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Thursday, May 24, 2018

A journey of gleaming emotions

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Nafisa Faruque reviews some despairing days of 1971 with glimpses of precious hope allowingyou to experience everything through the writers' eyes

The year 1971 is etched as an indelible reminder of some of most grueling memories in the lives of thousands of Bangalees even today. The month of March specifically inspires one to remember some core elements that drove the fight for freedom: Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman delivering one of the greatest speeches in history on the 7th of March and the brutal mass killings that took place under the Pakistan army's Operation Searchlight on the 25th of March, thus marking the beginning of nation's fight for independence.

There is a plethora of books and documents on our Liberation War, depicting history from a first person or third person viewpoint. However, after coming across a book titled "Stories from the Edge", I hardly took time to admire the uniqueness that it contains.

This book is a collection of short personal narratives by 14 incredibly talented writers, who had some connection to the war, direct or indirect. With Razia Sultana Khan and Niaz Zaman as the brilliant editors, each story takes you to the despairing days of 1971 with glimpses of precious hope and allows you to experience everything through the writers' eyes.

The very first story, 'Free At Last' by Asfa Hossain, revolves around her experience of the many uncertainties and ordeals of the war, at a time when she was expecting her first child. Some of the incidents illustrate narrow escapes from the known enemy as well as her family's brave decisions to shelter several non-Muslim families which was deemed treachery at that time. She had to leave for London to deliver her child but henceforth became active in voicing her opinions at the many protests that took place there.

In 'Chittagong Days', writer Zeba Rasheed Chowdhury courageously holds her ground in the tensed atmosphere of the war. One incident highlights her persistent efforts to save two Turkish students whom she was helping escape from Forest Hill to safety. For her valiance, she was to even receive an award titled 'Sitara-e-Jurrat' from the Forest Ministry.

Zakia Rahman recalls witnessing scores of Bangalees packing up their humble belongings and leaving their beloved homeland in her story 'The Exodus'. Throughout the war she was confined to the safety of her family home but ironically, it was towards the end, in December 1971, when her family endured a similar situation and had to leave their home for a safer location.

Nusrat Huq was a student of Dhaka University in 1971. With an interesting title 'Love, Death and Allama Iqbal', her story ornately illustrates the shenanigans of young adult university-life at that time, amid the ongoing protests and political unrest. It moves on to her departure from Dhaka, her family's poignant separation and reunion and finally, perhaps most interestingly, how a few verses from a poem by famous Urdu-language poet Allama Iqbal saved a life.

'The Day I Lost My Husband' the heartrending tale of how Mahmuda Haque Choudhury lost her husband Md. Shamsul Haque, who was Superintendent of Police of Chittagong during the War. He had played a valiant role in aborting a plan to assassinate Sheikh Mujibur Rahman but ultimately lost his life a few months later.

Jackie Kabir's bone-chilling piece 'Green Helmets' revolves around her mother's predicaments while she was pregnant with her first born towards the beginning of 1971. She recalls the horror of 25th March, when a squad of crude men wearing green helmets raided her neighbourhood and barbarously killed countless innocents.

'Nine Months in Agartala', written by Masrufa Ayesha Nusrat, eloquently highlights her mother's account of her family's tearful escape from their home in Akhaura to the refugee camps in Agartala, India. Even in the safety of the shelter that a Hindu family had generously offered them, her family continued to help the freedom fighters and finally return to their beloved homeland after Bangladesh's victory.

Shirin Hasanat Islam's story, 'A Camp Survivor's Tale', takes on the appalling differences between the two core cities, an affluent Karachi and a ravaged Dhaka, of the two halves of Pakistan in 1971. It goes on describe the dangerous turn her life took in Karachi in December. The next year became a living nightmare as her family became subject to various forms of humiliation. Soon in 1972, they were relocated to a Prisoner of War Camp. The final portion poignantly describes her life during that one month at the camp.

From Lahore, Karachi to Karatia, the book's editor Niaz Zaman's story 'A Long Flight Home' takes you on a journey beyond the War and delves into parts that are not always discussed out loud. She recalls her many difficult decisions and dangerous escapes with her two sons across Pakistan, holding on to dear lives by the last straw at each escape.

Tanveerul Haque is the only male writer in the collection of narratives. From a family trip in Kashmir to flashbacks of a perilous escape from Islamabad in 1971, his piece 'How My Wife Learned to Ride a Horse' adds a refreshing touch to the book. As the title hints, Haque finds out from his wife how she had learnt to ride a horse in a grave situation during the War.

Razia Quader begins her narrative 'Escape from Pakistan', a collective memory of her four siblings, with a view to be as truthful as possible for the future generation's knowledge. She writes about her childhood in Islamabad when the idea of an imminent war had not penetrated her thoughts. As the differences between the Bangalees and the Urdu-speaking population quickly escalated, she found herself and her family facing the jeopardies that war brings and embarked on a perilous journey to escape from Pakistan.

In 'And Never the Twain', Razia Sultana Khan (the other editor of the book) reminisces about her serene life in the heart of Istanbul in 1971 which was soon to be disrupted. Turkey was a close ally of Pakistan and before she knew it; it was time for her family to return to her homeland, which was unexpectedly safer even in the midst of searing warfare.

In 'Stateless in London', Shahana Khan initially delves into the excitement surrounding the start of a new life with her husband in London after moving there in 1970. However, as they begin to settle down in a new country, the situation in their homeland-Bangladesh-starts to become more unsettling. Despite being safe in London, she participates in various rallies and protests in unity with other Bangalee expatriates. She further recalls the joyous moment of surrendering her Pakistani passport to the Bangladesh Mission in London to become 'stateless' before returning to Bangladesh as one of its proud citizens.

The final story in this excellent collection is titled 'When Sheikh Mujib Came to Geneva' by Shahruk Rahman. In 1971, she was living in the Swiss capital of Bern and working with a Punjabi Ambassador. While her life in the serenity of Switzerland seemed like heaven on Earth, she was constantly haunted by thoughts of the horrors of war at home and the safety of her loved ones. After Bangladesh had won the war, she recounts preparing for the arrival of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to Geneva in 1972.

Amid all the different kinds of formal narratives on 1971, this book appears as a valuable chronicle of our Liberation War through the voices of women. The personal perspectives of trauma, uncertainty and despair would compel readers to emotionally roam across our unforgettable era of glory. Bengal Boi, as the dexterous publisher, must do a fitting justice to both the book and its contributors by ensuring its wide publicity.

The reviewer is a freelance columnist in English dailies and schooling at BRAC University, Dhaka

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