Birth of the Phoenix
It was the second time the white car passed us by. That was way back sometime in mid March 1985. My fourteen year old sister and I were in our father's car which had suddenly decided to halt right in the middle of Dhanmondi road 3. No amount of pressing the accelerator or pulling the choke would make it change its mind. I had just got my British driving licence and had come to Dhaka for a month's holiday. To be honest, I found it highly amusing when people used to stare at this pretty young girl (being myself!) navigating a car through the streets of Dhaka. Believe me, this was not a common sight twenty four years ago. But on that breezy evening the car was letting me down. This wasn't supposed to happen to a young and confident noveau-driver.! My cockiness began to somewhat deflate. The white car passed us for the third time. In the dark purple twilight I saw a tall, well built young man in a white shirt come out and walk towards us. "Oh God!" I thought. I hadn't bargained for another problem. Why hadn't I listened to Abba and taken the driver?
"Anything wrong?" I rolled down the window just an inch, pretending not to be nervous. "It's okay. The car has just stopped, it'll soon start, I'm sure", I said, frantically turning the ignition for the fortieth time and pressing the accelerator. "Where do you live?" the gentleman asked. I could hardly make out his face in the disappearing evening light. "Banani". "Well, you could leave your car here and have someone pick it up. I was going in that direction so I could drop you two, if you like." "Out of the question", I thought, but I put on a brave smile and politely declined. "Would you allow me to try to start it?" he patiently said. I signaled to my sister to get out of the car and we both stood on Dhanmondi road 3, while the young gentleman pushed our car with one hand and pressed the accelerator with his other hand. The stubborn vehicle finally decided to give in and with a few grunts and chokes the engine revved up. The sound was like music to our ears. "I think it'll be okay now, but I would say it's not a very good idea for you to drive alone at this time", he said. "You're telling me!" I thought. This was definitely the last time of me behind the wheels after 5pm, especially in an old Toyota Publica!
On 18 January 2009, I got a call from an unknown number on my cell phone. I was busy choosing a book as a gift for my cousin's birthday. After rummaging through philosophy, poetry, ayurvedic and the classics, I finally got what I was unconsciously looking for. A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam. I promptly picked two from the shelf, deciding to buy one for myself. The call was from BDR Headquarters. The caller, Col. Anisuzzaman, asked me if I would be free to perform as Master of Ceremonies (English) at the annual parade on the occasion of BDR Week 2009. I said I was free and would be honoured to do so.
On 16 February 2009 at 8am I entered BDR Headquarters for the first of many consecutive rehearsals. This time my driver was at the wheels! Twenty four years had made me a little wiser. The compound was beautifully manicured. Even the huge trees, their green spring leaves rustling in the Falgun breeze, seemed to salute everyone who passed by. Were they also trained to perfection?
After the parade practice we met the officers who were coordinating the event. From that day, for the next one week, each morning my alarm would ring at 6.20 am and I would reach BDR Headquarters at 7.50 am, feeling fresh, chirpy and ready for another rehearsal. Three other members were in the announcement booth. Quickly we all blended in and became one very determined team the BDR Annual Parade 2009 had to be a success and we felt proud to be part of this beauty and precision. One snag, the steps leading to the booth were a bit rickety and it was a bit difficult to climb, especially when one is wearing a crisp cotton sari and high heels! I politely explained this to Major Mizan, who was our direct coordinator, silently thinking, "This is Bangladesh; by the time they do anything about these stairs, the parade will be over and I will be sitting home, hopefully with my two legs intact!"
To my utter surprise, the next morning, 20 February 2009, a proud set of stairs was gleaming with new bright green paint in the pale yellow Falgun morning sun, moist with early morning dew. I thanked the major. That day , we got into conversation staccatoed by the rehearsals. I learnt that Major Mizan's wife, a beautiful young woman, had suddenly died in June. She had a malignant brain tumour. They had two sons, Sami and Rami, aged between 3 and 9. I asked him how he managed between the demanding jobs of being a mother, a father and a soldier. He said to me "Apa, at the end of a long day, when I lie in bed with my two sons in my arms, I feel that this is all I need, nothing else matters"….
I used to come home each day and relate to my husband all that had happened during the day at BDR. I described how smartly Col Mojibul Hoque, the sector commander, commanded the parade during the rehearsals. Looking at him I could imagine what Stentor in Holmer's Illiad must have looked and sounded like. Ramrod straight, maybe even more that the sword he was carrying during the march past…eyes piercing directly into eternity he marched on…
On 24 February, the day of the Annual Parade, we were tense but also determined to give it our best. After the parade, among many others, Col Reza came up to congratulate me on my performance. I admitted that although the repeated practices sometimes had seemed a little annoying, hampering all my other chores of the past week, it had paid off at last. "Ma'am, there is nothing like rehearsal. In the army everything is rehearsed, rehearsed and rehearsed. We even have to rehearse for Death Itself." "And how is that ?" I joked. He said "The burial ceremony has to be planned precisely" That is what the Army is all about. Every thing has to be perfect and precise. For that we need rehearsals"…..
I could see Col Anisuzzaman was extremely busy all through. I did not even get the chance to congratulate him on being the first of the three officers to be awarded the Bangladesh Rifles Podok 2009, which is the highest gallantry award of Bangladesh Rifles. I did not get the opportunity to ask him what feat he had accomplished to have won this great honour. There is ample time, I thought, I'll ask him some other day when he is less busy. Col. Anis was an extremely handsome officer. During the parade practice days, I observed him on the parade ground. He used to stand out amongst the hundreds of men in uniform in his purple beret. Tall, fair, built like a true soldier, kind intelligent eyes, cleft chin with the hands of a pianist. I wondered how those beautiful hands held a rifle? But most of all I felt the strength of character of this very special man. In his dealings with the soldiers and his subordinates, he was unusually polite, soft spoken and patient. Quick to praise and apologetic yet firm and determined.
After lunch, before I left the Darbar Hall at around 1.30pm, Col. Anis called on Major Mizan's cell phone and thanked all of us for doing a great job. He apologized to me for not being able to thank us in person. We said our goodbyes, feeling a little sad that the excitement was over and it was time now to return to our daily lives.
Major Mizan came up to my car to see me off. He said, "Apa please come to my house with Jewel Bhai. Did you know my nickname is also Jewel?". I had decided in my mind to take him up on his word and strike up a family friendship with this young soldier who, inside his formidable uniform, was a lost, lonely father trying so hard to make up for the loss of the mother of his two beloved sons.
In course of time I had come to know that Col Anisuzzaman was the young man who had so chivalrously fixed my car 24 years ago on Road 3 Dhanmondi. At that time in 1985, he was just a kind person who had helped out a young woman in distress without intent or hesitation.
Today, as I think back, I assume he must have been a junior officer then. It was by some unfathomable desire of fate that our paths had crossed again after 24 years, days before his death.
The last time I saw or spoke to these officers was in the Darbar Hall during lunch on the afternoon of 24 February 2009, less than 24 hours before the BDR carnage.
Today, and for as long as we live, we shall bow our heads in utter shame. We have no answers for your questioning spirits, we do not have the courage to look your wives and children in the eye, we have nothing to offer them except the burden of guilt for being alive like helpless lambs in front of a greater evil that had intruded into our yards and our homes.
We salute you as soldiers and protectors of our frontiers, but most of all, as men who lived, learnt, laughed, cried and loved just like other men. We may have lost you forever. But you have risen is our hearts like the Phoenix. May you find eternal peace in Heaven…