A little over two and a half years ago, when history laws with the potential to severely restrict research, scholarship and writing on 1971 were being considered by the government, writer and translator Mahmud Rahman painted a grim picture of what it would mean for Bangladeshi fiction. What was then a theoretical discussion has now been translated into reality. The enactment of those laws—defined vaguely to widen their scope, and defended vociferously by false neo-nationalist reasoning—as part of the oppressive Digital Security Act in 2018, has started the process of proving Rahman’s gloomy prognostication. Bangladesh has not seen a war novel like Nadeem Zaman’s In The Time of The Others in a long time, and, with the heavily criticized statute in place, it may not see another like it for the foreseeable future. Written by one who is from the post-1971 generation, the book’s significance lies not only in bringing a seriously overlooked story of the birth of a nation to international attention, but also in being an unprejudiced corrective for the many generations born in independent Bangladesh.
While Bengali literature has more thoroughly explored many aspects of 1971, English literature is yet to mine the quarry. Since Tahmima Anam’s award-winning A Golden Age introduced the Liberation War to international readers of fiction, the commendable translation efforts of the Dhaka Translation Center have opened the door to cross-pollination. Syed Shamsul Haq’s novellas, Blue Venom and Forbidden Incense, and Moinul Ahsan Saber’s short novel, The Mercenary, bring certain horrific aspects of the war from writers who lived through it to an English readership. The war is ever-present in Mahmud Rahman’s short story collection, Killing the Water. K. Anis Ahmed’s “Chameli” and Sharbari Z. Ahmed’s “Kurbani” are two contrasting treatments of 1971 in the shorter form, written in English. The scope in each of these is limited, the quality of the pieces notwithstanding.
Zaman assigns himself the admirable task of writing the Liberation War as the main character in his book and Dhaka its mistress, in order to attempt a comprehensive look at 1971. This is of particular importance to Bangladesh. Afsan Chowdhury’s ambitious documentation efforts do not have a globally available English-language counterpart while Gary J. Bass’s The Blood Telegram and Salil Tripathi’s The Colonel Who Would Not Repent are prominent as examples of non-fiction, but the perspectives are those of the outsider, since Bangladeshis are not always afforded similar opportunities to study themselves, owing to restrictions at home and discriminations abroad. A book such as Sarmila Bose’s Dead Reckoning, a dangerously biased insult to scholarship, is, thus, written about Bangladesh’s defining moment in history. Bangladeshis have not been able or allowed to claim ownership of their own stories, leaving themselves open to revisionism, misrepresentation and dismissal. Where non-fiction has been found wanting, Zaman offers an argument in fiction, to empower Bangladesh and let Bangladeshis reclaim their right to self-determination, rendered in English for all the world to see.
In The Time of The Others opens with a meticulous construction of Dhaka’s geography of the time. Imtiaz Khan arrives from Chittagong on a pressing personal matter, and smells revolution in the air, quietly defiant against the curfew imposed by the military, ostensibly to maintain order as talks to solve the political impasse reach a climax. His uncle, Kamruzzaman, a retired Bengali bureaucrat, and aunt, Aisha, a one-time leftist student activist, host him at their residence, Chowdhury Villa. Without realizing it, an indifferent Imtiaz observes both sides of an impending conflict whose inevitability is not confirmed until it breaks out. During the day, the current generation of student activists gather under Aisha’s mentorship at Chowdhury Villa. At night, a Bihari Muslim judge who identifies himself as a Bengali, Suleiman Mubarak, hosts a high society dinner, where freely flowing alcohol is imbibed by West Pakistani army officers and East Pakistani civilians alike, alongside an American couple afflicted with an acute case of the white savior syndrome. Within days, the mask of this superficial peace drops. Pakistani soldiers using American war machines strategically target Bengalis in Dhaka, in the dead of night. An action aimed to crush the simmering resistance instead revitalizes it, and a nine-month war ensues. Zaman races through the pertinent background information, and a few pages in, the reader is in the thick of the conflict. He maintains the brisk pace and spare language throughout, not lingering on unnecessary details that get in the way of presentation or the plot, thereby permitting the book to achieve relative brevity in length. It is a violent novel, accepting and representing the brutality rather than sanitizing it.
In The Time of The Others dispenses with sentimentality, but not passion. It succeeds as a war novel by being respectful of facts. Seminal moments, from the breakdown of negotiations and the initiation of Operation Searchlight marking the onset of war, to rape camps and the systematic slaughtering of intellectuals, are seamlessly and faithfully sewn into the fictional narrative. When younger generations of Bangladeshis are not as familiar with these bits of history as their parents once were, it is only natural that the outside world does not know much about them. That’s one of the many reasons why Zaman’s book deserves special mention, especially because of the way he reins in an inclination toward rage and romanticism when presenting these with the careful eye of a diligent academic. The book is richer for the nuances made possible by this objectivity. Zaman never takes sides indicative of political allegiances. He lays out the facts as part of the story. He extends this approach to acknowledging the destructiveness of all sides, expertly refraining from false equivalences. There may have been killers on all sides, but Pakistan and its allies had started it and also, they were clearly the oppressors here.
The roles of the two key allies—agents of the Pakistani military, and the self-serving US—are, rightly, not whitewashed, nor excused as necessary for the greater good. Even here, Zaman finds the grey in the black and white. The Americans give a glimpse of the complex calculations of the 20th century’s greatest imperialists. Beyond them, Zaman’s unquenchable thirst to understand lands him the book’s crowning glory. Captain Fazal Shaukat, a Pakistani with a strong sense of duty, appears as a human being in the hands of an empathetic Bangladeshi writer, suffering through the war in service of God and his country. Imtiaz represents the ennui of waiting, Captain Shaukat the torpor of automations. They are the two extremes of the myriad reactions to the extraordinary circumstances of war, mirrors at the two ends of a spectrum colored in by other characters. The book wades through lives in limbo, to end poignantly where it begins. In keeping with its authenticity, Zaman steers clear of ushering in a fanciful utopia at the war’s end. The death of his central character—the Liberation War—intrinsically and inseparably linked to everyone, cannot but affect all. The hope in the aftermath, therefore, is laced with caution and trepidation.
Before Tahmima’s A Golden Age, one notable exposition of the Liberation War exported to the world was Tareque Masud’s award-winning and beautifully contained 2002 film, Matir Moina. Despite dealing with the subject of religion with intelligence and sensitivity, it was barred from being distributed by a government whose influential members had used religion to justify atrocities committed on behalf of the Pakistani junta, in opposition to independence. History laws did not exist in 2002, yet Bangladesh’s birth could be censored with ease, to serve personal and political interests. They exist in 2019, posing insurmountable obstacles for artists and academics searching for the truth. In The Time of The Others is of such a time, honest in a world of deceit. By announcing himself thus, Nadeem Zaman may have made an even bolder statement: Bangladeshis are ready to tell their own stories and command the respect they are due. The proclamation should reach the halls of the global literary firmament, and serve as a warning to the authorities whose thoughtless acts of oppression result in self-harm, keeping Bangladesh from fulfilling its tremendous potential.
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a fiction writer and poet. His debut short story collection, Yours, Etcetera, was published by Bengal Lights Books in 2015.