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         Volume 11 |Issue 12| March 23, 2012 |


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A Roman Column

On that Day

Neeman Sobhan

As we grow older, something I find my generation doing a lot when 25th March approaches is to ask each other: where were you on that day? Sharing each other's experiences of 'that time'—a period still unnamable, full of things still unbearably fragile, diffuse and sacrosanct to be mentioned in anything but hushed tones and indirect terms; a period starting from the benighted events of the last week of the third month of 1971 and ending with the wondrous moment of our victory nine months later— seems to be the only way we, who were teenagers and in our twenties during 'the war' are able to keep our memories from becoming blurred or from disappearing into the wilderness of impersonal, official and often distorted history.

Reading about those days in books and in stories doesn't seem enough for those of us for whom the year 1971 is too real and raw to become fiction, yet. Perhaps that is why I, in spite of being a writer, have been unable yet to distance myself enough from the emotions of 'that time' to write a proper narrative about the whole event. The younger generation, for whom it was hearsay and fairy tales, can deal with it better. I can fragment 'Ekkator' into short stories, mine and other's; but to write at length and with the objectivity of a long distance perspective, maybe 40 years is not long enough.

Photo: Star Archives

Still, facing another anniversary of the seminal March day, I continue the ritual of asking family and friends about their memories of 'that day'. This time, I ended up talking to the one person whose story I never really asked because he is too close to me. But the other day, when one of my sons showed an interest in their father's take on 'those days', I asked my husband to tell us about where he was on the night of 25th March. I knew some things in general but strangely, never in too much detail. So, I heard his story -- a not unfamiliar one, but as if for the first time.

Often, the end result of these remembering sessions is akin to the feeling that children have of listening to favourite bed time stories. Though they know how the story of say, Jack the giant-killer, will end, they still listen eagerly to each version, lapping up the tiny variations and details. All the stories of 25th March are such stories, our shared stories; and big or small, thrilling or sad, they are familiar but never banal, because they are our collective coming-of-age stories. They are the legends that a once young generation transmits to the next, ensuring the continuity of the larger pool of memories.

My 25th March story is prosaic. I lived with my parents in the Cantonment, and 'on that night' my family and I rushed to the roof top of our bungalow when we heard the low rumble of thunder in a clear night sky coming from the direction of Dhaka city. The horizon was ember red. We went to bed with our hearts heavy with dread and full of questions.

On that same night, a young man in his mid-twenties, the stranger who two years later would become my husband, was also preparing to go to sleep in his family home in Purana Paltan.

A newly commissioned CSP officer, posted as Assistant Commissioner to Noakhali, he had recently left his post after the declaration of the non-cooperation movement and come home to Dhaka. That night, he and his younger brother, a medical student, had stayed up late discussing the events of the day and evening. They had finally retired for the night when they heard the ominous booming sounds coming from nearby. Not heeding their mother, the brothers dashed up to the roof top of their two storey flat to decipher the nature and direction of the noise. They saw flashes of light and explosive sounds coming from Rajar Bagh on one side and Dhaka University on the other side. They realised that an attack was going on.

The next day, breaking the quiet of the early morning some armed vehicles drove into the street below the apartment buildings lining their narrow street. It stopped in the middle of the street and in front of the building that housed the area's Awami League office. The brothers crept to the window of the bedroom closest to the street side to peep out. They saw soldiers jumping out and entering the office. After banging and rummaging around and finding it abandoned, they came out. But as soon as the soldiers got back on the vehicles, they aimed the fitted guns and started brush-firing the houses around the area. The brothers ducked in time as a spray of bullets hit their building and a stray bullet zipped inside their room and ricocheting against the grill of the window above their head deflected and slammed into the inner bedroom door. For a long time afterwards, my husband kept the area around the hole in the door marked, like a framed souvenir of that night. I saw it when I came into that house as a bride in 1973.

All through the 26th, the brothers and the family stayed home or kept to the neighbourhood. In spite of the curfew they jumped over the back walls and visited with friends to exchange news and information on the situation. They knew things were dire. Meanwhile, one of their aunts who lived in Naya Paltan close-by was worried about her daughter and son-in-law, a professor of Geology at Dhaka University, who lived in the university quarters on Fuller Road.

The next day, my husband and a few other cousins set off for the university quarters. On the way, they saw bodies everywhere. With a sinking heart they came to the cousin-in-law's residential quarters. There they learnt that he had been shot in the early morning of 26th. The soldiers had been seen dragging the poor man's body down the stairs and outside. The cousins searched for hours for the body, finally finding it among others on the grounds outside Iqbal Hall. They brought back the body to be buried inside the courtyard of their aunt's house.

My husband, across these many years, is still laconic about those traumatic days. I have urged him to write about his experiences. But like many of our generation, he feels reluctant to go over the old story, unless and until someone specifically asks about 'that time', storing the memories deep inside as irrelevant to the present.

But no ones story is either irrelevant or unimportant or even over-familiar. All the old stories, like the story of Jack the giant killer, for example, are still around. And even when the giants change from heaving ogres to monsters of other kinds, the fable still retains its magic; and the position of Jack, as the ordinary boy who overcomes great odds with his cunning like a nifty guerrilla, does not waver from the pantheon of heroes.

We too, need to hear the tales about when we once lived through heroic times, and participated in an enterprise that was larger than our individual selves. We should never stop asking and telling each other the stories about that extraordinary time embedded within ourselves.

Let our saddest, bitterest, most eventful or non-eventful memories of THAT DAY become the foundation of hope, energy, and inspiration for THIS DAY, today--our day of independence. One day we will celebrate a more holistic 'independence', not just from the oppressions of another country, but also from the issues within that oppress, shackle and challenge us even now.

25th March is not over yet. We are still waiting to write our best history, our best stories that would start in a courageous past and end happily ever after in a dazzling future.

Joy Bangla!




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