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Saturday, March 15, 2008
Star Books Review

A long ago war and how it yet resonates

Tulip Chowdhury is touched by a new account of an old conflict

Journey Through 1971: My Story
Farida Huq
Academic Press and Publishers Library

The war of liberation in 1971 touched the lives of people in myriad ways. As a nation, Bengalis reaped independence at the cost of millions of lives. Many of those who lived through the war have come with their tales of the war. In Journey Through 1971: My Story, Farida Huq holds up spell binding accounts of her own experiences. The story is told in first person narrative. The author offers her deep insights and experiences with a marvellous mastery of words.

The novel unfolds with the writer's account of leaving her husband, an army officer, in West Pakistan to join her parents in East Pakistan. She had received news of her mother's illness and was very anxious. And yet her love for her motherland is reflected in the very first pages, in the happiness she feels as the plane she is flying in is about to land on the soil of her motherland. Right from the beginning of the book the reader is impressed with the writer's patriotism and her sense of responsibility towards her family members. Hence we see that although the writer has left her husband behind, she is filled with contentment at returning to her motherland. All along the story the writer is depicted as a woman who is conscious of her responsibilities and at the same time is perfectly aware of the political events taking around her.

It is the month of March 1971. It is a momentous time for Bengalis because of the way their history is shaping up. Huq is in Dhaka at this crucial time. There are vivid descriptions of the take-over by the Pakistan army. The vibrant descriptions of the brutalities inflicted on the Bengalis is hair-raising and seem to take the reader back to the scenes then and there. Side by side is the also the story of a resilient people and their courageous struggle for the liberation of their motherland. As political chaos reigns, the author loses her mother. The family is barely able to go through the funeral rites. The eldest child in the family, Huq feels responsible for her siblings and her father. Her two daughters are there, Tanim and Pinku. She is left without the children's father to look after them, her mother gone and the turmoil in the country. With all these the family is thrown into a sudden void. Her two brothers Rajoo and Biroo wish to take part in the ongoing liberation movement but her father puts his foot down firmly. Gradually Dhaka becomes a scene of bloodshed and killings. The author's family decides to go away to a safer place. They go off to Shinepukur, the village of her maternal grandparents.

The journey to Shinepukur with the small children is a perilous one. However, once there, they are amidst the loving company of their relatives. They feel very secure and welcome in the village. For them village life too is a new experience. Over the radio they get news of the happenings in Dhaka. They listen to Akash Bani and BBC. They hear the broadcasts on Shwadhin Bangla Betar. There are hundreds of other relatives and acquaintances pouring in every day from Dhaka, escaping the barbarous Pakistani army. The author here also gives a meticulous description of village life. The people of the village are shown as loving and extremely hospitable. There is a sharp contrast between the peaceful life of the villagers and the killings of the Pakistani army across the country.

The writer sketches a picture of herself as a person of iron will. At Shinepukur she takes the decision of going to Pakistan to join her husband in Quetta, where he is at the Defence Staff College. Her father strongly opposes the idea. And yet there is her strong determination to go to the very land that is carrying out mass murders in her country. She is not even sure if she will find her husband at all. And yet with all her trust in God she embarks on her journey on a warm day in May. She is the only Bengali on the packed flight of Pakistan International Airlines.

In Pakistan the writer is stuck by the normal way life goes on. She wonders if people have any idea of the genocide in the eastern wing. Reunited with her husband, she gives him an account of the killing in Bangladesh. The other Bengalis do not want even to listen to her accounts. Even her husband is reluctant to believe her story. Farida Huq is torn between love for her husband and the happenings back home. She wakes up every morning wondering if her father and her siblings are alive at all.

The sun breaks into a thousand splendours as word spreads that Bangladesh is free. It is 16 December 1971. There is euphoria among the freedom loving Bengalis. And yet there are some Bengalis who have never supported this war of liberation and still refuse to acknowledge the birth of Bangladesh! The writer here again shows her own patriotism by being a strong supporter of an independent Bangladesh. She is saddened by not being in Bangladesh to witness the glorious day the country becomes independent. However we also do not fail to notice a sense of empathy in the writer as she comes across West Pakistanis who have lost dear ones in the war. She loves her own motherland and she is pained by the loss of people on the enemy side. Indeed, the writer reveals a great compassionate side of her character.

The apparent calm in (West) Pakistan is shattered as Bengali officers are taken to concentration camps. They are scattered as they are taken to separate camps. Here begins a long wait for the trip back home. Only those who have lived in a concentration camp can imagine how the days can linger. The loneliness, the physical and the mental hardship are underlined with uncertainty about the future.

However, there is the strong will of the people to make the best of what they have. And in the concentration camp people come up with the idea of running a school for their children. There is teamwork among the Bengalis as they live together, repressed and secluded. There is only one thought in the hearts and minds of the people: When will we be free to go back to our motherland? Indeed, will we ever be able to see it at all?

Then, in September 1973, the ordeal is finally over. The happy news comes that the Bengalis will finally be repatriated to Bangladesh. Arrangements are made through the International Red Cross. The writer, in her imagination, is already back home at Old Airport Road, the family together again!

Journey Through 1971: My Story is unique for the explicit details it holds about the liberation war. The hardships faced by Bengalis stranded in Pakistan are also demonstrated with acuteness. It is a living history for generations to be. There are very few books written in English about the liberation war of Bangladesh and this happens to be an exclusive one. It is a tribute to our freedom fighters. It is the story of a woman fully aware of political conditions in a time of war.

The bravery of the writer as she journeys through the days of 1971 can be held forth as an example of how a woman can weather through myriad dangers, no matter how challenging they are. The book is a valuable addition to the history of Bangladesh.

Tulip Chowdhury is a teacher and short story writer.

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