Those days of dark, intense fear | The Daily Star
11:00 PM, July 31, 2009 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:00 PM, July 31, 2009

Those days of dark, intense fear

Mohit Ul Alam recalls 1971 through a poet's recollections


POET Nirmalendu Goon published a personal memoir-cum-history book on the liberation war entitled Atmakatha 1971 (a GEMCON literary award winner this year) from Banglaprakash in 2008. The narrative does not, however, cover the whole liberation war but only the events of ten days starting from the fateful night of March 25 (Operation Search Light) and ending on April 5, when Goon goes back to his village in Barhatta, Mymensingh, in the evening.
Though a frontline poet of Bangladesh, Goon has developed a unique prose style over the years, which is unabashedly personal, full of a Falstaffian kind of humour without malice to anybody, and often made at his own cost. One example: he wrote his name on the identity card as 'Gun' instead of 'Goon', and, seeing this, at a check-point the Punjabi soldiers asked for his gun. And the book likewise is written in humorous language, though always revealing profound truths.
. This cognizance of his prose style is necessary to take, in view of the material he has undertaken in this book to address. The material is our liberation war, which is a high-voltage issue to write about. But Goon in his forthright manner eased up the matter by privileging his personal outlook over the evidential method, which is the baseline for historical documentation. He dares, because he is a poet, and he boldly says in the preface that he shouldn't be called a historian, but rather an `itibrittikar', which, I believe, in English may mean a writer of history, and not a historian. He acknowledges the fact that he finds his own life history and that of Bangladesh inseparable from each other. And that it was not possible on his part to write a dry history of Bangladesh following the academic rules and methods of historiography. Even then Goon mentions two books on which he depended in writing this history: Jatin Sarkar's Pakistaner Jonmo-Mrittu Darshan and Rabindranath Trivedi's Ekattorer Dash Mash respectively.
The book basically argues three points. The first is of course the already decided one by a recent High Court verdict about the declaration of independence. The second is concerned with the massacre at Jinjira on April 2, which Goon had witnessed and thinks that the day should be declared a national mourning day or Jinjira Day, and the third point is that the martyr Subeder Major Shawkat Ali Chowdhury of EPR Engineering Corps should be given the honorific of Bir Shrestha. The personal experiences of the poet during this period are woven around these three arguments.
Goon broaches the matter of the declaration of independence in this way: he went to Kolkata in January 2007 to attend an international poetry conference. There he happened to meet with Belal Mohammad, one of the organizers of Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. Belal admitted to him that the circular sent by Bangabandhu declaring the independence of Bangladesh was read out by him many times on 26 March. Abdullah al Farukh, now working with German TV, also read it several times. Afterwards a troop of soldiers led by one Major Ziaur Rahman installed themselves at Kalurghat. They approached Zia to read the circular on the radio to increase the impact of the declaration. But Zia, instead of reading Bangabandhu's circular as it was written, drafted a version of it and read it on the radio. Zia's draft as also Bangabandhu's speech and the six-point demand are all reprinted in this book, and also is published Ziaur Rahman's article, “Ekti Jatir Janma” (the birth of a nation) which all have increased the documentary value of the book.
Goon comments that the fact that Zia has mentioned Sheikh Mujib three times in his speech gives a clue to Zia's understanding of the situation at the time. He knew that, says Goon, if Sheikh Mujib was not mentioned his declaration wouldn't be recognized, as nobody knew him. Goon considers Bangabandhu's 7 March speech as poetry, and mentions Newsweek's 5 April 1971 cover story in this context, where Bangabandhu was dubbed as “The Poet of Politics” (Rajnitir Kobi).
Goon also records how he first came to hear Zia's speech. On the evening of 27 March, as he was crossing the Buriganga to go to Jinjira, he first heard the speech from the radio of a co-passenger. As he was trying the knob of his radio, suddenly he hit a radio station called the 'Swadhin Bangla Biplabi Betar Kendra'. From that centre one Bengali- oldier, Major Zia by name, declared the independence of Bangladesh on behalf of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The name of Major Zia at once clutched to their hearts. They welcomed his announcement with prolonged shouting of the slogan 'Joy Bangla'. Goon concludes the declaration could've actually been read by any army officer, like Major Rafique, Major Oli or Major Shawkatthat is, any other army officer could've been Zia's substitute, but Bangabandhu couldn't have been substituted.
