1. Trouble in the Land
of Lazy Rivers
Tears welled in Abdul’s eyes as he embraced my father. He turned to my mother but could not bear to meet her gaze.
“Bibi Ji, I am sorry… I must go,” Abdul choked, as he murmured in his thick Bengali accent.
Ammi stood dumbstruck, silent, and motionless, but the expression on her face said it all. “You should leave now! We will be all right.”
Abdul lovingly caressed my hair. He, then, kissed my sister, my brother, and me on our foreheads and said a final goodbye. He quickly tied his meager possessions into a bindle, at the end of his staff, balanced the staff on his shoulder, and hurriedly walked out of our house.
I could not understand why Abdul, our long-time domestic worker, who had been a part of our household since before I was born, had to leave so abruptly. Pappa explained that Abdul had little children back in the village and with all the unrest in East Pakistan, he needed to return immediately to his family’s side.
“But this was exactly what our Bengali security guard, ‘Little Abdul’ had said a few days ago when he, too, abruptly had to leave.” My little mind was trying hard to comprehend.
I supposed that during times of trouble all men must go home to be close to their families. Perhaps, that was why Pappa had stayed home from work for these last two weeks. I enjoyed having him at home. My school was also closed, so we all stayed home; the whole family together.
Picture 02: Family in 1968
I was eight years old and the youngest of three. My world consisted of little more than my daily trips to school, hanging out with my Bengali friends, and playing with my pet chickens and pigeons. We lived in a big house in Adamjee Nagar in the outskirts of Dacca; the same home, in which I was born, and raised. There was a large pond behind our house and tall coconut trees lined the other side of the pond. I would catch minnows with my fishing net basket and count the coconuts floating lazily across the water. To me, life was easy and fun.
Picture 03: Author in August 1964
Pappa had come to Adamjee Nagar in 1957, one of millions of Muslims who migrated to Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947 in search of a better life. During Partition, Pappa was a young college student in India and after graduating, he immigrated to East Pakistan, where he found a job in the massive Adamjee Jute Mills complex. Over the next few years, he worked his way up to become a manager in Mill #3.
At the time, Adamjee was the largest jute mill plant in the world. It was located just a few miles outside the capital city of Dacca; in what, was, then, the Eastern province of Pakistan. Thousands of employees worked around the clock in the mills to produce yarn, fabric, and sacking bags that were exported all over the world.
But those last few weeks before the Abduls left, the mills had been closed due to unrest and strife. During recent labor strikes, the Pakistani Army had slaughtered many mill workers, and then, in retaliation, the Mukti Bahini resistance movement had killed many Pakistani military officers and civilians. Thousands of innocent people, on both sides, were killed. The massacre was worse in the smaller cities and villages outside Dacca. A full-scale genocide was unfolding in the idyllic Bangladeshi countryside. There was trouble, a lot of trouble, in the land of lazy rivers.
These were times like no other in history. East and West Pakistan made up a country like no other in history. Separated by 1,800 kilometers, East and West shared little in common. They spoke different languages and had different cultures, customs, clothing, and food. Yet, when the British left the Indian subcontinent, they artificially divided the sub-continent into two countries: the areas with Muslim majority became Pakistan and those areas with Hindu majority formed India. The only problem was that the two pockets of Muslim majority were located in the eastern and western corners of the Indian sub-continent. There was no land corridor between them. Hence, East and West Pakistan, though they were, in theory, one country were separated by more than a thousand miles of hostile India.
Figure 01. Map of East and West Pakistan
Over the years, tensions developed between the West Pakistanis and East Pakistanis (Bengalis). The Bengalis felt that the more powerful West Pakistanis controlled, both, the civil administration and the military and refused to give the East Pakistanis their fair share. They felt their language and culture were being replaced by a foreign ideology and when the government declared that Urdu, a language spoken mostly by West Pakistanis, would be the national language replacing Bengali, language of the Bengali people, as the medium of education in schools and colleges, there was widespread unrest. The two languages were different in script, phonetics, and structure and the Bengalis were bitter that an alien language was being forced upon them. Bengalis took to the streets in protests and there were Language Riots all over East Pakistan.
The Bengalis felt that, in the two decades following partition of India, most of the resources were allocated to the West wing, whereas East Pakistan lagged behind in industrial development, infrastructure investment, and education. They believed that, compared with the more educated West Pakistanis, they were not given equal opportunity in jobs or business and their people were bypassed, when it came to promotions in civilian and military jobs. When the Bengalis demanded equal rights and representation, the West Pakistan military junta cracked down on them, ruthlessly.
To make matters worse, when the tropical cyclone ‘Bhola’ caused widespread devastation in November of 1970, the central government, controlled mostly by West Pakistanis, failed to respond immediately. The woefully inadequate relief work resulted in a catastrophic number of casualties, marking Bhola as one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. It was described as the deadliest tropical cyclone in history by the American Meteorological Society. The Bengalis blamed the West Pakistanis for the catastrophic loss of life, which they believed could have been prevented, had the relief measures been implemented immediately. They were now convinced that they could no longer coexist with the West Pakistanis. They determined to rid themselves of their Pakistani masters.
Finally, the last straw came when the Bengali presidential candidate, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was denied the presidency of a joint Pakistan, even though he won the elections fairly in December of 1970. His party, the Awami League, swept the elections but was not allowed to form the majority government that would rule the East and West halves of the country. The Bengalis were furious and years of misgivings and unrest erupted into violent civil war. They no longer wanted to have anything to do with the West Pakistanis and declared independence in March 1971. The new country they envisioned was called Bangladesh or ‘The land of Bengal’.
In this, the Indians saw an opportunity to score a victory against an erstwhile enemy. They had already fought two wars against Pakistan, since gaining independence from Britain. Now, they openly supported the Bangladesh Liberation War and provided dissidents with arms and military training. The Pakistani Army tried to brutally quash the uprising, and in retaliation, the Bengali militia known as the Mukti Bahini began killing thousands of non-Bengalis. To them, Bangladesh was for Bengalis and anyone, who was not a Bengali, was a Bihari and, therefore, not welcome. Unfortunately, we were among the Biharis.
The Abduls, our house helps, were among the Bengalis. I was quite sad that they had left and without them, I felt very alone in our huge house. I went out to the backyard to play with my pet pigeon, Kabooter. I’d had six pigeons but a few weeks ago, all but one of them had flown away. Perhaps, they, too, had sensed the need to return to their families. Kabooter was the youngest and had stayed behind, he was very attached to me. I got out the feed and he came and sat on my forearm, as he pecked the seeds from my palm.
It was very quiet outside, too. The big pond behind our house was empty. No wooden dinghies skimmed the water and I didn’t see any fishermen throwing their nets, either. The people, who lived in the houses on the other side of the pond, were missing, too. Nobody was out on our street, not even cars or auto rickshaws. The neighborhood was eerily quiet. Kabooter and I sat for a long time together and as the sun set behind the coconut trees, on the other side of the pond, I went back inside.