A foreign student in an American graduate school is like the proverbial American apple pie. Meaning that such students are very common. As a newly arriving student I had a vague knowledge about it but was not aware of the big impact it had had on the school administration. All the schools that admit such foreign students would normally have a department dealing with them. Usually called the foreign students office, the director would be a compassionate person, aware of the emotional trauma and the social and cultural adjustments that such freshly arriving students go through. And the duty of the folks working there is to take them through the initial phase of the students’ settlement. And it was there that I met a group of students from south Asia. And among them was Meghna, a girl from Bangladesh. Being a Bengali myself and originating from that side of the partitioned border, I could not avoid noticing her.
Reserved but friendly, she was a volunteer in the foreign student office, helping students from that part of the world. I also learned that she was a Muslim. Initially I had this feeling that though she was a Muslim, she sported a Hindu name. As if the Bengali names belonged to the Hindus only. During our youth, though, only Bengali Hindus had Bengali names, and Muslims, though they were Bengalis, had to have, and usually had, Arabic names. To my upbringing, then, an official Bengali name for a Muslim appeared unusual and begged cultural questions. But I was aware that it was the same people from East Bengal, who took bullets for the Bengali language and in my subconscious I have this enduring respect for their sacrifice.
Beside being from a different religion, Meghna was also senior to me. I heard about her story from some of her friends. And this should be a common story of that part of the world. During the 1970 liberation war of Bangladesh, to escape from the brutal occupying soldiers, she was hiding in a pond, her body immersed under the water and keeping her nose only above the water behind water hyacinth. But she was eventually detected, captured and taken to the military cantonment. She described that all the men and women she saw were tortured and that many girls she knew were raped by the soldiers. Being aware of what happened during that time, we took it for granted that she was also raped. How could we believe that the other girls were raped but not her? Beside who would admit that she herself was raped? It was a conclusion we accepted without much hesitation and agreed through our suggestive look at each other. But we never expressed it in words. And thus she became a girl to be friendly with but would not be someone to form a close relationship with.
That year, one day during the summer break some friends invited me to go see a movie about Kolkata in a nearby civic auditorium. I did not know what it was about or who were the actors. But it was directed by a French director, I came to know. Away from the hot summer noon, we went to the auditorium and in the dim light saw many other viewers. Most of them were older white folks. Then when the movie started, I was shocked to see the pictures from the Sealdah station showing rows upon rows of crowd moving along the street. I thought I knew many of the streets and the scenes. But I never saw them the way it was being shown in the movie. The way the beggars were shown, as if hours on, looked tormenting to me. I heard that following the partition of the country in 1947, well before I was born, my family had to flee our ancestral home and take shelter in Kolkata. They had to live on the station platform for several weeks before they could move to a rental house. I felt that the subjects shown in the movie might have been my unknown relatives. It was painful. I felt hurt. I could not take it any more. In the half darkness of the movie hall, sad and ashamed, I silently left. And I got a view of India through the western lenses and realized how the people here constructed their ideas about that country.
With us in the class was Donald Devlin, the white American graduate student with a thin malnourished frame and a freckled face. He had a thin blond moustache and a tired smile. Between the white American and the foreign non-white students, there was this big difference that they had their family and friends in this country, but secondarily, most of them were also married or had their girl friends. And most foreign students were not. Donald was however a step ahead of his countrymen. Not only was he married, he was divorced from his wife as well. We felt he was quiet and aloof.
Then one day we heard that Don was hanging out with Meghna. It was quite a surprise to the students from that subcontinent. Beneath it all, though, we felt good for Meghna, because we realized that probably no south Asian male would be willing to marry her. But there was this uncertainty as well, that there was no guarantee that this relationship with a western man would survive. After living in this country for many decades and having relations with western people, this cultural cross current has been a constant anxiety. But who was there to say no to their relationship? Don was going through the painful divorce and Meghna must had been worried about her own circumstances. We accepted the relationship with some hesitation, although none of them ask for our opinions. Then one day, we called them for tea. Don looked happy and cheery. He was calling Meghna as Meg, a sign that they had a sweet and close relationship. We had snacks and tea and told Don about the culture of our part of the world. And we enquired if he has learnt any Bengali language from Meghna. “Yaw,” replied Don. He waited for a minute to remember the line he has learned and then, without slightest hesitation, he said, “Kapor kholo (take off your clothes).”
We, the good students that we were, were stunned. And were very embarrassed in front of blushed Meghna, who looked just as uncomfortable. But, under his blond thin moustache, Don wore a sweet sly smile. Before the year was over, Don quit the school and accepted a job offer from a oil company in Texas. And before he left the town, he married Meghna; his Meg. They invited us for the reception. It was in a Japanese restaurant – for there was no south Asian eatery we knew nearby at that time. And Meghna’s friends played songs in the sound system. One well known Bengali song stuck out. I remembered it for another reason: nearly a decade ago, it was also one of the songs being played somewhere near the Kolkata central jail, where as a political detainee, I was reading how the military was committing atrocities against the innocent east Bengali population. I did not have any inkling then that the geopolitics of the region would change soon. And in the merriment of the wedding reception for Meghna and Don that day, in a faraway college town in America, I could feel the flow of history through my vein.