Life swap: the families forced to trade places after Indian Partition

Down by the Buriganga river in Old Dhaka is a house with wooden windowpanes and a crumbling facade called Laxmi Villa. It dates back to long before Bangladesh achieved independence, to when the region was still part of British India under the rule of the Raj, and was the residency of the prominent Das family. The patriarch who built it, BK Das, even gave his name to the riverside street, which is still known as BK Das Road.

Today, the house is mostly empty. The bottom floor has been closed off, and the balcony door only opens when the manager comes to his office on the first floor. In the small garden, the bushes and trees grow unhindered.

The Das family are long gone from the area.

“We used to call it ‘the doll house’ because of these,” says Anjun Kumar Das, one of BK Das’s great-grandsons, pointing to a faded photo of Laxmi Villa with marble figures in front of it. “I was a teenager when we left.”

He sits at a wooden table in his small apartment in Kolkata, India, the city his family came to after fleeing Dhaka. The family left during Partition in 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was split in two, forcing millions from their homes and causing the largest mass migration in modern history.

The split set off a wave of brutal sectarian killings, as Muslims and Hindus began fleeing to areas where they were in the majority – mainly Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan. The province of Bengal was cleaved in two: Kolkata stayed in India, while Dhaka became part of Pakistan (and later Bangladesh).

But for the Das family, the swap wasn’t just geopolitical. Before Anjun and his family left Dhaka, they met a Muslim family, the Husseins, who had migrated in the opposite direction.

The two families made a deal: they would swap houses.

“There were riots in 1950 and their house had been looted and burned down,” says Ajmalul Hussein, whose father did the deal. “So they exchanged the properties: the one we still had left in Kolkata and Laxmi Villa. We moved in there a few years later.”

Ajmalul was born shortly afterwards, and now works a few kilometres away at the Supreme Court of Dhaka, where he is a senior barrister. Before leaving Kolkata, the Hussein family had been well-established there: his father was also a barrister (he originally met the Das family because he did some legal work for them), and his grandfather was the head of Kolkata’s prestigious Alia Madrasa school.

“On my mother’s side they were educationalists as well,” he says. “Kolkata back then was a great educational city.”

The home they traded to the Das family was less grandiose than Laxmi Villa, but in an equally good location: on Shakespeare Sarani, a long street leading right through central Kolkata to the cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Park Circus, home to many wealthy Armenian Muslim residents.

The Das family had been wealthy. “We used to go to school by car, we were the only ones in the neighbourhood who had one,” says Anjun Kumar Das. “And we had a billiard hall inside on the first floor of the house, named after my aunt Anupama.”

But Partition spared few. The new logic, applicable all across the subcontinent, was that Muslims belonged on the Pakistani side, Hindus on the Indian one.

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“We saw many people leave around us,” Das says. “For long, my grandfather was determined to stay. He said, ‘I will be the last person to leave East Pakistan.’ But eventually, in 1961, we did too.”

They took their furniture with them from Laxmi Villa – indeed, Das’s new apartment in Kolkata still contains some of the heavy wooden wardrobes and beds. The family ran a brick-making company, a line of shops selling bangles and embroidery thread and a wooden furniture business.

But soon after they arrived in Kolkata, it became clear things would not be the same. The house left behind by the Hussein family was not to become their home. In new legislation enacted after Partition, both India and Pakistan labelled any land left behind by fleeing families as “enemy property”, cancelling the rights of the former owners.

“We never even entered it,” says Das of the Hussein home. “We only saw it from the outside. The legal rights to move in, we never got them. We exchanged our house but got nothing.” The Husseins, meanwhile, did move into Laxmi Villa – and still own it, though they moved out in 1967 and turned it into their law office.

All Das has left of the Kolkata house are photographs in an album: of a building with a large open rooftop, and trees in the garden.

“We fought a long battle for that house,” he says, “filing case after case but we lost each time. That’s our big tragedy.”

“Many families, not least in Old Dhaka, are victims of these laws,” says Taimur Islam, an architect specialising in heritage protection in Dhaka. “Bangladesh annulled the law in 1974, but the practice has continued.” In India, the government is currently in the process of selling around 9,400 of these former “enemy properties”.

What the Das and Hussein families did was not entirely uncommon. Relatives of the Bangladeshi publisher K Anis Ahmed swapped houses with the poet Buddhadev Bose, and moved into his residency in Dhaka. A small mosque in Kolkata now doubles as a church and temple after coming into the ownership of a Hindu family who offered up their home in exchange.

But many other families would have experienced the same heartbreak at offering up their home only to find their new one barred.

Instead, the Das family ended up building a multi-storey building near the Hooghly River in Kolkata, where they lived for many years. A plaque at the entrance still reads “Das”, though the last of the family has now moved out. “I am the only one left in the city now – everyone else has gone away,” says Das.

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After the Hussein family moved into Laxmi Villa, Ajmalul Hussein ended up going to the school Anjun Kumar Das had attended. He is now thinking of renovating the old villa.

“I still have the original drawings and photographs,” he says. “I would like to put some of the furniture back. It used to be beautiful inside. There were parties, and 15 chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. They have all been broken by monkeys.”

As for the old Hussein home on Shakespeare Sarani, an empty lot is all that remains of it, behind a locked gate guarded by a caretaker and his dog. Nobody informed Anjun Kumar Das of the demolition. Nobody informed Ajmalul Hussein either. The current owner has plans to erect a new building. The exchange, more than 60 years on, remains a deal in name only.

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