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April 22, 2024

The Turning

By Mehreen Ahmed

As I lay rapt in pensive recapitulation of an argument over our civil war in former East Pakistan, present day Bangladesh, I considered reading A Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam. A few chapters into the book, it lent a perspective on my reflections. Not for the faint hearted, it brought agonising memories of the war, I managed to quell under rubbles of time. An affinity grew between the main character Rehana, and myself over recounts of numerous events from war-torn days; fears and trepidations. Up close and personal, it was like reading my own diary to an inner circle group. I inhaled that gun powder-fuelled air, and walked down the same dusty streets covered with empty bullet shells. I saw hapless, bloated bodies floating down the streams of unaccountable murders. Every vivid description of torture, too close to home; nails of freedom fighters plucked out in the dungeon of an enemy cell.

I was 10 and my sister 5, when this war broke out. It was a pernicious war between West Pakistan, present day Pakistan and East Pakistan, present day Bangladesh/ East Bengal. Rightly so, it was a war of struggle for identity of a nation and affirmed in a book review published in The Guardian by Clemency Burton-Hill.

Rehana's predicaments were not unique. Many suffered cruelties on unthinkable scale in East Bengal during the war-ravaged era, vastly out of joint. Nonetheless, on a personal note, the book also encompassed other issues -- the character's quest for cultural identity, manifested from speaking a language deemed as the enemy language in East Bengal. Rehana spoke Urdu, which was the dominant language of West Pakistan, as opposed to Bengali/ Bangla, spoken in East Pakistan. Speaking Urdu, at a time like this in East Bengal, was like speaking Hebrew in Nazi Germany, although the language, per se had no issues.

Interestingly, Rehana and I found a common ground. I could empathise with her forlorn state of alienation within her own culture. Because, I saw my family, my mother, particularly suffer from this. Urdu was my grandmother's first language. My mother and her siblings all spoke the language at home. However, unlike Rehana, ethnically they did not hail from Bengal, but migrated to Bengal, whose lingua was Urdu. They belonged to a Sufi family, living in East Pakistan for seven generations.

It was a fractured existence, growing up in a culture, speaking a different language. To having to explain to mates, why they spoke Urdu was demanding enough. But when it came to the issue of allegiance, no matter what the greater Bengal thought, politically, they allied with Bengal. A tainted history of years of oppression by West Pakistan toward the East pre-set their allegiance. That they were not on the wrong side of history.

Since inception, West Pakistan maintained a glaring and unbreakable status quo. Power was vested all along in the hands of the West Pakistani oligarch. Although cash crops were all exported from the Eastern wing, except a few measly crumbs, most of it was spent on developing the West wing. When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won the election in huge majority, he was sidelined because he was a Bengali from the East. The West chose Urdu to be voted as state language of Pakistan, when the East wing had a clear majority. Democracy, was in a critical juncture, a cesspool of deviant politics.

Deep divisions tore apart the two wings. Tensions escalated, and war began. Heinous genocide committed in East Pakistan. Lives were marred, as identity of the Urdu speakers of East Pakistan got caught up in the crosshairs of language and nationalism clash. They became inadvertent friends of the enemy because of the common language. On the other hand, the people of East Bengal took them to be enemies, a land that some of these families called home. It became crucial, how the people of Bengal viewed them. Ultimately, it was their acceptance, which was to determine their stay in East Bengal.

These enigmas of politics served as backdrop for this book. It captured the spirit of the warring wings, to the lead up to the watershed moment of liberation. However, by the time, I finished reading, it brought a strange sense of closure. Because it was this political endgame which had contributed in resolving the identity conflict. After the war was over, our seven generations of an outsider Sufi dynasty, had a rich history to explain why their ancestors spoke Urdu. Who wished to be settled here and identified as Bengali. Regardless of language and origin, who chose not to defect to West Pakistan, and had not collaborated with the West in this carnage. My family, came to be recognised and bonded with the diverse and a culturally nuanced Bengali society.

Back in 1971, when the war was looming, and a brutal army breathing down our neck, we were living in Khulna. The army had already taken hold of much of Khulna, and was on its way to force through our front gate anytime. This news spread like wildfire. We decided to escape. Our house was on the River Bhairab. One afternoon in March 1971, my parents decided to flee. My mother's cousin was living with us at that time. We took a boat across the river, and to the relative safety of the villages on the other side. The villagers welcomed us. They kept us well fed and warm in their thatched homes for a couple of days. Soon after, our long march began to reach out to our extended family. Over this journey, my mother was afraid to speak Urdu with her cousin, just in case a freedom fighter overheard them, and shot them, thinking they were from West Pakistan. My mother whispered to my uncle forbidding him to speak in that language. My uncle stammered, trying to switch to Bengali.

