A freedom fighter looks back at his war
The cover design is by Jayesh Dewan, a jolchhobi, an impression created in one color, the image of the writer outlined in shaded alphabets used in the book title. Reflections on the Liberation War by a freedom fighter is akin to imagery in water that calls for an encapsulation in a book as a way of remaining for posterity.
The book, the writer's memoirs in Bangla, now comes as a translated version by Zahiruddin Md. Alim, for the non-Bengali readers in mind is smooth reading. And here I pause to ponder over the distinction made between readers and the culture of making a book reader friendly for the future generation. The appendix refers to episodes on valour, patriotism, humour and morals. In the material preparation for the book the valuable commendations of Kaiser Haq and Qayyum Khan as second lieutenants under Sector 7 are noteworthy.
Let me mention a small group of readers, The Reading Circle, which meets every month of the year, pursuing reading as a way of reaching out for pure joy. The month of December is recognized as the month of liberation. In this season, members of TRC read from books on our liberation war. This month, we hope to read from the writings of Colonel Nooruzzaman.
The book is a tragic tale on the scores of young freedom fighters who gave their lives for the liberation of Bangladesh. It was much more tragic for Colonel Nooruzzaman, who lost his young son Nadeem Omar, born in 1955, and who went to the war secretly during the Liberation War.
My immediate response upon reading this book was to reflect on the role of the captive airmen, soldiers and sailors in the various camps in what was soon to become an alien country. They were the unfortunate prisoners who served as ransom for the whole Pakistani army taken to safety as prisoners of war in India at the end of the war in Bangladesh.
There was an 'off the record' understanding between India and Pakistan in the Simla Agreement 1972 regarding diplomatic recognition of Bangladesh by Pakistan. The question of genocide and war crimes was either ignored or neglected. India, in order to uphold her image as a peace loving nation and to restore normal relations with Pakistan, returned all the prisoners to Pakistan without having them face any trial for genocide in Bangladesh.
The 'package deal' under the same agreement opened negotiations for a mutual exchange of people opting for Bangladesh and Pakistan citizenship. The latter country continues to disregard this understanding nearly four decades on.
In 2001, the reflective thoughts of the writer on the role of 'nearly 100,000 freedom fighters, and 'the original freedom fighters' were those of a division into 'two broad groups.' This realization caused much suffering to the writer. He was self inspired for '… In 1971 I saw history written…' Equally reflective are the sections on the Mujib Bahini, Mukti Bahini and Razakars.
Some debatable issues discussed in the book are to be noted. There is the first declaration on the War of Liberation. The next relates to Bengalis fighting the war with no battalion and no path of regular communication. The eastern region was cut off from the Bangladesh military headquarters. Nooruzzaman's proposal about establishing two headquarters was rejected without any consideration by his superior officers. There was widespread and recurring misunderstanding between the fighters and the civilian leadership. Political affiliation was the basis rather than patriotism for the recruitment of fighters.
The philosophy of the book is contained in chapter four, Why I joined the Liberation War. Probably this was a difficult chapter to write for it is self-analytical and exploratory in its content. The writer is seeking a rationale for joining the Liberation War. In doing so, he goes back in time to his joining military service as a young naval officer serving in Mandapur Naval Base in South India amidst the Quit India movement of the1940s. He noticed the foreigners' 'contempt and malice' for Indians. This left a deep impression on his young mind. In later years this binocular of contempt and malice projected similar scenes on the path to his civil and military career.
For me, the most stunning section of the book was the eye-witness account of sector commander Nooruzzaman on the historic 7 March 1971 event in Dhaka. The mammoth public rally of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was an event from which many, including the writer and his friends, were expecting the ultimate --- 'independence to be declared that day.' That did not happen. There was a huge emotional collapse, a feeling of let-down amidst the teeming millions. However, at this historic rally there was the warning: '…If a single one of my people is fired upon…' It demonstrated, naturally, the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
I identify myself most with reading on Bholahat outpost about a single poor old woman 'who crept out of her hut, found the mines and picked them up.' She suspected that these were dangerous. If she had been in Britain she would receive George Cross for her contribution to the war. She did this out of love for the boys fighting the war. She got no reward. This incident deeply touched the writer. In his heart he felt that the unlettered woman's act of bravery made him shy away from accepting the Bir Uttam Award.
