Stories of 1971
edited by Niaz Zaman & Asif Farrukhi
University Press Dhaka, 2008
As the first anthology on the 1971 War of Liberation to bring together voices from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the US and the UK, Fault Lines is much more than a mere collection of stories. Rather, the 37 works of fiction in this compilation provide an extensive look into the human drama that was unfolding against the turbulent, violence-ridden backdrop of 1971. While most of these pieces, with the exception of six stories originally written in English, were penned in Urdu, Bangla, Punjabi and Sindhi, the translations are notably smooth. This allows for an important process of comparison and differentiation between these accounts, nearly four decades after the experience itself.
Almost as interesting as the stories included in Fault Lines is the introduction that precedes them. Editors Asif Farrukhi and Niaz Zaman – a Karachi writer and an English professor at the University of Dhaka, respectively – get the volume going by providing some unique accounts of their own memories and understandings of that critical time. Both recognise that 1971 did not – and, importantly, cannot – have the same meaning for Bangladeshis as it did and does for (West) Pakistanis, just as its reality cannot be reconciled into a single neatly packaged account. Without being confrontational, the editors’ voices are personal, candid, conversational and direct, and the intimate tone of their introduction shows a comfort with deciding neither to embellish nor compromise their personal encounters with history for the sake of political correctness.
Particularly refreshing is how Zaman, far from dealing purely in abstractions and intellectualisms, ends her account with a look at the current political scenario in Bangladesh. In so doing, she speaks of the country’s inability to put into practice the ideals for which the War of Liberation was fought. The fiction that follows in this collection is likewise stripped of the propaganda and politicising of history, something that is so rampant throughout many parts of the world. In this respect, Fault Lines takes a much-needed step towards fostering mutual understanding, acceptance and acknowledgement of a shared, albeit difficult, history.
The stories in Fault Lines are all remarkably in sync with one another. This is so not only thematically, which they are of course intended to be, but also in terms of their style and tone, flowing smoothly from the realistic to the surreal, from the graphic to the dream-like. “The Sin of Innocence”, for instance, is a straightforward tale of families caught between two opposing militaries, forced to make life-altering decisions when arbitrary identities and loyalties are forced upon them. On the other hand, “Versions of Truth”, like many of the other stories in this collection, particularly those translated from Urdu, has a fable-like quality to it, where metaphysical and even magical situations represent an alternate reality that is even more troubling than what is happening all around.
Meanwhile, several of the stories towards the end of the anthology are highly symbolic in their approach to the war, making use of extended metaphors to reveal multiple layers of meaning. In “The Ghost of the Razakar”, for instance, a man is possessed by the spirit of a ‘traitor’. His possession is not only symbolic, but also relevant to the people and politics of Bangladesh, where the effort to try razakars (the East Pakistani paramilitary force mobilised to crush the freedom fighters) as war criminals, which gained momentum in 1972, has yet to come to fruition. Similarly, in “The Heir to a Severed Arm”, an amputated arm symbolises the mutilated limb of a nation, separated from its parent-body but later claimed by a young child, hence signalling some hope for its future.
Monsters and brothers
Most of the stories here have significant psychological undercurrents, expressing the doubts, fears and internal struggles that the main characters are undergoing. Themes such as the senseless loss born out of war, individual struggles to come to terms with the changes occurring around them, and the idea that a people’s pride can neither be trampled upon nor ignored for too long are all explored in detail. “The Daughter”, perhaps the most heartbreaking story in this collection, is terrifying in its brutally realistic portrayal of humankind’s innate, animalistic yearning to survive at any cost. The reader is shocked to find that a father has, albeit inadvertently, taken the life of his only child in order to save his own. Similarly wrenching accounts are revealed by characters in “The Travellers”, each of whom admits to having killed a family member – a mother, a father, a brother – symbolic of how war is capable of making monsters of us all.
