March Issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 12 years ago

The horrors of war scarred both wings of Pakistan in 1971 as the country was torn in two. But the stories of the massacre of Urdu-speaking citizens have not received much attention — until now.

From the opening paragraph in Aquila Ismail’s Of Martyrs and Marigolds, the reader is prepared for sorrow. The beauty of nature is contrasted with the brutality of man throughout the novel.

Set in the early 1970s in East Pakistan, the story follows the main character, Suri, and her Urdu-speaking family as their world starts to quickly unravel when the demand for equal rights and freedom from oppression by their Bengali countrymen leads to war with West Pakistan. Almost overnight, Suri and her family, and many other “Biharis,” became enemies to their neighbours, divided by language. Commonalities disappeared and differences were exaggerated. Suspicion was everywhere.

Of Martyrs and Marigolds recreates the chaos of war disturbingly well. Moreover, Ismail’s exploration of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War reminds the reader of the unchanging framework from which conflict is waged: a framework of extremes. It becomes an issue of “us versus them.” War is no place for nuance.

The relevance of the novel comes precisely from this reminder of the dangerous consequences of the politics of division.

Ismail employs a simple, readable style full of vivid descriptions of the East Pakistan of her youth: the colours in the markets, the fragrances in the gardens, the food sold by street vendors. The tale of love and longing is clearly inspired by her own feelings of being displaced. Still, she remains fair and explains the build-up of resentment in East Pakistan well. This focus on developing the big picture through details is valuable. The uninitiated reader of modern South Asian history will appreciate this attention to background. However, in some instances, there is a bit too much of ‘tell’ and not enough of ‘show’ in her narrative style, and, as a result, the story becomes choppy and loses its hold on the reader’s imagination. In her desire to provide clarity and definition to every cultural, religious and historical reference, Ismail forces background information into scenes that don’t require it. When she allows the story to gain momentum, though, her pure storytelling prowess is unveiled. There are many moving depictions of the brutality of war: the utter lack of compassion of soldiers trained to hate, the despair of prisoners locked in darkness and the instinct of cornered women to band together to protect each other.

Ismail writes the novel to fill a gap in South Asian literature. The history of 1971 has been covered via non-fiction explorations but the great personal losses of that year have not been adequately covered in fiction. In fact, Ismail sought out to specifically address the stories of “countless Urdu-speaking Pakistanis who were massacred and dispossessed.” For many Bengali-speaking people, their victory in Dhaka and the surrender of Pakistan provided the opportunity for revenge for the rape, torture and genocide by the Pakistan army. The moment that takes on the most resonance is the brutal public death of four Bihari prisoners in Dhaka stadium to cheering crowds in the days following the end of the war in December 1971.

But make no mistake, the Pakistan army and their militias are shown not as protectors of the country and its Eastern wing but as invaders and conquerors. The ruthlessness of Al-Badr and Al-Shams is shown too, as were the people on both sides who just wanted peace restored and believed that when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned “everyone (would) be brought under control” and “the hotheads (would) be reined in.” Of course, war is never that easy to end. And everyone lives the sorrow.

This book review was originally published in the March 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “The Ghosts of 1971.”