Love and tears for Dhaka

By Arsalan Khan

As published on tribune blogs


My stepfather, Afzal Ahmed Syed, is a generally quiet and inward man who occasionally breaks from his reticence with humorous insights about the world. He does this not through fanciful and elaborate explanations, but in pithy quotes or by reciting a shaer.

As many thoughtful commentators on his life and poetry have suggested, much of my father’s poetic vision has been shaped by his experience as a witness to immense political tragedies like East Pakistan’s violent rebirth as Bangladesh in 1971, the Lebanese Civil War, and the ethnic and sectarian violence that overwhelmed Karachi in the 1990s.

Musharraf Farooqi, my father’s friend and translator, has suggested that his poetry reflects a long “inner migration” commonly found amongst writers and thinkers who have witnessed the enormity of war and suffering. This is undeniable. But, there is a little more to the story than that. It is important to remember that experiencing great trauma does not necessarily generate the kind of humanitarian ethos that I believe is central to my father’s life and work. In fact, if our modern day experience demonstrates anything, it is that political tragedies are just as likely, if not more likely, to deepen the ethos of brutality and violence as they are to create an ethic of self-reflection and compassion.

Perpetrators of violence often believe themselves to be victims of some kind. They always imagine that they are merely defending themselves against the machinations of others. It is no surprise then that the arc of history takes the shape of a recurring tragedy as one generation of victims becomes the next generation of perpetrators. Not surprisingly, violence and suffering are recurring themes in his poetry:

We need a whole lot of flowers

for one half of them will succumb to their wounds

We need a forest of nocturnal flowers

for those who could not sleep for the report of gunfire

we need a whole lot of flowers

for a whole lot of rueful people

we need anonymous flowers

to cloak the stripped girl

(from “We Need a Whole Lot of Flowers”)

My father’s humanistic ethic is built around a realisation that the lines between victims and perpetrators of violence are often quite blurry. This too comes from experience, especially his experience in Dhaka, Bangladesh during the Bangladesh war of Independence. My father frequently says, and with no small measure of pride, that the first and only vote that he has ever cast in his life was for the Awami League Party in the 1971 elections.

For those of you who are not familiar with Pakistani-Bangladeshi history, this election was won convincingly by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Bangladeshi leader and champion of Bengali political autonomy and civil rights, but was later abrogated by the West-Pakistani establishment backed by the powerful Pakistani military. This event thrust the country into a cataclysmic Civil War that led to the deaths of millions and culminated in the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation-state. Although himself an Urdu-speaking West Pakistani, he was a firm supporter of the Bengali movement. This commitment was informed by his unbounded love for Dhaka, a city that he had made his own. He says that every night, around dusk, he would renew his love for the city by taking a stroll through its narrow streets and newly erected parks.

He was a staunch supporter the Bengali movement because he understood that a people, especially a people with such monumental intellectual and literary achievements, could only be subjugated so long before they revolted. Yet, despite his support of the Bengali movement, my father became a victim of the war. On December 14, 1971, Bengali soldiers forcefully removed him from his home in Purbali, a suburb on the outskirts of Dhaka, and interned him in Mirpur, a quarter of Dhaka where other Urdu-speaking minorities lived. He could no longer walk through his city and as a result his love, naturally, dissipated. In 1972, he was arrested as a Pakistani sympathizer and a collaborator with the Pakistani military. This was during a time when many such “internal enemies” were being executed. He was later deemed a “peaceful citizen” and released, possibly at the request of an influential member in the Bangladeshi militia forces. A year later, he along with his mother and six younger siblings managed to escape Dhaka, never to return, making their way through India and Nepal to Karachi where he now lives.

