The Asian Age

The aftermath of the war in 1971

- Taslima Nasrin

The Hindus of the neighbourh­ood were slowly returning to their abandoned houses. They were coming back to their country from refugee camps in Calcutta, to the homes they had abandoned before the war. All their things had been robbed in the meanwhile. The empty courtyards that the pariahs and mongrels used to sleep in were suddenly full of the chatter of people. With my chin resting on the railings of our roof, I could see them returning. As if a tide had arrived on the Brahmaputr­a, as if flowers were suddenly blooming all over a desolate garden. None of the returned seemed to perturbed by their missing things. They were happy simply to have got their homes back. Some houses had already managed to organize kirtans, etc., and women were ululating and lighting evening lamps. A graveyard had seemingly come back to life.

Around a week after their return, a group of muktijoddh­as marched into the house through the black gate, guns on their shoulders, followed by fifteensix­teen people from the neighbours, most of whom we recognised. I greeted them with a smile but none of them were in a mood to reciprocat­e, as if they were our mortal enemies. They walked from room to room, yelling loudly about stolen goods, telling the people who had come with them to pick up whatever they thought were their stuff.

The familiar faces from the neighbourh­ood took turns in taking away a number of our things: bronze utensils, a brass pitcher, chairs and tables. Mother had been putting oil in the sewing machine. The container remained in her hand as someone came and casually picked up the machine and walked away. Both Mother and I were left standing in shock.

After they were gone Mother sighed, ‘Wages of sin! What can I say.’

It was meant for Father, I knew. After returning from the village Mother had noticed some new things in the house and asked him about them. ‘Did you buy these? If you did, why did you buy old stuff ? What use will this broken old drum of molasses be?’

Father, in the middle of tucking the socks he had just taken off inside his shoes, had not replied.

‘Or did you take these from the Hindu houses?’ Mother had asked in disgust.

Father had not replied to that either.

The drums had surprised me as well. It had been difficult for me to imagine that Father had nicked those things from someone else’s house. This was the person who had given refuge to a Hindu boy called Pradip during the war. The boy, rechristen­ed Alam, had stayed on in our house after the war and Father had employed him as a cashier in the pharmacy.

And this very same person had become greedy over things the Hindus had left behind! Back in ’71 Dada, Riyazuddin and Imaan Ali had been living with us as well. Perhaps they were the ones who had done it.

Since I did not dare ask Father any questions, I had ended up asking Dada.

‘Were you the ones who robbed the things from the Hindu households?’

Dada was seated on an iron chair watching the ducks and chickens in the yard. As if those birds were the most fascinatin­g things in the world and no human being or their queries could catch up to their appeal. When I had broken the spell and repeated my question he had replied — ‘The Biharis were bringing everything out on the streets and burning them. We had gathered some things from the road and brought home.’

‘Who had? Had Father done it too? Tell me!’ I was not about to let Dada go without an answer.

‘It was us,’ Dada had replied while throwing wheat at the ducks and chickens.

The answer had done reassure me.

On returning home, when he received the news of the raid on our house, Father went out and stood in the veranda, hands folded and elbows resting on the railings. Seeing him like that I wanted to believe he was repentant. I wanted to see his remorseful face. I had only ever heard the yelling, only ever seen the proud man. So much pride was bound to make someone inhuman.

After Dada returned home I informed him about the raid, ‘They have taken away all the things that were looted.’

I informed Chotda as well. A pall of gloom seemed to descend over the house. Father remained stationed on the veranda.

Mother’s voice finally shattered the silence, her words uttered from a careful distance so Father could hear.

‘What was the need of stealing a drum of rotten molasses? Allah always punishes those who sin. In the middle of this I lost a bunch of my things. My sewing machine! I had saved money and bought it myself.’ little to

When times were meant to be bad, they could get really bad. The day after the raid security personnel of the Rakkhi Bahini apprehende­d Dada from the road. These forces had been formed by Sheikh Mujib after Independen­ce to put a check on terrorist activities. They were stationed at various places and could apprehend anyone they were suspicious of and beat them up. Even someone like my Dada who had no involvemen­t in anything whatsoever. Father went to get

him out but returned emptyhande­d. After torturing him for fifteen days when the Rakkhi Bahini found no evidence that he was involved in any terrorist activities, they let Dada go. After returning from their barracks Dada became a vocal critic of Sheikh Mujib, even going as far as telling people that things had been better under Pakistani rule; at least the roads had been safe.

Even those who had been supporters of Sheikh Mujib were soon beginning to chatter: What sort of government was this that was using the Rakkhi Bahini to assault and oppress innocent citizens!

The murmurs continued for a few years. Unrest among the people continued to rise as well. Sheikh Mujib formed a political party called Baksal and prohibited all other parties.

‘What sort of government is this that lets its people die in a famine because they have no food?’ Father said one day.

Bearded men wearing fez caps materializ­ed out of nowhere and began to clamour that such an Independen­ce was of no value. The country needed to be put back under Pakistani rule. Boromama sighed and said he did not know which direction the country was headed.

‘The government is doing things that did not happen even when Pakistan was ruling us. They are celebratin­g Shab-eBaraat in Banga Bhaban with so much pomp. It never used to happen back when this was East Pakistan. Mujib attended an

Islamic conference recently. Russia helped us so much during the war and here Mujib is bent on making Bangladesh a part of the Islamic world. The government is even saying things against India. Would we have become free if India had not sent its forces?’

Then suddenly one day, quite abruptly, something happened that plunged the city into uneasiness again. People gathered on the roads to talk as if the world was about to come crashing down on them any moment. Some had radios stuck to their ear, faces dry, eyes threatenin­g to pop out.

What was the matter again? The days of sticking close to the radio for news had come to an end back in ’71, so what had happened again! Whenever things in the country were tense in any way everyone tended to switch on BBC radio for news. No one had too much faith on our own broadcaste­rs.

Father too did as expected. I was asked to turn the knob of the radio to try and catch BBC, a big responsibi­lity I felt very proud of having been given. Father never ordered me to do anything except studying, I was never usually asked to participat­e in anything else. Earlier it was either Dada or Chotda who were asked to turn the knob while I had to stand apart and watch. But that day Dada was away on a work trip to Sherpur for a couple of days. Chotda was not even living with us any more. Hence, the responsibi­lity fell on me. I had almost found the BBC channel when Father asked me to stop. Words could be heard over the ether, broken fragments of half-truncated news. Sheikh Mujib was dead. Not just him, nearly his entire family had been shot dead by assailants at his house on 32 Dhanmondi. How could it have happened? How was it possible? Father sat down heavily, pressing the veins on his temple. Chotda, had he been home, would surely have sought refuge in the veranda with his lips curled. Dada would have said, ‘His two sons Sheikh Kamal and Sheikh Jamal had caused so much trouble for so many people in Dhaka University. They used to carry pistols! They had gone too far, how much could people tolerate!’

Mother was pacing the room uneasily and speaking from time to time.

‘What sort of inhuman thing is this? They killed his sons, daughter-in-law, even his young grandson Russel. What had they done? Such brutality!’

‘Will the country Pakistan again?’ become

Excerpted from My Girlhood with permission from the publisher, PenguinRan­domHouse

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