Within class and beyond
Beyond symbols and sentiments
Adages and bachans in Bangla
Globalization, language and Ekushey
Ekushey - towards secular democracy
Making Ekushey meaningful to the young
Intimations of Ekushey
Our pride, our sorrow, our joy
The elitist Ekushey
Rediscovering Ekushey February
Bangabandhu and Language Movement
Incipient nationalism and freedom
My first Ekushey
Bangla and Muslim era in India
Dhirendranath Datta: Glimpses of a life
A generation united and untied
The unforgettable
A privilege and a responsibility
Remembering Ekushey
It's a different February
Reflections on 21st February
When memory sweeps across history


My first Ekushey

Khademul Islam

My first real Ekushey night came comparatively late in life, when I was already a student at Dhaka University. Why so late?

The answer lies in the vagaries of geography, in the physical divide of the two wings of that old 'moth-eaten' historical discard - Pakistan. That separation also symbolically embodied the huge emotional and cultural chasm between East and West Pakistan.

My father was in the Pakistan central government service, which meant that he was shuttled on a regular basis between the two wings of Pakistan. We three children were born in the '50s in Karachi, which is where he started his government service. It meant that we, despite being Bengalis, started life with Urdu in our ears. It was a beginning not calculated to make us lean towards Tagore and company, but to incline us naturally to some degree to ghazals and qawwali, to Faiz and Meer. Though in the following years my father would also be posted also in the old East Pakistan, to successively Dacca/Dhaka and Chittagong, the early '60s were not the fervent and fertile political times that gave rise to what we Bengalis later came to know as the spirit of Ekushey. In fact, during the 1965 war with India, Bengalis patriotically rallied around the Pakistani flag. The Ekushey spirit, by all accounts, truly came into being in the latter part of the '60s, culminating in the 1969 movement to overthrow Ayub and afterwards, as the tide of Bengali nationalism swelled and surged.

It was a period I missed, since my father had yet again been transferred to Karachi and from 1964 we were continuously in Karachi, like so many other Bengali families. Bengali nationalism therefore was something that was experienced at a distance, in the newspaper headlines about the Agartala Conspiracy case, the various roundtable conferences, on political manifestoes and dissent. In the pages of say, the old Forum magazine, where at a precocious age I read Rahman Sobhan's classic treatise on Ayub Khan's Basic Democracy. It was there in the vivid, but necessarily hushed, discussions of our fathers and uncles and visitors from East Pakistan, in the attitude of one of my cousins, who came on a student tour of West Pakistan, and snarled, "So this is where all our money has gone, into building up West Pakistan!" It was in the family conversations about my uncle, who would repeatedly be thrown into Feni jail for his Awami League membership and activities. It was present in the radical talk of my Sindhi friends at Karachi University, and present only by its absence in the talk of my Punjabi friends.

But it was all secondhand experience. I did not see Bengali/East Pakistani street demos and defiance, the white-hot pamphlets, leaflets, breaking of Section 144s, the full- throated cry of Bengali mass rallies, or listen to banned Tagore songs. Or take part in a barefoot Ekushey rally. I spoke Bengali at home, and duly ate rice, not naan rotis, in Karachi every day, but was unaware, in any real, firsthand sense, in the jailbreak-in-the-humid-whispering-night sense, of the fight to preserve that very language and culture.

We were trapped in Pakistan throughout 1971, and only escaped to a free Bangladesh, like innumerable other Bengali families, in the following year.

In the wintry month of November 1972 I was back in Dhaka, which had changed since the last time I had been here, as a child. We were virtually refugees then, having escaped with all our worldly possessions in five suitcases, and that winter we slept on borrowed bed sheets; I can still feel the rough texture of the red-and-black-striped Red Cross aid blankets at night. But I was happy. It is impossible to convey to readers today how it felt to be in a brand-new Bangladesh, how magical it seemed, so full of promise and hope. Of course it faded fast - in fact by the end of 1973, we knew the party was over. But nobody who lived in Dhaka from December 1971 to the end of 1973 can forget what it was to be alive during that period. Though I listened to terrible stories of war and murder, though the economy was ravaged, though I saw ponds choked with Pakistani army helmets and burnt-out hulks of tanks on the way to visit our family homestead in Feni in December 1972, yet no problem seemed insurmountable. Wasn't Sheikh Mujib back from the jaws of death? Didn't every blade of grass, every spoke of a rickshaw wheel, glisten in the morning sun? Hadn't we won the war?

And there was I, in the middle of it, when Ekushey 1973 rolled around.

