My family has been wrenched by time and circumstance, and scattered like dust before the wind. But when my father speaks of a big house, days spent with grandparents and cousins, I know he is reminiscing about his childhood in Barisal in Bangladesh. I can almost see him journeying to school by boat, bending over to watch the sudden appearance of a gharial in the murky waters. I can picture movements turning into migrations that fracture large families into smaller nuclear structures. And I piece together this past from sepia-tinted photos in old albums or from stories shared at family gatherings, in real world or on the internet.
There is a man in a few photographs who appears to be an authority figure. There are adults flanking him and children sitting at his feet. To me, my siblings and cousins, he was Great Uncle, kind of like a dadu. In the photos, he isn’t smiling. His eyes look straight ahead, in a kind of distracted astuteness, and faint frown lines are visible on his forehead.
Great Uncle was my grandmother’s brother and an advocate in Barisal, a city now in south Bangladesh. He had an intimate knowledge of Barisal and a few villages down the river far from it. He knew those who ran into him in the streets: mid-level government officials, advocates and schoolteachers. He knew some fishermen and some small farmers and vendors. With his wife and sons, he lived in an old house by Hospital Road, a mile from the riverbank.
Great Uncle was a man who insisted that, no matter the wider changes, things stayed roughly the same at the basic level. He had lived through two World Wars, a famine and the Partition of 1947. He knew governments changed often and sometimes countries too. In 1947, his part of Bengal became East Pakistan, but for all the violence that accompanied the creation of two new countries, the home he knew had survived. This made him believe that some things, especially small ones, had permanence.
But in the 1960s, his oldest son left home. My uncle went to London, for it offered better chances to conduct the research he wanted to do. There was perhaps another reason too. By that time, there was talk among the youth of East Pakistan of diminishing opportunities and growing discrimination by West Pakistan in education and employment. Some years later, my second uncle followed his brother and moved to Belfast.
My father, who was older than his cousins, chose the more familiar, the near-ordained way of leaving. A decade before his two cousins departed for the United Kingdom, he had moved to Calcutta, the preferred city for higher education even before the British carved a boundary on the map. My father worked in Calcutta for some years, before moving to Orissa as a young officer in the Indian Police Service.
My Great Uncle was familiar with such stories, with farewells and departures. He had seen his family weather the worst of the Barisal riots that raged through the months of February and March in 1950. The violence had begun in a village in Khulna and spread, causing tragedies, big and small. The villages around Barisal and the city were torn asunder. A wave of refugees streamed towards the West Bengal border.
A short period of peace followed, and Great Uncle’s faith tried to keep pace with the growing anger around him. In 1952, after Urdu was declared Pakistan’s national language, the movement for a land with a separate language gained momentum. Another reason for growing resentment was the economic reforms of the Raisman Programme that clearly appeared weighted against East Pakistan. At the same time, the province’s prominent leaders were sidelined – Huseyn Suhrawardy, who was Pakistan’s fifth prime minister, resigned when pressured by President Iskander Mirza. Mirza, who was born in Murshidabad, was himself deposed by General Ayub Khan. A chasm was opening between the two halves of the country, revealing their separateness.
In November 1970, the tropical cyclone Bhola struck a region in the East, wreaking destruction. Thousands were killed in the tragedy, and the scheduled elections for Pakistan’s general and provincial assemblies were postponed. When the elections were finally held in December 1970, the Awami League, the major party of East Pakistan, won a majority in both the National Assembly and the provincial assembly. Pakistan’s president Yahya Khan, however, refused to acknowledge the result. The Awami League was prevented from forming the government, its leaders were arrested and on the night between March 24 and 25, the army began a crackdown under the orders of the Pakistan government.
My third uncle, now an engineer in Pakistan’s land and water department in Karachi, chose that very time to return to Dhaka. The night the army marched in, he was back at the hostel where he had lived as a student – Jagannath Hall in Dhaka University – catching up with friends. The soldiers drove into the university compound, targeting buildings such as the hostel and the adjoining staff quarters, killing many faculty members and students. The news of what had happened filtered out days later.
March was only the beginning of Operation Searchlight. For a long time, Great Uncle had no news of his son. He went out often looking for information, though all he heard only made him more anxious. He had a number of contacts, mainly people who had once been his clients. In peaceful times, they had exchanged news and gossip in each other’s offices. They had helped him before, but these were extraordinary times.
