By Anjum Hasan
April 18, 2017
In April 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman formed the first — albeit provisional — government of probably the only country in the world created on the basis of language. But the marriage of mother tongue and religious heritage still seems a distant dream in a nation that is yet to firmly define its identity
The heavy wooden door says “Pull” in giant letters above the handle, yet the man before me — middle-aged, bespectacled, an office-goer maybe — is feeling his way all over it, pushing determinedly. Eventually he drifts back to the counter of the café where he is given instructions on how to exit. A few minutes later another man is at the door trying the same manoeuvres, obviously unable to decipher the English word under his nose. I realise I have assumed from their get-up that these men can read the language. Why is the sign not in Bengali?
I am drinking one Earl Grey after another, sitting in Peyala Café in Dhaka’s Gulshan 2. Gulshan is a concentration of glass-walled corporate offices, barricaded foreign embassies, high-end hotels and restaurants, and supermarkets with imported packaged food, all of which might explain the necessity of that English word on the door. I lighted on Peyala for its Urdu name, which seems delightfully archaic to me. Does anyone say that anymore — “Chai ka peyala”? Rather than “Chai ka cup”? Some of the staff here speak English, and the clientèle — one reticent young courting couple and groups of loud males eating pastries — only Bengali.
Bangladesh is the only country in the world that was created on the basis of language, I’ve been told earlier in the week. In 1971 it replaced the nation formerly known as East Pakistan. The divisiveness of language — the Urdu of West Pakistan versus the Bengali of the east — proved stronger than the glue of religion. And the break had been in the making almost as soon as East Pakistan came into existence. A year after the formation of the country, students were protesting the imposition of Urdu and in 1952 several were killed by the police while demonstrating for the introduction of Bengali as one of the official languages of the country, a demand met four years later in 1956. Language and culture continued to be the sticking points, however, and the basis for the Bengalis eventually wanting their own country. The first target of the West Pakistani army when they invaded East Pakistan on March 25, 1971 was Dhaka University, where they killed students and teachers en masse for their role in the separatist movement.
A week ago, as the plane dipped towards the mudflats and lakes scattered around Dhaka, I was thinking, inevitably, of the blood that once mixed with that water: the tens of thousands — according to official accounts, millions — who died in the war. But I was also wondering about how language becomes worldview. The man sitting next to me spoke English with an American accent, though he had never lived in that country, and worked for a US lubricant company based in Dhaka and Gurugram. He understood but couldn’t speak Hindi, watched Bollywood films for a hobby, didn’t read books in any language, and had no particular interest in Bangladeshi history. His main preoccupation, as far as politics was concerned, was what might happen, after Trump, to his Green Card-holding sister who worked as a chemical engineer in Chicago.
Later I meet Shadab, who has just graduated and is trying to emigrate to Canada. I try talking him out of it, tell him it’ll be too cold there, that he’s perhaps needed in this country. It’s all part of God’s earth, he says, so it doesn’t matter where I am. And yet he’s quite sure that he wants to be in Canada. We are driving to the town of Narayanganj, 30 km south of Dhaka, to visit a specimen of that cornerstone of the Bangladeshi economy, a factory manufacturing clothes for export. There are 7,000 in the country, says one report. Shadab seems so typical of his generation in that he has derived huge swathes, if not all, of his opinions on the world from the internet. There is a video of it on YouTube, you can see it, he often says to prove a point regarding the miscellany of things we’re discussing — Islam in modern times, garment factories, the criminal underworld in Bangladesh.
We also talk about language — in English and Hindi. He tells me I’ll get funny looks if I speak in Hindi in this city, except in the areas of Mirpur and Mohammadpur, where families of Hindi- and Urdu-speaking Indian Muslim immigrants who came over in 1947 are concentrated. His family was one of them but they went to Saidpur in the north of the country and became successful businessmen, then had to lie low for 30 years after the war in order to survive in the new Bengali country. Many Hindi speakers left, he says. His family stayed because they had some money.