The message and the significance of the book for me are in the innocent yet ironic revelations emanating from the young freedom fighter's high spirit of patriotism. During the Bholahat operation, even though the area was infiltrated by razakars, one of the boys anticipating casualties asked, 'Sir, if we die will our name be written in gold in the history of Bangladesh?' His senior captain Jahangir gave him a sharp answer: that it was not gold rather blood mixed with the soil of this country; the good fortune was in being able to die for the country.
Further up at Boalia a courageous woman, wife of the local area representative, gave information about her husband that 'proved him to be a liar.' This was a clear example of women activists of 1971. There is the example of this extraordinary woman, the sector commander's wife, Sultana, who joined in punishing a freedom fighter who takes to the path of looting. A psychologist, she wanted to correct and reform the restless youth. She also worked hard to get the first aid supplies to the guerrillas against all odds.
These instances speak of the alertness of the sector commander, a keen observer and kind man fighting for the liberation of the country. He defined the struggle as 'a people's war.' He was shocked to learn that promotion was a preoccupation in the forces. The chain of command was disrupted, seniority in service disregarded during the war and much more so after the repatriation of the stranded service personnel.
Writers. Ink, the publisher of the book, has done remarkably well in producing this edition of an international standard. It is a slim volume with a price that goes well with the pockets and purses of most English language readers in Bangladesh.
Reading these memoirs is enlightening and rewarding for all, especially for those who could not fight and yet identified with the Liberation War. Those born after the war will have their sense of history a little more reinforced.
Delving into literary convictions
On a cool Hemanta evening, Saturday 27, November, The Reading Circle/TRC, a cluster of book lovers met, again, to read and discuss books by the 2007 Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing.
Her most recent extraordinary book, Alfred and Emily, is an exploration into the lives of her parents damaged by World War I. Her father, wounded in the trenches, wore wooden legs and her mother continued nursing the wounded in the hospital after she lost her love, a doctor, who had drowned. In this fictional work she imagines happier lives for her parents had there been no war. The second part of the book is 'passionately anti-war.' It examines the effect of the war on her parents' lives. Her agent describes the last 200 pages as 'unbearably painful.' Her response was, 'Good, let it be unbearably painful so people know what wars can really be like.'
In her north London home when reporters told her that she had won the Nobel Prize for literature, her racy response was 'Oh Christ… I couldn't care less.' Doris Lessing went to Roman Catholic convent school in 1926-32. She told reporters, 'I have won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I'm delighted to win them all, the whole lot, OK? It's a royal flush.' When she was asked if she was excited about the award, Lessing said, 'This has been going on for 33 years… I can't say I am overwhelmed with surprise. I am 88 years old and they can't give the Nobel to someone who is dead, so I think they were probably thinking they had probably better give it to me now before I've popped off.' For her the award process is graceless and the prize 'doesn't mean anything artistically.'
The TRC reading session got off to a good start with Doris Lessing's first novel, The Grass is Singing, which had been an instant success. Located in Rhodesia, then a British colony (now Zimbabwe) where she grew up on a farm, in the late 1940s, the work is a depiction of life as she remembers it. She spoke harshly on the country's leader, '… Mugabe is a disaster… I care about his country very much… people there are starving literally.'
The title of the book was from the poem by T.S.Eliot, The Waste Land:
In this decayed hole among the mountains / in the front moonlight, the grass is singing.
The poem depicts modern life as being portrayed as a land of deserts and rocks, lacking water on which life depends. Just as life is unbearable without water, in a similar context Mary hates the weather when it is hot and dry and the noise of the cicadas is all-pervasive.
The book is dedicated to Mrs. Gladys Maasdrop (of Southern Rhodesia) for whom Lessing feels the greatest affection and admiration with the following quote: 'It is by the failures and misfits of a civilization that one can best judge its weakness.' Author unknown.
