The subtitle of the book proposes it all: fourteen writers reminisce about their own, or their dear ones' experiences immediately prior to, or during, or at the end of the Liberation War of Bangladesh. Although the quality of the narratives varies from writer to writer, from being patently amateurish to highly skilled, they all are interesting. As the title suggests, these might be stories from the “edges” of the struggle, but the fringes are also a crucial part of the whole narrative. As the editors, Razia Sultana Khan and Niaz Zaman state, “The purpose of this volume is not to retell the history (of the Liberation War) but to narrate the stories of people. . . . who did not actively participate as freedom fighters, who did not cross over to India as refugees…. But, like everyone in the country, they too were affected by the war.”
Thirteen of the fourteen writers are women, while the lone male, Tanveerul Haque (“How My Wife Learnt to Ride a Horse”), relates the story of his wife's experience in escaping from Pakistan following the liberation of Bangladesh. Others have also written about their escapes via Afghanistan, with Razia Quadir's “Escape from Pakistan” being probably the best in capturing the thrill, danger, hardship, and edginess involved in carrying out these escapes from a hostile land. The editors quote her in justifying their endeavour, “It is these individual stories that truly flesh out and give emotional substance to great historical events.”
Asfa Hussain (“Free at Last”) tells the tale of her husband's and her own ordeals in the days leading up to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's momentous March 7, 1971 address, the onset of Operation Searchlight, and its aftermath. This piece captures a range of deeds that evince humanity, ingenuity, activism, and patriotism. The daughter of a prominent politician in undivided Bengal (the private Secretary of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy) as well as East Pakistan, she was actively involved with the pro-Bangladesh rallies in London, where she had gone in 1971. Her terse comment in this regard is noteworthy, “There is little documentation of the immense contribution of the London Bengalis in the struggle for Bangladesh.”
One of the editors, Razia Sultana Khan, daughter of a Bengali diplomat stationed in Turkey, tells the story (“And Never the Twain”) of her family's travails there in 1971 that evoke memories of real and fictional stories. Her father distanced himself from the Pakistan mission and returned to Dhaka via Delhi. Razia Khan, while giving an account of her parents' brief encounter with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in Turkey in 1971, observes the irony, “The previous colonizers and oppressors censuring the present colonizers and oppressors. Was that what was going on in the Queen's mind as she listened attentively to my father's account of the killings in Bangladesh?”
The other editor, Niaz Zaman, has written an account (“A Long Flight Home”) that combines specific realizations, dogmas, and self-doubt. She is of Punjabi origin, married to a Bengali from a prominent family, had her education in East Pakistan, and was acutely aware of the plight of the Bengalis in 1971. That year, following frantic searches for places of safety as Operation Searchlight was in full swing, she admits it to be a miracle, or sheer luck, that saved her and her extended family's lives as they fled to, and took shelter in a rural area away from Dhaka.
Subsequently, she had gone to Lahore and was confronted by her kinsfolk, where her own mother and grandmother flatly refused to believe the horrifying first hand encounters the Bengalis were experiencing with the Pakistani Army. Just before returning to embattled East Pakistan, she had gained an insight into the mind of Major General Khadim Hussain Raja, who was the GOC of Dhaka during Operation Searchlight. Trying to figure out if he was like Lt. Gen. Shahibzada Yakub Ali Khan and Admiral S.M. Ahsan, who had resigned from their posts than carry out genocide against the Bengalis, she met up with his wife, and quickly got her answer. Mrs. Raja told Niaz Zaman, “Don't go back to East Pakistan. Your husband will cut off your breasts and then kill you. You are a Punjabi.”
Zakia Rahman's (“The Exodus”) is a sensitive story of herself and her family getting up in the maelstrom created by the onset of Operation Searchlight, and at the fag-end of the war as Indian warplanes strafed and bombed Pakistani positions not too far from where she lived. In between, she found love in another sensitive, intelligent soul. She witnessed the exodus of waves upon waves of people across the Gulshan Lake, and recalls how “complete strangers became our house guests --- all of us seeking safety from a common foe.” Her philosophical and poetic outlook regarding the liberation struggle is eloquently expressed throughout the narrative.
Mahmuda Haque Choudhury (“The Day I Lost My Husband”) relates the poignant story of her husband, who lost his life in the defense of Bengalis in Chittagong, where he was the Superintendent of Police. Particularly touching was Bangabandhu's remark to her in January 1972, “Your husband saved my life but could not save his own.” He was referring to an incident on December 12, 1970, when SP Shamsul Haque foiled a conspiracy to kill Bangabandhu in Chittagong.
Shirin Hasanat Islam (“A Camp Survivor's Tale”), wife of a Bengali officer in the Pakistan Navy, relates her own harrowing tale of being virtually confined to a restricted area in Pakistan. She speaks lovingly of her father, a distinguished academic who, in 1971, was the senior-most professor of Dhaka University, the president of the Dhaka University Teachers' Association, and a well-known critic of Pakistani politics, “…he always carried grief like a shawl wrapped around him.”
One of the authors was born during the Liberation War and another after it was over, and they narrate their respective mother's stories. Jackie Kabir (“Green Helmets”) relates how her mother lived in a large extended family in her village and had a close brush with the military. Masrufa Ayesha Nusrat (“Nine Months in Agartala”) tells the story of her mother taking refuge in Agartala and the kindness she and her family members were shown there.
Shahana Khan (“Stateless in London”) had moved to London with her husband in May 1970 and was soon involved in the Bangladesh cause once Operation Searchlight began. Zeba Rasheed Chowdhury (“Chittagong Days”) talks about the turmoil and tribulations she had faced in Chittagong, while Nusrat Huq (“Love, Death and Allama Iqbal”) observes about the Pakistani army jawans for whom speaking and writing in Urdu was the sign of being a good Muslim. Shahrukh Rahman (“When Sheikh Mujib Came to Geneva”) relates her experience in Switzerland where her husband was posted as a diplomat, and who defected in October 1971. Bangabandhu did not go to Geneva in early 1972, of course, but the symbolic relevance of the title of the essay should not escape the reader.
The emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign independent nation-state has had a number of phases, culminating in the Liberation War of 1971. Bengalis of this country played their parts in different ways. Stories from the Edge contains some such stories as told by the participants or their close ones. For the most part, they are gripping tales infused with nostalgia, but also educational for those who were born after 1971.
Shahid Alam is an actor, thespian and Professor, Department of Media and Communications, IUB. He is an occasional contributor of The Daily Star Literature and Review Pages.