March Issue 2012

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

Remembering 1971 — this is part of the title of the book under review and there is much to remember. The year 1971 is unforgettable for the people of, what was then known as, East and West Pakistan. While that time continues to haunt us, several factors led to the breakup of the two halves and created a disconnect from each other. According to the author, the Pakistani and Bangladeshi viewpoints about that event, which took place over 40 years ago, are separate and distinct. Bangladesh vividly recalls it as the War of Liberation and Pakistan chooses to block it out of memory. India’s perspective is a settling of scores for the Partition of 1947 and the founding of Pakistan. The unfinished business of the Partition of 1947 surfaced, once again, in 1971.

The author categorises 1971, in the former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), as multiple wars — one, a civil war fought between East and West Pakistan; another, an international war fought between India and Pakistan; and a third and violent war between the Bengali and Urdu-speaking groups (the Biharis). Added to these was a gender war against defenceless women.

The book is divided into three parts — Part one, is entitled ‘Introducing 1971,’ and is a story of 1971 woven in with the 1947 partition, comparing it to the Holocaust, truth and reconciliation in South Africa, and genocides in Rwanda and Darfur. This comparison describes the widespread nature of violence and connects multiple stories as experienced by people in many different parts of the 20th century world. This is the story of the war as a human event of individual losses and personal tragedies suffered by both women and men.

Part two, called ‘Survivors Speak,’ is the heart of the book and recounts stories of women, rich and varied, which make us aware of the attack on the feminine self that was under siege during the war. Finally, part three is titled ‘A New Beginning’ and in this section the author talks to those men ‘who recollect their wartime brutality as well as their post-war efforts to regain a sense of humanity, to reconcile and heal unresolved traumas.’ This book is basically a people’s narrative of 1971. The author highlights the many ‘absences’ in the official and unofficial histories. Based on several oral accounts tracing the multiple experiences of Bangladeshi women in the 1971 war, the research gives readers a first-hand account of the horrors of violence because the only memory about women that emerged soon after the birth of Bangladesh is about birangonas (brave women, in other words victims of violence). The term was coined to officially acknowledge the women who were violated during the war and was backed by a concrete policy to enable women to reconvene a normal life in society. Men who agreed to marry them were awarded employment and land. However, the outcome was counter-productive — they were increasingly seen by society as ‘fallen’ or ‘loose’ women.

“I could not even remember my name or who I was or what happened to me,” says Nur Begum. “I do not have a human life even though I look human,” says a war baby whose mother laments, “Even as I talk to you, you can see that my daughter is feeling disgraced. People mock her that she is the daughter of a birangona. But do they understand what a birangona is? Why she became a birangona? To fight for our freedom, to protect our country I became a birangona.”

As one survivor, Jharna Chowdhury, points out, “Some of my acquaintances were raped, some were even killed. So many women lost their husbands, fathers, and brothers.” To save their lives and honour they pretended to be Muslims, Hindus, and Christians, according to circumstance and necessity. Nur Jahan Begum remembers the state of affairs: “People were being killed all over for nothing. I saw with my own eyes.” Says one woman to the author, “It makes me feel badly when I think about those days, but generally I never think about it. I am talking about it after 30 years.”

In the ‘western wing,’ some women bore the brunt of the war and also suffered as did their Bengali sisters — their men were far away during the period of the war and, afterwards too, as prisoners of war in India. The waiting period was long and lonely; many became mentally and physically ill. They too faced widowhood; their men never came back. Some of the wives of the returning men timidly unburdened themselves to the author, when interviewed: “Life has not been the same as before he left for Bengal.”

The author quotes Faiz Ahmed Faiz from his poem ‘Dhake Se Waapsi Par’ [‘On Returning from Dhaka,’ 1974]:

Ham ke thehre ajnabi itni madaaraaton ke baad

Phir banein ge aashna kitni mulaqaaton ke baad

Kab nazar mein aaye gi bay daagh sabze ki bahaar

Khoon ke dhabe dhulein ge kitni barsaaton ke baad

[We have become strangers after so much expression of affection

How many meetings will it take before we become friends again

When shall we be able to see the beauty of unblemished green

How many monsoons will it take to wash away its patches of blood]

The official state emblem of the Government of Pakistan shows four main crops inside the crest bordered by a fragile floral wreath of jasmine, Pakistan’s national flower. The four major agricultural crops represented are wheat and cotton from West Pakistan and jute and tea from East Pakistan. Unfortunately, the latter two crops and the area growing these have faded into a dim, far-off memory.

This book review was originally published in the March 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “Haunting Memories.”