Dr. Alo Chowdhury
A sight of beauty is a joy forever -- until the next sight. But a sight of extreme brutality is etched in the mind's eye permanently. It may fade with time, but can never be obliterated or erased.
It projects itself at every similar experience on the "memory screen," just like watching an old movie on the "silver screen." The memory and experience renews itself, especially if it is a childhood incident.
Since I narrated the event to my daughter at her tender age, and she started to sing the songs I composed depicting my emotional experience of the day, she would invariably remind me of the day by saying "Bap, I feel sad if I don't sing one of your songs on the 21st." It makes me proud that I have been able to infuse my feelings of the day and enthuse my standard-bearer - an exceptional fruition of a cherished dream.
I left Dhaka in 1960, and it is a coincidence that my presence in Bangladesh this time is in the month of February. My life was more in tune with the literary and cultural activities in Dhaka before I left for London as a young man.
But my writing and composing songs and "Geeti Nakhshas" in Bengali has never diminished, despite my living in an alien society. My love for Bangla remains as strong as ever, even to this day!
Feelings cannot be taught. They are usually contagious, occasionally fakely copied, but mostly genetic and natural.
Bengalis as a nation are emotional. Emotions dictate finer feelings of the heart and mind, reflected through the immortal pages of such giants as Nazrul, Tagore, and Jibonanonda Das amongst others, who made the language one of the richest in the literary world. It was this simple fact, which had to be upheld and protected. "Love," induced lives to be sacrificed for the cause of the Mother Tongue. A unique inscription on the "Tablets" of Civilisation!
The day was hot with an occasional glimpse of cirrus clouds. Tarmac roads from Collegiate School, Sadarghat to Dhaka University were at melting point. Water-soaked hankies that we were advised to carry as protection against possible teargas attacks, were drying up within minutes. Our groups, of no more than 3-4, were facing the gas as we approached the University gate. Police were standing in the shades of the eucalyptus trees with rifles at the ready.
We were repeating slogans taught by the "Boro Bhais" from the Colleges. "Rashtro Bhasha Bangla Chai," "Amader dabi mantey hobey" became thunderous as we entered the University compound. The agitation was gaining crescendo.
The "Bot Tola" and the "Tea Shed" -- widely known as Madhu's Canteen, was overwhelmed with students chanting. We were suddenly running away from the University archway towards the faculty buildings, escaping from police attacks with teargas and baton charge. Panic and pandemonium. A lot of broken bones and bloodshed. Police assault was, in a word, "vicious!"
The Vice-Chancellor, supported by other academic staff and students, confronted the police force for violation of the University's sanctity. It was announced that he also communicated his resignation to the Chancellor in protest against the police, trespassing on University grounds, and for brutal actions against unarmed students on their own compound.
The students' agitation went up a gear as a reaction. It was decided to court arrest en-masse by going out of the University gate in "fives" and "sixes" in violation of "Rule 144." Smaller ones, like us, were ordered to proceed to the Medical College Hostel in groups of "twos" and "threes," but continue with the slogans.
It was great fun throwing pebbles and pieces of bricks at the police who were also in position on the other side of the Medical College Hostel with their guns and teargas ready. We weren't "unready" either when we reached the Hostel gate, as the older ones were picking up teargas canisters and throwing them back at the police.
But, it wasn't fun looking at the skull and headless body lying on a stretcher on the eastern veranda of the Medical College ward later in the afternoon. The face was covered with a grey and dark-brown substance -- probably the smashed-up brain and blood from the now missing head. The fading dusk-light played some surreal effects. Just a couple of us were gazing in total silence. Couldn-t move an inch. Suddenly felt sick. Sound didn't reach our inner ears. No tears, no cries -- no sighs. Time stood still around us. The fact that a dead man's face could look so revolting, so awful, so frightening, was simply unbelievable -- as if it was the face of Death itself, so fearful -- so repulsive!
"Akhon jao." Someone requested, and we moved on. But my head was spinning soon after a few steps, and I was sick. I was forced to sit down on the lawn by the path to the Hostel.
There was still a big rush of people in and out of the iron-gate between the Hostel and the main building of the Hospital. The gate was originally shut with a huge chain and a big lock. We were all trapped in the Hostel earlier, as the main entrance was cordoned off by the police and the whole compound was surrounded by barbed wire. But the iron-gate was smashed open by a very strong student with the help of others pulling and pushing it. The chain and the lock gave way and we all had an exit "strategy" in the event of police entering the Hostel compound. We were advised by the "big brothers" to flee if the police chased us.
Police chasing became more obvious earlier when we were throwing pebbles and returning teargas canisters to them. A canister fell right by my foot. I took out the hankie to soak my eyes, but it was dry. I ran to the nearest tap, a mere 20 feet away outside one of the barracks. Suddenly I heard gunfire sounds as I was splashing water on my eyes and hankie. Rushed back to my "position" on the Hostel entrance gate. A young boy of about my age was lying on the spot where I should have been, had I not gone for water!
