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War through the eyes of a child: A unique but haunting story

  • Published at 06:42 pm December 14th, 2019
Moon's book

Review of Sheikh Taslima Moon's book 'Ami Ekti Bajpakhike Hatya Korte Cheyechilam'

Right after the independence of Bangladesh there arose expectations for literary representation of the nine-month war of liberation that caused death of millions and destroyed the lives of many more. But writing about traumatic experience was not easy. It took authors some time to write about their experiences. Gradually we see emergence of memoirs by victims as well as the victorious freedom fighters, both eyewitnesses to history, who were not writers but felt a strong urge to narrate their stories. The creative writers also put in efforts to fictionalize their experiences and a few even sought to depict the story in broad historical context, giving rise to monumental works of fiction. The growth of personal memoirs of 1971 reached a peak in the 1980s and 1990s and many of those became part of the people’s collective conscience. Surprisingly, most of the popular memoirs were penned by women including Jahanara Imam, Begum Mustari Shafi, Bashanti Guhathakurta, Panna Kaisar, Shahida Begum and Shyamoli Nasreen Chowdhury, among many others.

As the generation of 1971 is phasing out, number of the memoirs is dwindling. In this backdrop, it came as a big surprise when I came across the thin volume of memoir written by Sheikh Taslima Moon entitled Ami Ekti Bajpakhike Hatya Korte Cheyechilam (I Wanted to Kill a Hawk). The title is a bit deceptive, as it may lead readers to think that it is a work driven by vengeance; it is rather a work of layered reflections, opening up the pain so difficult to express that it took about 45 years for a little girl to narrate her story. She had kept it inside her heart for all these years and struggled to stitch the fragmented memories together, giving it a cohesive shape.

The book was published in 2012 and revised in 2015 when Taslima was a grown woman who had left her career behind in Bangladesh to settle in Sweden. But traumatic memories of her childhood never left her. While coping with her memory as a child during Bangladesh’s war for independence, she encountered another victim, much older than she was, who as a child had experienced the Holocaust and was passing her days at an old people's home. Taslima had the responsibility to look after her, took her for strolls in the garden and gradually they established a rapport, a bond between two people with a similar background in times of war. The old lady was always speaking about her childhood, depicting the horrors she had encountered. She had lost both her parents in the massive attack on the Jews. Taslima, a child survivor of 1971 genocide felt rejuvenated by the Holocaust survivor and took up pen to write her own story.

Like many other middle-class families from a small town in Bangladesh, Taslima's extended family also went through the test of fire. Her father, a professor at a local college and leader of the community, a staunch nationalist, had joined the liberation war right from the beginning. When the army entered Kalia in Narail, their house was burnt and the family had to leave for the village home, and from there they had to move to another remote place in search of safety. Meanwhile, her father, Professor Salam, was captured by the Razakars (local collaborators) and taken to the Army Camp where he was murdered later. Her cousin, a student of the Engineering College in Dhaka, was also picked up and brutally tortured to death. Their ordeal knew no bounds like many other families—terrorized people always running from impending danger, witnessing devastation all around them, especially on Hindu households. The strafing by Pakistani warplanes (this being implied in the title of the book), the famine that engulfed the villagers, the diarrhea with accompanying starvation, witnessing death all around—all these experiences shattered Taslima’s childhood.

When the war ended, the family returned home but life was never the same for them. The child was looking for her father while her mother was awaiting for her missing husband to return. It was a haunted house under the shadow of death. But life goes on, as well as the search. At the age of eleven, Taslima came to know from eye-witnesses about the final hour of her father and cousin. Account of their brutal death is difficult to read but she lived with this memory all her life, and finally after 45 years, she came up with a vivid account of deaths in the family. She’s reconstructed her memory from the perspective of a six-year-old girl, so there are grey areas which she could never fathom. The recollections are fragmented with patches of events but as a whole it is a narrative that is difficult to read. This account should be a must read for all, especially for members of younger generations, to understand history through the prism of an innocent child, like that of Anne Frank, or of the unnamed old Jewish lady whom Taslima took out for a walk in the afternoon, both of them walking down memory lane.

Taslima's father had organized local resistance with his students and disciples. Then he decided to cross the border with young recruits to arrange for their training. His eldest son, Kashem Dada (an adopted boy in the family), accompanied him. Her father came to say goodbye to his family. Taslima could not recollect whether it was May or June but on that particular day she was away roaming around the locality. As she rushed into the house she found her father pensive, very unusual for him. Everybody was crying and his colleagues were urging him to come out quickly. He embraced Taslima and asked her to obey her mother. Taslima asked where he was going and the reply came: “To free my country. Your brother Kashem is also going with me." The girl could not understand at that time the meaning of the word “free”, but that remained deeply ingrained in her mind.

Father faded away from the little daughter’s view but her search for him continued. She learned that when the Razakars had got hold of her father, a respected professor in their community, some people created an opportunity for him to flee from their clutches. They decided just to look at the other way, but he refused to leave Kashem behind. Kashem was released later but he was captured again and brutally tortured to death. They tied Kashem to a pole and extracted his eyes with the hard thorn of a date palm tree. Taslima learned in detail how it was done and in a composed way she narrates the incident. 

The narrative of this book is beyond description. One can understand why it took her so long to describe her haunted childhood, devastated as it was by the brutal deaths of her nearest ones as well as the untold suffering she had witnessed people go through. This is a unique story which needs to be shared with all—victims of genocide everywhere and the people who, raising the voice against war, will say: "Never Again."

 

Mofidul Hoque is a co-founder and one of the eight Trustees of the Liberation War Museum. He is a writer, researcher and publisher based in Dhaka. His book, Deshbhag, Sampradayikata Ebong Sampreetir Sadhana was published by the University Press Limited in 2012.