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Saturday, June 28, 2008
Star Books Review

That unmistakable knock in the night

Syed Badrul Haque celebrates freedom through a poet's memoirs

Time is the unmistakable knock in the middle of the night that must be answered. Abul Hussain is no exception to this truism. In his twilight years he has come forth with his memoirs, Dushswapner Kaal, reminiscing on the liberation war. Hussain, our doyen of poets, still throws off sparks in his poem: 'Surely there is no escape to aging'. In such moments of his age, the obviousness of such thought is inarguable by any measure. What is amazing is that even after decades, the minutiae that enrich the memoirs so worthily are drawn from his memory alone and are surprisingly flawless. It is intriguing that the author, who is so well-organised in his personal life should have done without keeping a diary and relying only on memory for information. His long writing career blossomed as far back as the 1940s with Naba Basanta, which he dedicated to Rabindranath Tagore. The author came by appreciation for his book from literary stalwarts of the time --- Binoy Kumar Sarkar, Nihar Ranjan Roy and Subodh Sengupta.

Well into his eighties, Hussain is all modesty, charm and intellectual energy. His is a strong influence, albeit in a quiet way, on the Bengali world of letters. His prose has that unmistakable edge which age confers. His unrequited passion for literature must have been the most gallantly fortunate affair when he wrote Dushswapner Kaal in liberation saga. These are fine memoirs, based on the liberation war and connecting history, economic and political issues with everyday life and even literature. What is more, the story sings. He writes with such verve and bracing rigour that it is impossible not to be charmed and bowled over by his perceptions. The smothered colours of his prose are one of the most compelling in contemporary Bangla literature.

It is free of any stain of over-blown prose or over-signification of the delicately woven fabric of the book. Hussain is a cool stylist whose breezily structured narrative reaches the climactic point --- freedom without any rancour. He takes a more measured tone that attempts some degree of historical perspective. In his unobtrusive narration, the author is mindful enough not to make the work heavy reading with a roll-call of facts, for all these blunt the edge of reading. The characters in the oeuvre are few, sketched lightly and economically. It delivers on its promise of elevating even the uninitiated to the status of informed observers.

In a nation's history, nine months of a liberation war is a short stretch, but it was an eternity for the beleaguered Bengalis who had to languish in captivity in their very homeland. Thus the author remarks in anguish. He tells his story in compressed vignettes that give off a brilliant unfamiliar light at the fag end of Pakistan army occupation of our territory. The inter wing rift had graduated slowly but inexorably to such a confrontational point that no amount of verbal camouflage could hide it anymore. On March 25, 1971 when the constituent assembly was scheduled to meet, the Pakistan army unleashed genocide in Dhaka at midnight on the unarmed civilian population. It had the resonance of a thunderclap. The eerie silence hanging over the city was broken into smithereens by the cacophony of the military machines that were rolled out on roads, gunfire, human cries, and panic-barking of street dogs et al.

As the Pakistani soldiers went on the rampage all over Bangladesh, their campaign was addled further with the distasteful idea that what they needed was land only. But how could that happen when the country lived in the hearts of the Bengalis, quips the author, albeit poetically. The Pakistani rulers' policy was to lull the leadership into a sense of false security so that the crash would be more total, when it eventually came. They, however, failed to perceive that the people had transformed themselves into a new identity of Bengali nationalism in terms of their historical and cultural traditions -- a tectonic shift in the basic tenets of statehood and that the place had already become a nation with the sun-etched Bangladesh flags flying atop public and private buildings. H. V. Hodson, Constitutional Adviser to the Viceroy (Lord Linlithgow), in his book, The Great Divide, writes: 'Nothing in human affairs is predictable, but in retrospect the partition of British India appears to have been inevitable; so too does the repartition of Pakistan.'

The Pakistan army's crackdown was pre-meditated. The talks between President Yahya Khan and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that drew a blank was a sham, a whistling in the dark that was not worth a try, a time-killing ploy to bolster Pakistani military might. Our leadership had, however, failed to apprehend the sinister designs of the Pakistani rulers and allowed itself to be duped so easily into the deception of negotiation. The leitmotif of political hatred, ethnic distrust and economic disparity was present right from the beginning between the two wings of Pakistan. Again, that annus mirabilis was largely propelled because of that political absurdity of holding together a country separated by some twelve hundred miles on the basis of religion only.

The author infuses a personal dimension that makes the book valuable to readers seeking insights into how the break-up of a country came to a head. It pained him much to learn that his old father, a retiree whom he had not seen for years, had been killed by the enemy. So too were two of his kin --- a police superintendent and a district magistrate --- for their sheer patriotism. Specific incidents apart, there was hardly any family left that had not been a victim of the enemy's killing-spree.

The book, a forthright page-turner, is a welcome arrival, however belatedly, for its value both as a historical document and a personal testimony to one of the most crucial and defining moments in our history. Despite the fact that the author was a victim of the occupation force, he never strays from objectivity and accuracy, without which this book would not have become what it was intended to be. It is an excellent addition to the burgeoning sub-genre of our liberation literature.

The writer recalls a spine chilling episode that had happened sometime between June and July 1971, when hundreds of Bengali lives came under imminent threat. It was late afternoon, sunny. A big crowd of Biharis raising anti-Bengali slogans and armed with knives, hockey sticks and firearms moved menacingly toward Azimpur government quarters where hundreds of Bengali employees lived with their families. Apprehending immediate danger, the writer telephoned inspector general of police, Mahmood Alam Chowdhury, his former colleague at SEATO in Bangkok, and sought his help to save their lives. The IGP rushed to the scene with a contingent of police, and the situation was luckily saved. Despite the xenophobic ethnic schism prevailing at the time between Bengalis and non-Bengalis, officers like Mahboob Alam Chowdhury and Humayun Faiz Rasul, information secretary, both of whom hailed from Punjab in West Pakistan, made all the difference. By their impartial administrative conduct, they reinforced our faith in eternal humanity, a precious rarity in those days.

The war of liberation ended almost suddenly on 16 December with a bang, thanks to the Mukti Fouj and the Indian army. Bangladesh emerged on the world map as a proud nation. It was a new dawn, a new script. In the high noon of freedom, the author clasped the hands of his wife, emoted exquisitely, 'What a relief!' He surely echoed the feelings of an entire nation.

Syed Badrul Haque is a contributor to The Daily Star.

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