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Friday, April 20, 2018

A life beyond life: An appreciation of Chariot of Life

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Hayat Saif reviews the chronicle of an eye witness of the Liberation War of Bangladesh

Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury's Chariot of Life, sub-titled Liberation War, Politics and Sojourn in Jailis an engaging and gripping auto biographical memoir of a person of extraordinary caliber, a civil bureaucrat caught in the vortex of the movement for Bangladesh early in his career and then consumed fully in the war of liberation taking part as a valiant soldier and decorated for his gallantry as Bir Bikram. But this is not just a personal memoir, nor is it an autobiographical account of his life.

It is a history, an eye witness account of the breathtaking momentous events following the 7th of April 1971 till the liberation on the 16th of December the same year. The book skillfully juxtaposes its 400 odd pages with the author's seven months of confinement with all its Orwellian dramaturgy against nine months of liberation war and presents the realities of prison with actual insights of fighting first hand in the war with introspective analyses.

'Shadows of Past & Footprints of Liberation War', 'History Revisited-War and its Aftermath', and 'Prison Life in Limbo', the realities of incarceration comes fully alive detailing the daily chores filled with the ignominy anddeprivation of even the legal rights of an individual so much so that the word'individuality' loses its meaning.

In Part I of the book running through the sections titled 'One Dark Cloud on a Sunny Afternoon', 'Fractured Existence' 'Journey Unknown' and 'Parallel World'. This part states facts with analysis of the socio-political scenario that started with the overthrow of military rule in Bangladesh in 1990 through a popular uprising spearheaded by the two-major political parties A.L and B.N.Peventually leading to a military backed CTG that quickly reduced itself to a money-making torture machine that left the country bleeding with all kinds of kangaroo courts that perpetrated a long drawn out travesty of justice.

The author was also caught unwittingly in the web. The analysis of the events between the years 1990 and 2007-2008 eminently lays bare the aberrant socio-political maneuvers that blatantly ignore and even dispense with the interests of the country and the people and is solely driven by the avarice and ambition of persons, groups and coterie.Also in this part we find a mind at once spiritual and rational that puts his confidence and faith in God's dispensation occasionally recalling the verses from the Holy Quran and drawing strength from such verses as :

"Verily I shall put you on test with fear, hunger, loss of wealth and life … and blessed are those who are patient …." Equipped with such conviction the author braves on prison life with dignity and perseverance. In solitary confinement thoughts come and the author persists. The entirety part one relates, with flash-backs and sequential appearances of reality, a great saga of a country going through the ups and down of fortune as if of a person.

All through the Part II of the book which is divided into three chapters: 'Shadows of Past & Footprints of Liberation War', 'History Revisited-War and its Aftermath', and 'Prison Life in Limbo', the realities of incarceration comes fully alive detailing the daily chores filled with the ignominy and deprivation of even the legal rights of an individual so much so that the word'individuality' loses its meaning.

When harsh reality harks him back he delves into it with an unusual gusto going into the political, social and economic history elucidating the details to his young inmates Nikhil, the Engineer and young Zafar the politician or Zulqarmain, a middle aged business man, much like a dialogue of the old masters of Greece reminding the objective analytical method of Socrates, Aristotle and Plato. He also explains to young inmates the meaning of 'hard power' and 'soft power' and how the ideas are fitted into the so called Nagorik Shakti etc.

 Part III of the book goes directly into those turbulent days preceding the 7th of March 1971 and the socio-political developments leading to that rarest moment in history that the nation witnessed on that day at the Race Course. In the first chapter 'Awakening of a Nation' the author relates the gaining of the momentum for the 6-point demand which was a force that awakened and galvanized everyone energizing and inspiriting them all.