If my voice is not reaching you,

add to it the echo —

echo of ancient epics

And to that —

a princess

And to the princess—your beauty

And to your beauty —

a lover’s heart

And in the lover’s heart

a dagger

(from “If My Voice is Not Reaching You”)

My father rarely speaks of Dhaka, but when he does it is with a tremendous sense of betrayal and sadness. His beloved city, he says, now only appears to him in nightmares. It was in Dhaka that he first began to think about the destructive potential of language, its capacity to strip people of their humanity and open them up toviolent retribution. The War my father experienced was very much fought in language well before it was fought on the streets of Dhaka. West Pakistanis had long dehumanised their fellow citizens in East Pakistan, attacking them for being backwards and unsophisticated.

This was also very much a war about language because West Pakistanis had imagined their Bengali counterparts to have a degraded and inferior tongue. Later, when everyone had abandoned speech for war, the Bengalis turned on their Urdu speaking minority with the same vitriol to which they had themselves been subjected. Now, it was Urdu-speakers who were imagined to be conspiring, by virtue of their language, against Bangladeshi liberation. Much of my father’s interest in poetry emerged in a context where everyday language had become deeply compromised on all sides. His poetic vision springs from the knowledge that our modern day political tragedies are rooted in everyday speech and language. Maybe this is why he remains to this day a conspicuously “quiet” and “inward” man and maybe this is why when he does speak, he prefers to speak in the language of poetry.

Maybe poetry in his world carries a unique potential to transcend the violence of our modern world, a violence woven deeply into the tapestry of our everyday lives.

Poetry translations have been done by Musharraf Ali Farooqi.

This post was originally published here.


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1971, A War Veteran Remembers

By Deepak Dadhwal

‘I cut my leg off and ordered: ‘Go and bury it’
Major General Ian Cardozo was a young major in the 5 Gorkha Rifles in the 1971 war with Pakistan. In a swift military offensive, India defeated Pakistan within 13 days, liberated a region and led to the creation of Bangladesh.
In the war, the then Major Cardozo stepped on a landmine and had to cut off his badly wounded leg with his own khukri.
Yet, through sheer will power and determination, he did not let his disability come in the way of his duty as a soldier and went on to become the first disabled officer in the Indian Army to command an infantry battalion and a brigade.
Awarded a Sena Medal for gallantry, General Cardozo spoke to Claude Arpi about the historic war and how he conquered his disability in the second part of a fascinating interview.
Q:Tell us about your wound.
At that time, I was still not wounded.
There was a BSF commander who got panicky when he saw all these fellows (prisoners) and asked: “Please send someone here.’ I told the CO that I would go. I did not know that I was walking on a minefield. I stepped on a mine and my leg blew off.
A Bangladeshi saw this happening, he picked me up and took me to the battalion headquarters. They were feeling bad. I told the doctor, ‘Give me some morphine.’ They had no#8800 it had been destroyed during the operations. ‘Do you have any Pethidine?’ ‘No’
I told him: ‘Could you cut this off?’
He said: ‘I don’t have any instrument.’
I asked my batman: ‘Where is my khukri?’
He said: ‘Here it is, Sir.’
I told him: ‘Cut it off.’
He answered in Gorkhali: ‘Sir, I can’t do it.’
I told him: ‘Give it to me.’ I cut my leg off and ordered: ‘Now go and bury it.’

Q:You tell people that you are embarrassed to tell the story because it was nothing at all. What was your first thought?

My first thought was for her (pointing to his wife, Priscilla). I thought, ‘What a stupid thing happened to me. It was beyond my control, it just happened.’
Then the doctor came and tied it up. My CO also came: ‘Ian, you are very lucky, we have captured a Pakistani surgeon. He will operate on you.’
‘Nothing doing, Sir, I don’t want to be operated by a Pakistani doctor. Just get me back to India,’ I answered.
By that time Dhaka had fallen and there was no chopper available.
I then told the CO: ‘Two conditions.’ He immediately said: ‘You are not in position to put conditions.’
I told him: ‘OK, two requests. One, I don’t want Pakistani blood.’
He retorted: ‘You are a fool.’ I said: ‘I am prepared to die a fool. My second request, Sir, I want you to be present when they operate on me.’ The CO asked: ‘Why?’ I answered: ‘You know why.’ (There had been cases of torture). So, he agreed.
Anyway, the Pakistani surgeon did a good job. His name was Major Mohamed Basheer. I have never been able to say, ‘Thank you.’ I owe him a thank you, but it is not easy (to find someone in Pakistan)