His ankle and foot seemed to have exploded and blood was gushing out. He was in agony. We all shouted for help. Soon he was carried away to one of the barracks. We were back throwing stones and shouting insults at the police, calling them murderers etc.
Someone said that another student had stomach wounds and was lying on the floor of a barrack some 15 feet away. We rushed to witness the scene. Evidently there was a flabby young man, aged about 20, on the floor, with blood-soaked clothes. He was being attended to by the medical students. We noticed the blood stains on the veranda and also on the pathway.
The whole atmosphere was highly charged and electrifying as the "big brothers" started shouting "Ottacharer bichar chai," "Amader dabi mantey hobey," "Gono hotta bondho koro," "Rashtro Bhasha Bangla Chai." The loudspeakers started blasting away, demanding the Legislative Assembly Members to abandon the Assembly Session in protest against police brutality.
We got hold of the blood-soaked clothes, and hung them on the barbed-wire of the Hostel facing the Legislative Assembly Hall on the opposite corner on the North-West side of the Hostel Compound. Loudspeakers were still blasting away with anti-Government and anti-police rhetoric, inviting the Lawmakers to join the protest and show solidarity with the students-led Cause for the Mother Tongue and against the oppression and suppression of the mass demand.
A handful of Lawmakers looked at the blood-soaked clothes on the barbed-wire fence, crossed the road and came to the entrance of the Hostel. They were briefed by the seniors.
By then, news had reached of other fatalities. They inspected the two wounded students, who were still in the Hostel barracks, as there was no way to take them to the hospital next door. They got hold of the microphone and announced their solidarity and demanded the other members to boycott the session and join the protest group. Many MLAs joined us by late afternoon. Mr Tarkabagish was a name that I could remember. He was one of many who spoke very eloquently, full of passion and sentiment. The whole atmosphere was highly volatile with the active support of the League and Congress MLAs.
The junction of the roads at the entrance to the Hostel and the College was completely cordoned off by the re-enforced police. Unarmed students were trapped on the compound, and yet the police attacks seemed to have abated, probably due to the presence of the MLAs.
The clothes hanging on the barbed-wire fence, with the blood-soaked colour complementing Krishnachura flowers, had now dried up and were dark-brown. The hottest day, in every sense, was coming to an end.
The earlier confiscated PA system by the police had now been replaced by the self-made Engineering College machines. Preparations for the next day's activities were being organised by the action committee. We were instructed to go to the SM Hall which had also been raided by police earlier. They had lost their PA system, and many students were arrested. We were given collection containers by the "Shorbodolio Rashtro Bhasha Shongram Parishad" to collect funds from the public for the days ahead. It was after 8pm that I set off for home from SM Hall. It took half an hour to reach Lalbagh and face interrogation by senior family members. An embargo was imposed on me for the next few days. I was ordered to have supper and go straight to bed.
A quick wash and on to the dining table. I was looking at the rice and curry on my plate, served by my younger sister, but it appeared like the "face" covered with dried-up blood and brain -- the head that never was -- the skull in the shape of a huge crater! Impossible to eat. Sleep became a nightmare, not just for that night, but for the next few weeks.
Managed to swallow bakorkhani and bundiya as my standard breakfast the following morning. But my mind was elsewhere…
"Where are you going?" enquired my eldest brother, as I went past.
"To the garage," I replied, and continued.
As soon as I got to the garage, I quickly dropped the lungi I was wearing on top of my shorts and ran out on to the streets with the collection boxes.
The two boxes were soon full with donations from the Chawk Bazaar business community not a single refusal. The streets were eerily silent and significantly void of traffic and pedestrians. It was late afternoon before I reached SM Hall. The donation boxes were gratefully received by the Central Committee.
Returned home late as usual to a barrage of interrogation and renewed embargo. The next few days became a hide-and-seek project for me. Truancy became an obvious ploy to be active in the anti-establishment and pro Mother Tongue movement. Food had very little attraction for me. Sleep turned into recurring nightmares for weeks.
Witnessing severe brutality for the first time is an experience of a lifetime -- especially to a young person of 12, which I was (at that time). The memory has been engraved in every cavity of my mind's edifice -- in every immortal page of meditation!
The first experience is the last. And the lasting experience is if it's a unique incident from one's childhood. Though it had taken the Bengalis four years to defy the imposition of an alien language, the 21st day of February 1952 was such a special day in my life, and it was an honour and privilege indeed to have been able to contribute, insignificant though it might have been, to the Cause on this Historic Day that changed the course of the National Identity of Bangladesh forever!
Dr. Alo Chowdhury is a resident of London
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