Chain Letters Across the Divided Borders

Farida Jamal

In the early 1950s, most people took the over land route when travelling from Uttar Pradesh to East Pakistan. The journey to Dhaka via Kolkata involved several train changes and a picturesque steamer ride on the mighty Padma river. When Kaniz Fatema Asar, aged twenty five, embarked on this arduous journey with her family and trusted domestic staff members, their baggage included huge cooking pots from her dowry, engraved with the name of her father, Shah Hayat Ahmed and a mysteriously heavy bistar band (beddings bag) in which her mother-in-law had wrapped a silbata ( grinding stone). In Dhaka, her elder sister, three brothers and their families were waiting to welcome her group. They were economic migrants, having left home to find better lives for themselves and their families. The post-partition landed gentry was going through a difficult period and migration had become an economic necessity.

Asa’s granddaughter Ayesha with her uncle Maulana Jalaluddin Abdul Mateen offering fateha for the first time at her ancestral graveyard in Rudauli, 1995

She soon settled down in her new home and was caught up with her growing and multiplying brood. Telephones (fixed lines) were still a luxury, and the siblings kept close, meeting often and conversing always in their native Purabi. Traditional festivals and fatehas continued to be observed. Any change in hand-me-down recipes for such events amounted to a sacrilege. They excelled in oral history, regularly and repeatedly referring to personal, familial and ancestral episodes. Such was their narrative skill that their children who had never met relatives from across the border developed special bonds of kinship with them. Places their children had never seen became real and dear, instilling a compelling desire in some to visit them and meet up with their relatives across the border. Any one with past connections was received with opened arms. In no time, they had established a support group including members of all possible and often useful professions. In the heart of old Dhaka, some one set up a hotel and a catering business. It became a meeting place for many old and newly arrived people. Someone started a mobile (on foot) library going from house to house, with a huge bag of Urdu novels on his shoulders. The books could be loaned for a small fee and exchanged weekly. Urs of certain pirs continued to be celebrated and sponsored by rich devotees, where qawals from across the border were invited to perform.

Cross border travel was common. The arrival of travelers either way was an exciting event. They were expected to update every one on the family members left behind, happenings and events, changing landscape at home and describe the highs and lows of their journey. The visitors were bombarded with questions. Among other things, travelers came bearing letters.

Letter writing became a family obligation, although some people were more regular and prolific. Documenting the mundane and the unexpected daily happenings, illnesses, marriages, births and deaths, children’s progress in school, successes and prize giving events, nothing was too trivial not to be written about. Family members from across the borders reciprocated with equal enthusiasm. Much of this vast body of human history still lies in trunks, boxes and cupboards until someone discovers them, termites destroy them or they are thrown away as waste paper when their owners pass on.

The postal system, a legacy of the Raj enabled the flow of letters to continue. It took about 10-12 days for the mail from UP to reach Dhaka. Written regularly, the letters became a chain of connectivity. While the postman’s visit was much awaited, telegrams were dreaded as they often brought bad news. The postman came on foot in a khaki uniform carrying a bag full of letters and parcels. He rarely had a chance to use the postbox, as the mail was almost grabbed off his hands. Apart from the official mail, a stream of travelers came along bearing letters. Even those who usually did not write, managed to send short notes through visitors. Photographs, a rare and much cherished commodity were usually sent by hand to avoid risk of loss during postage. Other popular items were greeting cards, often designed and made by the senders.

Major breakdown in postal system took place in 1965 and later from 1970 onwards. By 1971, mail service had almost stopped. With great difficulty, letters were sent via third countries and occasionally with chance travelers, both legal and illegal. A certain group of population had to leave the Eastern wing and move to West Pakistan, some leaving behind irreplaceable personal items. When some of the homes they had left were looted, surrounding areas were strewn with letters, papers and books. The recovery from this second move was often slow and painful. Letters and printed matters started coming to new addresses, and a younger generation of letter writers took over as older family members passed on. Asar and her siblings were now writing to their older nieces and nephews and their children, many of whom they had never met. She and her nephew, Shah Iqbal Ahmed had turned letter writing into a passion. Both left behind well catalogued and treasured collections of letters, hers mainly from family members, and his a much more diverse and bigger collection, spanning over more than fifty years, documenting the social history of a family now scattered around the globe.

The following are some excerpts from letters Iqbal wrote to his cousins:
Today we had Gur ke malida. How I wish you were here and I could get your favourite dishes prepared for you.

The fragrance from the mango trees is promising a rich fruiting seasons. Just a while ago mustard fields were in bloom, an amazingly exhilarating site. Spring is in the air and in Lucknow, two seminars were held on Josh Malihabadi while we in Rudauli are preparing to celebrate Majaz day. How I miss all of you!

And it goes on and on. As telecommunication improved and cell phones became common, letters became less frequent. People also started videoing events and journeys and sending them to each other. One such video of Iqbal has been uploaded on YouTube by his cousin Mahmood Jamal. Thanks to current technology, Iqbal can be seen reciting his poetry in a setting now changed beyond recognition.

In this era of instant, real time communication, it is hard to imagine what letters meant to past generations. Their slow and steady flow overcoming hurdles-natural and man made-was the binding force for separated loved ones. Painstakingly crafted, each letter was a private communication and every envelope a sanctified casing only to be opened by the addressee.

This kinship and continuing link largely based on correspondence among past generations makes their present descendants seek and recognize each other on Skype, Facebook and WhatsApp. How wonderful! And how saddening, because I know Asar would have passionately embraced and enjoyed the new technologies like she did, the cell phone. In the words of the family poet, her nephew Iqbal: I hear voices of those no longer with us / Whenever the moon rises, when fragrant flowers bloom…

(Published in The Lucknow Observer, Volume 2 Issue 17, Dated 05 August 2015)

Long lost cousins Urfi and Farida meet at Sanjay Gandhi School, Rudauli, 1992

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