Reflections on a book that has a lot in common with our current uncertainties
We constantly moan about not having enough time to read the books that we buy to enrich our collection. Covid-19 has changed all that. If you are in good health, and working from home, you will find yourself in an ideal position to read the books that you’ve always wanted to read.
But alas, human mind is far too complex to act predictably. I had the time and fortunately I had some books around me, but hardly could I concentrate on any of them. My eyes seemed to be glued to the mobile phone screen, and the news feed about Covid19 sent one item appearing after another. Guilt engulfed me, and I avoided the books. Things changed slightly when one day I opened my suitcase and found a number of books that I had brought with me from Bangladesh. One book caught my eyes especially. It was Stories from the Edge: Personal Narratives of the Liberation War, edited by Niaz Zaman and Razia Sultana Khan and published by Bengal Publications.
With the book in my hand, I faltered a little. After all, I was not very keen to read a book that captures the lived experiences of 1971 at a time when our own life was driven by uncertainty and death. Yet, on second thought, I came to the conclusion this was the book to read during lockdown. And I was right.
Each of the 14 narratives in its own local canvass—from London to Geneva, from Lahore to Dhaka, from Dhaka University to the villages in the border areas of Bangladesh and India— was the record of survival, suffering, courage, loss and hope. The edge is almost always more powerful as a perspective than the centre. The edge allows for a multiplicity of experiences and perspectives to be captured that are usually ignored or thought to be anecdotal by the centre. These narratives are no exception.
Except one story written by Tanveerul Haque “How my wife learnt to ride a horse” (fascinating in its own right), all the tales are shared by women. While reading Jackie Kabir’s piece “Green Helmets”, where she reconstructed her young mother’s experience of pregnancy, I did wonder about my own mother and her experience, as my eldest sister was born in early 1972. I believe our biggest loss as post-1971 generations is our inability to piece together the individual parts of the grand narrative of the birth of our country. This book creates the desire to reimagine 1971 beyond the battlegrounds. The women here are not passive survivors, shielded by men. Whether as a new mother deciding to buy baby milk over chicken, or as a mother of young children taking an intuitive decision to return to a war-stricken Dhaka from the safe haven of Lahore, the narrators were the creators of that time, taking responsibility for themselves, their families, neighbours and even strangers.
It may sound a bit quaint to compare 1971 to our current predicaments due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but there are a lot in common. In 1971, whether in a beleaguered city or in a remote village, people were holed up in their houses just like we are during this lockdown. As Covid-19 has gripped the world, one can argue that we are passing through the most difficult time, whether we are in Bangladesh or in any other part of the world. Therefore, when I read Shirin Hasnat Islam’s narrative, “A Camp Survivor’s Tale”, I could not help but thinking about human race as a resilient species. We survive even if our fortune betrays us. This is the reality of millions of people across the globe today. Money is scarce; even when money is available, survival amenities are not. Yet how lucky we are! We are connected 24/7 through social networking sites and audio/video calling apps. As long as we have access to mobile network or the Internet, we don’t have to wait. But people had to wait in 1971. Families were torn apart during the war, and in many cases, as Nusrat Huq narrated in “Love, Death and Allama Iqbal”, the relief of seeing her parents and brother alive only came when the war was over after nine long months. Home was an illusion for many Bangladeshis in 1971 who, whether as part of their jobs or for higher education, were living abroad when the war broke out. After all, who would ever believe that there was an enormous sense of pride in being stateless? This was the case for many Bangladeshis in the UK, as Shahana Khan in “Stateless in London” narrates how they surrendered their Pakistani passports in London and did not accept British nationality, and thereby turned stateless by choice, just to be the citizens of only one country: Bangladesh.
As this is not a review, I deliberately take the liberty of touching upon only a few pieces collected in the book so as to emphasize a point. This book is not a work of fiction; here characters don’t come and go; here plots don’t follow any pattern. This book is the testimony of the birth of our country, which so many of us have learnt to take for granted. This book should be part of our syllabus; the narratives in this book should be selected for movies and stage plays. Also, this book should be read aloud to children and grandchildren. This book tells us that if we survive, we do so not because we are cleverer than others but because we live collectively, where each individual fights in his or her own way.
Rifat Mahbub writes for Arts & Letters from London, UK, where she works as a Research Programme Manager at National Institute for Health Research (NIHR, England). She has a PhD in Women’s Studies from the University of York.