A book review
Historical novel has become a popular genre in Bangladesh in recent years. In many cases real protagonists of historical event have re-emerged as fictional characters and played the role assigned to them by the novelist with no flesh and blood in their persons. Such sterile characterization did a disservice not only to fiction but also to history. Sunil Gangapadhyay excelled in writing historical fictions and inspired many others. But not everyone can leave their marks in this genre and like the pulp fiction we also have no dearth of pulp novels based on history.
Ashukhi Din (Unhappy Days), a novel by Shaheen Akhtar based on legendary Bengali political leader Suhbas Bose and his Indian National Army (INA), is a historical novel with a difference. The protagonists of the novel are not the major players but foot soldiers: two friends, students of Campbell Medical School in Kolkata, who left their study to join the INA in Singapore. One of them, Niradchandra Sen, is from Shillong and the other, Mozammel Huq, hails from a small town of Comilla. One from an elite family and the other from a poor rural peasant community. A Hindu and a Muslim team up to join the struggle for independence burning their boat behind. This is not a story of heroism but turmoil, suffering, resilience and death or survival of the common man who became part of the great struggle for the nation's independence. In that sense Unhappy Days is not historical novel as such but an account of people in the backdrop of history when tidal waves of events uprooted so many people from their home and normal life. Nirad and Mozammel are in the caravan of freedom that forced itself into the Indian soil, laid the siege of Imphal, and electrified the nation with the slogan 'Delhi Chalo' (Let's head to Delhi). Eventually they are driven back by the superior firepower of the Allied Forces. Their retreat becomes a march to death: Nirad never returns home, his dead body is not found, and for his mother and sister it is an eternal wait with flickers of hope always alive. Mozammel becomes a POW (prisoner of war), and after long internment comes back home to his family but nothing remains the same for him. In the interregnum India wins independence crossing a sea of blood where Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs kill each other in unthinking frenzy. The subcontinent was partitioned along religious lines and communalism poisoned the soul of the nation.
Mozammel sets up a pharmacy named Netaji Oushadhalaya (Netaji Medicine Shop) and continues to provide services to his people. The experience he earned at the field hospital proves useful to treat rural patients under extreme conditions, especially in dealing with surgical cases. But Mozammel becomes a loner, no one is there to listen to him or has an understanding of what he has gone through and why.
Middle-aged Sabina, youngest daughter of Mozammel, accidentally comes across a memoir of Nirad's sister, Anita Sen. Sabina comprehends that the Muslim youth who came to Anita Sen's Shillong home and later vanished into thin air with her brother is none other than his father Mozammel. But no more information was available in the book except the long wait of the mother and sister. The sister meanwhile gets involved with the communist movement and works in the Surma Valley.
The 1940s was a period when politics lost its direction with communists collaborating with British rulers to stall the progress of Azad Hind Force backed by the Japanese Axis power. This sudden encounter with Anita Sen's memoir triggered Sabina to trace the footsteps of her father and his friend, to track how from Shillong they journeyed to Rangoon and ultimately landed in Singapore to witness the birth of the INA with Subhas Bose as its Supreme Commander.
The search by Sabina was done on behalf of the nation. Nation is an impersonal term, rather we can say on behalf of all of us including her and Nirad’s family. That fascinating journey in search of two characters and their destiny is what the book is about. Shaheen Akhtar has done thorough research and recreated each and every event with details that add real substance to the characterization and depict the events with a feel of the time.
In the Japanese-occupied Singapore, the Indians had to face frequent interrogation with the inevitable questions, "Ganji? Indo?" The Chinese were doing business as usual. Malays were indifferent to what was happening around─rather engaged in a dance called "Ronging", where male and female partners never touched each other. Ganjis were engaged to construct the massive victory monument, many were deployed in the construction of Moulmin-Thai-Burma railway, another death track. Finally Asia-Ki Aftab Subhas Bose reached Singapore after a three-month long submarine journey.
It was the American Dakota plane which showered the besieged cantonment of Imphal with Churchill's rations of biscuits, chocolates, raisins, plums and tinned cheese. On the other side the Azad Hind members were almost starving. They had to put into their rice cooking pot a local wild grass named "lingra" to supplement the food. The field hospital was bombed by American B-29 bombers showing no respect to the Red Cross sign.
The retreat of the INA soldiers including Nirad and Mozammel reminds one of similar experience from the European front. Shaheen writes, "On both sides of the path were lying hundreds of dead bodies of Japanese and Azad Hind soldiers. Jungle flies were circling over each one of them. They would bite the wounds of injured soldiers with venom. Such bites immediately gave birth to thousands of small insects. Those insects made the pain so unbearable that many anguished soldiers would draw their pistol to shoot into their own heads."
The fiction is loaded with such vivid descriptions of various places, times and events of the war. The author in her extensive research was helped by the memoir of Anjali Lahiri from Shillong, who represents Anita Sen, sister of Nirad Sen from the novel. Most interestingly, Mozammel Huq in real life was the author's own father. She grew up in a family where not much interest had been shown by others to Mozammel's past life as an Azad Hind member. Neither the family, nor the community, nor the nation had any interest in Subhas Bose or his INA. The INA became a forgotten army, and Bose a quisling, and almost all political parties were uncomfortable with this episode of history.
Shaheen Akhtar, daughter of an INA veteran, has made a journey in search of her father and his friend, two young fighters for the freedom of India—one perished in a tragic situation and the other carried the tragic burden of history in a melancholic way. A loner who with his friend represented the time that went out of joints and crippled the soul of the nation.
Unhappy Days is also the story of a daughter digging history in search of her father’s footsteps. What a fascinating journey she has made to produce such a fascinating book!
Mofidul Hoque is a co-founder and one of eight Trustees of the Liberation War Museum. He is a writer, researcher and publisher based in Dhaka. His books include Deshbagh, Sampradayikata Ebong Sampreetir Sadhana (University Press Limited, 2012)