Death, destruction and the birth of a nation | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 03, 2009 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 03, 2009

Death, destruction and the birth of a nation

Farida Shaikh and Tanveerul Haque observe, in that order, some scarred emotions in historical fiction

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FAULT Lines Stories of 1971 are episodes surrounding, literally meaning, an incorrect demarcation, of a country, of a nation; about the people who are on either side, who may be good or may be bad and stronger; not forgetting what Shakespeare said, '…there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.'
There is a need to understand this reality, however much brutal and painful this may be. This then is the purpose of this anthology consisting of thirty seven short stories by writers on either side of the fault line. The collection, ably compiled by the two editors, is especially commendable for its sensitivity, for the editors agreeing to disagree. It stands as a marvelous symbol of freedom of expression on the part of the writers as well as readers of these stories.
In 1947, the departure of the British saw the emergence of India and Pakistan, the latter comprising East Pakistan and West Pakistan; it was dual references to single nationhood. How could a nation have two or multiple identities? Even more unreal was the totally separate geographical boundaries. Religion was misunderstood, as the single most cementing element of the people; for religion was only one of the cultural components. Other factors were ignored. 1971 saw the second partition, the vivisection of Pakistan. It was evidence of the failure of the Two Nation Theory that inculcated religious hatred among the divided people.
Dispute over identity is a living legacy of Pakistan. In 1971 East Pakistan broke away to form Bangladesh. Pakistan now wrestles with issues of Punjabi dominance and Islamisation. The success of Hindu nationalist forces at the polls in India has raised new and uncomfortable questions for Indian minorities
Many of the short stories in this anthology are by diaspora writers, either first or second generation migrants from India for whom Karachi and Lahore had been the centre of their creative works. 'Mohajir, Biharis, and Sheia-Sunni' issues have centered in communal communiqués over the years. The voices of writers, originating from Baluchistan, Frontier, Punjab and Sind, all part of the country that eventually disintegrated, are not heard where the catastrophe of 1971 is concerned. Apart from the dismemberment of a nation, which was implicit in a back-dated event much more consequential, it was that 1971 was a struggle for liberation from exploitation and repression and an undermining of citizens and their rights bound together by a common religion and country.
It is of great significance that the first novel of 1971 was Anwar Pasha's Rifle, Roti, Aurat. Translated by Kabir Chowdhury as Rifle, Bread, Women, it describes the event of three days after March 25--------it is about disintegration and the emergence of a nation, and not 'war' itself.
The City of Sorrows by Intizar Hussain has references to death and the war of 1857 and not 1971. Hussain is a foremost Urdu writer who wrote stories in a symbolic mode. His best known work is Basti, which deals directly with 1971. Amer Jaleel writes in English, Urdu and Sindhi. His work is characterised by biting satire on socio-political themes. The Heir to a Severed Arm narrates the horrors of dead bodies from a riot, and the protests of a poet and artist against a distortion of history.
Written in English by Aamer Husain, Karima is about a Bihari woman in a dilemma. Where is she? A foreigner in the country from where she is migrating and not belonging to the country she is going to. Overnight a woman becomes a dirty Bihari. The story narrates the condition of the Biharis in 1971. Karima is twice uprooted in her lifetime, and the migration of her parents in 1947 brings into sharp focus the ghastliness of war, racial hatred, intolerance and bigotry that rise among people who have dwelt peacefully in the past.
The Travelers is Gholam Mohammad's Manzil Apni Apni, which is about terrorism and brutalities, about proving one being a Muslim. The general idea is that the army was engaged in killing the Hindus. Though not mentioned in the story, the location may safely be presumed to be Bangladesh. Ibrahim Jalees wrote the satirical novel Chalees Crore Biharis and then migrated to Pakistan. A Grave Turned Inside Out is about the plight of a non-Bengali woman, her entry and exit into a country, a woman who has lived for twenty four years in a country and yet could not identify with it, and so remains a Bihari. The story is on communal relations.
1971 has been discussed in various forms, in fiction and memoirs, by Masud Mufti, a government official in Dhaka who saw the triumph of Bangladesh in that year. He became a prisoner of war in India along with 93,000 other men. His work Sadiyan Kay Par, Across Centuries, highlights the plight of the migration of a Muslim family in 1947 and then for a second time in 1971. The identity of a person is a question mark and the same question finds prominence in Qaiser Qasri's Thoo Thoo. Gholam Mohammad, an Urdu short story writer, an ardent Bangladeshi nationalist, was provoked by his sense of literal and personal meaning of things to question the Fall of Dhaka.
