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The struggle of memory against forgetting

  • Published at 01:46 am December 15th, 2016
  • Last updated at 08:02 pm December 15th, 2016
The struggle of memory  against forgetting
My brother and I grew up in the Dhaka University Campus of the 1970s and 80s. My father was among the intellectuals – teachers, journalists, writers, physicians – who were abducted, tortured and murdered during the final days of the Liberation War of Bangladesh. So my mother, just 39 years old in 1971, was left with the job of raising two young children by herself. Ever since I can remember, the air in my household was heavy with grief. No, strictly speaking, that’s not correct: I have flashes of memory of an earlier, happier time also. I remember the sleeves of my father’s dressing gown, presumably because I used to sit on his lap and look down at the sleeves while he sat smoking his hookah in his easy chair in the veranda of our campus apartment. I remember my father coming home from his classes at the university, my brother and I always asking him what he’s brought for us and his laying a bunch of belley phool on the dining table and saying “ek buk bhalobasha” (a heart full love). I remember us being disappointed at this response, and letting him know it in no uncertain terms. And his laughter at our dismay, holding us close to his chest. [caption id="attachment_40108" align="alignright" width="446"] The file photo shows people gathered around bodies of civilians, including intellectuals, whom the Pakistani Army killed in Rayerbazar on December 14 during the 1971 Liberation War. Today the place is known as Rayerbazar Boddhobhumi where a memorial has been built in honour of the martyred intellectuals Government Archive[/caption] Or maybe I don’t remember any of this at all. Maybe I have just made up these vignettes in my head, listening to the stories people have told over the years. I was just four when he was abducted. I remember snippets from the war, the actual scene of my father’s abduction. Those recollections are much stronger, seared into my memory. But the happy episodes are amorphous, fleeting. As if they never really happened at all. And try as I might, I don’t recall my father’s face. If I concentrate very hard, the memory turns into one of all the photographs I’ve seen of his over the years. His touch, smell, the look in his eyes, the sound of his voice: I have no memories of any of that. And coming back to our childhood, I don’t mean to paint everything with the same melancholy brush. No child is always unhappy; my brother and I spent many blissful mornings, afternoons and evenings growing up. Dhaka University campus was a wondrous place to be a child and a young man; open fields and ancient trees, teeming with friends – both actual and potential – and people who mostly seemed to wish you well. But all the while, like something I could always sense in the corner of my eye but never quite see in full focus, there was my mother’s sorrow. It was only much later that I realised how inconsolable she was. She had lost her rudder, and she was lost in this world. She was an incredible mother, though. She loved us with a love that was fierce, all-encompassing, almost claustrophobic in its absoluteness. Heavens may shake and mountains might fall, but she would not let a trace of misfortune touch us. And she taught us to love art, music, people, life; she brought us up to be curious and compassionate. Above all, she taught us that we are better than no one, and no one is better than us. Some of you will have picked up that I’m paraphrasing Bob Dylan, but that phrase really is apt for the way we were brought up. I don’t remember feeling poor as a child, but do still recollect how regimented everything was. Our meals were a piece of chicken, some vegetable and some rice. Appeals for anything more were not indulged. We had a nice car and a TV – holdovers from happier times; my father enjoyed a few of life’s little luxuries. But the car often broke down and the TV had to be “warmed up” for quite a while before it would start working. As we grew older, it became more important to treat your friends to snacks and gifts, and I was one of the worst equipped of my peers to do this because I did not have the money. To this day, I think some of my friends have never really understood just how financially strapped we were at that time. I was a big reader, and my father was a bibliophile, so exploration of his bookshelves occupied many of my happy afternoons. As children will, though, I started to rebel against the hegemony of Rabindranath and worthy Bangla and English-language literature in my household and started to get more into science fiction and comic books – an affection that remains to this day. Many of you will know of Zeenat Book Supply – the famous bookstore in New Market which has been serving generations of book lovers with their eclectic selection. Our residence in the campus was close to the market and in my teens I used to find any excuse to go down to the store and spend hours browsing their books. Some of my fondest memories of that time are associated with that store. A few months ago, I was looking for a particular