A Family of Freedom Fighters

My husband, Bijoy Sharma, standing extreme right, with his family. Bamungaon, Assam. Circa 1942 

Image and Narrative points contributed by Gauri Devi, Assam

IMP Research Intern : Vaskar Mech, Tezpur, Assam

This is a photograph of my husband Bijoy Sharma as a teenager (standing extreme right) with his family, in their courtyard in Bamungaon village in present day Assam (Bamun means Brahmin in Assamese). It shows his parents, uncles and aunts, their children and his seven siblings. My husband’s father (my father-in-law), Kamalakanta Sharma (seated, middle) was a Mouzadar (Tax collector, Revenue department). He wears an eri sador (cloth made of eri silk) draped over his shoulders that was worn by men of high social standing and the women’s heads are covered with uroni. According to our tradition, only newly married women veiled their entire face with an uroni. The photograph was most likely taken by a person who lived in the neighbourhood and I remember he practised photography. 

My husband Bijoy was born in 1926, which would situate the time of the image roughly around 1942 and around revolutionary events such as the Quit India Movement during the Indian Subcontinent’s fight for freedom. When this photograph was taken, Bijoy was just a 15-year-old high school boy, in class 8, and he was also a participant in the freedom struggle and consequentially serving time in prison for months at a time.

It is unusual to see Bijoy clothed in a North Indian Dhoti (loose drape pants) because most young boys his age wore half pants. Apparently he had begun to dress like an adult to display his commitment to the independence struggle; perhaps he felt that serious work required an adult attire. And he was not alone in his commitment – several leaders of the Independence movement had recruited large numbers of young boys to act as secret messengers to deliver letters in nearby towns and villages. Whenever the policemen came around on suspicion and to arrest Bijoy (they would come around often) his proud mother Pareshwari Devi would instruct Bijoy – “If you sign any police papers for an early release, do not come back to this house”.

While the photograph here is of my husband’s family, it holds many personal memories of my own life too. I was born in Baligaon, Jorhat District, in 1937 and came from the family of BA Jagannath Baruah, famously known as ‘BA Jagannath’ because he was the first BA (Bachelor of Arts) in Assam. My father Muralidhar Baruah served as a school Sub-Inspector in the Education department and was an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi. To commit to the independence movement, he gave up his British Raj job, set up a school with the help of family and friends and began teaching. My mother Ratanti Baruah spent her life looking after us, and the household – but little did people know how much more exceptional she was. My mother wasn’t formally educated, but she loved reading (an interest I inherited), despite her mother-in-law’s disapproval. She secretly became a member at the Jorhat District library and borrowed books with her brother-in-law’s help. Interestingly, her mother-in-law (my grandmother) was quite proactive in the freedom struggle- and would attend all kinds of meetings and processions. When the police came charging with batons, she was good at slipping out unnoticed. 

People like my maternal family and in-laws had begun to take up Gandhi’s call for Independence en-masse. Foreign-made clothes were given up- Cotton was grown and woven into cloth locally.. Almost all Assamese households owned a hand-loom and we were taught to spin thread, make fabric, and stitch our own clothes. At one point, we were even taught to make a spinning wheel out of bamboo and a metal ring at home- though I could never manage constructing one. My maternal home was a thriving center of freedom related activities, with meetings, protests and marches being planned round the clock. I remember, once our home was raided by the police and we watched them confiscating things of great value. It did not bother my father until he watched them taking our cows away and that hurt him deeply. Several weeks later, the cows were returned, albeit malnourished and reduced to skin and bones – my father then dedicated weeks nursing them back to good health.

When I was in class 6, on August 15, 1950 the north eastern part of the subcontinent experienced a most disastrous earthquake, that came to be known as the Assam–Tibet earthquake. River beds shifted, schools of fish were jolted out of rivers and ponds into our backyards, thousands of people and animals perished, dangerous crevices formed on highways and all communications came to a halt – It was terrifying. Miraculously, our home remained relatively undamaged. I remember the next day on August 16, I had my half-yearly exams and was about to leave for school, when my father asked – “Where do you think you are going?’.  The school too had collapsed to rubble and thus there were no exams. No examinations was indeed good news, but a school-in-ruins was not, because I loved studying. Nonetheless, when the dust settled, we were accommodated in another school nearby.

I had harboured dreams of higher studies – of studying in college, but my dreams were never realised. I had barely passed 10th (my matriculation), when I married Bijoy in 1955, as an arranged match by our families. I remember I had a tough time getting used to that uroni, because as a newlywed I had to cover my whole face and I would keep bumping into walls or tripping over. As a daughter-in-law of a household from a different era, I too surrendered my personal dreams and ambitions, and learnt to compromise. I placed the happiness and care of my family first which was also a good goal to have. 

In 1962, at the time of the Chinese Aggression, I was a mother of a four-year-old and a 11-day-old baby, and had just returned home from the District Civil Hospital after delivery. Everyone knew that the Chinese Army (PLA) was barely 50 kms away and Tezpur was going to be attacked any day. While many began to flee, my family dug their heels in and decided to stay. But then orders for evacuating Tezpur arrived and the little calm town descended into utter chaos. Prison inmates from jail, and resident patients in mental institutions were let loose. The Tezpur State Bank burnt its currency and dumped the coins in the nearby pond. The queue at the river banks to get the next ferry was about two kms long. When the Civil Hospital doctors abandoned their patients and fled, my brother-in-law, Dr. Ananda Sharma, who was doing his Post graduation in medical science, rushed back and took charge of the hospital. I hold him in very high regard for that action. 

Just when we were plotting our way out of Tezpur, my other brother-in-law, Bijoy Bhagawati (later a Congress leader, and Padma Bhushan awardee, 1992) came to our aide and arranged a truck to take us and our neighbours to our paam (farm land) 24 kms away, and we remained at the paam until ceasefire was declared in November of 1962. While we constantly feared the worst, we also celebrated our lives and families as much as we could – we cooked together, sang, danced and many plays were performed. The Chinese army never set foot in Tezpur. 

In the 1970s, when my husband Bijoy became an MLA, he began to live in Guwahati. I could not stay there for more than a month or two at a time because post the deaths of my husband’s parents and our elder sister-in-law, I had to shoulder the responsibilities of our home back in Tezpur, and care for my sister-in-law’s surviving children. 

A long story short, our families have survived terrifying times, and have led quite an interesting life, and while I still feel disappointed that I could not pursue higher education, the sadness is healed with the fact that both my daughters completed their graduation. It pleases me immensely that one went on to pursue her Masters, and the other one is an excellent teacher at a school. Perhaps some dreams can only be fulfilled through our future generations.

The addition of this Photo-Narrative to the archive has been made possible due to the generous consideration towards Research Internships by Nazar Foundation, New Delhi.

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