The main character in these stories is the ordinary man – and many of these stories are from a male perspective – caught in circumstances beyond his control, and desperately trying to make sense of the changing world around him. For instance, in “The Last Encounter”, a young freedom fighter and his same-aged Pakistan Army counterpart carry on a dialogue that reveals, in many ways, the arbitrariness of divisions and labels; during the course of the interrogation, when the young Pakistani captain gets news of his army’s surrender, he suggests to his prisoner, “The war is over. We don’t have to keep up pretences. Let’s rather talk about ourselves.” In a different world, they could easily have been brothers or friends.
On the flip side, the particular role that women played in the war, either by force or by choice, also underlies several of the stories in this collection. Several works portray the precarious experience of women during war, often struggling against both the enemy and the betrayal of their own people, in instances in which they are victimised and exploited. The plight of children born out of the violence of wartime rape, casualties of war often ignored by history, is also poignantly explored in stories such as “Why Does Durgati Weep?”
In parallel with these tales of grief, loss and brutality, Fault Lines also delves into the important yet often largely marginalised effects of any war – displacement and the simultaneous loss of identity. “Godhra Camp”, for instance, sheds light on a topic that has been little explored in the fiction surrounding the War of Liberation: the plight of the stateless, Urdu-speaking Biharis, whose fate in Bangladesh today remains suspended between the dubious intentions of two unwelcoming governments, Dhaka and Islamabad. Through the course of this story, it becomes all too clear that the fate of the unfortunate rarely changes. First, a refugee camp is filled with Bengalis; then, a short while later, by the Urdu-speaking Biharis. Both groups are described similarly in their“dusky” complexion, their forced displacement, and their eventual disillusionment with the ‘system’. It should be mentioned that only the Urdu stories in this collection have portrayed the plight of the Bihari refugees; it seems high time indeed that displaced populations such as these are represented more widely in the literature of the Subcontinent.
While most of the Urdu and Bangla stories that dominate the anthology present similar scenes of suffering, they do reveal subtle differences in their method of storytelling, and in their approach to the realities of 1971. The Urdu pieces speak of the war as, predominantly, a form of loss, not unlike the separation of a child from its parent or a brother from his brother. Another notable difference between the Urdu and Bangla stories is the concept of mistaken identity. In ‘‘Sleep”, for instance, an Urdu-speaking student is shot by Pakistani soldiers- his own people- as a result of a ironic twist of fate. This theme comes through more prominently in some of the Urdu pieces, implying that the East and West Pakistani identities were somehow interchangeable and homogenous – an idea that seems rather naïve, or optimistic at best, in light of the historical reality of the War of Liberation.
Another noticeable difference is the emphasis on metaphorical and surreal representations in the Urdu stories, where the gritty reality of war is shrouded in symbolism, often with corpses and cities as the narrators. In most of the Bangla stories, on the other hand, the focus is on the real, physical human being, not a metaphor or an abstraction, who finds himself caught in the eye of a storm whose devastating effects will eventually reach every village and family in Bangladesh. In these stories, the protagonist is often the farmer, the revolutionary son, the cowardly student, the widowed mother or the grief-stricken father. Despite the differences in their approaches to the violence of 1971, the non-Bangla stories do convey an acknowledgement of the injustices that were perpetrated on the then-East Pakistanis. In stories such as “Half Skeleton” and “Expelled”, for instance, the writers reveal, through an extended metaphor in the former and a flashback in the latter, the West Pakistani’s awareness of his country’s difficult legacy.
In an anthology that largely comes together in both inspiration and style, the Calcutta-born Bharati Mukherjee’s “Angela” is the only story that seems somewhat out of sync. This could be due to the fact that it is about a refugee girl in the US, a land far removed from the familiar terrain of then-East and West Pakistan, against which the dramas of the other stories unfold. In addition, a few other stories in the collection may be too abstract, leaning too heavily on the ‘magic realism’ trope for all readers to appreciate fully. On the whole, however, this collection will be a delight to any reader – with or without ties to the Subcontinent – who is interested in the complexity of human nature, and in the stories surrounding the difficult birth of a new country.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
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On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
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