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After the war

  • Published at 06:28 pm December 15th, 2018
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The birth of Bangladesh came at a cost LATIF HOSSAIN

Some wounds don’t heal

As a precocious pre-teen, I had a hidden world of my own, to which only I had access. 

Here, I had my own joys and sorrows, and my own secret language. Maybe this language would be unintelligible to others, maybe it wouldn’t. It was a window into my secret world, and I didn’t have the courage to share the key.

It’s easier for me to talk about this now -- back then, it was impossible. Baba used to emerge from the bathroom, freshly showered, leaving behind the scent of his aftershave. The smell of it lingers in my mind, one of the precious few memories I have of him, and I hold it close, because I can’t let it fade. It gives me comfort.

Within this secret world, I held on to a complicated conviction. I was still searching for my father, and I had convinced myself that he would return to us one day. I could picture his right hand hovering over us all, as though to dispel our fears and pledge his return, and I was the secret witness to that pledge.

I waited for the day he’d make true on that promise. I told myself he had lost his memory during the heat of battle and forgotten us. Someday, it would return to him in a flash.

We’d be seated at dinner and there would be a knock at the door, and we’d open it to find a man with a long beard, wearing a white panjabi and tears of joy in his eyes at having finally found us again. I could never envision beyond this moment. All my fantasies would end at this point, but I kept revisiting them, as though to mend some frayed wires.

I was so young when they took him away, I don’t have clear memories. Whenever an event of great import happened, I would join in to see what was happening. One day, I saw that two of the razakars who had taken my father away had been caught and brought to our door. Their hands were tied behind their backs, and they were to be put on trial for their crimes, but brought for us to see them one last time.

I saw some people spit on their faces, others swear at them, and still others throw in a slap or punch. As if that would recoup our losses. My father wasn’t coming back. My mother hadn’t stopped weeping. We had nowhere to go. There was hardly any food. We spent our days in uncertainty. Word had been sent to Dhaka, and we waited for someone to come and rescue us.

Our area had been liberated the day after my father’s death. I feel as though if he had managed to stay alive just one more day, our lives would have been different. At that time, Bangladesh was achieving liberation one area at a time. The Pakistan army had got their hands on a list of our intellectuals.

They went to places where these intellectuals lived or were rumoured to be staying, to finish them off. A lot of ordinary people also died in the process. The Pakistani army brutally slaughtered most of the intelligentsia on December 14. They knew perhaps that they were losing, and so decided to break our backbone before retreating, so that we as a nation would never be able to stand on our feet. But they had underestimated the Bangalis.

Sixteen days later, my maternal cousin arrived from Dhaka to take us away from the little village in Ghorasal, where we’d been staying. I felt that they had arrived to add to the mourning party. People wept day and night, and fainted often. We had to procure smelling salts from the nearby medicine shop to revive those who swooned, but they’d wake up only to swoon again. My eldest sister and my grandmother fainted most often. My mother had probably turned to stone by then. Once one enters the battle for life, there is no room for tears.

The more one understands what one has gained or lost, the more one is plagued by a need to seek answers and find closure. The uninformed don’t have that worry. I don’t know what memory specialists have to say about early childhood memories, but the clarity with which I remember certain events from so far back amazes even me. That I can astound my family members with such vivid recollections fills me not with pride, but wonder.

I can’t explain it, but my theory is we all have certain hidden memories that a certain amount of trauma or triggering event can bring to our conscious minds to create new connections. I get hazy mental images sometimes, sparked off by a photo, or event. These come into sharp focus when I concentrate on remembering, gaining colour and shape until a page out of my personal history emerges.

The stories I tell today are partly based on some of my own recollections, which gained meaning for me long after the actual events themselves, some as I attained maturity, and others based on stories I heard growing up. 

Shilpi Rahman is a counsellor, story-teller, and daughter of martyred intellectual Azizur Rahman. This article has been extracted from her novel War after War, and was translated from Bangla by Sabrina Fatma Ahmad. 

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