Tales of broken lands
7 March 2016
Armenia, Syria, Bengal – the locations may change, but the unfulfilled longing for a home that is lost remains the same.
As she peered at the old photograph, the elderly Armenian woman could not hold back her emotions. She clasped her hands together, muttering and shaking her head in disbelief. The photograph depicted children standing in a row on a stage, perhaps for a school performance. Tears rolled down her cheeks, as she stroked the glass that protected the photograph, her fingers seeking out a little girl in a bonnet.
The photograph was taken in 1932 and was part of an exhibition collection called ‘Armenia 1915 Centenary of the Genocide’, displayed at the Paris City Hall in May 2015. Anna, the elderly woman, like other Armenians, had come to see the exhibition commemorating the anniversary of the Armenian genocide, a key event in the history of the 20th century. She had fled Armenia in West Asia as a child along with thousands of people in the wake of the violence unleashed by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire and had grown up in refugee camps in France. Now in her 80s, Anna recognised the little girl in the bonnet. “That’s me!” Anna exclaimed and dragged her daughter to show her the photograph. Both were pleased that an Indian showed interest in the exhibits and posed for a photograph with ready smiles.
My interest stemmed from the fact that a few thousand Armenians had escaped to India during the period; at least 2000 of them ended up in Kolkata. Since colonial times, the city was a thriving cosmopolitan business hub attracting communities from all over the world. During the 19th century, Kolkata had been broadly divided into the British ‘White Town’ and the Bengali ‘Black Town’. The Jews, Chinese, Greeks, Parsis, Armenians and the Portuguese lived in pockets between these segregated spaces, peacefully co-existing with the local populace. The sacred flame of the Parsis’ Zoroastrian fire temple continues to burn since 1912 in central Kolkata, sharing street space with the Aga Khan Jamatkhana, where people from the Ismaili community gather to pray. Unlike in the rest of Europe, the Jewish community were not persecuted in India, and so their numbers grew in Kolkata during World War II. As far back as the 18th century, the Baghdadi Jews came as traders and settled in the port cities, including Kolkata, and advanced their social and economic ambitions. Each of these immigrant communities thrived and started their own schools, places of worship and even newspapers.
Our elders would have on how the Armenians were a wealthy business community, comprising mostly of merchants and builders, who “owned more than half of Park Street”
While growing up in Kolkata during the 1960s and 1970s, Bengalis interacted sporadically with immigrant communities like the Armenians, Jews, Parsis and Chinese. But these interactions were limited to buying confectionary from the Jewish bakery Nahoum and Sons, tucking into dinners at the fabled Fatty Mama’s Chinese dhaba or buying personalised handmade high heels after getting our feet measured at Li’s in Bentinck Street in central Kolkata. I did not have any Armenian friends. As children, the closest we got to the Armenian community was when we peeped through the high iron gates of the Armenian school tucked away in Free School Street, off the fashionable Park Street. We could only catch a glimpse of the sprawling playground within the compound, and we used to plot about how to sneak in. We would eavesdrop on casual conversations our elders would have on how the Armenians were a wealthy business community, comprising mostly of merchants and builders, who “owned more than half of Park Street”. We learnt that the posh parts of Park Street that housed the restaurants and night clubs, forbidden to us even as teenagers, and majestic buildings like Park Mansions and Stephen Court were built by Armenians. There were stories galore of their wealth, real or imaginary, deposited in Hong Kong banks and how they took care of their own people. We would fantasise about becoming friends with a generous Armenian who would treat us to sumptuous cakes and chocolates from the famed Flury’s cafe.
Later, we discovered that Kolkata’s ties with the Armenians are even more deep-rooted than we imagined – the city owes its ‘existence’ to them. The Armenians are said to be the first settlers in the area now known as Kolkata, long before Job Charnock of the British East India Company set foot on the banks of the River Ganga in 1690, upsetting the long-held belief about the ‘birth’ of Kolkata. The tomb of an Armenian woman located in Church of Nazareth on Armenian Street in central Kolkata reveals she died a full 60 years before the arrival of Charnock, the ‘official’ founder of the city. The inscription reads: “This is the tomb of Rezabebeebeh, wife of the late Charitable Sookias, who departed from the world to life eternal on 11 July 1630.”
