By Jyoti Malhotra
September 14, 2011
As the Bangladesh Biman flight swoops in over Dhaka, the rural landscape on the edge of the city, with its coconut trees and its ancient ponds fed by perennial rivers, settles into the mind’s eye. Imagine then, the surprise that greets the foreign visitor when confronted with near-perpetual traffic gridlock in the Bangladeshi capital.
What is quickly obvious too is that Bangladesh is so overwhelmingly, Bengali. Perhaps my surprise is a function of the fact that the flight from predominantly Punjabi-speaking Delhi is the same distance to Dhaka — two and a half hours — as it is from Kannada-speaking Bangalore or Tamil-speaking Chennai or the Bollywood Hindi that you can’t escape in Mumbai.
Perhaps I expected more shalwar-kameezes on the women — after all; even diehard Malayali women are abandoning their stunning gold-bordered mundu-veshtis or half sarees and getting into badly-tailored Punjabi suits.
Perhaps I expected much more Hindi so as to be able to converse with taxi drivers, just as every self-respecting journalist who parachutes into a foreign country does and figures out everything on the long ride into the hotel. Later, a Bangladeshi journalist friend would remind me each time I broke into a Hindi sentence, that he did not understand Urdu and had refused to learn it.
Of course he belonged to a family of muktijoddhas, or freedom fighters, one among millions who fought the war of liberation against Pakistan, with India’s help, and created the new nation in 1971. I tried to convince this friend that learning a new language never hurt anybody that, in fact, it was a window into the soul of another culture, but he wasn’t listening.
How could he, he said, the wounds were still too raw. His elder brother had been maimed and then killed and those memories of war were imprinted in his brain. What hadn’t helped was that for years after Mujibur Rahman’s assassination on August 15, 1975 — at least the killers had a sense of history, my Bangladeshi journalist friend said, smilingly — Bangladesh had been ruled by Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh National Party (BNP), a party that had been born in the cantonment, and which, with the help of the Jamiat-i-Islami, had sought to subvert the nation’s secular creed.
I asked Shahriar Kabir, one of Bangladesh’s best known historians and film-makers, who walks with a limp because he was beaten up in jail by Zia’s goons, whether reconciliation was possible between the Awami League and the BNP. “Only if the BNP gives up the Jamiat,” he said, adding, “don’t forget that unlike India, which won its freedom from the British because your freedom movement was bi-partisan, our liberation was a civil war”. Another friend, Captain Shahab, who has scoured the countryside writing on the aftermath of the 1971 war, says Dhaka has now requested Delhi to send back the graves of all those freedom fighters who laid down their lives for the motherland, in India.
That’s the thing that strikes you between the eyes, when in Bangladesh: history is not something that you read in the books, but a living thing that constantly whispers in your ear, participates in your conversations and interferes in your dreams.
Professor Maimoon, a third friend, tells me that Bangladesh is now compiling a list of all those who helped fight the war in 1971, a list of muktijoddhas from all over the world. “There are several Indians in it, of course, but there are Pakistanis too. These are the people who had the courage to stand up against their own government. They are our friends too,” Maimoon said.
The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist who worked as senior editor at The Indian Express from 1997-2004 and since then has been writing for Khaleej Times, Business Standard and Wall Street Journal.
Source: The Express Tribune, Dacca