I had made friends here, I had been admitted to Dhaka University, I played impromptu football (a game I had never really played before) with my new pals on the field by Surja Sen Hall, I went to old Dhaka, I talked in Bengali now all the time. And regrettably (but here I have no choice but to be honest), I also learnt that inhaling a few puffs of a joint slowed things down to an agreeable pace.

We had a place - a backyard actually - in Dhanmondi where we boys would hang out in the evenings, 'relaxing' and hanging out and talking and shouting and yelling and generally having a grand old time. On the evening of Ekushey, as we were 'road-testing' a few bikes on the front road, somebody yelled "Let's do Ekushey."

The cry was immediately taken up by the others: "Chol, chol, jai."

I remember it was a cool, soft, starry night, and it seemed an incredibly romantic thing to do. While I had a general idea what it was about, I was quite unaware of what celebrating the event actually entailed. The plan was to go home early, have dinner and then come back to the meeting place. I went home and over dinner, told my mother that I was going out tonight on Ekushey, and she just smiled and looked at me and said, "Okay."

When I came back to the meeting place I was greeted with cries of "Aray, chador koi?" I was, apparently, dressed inappropriately for the night - I didn't have a bhadrolok chador slung around my shoulders, warding off not only the cool night air, but more importantly providing me with the emblematic license to sing in a procession throughout the night. A chador thus was hastily purloined from inside the house and I was appropriately geared. We stepped out on the streets. It was then late at night, and because we all had taken a few recreational tokes, it seemed to me (somebody who was an initiate, a novice at puffing) that the streets, empty of noise, empty of traffic except for a few kerosene lights on rickshaw axles, shimmered with people. To my surprise there were lots of women in the company of men out on the roads, and quite a few of these groups were singing, not any low humming, not a self-conscious mouthing of words, but at full throttle. The songs created the mood of the night, a mournful cadence that was yet self-exultant.

"Let's go to the Bulbul Academy," somebody said. And we did. An open, brightly-lit stage had been erected there, and a crowd of festive men and women milled around in front of rows of women sitting on the dais singing songs. I remember a lot of flowers, a predominance of yellow and white, bel phul garlands on slender necks and hair, and the fact that everybody seemed to know everybody else, as evidenced by the frequent loud, long and cheery greetings.

"Let's go look at the girls," Bacchu whispered to me. So he and I maneuvered ourselves into the front of the crowd, standing in the relative dark looking at the brightly-lit stage, thinking if we stared hard at the women that they, under the bright lights, would not notice us, would be unable to make out faces in the dark

"That one, third in the front row."

Ah, yes, of course, pretty, with lively, quick eyes. And so we stared hard. And kept on staring. Then I noticed that she seemed to have noticed us, laughing and pointing fingers at the women. We looked, she looked back at us. We waved our hands, she looked away. Now the game was on in a serious manner - we wanted to see if we could throw her off her singing. We stared, we laughed, we waved our hands. She glanced at us, fidgeted, then finally smiled back at us. This kept on going until, right when the chorus was in the middle of a rousing line, she suddenly put her hands on her mouth to conceal the laughter, then ran out. There was a pause for a moment, then the chorus recovered nicely indeed and resumed its full-thoated song.

It was a silly thing to do, but I remember enjoying the moment wholly, the thing done in high spirits and joy, in laughter and tomfoolery. I remember her bare feet as she ran, raising a fair hand to her mouth, the lipstick spreading in a smile.

Then we all re-formed our group, and headed out on the prescribed walk. Alponas graced the road, and the songs now induced a languorous walk, through Azimpur colony, through the winding, dark yet friendly roads with their shops shuttered tight (the barber's chair, beneath the tree, where a child was seated, with mother by his side, resting for a moment before walking again) to the Shahid Minar, luminous in the lights and the emotion of the crowd. I walked as the rest of the gang sang, and I remember very clearly that the one that sang the best, and sang until the very last, till his voice was nearly gone, was Kumar Murshed, Professor Khan Sarwar Murshed's son. He was fantastic that night, unremitting, tireless, beautifully voiced, passionate, lyrical.

Never again would I experience Ekushey in the same way again. I went once again, to take imploring friends visiting from the USA on the 'tour', but at the corner of Azimpur colony we came up on louts wearing thick-soled boots, making loutish jokes about the bare-footed women in the procession, and the very air seemed to be menacing and the spirit no longer there as forlorn, lonely bands of die-hard cultural activists sang dolefully under the grey banner of army rule...so I turned back, came home and went to sleep. I have never been back, but then, I console myself with the thought that I was there at the very best one, the 1973 Ekushey.

Khademul Islam is literary editor, The Daily Star.

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