The first time I met an Armenian was in the late 1980s when, as a reporter, I decided to do an article about them. The few I met were all ageing, deeply fond of the city and nostalgic about the times gone by. I remember meeting a kind and humorous elderly gentleman who was living with an equally old Jewish man. He joked about their living arrangements – where else would I find a Jew and a Christian caring for each other! There were couples at the old people’s homes who recalled flowing silk gowns and dancing in grand halls under chandeliers and about how they were now taken care of by their own people. Their only complaint was loneliness, since thousands had left the city for better opportunities.
This pattern of exodus, where many foreign-origin families and Anglo-Indians immigrated to other countries, was noticeable following India’s Independence in 1947. Thousands of mixed-race Anglo-Indians faced an identity crisis and uncertainty when the British left the country. From the 1950s, armed with British passports, they migrated in large numbers to the Commonwealth countries of Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Many Jews left in pursuit of their new homeland, Israel. The relationship with the Chinese community soured considerably when thousands were interred in camps set up in Rajasthan’s desert during the one-month border conflict with China in 1962. Though the Chinese in India had become Indian citizens, they were suspected of being spies and were detained without trials; many left dejected for Canada and Australia. The Indian state, till date, has never apologised for the excesses committed at the time. The Armenians left around 1992, when Armenia became an independent country. Today, only a handful of them remain in Kolkata.
The word “Armenian” caught my attention one afternoon and led me to the exhibition on genocide. The exhibition, co-hosted by the Nubar Library, Paris, and the Armenian Genocide Museum, had rare documents and photographs depicting acts of violence and its consequences on the Armenian people. These included reports by diplomatic officials, eyewitness testimonies by missionaries, memoirs and oral histories of survivors. There were also hundreds of photographs by both Armenian and foreign photographers showing how civilians were subjected to forced labour.
Men, women and children were forced to march across the vast and bleak Syrian desert. Thousands perished along the way from exhaustion and starvation. The pictures of mass graves and concentration camps bring home the magnitude of this humanitarian disaster. By the early 1920s, it is estimated that 1.5 million Armenians from east Turkey had died. The most horrifying exhibits in the collection were the black and white photographs featuring gaunt-faced refugees, clutching their meagre belongings, waiting to be deported; corpses and homes left in careless heaps after the massacre in the Adana province in 1909, where an estimated 30,000 Armenians were reported killed; and grim-faced children, in the convoys of deportees, who marched for days under the searing sun to seek shelter in the camps of Aleppo, now in Syria.
Since 2011, Syria that once sheltered the fleeing Armenians, has now become the centre of the bitter battle between the Syrian government, Islamic State and rebel groups. The fratricidal war for control, where chemical bombs are used, is further complicated by the interference of Western powers and their support to authoritarian regimes in the region. This has been to the detriment of progressive forces in the region, making it even more formidable to find local solutions for the challenges posed by fundamentalists groups. An estimated 11 million Syrians have been displaced, with thousands finding refuge in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The ‘luckier’ ones are smuggled into Europe on leaky boats, while many have perished in the sea. By mid-2015, according to the UN, more than 250,000 people had died in the conflict and this number is rising. What began as the Arab Spring – the anti-government protests for change – has been reduced to a bitter proxy civil war, killing hopes for a peaceful solution. As winter closed in, so did the borders of several countries to Syrian refugees. Hungary and Croatia erected barbed wires to push back the desperate surge of asylum seekers fleeing the war. Several European countries refused to take in refugees, leaving the major burden of providing shelter and resources to Germany. People in Germany opened up their hearts and their homes, and the German Chancellor Angel Merkel urged the country to stand up to the crisis. But rightwing forces are re grouping, attacking refugee homes and business, terrifying the already-traumatised populace by drumming up an atmosphere of Islamaphobia.
Violence, prompted by religious sentiments, was similarly unleashed a hundred years ago by the Turkish Muslim leaders of the Ottoman Empire, who viewed the Christian Armenian population as a threat. The Turkish government granted Armenians and other religious minorities some autonomy, but subjected them to higher taxes than the Muslim majority giving them very few political and legal rights. With the intensification of World War I, the Turks viewed the Armenians as traitors for aiding the Russians against the country. The military leaders of the ‘Young Turks’ movement therefore planned the ‘removal’ of Armenians, who were, at the time, organising themselves politically to question their second-class status in the country.