I read later about the Geneva Camp in Mohammadpur, a large slum which still houses some 30,000 ex-Indian Muslims who were moved there during the ’71 war. They are known, remarkably, as ‘stranded Pakistanis’ and till 2008 were not, along with the hundreds of thousands of others in similar camps, legally deemed Bangladeshis. A Supreme Court ruling that year granted 1,50,000 of them, who were minors during the Liberation War, citizenship and voting rights.
When we get to the factory, the music being piped to the floor to soothe 2,000 young women as they cut, stitch, wash, iron, and package jeans for the European ready-to-wear fashion houses H&M, Promod and Terranova, is Bollywood. I try to chat with one of the girls, ask her if she likes her job, but she’s shy and she doesn’t know Hindi. The CEO of the company is a Hindi speaker from Delhi, whose office overlooks the factory floor, and the manager who shows us around has an industrial engineering degree from Coimbatore, and speaks Tamil, English, Hindi and fluent Bengali. Shadab tells me on the way back that many of those in top management positions in Bangladesh’s companies are from India. I have no way of knowing if this is true or something he got by way of an opinion from the internet.
Tamim wants to leave too. He is my chaperone at the literary festival I’m attending; each writer has been assigned one and they all operate with an unblinking bodyguard-like attentiveness. Mine is a student of business administration. He tells me about his father, who studied medicine in the USSR and practised as a doctor when he returned home, then gave it up to work in an NGO. Tamim refers to his father with some asperity for no longer making use of his foreign degree; he himself wants to study in the US. He reads novels by both Western and Eastern Bengali writers such as Saradindu Bandopadhyay and Humayun Ahmed and pirated copies of Chetan Bhagat’s books; he doesn’t mind Hindi films either, as long as they come with English subtitles.
Rabbi has already left and now returned. He stops to chat, in his cylindrical chef’s hat, at breakfast in the hotel. He studied the culinary arts in England and at Le Cordon Bleu in France and has worked, he says, with Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. He tells me they’re redoing the breakfast menu and asks for ideas, keen to introduce the south Indian staples dosa and uttapam. I suggest local foods, like the buttery, flaky biscuit called bakarkhani I have eaten the previous day in Dhaka’s old town. From there the talk turns to how much Rabbi dislikes Pakistanis.
By the time I’ve run into several other young people fixedly looking west, I’ve also noticed the long, orderly lines of visa applicants outside the foreign embassies in Gulshan, the exhausted-looking working-class men exchanging their takas for riyals in the banks, the swarms crowding into the Saudi Airlines and Qatar flights at the airport. I know that some are leaving Bangladesh because they are invested in it, such as a 22-year-old blogger called Shammi Haq whom I read about before coming to Dhaka. She had written posts critical of the rise of orthodox Islam and, like many other secular Bangladeshi bloggers in recent years, been threatened by a militant Islamist group with murder in 2015. She was looking to leave the country at the earliest.
Hundreds of students mill around the traffic circle near Dhaka University every day, drinking the strangely delicious, sweet and spicy lemon tea with chopped green chillies floating in it, from the cluster of vendors near the circle. I try the tea and try also to imagine what these 20-somethings are staking their future on. It turns out, as the days go by and I lean a little closer to listen in, that the Bengali language is no longer the worldview.
And yet the war is far from over. A kilometre north from the university is Shahbag Square, which thousands of student protestors and bloggers filled in February 2013 calling for harsher punishment — in effect, the death penalty — for those associated with war crimes during the ’71 war, particularly members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which collaborated with the invading West Pakistan army. Half-a-dozen accused have since been hanged. On my first morning in the city late last year, the newspaper reads like an archive of unburied hatreds. “Is He a War Criminal?” asks one headline, regarding the new Jamaat chief Maqbul Ahmed. Elsewhere in the paper, Pakistan has asked Bangladesh for war reparations of $88 million, as if it were 1971 yesterday. And the student ‘Shahbag protestors’ who wanted the war criminals hanged had now taken up the square again, angry about the recent violence against Hindus in Nasirnagar in eastern Bangladesh. They proposed to undertake a long march from Shahbag to Nasirnagar.