Bharati Mukherjee's Angela is about an orphaned girl child's relocation from Dhaka to another orphanage in Iowa. She grows up with the scars of the physical wounds inflicted on her as a child when she is left for dead in a ditch in Dhaka with other dead bodies during the 1971 war. Why Does Durgati Weep? by Porag Chowdhury is the haunting tale of a mentally challenged 'child-woman' born out of rape in the horrors of 1971. As she grows up into a blooming youth, her single mother worries owing to the unwholesome attention her daughter is attracting. The 'solution' to the dilemma is one the mother is forced to find one that is frightening.
Khademul Islam's An Ilish Story weaves enchantingly the breathtaking description of a grandmother's expertise in the scaling, gutting and slicing of an ilish, fish is compared to a horrendous act of slaughter of animal in Kolkata during the partition of 1947.
Some stories like Half Skeleton by Ahmed Salim, The Body by Afsan Chowdhury, and Traitor by Mohan Kalpana are highly abstract and allegorical. Reading these stories jars reader's quiet frame of mind.
Godhra Camp by Naeem Aarvi, The Bill by Shawkat Osman, and I Am Game by Sultan Jamil Nasim are thought provoking stories in suppressed emotion with masterfully contrived, chilling conclusions.
Expelled by Asif Farrukhi is about two friends belonging to the two parts of the country separated by another country. The eating habits and the brilliance of one friend are prominent and are contrasted with the difference in pronunciation of English words between them.
Syed Monzoorul Islam's story Going to War is mental agony suffered by one who did not go to war. The dilemma that torments Token who could not join the Mukti Bahini like Mubin.
War, the snatching away of a precious daughter, with the surviving heart-broken mother left in a lifeless condition are narrated by Saleha Chowdhury in The Daughter.
A Lucky Escape by Niaz Zaman is a profound and powerful story about the plight of ordinary naïve townsfolk and people living in the countryside. The stunning end of the short story explains the meaning of the 1971 war and the redemption of an ordinary soldier.
This collection, 37 short stories in all, with succinct introductions by the two editors, narrates the tale of 1971 war in its varied human dimensions. The impact of war touches the chord of human sensibilities in a range of intensity that to a very large extent depends on individual capacity. The writers have masterfully projected the human elements that encounter a war.
Reading this compilation of short stories emanating out of the events of the liberation of Bangladesh is a scintillating experience. The wide range of events touching upon a multitude of lives and episodes gives one an unforgettable insight into human emotions which are essentially universal, regardless of the fact that they are related to Bangladesh and Pakistan.
We who are fortunate to lead “normal”, “blissful”, “joyous” and peaceful lives have often no idea about the mental scars inflicted by war. The physical scars are all too evident. Both types however are companions for life.
Angela is a most poignant tale about a child orphan's repatriation out of a Dhaka orphanage in the aftermath of 1971 and her upbringing and coming of age in another orphanage in Iowa, USA. We come to see the withdrawal from love of the “heroine”- shall we say due to the scars that she carries from the physical wounds inflicted on her as a child when she is left for dead in a ditch in Dhaka with other dead bodies during the atrocities of 1971.
Durgati is the haunting tale of a mentally challenged “child-woman” born out of rape in the horrors of 1971 - who is coming of age - and her harried single mother worried to distraction due to the unwholesome attention her daughter's blooming youth is attracting. The “solution” to the dilemma that the mother is forced to find is at once spine tingling and mind-boggling.
Karima is the story of a Bihari woman's travails that land her in London. Twice uprooted in her lifetime added to the migration of her parents during the partition of 1947 brings into sharp focus the ghastliness of war in juxtaposition to racial hatred, intolerance and bigotry that can arise amongst people who have dwelt peacefully, side by side, for centuries.
An Ilish Story enchantingly weaves the breathtaking description of a grandmother's expertise in the scaling, gutting and slicing of an Ilish Mach with a horrendous act of slaughter and carnage amongst civil neighbours in Kolkata during the partition of 1947.
Some stories like Half Skeleton, The Body, Traitor are highly allegorical and abstract but have the desired effect of jarring the reader out of his/her sublime state of blissfulness.
Godhra Camp, The Bill and I am Game are delightful, thought provoking stories in which the authors bring out the true meaning of a short story with masterfully contrived, fascinating, abrupt and chilling conclusions.
The editors deserve all praise for bringing together this enthralling collection of stories by writers from different languages and diverse backgrounds.

Farida Shaikh and Tanveerul Haque are literary critics and members of The Reading Circle .

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