Even as NATO woos Armenia aggressively as the eastern frontier in Europe against Russian ‘expansion’, most Western powers are still reluctant to use the term ‘genocide’ since Turkey is an important ally in the region as well
Historians continue to be divided on whether the term ‘genocide’ can be applied to the Armenian killings in 1915. The word ‘genocide’ was first coined after World War II in 1943 by the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who himself cited Armenia’s case as an example. But political debates continue about whether the mass deaths were systematic, organised and premeditated enough to be termed the ‘1915 Armenian genocide’. For example, the term is not used to refer to the events during the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Instead, it is seen as the fallout of a civil war-like situation. However, the planned military operation that targeted civilians in erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, is referred to as the ‘1971 Bangladesh genocide’, where the Pakistani military killed and raped thousands. The semantic confusion around the terminology used for the 1915 events arises primarily because Turkey argues that the killings occurred as a result of the civil war and that it was not a pre-planned purge. Backing this stand, the Turkish government recalled its ambassador in April 2015 from the Vatican, when the Pope claimed the “first genocide” of the 20th century was Armenia. Friends in Turkey tell me it is still illegal to talk about 1915.
Armenia, a tiny landlocked country in south Caucasus, is enormously strategic in the larger framework of the region’s geopolitics. Armenia struggles with its identity crisis, not knowing whether to belong to the east or the west; to the NATO powers or Russia, on whom it depends on for energy and gas. Even as NATO woos Armenia aggressively as the eastern frontier in Europe against Russian ‘expansion’, most Western powers are still reluctant to use the term ‘genocide’ since Turkey is an important ally in the region as well. Interestingly, though Turkey is a member of NATO, the country is not included in the European Union. Political observers say that its Islamic historic and cultural trajectory is ‘too foreign’ in the context of experiences like the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment that unite the countries in the European Union. In 2014, Turkey offered its “condolences” for the deportations, a gesture towards the process of healing, say observers.
What emerged through the exhibits was that the deaths were orchestrated in phases. The 1909 Adana massacre was a preview of the horrors to come six years later. When intellectuals were rounded up and executed on 24 April 1915, it was the ‘official’ start of the Armenian genocide. There were pictures of these slain intellectuals in the exhibition, with brief narratives. The one that stands out in my memory is that of the influential lawyer who dined with his ‘friend’, a senior officer, the night before the planned executions. Instead of warning the lawyer, the officer had him murdered. After these executions, till 1918, thousands of male conscripts were killed, while women and children were deported and imprisoned in concentration camps. At the exhibition, 80-year-old Kossayan Veronique described to me in French and broken English, how her pregnant mother had walked for days in a convoy till she nearly dropped dead, and how other marchers, who were equally thirsty and exhausted, helped and egged her on. “It was a nightmare, a nightmare”, repeated Veronique, shaking her head. “No, no, never again!”, said Helene, 83 years old, visibly shaken by the images on view. She added that her mother would weep whenever she spoke of her experience of leaving her village and until her death, “longed to be in Turkei again”. The women moved eagerly from one photograph to another, as if looking for someone, a familiar face or a place.
The exhibits and the experiences shared by the Armenian visitors immediately evoked in my mind the stories about the Partition of 1947 after India’s Independence. The messy exit of the British after 300 years of rule in the Indian subcontinent, left in its wake a legacy of unprecedented sectarian violence and the carving of two independent states, India and Pakistan. The Hindus and Muslims had lived till then on relatively amicable terms; what followed was unimaginable carnage. More than an estimated one million were killed on both sides of the border, while thousands of women were raped and 15 million people displaced; the greatest migration in recorded human history. The historical context of Armenia was radically different from the Partition that remains a lingering memory in the Subcontinent. But in both instances, the displacement of millions of people because of religious conflict caused feelings of immense loss and trauma that continue to haunt generations of families.
The exhibits and the experiences shared by the Armenian visitors immediately evoked in my mind the stories about the Partition of 1947 after India’s Independence.
