Non-Fiction 1971

2007-12-15__lit021.jpg(In his book The Year That Was (reviewed in this page on March 24, 2007) Ishrat Ferdousi published the oral interviews he had taken with a diverse range of people about their experiences during our 1971 War of Liberation. Not all of the interviews were included in the volume. Here is one previously unpublished narrative, story of Mushtaque Ahmed Khan, then aged 17, a student in Bogra. )
A few years earlier we had formed a club and named it Quaid-e-Azam Club. It was now dubbed Bangabandhu Club and after 7 March we were doing ‘night-duty’–to maintain peace. It was fun and felt great and every member attended. Siraj, Jampu, Anwar, were among the regulars. We were giving support to the elders, seniors, et cetera, people that we normally avoided.
On the night of 25 March, we were on the street when alarming news came that the Pakistani army was preparing to attack Bogra! They said they were marching from Rajshahi cantonment so we had to cut down trees, block the roads. Some said Pakistani soldiers were also marching in from Airharbazar camp. Airharbazar was not far from the town, so we ran and grabbed axes and billhooks, mainly from Siraj’s house, and rushed out again. Most among the dozen or so I think forgot about the route we were taking in our headlong rush through the non-Bengali neighbourhood of Biharipatti. We only realised it when we saw the Bihari men standing in front of their houses, staring at us as we raced past with sticks, machetes or billhooks in our hands!
We crossed the Police Lines without incident and reached Sherpur Road when suddenly we saw lights. A jeep! The army had come! We scattered into the nearby bamboo grove but as it passed us we saw it was a political leader going into town. But the vehicle had scared away most of our gang. Only Siraj and another guy were left; the rest had disappeared. We tried to cut down a tree but succeeded only in chipping it a bit. We thought of bringing back some more people and starting all over again. We didn’t find anyone at the Club. “They’ve all gone to Chanmari!” someone said. We went to Chanmari and saw Peshta, a tough activist, already mobilising people. “The war has begun,” he was telling the assembled folks. “We have to fight, we have to train ourselves.” When I came back home around 5:00 in the morning I could see my family had been very worried about me. Manju mama was waiting with a stick. “Where had you been?” he demanded, and followed it up with harsh dressing down. I told my father that no one could sit at home at a time like that. He told me it was all right. So avoiding mama, I went out again. A few hundred people had gathered at our playground. I saw dozens with guns single- and double-barreled shotguns and hunting rifles–doing drills with a number of armed policemen and Ansars. Already, I thought.
I returned home and was into a heavy breakfast when the terrible sounds of firing began. They wouldn’t let me go out, obviously, and I wasn’t about to either. The sound was something awful.The first Bengali casualties, specially the fatalities, shook us. On the other hand, the resistance by our people, mostly policemen and Ansars must have shaken up the Pakistanis a bit too. Many of our people who were killed didn’t seem to have realised the dangers of war. Some had remained inside their roadside dwellings, restaurants, et cetera, thinking that as non-combatants they’d be spared. Nobody thought they’d shoot everybody in sight. “War has started and the army will come, the planes will come, so let’s start digging trenches!”
We had a similar contingency in ’65 during the war with India. We started digging one in the yard, an ‘L’ type. We thought we’d certainly be able to stop the Pakistanis although it could be tough (even fun) but for sure we were not going to be defeated. Except perhaps for Anwar, none from our gang had been at the trouble spots. A few hours after the shootings we were thinking of going to go to the playground to play football. That afternoon, we were kicking it around.
A week later, we left for the village. Where one night my father dreamt that his late grandmother had asked him to repair her grave. Part of the boundary wall had broken down and fallen into the adjacent pond. There was also a mazar on our land, the grave of a long departed pir shaheb who had arrived there long ago from a distant land. There was a chilla room where he once performed his zik’r. The chilla room had half sunk into the ground. A huge banyan tree gave shade to the place. Since we had nothing to do all day long we decided to clean up the place– the small chilla room, the mosque and our family graveyard next to it. My grandfather was buried beside the grave of the pir shaheb.
Long ago, when my grandfather was a young man, a deranged fakir used to be a regular there. The man or ‘pagol’, as he was commonly known, would often spend the night in the mosque. One night he was sitting there when my grandfather came and sat down behind him and began his zik’r. The fakir suddenly reached behind, grabbed my grandfather by the scruff of his neck and in one movement swung him in the air over his shoulders to plonk him down in front. Where did the strength come from? My grandfather could never explain. One day, the ‘pagol’ came and put his earthen bowl on the roof of the chilla room and entered it after telling my grandfather, who was the only one around, to bolt it from the outside. My grandfather did as ordered but afterwards, went and told everyone. People rebuked him saying that the ‘pagol’ might injure himself or worse. They all came and the chilla room, still bolted, was opened. It was empty. The ‘pagol’ was never ever seen again.
