1971 has been my greatest passion for the last forty-six years. It has been my pair of glasses with which to look at people and things. I recently wrote that three million martyrs have been telling me all these years, 'Never forgive them!' I never did. I never will!
At two a.m. on March 26, my parents woke me up. My six-year-old younger brother was awake too. Our only sister, not yet two, was allowed to sleep. Mother was in an advanced stage of pregnancy.
There were mortar shelling and machine gun firing all around. We were in old Dhaka, a couple of hundred yards away from our famous missionary school. I was surprised and sad. Shocked, really. But not afraid. Father briefed me – talks between Bangabandhu and Yahya Khan had failed and there was going to be a military crackdown. This was treachery of the highest order. Only God knew how many of our people had lost their lives as a result! He and mother were awake from midnight that day. They didn't want to frighten me though.
Frighten a highly motivated, very well-informed sixteen-year-old? Impossible! Even my parents were not afraid. Such was the courage Bangabandhu had injected into his people. Father had seen it all – the birth of Pakistan, bloodshed in Kolkata and Delhi before that, the deprivation of Bangalees over the years! Even mother showed no sign of discomfort and was sad but calm by then. My younger brother didn't cry either. Nor was he worried. For sure, our people would fight and snatch victory from the occupation army, we kept thinking. Our people simply hated the Paki army!
It dawned soon and people gathered in our lane. Students, political activists and neighbours. We learned about the Dhaka University massacre, the Peelkhana and Rajarbag attacks and the Shakhari Bazar carnage. We now wept silently but our fists were clenched! The news of death of every DU teacher broke our heart!
I'll never forget the trembling crows sitting on the electric wires! I saw them through my room's window. They were shaking like human beings before a firing squad! I had never seen them trembling so vigorously. Scores of them, trembling endlessly. Perhaps they had never seen such cruelty before – human beings shot like birds and killed in thousands!
We would leave Dhaka on April 06, 1971. My dada and nana were brothers; they and their wives lived in our huge ancestral home in Katiadi, Kishoreganj. Mother was Nani's only child. She had sent our brave Uncle Farid to take us back to Katiadi. Father was an exceptionally intelligent man but was not considered worldly wise. We usually rode trains or had a car ride. But in April, 1971 the journey had to be different. We travelled to Narsingdi by bus and on a boat. We saw signs of the effect of strafing in the bazaar. Bus up to Chalak Char, then rickshaw for mother and walking for us! Two of my male cousins were with us too. We could manage only one rickshaw. For the first time in my life I walked ten miles at a stretch but I did so gladly! At times I thought I would faint. I had never walked a mile before! Nani didn't know our exact date of arrival. She had only aloo bhorta, begun bhaji and daal for us. I remember eating half a kilogram! Never did aloo bhorta and begun bhaji taste so like amrita, so heavenly, before!
Our April 06 journey taught me a few things. The first of these was the hospitality of ordinary people. I will never forget the smiling people who greeted us with great affection on the roads. Women we didn't know took my mother, brother and sister inside and fed them. They wanted to know about Dhaka. We learned that the army was yet to come to the villages here. Young men were already crossing the border to fight against the Pakis. The villagers were waiting with chirha, murhi and gurh to greet hundreds of Dhaka people!
Secondly, I learned that my dominating father loved me! A gifted man, he had failed in life and had survived a terrible accident at thirty- two; he had wanted me to be successful in life at any cost. But he was a strict disciplinarian and soft-hearted me disliked to be so dominated. That day every time we met the Paki soldiers in or around Dhaka, he would pat my cheeks, push me aside and say, “I know Urdu. Let me talk to them. I was in Delhi, Karachi and Lahore.” A great crisis makes you very mature. I understood that he wanted to die first. He would not let us die in front of him. As for myself, whenever I met the Paki soldiers I was cool and not afraid at all. A teenager dying to fight for his country must be brave, right?
At sixteen, I already knew the difference between armed secession and a liberation war. I knew about the tragedy of Biafra. So I was as happy as a king (a prince?) when the Bangladesh government in exile was formed in Mujibnagar on April 17. A government by the elected representatives of the people! The high jump I gave was the best of my life! I was listening to the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra with others. Akashbani was very popular with us too. A shy introvert, I shouted at the top of my voice, “Joy Bangla!” at the news. Father and my uncles came running. Why was our boy so happy? I had a train of twelve-year-olds and ten-year-olds, shouting 'Joy Bangla' with an ear-to-ear grin as well.
Who was the acting President in Bangabandhu's absence? Who else but our own fupa Syed Nazrul Islam, married to our fupu! He had escaped to Agartala from Dhaka via our home with the help of Uncle Asad, a tiger who had fought as a teenaged member of Netaji Subhas Bose's army many years back. Who was the Prime Minister? Tajuddin Ahmad, my hero and my school-mate (thirty years older)! He was the first boy of his class. I simply loved this gentleman. I had followed very eagerly everything that Bangabandhu and he did from March 1 to 25! I was so excited and happy! I loved the elegant and sober voice of Eva Nag and listened to her in bliss when she was announcing the Mujibnagar government on the radio. Soon two of our cousins, sons of the Acting President, came to live with us. We played cricket together and planned to join the war soon. One of them later became an internationally known novelist in London. He is Manzu Islam (he has shortened his name now in honour of our Syed Manzoor Sir. He is also the author of the 1971 novel, The Song of Our Swampland.
Freedom came in due course but after a genocide so terrible that I would not be able go into details the details here. But almost all the seasons of that year I had watched our freedom fighters fight bravely, India and the USSR helping us like true friends, and Tajuddin Ahmad's government displaying great political wisdom then. Bangabandhu returned from Pakistan after a memorable stoppage in London soon after. Teenage me thought that we would have endless happiness from then on!
I was an imaginative boy all right but did not have the political farsightedness to foresee the tragedy of 1975 – the tragic killing of Bangabandhu and journey backward subsequent governments embarked on.
Junaidul Haque is passionate about 1971, literature, cricket, and Tagore songs. He writes regularly for The Daily Star.