It has become difficult now to descend directly down the slope of memory and write about ’71, without the events unfolding all around us – casting shadows that twine in and out and toss our souls in different directions – deflecting our single minded gaze. But one has to start at the beginning.
I was a teenager at the time, on the threshold of a university education. My father, a civil servant had,I remember vaguely, brought in a pamphlet titled The Six Points and spoke in hushed but admiring tones about it. He came back from the Race Course on March 7, all the way on foot, but strangely rejuvenated. Looking back now, with all the political wisdom (!) I have gathered over the years, I should have insisted that he take me along.
Then the night of March 25. We were awakened by the sound of screams that rent the night as if doomsday were at hand. From the northern window of our house in Lalmatia on the edge of Mohammadpur, we could see what appeared to be thousands of flares in the sky. We could not tell where the screams were coming from or remember how the night passed into day; some of us spent the hours on prayer mats, while some were just speechless. The next morning an army jeep did the rounds in our neighbourhood (a predominantly non- Bengali i.e. Bihari one) and asked us to bring the ‘Joi Bangla’ flag down from our roof top. We lived very close to the Physical Education Centre, Mohammadpur, which, I was to realise years later, served as the torture camp for many Bengali intellectuals.
One day after curfew was lifted, I heard our caretaker whispering something to my father about the area not being safe for a family with two young daughters, and thus started our nomadic existence, moving from house to house in various neighbourhoods in Dhaka. I remember the caretaker burying the family valuables – jewellery, land deeds and such stuff beneath the soil in our compound; while we hurriedly threw in clothes into a bag and took off to live at relatives’ and friends’ houses further and further away from the residence in Mohammadpur.
We migrated to my aunt’s place in Dhanmadi first. She was quite a lady, active member of a women’s organisation and not one to sit back and meditate while a city burned. I saw her taking off when curfew broke for a few hours, and come back white faced after roaming through what must have been a deserted city. I remember her whisper hoarsely as she stared into vacant space “I have seen the great cremation ground.”
We had to change houses quite often. Sometime around May, my uncle Jamil Chowdhury a pro- Bengali civil servant, took off for Calcutta. So did several cousins and my sister- all cultural activists who had been active in the anti-Ayub and anti-Yahya movements. Singing songs of resistance: Janatar sangram cholbei, Joi Bangla Banglar joi, Phul khelbar din noi odyo, Banglar Hindu, Banglar Bouddho, Banglar Christan, Banglar Musulman, and so on. I was left behind with my parents, marooned, it seemed, on a desert island while life was being fought and lived elsewhere. Not to be out-done however, I was on the look out for an opportunity which came my way soon when I overheard another group of activists, mostly from the university based cultural organisation Sangskriti Sangsad, planning a ‘trip’ to Calcutta at a clandestine meeting at my cousin’s house . I used all the energy and wiles available to a teenager to convince my parents to let me accompany them across the border to India, to participate in or witness the great struggle in whatever manner I was capable of. Perhaps my parents were not too reluctant to let me go (with a family we knew very well), considering one of their daughters was already a ‘marked’ cultural activist, although safely across the border now.
Our journey to India was an adventure. We had to get passes from some member of a shanti committee in Dhaka, don burquas for a ‘trip to a holy shrine’, drive through Daudkandi to Comilla, take a boat there, then walk the rest of the way to Agartala. Once in Agartala, we joined the family of an Awami League MP, who were fleeing from Dhaka. Though we slept huddled on the bare floor, and used an adjoining copse as a toilet, the air we breathed in felt pure and free. My heart went out to those we had left behind in ‘occupied’ Dhaka- even though all we had were a few clothes, a small amount of money and our immense sense of determination, pride and adventure.
We took a plane to Calcutta, destination of the pro-Bengali politicians, cultural activists and intellectuals who had fled the wrath of the Pakistani regime. Calcutta – which welcomed us with open arms and served as a haven for the influx from Bangladesh with generosity and patience- I wonder if I ever took a moment off to thank the city in a silent salute? A city where so many of our relatives and friends had taken refuge.
