Telling (Hi)stories | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 15, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:06 AM, December 15, 2018


Telling (Hi)stories

My passport will tell you I am as old as the country itself. I am actually one year older than the country. That's what my mother told me, and that's how it was recorded in my early school documents. And I remember how our birth dates were changed by our class teacher during SSC registration in Class IX. “I am doing you a favor; you will thank me forever for extending your retirement age by a year,” he declared in a sagacious tone.

I am yet to figure out the future implications of such a change. I simply know that my past had been altered by a clerical data input for the sake of a presumed future. If I am not wrong, this was a common practice, and most of us from my generation (albeit my previous ones) had their dates of birth tampered. This is the legacy of distorting historical facts that we have inherited. Our school teachers were cogs in the machine that unwittingly took part in a supposed manipulation of the system for personal gains. In the process, we grew up in a culture that knew historical facts were meant to be unreliable. We were postmodernists even before postmodernism was born.

The State sponsored myth kitty added to our suspicions about history. In the post-1975 era, the State media for instance was busy in ambushing history. It was almost impossible to name Pakistan as the perpetrator of the carnage of 1971. It's just like that rural custom that restricts women from calling their husbands by their names. Our textbooks always used metaphors to refer to Pakistan as the hyenas, the Nor'wester, the invaders, or the enemies. Isn't it a wonder that history unsettles us even after all these years? A nation that is nearing its Golden jubilee of victory is still cleft in twain as it fails to come to consensus about the very foundation of its history.

I remember the first time my father brought me a copy of “Bangla Name Desh,” published by Ananda Publishers. I was probably in Class Five then, and I remember how we all leafed through the pages as a secret document. The book had a picture of an Imam looking at a hole that used to be his mosque, bombarded by the Pakistanis. His confusion was mine too. How could Muslims do such heinous things to fellow Muslims?

About ten years back, I was sitting next to a Pakistani engineer in a flight from Stockholm to London. He was very overt in his frustration that we Bengalis decided to rip apart a Muslim country, presumably falling in the trap of the Indians. He told me that according to their textbooks, it was Lungi-clad Indian army that had defeated the mighty Pakistani force. And the number of war casualty that we claim (3millions) is highly exaggerated. The figure is not more than ten thousand, according to their estimate. As for the rape allegations, it was Bengali women who were attracted towards the handsome Pakistani men,  leading to some stray incidents. Suddenly I had a vision of a Bengali woman holding a “Marry Me Afridi” placard, but I decided not to boost the ego of my fellow passenger by sharing my vision. In those two hours of conversation, I realized that he too was blinded by erroneous facts. In response, I could only tell him to visit the Imperial War Museum while in London and look at the documents related to the genocide committed by his country. Surely, after being ruled by England for two centuries, we would hold the British history as objective, right? As for my own subjective account, I told him that I did not know a single family that had not lost someone in the War of Liberation.  How many families were there in those 75 millions?

I wish things were that simple, and we could have simply quantify history. The victory that we celebrate today is not the result of a nine-month long guerilla warfare or a call and response to a jazzed up radio message. The war had its roots in dissatisfaction against injustice. People felt deprived when West Pakistan tried to cheat us of our resources; impose its culture and language on us. The same leaders who convinced us to fight for Pakistan told us to go against it.  It is a long historical process that brought Bangabandhu from a peripheral village to the centre stage of history. The other figures had their rises and falls. It takes tremendous charisma for an individual to become synonymous for a flower, a smile a song, a name, an idea that comes to represent an independent country. Bangabandhu is one such construct. In Gobindo Haldar's lyrics and Apel Mahmood's composition, “Mora Ekti Phulke Bachabo Bole Juddho Kori,” we hear the essential utterance. But how about the stories that are unheard. Are they sweeter or sadder than music?

Wars can both produce and silence stories. During the trial of the war criminals, we became privy to many unheard tales of torture and turbulence by the collaborators. The counter arguments were forwarded by the defendants, often in overseas media.  With the punishment of the major collaborators, we are beginning to see the complicity of war discourse. At least, we have now understood that the time has come for us to move beyond the divide between the country that attacked and the country that helped us during the war. As an independent country, we need to secure our own pride by moving forward holding our heads high.