Then on the next page, Bangabandhu's declaration sent by EPR transmission system is printed (source mentioned), and then Goon comments that if the two versions are compared it becomes clear that Zia's draft was heavily influenced by the one from Bangabandhu, and, therefore, Zia's declaration can never be considered as equivalent to Bangabndhu's. Zia didn't have the right either. But Zia will also have his place, Goon says, in history.
The March 25 crackdown took place, and Simon Dring, Goon says, watched it from Hotel Intercontinental. On 27 March, Goon along with his friend Najrul Islam Shah went to Sergeant Zahurul Huq Hall in order to find out his friend Helal Hafiz. His messmate Nazrul Islam Shah, now dead, needs a mention here. The book is dedicated to him, because it was he who literally saved Goon from death on 25 March. Goon at the time was serving as a sub-editor at The People, the offices of which were located at Paribagh, and as he was going to office, he suddenly encountered his friend Shah at Gausia Market around 9 o'clock in the evening. Shah forced Goon to return to their New Paltan mess. And the building of the newspaper office was dynamited by the Pakistan army in the first hours of the crackdown.
On 27 March they went to Sergeant Zahurul Haq Hall to look for Helal Hafiz and saw many people dead there. Among the bodies was that of Chisti Shah Helalur Rahman, Cutural Secretary, East Pakistan Students League. Suddenly Hafiz materialized from out of nowhere, and then all three went to Jagannath Hall to see Professor G. C. Dev in his quarters.
They entered the house, Shib Bari, entered his bedroom, saw the blood-soaked bed, and the floor curdled with thick blood, bluish in colour, and the telephone receiver hanging in the air, the cable stained with blood. Probably he wanted to make one last call to somebody in good faith. In commemoration Goon wrote a poem, “Jagannath Hall: 27 March 1971,” which is also published in this book. Another such death recorded in the book is that of Commander Moazzem Hossain, he of Agartala Case fame, who was killed in front of his house at Elephant Road. The Pakistan army asked him to cry out “Pakistan Zindabad,” but he said “Joy Bangla” instead. This episode was narrated to Goon by Abu Sayeed Masud Babla, the renowned TV actor Joya Ahsan's father, who took part in an attack on an American Embassy's official's house at Dhanmondi on that very night.
Finding Dhaka unsafe, they three decided to cross the Buriganga like thousand others. At Jinjira they met up with Mostafa Mohsin Montu and Khasru who reportedly were the first band of freedom fighters to emerge. They attacked Keranigunj Thana on 26 March and occupied it. And in Mostafa Mohsin Montu's maternal uncle's house at Nekrosebag, there were many people bracing themselves with guns for the upcoming freedom fight.
The Jinjira operation was conducted by the Pakistan army on 2 April, 1971. Jinjira was part of the Shuvaddya Union, where 40 thousand people, mostly Hindus, lived. According to a rough estimate, around one thousand people were killed on that day in a seven-hour operation from five o'clock in the morning to noon. Goon gives a horrifying description of this massacre, including the details of a man whose head was severed from his body by a cannon shell but who was still running by sheer momentum. Everywhere bullets and cannon shells were flying and people were getting killed in every way. Goon at first took shelter in a mosque, then in an abandoned house, where he climbed up the storehouse of firewood and, most inconceivably, asleep.
He was awakened by noise and realized that the gunfire had stopped and the inhabitants of the house had come back. Seeing him they got scared, but Shuva, an eighteen-year old beauty, recognized him as the poet of Premangshur Rakta Chai (1970), and introduced him to her family as such. He was asked to take the noontime meal, but he declined as he had to find out his friends
The last point that stands out in Goon's book is the sad death of Subeder Major Shawkat Ali Chowdhury, the transmission engineer of EPR working in Pilkkhana on 25 March. Goon believes that it must have been him who had transmitted across the country the message containing the declaration of independence by Bangabandhu on 25 March. This claim is also well supported by a letter published in the book by Professor Dr Selina Parvin of Rajshahi University, the martyr's daughter.
The book may claim much wider readership in future.

Prof. Mohit Ul Alam is Head, Department of English and Humanities, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh

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