Illustration: August 2001 Himal Southasian
Illustration: August 2001 Himal Southasian

Dhaka in the 70s

Random memories in first and third person.

Afsan Chowdhury is a Bangladeshi liberation war researcher, columnist and journalist.

They held the stengun to the back of his head in the half darkness of the late winter evening. A lamppost threw uncertain light as they stood in a group and smoked and talked cheerfully. The man had been to taken out of his home and made to stand on a vacant lot in the upper middle class neighbourhood. Nothing very extraordinary. It was just Bangladesh in mid-December 1971.

His name was Shahbaz. A noble name. But he was the typical neighbourhood thug, swaggering drinking, fornicating man. Yet he alone of all would- also dare to take the small-pox patient to the hospital by himself when others turned away. A braggart and a bully but not exactly a criminal. Not even by the more uptight standards of that era. But Shahbaz, unwittingly and through no particular choice or resolve of his own, had broken a cardinal rule of history. He had stepped into one of its wrong moments. Bangladesh had just become independent and there were more guns in young, angry, impatient hands than the trees and leaves that populated a Dhaka December of that time. And guns sought enemies like the flies and vermin sought the garbage on the street.

Nobody was sure what his "crime" was but everybody was sure he was a "bad egg" and so someone had found a reason to complain No one knew who and why, but to know gun wielders and curry favour by being in touch and complaining was the thing to do when life and death slept so close to each other. His brother, a plumber by profession, stood close by, as if waiting for something to happen but too puzzled at the turn of events to make any move, not even to beg for mercy.

"Get inside," someone hissed. "They are going to kill him." Scared feet shuffled inside scared, timid homes.

Shahbaz started to argue but the hands that held him, proud with the colours of freedom and machismo moved quickly. The gun barked. The sound was sudden, unexpected, but not really loud. No big deal really. Just the brief, harsh, staccato song of a firearm— crack, chat, chat. And then it was over. The man crumpled to the ground and lay still. The business over, the young men piled into a commandeered car and were gone in a whiff leaving a body in the dust, still, inert, bloody.

After a few moments, the corpse's brother stole out into the dark. Silently he dragged the corpse all by himself into the narrow lane where they lived, to face his sister-in-law and her kid and explain why Shahbaz had died. It would certainly have been more difficult than the labours of those who had killed him. In fact, it seems always so easy, to casually bump off people when they least expect it and without so much as mentioning why. Shahbaz had died without a fight or a cry.

For a long time no taps were repaired in the neighbourhood, no clogged pipes were cleared. His brother's revenge caused much grief to all. But one day the whole family was suddenly gone and nobody ever saw them again. Soon there was a new plumber in the para who was much better than Shahbaz's brother. He was soon gone from everyone's collective memory. Nobody remembers no one, not even when they are plumbers. Or their brother.

History certainly came at full speed, hitting everyone with a bang and leaving them sprawled in the dirt and mud, pulling away the comfortable carpet from underneath collective feet. Since we couldn't afford eggs and toast for breakfast, we had fried green papaya and chapati instead. Afternoon tea was reduced to a fistful of puffed rice and a cup of weak tea as chasers, once in a while "toast biscuits"—often called dog biscuits with great affection and loathing—with drops of gur (molasses) sitting on them like clotted blood. The afternoon tea routine was as unnecessary as it was unbreakable. It defied history and survives till today. And of course most became Radicals. Was it the green papaya for breakfast that made it happen?

Leftists. Communists. Marxists. I didn't know anyone who was not one. There was a bit of fashion but even unfashionable ones became Lefties. A large chunk of the party in power—the Awami League cracked open and let a stream of young cadres out. They disengaged and declared themselves Leftists. "We had been Leftists for long. The national liberation struggle was the first step in the total revolution. The unfinished revolution must now be completed," they solemnly declared. Their new party was called Jatiyo Samjtantrik Dal (JSD). In English that is the Nationalist Socialist Party. It became known as "Jashod" or the Bangla acronyms of JSD put together.

