In 1971, when Ferdousi Priyobhashini was about 24 or 25, she used to work as a telephone operator and receptionist at Crescent Jute Mill, in Khalishpur, near Khulna, in southern Bangladesh.
We should remember what Priyobhashini had to endure in those days. She was the breadwinner for a large family, for a brood of children, her own and her mother's. She lived alone, a divorcee, in an industrial town inhabited by rich men and jute merchants. Their greedy eyes naturally fell on the young woman. Abused repeatedly in many ways, this lone woman struggled for survival. In 1971 when everything was collapsing or was being destroyed, the open sword of society was poised even more precariously above her. Battered and shelterless, Priyobhashini finally left the house (where she was taking refuge during the War) and set forth on an uncertain destiny.
“I came downstairs. I couldn't hold back my tears. I was barefoot. I had lost everything while fleeing. I didn't even have sandals on my feet. As I stood at the end of the street, my mind was obsessed with only one question: Where would I go? I didn't even know if people were crossing into India.”
(At this point of the narrative, Priyobhashini explains how she meets acquaintances from work who agreed to take her back to work)
Priyobhashini didn't know that the Aga Khanis, who had up to that time been nothing but gentle, would set a cruel trap for her.
“After I reported for work, within ten minutes, Mr Fidai (the Aga Khani General Manager) called me to his room and said, 'Sit down. I have something to say to you. We won't let you stay outside the mill area. You must live in the mill quarters. And secondly, my family is now in Pakistan. Can you help me?' Saying this, he did not delay in pouncing on me. Full of disgust and hatred, I controlled myself and left the room. I had lost all power to protest; the hyenas attacked me wherever I went.”
“The day after the incident (killing of Peace Committee member), I went to my office. The GM called me at once. As I entered, he said, “We have heard that you are involved in the murder of Professor Bhuiyan.” I remained silent, sensing that they were preparing a new trap for me. When I turned to leave the room, the GM said from behind, “Listen, Commander Gulzarin, the Naval Commander, is coming.” I shivered where I stood, at the door. I had heard that Gulzarin, the most horrible murderer one could remember, was also well known as a rapist. No woman beautiful or ugly would ever return alive if she were sent to him. He used to rape her first and then throw her in the river. Scared to death, I fell at the feet of the GM and pleaded, “Why me, Sir?”
“In the evening the middle-aged Gulzarin came in his car and took me to the Naval Headquarters. The interrogation started.
'Tell me clearly, who murdered Professor Bhuiyan?'
'I don't know, Sir.'
'I am Commander Gulzarin. You can call me only Gulzarin. Now tell me, are you with the Naxals? You know who killed the professor.'
'I am not with them. Otherwise, I wouldn't have joined office.'
'That's why we doubt you. You are too nice for this job. You are collecting something from here. Otherwise a woman like you wouldn't have stayed in the midst of all this danger'.”
“Then his face changed. From a roaring lion he turned into a purring cat. But this change seemed more dangerous. 'Those who come to me, never return. But what an amazing power you have in your eyes! I know you are involved with the professor's murder. You are also with the Naxals. Still, I'll let you go. But on one condition. Let us enjoy ourselves for a moment. I'm hungry for you'.”
Twenty six years after independence Priyobhashini murmured, as if to herself, “I gave my body, cold as stone, to the worst murderer one can remember, just to stay alive.”
(Priyobhashini's story of rape, abuse and exploitation during the War continues throughout the book, right until the end of the war)
“I lost my job. One day, the police came to arrest me.”
It was a new country with a new government. The country had been liberated after a gory war. Priyobhashini had been raped because of this war. But she said: “Even the people who raped me and abused me for nine months didn't snatch my food from my mouth. Now, in a free country, I felt the ground give way under my feet. I left the mill with a heavy heart and didn't try to get back my job.”
To her relatives, she was a violated woman, which was as painful as being a collaborator. On her head hung two swords, one of rape and the other of collaboration.
Priyobhashini had had enough of human beings and decided to erase their existence from her world. She would see whether she could live without human beings. I don't know to what extent she has been able to do that. But now she thinks that she has found another sanctuary in her world of art.
Reprinted with permission from 'Rising from the Ashes: Women's Narratives of 1971', published by The University Press Limited and Ain o Salish Kendra. http://www.uplbooks.com/