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Faiz Ahmed Faiz on return from Dhaka: Hum Ke Thehray Ajnabi




hum ke Thairey ajnabi itni madaraatooN ke baad
phir banain gaiN aashnaa kitni mulaqatooN ke baad

Kab nazar maiN aaey ge bai_daGh sabzey ki bahar
Khoon ke dhabbey dhulain gaiN kitni barsaatooN ke baad

dil to chaaha par shikasht-e-dil nay muhlat he na di
kuch giley shikvey bhi kar laitey manajaatooN ke baad

thay buhat bai_dard lamhey Khatm-e-dard-e-ishq ke
theeN buhat bai_mehar subhaiN meherbaaN raatooN ke baad

un se jo kehney gaey thai “faiz” jaaN sadqa kiye
unkahee he reh gai voh baat sab baatooN ke baad

Translation by Sadia

Hospitalities exchanged, yet we who strangers stay
With how many encounters, shall amiability display?

After how many rains, shall the blood stains fade,
And when, in our sight, shall unspotted fields sway?

All that the heart desired, its breaking permitted not,
No grievance did those contained praises betray.

Merciless were moments, that witnessed the end of pain,
Benevolent nights brought in a cruel break of day.

That which, on your life, you determined to convey
Unspoken on your lips, Faiz, the decided words lay

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A day to mourn

By Mahwish Bhatti
December 16th 1971: a mournful and distressing day for almost majority of Pakistan when they lost East Pakistan which now is Bangladesh, a separate state. In the absence of historical accounts, this war is still mystified  politically and statistically, most pakistanis are still unaware of the  magnitude of the catastrophe.
In the pursuit of searching for real events, many overlooked the plight and distress of the  people with no political affiliations. Their lives revolved around knowing that there were no barriers to East Pakistan. Many earned their livelihoods from East Pakistan. The political differences led to partition of East Pakistan on December 16th 1971, which most of us remember as  “Dhaka Fall’.
My mother lived in the small town of Ichra in Lahore where her life  was her father, two sisters and a brother.  Her only source of information about the world outside her home was the radio. My mother loved the transistors and radios as she belonged to a modest family who couldn’t afford a TV.
She tells me how she used to stick around her radio all day to have updates about the ‘unwanted war with Bangladesh’. She would pray endlessly for the safety of Bangali  brothers and sisters but also prayed for the safety of Pakistani armed forces. Even now, as she narrates the story to me, she explains the agony of having to choose.  She didn’t want to. She wanted East Pakistan to be with West Pakistan. She wanted their safety and she wanted the armed men to bow down their weapons and embrace each other, a hope she tied until the last minute. But it just didn’t happen.
She remembers  how radio transmissions  manipulated the facts by portraying that Pakistan’s victory was  inevitable. This hype made people  confident and deluded, believing that east pakistan would stay with us.  The gradual descend, the grimness in the tone of radio broadcasters, when they caught the glimpse of total disaster instead of a win or even surrender, was the most painful sign.
But the people at large were emotional  and patriotic, the support with army was enormous.  My mother and my khalas (my mother’s sisters) knitted sweaters for soldiers. There were lines of trucks that stored the dry ration for soldiers in order to help them survive. Unaware of the facts they believed they were trying to keep Pakistan together, falling for the portrayal that the ‘enemy’ would be defeated and that we wouldn’t have to lose a significant part of our country . People recited ayah’s for the safety of Pakistan and everyone which includes the bangalis  as well.
My mother mournfully remembers, even today when she first heard the news of Dhaka fall. The hysterical reactions of her family as they couldn’t believe that it actually happened. The media that was either biased or inactive. In the absence of facts, my mother’s family cried their hearts out. My uncle, my mother’s brother, lost all his control and hit his head against the wall several times before he went unconscious. He has those scars marking the day when he felt a part of his own body was ripped away from him. The pain and plight can not be explained in words,  and there was no one to heal their wounds because everyone in Ichraa went into a depressing silence that left everyone in a  state of shock.

