them clearance. She went forward to the counter to enquire. What she saw flabbergasted her.

Behind the counter, a few officers were huddled around the open basket of oranges, and to her surprise, were digging into the fruit. Some were peeling the oranges, others biting into them, the juice running down their chins. One of the officers wiped his hands and came up to her. The information he carried was baffling: If she wanted to proceed to Sylhet, she would have to leave the fruit behind.

It was in the winter of 1979, as a 29-year-old Malaya prepared for marriage, that the Dutta family made their last visit to the Sylhet home.

Madhuri didn’t know how to respond. She was, in fact, prepared to pay them in cash, like she had in previous years, but oranges? Once she recovered, she explained to the officer that these oranges were the only gift her family looked forward to and that while she could leave some for them, she needed to carry the rest for her folks. What followed was a protracted negotiation that Malaya observed quietly from the sidelines. It was finally agreed that she would leave half the fruit for the officers and take the rest with her.

Next year, when Madhuri set out for Sylhet, she carried two crates of oranges with her. This time she handed over one before she was even asked – and thus, a new tradition was born. Each year, when the officers saw her coming, they greeted her with a grin.

Malaya soon began to recognise them by their faces – especially the two who’d always tease her about how tall she was growing and give her sweets they’d hoarded especially for her. She had never seen grown men laugh this way: Her father never teased her and rarely even smiled. She began to look forward to these journeys even more. Those fifteen minutes of customs clearance became an annual exchange of mirth and little games with her “uncles” that left her overjoyed.

And then, 1965 came calling and the war with Pakistan put an end to the annual crossing.

It was in the winter of 1979, as a 29-year-old Malaya prepared for marriage, that the Dutta family made their last visit to the Sylhet home. This time, they didn’t carry a basket of oranges. The fruit-loving “uncles” were long gone. The new customs officers looked bored as they checked their papers and made them fill the forms as they grimly rifled through the luggage.

They collected their bags and crossed the border to make their way to the now nearly empty Bangla Batton house. It was the last time they went back home.

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