"Garos of 71": A documentary in search of history
When I stood at the Mohakhali bus terminal on that winter noon of 6th February, I did not know what to expect from the journey that lay ahead. I only knew that I was out to explore some unknown history of the Liberation War of Bangladesh, to dig out some unsung heroes who are still outcasts in the history books.
The bus was moving towards Mymensingh slowly through the notorious traffic jam of Dhaka city. I felt that my feet could run faster than the wheels. I dozed off to sleep and I was dreaming of the greens of the small town of Birishiri when I suddenly woke up with a jolt. My bus was then speeding like a Jaguar. When the bus entered the district of Mymensingh, the sun had already set on the western horizon.
It suddenly felt cold and I was shivering even inside the vehicle. Around 9 p.m., the bus reached Birishiri, a small town on the northern side of Mymensingh near Meghalaya. I stayed at the YMCA guest house that night. My intention in traveling to Birishiri, Kalmakanda, and Dhobaura was to trace the Garo women who fought for Bangladesh's independence in 1971. This is a site of ethnic and cultural variety because of the indigenous cultures of the Garo, Hajong and Koch. The Someswari river, pottery villages, derelict coal mines, and picturesque green landscapes are all part of Birishiri's extraordinary natural beauty. This region is also known for the anti-colonial 'Tongko' movement in the 1940s and 1950s, led by comrade Moni Singh against the oppressive colonial laws of the British government.
My journey to Sandhya Rani's residence in Nalchapara began after having breakfast in Durgapur Bazar. Shandhya Rani is one of the few state-recognized Garo women freedom fighters. While riding on the bike, I suddenly noticed a row of hills far away beyond the Indian border while riding.
Next morning, I stepped out of my room before the sunrise. I could not see much into the distance because of the fog on the Someswari river's bank, but I did hear the sound of sand extraction. It was winter, and there was little water in the river. As I was stepping on the sand of the river, it reminded me of Tagore's poem "amader choto nodi chole banke banke," so I made up the following line: "Magh mashe tar mote jol nahi thake." After crossing the river, I rode on a motorcycle to the ceramic mountain. The biker was a young Hajong guy. Again, I could not see much of anything since the whole mountain region was wrapped in fog. As a result, I was also unable to capture the true magnificence of Someswari's crystal water or the blue lake beneath the ceramic mountain. However, I got real experience of how to extract sand. The majority of the people here rely on it for a living. Even in winter, the roads in Birishiri and Durgapur had turned sandy and muddy due to sand extraction and shipment by lorries.
My journey to Sandhya Rani's residence in Nalchapara began after having breakfast in Durgapur Bazar. Shandhya Rani is one of the few state-recognized Garo women freedom fighters. While riding on the bike, I suddenly noticed a row of hills far away beyond the Indian border while riding. I wondered if the place I was going to would be equally beautiful. Shandhya Rani and her family were overjoyed when they learnt that I was there to visit her and to film her narrative of the liberation war.
They asked us to stay for lunch. I gladly accepted the invitation and asked if it was possible to taste traditional Garo cuisine. Shandhya Rani's daughter-in-law cooked pork and eel, which were very delicious, and I must admit that I had never eaten such dishes before. Nalchapra was a lush green paradise. Hindus, Muslims, and Garo people cohabited in this multicultural community. Urmila Jambil, a freedom fighter who also lives in the same area, came to my attention. It was late afternoon when I reached Jambil's cottage. The sun was going down on the horizon toward the west. She, too, received me warmly.
The sun greeted me warmly the next morning, and I felt fortunate to be here with them on my birthday. Tushi cooked traditional 'Binni' for me. She accompanied me to her brother's house close to the border after we completed the filming.
At night, I stayed in Birishiri. Along with the sound of sand-carrying lorries, I heard foxes and dogs barking through the night. I visited Urmila Jambil the next morning to film her liberation war experience. Later in the afternoon, I went to Dhobaura to meet Tushi Hagidok.
I saw workers carrying baskets on their backsides or their heads as they returned home. Here, people are hardworking, simple and generous.
There were no homes or people in sight as I walked along the village road. After walking for about 20 minutes and crossing a bamboo bridge, I came across a village shop and asked the keeper where Tushi Hagidok's house was. People were delighted and responded, "Oh, you have come to our poet's cottage?" Tushi Hagidok is the wife of Matendra Mankhin, who is a very well-known Garo poet. Locals refer to Mankhin as 'Kobi,' and they are proud of him. The question that kept on bugging me was why the local peopled referred to her through her husband. Isn't theirs a matriarchal society? But then, Tushi also resides at her husband's house, which is against traditional Grao norms. During our conversation, she informed me that her mother had warned her against telling her husband about her experiences as a freedom fighter. As a result, Hagidok did not inform her partner about her experience until 2014. It surprised me, but I also realized that the prejudices of the patriarchal society can infiltrate matriarchal society as well.
The sun greeted me warmly the next morning, and I felt fortunate to be here with them on my birthday. Tushi cooked traditional 'Binni' for me. She accompanied me to her brother's house close to the border after we completed the filming. I was impressed by the picturesque surroundings, and the hospitality of the people. The Meghalaya border is less than half a kilometer away, and I could see the hills on the other side of the border.
I left their village the next afternoon. It was 9 p.m. when I arrived in Mymensingh, and the last train had left. I hurried to the bus terminal, and was just able to catch the last bus to Dhaka.
Arunav Das is an MA student of ULAB in Literature and Cultural studies. He is interested in independent filmmaking and oral history collecting.