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Friday, January 28, 2022

How Bangladesh’s writers have imagined its story

🔴 Chaity Das writes: In acknowledging estrangement, failures, resentful voices, ‘frailty and weakness’, fiction about 1971 contextualises the significance of the annual commemoration of Bangladesh’s liberation

Written by Chaity Das |
Updated: December 16, 2021 10:26:40 am
1971 Bangladesh Liberation War (Express Archive)

Today, Bangladesh observes its 50th Victory Day — the birth of a new country; of another broken, bloodied wing, seeking wholeness. Depending on where you stand, the event may be seen as inevitable or a product of contingency. Srinath Raghavan’s 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh shows us how the war of 1971 was the result of changes in geopolitics, economics and power equations, globally. Nationalist historiography in Bangladesh sees it as the fulfillment of a tryst with destiny, the consequence of collective will. Military memoirs from all three countries take us through the intense strategising in those nine months, owning victories, but often eliding the burden of impunity. Stirring guerrilla accounts, published in the post-liberation years of political upheavals, are often strangely elegiac in tone.

That year is gone and with it “a golden age”, as Tahmima Anam calls it, in the eponymous novel set in her “beautiful and bruised” country. Yet for many, this yearly commemoration is filled not with the hope and hubris of a new beginning but a renewal of an ethical debt — one that shores up the debris of unjust deaths, gratuitous suffering and broken dreams and tries to draw the map of a new world. This inchoate world has been a guiding light of fiction emerging from Bangladesh. These stories remind us that on December 16, 1971, several paths forked out in front of a new country. Through small and momentous human acts and their consequences, Bangladesh was shaped.

One hundred and ninety-five war criminals, who were repatriated to Pakistan after the war, were never brought to trial. Then came the assassination of the leaders of the liberation and the rise of military dictatorship. Bangladesh was turning into a mirror of what it had fought not to become. Women like “Martyr Mother” Jahanara Imam struggled relentlessly to bring war criminals to trial. In 1992, the Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee led by her held a mock trial in Dhaka, where many victims provided public testimony of violence and rape. Anisul Hoque’s docu-fiction Maa pays a moving tribute to this spirit much before the Shahbag protests in 2013.

Post-war Bangladesh also witnessed impunity of a different order. Among young men, militarised during the war, were those who had not surrendered their weapons. In the initial days after the victory there were attacks on “Biharis” (Urdu-speakers). Then came private militias such as the Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini. Created by the Mujib government as a paramilitary force, it was attached with Awami League units. Suspicious of his experience with the Army in Pakistan, Mujib’s move resulted in a deep mistrust which added to post-liberation challenges. Akhteruzzaman Elias in his short story ‘Milir Haathe Sten Gun’ (‘The Sten Gun in Mili’s Hands’) captures in haunting tones the liminality of a space called “home”, which shows sudden signs of prosperity after the war. Rana, the son, goes out every evening with his friends, coming home with fresh spoils. In deference to his new role as provider, the best portions of food are kept for him by the mother. The utter silence about what Rana does is offset (very shrewdly by Elias) by the loud demands of his crazed neighbour Abbas Pagla (Madman Abbas), who keeps demanding a Sten gun from him.

In his story ‘Khowari’ (‘Hangover’), Elias captures the vulnerability of the minorities in post-war Bangladesh. Iftekhar, a “Bihari” from Mirpur, and Samarjit, a Hindu from Old Dhaka, witness the world change rapidly as they are accused by their “native” friends of rigidity, of unwillingness to understand that the enemies of Bangladesh need to be weeded out. Samarjit’s ancestral house has caught the eye of the new mafia. While they all drink through the night, Samarjit cannot forget the heavy rains through which he had carried his grandmother across the border, the sound of gunshots and screams while fleeing from the West Pakistani soldiers. Samarjit and Iftekhar have become strangers in their own homes.

Shaheen Akhtar’s novel Talaash traces the journey of Mary, a birangona. Dedicated to Ferdousi Priyabhashini, one of the first women to give testimony of her repeated rape at the hands of Pakistani forces, this work of fiction follows the tortuous journey of a victim/witness of sexual violence. The search for justice in post-war Bangladesh is visible, warts and all, as birangonas negotiate the everyday in “normal” life or brothels. In the final scene, Mary and her companion, Tuki, are journeying to an unknown destination. The boatman has symbolically abandoned the boat and the water grows heavy.

The protagonist of Adib Khan’s Spiral Road finds it unbearable to live in post-war Bangladesh and leaves for Australia. He returns years later when religious extremism is beginning to infect young men like his nephew. Tahmima Anam in The Good Muslim shows us how Sohail, a follower of Marx and Neruda before he becomes a guerrilla, burns his books of poetry post-1971. While returning from the war he kills an old man, a “Bihari”. Traumatised by witnessing sexual violence and his own transformation, he turns to the Koran and becomes, in the words of his “secular” sister Maya, a “mullah”.

In acknowledging estrangement, failures, resentful voices, “frailty and weakness”, fiction about 1971 contextualises the import of this yearly commemoration. Abdulrazak Gurnah, in his 2021 Nobel lecture, says “I believe that writing also has to show what can be otherwise, what it is that the hard domineering eye cannot see…” Perhaps today, more than ever, the legacies of war and liberation need to be revisited.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 16, 2021 under the title ‘Writing without liberation’. The writer teaches English at Kalindi College, University of Delhi and is the author of In the Land of Buried Tongues: Testimonies and Literary Narratives of the War of Liberation of Bangladesh (OUP)

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