We finished clearing the place which had had a wild look to it earlier. Now it looked nice and clean. We were admiring our work when we discovered some eggs–snake eggs–and destroyed them without a thought. After that we went to bathe in the pond. We were drying ourselves when we saw two large snakes, and they seemed to be playing. We immediately grabbed sticks and stones but my uncle stopped us: “Why? They have not attacked you and you have been working in the area for hours. Let them be!”
We had seen snakes performing before with charmers but this spectacle was so different. The entwined pair made small pecks at each other in a strange rhythm, beautiful, graceful, haunting, at once play, at once dance, Then my aunt said: “They are not snakes! Get a bed-sheet quickly!” Someone went and got a large bed-sheet, which was carefully spread. As if on cue, the snakes slithered and rolled onto it and began their extraordinary dance anew.
We were mesmerized by the serpents’ movements, and watched in wonder as if the passing of time had been arrested. It went on for quite a while and we were experiencing all that along with half the village. Then quite suddenly, just as they had appeared, they disappeared, slithering off the bed sheet onto the grass. And then–nothing!
A few weeks later my father and I started for Bogra town. We saw some agitated people running around. I went to our house in Malotinagar. Abba said he’d join me after he drew his salary. He worked at the post office.They told us that the state bank had been looted a couple of days earlier. However, most who had entered the bank vault in order to get the cash to friends waiting outside didn’t see any of the fruits of their labour. When they came out, the truck they had helped fill had disappeared. At Muroil village the truck broke down so they transferred what they could into a jeep. People of the village were just waiting for their chance and looted the rest in a frenzy never seen before (or hence).
They also told us that people really started leaving Bogra town after that.
We were sitting and chatting when suddenly warplanes roared past overhead! My companion (I don’t remember who it was) and I ran and our neighbours ran with us. I saw people with bundles of currency, in bullock carts, rickshaws, sprinting with armloads of the stuff, women holding them in the canopies of their saris oblivious to the height of the hemline now close to their waists! How many could finally carry them to their destinations is another story. There were ambushes by hordes of other civilians wanting a piece of the action. I trekked to Kahalu, seven miles from Bogra town to my nani’s place. I had no idea where my father was, but shortly afterwards he too turned up there. A few days later we went to dada’s place.
The days following the bombing the Pakistanis began moving into Bogra from three directions: Rangpur, Pabna and Shantahar. Shortly after Bogra was captured a Peace Committee was formed in our village and someone became the chairman. He had a cousin who was supporting the cause of independence. This was war between the cousins. The Peace Committee chairman showed the Pakistan army his cousin’s house, and they torched it, but couldn’t find their man. Our house next door also caught fire along with a third house. But no one was there. Just before they came the entire village had fled. Next day, labourers were used to dismantle the frame, beam, et cetera, whatever was left and break down the walls. The Peace Committee chairman was asked if this was the right thing to do.
“No, but why has he joined the Mukti Bahini?”
One day, a man who later became a Mukti Bahini commander was apprehended by the Peace Committee chairman’s people. My cousin said, “Let’s go or they’ll kill them all.” Along with some others we went there. They were carrying firearms which were snatched away and the Peace Committee chairman was so incensed that those guns were smashed to bits dropped into different irrigation wells, at different villages, including ammunition! We told the Peace Committee chairman that now that he had taken away their weapons he should make arrangements for them to reach India . “If they want to go to India, all right but they can’t carry weapons there,” he said, and provided men and some money to escort them across the border.
He was also after me. For the hifazath of the country and also, in his warped logic, for my personal safety he was sincerely advocating my joining the Pakistani army. I started avoiding him. (Weirdly enough, later in ’74 he wanted me to enlist in the Rakkhi Bahini for the same reason – the dreaded security forces of post independence Awami League government). On the other hand, the man’s cousin was always elected chairman of the Union Council. People were wholly behind him. He had adopted some children, didn’t have kids of his own. He had never harmed anyone. But his cousin’s jealousy ended his life. Around 2:00 at night, the soldiers arrived and took him under a tree at the edge of the school playground and shot him dead. We went there after the soldiers had left. What was ironic was that he was also a member of the Muslim League.
The Peace Committee chairman didn’t harm anyone else but he was perceived as a menace to his own relatives. Strange man, very honest and always thought what was best for the people, the village, and that is what he spoke about but he had his cousin killed for aiding the Mukti Bahini.The Mukti Bahini arrived and said they were going to hold a trial and punish the Peace Committee chairman. A nephew of his made an attempt to kill him. What saved him was the fact that they didn’t find him home that day.
All the Hindus had fled and all their houses were looted. Many had sold their stuff. They sold their cow for 5-10 rupees, whatever they could get, knowing they couldn’t carry them and they would be looted anyway. Rice, paddy they also sold very cheap.The prices of essentials were down and there was no problem of food. Even the nocturnal visits by freedom fighters from time to time caused no ripples. The Peace Committee chairman’s late cousin used to take care of that.
After the war a student leader, a brother-in-law of the Peace Committee chairman escorted him to safety in Dacca. By then the collaborator was rich and had loads of money. He had two houses in Dacca and property in Karachi as well as in Calcutta. His father had left behind all that.


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