The philosophical shift is evident in the conceptual framework of architect Syed Mainul Hossain who designed our National Martyr's Memorial in Savar. In an interview I did for the Daily Star, he told me why he had used seven blades in the pyramid structure. The war started on March 25 (numerically 2+5=7) and ended on December 16 (numerically 1+6=7). Once you enter the memorial premises, your eyes are drawn to the reflection in water. In the process you have to lower your head—a sign of respect. As you spread your eyes horizontally across the land, you see the red brick lamp in the centre. Then the ascending structure will force you to look at the apex of the pyramid where you see the sky. Thus the structure brings the elements—water, earth, fire and sky—together to change the viewer's lowered head position out of respect to the stretched forward one out of pride. Yes, war took away our dignities. But now we can both regain and relish our dignity. So here is another story. A story that needs to be internalized, while being aware of the stories that can manipulate our consciousness by offering contested histories.

Even the act of understanding a story, by extension history, is a war. And we cannot tie history like a calf before its mother to milk it. The privileged educated class has one history, the underprivileged downtrodden ones have another. The rich tells one tale, the poor another. The war that we have today has to be against discriminations and exploitations. The war that we have today is against the manipulative stories that form the basis of history.

I was listening to the narratives of some of the victims of the war: people who have lost dearly during the war and who have not received anything in return. I was watching Afsan Chowdhury's documentary 'Their War' on YouTube. There is this narrative account of a mother who fed her family with boiled banana trees for seven days to keep them alive. And then one day, the Pakistan Army with the help of three local collaborators raided the village and killed all men. Both her husband and son were shot right in front of her eyes. There was not a single man in the village alive to bury the dead. This is a story from a village in Sherpur called Shohagpur, now known as Bidhobapolli (Village for the Widows). The men were put in ditches dug by the women—with no proper burial paraphernalia. There was no bamboo, no shroud—just sprinkles of dust. The spot is now covered in bushes. The greenery will cheat your senses and hide the atrocities that the land once witnessed.

This story is alive like a trauma in the memories of the people who lived it. My mother was pregnant with her second child during the liberation war. There was no way she could move out of Dhaka in that condition. My father decided to stay back in Dhaka although almost everyone that we knew had left the city. We could have become a soft target as two of my uncles (my father's first cousins) who used to live in our house had joined the war and were known Chhatra League leaders. My father dug a trench in the backyard of our Gopibagh residence. I heard stories of mortar shells falling near our house or charred bank notes flying from Bangladesh Bank vault flying into our compound after the Victory was achieved.

Once during the “gondogol,” my father took me to a photo studio at Tikatuli (called Vista, I believe) to have a memento. One Panjabi soldier who was guarding the spot, picked me up and insisted on having a photograph with me. He had a son just my age whom he had to leave behind. I still have that photograph in our family album. A bearded man with a gun in one hand and me in another. Somehow, I don't find any hatred towards this 'enemy' when I look at that photograph. I see only fatherly love. A father risking his life to get some memorabilia for my future record, and another reminiscing and trying to find paternal love by holding me in a photograph. 

War is a human action; so is a story. Stories are woven like fabric, and you cannot tease one thread out to generalize about the quality of the fabric. Once we start telling stories, they follow their own courses. Sometimes they follow history. Sometimes they do not. It is important to keep on telling stories. Because stories keep us alive. Stories keep on reminding us about our struggles, our love, our pain, our human emotions. They remind us of struggle as an ongoing process. They highlight freedom as an illusory concept, a state of mind. The idea that led to war, the ultimate freedom of our citizens, is still not achieved. Freedom can come when we are free to think, free to move, free to act, and have the financial and circumstantial means to 'be.' We need to know in our stomach that we are free. V for Victory will only be meaningful when the stories that we tell will come out of our gut feelings. We will be free when we believe in our guts, just like our freedom fighters did in 1971.

Professor Dr. Shamsad Mortuza is the Pro VC, and the Head of the Department of English and Humanities at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

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