The old Left, still secretive and more rigid than ever before, felt very let down by all this. There was talk of the Mother Party and all that but not enough listeners. There was resentment that "upstart bourgeoisie politicians" and "foreign agents" were stealing their history. But they could do little. The rebellious drums of campus radicals drowned the noise from all their underground jazz .

It was all about unfinished revolutions. Everyone had a stake in this great inevitable change. Even many Awami Leaguers considered themselves Leftists. It was the one time in Bangladesh's history when there were few Rightists left to say hello to. But best was if one believed that only one's own party was right. Isn't that how it always went?

It was also a period of clandestine life. Everything was a secret, including life and hope and the huge profits from black marketing in a country still learning to manage everything from scratch. But for most, especially in the campus, hope wore the colour red. And red is the colour of blood. Sometimes the two mixed so well that nobody could tell the difference.

But life was swiftly changed for all. Even the awesome salaries drawn by senior executives were dwarfed by price rises, privilege cuts and shortages. Fair price shops, unheard of before, opened. They were actually, ration shops politely renamed for the sake of the self-respecting middle class. They provided shoddy stuff at affordable prices. The salaryman's salvation home, a political necessity to keep the many hued babus not too unhappy.

The clothes people wore got coarser by the day and mothers became more innovative cooks as food price shot beyond domestic budgets. Even the government formed a Department of Price Control and Expenditure Management. But unheard of luxuries were available in the market as well. The configuration of economic classes changed like a shuffled decks of cards and some took public transport to work for the first time since Bengal was sliced in 1947. Meanwhile, some bought their first cars, others their second. A fewer still their third.

Suddenly, some people were getting awfully rich. Under-20-year-olds would arrive in chauffeured limos to visit friends in the early mornings or the late hours after or before parties, where smuggled Akai decks played contraband music and served scotch in wine glasses. They talked of the price of coconut oil in Calcutta and cardamom in Ceylon. What was a foreign Principal? Indenting? LC margins? Overdrafts? Vat 69? Shared girl friends? Marx never explained these things in the books.

In secret meetings, comrades swore to kill all class enemies and swore at the cigarette that had died bitterly on tired lips. The butt ached from sitting on hard floors. Tomorrow we would have a revolution surely. "At best next year," the man from Calcutta promised. He was an Indian Maoist imported from Ballygunge. He soon had a Bangladeshi passport, soon he had friends dropping in, soon he had set up a network. And soon he had picked up the local accent. He knew the enemy better than the local lads did. He knew the friends even better.

He ran a network of Indian Lefties in Bangladesh. All of it was trundling along fine, until one night a visitor came carrying a letter all the way from across the border. It said that the Calcutta Comrade was probably a police informer and the cause of an arrest or two. When Avishekda returned, he was told about the visitor and the letter. He left hurriedly never to return. Years later someone met him in the Jadavpur area of Calcutta. He had married a wealthy senior citizen, and used a car now. They drank chilled bottles of club soda sitting on the sidewalk and talked of dead friends.

In Dhaka a university student could survive on taka 5 per day. A bus ticket was 1 taka for most places. A packet of 10 Star cigarettes, cheapest in the market, cost taka 1.50. A plate of oily rice with tiny scraps of meaty rubber was taka 1. And a cup of tea was .50. And with the left over 1 taka, catch a ride home. By that time, tea, literature, politics and dreams would have filled most bellies.

We hung out in Sharif Mia's canteen where literary-minded politicos and politically-inclined literati gathered till the late evening. It was the one true institution that had emerged after 1971 Dhaka University's thatched roofed equivalent of the famous Calcutta coffeehouse. Its tea was legendary— though some disagreed. Some would even take it home in thermos flasks. I thought the talk was better than the tea. To the outside world it was a place that was "rich and strange".

Sharif Mia, a perpetually disgruntled man in a dirty vest and lungee, who was perpetually making tea bent over a ramshackle stove, was from old Dhaka. He was an original with a caustic wit so barbed that nobody dared cross swords with him, not even the premium poet or the party honcho. One day, much later, the university authorities came and dismantled his tea shop in all of three minutes. His shack of a canteen was probably the most significant part of our mental horizon, but then it was an illegal construction. And it probably irked them to see lectures so abjectly fail to compete with adda, I suppose. Oh, well. He is dead anyway.

But another 5 taka could certainly take you through the day. Lunch at the university hall canteens could be had for just taka 2, hugely subsidised, tasteless and slightly illegal if you were not a resident there. Like we were not. And in the evening, you could visit the Jagannath hall canteen, meant exclusively for the minorities, where for taka 2 you could feast on tiny helpings of alu tarkari, tomato curry, three chapatis and an endless supply of green chilies. The chapatis were a wonder and the canteen boy would bring a stack and then beat them like cymbals to get rid of the flour dust. It tasted marvellous.

Students were divided between Hall boys and City boys. Those who stayed in the Halls had a lifestyle very different from those who lived in the city and commuted to the campus. It was also an excellent index of cultural and class barrier. When graduation result time came, the boys from the Halls took most of the honours.

But not in our department of History. There the ladies topped the list, these studious students who did well in every exam they took. Even the lady who now tells me twice a day that marrying me was her greatest mistake in life took the second position. I came out a distant third. It was not till a year later in the Masters that honour was restored when both of us jointly topped the list. Frankly, I cared most for the sense of liberation that the campus life gave me, so different from my sheltered growing up. So different to be late, late, late coming home.

And not bothering to explain.

In the seventies I had decided not to shave my beard. It didn't have anything to do with anything except evading the bother of shaving everyday. I was a grungy, dusty pajama-kurta wearing, bespectacled, slightly unwashed "intellectual Leftist" who practised regular highs. I was supposed to know all about the "class struggle" and was rumoured to have read Marx and Lenin, and Mao too. It was a mystery to many which party I belonged to. I moved in all the circles easily. I was probably the first free-lance Marxist in this land in that era. It says little about Marxism but perhaps a great deal about free-lancers.

My hair was shoulder length and my beard nearly touched my chest. I had a deadly resemblance to Major Jalil, a war hero who had been arrested after he reportedly opposed the stripping of the jute mills and the removal of the machines by the Indian army. He had joined the Leftists who had left Awami League to form JSD, which in the seventies committed one of the more significant politico- historical acts.

One day as I crossed the road, a policeman saluted me, and I noticed the awe in his eyes. I realised what had happened. He thought I was Major Jalil. I also realised my history had been reduced to my beard and long unkempt hair. And probably that look in my eyes which belched fire and smoke fuelled by tea and locally-grown grass. But I wasn't the only hairy one. The government ran regular hair-cutting campaigns and anybody sporting fuzz 'was suspect. History has of- – ten testified that the state likes clean-shaved men.

A week later they raided our neighbourhood to recover illegal arms and arrested the entire family on the suspicion of hoarding such weapons. One of my longest days had arrived.

The man in uniform held a gun to his throat, and kept asking where the weapons were hidden. It is difficult to talk with a gun of the automatic variety pressed against the Adam's Apple. He persistently denied any knowledge of weapons but the men in uniform were not convinced. They took out metal balls and rolled them on the floor. Magnetic? He looked at his death and wondered whether this made any sense. To have died for a reason not particularly clear to him. Was all this because of the way he looked?

They made him and the rest of the family search the house for those elusive weapons. In the rooms where the books were kept, they found a few Russian editions of the Marxist literary pantheon on his table with old Karl's face printed on them.

"Is it you?"

The young man wondered if it was better to deny or to affirm. They seemed to have made up their minds anyway.

"Yes, it's me."

They nodded and kept urging him to search as they stood with guns cocked at the full. So, a few people were alive that day who thought that Karl Marx lived in Dhaka and wrote books with his own picture on the cover. Conceit killed Karl. Now that made sense.

