Bangladesh 1971: Complex portrait of a butcher’s shop

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Edited by Rakshanda Jalil, Literary Historian and Debjani Sengupta, Professor of English Literature at Indraprastha College, University of Delhi, the book offers an in-depth look at the life and times of 1971.

A maroon-colored paperback book that remotely resembled a journalist’s notepad landed on my desk earlier last week. Close examination revealed that it was a book about Bangladesh and contained writings from 1971. I found the effort fascinating as few books were released in stores about the war in liberation of 1971 in East Pakistan which eventually gave birth to Bangladesh, there should have been others. . Edited by Rakshanda Jalil, Literary Historian and Debjani Sengupta, Professor of English Literature at Indraprastha College, University of Delhi, the book offers an in-depth look at the life and times of 1971.
The book, interestingly, is interwoven with true East Pakistani stories and essays as well as poetry, recalling many days when Bengal and East Pakistan were in bloody turmoil. India witnessed the Maoist movement at the foot of the cloud-covered hills of North Bengal and in the tea gardens around Naxalbari, a sleepy hamlet. It was the setting for a violent and failed revolution that many claim was the incubator of India’s epic class war. And then, across the border, there was unprecedented violence as Indian armed forces – aided by freedom fighters from East Pakistan – clashed with Pakistani forces and eventually gave birth to a new nation, Bangladesh, which gained independence from Pakistan.
Bangladesh, Writings on 1971, Across Borders, painstakingly explains the human cost of the new nation that was born more than five decades ago. The book, published by Orient Black Swam, is a serious account of what has been gained and what has been lost.
I read a chapter in the book that recounted those horrible days, those horrible nights. A nation at war is bad news. So it read like this: “It was the night of March 25th. The Pakistani army stationed at the library bombarded the student residences of Dhaka University. Iqbal Hall and Jagannath Hall were collapsing. The rusty water pipe came loose from the wall, the water from the overhead tank gushed out on the ground. Some of the boys living on the second floor ran for the stairs. Others chose to swing on the ground from the branches of the trees outside their rooms. People were running pell-mell in the dark. Thick clouds of smoke rose from all sides and blackened the moonlit night.
The book, throughout its chapters, explained the contradiction between exalting and forgetting what happened in 1971 and why the liberation war in Bangladesh remains a contested space, fully charged with emotional and psychological intensity after five long decades. The book reminded me of the words of William Faulkner: “The past is never dead, it is not even past.”
The authors rightly said in the book that discussions of the 1971 liberation war in East Pakistan barely occupied Indian mental space. There should have been serious documentation of the war that was fought. Now, more than five decades later, it becomes difficult to piece together the stories of those dark nights, the struggles of the people, the pains of hundreds and thousands of women who were raped by Pakistani army soldiers and gave birth to war babies. Yet the book makes a genuine effort to paint the canvas.
I liked the history of Shankhari Bazar in Old Dhaka which is home to the Hindus of East Pakistan. I had visited the cacophonous district and heard the story of Khejur Banu, or Tapati.
It was at Shankhari Bazaar, a stretch of narrow lane full of brick buildings, that the first spark of the 1971 uprising was ignited. It is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Dhaka.
Khejur Bani and his family ran a confectionery, every day it heated nearly 10 liters of hot sugar syrup for his rosogollas, considered the king of sweets. She knew Dhaka was burning, there were vultures in the sky. One day, he was told that marauding Pakistani army soldiers were slowly encroaching on Shankhari Bazar. They had parked their tanks at the entrance to the alley and were pushing the soldiers with bayonets attached to the barrels of their rifles.
Khejur Bani knew she was alone but was not afraid. She was bold. She crammed her family into a house a few miles away. And then picked up the hot syrup and went to the roof. She waited for the soldiers to approach and then she poured it all out.
The cacophony is total, the soldiers – many of whom are burned – run for cover. Their commanders also panicked and they immediately withdrew the soldiers. Encouraged by Khejur Bani, other women threw hot water, crossed up to 30 rooftops and disappeared. It was almost like Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala, the supreme power of women facing off against a tyrant ruler.
The house where Khejur Bani lived is still there. This is an ordinary house from an extraordinary woman. Shankhari’s cacophonous bazaar remembers Khejur Bani, every hour of the day, month and year.
The meticulously edited work of Jalil and Sengupta is a good read, it sheds light on the complexities leading up to the war, its many tragedies. I liked Sengupta’s translation of Ekattorer Kobita of Bimal Guha which translates to The Poetry of 1971. The last paragraph is just haunting:
“Today with magic prayers I place these poems on the soft grass
They are now lively, self-determining bullets
Who travel in all directions through the ether
Through Freedom Bangla Secret Radio
Through voices that thunder and roar
In the homes of the Bengalis, in the war camps
Today, poetry has waged a war of freedom.
And then Jalil summed up the book with his brilliant translation of Jan Nisar Akhtar’s 1974 poem Fateh Bangla which translates as The Bangla Victory. I thought of repeating the first paragraph:
“Whenever there is cruelty in any corner of the world
We raised our voices saying: Stop this bloodshed
Stop this incantation of your dirty politics
Stop this oppression, this cruelty, this madness”.
It is a slice of history that every Indian should remember and reflect upon. The book is indeed a very powerful account of the history of one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century. Unfortunately, this is a largely unrecognized event. A brilliant read.


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