My third uncle turned up one night. He was unrecognisable. His cheeks were sunken and there was a starved look in his eyes. He stayed in darkness most of the time, creeping around in the shadows. He ventured out only at night. Great Uncle could hardly show his relief. He knew he had to get his son away.
When the news of a family leaving the city by boat reached my Great Uncle, he got them to take his son to India with them. It was a fairly small boat. It had a thatched awning and three boatmen. The boatmen had travelled this route before, carrying people to safety to the Indian side of the border. They knew the dense networks of rivers that traversed Bengal, the small creeks, the hidden streamlets that you can see now by zooming into Google Maps. The seasonal rain helped too by swelling the rivers, reducing visibility and diminishing the chances of being seen.
In the mornings, and when the afternoon sun shimmered on the water, the riverbanks seemed far away. My uncle listened to the oars flapping in water, felt the spray and the way the boat creaked as it moved. Along the banks, there were bent palm trees, denuded villages, cracked boats, but few soldiers. Long stretches of desolation would be interrupted by flashes of life: clay pots arranged almost like cairns, newly roofed huts, and fishing nets strung up with ropes, drying in the sun.
They stopped by small villages when it was safe. They ate flattened rice softened in water in a cloth bag. Sometimes they would tune into the radio and hear of preparations for a concert for cyclone victims. At night, the men took turns to stand guard against the lurking peril and preying animals in the jungles.
In this way, my uncle and his fellow travellers journeyed to safety across rivers Kirtonkhola, Burishwar, Sela, Pasur and Ichamati. The fishermen had saved them all. Years later, my uncle would tell us some stories of his escape, but not all. He told me he had lost the diary in which he took notes.
Brush With Death
The night the soldiers attacked the university in Dhaka, he had cowered in the shadows as he heard the sounds of death around him. The next morning Dhaka was a barricaded city. The army was everywhere, the roads were blocked, and only the smaller lanes could be used to escape.
At one point, he heard a convoy, gunshots and people running. Only a narrow river, half-dry, covered in parts with overgrown weeds, lay ahead. By its banks was an abandoned potter’s kiln, reed mats drying in the sun. As he rushed towards the river, military vehicles nearby, he picked up a discarded clay pot.
The holes in it allowed him to breathe as he lay under water for what must have been a very long time. The water around him was grey and murky, and he felt like he was deep inside earth or locked in a shell. He heard someone else follow him in. He felt the other man’s presence by the way the water bubbled and flowed around him.
A while later, the silence made him drop his guard. He almost lowered his arms, thought of tossing the pot aside, but his unseen companion had the same idea. When shots rang out, uncle fell back with a jerk. The clay pot shifted and swayed, and muffled plops resounded in the water. He heard the man fall back and knew the water would change colour. He heard shrieks from above as birds rose high into the air. My uncle stayed in the river for a good hour more until the water turned cold and he found himself shivering.
Some days later, he found himself on a bus plying south, seated at the very back. His head lolled drowsily against the steel frame of his seat when soldiers swarmed in. They demanded that the passengers identify themselves. Uncle would not tell us the gory details – of what happened to some of the men who were taken off the bus. But a co-passenger’s poultry providentially intervened. As a soldier neared, the caged birds began squawking unrelentingly as if despairing of the dangers ahead. The soldier farthest in the aisle looked impatient. Right then, a hen made its escape through the thin bars of its cage. It darted between some legs, past some seats to the back. The sinister mingled with the ridiculous. The soldier looked through the front window at the crossing already crowded with buses. The other soldiers were getting off, and so he kicked at the bird aimlessly before leaving.
Journey Across Border
In late November of 1971, Great Uncle and his wife made the journey to Calcutta. He had received no news of his third son and was getting desperate. He and his wife made the same journey, taking a boat and then a train at the border. Clashes had broken out between the Pakistan Army and Mukti Bahini, and shortly after they reached, the Indian government officially declared war. In Calcutta, Great Uncle was reunited with his sons, including the oldest who had returned briefly with his British wife.
Great Uncle remained in Bangladesh for a decade or more. In the early 1980s, he moved in with his third son in Los Angeles, where he died in 1987, aged 77. The family home in Barisal remained as it was for some years. In the early 1990s, it was acquired by the government and now is a part of a college campus. Funnily brave, strangely obdurate, naive, clever: all these words words describe my Great Uncle well. He was one of the many who were unwillingly displaced – but his story is quite his own.