Finally they shoved the barrel inside his mouth. The metallic taste was strange and repulsive, mixing death and saliva in his throat. Then they asked the question again. He couldn't answer with this mouthful. He tried to move his head. Is this how it's done finally?

An officer type entered the room and asked them to take him and all other males away. His cheeks ached from the pain of having an AK-47 inside his mouth. His mother started to cry but he felt drained of emotions. As if he didn't exist. And then it was over.

A sort of senior officer stormed inside and demanded to know what the charges were. Suddenly nobody seemed to know any. Was there a complaint? There was no answer. Intelligence report? Silence. He then asked to set them free.

The man who had stuck the gun in his mouth now came over and warmly shook his hands. The young man was no longer a terrorist. And then they were quickly gone from the area. The family waited all day in the porch, fearful that they would be visited and picked up again. It was better if they stayed there and didn't have to come down again to be carted away. He kept remembering the taste of the gun inside his mouth. He still does.

Azam Khan was in full cry in the campus auditorium, and the couple of thousand students that made up the audience were hysterical. Reedy thin with a straggly beard, dressed in trousers and a bright coloured shirt, he was singing about love, drugs, and mysticism of the campus variety.

The High Court shrine has many faquirs but how many are real?

In the market of love so many lovers roam about, but how many are real?

Oh, in this world of today, people have ceased to be people

In this world of today human beings are no longer human beings.

As boys erupted in the seats, they were really for once becoming part of a history, a cultural history that has survived many changes and become mainstreamed and it was being born then and there. Only they didn't know it then. The pop songs of Azam Khan—often hyped versions of mystic melodies sung in various shrines for ages—defined them more than many other things and ideals. After all, they were just a bunch of nice kids caught in the wrong moment of history. They didn't know what to do with their time, their history, themselves.

His song " Frustration" was almost the campus national anthem and it was no secret that most thought that ganja was a treatment for that strange emotion which the womb of expectation holds. The seventies made dope respectable even if it failed to do that to the revolution. Dope was snatched from the lips of low caste Hindus and its smoke passed through middle class nostrils and this put a poita on its back. It was born first in the fields. The next time it was reborn on so many young, unhappy lips. Thus was ganja twice-born.

Azam Khan and his lot sang traditional songs with a touch of rock and Western accompaniments, Bangla's original remixer. He used traditions to create his own. The land of pure, pristine Tagore and Nazrul music was swamped by a new syntax of language and rhythm not heard before. Anger, arrogance and sell-pity mixed with music. So many were already convinced that they had no future. The use of drugs said it all. Even for those who spoke constantly of the red dawn, nirvana in the evening came in rolled reefers and "high" and "low" pills. Poet Nirmalendu Goon took it to its highest level when he wrote a poem and read it publicly to thunderous applause.

Today's Sunday

Today's a holiday

Today it's Mandrax

It's only Mandrax.

Mandrax or "Mandy"—as it was affectionately called—was the one word that spelt a whole host of images now long ago forgotten.

The High Court mazar (shrine) was a "hot" mazar. That is, it was an active mazar. You could get immediate results. Mendicants of all sorts converged here as did drug peddlers. Even if you had nothing in particular to ask for, you still went to get high. But there was unease in the air which no shrine could heal.

When the Awami League and the pro-Soviet parties merged into one party called BKSAL and banned all other parties, the situation became even more uncertain. There was talk of 'emergency' being imposed.

The Islamic groups were also trying to resurface and clandestine meetings were reported. By that time the Gono Bahini (People's Army), the armed wing of the JSD had sprung up and campus Halls were the headquarters. There were rumours of military connections and some went so far as to say that the military was getting restive too.

On 15 August 1975, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, it was announced, would visit the university. On 14 August a few bombs went off in the library area next to Sharif Mia's canteen. He was unmoved and made more tea. Many went and inspected the damage and returned to the feeble tea and literature and wondered what to do next. The next day everyone was expected to be present in the campus to welcome the President.

