My father and I waited, with our little transistor before us, on the afternoon of March 7, 1971, to hear Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman speak in Dhaka. More than a thousand miles away in Quetta, we waited for the Dhaka station of Radio Pakistan to take us to the Race Course.

We waited in the expectation that Bangabandhu would declare Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan. Earlier in the morning, I had told my classmates in school that it was quite possible I would, when I next met them, be a citizen of a new country arising out of East Pakistan. I recall how intensely I wanted Bangladesh to be free.

In the event, Bangabandhu’s speech was not carried by Radio Pakistan. But the next morning, on a kind of intuition, I switched on to Dhaka again – and there was Bangabandhu speaking.

The martial law authorities had prevented a direct broadcast of the speech the previous afternoon, but here now was the recorded version of it coming to us all the way from Dhaka. On that cold March morning, I roused my father from sleep. Together we heard Bangabandhu speak in a city I desperately needed to go back to.

Operation Searchlight

Nineteen days later, on the evening of March 26, our family waited to hear President Yahya Khan address the nation. We were absolutely in the dark about the tragedy unfolding in Dhaka. That the army had gone into committing genocide on the preceding night was a story we did not know. Indeed, no one knew.

At home, we waited for Yahya Khan to inform the country that power was finally being transferred to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. And then the general came on the radio. His speech left everything splintered into a thousand pieces. At that point, I ceased to be a Pakistani, telling my father Pakistan was not our country anymore.

Back in our village Naogaon, my grandfather, a venerable religious scholar, lived alone. We had no way of contacting him, for the crackdown by the army had brought all postal connections to a stop. Judging by the reports we were getting per courtesy of the BBC, Voice of America and All India Radio, the army was cheerfully mowing down our people in what had now become occupied Bangladesh.

We were desperately hoping that we would hear from my grandfather. And then, sometime towards the end of April, a letter miraculously arrived from him. Besides the usual formalities associated with such letters, he had one line that made my father worried.

“There is no news of Anar Mia,” my grandfather wrote. Anar Mia was Colonel AF Ziaur Rahman of the army medical corps and principal of Sylhet Medical College. We guessed that he, my cousin, had been abducted by the army. He was never to be found.

And so my 1971 went on. On a Sunday morning at the newspaper stand, the front pages of all the Urdu and English language newspapers stared out at me. There, flanked by two grinning policemen, was Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a prisoner, at Karachi airport. It broke the heart in me, for I was pretty sure he would not emerge from his new imprisonment alive.

In the evening, I made a pencil sketch of Bangabandhu – art was one of my subjects at school – and put it in the inside pocket of one of my blazers. Curiously enough, it was the blazer I had on at Karachi airport a few months later as we prepared to board a flight to Dhaka.

I went out of the lounge, where we waited before the flight, quite a few times. And every time I returned, the policemen on duty conducted a search of my pockets. But they did not search the inside pocket. After we landed in Dhaka, I put my hand inside that pocket, to discover that my sketch of Bangabandhu was right there. What if those policemen had chanced upon it?

Travel to Dhaka

Sometime in May, my mother had a blazing argument with her Punjabi neighbour on politics. When the Punjabi lady made a negative comment on Bangabandhu, my mother flared up, telling her neighbour that every Pakistani soldier in Bangladesh would be made to pay a price for what they were doing to our people.

None of them would return to West Pakistan alive, my mother said loudly for all our other neighbours to hear. We had a hard time calming down my mother. But inwardly, I was happy that my mother had given the neighbour an earful. I was proud of the courage she had shown.

A large cutout of Bangladesh's founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Photo credit: Munir Uz Zaman / AFP

We travelled to Dhaka in early July, after my father had managed to have his transfer order, rescinded after March 25, restored. We did not know that we had travelled with the enemy, in this case the well-dressed men who were on the Pakistan International Airlines flight with us. The moment they and we stepped out of the aircraft at Tejgaon, we saw those very fellow passengers being saluted by Pakistani military officers. It was a gloomy, rainy evening as we drove down to our aunt’s place in Kathal Bagan.

On that very evening, in a deserted Dhaka, I tuned in to Swadhin Bangla Betar for the very first time. It was thrilling to be alive, to be back home. Hearing Bangabandhu’s voice on Bojro Kontho and listening to Chorompotro energised the Bengali in me.

My life’s story

At the river crossing in Demra, on my way to see my grandfather in our village with my father, an army officer smiled at me and asked me how I was, in Urdu. I knew Urdu, of course, but I told him, without any trace of a smile, that I did not know the language. He switched to English, addressing me as bundu.” He meant bondhu”. I was not impressed.

In the village, we learned from my grandfather that Syed Nazrul Islam had stayed at our uncle’s home just behind ours for a few days on his way to India following the crackdown. One night, a huge sound woke us up.

My cousins and their co-fighters in the Mukti Bahini had blown up the bridge at Panchrukhi. My happiness was beyond measure. A few days later, walking along Green Road, I saw a truck carrying Pakistan’s soldiers come to a stop a few feet before me. One of the men called out to me, Oye larhka, idhar aao [come here].” I did not like that and shot a question back at him, in Urdu – Kyun? Kya chahiye? [What do you want?] The soldiers drove off.

My 1971 is part of my life’s story. In early August, I heard Radio Pakistan broadcast news of Bangabandhu’s impending trial, which would begin on August 11 before a military tribunal in West Pakistan. It was depressing. I spent the days composing poetry on the war, wondering how I could pass them onto Swadhin Bangla Betar, which I tuned in to every evening at low volume. The threat of collaborators eavesdropping was always there.

And then came the day of deliverance. On December 16, life took a quantum leap when we heard Indira Gandhi on All India Radio. “Dhaka is now the free capital of a free country,” she told the Indian Parliament. In my excitement, I decided I would not go to sleep that night. The transistor was my companion all night long.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune.