Telling It As It Was

The Year That Was

edited by Ishrat Firdousi

Bantu Prahashan, Dhaka, 1996

Truth destroys all rosy notions of what a remembered war should be. War becomes a time where the expected becomes the remote and extremes rule the day. The Year That Was is not going to be an effortless read for many because it demythologises 1971, predicts Afsan Chowdhury in his eloquent foreword. Ishrat Firousi returns that period to the domain of ordinary people and their recollections. War becomes a series of personal experiences against the backdrop of a societal nightmare.

Chowdhury is right. This is not an easy book to read or to review. Its strength lies in raking up the human stories and issues revolving around the 1971 war between Bengali nationalists of what was then East Pakistan and the army of the then West Pakistan.

While the task of collecting these stories must have been formidable, the editor belittles the effort in the Editor´s Note: "It was no big deal, just took five years." He admits readily that the recapitulation of events that took place over two decades ago has its problems, like generalisations, over-simplifications and exaggerations (and many will also contend, a few tall tales too!). Also, many narratives give second- (or third-) hand information. Firousi also notes that this is not official history, although it is probably the first collection of oral recollections of this depth from 1971.

Going for Grey
The collection of 71 interviews, perhaps symbolising the year 1971, randomly arranged and presented in the first-person narrative, shatters the national perceptions that have deliberately been built up around 1971, at least in Pakistan, and probably also in Bangladesh. While in Pakistan there has been a policy of whitewashing history, so that the events of 1971 and what led to them are not public knowledge (despite a growing demand for this), one can guess that in Bangladesh the 1971 war and its players have been eulogised to the extent that no criticism of them is allowed. On both sides there is a black-and-white attitude towards 1971 – them and us, good and evil.

The Year That Was de-bunks all mythmaking by narrating atrocities committed on both sides. At the same time, the book also presents stories of people showing compassion towards the enemy, again on both sides. But these are far fewer in number.

Chowdhury writes in his foreword: "This book is a collection of interviews of people who experienced 1971 in some degree of intensity or another. They cannot easily be categorised as heroes or victims or by any other such definition. Best would be to say that they experienced 1971 and survived. So this is a collective diary of survivors."

What stands out in the end rather than any literary style, are the bare bones of some of the stories. The reader wishes desperately to know where these survivors are today, and the editor has been thoughtful enough to include the information at the back of the book.

One wishes that Firousi had also been equally diligent in eliminating the many irritating errors and unnecessarily italicised bits that crop up throughout the book. The stories recounted, however, are so compelling that these unfortunate oversights are, however, easily overlooked. At least for this Pakistani reviewer, this is a book that contains stories which have not been related before. It is also clear that the proper approach to this book is to first set aside preconceived notions and biases about 1971. That having been done, The Year That Was is yours to be engrossed in, tragically so.

Twenty-five years after Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan, there is Mohammad Jafar Ali Khan narrating the gruesome violence by both sides which he witnessed as a 10-year-old schoolboy in 1971. Perhaps his young age then has something to do with the nightmarish quality of his recollections. A Bihari, he is one of the two narrators in the book who are non-Bengali.

Jafar´s story is too macabre to re-relate, its finger of condemnation pointing at Bengalis and non-Bengalis alike. He remembers seeing Shamsu, the razakar (fighting collaborator) known as the Killer, licking a bloodied sword that had just been used to slaughter a Bengali. Some time later, the non-Bengali Jafar was himself stabbed by a Bengali who shouted: "There goes a pargachha (parasite)! Finish the bastard!" Never had I heard such cries or seen so much human blood, recalls Jafar, who is today a rickshaw-puller.

The detachment with which Jafar recounts his stories is frightening. There are no more tears left, especially after all these years. The matter-of-fact rendering of extreme situations lends the book an eerie touch. Neither Jafar nor any of the others who remember 1971 resort to polemics or outrage. Telling it as it was, is enough.

At the end, finally, there is some comic relief: a note on Errata written with a flippancy that is incongruous after such intense reading, but which indicates the editor´s refusal to take himself seriously:

Anyway, this book is a veritable minefield of errors and the idio… er Editor and the cheap… er chief collaborator have agreed to blame each other, if it is of any help. It was also decided that we would leave it to the reader (why should we have all the fun was the reasoning) to take up the challenge: Enjoy yourself, sail your way through and think nothing of the zillions of extra commas, exclamation marks, periods, the insan… er interesting treatment of many illustrations (including an upside down map) and many, many others that make up this Errata.

Right. Reading this note at the beginning rather than the end may have helped the reader enjoy him or herself more. But enjoy is not the right word for the experience of reading The Year That Was.

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