It was during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 that I came to know and love rural Bengal.
As political tensions escalated in March, we left Dhaka for our family home in Sylhet. Situated in the northern part of town, our house faced the Lakkatura Hills two miles to the north. Some days after their genocidal attack in Dhaka on 25th March, Pakistani army moved towards Sylhet. Late one afternoon we saw the enemy soldiers descending the hills and approaching our neighbourhood. Scattered gunfire rang out. We were prepared. Our extended family – nine of us – got into my father's Jeep, packed minimal clothing and food, and fled ahead of the attackers.
At nightfall we took refuge at Dargah Mahalla along with others fleeing the city towards the villages. Our destination was Shilghat, my paternal grandmother's ancestral village. It wasn't very far, but access was difficult, offering protection against enemy incursions.
The next day we started for Shilghat. We stopped in town for provisions and petrol. Mid-afternoon, as we were crossing Keane Bridge, two Pakistani fighter planes appeared over town and strafed indiscriminately, causing widespread panic. By nightfall we reached Dhaka Dokkhin village, spending the night at the house of a family friend. The following day, after negotiating several miles of rough unpaved roads with the Jeep, we arrived at Shilghat.
Our relatives welcomed us and made us feel at home. I had never actually lived in a village in my ten years. Now here I was in village Bengal, uncertain when - or if - our lives would return to normal.
Village life required adjustments. The biggest was dealing with the lack of electricity. We used kerosene lanterns at night. Outhouses posed no problems as I grew up with them. For bathing there were two ponds. One was open for all; the other, earmarked for women, had curtains for privacy. A small, shallow river ran a quarter mile away. I bathed and swam there.
We quickly settled into the rhythm of village life, waking early to make the most of daylight hours. Shahin Chacha, a cousin of my father about my age, was one of our hosts. He guided me exploring the village.
Spring rolled into summer and the trees brimmed with jackfruits, mangoes, lychees and kalojaam. We celebrated ripening of enormous jackfruits by competing to see who could eat the most. Otherwise, food was a struggle. The adults – particularly my parents – never let us understand this struggle, but eggs and potatoes became staple.
Next came the rains. Clouds travelling north from the Bay of Bengal hit the Khasi Hills to the north of Sylhet. They dump their rain on the Sylhet region where torrential rain can last for days. And so, after the season's first extended downpour, the tiny river swelled tenfold. Crossing it against swift currents was a challenge. After turning back halfway on several occasions, I finally made it across. Reaching the other side I realized the current had carried me downstream a great distance. This was a nuisance: I had to walk upstream double the distance before my return swim.
After four months in the village, my parents thought I should return to school. So in August we left Shilghat for Sylhet, then on to Dhaka where my school awaited. Enemy soldiers reached Shilghat a month later; our relatives were not harmed.
Those days in Shilghat deeply enriched my life. They instilled in me a love for village Bengal.
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