I put up at various places: at a maternal uncle’s house (Professor of Presidency College, A W Mahmood ) where my paternal uncle and sister were already sheltered; a family friends’ rooms in Sudder Street – a place rented by the late Mr Aminur Rahman, chief pilot to the government of East Pakistan who had defected and fled; at Khelaghar in Kalyani, the children’s home set up by Ms Maitreyi Devi. Finally, I found a niche in Calcutta and my little role in the War of Liberation by joining a group of other young men and women in a small two-roomed office at Netaji Bhaban, in what would become the Bangladesh Information Bank- a centre engaged in archiving each day all newspaper and journal entries on the War of Liberation. About twelve of us student-emigres, worked from 8.00-5.00 under the guidance of Mr. Jamil Chowdhury at a salary (paid by the Government- in -exile of Bangladesh) of Rs. 150 a month.
There were rumours of some Bangladeshis in the upper echeleons, living it up ( and rumours were then as always, a dime a dozen) at some place called The Blue Fox. The likes of us were quite content with our 1 Rupee luchi/ghughni breakfast from the vendor each morning and the ocasional evening at Victoria Memorial Ground munching peanuts and savouring an ice cream. Truly we felt fortunate and rich, even though our meagre savings were dwindling by the day. Perhaps it was the magical, ridiculous, enviable hopefulness of youth- we were not down and under for long. Some of us were lucky in that they had their families with them; but many of us never missed the finer amenities we had been used to as members of a middle class in Dhaka for we knew there were millions less fortunate than we in the refugee camps not too far. ‘Luchi-ghugni’ from the street vendor sufficed though a few among us did end up with jaundice. We did fall terribly sick at times but I am amazed now at our resilience. And always our ears would prick up at news from the war front. We tuned in to Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra on rickety radios, pounced on anyone who came from the battle zones and tried to piece together a comprehensive picture of how the fate of Bangladesh would be decided by the guerillas, muktijoddhas; and the Russo-Indian axis.
And so the days were on. The December 6, the day the government of India granted Bangladesh recognition, was greeted with jubilation at our little office. It seemed things were ‘moving’. The director knew Suchitra Mitra well and she came over and sang for us and joined our simple celebration in the yard of the Netaji Bhaban. We pooled some money, bought jilabis, distributed them, and gathered in the back yard. But sadly I cannot recall the songs, the legendary singer sang for us!
We heard the news of the surrender on December 16 at my uncle’s place as it was a Sunday. We had gathered for our weekly adda. My uncle Jamil Chowdhury also knew Argyha Sen and we picked him up right away, hired a taxi and rode through the streets of Calcutta all night unable and unwilling to sleep.
Our waiting had ended. Then it hit us: how lonely we had been, how afraid, how homesick and uncertain of what the future held. Like so much flotsam adrift in an uncharted sea. Soon we headed back to the land where a green field waited for us with a red sun and a golden map etched on it.
Forty two years later when I stood at Projonmo Chottor this February holding a candle on the night of the vigil, my eyes must have misted over a bit in remembrance of those days spent in rooms without electricity, lit by a candle on account of the war time blackout. But the unforgettable moment was provided by the night a friend led me by the hand to show me, the simple, inner most circle on the street where the ‘core group’ of Bloggers and Online Activists, had taken their stand. I could not make out anything in the dark save myriad human forms; but as my gaze strayed upwards, it was transfixed by a huge flag of red and green, swaying in the night sky, creating a canopy over the group that had launched the movement. It was swaying in the breeze gently. The lights from surrounding buildings and the stars, filtered through it, making it gauze-like, translucent. It was only a flag, a rectangular piece of red and green cloth. But for one surreal moment it seemed that ‘Basundhara’ – the spirit of mother Earth had risen from the fields and forests to shower her blessings on her sleepless children.
The writer is Professor, Department of History, University of Dhaka.