The Namashudras of Bengal: ‘The Malakars’ — A personal story of my grandparents and their journey
by Megha Malakar
I was born to a Dalit father and am the second girl child of the family who has always identified as a Namashudra. My father- Abhijit Kumar Malakar was born in the village Kamdebkati in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. However, this story is that of my paternal grandparents- Shri Gopal Chandra Malakar and Smt. Renuka Malakar who have both left this earth but have left back their legacies.
The story dates back to the year 1948 in the district of Faridpur in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh when a young man at the age of 16 left his native village and travelled across miles and came into the state of West Bengal in search of a job. My grandfather was sent to India by his mother with only Rs. 8/- in his pocket to look for a job. After travelling across the country, he slept at the Sealdah station for 21 days while only having few roti (bread) and water to drink. Soon after, he came across a recruitment process for police constable (in the Barrackpore Police line) and stood in line every day. However, due to his young age and lean figure he was asked by the officer to leave the line every day. Even then, every morning he would stand again and again even after being rejected. Seeing his dedication as well as desperation the officer decided to give him a chance saying “khoka, tui abar eshechis?, ebar toke nitei hobe (You are here again? This time I have to take you). That is how my grandfather landed his first job at the age of 16 (18 into the record) in the police department and started earning no matter how meagre the amount was.
At the age of 21 he married my grandmother when she was just 14 and brought her with him from Bangladesh.
Slowly he started bringing his 5 siblings from Bangladesh to West Bengal so that they could have a brighter future here. By then his first two child- daughters were born and it became difficult for him to accommodate all of them in the tiny police quarter. Therefore, he bought a small land in a village named Kamdebkati in the district of North 24 Parganas and that is the beginning of how an entire Namashudra community from Bangladesh settled in this country. With time he bought his parents, his uncle, his aunt and their children from Bangladesh to this part of the country. Here comes the part where my grandmother played a significant role; she was just a child when she was married off and soon, she became a mother. My father describes his childhood as “growing up in a guest house” because people kept fleeing from that side of the border and my grandmother gave them shelter and made them food to fill their stomachs. On certain days they did not have enough grains in the house for everyone so she would make corn meal (Mashed corn flour) or just 2 rotis in an entire day for everyone.
As my grandfather was the only earning member of the entire family and relatives who were shifted here, there was never enough food on the table for everyone. Thus, some land was bought to start cultivation as an additional source of income in order to fend for everyone. But back then one had to rely on natural sources of water for irrigation so during droughts the crops failed and even during floods all crops would get destroyed.
After the East Pakistan War of 1971, the Bengali Hindus of Bangladesh started fearing for their lives and turned to my grandparents for help in order to migrate. In spite of the daily struggles, they still continued bringing their extended families from across the border and started settling them in the same village so that at least everyone had a community to rely on.
My grandmother is the one who is responsible for buying these pieces of lands for their family- every month she would save bit by bit from the salary by managing the household with extreme caution.
Both of them together must have helped over a hundred people to flee from that side of the border and settle in this part of the country and continued supporting them till they secured employment. It is important to note that my grandfather educated his own brother who then became the first graduate holder in the entire family and community. My own grandfather had only gotten education till standard 4th where as my grandmother only knew how to write Bangla alphabets but they never gave up on their own learning. Both of them self-taught themselves in different subjects by reading books and gaining knowledge. Moreover, they never gave up on their children’s education who became first-generation learners of the Namashudra community. My own father holds three different Master’s degree and now works at a Central government office who has successfully educated both his daughters.
Their story might be small or meagre but the impact they had on other people’s lives can be felt to this day. They shaped and changed the lives of so many people and gave them a chance of having a brighter and secure future away from all the discrimination and exploitation.
Today the entire village is known as the ‘Malakar-pada’ (Malakar-neighborhood) by everyone and it is no less than a milestone to have a neighborhood named after a Dalit caste surname.
There must be many other unknown figures out there in different parts of the country who have made an immense difference but have been invisibilised or deleted from the chapters of history. This Dalit history month is thus dedicated to those beautiful human beings and their contribution towards us.
Megha Malakar identifies as a Dalit queer woman and is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, India. Her aim is to utilise platforms to amplify the voices of her community. Megha enjoys writing, watching Japanese anime, as well as travelling and experiencing different places and cultures.