"The things we carry with us"

(a photographic essay)



My grandparents were displaced as children when the province of Bengal was partitioned and became part of two different nations, overnight. The partition resulted from the communal divide between the Hindus and the Muslims, which was strategically manufactured by the Brits, with their divide and rule policy.
What my grandparents saw, and experienced was never discussed openly. Although my grandfather would reminisce his memories of Bangladesh, my grandmother, when asked, would get annoyed and change the subject. This turned briefly when she had dementia, now she would name her village, or tell me that she used to swim in the pond that was on their property, albeit in broken words.
What I gathered of their stories; were bits told by my mother, things such as my grandfather losing his mother to starvation, my grandmother spending time at a camp, murder of her uncle when the communal violence erupted, among many other such stories.
It was only now that I understood how triggering those memories might have been for my grandmother who never spoke of her childhood.

Mamoni's (Grandmother) Saree

Photograph of me and Mamoni (Grandmother)

I remember sitting at the dining table in the middle of the night, while a pool of tears formed in front of me. I was 15 at the time, and my grandmother was threatening to throw me out of the house.
For a big part of my life she was my prime caregiver, somedays she would bring me fruits, tell me to study and become an independent woman, and then somedays I would face the consequences of her disappointment in me, which was always looming.
I wanted nothing more but to escape, and so when I left home for a degree at the age of 16, I never went back.
In 2018, when I decided to visit her, within days I had stopped talking to her, and as I left for Canada, she stood there crying. This would be the last time I would see her in person.
There were moments of joy too, growing up her laugh would make an entire bed shake, and we would join her in the fun, but overall it felt like a roller coaster of emotions, and as I physically grew apart, my relationship was driven mostly by duty.
My grandmother would try to discourage us from having a life outside our family, it seemed controlling and annoying at the time. Years later when my grandfather was in the hospital, she would follow us around the house, wherever we went, a behavior I and my mother didn't understand at the time. She also sought constant attention from her son, pretending to be unwell when he would get home from work.
I used to tell my friends, my grandmother wasn't like other grandmothers, she didn't make treats or cook that often, mostly she spent her time being unproductive and watching television. She also rarely left home.
The signs were always there, but that was the only environment we knew as a family.It was only this year when pushed to a corner, and having to deal with my anxiety and childhood trauma, that I started putting the pieces about her mental health together. Suddenly this person that I had very conflicted feelings about, started to resemble a hurt child. I learned that childhood trauma can lead to severe personality disorder and my grandmother showed a lot of the symptoms.By the time I understood her condition, it was too late, her health had deteriorated and she passed away two weeks later.

Photogram of me and my mother's hair

Collage made with cyanotype and Mamoni's negative photo

There are days when having compassion and empathy is hard. Feelings of resentment seep in for being in a situation at no fault of mine but then I think of my grandparents and their life. I could ask the same for them, why did they have to go through this life with so much pain. There is no answer to these questions, the sad reality is that historical circumstances stemming from structures of power can leave a lot of collateral damage behind, which can take generations to clean up.

During her dementia in the last year, she would think of me as her daughter. Somedays she would sit by the door waiting for me to show up. The closure I wanted, to hug her and say that I understood why she behaved the way she did, never came.

My hope with this story is that it helps people understand what mental health issues look like in person, that a word like generational trauma, a word that I felt too big to use for myself, is the exact thing that I and my family have been living through all these years. That when we are trapped in a body, with coping mechanisms we pick as children to survive, it can take a very long time or sometimes never, to come to terms with reality. We live behind a net seeing and experiencing the world differently, but that's the only world we know.

Jharna (Biswas) Patranabish or Mamoni as I used to call her, sitting in front of the Taj