The book has two parts presented in 11 chapters covering 218 pages. The first part deals with Mary's city life, marriage and isolation. The second part is on the black servants whom Mary hates and treats like animals. She meets Moses, treats him like a human being. When she rejects him he kills her. The psychological detective story in flashback technique with sketches of human isolation and alienation is told by an all-knowing narrator who sees through the eyes and thoughts of all the characters. Dick Turner doesn't understand Mary. Neither do the people around her. She has a wall around her.
The story has two important themes: Apartheid, its effect on the relationship between a black servant and white mistress. Mary hates black people even though she has a relationship with Moses. The other theme is loneliness. Mary can't handle being alone in the country. In the city she has a lot of friends, but on the farm she has only Dick and black servants whom she hates and does not talk to often, unless needed.
There is no suspense in the chapters that follow, though, much psychoanalysis. The neurosis of white sexuality and black power is conspicuous. Mary's relationship with her black servant Moses shatters the complacency of the whites in Africa. Moses' power in the relationship is unquestionable and real. His action in murdering Mary is simply a demonstration of the control which he exerts over her and in general which blacks still have in their own country. The whites retain a hold based on a corrupt system of gross injustice that dominates society.
Lessing transformed herself into a self educated intellectual. She ended her formal education at 13, never received a degree in higher education. Her literature won her the Nobel Prize for and destroyed the myth of intellectualism being a matter of high education. She left home when she was 15, and to support her self, took a small job. She read politics and sociology. She had a backward suitor and suffered 'a fever of erotic longing.' She commented that unhappy childhood seems to produce fiction writers. She heard war stories from her father bitter memoires as 'poison.' Also 'we are all of us made by war… twisted and wrapped by war, but we seem to forget it.' One of her quotes: 'There is no law for the novel. There never has been, nor can there ever be.'
The Grass is Singing is about Mary, a single, satisfied, happy white woman. She lives in the city, has many friends and a nice job. She values her independence. When she overhears an insulting remark about her spinsterhood she resolves to marry. After a brief courtship she marries. Soon Mary and Dick grow distant to each other but are committed to their marriage. They live an apolitical life and are mired in poverty. The book is a bleak analysis of a failed marriage. The tragic decline of fortune of Mary and Dick is a metaphor for the whole white presence in Africa. The novel is an honest exposition of the white psyche.
Lessing's fiction is deeply autobiographical. In her writing she draws upon her African experiences engaging with politics and social concern. Her writing covers the clash of civilizations, racial inequality and injustice.
On the micro level, Lessing's writing is a deep analysis of the struggle among opposing elements within an individual's own personality. She fought biological and cultural imperatives that fated her to sink into marriage and motherhood. Speaking on her mother's generation, she says, 'It was as if their lives came to a stop when they had children. Most of them got pretty neuroticbecause, I think, of the contrast between what they were taught at school, they were capable of being and what actually happened to them.'
Lessing believes that she was freer than most people because she became a writer. For her writing is a process of setting oneself at a distance taking the 'raw, the individual, the uncriticized, the unexamined into the realm of the general.'
She has been labelled 'unfeminine' by her detractors, the reason for this being her expression of what many women were thinking, feeling, and experiencing what came as a great surprise. Lessing has explored the sensual realities of feminine life from sex to motherhood. Under My Skin is about an adolescent girl's consciousness of her 'delicious body. And Love, Again recounts the experiences of an 'aging narrator… falling for a young man. There is something unfashionably Lawrentian about her unashamed delight in sensual experience.'
And 'feminism has been turned into a religion with dogmas and churches.' In America, which she terms as a 'very hysterical country intellectually and very puritanical… the appalling conformity… and police is what…rule,' is about to pass. The feminists who work for media think of feminism as important. They are far away from reality for 'mostly feminism has had an impact among privileged women in advanced Western countries. For the most part, it hasn't begun to touch the lives of poor and working women in the Third World, and that distresses me.'
Doris Lessing writes on a manual typewriter. Over the last fifty years she has produced over 40 internationally acclaimed books. The Golden Notebook (1962) is often called 'a bible for feminists.'
I could not stop reading Lessing's profound treatise on conflict that arises out of individual freedom and the social construct.