Even though my mother’s memory is diminishing,  she remembers her neighbors did not light their stoves in solidarity with their bangali bretherins. The mourning was grave, raw and unexplainable.
My father’s business was set up in east-pakistan.  The separation meant,  that he  had lost his business but he  left all his earnings in bangladesh,  as he thought someone might take up his business and earn a living from it. He still remembers Chittagong and speaks Bengali more often. To my surprise, he never mentioned his survival story during the war. All he remembers is his uncle who was in army and whose only mission was to steal as much money and gold from the Bengalis. He raped many women as well. My father mentioned this story only once and never repeated it. Perhaps looking away from it was a way of letting the horrors go.
One  of the families, in my mothers neighborhood,  lost their son in the war. The soldier  had embraced martyrdom. He was the only brother of seven sisters and was married, he left a sic month old son. Mom tells me how her sisters and mother could not cope up with the grief of East Pakistan fall and the  martyrdom of their dear brother and son. Father of his jawaan was a police man at that time and showed tremendous courage. He said to every visitor:
“Menu mubarik dawo. Mera beta shaheed hoya ay. Onu goli seenay tey lagi aay. O daraiya nahin”
(Congratulate me as my son sacrificed his life for this country. He got a bullet in his chest which shows his courage)
The man himself was unaware of what actually happened on the war front. He had enough reason to be proud for being a father of a martyr. One of my uncles who left the army after this terrible holocaust tells me that army and government marked a policy of not questioning the surviving people from both East and West Pakistan as every one of them had a disturbing story. My uncle and my mother haven’t been able to absorb this brutal reality even now. My mother did not let her hopes die even after the war, she remembers waiting for a possible reconciliation, impossible as it was it never happened. She kept on tuning her tiny radio over and over again and again to make sure  she hadn’t missed the news of  the merger of two now separate nations.
I being her daughter can only describe her emotions in my limited ability but I might not ever be able to experience what she went through. The horrific and depressing experience make her weep even now while she shares her experience. I cringe at the thought of a possible repeatation of history now.
16th December 2011 is going to be a mournful day yet again. Every year in December, this day marks a day of mourning in our household, of sharing grief, of revisiting the irrecoverable scars.
I share these stories only to let know people that on the cost of political or power dispute, the people  suffered endlesslu. The people of Pakistan like the people of Bangladesh were innocent and deeply attached if only the authorities had known and realized.
My mother still prays for all the martyrs and innocent people who were sacrificed at the behest of political maneuverings and negligence.


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Dhaka in Pictures

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Instrument of Surrender 1971

The surrender document signed by the Pakistan Army at the time of the fall of Dhaka



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History’s ghetto – (Geneva Camp, Dhaka)

Republished with permission from Raza Rumi.

It was almost by accident that I visited the Mohammadpur Geneva camp in Dhaka – one of the largest settlements housing thousands of stranded Biharis in Bangladesh. On my last visit to Dhaka, my guide Ronny offered the possibility of getting the best bihari kebabs in town. He told me that his house was near the place and I could meet him somewhere close.

This was an extraordinary afternoon when the receding sun was converting the sky into a field of unimaginable colours that artists can only aspire to create through their limited palettes. Dhaka, the noisy, overcrowded megapolis can be enchanting at times, especially during late springtime when the Krishnochura trees (the Flame of the Forest) bloom all over with their fiery flowers. I almost cancelled the trip thinking that a walk in the park might be a better alternative to the usual South Asian gluttony. Quite soon, I arrived at the meeting point having rationalised my proclivity for indulgence.