book, and my father-in-law, an avid reader himself, suggested that I might talk to Faisal Bhai, the extremely courteous and very distinguished-looking owner of Zeenat Book Supply whom I remembered from years ago; he was confident they would be able to get hold of the book. I got Faisal Bhai’s cell number and called him. As we started to talk, I realised something that momentarily left me speechless. It was this: Faisal Bhai does not know me. In spite of the many happy hours I spent there, I could never gather up the nerve to talk to him. I knew I could only browse, I did not have the money to buy. Therefore, I sought to evade notice. I thought once Faisal Bhai knew me, he would start to see how often I went there, spend a long time browsing, and then leave without buying anything. I was afraid this might mean I would not be allowed to go there any more. Faisal Bhai, in our later conversations, remembered my cousins, my wife, many of my friends from that time in our lives. But although he was polite, I could tell that he did not remember me. So this is the way my brother and I grew up as children of an educationist who was murdered in the 1971 war. We accepted sadness as a permanent state of being, and knew that we could not ask for too much. And we also knew we were not alone. Many of my friends at the campus had similarly lost their fathers or mothers, and led similar incomplete lives. And as the years rolled on, those scars took their toll. [caption id="attachment_40109" align="alignright" width="439"] Mofazzal Haidar Chaudhury with son Tanvir Haider Chaudhury[/caption] I know many children of 1971 martyrs who grew despondent with their circumstances and withdrew into themselves. I know of too many relationships destroyed, potentials unfulfilled, lives ruined. Too many of my peers feel that they are caught in a cycle of unhappiness and misfortune and despair they feel unable to break out of. Some have found their footing in this world, but they are exceptions, not the rule. The reason I write this today, the forty-fifth anniversary of the day my father and so many of his compatriots were abducted, tortured and murdered, is to underline the necessity of remembering what the human cost of the war was. Forty-five years is a long time. Long enough for memories to start getting frayed at the edges. Long enough for a Gayeshwar Chandra Roy to question the need to honour the memory of these martyrs. Long enough for bloggers to start claiming that it was the Indian army, not al-Badr and Razakars in collusion with the marauding Pakistani army, who were responsible for the killings. I have even seen writers and bloggers, ostensibly supporters of a secular and inclusive idea of Bangladesh, openly question just why it is that such a big deal is made about the killing of these people so long ago. Whose death in particular was such a huge tragedy, they ask. When we say their departure left a chasm that has been very difficult to fill, who are the individuals we speak of? I tell this story to tell these people, as the progeny of those murdered women and men who have been robbed of what their lives and ours should have been, that we take exception to their remarks. I write this to tell them they are not worthy of judging the martyrs of 1971. What have they achieved that they feel entitled to such arrogance? Munier Chowdhury wrote “Kobor” and “Raktakto Prantor,” transformed the landscape of Bangla-language plays; what have they done? Shahidullah Kaiser wrote “Shareng Bou” and “Shongshoptok,” what have they written? Zaheer Raihan made “Jibon Thekey Neya” and “Stop Genocide,” what have they made? What, in comparison with Sirajuddin Hossain’s intrepid writings in the Ittefaq and Anwar Pasha’s audacious novel “Rifle Roti Aorat,” have they produced? Dr Alim Chowdhury was working on a health care policy for the poor with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, what are they working on? My father, Mufazzal Haider Chaudhury, has inspired generations of students with the love of literature, art and music, has instilled in them a love of Rabindranath Tagore and all the other great writers of Bangla poetry, prose and song. He had drawn up plans to establish a school modelled after Rabindranath’s Santiniketan – he was going to call it “Anandakanon.” What do you have plans to establish? Who will speak of you when you’re gone? Is that what irks you, that these people are still spoken of with reverence so many years after their death? And most of those martyrs were cut down in their early to mid-forties, at what should have been their most fecund period. You, on the other hand, have had far longer lives. Is that what bothers you in the end, your own mortality and inconsequence? You are writers and bloggers of some repute. You will have heard of, and possibly read, Milan Kundera, the famous Czech-French novelist. Do you remember that quote of his from “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”? “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” That is not a struggle we, the progeny of the martyrs of 1971, will ever abandon. And it is not a struggle you can hope to win.
Tanvir Haider Chaudhury is son of martyred intellectual Mufazzal Haider Chaudhury