The day before the march I am in Shahbag Square. From one of the walkways built over this junction of four teeming roads, I notice the women in salwar kurtas, some with their heads covered, and some in burqas. Coming back down to the street, I am stopped by a family with two girls, whose ears are pressed to their heads by their painfully tight-looking school uniform hijabs, and who want to have their photo taken with the foreigner. These clothes seem new to me; the movement for Bangladesh was propelled by women in saris — white handloom with dark borders — or at least that’s how the colours appear in the monochrome photographs at the Liberation War Museum. The museum is set up in a small-roomed, old two-storey house in Segun Bagicha with circular tree-shaded balconies, a peaceful place holding to the memory of a gory war, complete with a cabinet piled with skulls, thigh bones and shoulder blades dug out in Dhaka as late as 1999 — the remains, according to a sign, of “indiscriminate killing conducted by Pakistan army, Biharies, Albadars and Razakars.”
Muslim migrants from India — all described as Biharis but many from Uttar Pradesh and other parts of India as well — threw in their lot with the invading West Pakistani army in 1971. Bengali Islamists — the Razakars and their Jammat-e-Islami commanders — took sides with that army too. Facing them off were the local guerillas, the Mukti Bahini, backed by the Indian army, which eventually invaded the country in December 1971 and wrested it free of Pakistan. These are the historical facts: the astonishing brutality of the Pakistanis, the Indian support for Bangladesh, the opposing local factions, the ultimate victory of the east. What bothers me is the unanswered question of how ordinary people fared — who turned killer and who was killed? Is it possible that everyone fell into one or another of the neat camps delineated by this history?
The leading Bangladeshi writer Syed Shamshul Haq had died a few weeks before I landed in Dhaka. In his novella Forbidden Incense, which I’m reading, sitting in Peyala Café, a young woman from Dhaka called Bilkis, dressed in a cotton sari, is at the start of the war trying to make her way to the small town of Jaleswari, to look for her mother and siblings.
A young man called Siraj appears and offers to accompany her. They reach Jaleshwari and there discover that the Pakistani army and their local cohorts — Bihari Muslims — have ravaged the town and its people. The lines are clearly drawn but what adds a twist to the tale is the fact that Siraj is actually Pradip. His family has been killed for being Hindu, as Bilkis’s has for being Bengali. Yet the closeness that develops between them in the face of the barbarity of those other Muslims suggests that the author is saying on their behalf: We are Bengalis first and Muslims afterwards.
I wonder if an obverse of Haq’s tale exists in Bangladeshi literature — a narrative in which the Bihari Muslim unites with the Bengali Muslim — to resist the invasion.
But wouldn’t that be trite too, just a fantasy about challenging the stereotype, not a scenario worthy of art?
I am looking for a way out of the hard lines of ethnic and religious differences that have cracked up this country, as distinctly horrifying as those skulls and bones on display. It is only when I read Salil Tripathi’s book The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, perhaps the most comprehensive recent account of the country’s political history, that a human image of the war and its aftermath starts to emerge — one in which the established big picture is complicated by the small, largely unnoticed truths. The Punjabi oppressor, the Bengali victim and the Bihari collaborator remain the major figures in the bloody drama of 1971, but Tripathi is also alert to the wrinkles in the narrative: the innocent Biharis killed, the Bengalis turned vengeful and, most hearteningly, anecdotes about people acting not as their group identity demands nor even out of an instinct for self-preservation but instead honouring that old Hemingwayian principle — grace under pressure. I also find the concomitant to Haq’s story in a film by Tareque and Catherine Masud called Naro Shundor, in which a Bihari barber saves the lives of a Mukti Bahini activist during the war.
At the Liberation War Museum I see a sign listing the number of refugee camps set up during the war — 17 in the Indian State of Meghalaya, it says. This is historically somewhat amiss. The State wasn’t created till 1972, after the war was over. But the area that sits on the left shoulder of Bangladesh, which was then part of Assam and became Meghalaya the following year, did take in refugees from the country-in-the-making to its south. Growing up in Shillong, its capital, about 400 km north of Dhaka, however, I heard stories about and met Hindu Bengalis who had come across the border not only in 1971 and 1947 — the years of the great exoduses — but also fleeing from inter-community violence directed at them in 1950 and 1964. At the same time as Bengali nationalism was gathering steam, groups of the country’s Muslims were, sporadically and viciously, attacking Hindus. Language love seems to have been repeatedly undermined by religious hate here and, as in the case of Haq’s novella, also vice versa.
