A Squirrel’s Tale
All of you know about the squirrel from the Ramayana, who rolled himself on the sand at the Indian seashore and then dipped into the Indian Ocean, to shed the sand off its body on the presumption that he was helping to build the bridge across the sea that would enable Rama's forces to reach Lanka. Only then Rama would be able to fight the evil Ravana and bring back Sita from his clasp. I consider myself such a celebrated animal, when I look back to my efforts, some 50 years back, which, surprisingly, brought me the highest honour of my life—the "Friend of Liberation War of Bangladesh" title in 2015.
It was 1969 and, empowered by a Fulbright grant, I was then a PhD student at the University of Chicago. Rumblings of dissatisfaction with the Pakistani domination had already started in East Pakistan and, as one born in that proud corner of the world, I was keeping a keen eye on the news coming from the area. Newspapers like The Pakistan Observer, Dainik Ittefaq, etc came to the University Library some six months after their issue, as they came by surface (sea) mail. I devoured whatever news I got of the troubles and unrest. They came somewhat garbled though, out of fear of the military browbeating. You could, however, get the feel of the hidden agitation, if you read between the lines. In such a newspaper, I read the news about the banning of five Bengali books, written by then East Pakistani authors. One was Trailokyanath Chakraborty's autobiography, Jele Trish Bachhar, Samskhritik Sampradayikata by Badaruddin Umar, Abdul Mannan Syed's Satyer Moto Badmash, and a book of short stories by my friend Jyotiprakash Dutta, the name of which skips my memory. Surprisingly, I found all five of them at the Regenstein Library, the major library of the university. I pored over the books and wrote an article titled "Five Dangerous Books" in Mehfil, then the journal of South Asian Studies departments in the USA, explaining why they were considered "objectionable" to the authorities, headed by Yahya Khan.
That caused some furor in the academic circles of the West. Many people in them were, one could say, academically interested in South Asia, but its politics remained out of focus for most. Now it was known that everything was not right in the state of Denmark, so to say. Pakistani students and others who sided with them objected to Professor Naim, Professor of Urdu at the UChicago, and the editor. Naim was a liberally oriented Indian, who ignored the objections. To add to the problem, an Urdu scholar in London, Hamza Alavi, who was researching on Raja Rammohan Ray, translated the article in his Urdu periodical Chingari, and which caused it to come under wider notice across the continents. This hullabaloo went on. At that time, a young teacher from East Lansing, Michigan came to give an interview lecture for appointment in the Anthropology department of the University of Chicago. He was a Bengal specialist. In his lecture, too, Ralph Nicholas (we became excellent friends later) touched upon the unrest of Bangladesh and, while doing so, faced some heckling by listeners who favoured Pakistan. Ralph confronted all their belligerent questions with his characteristic cool, which earned for him a post at my University.
Soon after, as everything indicated an inevitable war with Pakistan, my new friend, Shamsul Bari, who was then teaching Bengali at the Department of South Asian Studies, confided in me and informed me that East Pakistan Bengalis in Chicago and the vicinity wanted to do something for the liberation of their motherland and that they had formed a close group in the city with that objective. Should we be ready to join them? We (my wife, Maitreyi, and I) were only too glad to agree, as East Bengal was both of our birthplace. We began to meet at the residence of the world-famous engineer and architect Fazlur Rahman Khan (F. R. Khan), who, we were thrilled to learn, had made till then the highest building in the USA, the Sears Tower in Chicago, and had already earned the title of "Engineering Man of the Year" three times from the US Engineering Association, or something of that kind. But when we met him, he looked and behaved like a Bengali to the core, which surprised us even more. His wife was German and they had a charming young daughter of about 12 years. The whole family was for Bangladesh. We were not only treated royally at Fazlur's place, but when our deliberations of the day were over, a torn and dog-eared Gitabitan of Rabindranath would be brought out from a hiding place in Fazlur's bookshelves, and he would start singing old-time Rabindra Sangeet such as Ki paini, Ami tomay joto, Pran chay, chokkhu na chay, etc. Pankaj Mallik and K L Saigal were his special favourites. We also sang to our hearts' content. Shamsul's would-be wife, Supriya, had an excellent singing voice, and so did Maitreyi. Among the others in the party was also Muhammad Yunus (later Dr and a Nobel Laureate for Peace).
Our plans were primarily to raise a dollar fund using which we could send some weapons of war to the Bangladeshi soldiers, and other war materials like rubber boats and gear for divers such as flaps, snorkels, etc. That part was handled by Shamsul and Fazlur, who had made connections with some American agents who dealt in such matters. To raise money, we had a three-pronged programme. One was to raise direct subscriptions from South Asian and American friends who sympathised with our cause. Second, to prepare dinners for guests, mostly Americans, who would pay USD 100 for a South Asian treat. And third was to organise "cultural events" in which attendance would also be for a fee.
Come the summer of 1971, and we were all out with our plans. My role was to tie in the Indian, particularly the Indian Bengali community to this project—and that was no big problem. I had some hand in forming the Bengali Association of Greater Chicago with my friend Girin Ray, and we already had a solid body of people interested in our cause. Shamsul also put the responsibility or organising cultural events on my shoulders. Bengali wives of Chicago were excellent cooks, (my wife not excluded) and our two dinners in the city were huge successes. The International House, the hostel for foreign students by the University, was ever ready to provide us with an excellent venue. We Bengalis had already been using it for many cultural events, including theatrical performances.
There was an interlude which involved none other than Noam Chomsky. He came to the University of Chicago to lecture on American foreign policy, and we, as could be expected, thronged to hear him. In the question-answer session following the lecture, we asked him about his reactions to Bangladesh's Liberation War. Chomsky hedged a little as, we felt, he was guided by the early Chinese ambivalence about the War. We told him that he was wrong, and no force in the world would be able to withhold a free Bangladesh for long. Chomsky did not press his point.
We organised two cultural programmes, one in Chicago, and another at Ann Arbor, Michigan. Artists from Bangladesh and India took part in them enthusiastically, and Bengalis, spread over two or three hundred miles across the US Midwest, crowded to watch them. There was the usual fare of Tagore and Nazrul songs, with some of Abbas Uddin and Salil Chowdhury thrown in. There were lectures and skits. Details will be out-of-place here, but I'll end my story with an episode that I have not been able to forget.
Our programmes usually ended with Amar Shonar Bangla. So did the one at Ann Arbor, during which the audience stood up and greeted us with thunderous applause. We came out of the auditorium with a sense of satisfaction. The crowd came out and milled about to talk to friends. At this time, a diminutive and shrunken old man came forward and started almost wringing my hands. He was shaking and his eyes were full of tears. He said, "You don't know what you have brought back to me this afternoon. I didn't dream of this ever, in the wildest of my dreams. My own language! My own culture, and the land I was born in! It's all come back to me!" He addressed his stately wife and tall son standing beside him, both Americans, "See Emily, see Frank, this is my country, this is my culture, and they've brought all that back to me, from across the oceans!" Tears began to roll down his cheeks. His wife gently patted him on his shoulder, and tried to calm him by saying, "Easy, Amar, easy! Calm yourself!" But he could not. He was sobbing, still wringing my hand.
This was Amar Chakraborty, who had fled his village in Bikrampur in the 1930s, as he was being hounded by the British for being a "terrorist". He came to the US, found a job at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, and married an American girl and built a home there.
Pabitra Sarkar in an author and former Vice Chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.