Gunshots awoke people at dawn the next day. Through a hazy sleepy dream, people thought they saw students letting off fire crackers to celebrate his visit. But the sounds were echoes of '71. Everyone knew those sounds only too well. In minutes everyone was huddled around the radio. The voice of a Major Dalim came through, announcing that Sk. Mujib had been killed. All knew hell would break loose, and waited for it. Things would never be certain again, the same again. If Sk. Mujib could be killed anything could happen.

By 10 in the morning, they imposed martial law. But few knew who the "they" were and what it all meant. Everyone said it was the CIA, some said it was the RAW. It was up to anyone to guess and to decide. It didn't matter.

But it was history and it began to happen at a frenetic pace. Three months later, on 4 November, the group that had taken over was deposed by another coup led by whom no one was sure. Some said that the AL had returned to power and cited a huge procession in the campus led by AL leaders. But the rumours were bigger than the procession. There had been more killings it was heard, but nobody knew who had been felled. But it was clear that no one was in full control. Another round of violence seemed imminent. The radio went on and on. Batteries did brisk business.

Apparently military forces had been arrayed on both sides, whatever the sides were. The dividing line seemed to be the railway line that bifurcated the city. We went down to see what was going on. Heavily armed soldiers with stoic faces were taking positions behind stacks of bricks kept for a suspended high-rise construction. The soldiers didn't seem particularly hostile. Maybe they were as puzzled as we were. And scared.

A bedraggled fruit vendor put down his basket of green papayas. I blanched at the sight of these vegetables masquerading as fruit. The man asked the soldier to take himself and his sub-machine gun somewhere else. He had important business to transact. The soldier obliged. Things didn't seem all right at all. Papaya vendors bullying armed soldiers?

On the night of 7 November, the Gono Bahini led by a one-legged legendary war hero, retired Colonel Taher, mounted a coup supported by soldiers who were loyal to him and his Red vision of Bangladesh. On the two or maybe three sides were war heroes of 1971, and so fellow comrades of the liberation war killed each other. Taher's men took over the radio station and we all gathered again in the morning in front of it. Radio became the face of the state.

By the end of the afternoon, Colonel Taher had lost control and Gen. Ziaur Rahman emerged from jail and took over. A few months later, Taher was sentenced to be hanged for treason and later his brothers—all decorated war heroes—tried to take the Indian ambassador hostage to free Taher and got killed and then…later…it goes on… But it was the Red's biggest hour if not the most glorious. In South Asia the Reds never came closer than that to taking over the state. They may have held it for half a day… By lunch time the revolution was over…

A new world was evolving. The old pro-Peking Leftists emerged from the underground to declare support to Zia because he was anti-Awami league and AL was pro-Soviet and so…the Leftist logic continued inanely. It was their death-knell anyway. The Leftist leaders were singularly unimpressive and when they visited the campus, they seemed to lose all charisma in a day's promenade. The old guard pro-Peking Leftists had, within a year, ceased to be a political force. They had been dropped from history. Like stale bhajee.

They found Khalilullah chewing a human heart with great relish sitting on the verandah. Near him were a human kidney and probably lungs. He was obviously enjoying his meal. Apparently he had been living on human offal for years. It helped that he was a "guard" at the Medical College morgue. He chilled hearts with a new image of fear and became a legend of ghoulish proportions. Now this was something.

A bunch of tired radicals sat under a tree in the campus to discuss the future. Of them, most had fought in the 1971 war, some had even "eliminated" enemies in the futile Red wars. They had handled guns and conducted raids. As dark came they talked of Khalilullah, the new "devil". Suddenly the lights vanished in the campus and the brave soldiers of the Red dawn held each other and shook in fear. Khalilullah was scarier than all of the Right put together. Says much about the Right. And the Left too.

The unfortunate Khalilullah was diagnosed by professional men. The doctors said he couldn't tell his right hand from his left. He was suffering from a disease of the degenerating brain. Khalilullah died in the lunatic asylum.

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