Forging Bengaliness and Islam in a way that allows one to love other Bengalis because of a shared culture, as well as other Muslims because of a shared faith seems to be both the founding idea of Bangladesh as well as the unresolved paradox at its heart. Tripathi quotes from his conversation with Mahfuz Anam, the editor of The Daily Star. “Bangladesh was the outcome of our nationalistic aspiration, but it has not resolved the issue of what is the place of our Muslim heritage within the context of secular Bangladesh… We have not been able to build an over-arching intellectual framework that brings our Bengali and Islamic heritage together.”
Some of the angst over this question of national identity may well be dissolving, especially for the middle-class young, in the homogenising void of globalisation — that café I was sitting in, say, which could have been on any meridian of the ‘flat’ world. Older people who came of age during the war seem to have a greater stake in that question but also an impatience with it and with the split legacy of the formation of Bangladesh.
No one covered themselves with glory, says Sal, a veteran of the war, at a rooftop dinner party, referring to all the factions involved. I ask him if he killed anyone. I hope so, he says smiling, which shocks me for a moment — naively, I realise. Then he says he was part of a unit firing mortar bombs into enemy lines and never actually saw any of the Pakistanis he was attacking. He left the country soon after to join the propaganda operations of the government-in-exile in Kolkata, and showed Allen Ginsberg around when the poet came visiting the camps. Ginsberg’s famous ‘September on Jessore Road’ is a fulsome cry of horror at the millions of starving refugees and the American ‘Air Force of Light’ busy bombing North Laos instead of coming to help.
Unlike Rabbi, whose proud bashing up of Pakistanis in dorm rooms is tinged with the burden of a 45-year-old grievance, Sal does not believe in historical retribution.
He sees the killing of bloggers and the rise of Islamism in the country as the outcome of the present government — the Awami League’s — exhuming of the Jamaat-e-Islami’s old crimes and the recent executions of the war criminals. They really should have let the past be, he says.
Instead of hanging out in Peyala and trying to decode the Bengali conversations taking place around me I should be out somewhere in the city, looking for traces of a person I’ve never met and have just crumbs of information about — my granduncle, Abdul Manan, who with his family disappeared during the ’71 war, probably killed. I’m not quite sure where to look for him. All I know is that he moved to Dhaka from Kolkata in 1947, and continued to work for the Bata shoe company, as he had in India.
I wasn’t curious about Abdul Manan when my paternal grandfather, his brother-in-law, was alive. Like with the company executive I met on the plane, it did not occur to me, as a teenager, that history could be both something taking place on the outside in a completely impersonal, almost boring, way as well as, typhoon-like, suck in people one knew or was related to.
I later take a car around to the Bata showrooms in the city, an afternoon of hopeful but meandering searching. My two enthusiastic companions and I start at a small outlet in Probodhi Sarani, which is all hectic commerce and mad traffic, people swirling over the walkways, which are everywhere in Dhaka; an acknowledgement, it appears, of the pointlessness of any pedestrian intervention into the roads. From that first shop, we are directed to a bigger and older Bata and then end up driving to the Bata factory in Tongi. The security officer, Zahid, at his desk in a small office by the gate and in uniform despite the Friday holiday, says he’ll get a colleague to look through the archives the following week. He introduces us to a Major Rahman, who promises to do what he can. Zahid shows us around. The factory is at the end of a tree-lined avenue, a small lake and spotted deer in a park on either side of it. As Zahid speaks proudly of Bata’s multinational character, with top staff from Italy, Taiwan and India, I remember a name that Sal mentioned to me — Ouderland.
The Dutch-Australian William Ouderland was the CEO of Bata here when the war started. He had fought the Nazis in the Netherlands in the 1940s as part of the Dutch resistance, emigrating to Australia afterwards. In Dhaka in 1971, he got involved in the action — assisting the operations of the liberation war fighters, the Mukti Bahini, sharing with them intelligence he gleaned from the Pakistanis, and organising food, shelter and medical aid. He built bunkers for his staff on these grounds we’re strolling in, and hid weapons for the Mukti Bahini in the water tanks above the factory buildings.