My father’s family moved strategically to Calcutta, now Kolkata, in the early 1940s, just before the Partition, from Barisal in undivided Bengal. In 1947, Barisal became a part of East Pakistan’s territory, which is now in Bangladesh. My paternal grandfather, a scholar of Vaishnavism, managed to carve out a comfortable living by leading the operations of the Life Insurance Corporation in Kolkata. The money he earned was enough to maintain a family with 11 children, help out members of the extended family and assist freedom fighters. He was closely associated and influenced by intellectuals like Rabindranath Tagore and barrister Chittaranjan Das, the founder of the Swaraj party, and the many freedom fighters who sought shelter in our ancestral home. His third son, my uncle, became a freedom fighter too, who lost his eyesight when he was imprisoned. Even as a five year old, I sensed he was special. Our father always spoke about his elder brother with deep respect. My awe for him grew when he would call out to me affectionately, “Darkie? Are you there?”, knowing immediately when I was in a room watching him, even if I stood still holding my breath.
Like my paternal grandfather, many rich and middle-class Bengali Hindus leveraged their links in Kolkata to start a new life and home. Workers and peasants, on the other hand, were thrown into refugee camps or left to fend for themselves. And then there were people like my maternal grandfather, a middle-level zamindar, who never truly severed his deep-rooted ties to his ancestral land. At first, my maternal grandfather refused to move to India and believed, like many others, that the political situation would improve. He had married off his eldest daughter, my mother before the Partition in Kolkata. When the first incidents of communal violence were reported, he packed off the rest of his family of eight children with my grandmother to Kolkata, while remaining in his beloved Sherpur in Mymensing.
The February riots broke out in 1950 in some parts of East Pakistan and then, in 1952, the passport and visa system was instituted between East Pakistan and India. Fears arose that people would no longer be allowed to cross the border without clearly indicating which citizenship they had finally chosen, with the proper papers to prove it. My maternal grandfather was finally persuaded to move. But, even then, he clung on to the belief that he would one day return to his ‘sonar Bangla’ (golden Bengal) and to the people he loved and who loved him in return. In the early days, when the eastern borders were not so rigidly guarded, people would move across the borders. We heard stories of how my grandfather would visit his land, meet his neighbours, and discuss the harvest or when it was safe to move back. His Muslim neighbours and tenants on his land would welcome him warmly, give him his ‘share’ of produce and he would return to Kolkata a happy man, with fresh vegetables and rice from his fields, rejuvenated till his next visit to opar Bangla (‘across the border’ Bengal).
After 1958, once the border controls became effective and his land was appropriated by the government and redistributed to peasants, our maternal grandfather and his family was pauperised. Thousands of refugees like them had by then flocked to the eastern parts of Kolkata, where they began living in refugee settlements and colonies or built mud huts or makeshift homes covered with plastic sheets and tarpaulin, sharing common latrine spaces with neighbours and relatives. He died soon after, sometime in the early 1960s. My mother maintains that he died of a broken heart. My grandfather yearned to return to “opar Bangla, my desh”, and so did my parents. During 1971, when Bangladesh was created, breaking away from Pakistan, my father and his friends were determined to join the Mukti Bahini army to help build the fledgling nation, so deep were their roots.
As a child, I sensed there was something ‘different’ about our maternal grandparents’ home in Bijoygarh, located on the outskirts of Kolkata at the time. I would wonder why my mother would wince in embarrassment when my sister and I demanded spicy singaras from our doting young aunts and uncles, and didn’t quite understand my grandmother’s eternal lament about us “poor little ones” having to play by lantern light and navigate the common bathroom in the dark. We were dearly loved and had our fun – as children, that was all that mattered. The excitement of going to mamar bari would begin at home with our mother stuffing two huge plastic baskets full of cooked food and clothes. We felt like we were going on a picnic or a holiday. Except it wasn’t. The food and clothes were left at my grandparents’ home and we would return home with empty baskets – this one-sided exchange was something I never quite understood until I grew up. My mother, when she said her goodbyes, would quietly slip something into my grandfather’s palm or tuck it into his kurta pocket; all my tantrums and pleadings to allow me to share her secret would be met with a stern, “Behave yourself.” One day, I forced open my grandfather’s palm to see what my mother gave him at the end of every visit. It was a small wad of folded notes. Disappointed that it was money and not a toy, I lost interest, only to realise the implications years later. On another visit, I witnessed my mother in tears shouting at my grandfather, “Why did you do this? Why did you do this to my sisters? Why didn’t you ask me?” Upset at my mother, I dragged her away, crying and beating her all the time, imploring her not to fight with my grandfather. My grandfather stood silently with his head down, murmuring, “Forgive me, forgive me.”
