Missives from the war zone
Syed Badrul Ahsan writes for DOT :
Despite all the old yarn about wars being adventures in courage and vanquishing the enemy being a proud tale of heroism, there is the sheer loneliness that comes through in the missives of those warriors who write back home. So it was in 1971, as the rich collection of poignant letters, called Ekattorer Chithi, makes obvious. But what does shine through all along is that sure grasp of hope that these letter writers demonstrate in their communication with their families and friends. That their belief in freedom is unalloyed, that Bangladesh will soon be a free nation, is the common principle which binds all of them.
Take the first letter here. Writing to his mother from Rajshahi on 29 March 1971, the young Babul speaks of a tortuous battle between the Pakistan army and the Bengali police. “Yesterday”, he writes, “a severe battle took place between the police and the army. In the end, we could not win.” The sense of despair is palpable. It is a shame to go on living, he tells his mother, when so many others are being brutally murdered by the soldiers. Babul, whose real name is Kazi Nurunnabi, was fated not to witness the birth of his country. Abducted by the Pakistanis in October of that year, he was never seen again.
ABM Mahbubur Rahman was luckier. He joined the war and survived. On 5 April, he writes to his mother: “Mother, I know you wouldn’t have let me go and that is why I am going away without telling you.” The sentiments are typical of many Bengali young men who went to the war. Parents, anxious that their children survived in the face of the Pakistani onslaught, nevertheless worried that they would march off to war and lose their lives in battle. Rahman reassures his mother: “The day I can avenge the humiliation of our mothers and sisters and free this Golden Bengal of its enemies, I shall return to you.” And he did come back.
Sadder is the story of the very young Amanullah Chowdhury Farooq. A student of Class X at Chittagong City Collegiate School, Farooq was killed in battle days after writing to his father on 23 May 1971. Idealism gleams in his missive and with that unshakeable patriotism. As he tells his father, “I am going away today. I don’t know where I am going. I know only that I am going where a bold, freedom-loving child of Bangladesh should be going.” A little further on, he puts the rhetorical question to the man who has sired him, “If today your eldest son Farooq has decided to wage war against injustice and in the course of that struggle loses his life, will you feel sad, Father?” He speaks of his dreams of going on to college after school and then to the university. And yet he knows that minus freedom all dreams are pointless. He recalls a quote in English, “Mother and motherland are superior to heaven.”
There is then the letter Rumi writes to his uncle from Agartala on 16 June. It is briskly written, a sign of the hurry he is in to get on with the job of getting into battle mode again. He tells his Pasha Mama, “We are fighting a just war. We shall win. Pray for us all. I don’t know what to write . . . there is so much to write about. But every tale of atrocity you hear, every picture of terrible destruction that you see is true. They have torn into us with a savagery unparalleled in human history.” If Rumi spoke for the young, Akhlaqul Hossain Ahmed symbolized in his own way the dilemma before the political class. Elected a Member of Parliament (the editors unfortunately do not say if he was elected to the national or provincial assembly), Ahmed writes to his wife Hena from Mahadeo on 16 June: “It is my prayer to Allah that all of you stay well . . . I am passing through many lands . . . There is pleasure in travelling, but when I think of you all, my heart breaks.” On 16 July, Ataur Rahman Khan Kaiser, subsequently a senior Awami League politician and diplomat, writes to his baby daughter: “My child, I write this letter for the day when God-willing you learn to read, to understand. Surely there is much sadness in your tiny chest . . . Why doesn’t daddy come to see you? My child, today on your birthday your father is unable to gather you to his bosom; it is a sadness that will not go away from your father’s life.”
Ekattorer Chithi, when you read through the letters, recreates the terrifying times that would eventually give way to freedom. But more searing is the pain which comes of the knowledge that life for an entire nation collapsed in a heap, had meshed with disaster of an unmitigated sort. Sons writing to their worried parents, fathers writing to their children, husbands writing to their wives, brothers writing to brothers, brothers-in-law writing to sisters-in-law — all of these are a backdrop to the devastation that goes on in a land under brutal foreign occupation. Three days before the Pakistani forces surrender to the joint command of the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini, Anwar Hossain (subsequently to be an academic at Dhaka University) writes to Lutfa Taher, wife of the war-wounded Colonel Abu Taher, from Lucknow: “Bhaijan is quite all right. The journey from Gauhati to Shiliguri was enjoyable . . . Bhai only talked about you, wanted to know why we hadn’t brought you along.”
Those last lines make you wonder.
Writer is Editor-in-Charge, The Asian Age