Supriyo Sen’s Way Back Home (2003) , winner of the BBC Audience Award, Golden Conch at MIFF, National Award and BFJA Award, chronicles a family’s journey from Kolkata to Bangladesh, a land they were forced to flee in the aftermath of the partition of India. The two hour documentary, dedicated to the minorities and refugees of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, is divided into two parts – Way Back Home and Imaginary Homeland. The protagonists of this film are the filmmaker’s elderly parents who undertake this journey to Bangladesh with a desire to reconnect with their past.
The partition of India involved the forced migration of approximately 12 million people who crossed borders to their newly identified homes in India and East and West Pakistan; cost about 1 million lives in riots and resulted in the abduction of nearly 75,000 women. Partition is remembered as a time of considerable speculation, sadness, anger and trauma and also as a time of subsistence and victory over tremendous personal and material losses. As opposed to portraying partition as a grand narrative of violence, the film instead reveals the responses of two partitioned subjects to the episodes during and immediately after the partition. The Bengali name of Sen’s documentary is taken from Jibanananda Das’s poem of the same name, “Abar ashibo phirey“, a line that is fervently embedded into the Bengali psyche.
The wife desires to be reunited with a cousin, who had been virtually abandoned by her family because she defied customs and married a Muslim. After fifty long years, her anxious queries lead her to discover that the latter had passed away the previous year. Tears well up in her eyes as she recollects with remarkable vividness and detail, the harrowing conditions under which they stole away from their village in the middle of the night without food and belongings, crossing borders in an attempt to flee persecution. The film however does not exploit the archives of memory only to explore the life of violence. It also looks back to a life of communal togetherness. It seeks to counter narratives which tend to supress the terrible human experiences and valourise the illustrious achievements of the nation and its leaders. By undertaking a scrupulous questioning of the dictum of official narratives, the film strives to construct memories of a history that resonates with those, whose stories remain outside the jurisdiction of official history.
For the most part, Way Back Home can be characterized as a narrative of memory using first person narration to evoke a past time through subjective remembering. While standing in the terrace of her house in Kolkata, the city that she now calls home, the wife laments,”(I) always felt like I have lost everything. That ambience and the people who made it. Everything was missing here.” Being partition refugees, the husband and wife manifest a recurring dilemma that stems from their anticipation of being unable to relate to their homeland as it has – in all probability – altered beyond recognition.
Fifty six years after the partition, the son follows his parents to Bangladesh, in search of his ancestral homeland, a land that he has heard of only in stories. He has grown up with overwhelming inherited memories, whose effects have continued into the present, defying narrative reconstruction and exceeding comprehension. He goes on to narrate,
“As I was born in a refugee family, I grew up with a quest for our lost homeland. I grew up with the dreams of rivers and canals and wide open fields described by my parents. For me, this journey from Calcutta to Barisal after fifty years, was not a mere geographical coverage. I wanted to reconstruct the lost land by going down memory lane.”
After crossing the border, the car speeds through the roads of Bangladesh. In the dark of the night, the narration continues in a distinct optimistic vein :
“We are moving, still moving forward because the world is not cordoned off, all advances are not agression; all valour do not reflect perfect murder. We are moving because there is yet space where crops abound, roots and fruits, intimate shadows of trees flourish. Evergreen hands and hearts, reach out in spring-like rhythm, containing the ancient rituals of love and friendship. Today my parents are returning to their home, following the same route, which they had taken fifty years ago while fleeing for their lives. There were no comebacks in between. It took half a century to make this 10-12 hours journey. This is a voyage to the abandoned homeland, a journey to the forgotten history.”
Remarkable also is the background score that pervades the film at crucial junctures. The lyrics beautifully echo the central theme of the narrative:“
“As I sing the song of homecoming a restlessness fills me up / I am rotting in a foreign land but the ties never leave me / But there are no comebacks even if you wish / I long for my little village, the shadow of the Banyan tree, the quaint river front, the whispering breeze / I still search for that land in dreams and hallucinations / But guess childhood can’t be revisited / The path is lost, the land is lost.”
As the family return back to Kolkata, the son observes, “অতীত এখন কাটাতারে ঘেরা বিদেশ রাষ্ট্র” (“the past has now been reduced to a foreign land cordoned off by barbed wires”).
Although the film mentions in passing, the bloodbaths and communal riots unleashed by the partition, the interrelationship between history and memory becomes the bone of contention. James Baldwin had once remarked, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” History makes several futures possible but ultimately only one particular future gets realised and we stick to it. But we hold on to the promises of the unrealized possibilities and try to figure out other ways of living them. The film takes the form of a poignant exploration of how history and memory remain entangled.
The history of partition lays great emphasis on the political developments that led to it. Sen however insists on the human dimension of this history, which has otherwise been shifted to the margin : “The partition was not just about the Nehrus and the Jinnahs. It was about people like my parents who had to forget their own identity and remain dissolved in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the city.” More than any other incident in modern India, partition still lives on in so many people’s lives and in that sense, Way Back Home attempts to and quite successfully embodies that palpable reality.