Many years later, when I confronted my mother about it, she was surprised I remembered the episode so vividly. She said that my grandfather found it difficult to look after and feed the large family. His solution was to arrange marriages for my two eldest aunts. But he could not find suitable grooms who would not demand too much for the wedding. As a result, one aunt was married off to a man almost twice her age, and the other to a man who was semi-employed.
There was jubilation when my eldest uncle got a job as a teacher in the local school. The family situation changed and there was a feeling of hope. During his marriage, his only demand was not for dowry but a request that his wife should work. My mami became the first working woman in the family, followed by my younger unmarried aunts, breaking social taboos and norms as women for the first time stepped out into the world to earn a living. Since then the settlements of Bijoygarh and the surrounding areas have become concrete structures and many of the streets there now have high rises and shopping zones.
Unlike the previous generation who had to deal with the deprivations caused by the Partition, I have had a privileged life, travelling for pleasure and work, rather than to escape violence or persecution. But of all my trips, it was my first visit to Bangladesh in 1980s that got my mother all worked up into a frenzy of excitement. “Go and see if in Sherpur our pukur (pond) is still full of water and the tamarind tree stands close by. Give Jamal da and his family my love and ask them if they remember me,” she said. Her longing for opar Bangla had not died even after all the intervening years in Kolkata.
In the spacious exhibition room in the Town Hall, Hotel de Ville, Paris, I witnessed similar longing for a time caught somewhere in the fragile web of memories; a time before religious identities had torn asunder people, homes and lands. I spotted a smartly dressed woman in her 60s, her face troubled, looking intently at the pictures of the Armenian camps in Aleppo, which was a part of the Ottoman Empire till 1918, and is now the largest city in Syria. An ancient historical site, it lies at the crossroads of old trade routes, where multiple communities have left their marks on the rich culture and diverse architecture of the region. In 1915, Aleppo had provided shelter to thousands of fleeing Armenians. “My father grew up in a camp in Aleppo. For the first time I now understand why he never wanted to speak to us about those days,” said 60-year-old Michelin quietly, without looking at me. She was making sense of the silences – what her father had left unsaid – just as I had done all my adult life, piecing together what my grandfathers and parents had gone through during the Partition and after. The exhibits were Michelin’s clues, scattered across the walls, shaped by memory.
A hundred years after the Armenian genocide, in a cruel twist of fate – Allepo in Syria, that once sheltered the homeless Armenians, is facing its own humanitarian crisis
Michelin and I stood in silence, looking at the pictures of camps built from scratch in the desolate desert; at the rows of gaunt-faced children in tattered clothes and the women in makeshift shelters in the windy, bleak terrain. Michelin’s father, a 12-year-old boy at the time, was later deported to France, where he changed his surname name to Gucrand and joined the foreign service to become a senior diplomat. “Though he tried his best, he could never get a posting in Turkey,” she told me. Michelin looked over and over again at the photographs of the children in Aleppo, searching intently for her father’s face. Though I felt an overwhelming desire to reach out to hold her hand, I didn’t want to break her thoughts, so intimate and intense. We were two complete strangers past our middle age thrown unexpectedly together from two different parts of the world and cultures; but at that moment I felt bonded to her by our memories and inherited experiences of a homeland left behind by our families.
Suddenly, Michelin turns around and looks straight at me, “Do you know they are now bombing Aleppo….?” As much as we may attempt to exorcise our past, history has uncanny ways of remaining stuck. And so, a hundred years after the Armenian genocide, in a cruel twist of fate – Allepo in Syria, that once sheltered the homeless Armenians, is facing its own humanitarian crisis. Michelin and I silently go our separate ways shaken by imageries of people fleeing the city as millions face death, displacement and violence. I cannot escape the despair in her voice, which echoes in my heart.
~Rajashri Dasgupta is an independent journalist and researcher, based in Kolkata.