The people of the then East Pakistan became a solid mass under the leadership of Sheikh Mujib, their undisputed leader, whose life was at risk but not the one to be cowed down. In the authors language, 'this was truly a test of strength between a well-articulated political programme embraced by a population and a brute force that wanted its way'.The author was then a CSP officer and back in 1969 it was eminently clear to him along with others of his time that the so called two wings were actually two separate entities. Protests continued unabated.In late 1970 he was posted as SDO Meherpur, the smallest subdivision in the then East Pakistan.Even during the beginnings of armed struggle it was clear that Bangladesh was going to be a reality as an independent state to discerning eyes

       The next chapter of the Part III is titled 'The First Smell of Victory'. Tawfiq is still relating his memories of the war, his deep involvement by taking up arms along with two more of his friends that destiny brought together in the area-onewas Mahboob then SDPO of Jenaidah and the other was Major Hafiz who was then stationed at Jessore cantonment defecting from there and joining hands with the liberation forces.

After organizing resistance at Meherpur Tawfiq looked further to strengthen the efforts. Mahboob was stationed forty miles away from Jessore. They met on the 23 March at a roadside rest house in Jehaidah, a nondescript rendezvous for consultation. News got around and the town was roused, Volunteers, Students, Ansars and Mujahids and Police all got together with full throated slogan of Joy Bangla. On a makeshift dais, a table, Tawfiq made an ingenious call to all to start the fight. The crowd was ready.

A Mukti Bahini was born. He goes on to narrate the assessment of the time and his efforts to involve the Indian side for help. On the Indian side he met the District Magistrate and the BSF commander. Mr. Bhattacharya the DM of Krishnagar addressed him as the first ambassador of Bangladesh while receiving him. Prior to this meeting Tawfiq managed to send short cheats asking for help from Indian Government which was printed in the front page of all Calcutta Dailies and the above officials were, in the meanwhile, directed to get in touch with Bangladesh counterparts.

It is now known what atrocities were perpetrated in Dhaka on the 25th by 'mowing down university students asleep in their dorms, slums were razed and put to the torch fire amidst the wails of children, women and men, Hindu living quarters are targeted with a vengeance, re-enacting scenes of Nazi persecution of the Jews'. When this was happening in Dhaka and all over the country a fledgling peoples war was taking shape. As the author describes: 'A determined nation, mobilized by Bangabandhu to reclaim its identity, dignity and inalienable rights, was facing down on a professional army waging a proxy war-gunsagainst voices, tyranny against dreams-fueled by the greed of a military oligarchy'.

Part IV starts with the chapter titled 'Twist of Fate: Prison and War'. Taking the thread of the narrative from the previous chapter his coming back to the same prison cell after the gesture of setting him free was a sham only to bring him back where he was. During the court attendance, the author had glimpses of the unique personality of the former Prime Minister, at that time a co-accused.

During such conversations, the author was amazed at the depth of understanding of her country like the back of her hand saying that, 'her understanding of Bangladesh and its people was innate --possibly passed on as family silver from her father, whose life represented the yearnings of Bangladesh's people in all their wholesomeness. In discussing issues, she blended a vision with practical solution-no amount of formal analysis with numbers and application of sophisticated tools could reach the depth she plumbed with ease'.

The sham trial in a Kangaroo Court he describes how the former Prime Minister made her own statement for defense elaborating the principles and institutions of democratic governance as well as the achievements of her last tenure (1996-2001) including a growth of about 6 % per annum and reduction of poverty among others. By juxtaposition, the author qualifies the 1/11 government as becoming predatory because by the end of 2006 'all the institutions of the States--parliament,police, civil administration-hadall been infiltrated by the predators with support from the State and manipulating them to their personal ends.'

In the last Chapter titled 'Towards Deliverance' the incidents related to the release of Sheikh Hasina is narrated while release of the author is still waiting in limbo. At the end of the chapter finally his deliverance comes on 21st August 2008 after seven months of imprisonment on false charges. This is an absorbing narrative that hovers between personal and impersonal. It will appeal to most historians and audiences wanting a keen insight into Bangladesh from liberation war to the present. (excerpt)


The reviewer is a freelancer

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