Little did I know that the meeting point was nowhere but at the doorstep of Dhaka’s underbelly, the easy to ignore Bihari camp. Not until I had reached there had I realised how the wounds of 1971 were festering for hundreds and thousands of men, women and children who have waited for all these years to attain identity and citizenship of Pakistan. As if it were a curse, the Pakistani state soon forgot about their existence as its ethnic politics dominated the policy commitments of Bhutto. And for the Bangladeshis these were the “traitors” who continued to wave Pakistani flags when the vast majority of East Pakistanis revolted against the excesses and the might of Pakistan army following the infamous and mischievous army action of 1971.

In a few minutes I had all but forgotten about the famous Mustaqeem kebabs and parathas and forced Ronny to take me inside the camp. Very soon I realised I did not need any Bangla-speaking guide as the ghetto was Urdu speaking, and portraits of Pakistani leaders and flags could still be spotted despite the passage of three and a half decades. Ronny knew the locals and found his younger friends, child workers and idle youth who took charge of our little tour.

Shamed by guilt and excited by the real experience, I wandered the smelly, open-drained and dark streets of the ghetto. I have frequented other slums but this one was special for it reeked of the contemporary elite politics, bloodshed and cold inhumanity that Pakistanis are shy of confronting. The living conditions would put any half-concerned South Asian to shame. The homes for most of the families comprised tiny little rooms, with all the belongings and large families concentrated in the inner space. No proper toilets and water supply – as if civilization had taken a backseat here.

The tragedy of these stateless people was immense and of an in-your-face variety. Such moments can only be experienced – readings and theorisations rarely help. Mohammadpur is just one of the 116 camps all over Bangladesh set up immediately after the Liberation War of 1971, euphemistically referred to as the “Fall of Dhaka” in our textbooks. How did all this happen?

Not unlike much of the mess afflicting the region, the Partition of India in 1947 witnessed large-scale communal riots and thousands of Muslims from Bihar, West Bengal and other provinces arrived in what was known then as East Pakistan. The refugee settlements, reminiscent of Karachi, were inward looking monocultural spaces, a little away from the Bengalis. In the complex political economy of a united Pakistan, “Biharis,” by now a composite term for the non-Bengali Pakistanis in East Pakistan, became the object of Bengali ire based on common perceptions that the state gave them a preferential treatment. It is estimated that by 1971, over 1.5 million such non-Bengalis, ‘Biharis,’ were present in East Pakistan.

In 1971, the Biharis were a torn community. The Pakistan army, sensing this divide, apparently recruited some Biharis to fight the rebellious Bengalis. Whether they supported the Pakistan army or not, many Biharis remained neutral in 1971, shy of taking sides with their local brethren.

Thus the schism widened in those tumultuous years leading to the sub-human ghettoisation of the wretched children of a lesser God. After the war in 1971, the International Community for the Red Cross intervened and found out that most Biharis wanted to migrate to the truncated Pakistan. Over half a million registered “Urdu-speaking” Pakistanis found a voice at the high level Simla pact of July 1972 and later an agreement was reached in 1973 between Pakistan, India and Bangladesh on this issue. As per the agreement, the Bengali prisoners were released and sent to Bangladesh. However, not all Urdu-speaking Pakistanis were repatriated to Pakistan. Even today hundreds of thousands live in Bangladesh in camps as non-citizens.

So Mohammadpur turned out to be an encircled little inferno located next to fairly well-to-do neighbourhoods and commercial areas. Human spirit however knows how to counter the forces of nature and history. Inside the camp, little Bihars had been recreated with the memories and longings that the migrants are well known for. The cuisine, the sweets and eateries were all preparing and selling the Bihar delights: Pua, prepared from a mixture of powdered rice, milk, ghee, and honey, Pittha (steamed powdered rice mix), Khaja (a sweet delicacy); and Ladoos, Kala Jamun, and so many others that have escaped my memory.