We walked up the river bank in the hope to board a steamer to bring us to Dhaka. At the river bank, I saw my father negotiating with the owner of a steamer. I don't know what he promised to give him in return, because we didn't have any money. Perhaps, out of the kindness of his heart, the owner took us on board. As the steamer set sail, from the vantage point of my window seat, I saw the war crimes writ large in the river. Floating bodies, the most horrendous images, I had seen at 10, never to be forgotten.

After about a week or so, the steamer brought us to the outskirts of the Dhaka City. I heard my father telling my mother that this was where his ancestral home was. It was his plan all along to bring us here. We got off the steamer, and started to walk. We walked through more villages for a whole day, until we came to my father's village. We could see the tiny dot of his ancestral home on the horizon. As we approached, our relatives who had fled the city to hide here, came running to welcome us. My mother started to cry.

In the village, my sister and I kept getting sick. Apart from a few quacks who passed themselves off as doctors, treatment was scarce. Against all odds, my mother decided to take us into the city, to live with her parents. She said it was in our best interest, to save us from all kinds of water borne diseases. After about a week, we set off by boat again, down the River Kaliganga, this time. My parents were really anxious, I could feel it. We finally reached Dhaka. The air was stale, streets were deserted. Luckily, we found a taxi come our way, took us to my maternal grandma's house. I still remember the green, wooden outer gate across the front lawn, my mother's frantic rattles to get it open.

This homecoming was not sweet. As refugees, we fell on hard times. Food was rationed, living on handouts. At night, I could hear faint cries coming from uncertain directions. Curfews descended on these once crowded streets. The deserted streets felt like a ghost town. We could go out only for a couple of hours in the day, to buy food. My diabetic grandpa needed medicines, which were available sometimes, sometimes not. Frequent sirens alerted us to imminent danger of bombing; we hid under the staircase. My grandmother whispered verses from the Quran, through the house, and walked like a shadow of a palace night sentry. As for my own protection, I had to stay indoors for days on end for fear that a soldier might take me. Grandpa tuned in to radio every evening for the heavily censored news updates.

I spent happier days here, in grandma's house, before the war broke out. This was a time when my cousins and I frolicked in the open orchard, ripened with fruits, like Rehana's children partying in a rose-filled garden. A house full of adorable cats and kittens, bred by the minute. They followed us everywhere, be it under the guava tree or the dining table.

My mother's brother, my uncle's room, at the far end of a verandah, had a huge book closet, full of revolutionary books written by Carl Marx and many others. Back then, my uncle literally hero-worshipped them. It was all very romantic that he was so passionate about politics and change. He even participated in the language movement of 1952, the one and only language movement ever to take place in world history. This was to establish Bengali as the state language in Pakistan. When Stalin died, my uncle cried so much, that he refused to have dinner. My grandparents laughed and commented, "Who died? His father-in-law?" Regardlessly, my uncle cried like a baby. Whether or not he misunderstood the real intent of fascists such as Stalin, but his political zeal couldn't be questioned. Unfazed by any prospects of arrests, he rallied through the roads with other protestors. Some nights he had to even climb over the high walls to come inside the house, later than nine 'o' clock, because, grandma would put a sturdy vintage lock on the green gate for the night.

The Golden Age captured the spirit of the war faithfully. Flashbacks retrieved disturbing images from media coverage. Portraits of mangled, massacred rickshaw pullers dead on their vehicles. Women tied to the poles of their village homes, gang raped and dead. Images, which I saw in the gallery of freedom fighters much later, when the war was over. Refugees crossing the border to enter India. A living, breathing person pushed into an industrial steam boiler by a soldier, I read in my father's journal.

The long nine months of atrocities ended. 16 December 1971, was declared Independence Day. I was at my cousin's place that evening, when we heard a call out, Joy (victory) Bangla. I still remember that winter afternoon, adults sitting around the radio. We were free. This freedom came at a great cost over spilled blood of many. But the nation's identity was acknowledged as Bangladesh, so was the language; Bangla/Bengali, established as state language. Whatever other ways, this history may have been re-written in the aftermath of the war, my musings were a repository of an indelible reality, The Golden Age corroborates.

Mehreen Ahmed's book, The Pacifist, is the announced Drunken Druid: The Editors' Choice for June 2018, and voted as Best Recent Book by The Voice of Literature and her novel, Jacaranda Blues,is acclaimed as "The Best of Novels for 2017 - Family Novels of the Year" by Novel Writing Festival.

Article © Mehreen Ahmed. All rights reserved.
Published on 2019-12-09
Image(s) are public domain.
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