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Dhaka Tribune

The Vortex -- Disastrous Prelude to Devastation

Update : 23 Jun 2023, 11:27 PM

The usual narratives of our liberation war often completely forget the enormity of the great Bhola cyclone, its subsequent ramifications on the lives of millions of people, the unrest that ensued in its wake and the cyclone being a major catalyst of the Awami League's sweeping victory in the 1970 general election and when sometimes it gets a place in usual narratives of history or fiction, it gets sidelined by myriad other sociopolitical and geopolitical issues of the time but that is not the case in The Vortex: A True Story of History's Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation authored by Scott Carney and Jason Miklian where the Great Bhola Cyclone takes the center stage starting it all and we see its monstrous decimating power in full rigor -- modern history's most deadliest storm upending the lives of hundreds of thousands in an agonizingly vivid portrayal.

November 12, 1970. The deadliest storm of recorded history made landfall and in its devastating decimation power, left about half a million people dead in its trail making it the largest loss of life in a single weather event in all of human history.

The Great Bhola Cyclone and its aftermath has been inordinately devastating to say the least but something else would be even more towering in its ferocity than that of the Great Bhola Cyclone and it was the Pakistani military in its skewed narrative of suppressing the insurrectionists who supposedly wanted to divide Pakistan -- a country already divided into two wings by a thousand miles, a fantastic bird of a place, two wings without a body, sundered by the land mass of its greatest foe, joined by nothing but god. That ludicrous formation of a country, of two lands which did not share any border between them and had distinctively disparate ethnolinguistic characteristics of their own, did not have any shared history to call themselves a single entity barring being the followers of the same god and on top of that, a clique of elites from one wing ruling the other with an iron fist like a colonial power was destined to fail from the beginning. Its disintegration and the emergence of a new country was a fait accompli from the moment it was formed by the then British colonial power and multiple ruthless and bloody attempts by the west wing's leaders to suppress and subordinate the people of the east was merely the prolonging of a failed state. In whatever path you might turn to, you cannot suppress millions and deprive them of their rights — a statement which would resonate vigorously in Bangabandhu's historic 7th March speech.

“You see, Neil, this cyclone solved about half a million of our problems.” Neil Frank, the longest serving director of the United States' National Hurricane Center, in multiple interviews with the authors recounted a Pakistani army general's conversation with him. Whether it was really said or not does not truly matter because the attitude of the West Pakistani authorities had been nothing different from that conveyed in the general's utter nonchalance towards human lives. They eschewed warning the locale of the looming disaster, and exacerbated the plight by not only not sending any considerable relief or rescue mission but also by obstructing the global non-governmental help from reaching to the people. From a natural catastrophe, it had become a man made disaster, perpetrated by Yahya's government before they went onto orchestrate possibly the most atrocious incident of mass murder and rape in an unimaginable scale since the holocaust.

Yahya Khan's sheer lack of political and military acumen is exhibited the best when in a fit of whiskey fueled rage after finding his own son Ali in bed with his mistress, he declared war on India, codenamed operation Chenghis Khan, a brilliant recipe for the total disaster that was about to engulf him and his military, giving India the official pretext to join the mukti bahini and the joined force would only need mere days to thrash Yahya's men into surrender.

This book reads like a beautifully crafted political thriller with an ensemble cast ranging from Nixon and Yahya to Kissinger and Mao. One is bound to feel enraged at Nixon, Kissinger, Yahya, Bhutto, Tikka and Niazi for their utter disregard for the lives of the Bengalis and also to feel compassionate with the Rohde couple as they fight against all odds to help as many people as they can in the time of the direst need. It evokes many feelings — of loss and helplessness, of fury and rage, of affliction and grief.

While this fast paced work of narrative nonfiction is a lucid reading and makes the terrifying cyclone and its impact come alive with the tribulations of the characters, the assumption or the educated guess of each and every motive, drive and thinking of the characters surely undermines the veracity and historical credibility of the book. For the sake of presenting it as a pleasing read, the book somewhat lost the credibility it could otherwise have like The Blood Telegram of Gary J. Bass. That is not to say that, it is merely a historical fiction concocted by the authors rather it is a deeply researched book with notes and sources taking up more than 50 pages and the authors also conducted more than two hundred interviews over four years, spoke with cyclone survivors, freedom fighters, members of the Pakistani military, historians, scientists, policymakers to provide as true a picture as possible. So, while it does not hold the credibility of a rigorous history book, it is well researched and based on facts.

Scott Carney and Jason Miklian's The Vortex paints possibly the most vivid portrayal of the Great Bhola Cyclone — the disastrous prelude to the devastation wrought upon the millions of Bengalis by Yahya and his cronies and the cruel birth of a nation we proudly call ours today.

Najmus Sakib is a freelance contributor. 

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