A Painful Memory
In trying to recollect some memories of the liberation war days of 1971, I am driven to occurrences I wish should not have taken place. The memories make me feel sad and morose today even after so many decades.
It was probably April 17, 1971. At the insistence of my husband Khosruzzaman Chowdhury, a CSP, and then Sub-divisional Officer of Kishoreganj subdivision, I had left Kishoreganj with my nine-month old son. Kishoreganj had become too dangerous and risky by that time. Rumours had it that the occupation army would move in any time.
My husband decided to stay back only to help the MuktiFouz taking advantage of his position as the head of the local administration. He was, in fact, in secret collaboration with the MuktiFouz right from the beginning of their operation in the area.
With great trouble and hardship, we moved to Nabinagar in Brahmanbaria. But it was not possible to stay there because of Air Force bombing and strafing with saberjets. We moved to nearby Rasulabad and then back to Nabinagar again. No place was safe. I decided to go to Dhaka and hide there.
I boarded the Dhaka-bound launch. It was teeming with passengers of every description, all tense and downcast. Worries and agonies were writ large on every face. Everybody was whispering, as if someone was eavesdropping. It was nerve-wracking. Rumours spread like wild fire.
"Do you know that the army has already occupied Brahmanbaria? They are going to Nabinagar tomorrow."
"I heard hundreds of people were killed in Dhaka."
"I haven't heard from my family in Chittagong. God knows what has happened to them."
I had heard those rumours too. But I showed no reaction. I could not afford to. I was in hiding. I didn't want anybody to recognise me. Except for my wristwatch, which was given to me by my husband at our wedding, I had nothing on me to betray my identity. Very common printed cotton saree, a veil on my face, a pair of sponge sandals on my feet, that's all I had. I was in disguise, and I knew I would not be conspicuous.
We were getting impatient. Why wasn't the launch starting? Wasn't it getting too late? I was really worried.
Finally, the launch set out for Dhaka. It started moving out slowly and carefully. I breathed a sigh of relief, at least temporarily.
I had not noticed that a woman sitting next to me had been observing me intently for quite some time. She was probably twenty-three or twenty-four. She had her daughter with her, --- a sweet restless, and freshness around. I looked at her and exchanged glances. I smiled at her.
All along the woman had been observing me. I wanted to avoid her looks, and looked the other way. But I knew she had not taken
her eyes off me. I was feeling uncomfortable. The eerie feeling that someone was watching me was indeed too much to bear. Had she recognised me? I shuddered to think of the consequences. I didn't want to be identified here, not at this moment.
I kept my eyes off her as long as I could, but finally gave in. She was waiting for that prime moment. It was obvious that she was eager to talk to me.
She started talking. I carefully avoided my identity. I was as conscious as I could ever be. Finally she got into very personal questions.
"Don't mind do you teach at the College of Home Economics at Dhaka?"
"No, no. You are mistaken. I am a simple housewife. I don't teach anywhere."
"Then it must be your sister. I know this face." She looked so confident.
"Can't be. I have no sister."
I got worried. Has this woman really recognised me? Otherwise how could she know about me? I felt perturbed.
The woman would not give up. She kept on asking questions. I tried my best to derail her questions from the right track by giving wrong answers.
"My husband is a businessman. He has indenting business in Chittagong. I am a simple housewife."
Finally, she looked at my son's shirt. "This shirt is beautiful. Who made this? Do you know we were taught how to make such shirts in our Home Economics class?"
I preferred not to reply and looked away. By then I had started thinking. Had I ever seen this face before? It seemed somewhat familiar. Where had I seen her before? I thought and thought. Suddenly it became all clear. I had seen her at the Siddeswari Girls' College where I had once gone as an external examiner. She was one of the several students who had their practical exams with me. Yes, I did recollect. She must also be recollecting me.
I felt sad. There were so many questions I could ask her. There were so many things we could talk over with. I felt a strange affection for a student I had met only once in life. I, however, couldn't recollect her name, but I knew I had seen her. What a pity! I could not tell her that her guess was right. I was the one she had in mind. I had to struggle hard to suppress my feelings. It was tormenting. Finally, the launch stopped. We got down. Perhaps I betrayed some emotions. My student came close and tried for the last time.
"There may be a reason why you are hiding. You don't have to worry about me, you can tell me frankly."
She pressed my hand, looked straight into my eyes, almost begged.
"Please, please for God's sake, tell me you are Tahmina Apa. I cannot be wrong." I shook my head -- may be more than I should have. I knew I had to be firm for the last time not to betray my identity.
"No, no you are mistaken. That's not my name. You have taken me for someone else. You must be mistaken. I am not who you think I am."
Now after decades as I reminisce, the happenings of our liberation war that plunged the entire nation into its maelstrom, this episode unsettles my mind most. I become somewhat emotional. A guilt feeling overtakes me for concealing the truth at that particular moment in time. I could not tell her what she had wanted to hear from me so desperately. I never met my student again. How much I yearned to meet her again only to tell who I was, to tell her I had lied to her, I had no choice. She did really know who I was. She was not mistaken. Even after so many years she recognised me rightly. In the milling crowd here in my country and elsewhere, I have been looking for my student, but in vain. The painful episode hangs heavy like an albatross around my neck.
Freedom has a price, in so many ways.
Translated from Bangla by Syed Badrul Haque
Tahmina Zaman, a former Professor of Home Economics College, is a social activist, she has written a book about the expatriate Bangladeshis in America. She now lives in Louisiana, USA.
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