Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 7 Issue 13 | March 28, 2008 |

  Cover Story
  Writing the Wrong
  Special Feature
  Photo Feature
  View from the   Bottom
  A Roman Column
  In Retrospect
  Dhaka Diary
  Book Review

   SWM Home

Writing the Wrong

Lest We Forget

Sharbari Ahmed

I have Pakistani friends. We never talk about 1971. Honestly, what would I say? “So, do you think any of your relatives kidnapped my sister-in-law's father in the middle of the night, leaving her fatherless forever?” No, of course not. My closest Pakistani pal was born and raised in California and is a person who doesn't think in terms of nationality or race. I forget that her people came from Karachi and she certainly forgets I am of Bangladeshi extraction because when she wants to have a private conversation-- usually on the subway-- she starts talking to me in Urdu. I always let her talk because I think Urdu is beautiful (I think Bangla is more beautiful but let's not quibble.) and then I shrug and go, “huh?” She laughs and says, “oh sorry. I forgot.”

“Maybe you need to learn Bangla,” I say. She always nods in agreement. “Bengali is gorgeous.”

Last Eid, she texted me Eid greetings in Urdu. It was a long message, which is probably why her phone bill is so high. She loves long texts. I knew what she was getting at, so I simply texted back in English, “Eid Mubarak to you too, honey pie.” “Sorry,” she texted back. “I forgot.”

I actually really love that she forgets and that I forget when I am with her. I guess it is easy because what happened in 1971 is not a part of our reality. She was not even born and I was barely a minute old-- though I am going to get to that. Plus she and her family had nothing to do with the war.

As I get older and seemingly more complex (and wise, ahem) the circumstances under which I was born hold increasing importance for me. Not to mention the fact that I am who I am because of 1971 and the fate it brought me. For the most part, though, I don't get into discussions about it.

Recently, however, I had a rather passionate reaction to something someone said.

It was on a film set that was truly pan-subcontinental. The director was a Hindu, and the actors were from all over the Sub-continent. My Pakistani friend was the assistant director and I was one of the actors. We were sitting around between takes and one of the other actors who was also Pakistani started talking about Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Everyone agreed that it was a tragedy.

“Though, let's face it,” she said, “Benazir was a corrupt CIA stooge.”

I was surprised to hear her say that. I was labouring under the misconception that all liberal progressive Pakistani Americans fell for Bhutto's rhetoric. I always had it in for her ever since I read her autobiography Daughter of The East and saw that she had reduced '71 to a mere few sentences. Three million souls, including my bhabi's father, did not rate more than a couple of neat sentences that more or less absolved her beloved father of any wrongdoing. When she was killed, however, I did not focus on that. I just kept thinking about her youngest child who is only 14. Pakistan may have lost a leader, but she lost her mother.

The actor's statement was met with some silence. It was a heavy remark given the light hearted nature of the set. So I mentioned Bhutto's youngest and everyone murmured in agreement. “But Bhutto's father,” I said, “now that's another story.”

My pal said, “What do you mean?”

“I'm here because of him. My father was a professor, one of the dreaded intellectuals and we had to flee because he would have been killed. Also, my sister-in-law's father was in the military and they took him away in the middle of the night and that was the last time she ever saw him. Bhutto's father deserved to be hanged.”

I don't know if any of you remember one the last columns I wrote about this particular film set but there was an actor on it, a rather unfortunate, clueless individual who had made the mistake of treating me like a production assistant and demanding I serve him coffee. Needless to say he had been properly dealt with (by me), but the operative word here is clueless so he says, “Don't say that. Zulfiker Bhutto was a great man.”

Everyone turned to look at not him, but me because by that time, my temper had been well documented, though I did see one of the other actors wince when he said that. Hadn't I just finished saying that my sister-in-law's father had been killed by the Pakistanis in a genocidal agenda of which “Mr. Great” was the architect? Even if he truly believed that Bhutto was the best thing since sliced bread was this really the moment to declare that? “Listen, you moron,” I said. “Maybe you have never lost anyone, or maybe you are having difficulty comprehending what I just said, but this great man you so adore KILLED three MILLION people so maybe you need to keep your idiotic opinions to yourself.”

I was literally panting when I said this. So much for detachment and all that meditation I had been doing. It was an overreaction on my part, no doubt and obviously, I did not like this person but I should have controlled my temper. He looked contrite and apologised at once. I accepted it since I am not a complete savage but refused to make eye contact with him for the rest of the shoot unless I was in a scene with him. (Did I mention that I am becoming wiser with age?)

Besides the obvious bias I had against Bhutto's number one fan, there was another reason I reacted the way I did and felt the need to mention the number three million. And this brings me back to the theme of forgetting. I like that my Pakistani friend and I forget where we are from and just be who we are when we are together. I like that we just concentrate on the quintessence of one another, which is far more complex than mere national identity or ethnicity, but I regret that so many people seem to have forgotten and worse still, do not know that three million souls were extinguished in 1971 and the ensuing famine that followed. That they were systematically killed because they had dared to ask for that most fundamental of human rights, freedom.

The Anti-Defamation League, an American Jewish organisation that is committed to making sure that their holocaust remains at the forefront of the world's conscience forever has a simple motto, “Never Forget.” And believe me they take that motto very seriously. They lost six million in four years, the Bangladeshis lost three million in nine months but somehow that has not pricked the world's conscience, save for George Harrison's. It makes me sad and that is what I was reacting to when my fellow actor declared Bhutto great.

There is also the question of my destiny. Because of 1971 I left Dhaka at the age of three weeks and landed up on 18 Liberty Street in Chester, CT, USA. I was born on April 5th at 6:05 pm, beating the curfew imposed by the Pakistani army by 25 minutes. Ten days earlier the army had rained bullets and terror down on the citizens of Dhaka and had driven their tanks on to the grounds of Dhaka University and in cold blood murdered anyone who crossed their path. My mother told me that the streets were littered with corpses as they drove her to the clinic. The Hindu nurse who attended her did not know what had become of her husband and child as the army had devastated the Hindu quarter and she could not leave the clinic. The doctor thought it would take all night for me to be born. I popped out in two hours while he was praying at a nearby mosque that had not been riddled with bullets by our fellow Muslims. My mother was weak and in the terror and confusion they had not attended to her properly and she developed a serious infection that caused more pain than the actual labour.

Three weeks later my family and I were on a Pan Am flight bound for the US. It had to land in Karachi and the army grounded the plane and then boarded it. They slowly walked up the narrow aisle holding their guns and stopped next to my father's seat. They led him off the plane as my terrified mother cradled me in her arms and tried to comfort my oldest sister who started sobbing. They were not sure they would ever see him again.

They waited patiently on the plane as the authorities questioned my father, convinced they would be going to the States alone.

My father was one of the lucky ones, having been helped by American World Bank officials who intervened on his behalf. My goodness but fate is an amazing thing! So many others had no such luck.

I came into a world that had been torn asunder and I had to flee it for another. 1971 determined my fate. It made me who I am and changed the course of my life and that is most assuredly something I will never forget.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008