Handicrafts and automobile repairs were common professions. As I peeped into the dingy rooms – homes and workshops rolled into one – women and men were busy working on brightly coloured saris. Many youth find this their ordained profession. There were also places for recreation: snooker, carom boards and tea stalls. We stopped at a tea stall and sipped the milky tea with lots of sugar served with anarasas (sweet round-shaped snacks). For some reason many people had gathered there and my Pakistani status was now well-known. Details of Pakistan, Karachi and lost relatives were recounted with much passion. The tea stall owner, Ahmad’s brother, had escaped to Pakistan but Ahmad never heard from him for years. Sometimes these situations land you in a zone where words are empty and meaningless; and perhaps listening becomes the best mode of communication.

We got up and reached another side of the slum packed with Urdu-wallahs. There is obviously a hint of racism when the Biharis are mentioned in the mainstream parlance in Bangladesh. The older generation complains more than the younger ones, who by their situation are better integrated and bilingual. At a carom club, the young men tell me they like Pakistan but do not wish to go there. “This is our country and our home, we are Bangladeshis.” Others nodded and chuckled at the remark. Free of the baggage, the younger generations are far more ready to become Bangladeshis.

Probably this is the reason that civic activism has earned voting rights for those born after 1971. The court ruled in 2008 that “the refugees who were minors in 1971 or born after the independence of Bangladesh are citizens of Bangladesh,” after years of legal wrangling and ideological debates in the country. However, those who were adults in 1971 were not covered.

The warmth for a Pakistani was more palpable among the elderly. I was treated with much affection in their houses. Yes, I did visit them as well, trying hard to disguise my shock at what constituted “housing.” But the conversations were fun-filled and hearty. Mirza Saheb from Muzaffarnagar related the stories of how he migrated as a child with his family after communal riots of 1947 nearly destroyed them. Respect for Jinnah and the idea of Pakistan also filtered through the discussions. But then there were witty lines and little anecdotes as well on how some Pakistanis were half or quarter Pakistanis. The full status could only be earned if you are not a Bihari!

Education is a casualty. In part this is a result of marginalisation from the state services and in most cases a simple case of poverty where family-based work for money is more important than the luxuries of schooling. Stories of discrimination were also related as to how difficult it was get a job when you were from a stateless camp.

Arif, a rickshaw-puller, narrated the woes of getting registered as a rickshaw-wallah without an identity card. He had bribed his way through and somehow used the black economy to remain employed. His wife, Nazia, a cheerful and attractive woman, insisted that I should have tea. I stayed longer. The family watched a lot of TV, especially the Indian soaps as they were in Hindi/Urdu and thus accessible. In fact, most homes had TV sets fixed on the walls – the fruits of globalisation quite evident and pluck-able.

I was concerned about Ronny, my companion, who stayed with me throughout. He later confessed that he did not approve of such treatment of the Biharis and in fact many people of his generation were appalled at this. Ronny also made his fondness for the Pakistani cricket team and beautiful girls quite clear, relating how he had a little internet romance with a girl in Karachi. But she was married before he could muster the finances and courage to actually visit Pakistan. Now he was married to another Bangladeshi-Kuwaiti girl whom he also met on the internet after the stymied Pakistan love-chapter.

Ronny’s banter lightened my inner turmoil. Another dose of escapism was offered by the tender and delicious kebabs that we devoured at the end of the camp visit. And I can say for sure that these were the best Bihari kebabs I had tasted. As we finished our late dinner, I noted how a newly constructed glitzy apartment tower overlooked us and the Geneva camp.

There is a Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee, the courts have issued rulings and the politicians in Pakistan religiously issue statements each year bemoaning the plight of the stranded Pakistanis. True, many Biharis would not return but those who want to might just die dreaming of a homeland that never will be. In South Asia we have made a royal mess of things – first the Partiton, the violence against Bangaldeshis and our refusal to admit that we were wrong; and then such insensitivity to those who are trapped between conflicting histories and ideologies.

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