Might Ouderland have saved Abdul Manan during the fighting? I try to imagine the choices before my grand-uncle on the morning of March 25, 1971, the day the Pakistani army tanks rolled into Dhaka. Was he killed by one of the mobs that had taken to the streets in those early days before the Mukti Bahini were organised, or could he have been rounded up later, in the reprisal killings after the war? Had he sought the protection of the Pakistanis and been killed by the Bengalis? Did he try to get away to India, or did he join the mobs himself and die in the rioting?
How many people like him died? Estimates of the number of non-Bengalis killed ranges wildly between 20,000 and 5,00,000. Yet these are the minor and the minority deaths — unable to find a place in most stories of the war I’ve encountered in Dhaka, not quite fitting in with the narrative of a beleaguered people fighting for their freedom and their language, their deaths reaching to many times these footnote-level numbers.
I don’t sleep at all that night. I can hear the excited TV news voices and a prolonged phone conversation in the adjoining hotel room till well after midnight, but I am too tired to try and follow the Bengali. The following evening I drink three glasses of wine at a party and go to bed in a state of exhausted exhilaration, expecting to blank out but instead facing a giant raft of wide-awake thoughts. I realise I’m having a hard time seeing this as a country. What I’ve heard over the past few days being spoken of as intrinsic to Bangladesh — the Bauls, for instance, those travelling one-man bands, or the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, who was brought over from India in 1976, ailing and four years before his death, to be installed as a national poet — are part of a composite Bengali culture.
My next-door neighbour appears to be completely at home in his own insomnia — the same late-night screeching on TV, the same shouty phone calls into the small hours. As for me, I’m so terrified at the prospect of a third sleepless night, I call the hotel doctor the next morning. He arrives in a suit, carrying a paper bag, searingly cheerful. On learning I’m Indian, he promptly says that the Hindus here are fine. But what about the recent attacks? Just that morning another temple has been set on fire, I say. He brushes it aside with a flick of his beringed hand and says that all the Hindus here are in upper-class jobs. I stare at the doctor’s golden tie and wait for him to get around to the subject of sleeplessness. He asks me a few questions about my life, declares me “overtasked”, and cuts out for me four sleeping pills out of a strip of 10, advising me to take one immediately and forget about everything. I tell him I can’t. I have made a plan to go and see the parliament with a friend.
If it has a parliament it must be a country. There is something attractively no-nonsense about the unpainted concrete columns, triangles and cubes of this famous Brutalist monument designed by Louis Kahn in 1962. Seeing it spread out on a rise against the horizon, I remember having read that from the air during the war the Pakistani fighters mistook it for a ruin and so left it alone. The following day, I am sitting in traffic again and notice how that bare concrete look is no longer an aesthetic; it has become the ordinary work-in-progress appearance of much of Dhaka. The dust of construction, the hooked arms of yellow cranes, and the billboards with projections of the real estate beauties to come are everywhere. I am on my way to a friend’s place who lives, curiously, just next to a road that goes past the Australian Embassy and is named after Ouderland. The driver she has sent for me, Kashim, speaks a perfectly functional broken English (“Another day I didn’t find it this same traffic, today I find it this traffic”).
We talk about the July attack on Holey Artisan Bakery, when gunmen entered one of the city’s most famous restaurants and shot down 22 people. Traffic is especially slow on the road we’re on because of the increased security after those killings, described as the worst terrorist massacres in the country’s recent history. Later, when I try to walk past the lake-front Holey Artisan Bakery, also parallel to Ouderland Road, I find the blind alley it is on sealed off with barricades.
Back home, some weeks later, I get an email from Major Rahman of Bata with a photo attached. Could this be the person you’re looking for, he asks. His name is Abdul Manan and he worked in Bata from 1945 to 1974. He was from Noakhali. I look at the black-and-white photo of the full-lipped narrow face with a wispy moustache.
It seems appropriate that this Bengali Abdul Manan also worked in the company roughly during the years my granduncle did. Two men with the same name and the same job, joined by religion but separated by language. I tell Major Rahman that this seems to be the wrong guy, unfortunately. He writes back to say he’ll keep the search going.
Anjum Hasan is a writer based in Bengaluru