The Telegraph
Sunday , December 18 , 2011
Since 1st March, 1999
CIMA Gallary
- There was an innocence in the celebrations forty years ago

The memory is of the year I went from age eleven to age twelve, from a full forty years ago, so this is not about being a reliable witness to that time. For the first decade of my life, everything outside Calcutta was oriented westwards, to Bombay and to Ahmedabad, my parents’ home town, and to the train journeys that would take us there twice a year. East of Calcutta lay a chunk of dark outer space called East Pakistan and beyond that the far-off galaxy of the Northeast. I had only recently discovered cricket and, through that, finally the reason why people read newspapers. In the February and March of 1971, the events in Kingston and Bridgetown were far more vivid to me than stuff going on in Comilla or Barisal. What mattered to me was we suddenly had a fat battleship of a batsman in one Dilip Sardesai and a brand new, deadly missile cruiser in this youngster, Sunil Gavaskar. Grown-ups starting to chatter agitatedly about some upheaval in local politics (that too in Pakistan) could not compete with the elation of India grabbing one Test and holding off the mighty West Indies in another four to actually win a series abroad. This unbelievable feat was topped in August when we won at the Oval in London, finally winning an away series against dreaded England. Living in the thicket of cricket books by Sobers, Colin Cowdrey, Richie Benaud and Wally Grout, almost all of them dismissive of Indian cricket, it felt to me as if we had finally become a nation.

I’ve seen the footage of the massed Dhaka rallies many times, but I seem to remember those images from later; at that time, the only grainy Films Division footage that mattered was of Gavaskar, Eknath Solkar and Abid Ali. Between March and August, things around Calcutta went oddly dark, and it wasn’t just the power-cuts or the nightly sounds of gunfire and bombs coming from Jadavpur, where Naxals fought the police. Suddenly, some new words and names became daily visitors: ‘Dacca’, ‘Chittagong’,‘Jessore’ ‘Khulna’, ‘refugees’, ‘genocide’, ‘holocaust’, ‘Yahya’, ‘Niazi’ and ‘Mujib’ (usually attached to ‘probably killed’). Across these months, my parents’ Bengali friends lost their smiles and the ability to talk of anything except what was happening ‘odikey’. Visiting Bombay and Ahmedabad was like visiting a different country, one that was completely unconcerned that the world was coming to an end in Bengal. My parents had friends living near Park Circus, a couple they called ‘Ayub’ and ‘Gauri’ and we began visiting them often. Mr and Mrs Ayub were quiet intellectuals. They had deep connections with Opaar Bangla and their channels of information always seemed to be ahead of the newspapers. Compared to other friends they were both un-dramatic, but even a kid like me could see the deepening sorrow on their faces as they told my parents about increasing reports of mass murder and mass rape.

The English-language press was covering the news alright, but I heard constant discussion about how so many people in India were still unaware of the scale of the tragedy. My father wrote about what was happening in his columns and other pieces for the Gujarati newspapers, but he also enjoined journalists to travel across the country and took them to the refugee camps that had formed outside Calcutta to hold the millions who had escaped the killings. I wanted to go along but I was told these weren’t picnics. Also there were epidemics spreading in the camps to which no middle-class parents would risk exposing their child. I never went on those trips but I was there when people came back, horror writ over their across-India faces, I listened to the talk and understood what I could: and what I got was that things were going from bad to worse, both inside East Pakistan as well as in the camps as they suffered through the monsoon. I remember meetings, painting exhibitions to raise money for the camps, and Amar Shonar Bangla repeatedly sung, often through tears.

Around September or October, new names entered the grown-up conversations, names that I’d only heard till then in connection with Vietnam: ‘Nixon’ and ‘Kissinger’, then, somewhere along the line, repeated mentions of ‘the CIA’, and then, a few weeks later, ‘Seventh Fleet’ usually connected to the ‘Bay of Bengal’. I have a memory of heated arguments about what Indira Gandhi thought she was doing, sitting deaf and blind in Delhi, and some people, somehow knowledgeable about the inner workings of power, saying things like ‘Manekshaw is not ready yet’ and how we couldn’t take a chance with this damned Seventh Fleet. Whatever the reasons we can now put together, Manekshaw doing his logistical sums and waiting for the delta mud to dry out post-monsoon, Indira waiting for the Soviets to counter-threaten with a battle squadron led by some cruiser with a multi-syllabic name, some small but important gears shifting in that building on East 44th Street in New York, we waited ignorantly and with growing impatience for the inevitable start of the war. Kids like me were the only ones stupidly, rudely optimistic, while everyone sensible wondered if open combat would bring down an even larger disaster on our heads.

As wars go, this one eventually went quite well. The winter weather was lovely, we had moral right on our side, our army and the Mukti Bahini seemed to fight well, the plans seemed never to backfire, the western front held fast, Brezhnev roared lionously and Nixssinger’s Seventh Fleet spun its wheels in the ocean. Before we kids had begun to enjoy it properly, it was over. The photographs showed a bunch of happy, paunchy middle-aged desi men in uniform surrounding the Sardarji general and the middle-aged Pakistani desi in the beret who looked truly miserable as he signed a paper. A new word attached itself to ‘Niazi, the Butcher of Dacca’ — ‘surrender’.

Now car trips east really became picnics, with people driving across the evaporated border to collect shrapnel and bits of tanks (other kids went but I never did: for my parents it was still ‘not a picnic’). People celebrated the great leader Indira, the great general Sam, the brave and un-killed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib, Indo-Soviet friendship, everything. By 1972 I’d collected the first batch of stamps put out by the new nation, Bangladesh, printed in America and far better looking than boring old Indian stamps. The Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden was turned into a box-set album and someone duly brought back the shiny vinyl treasure from America. For the next couple of years George Harrison singing “Bangladesh…!” became part of the daily soundtrack for many rock heads even as Amar Shonar Bangla got translated into a military march.

We had no idea of the last act of the epic mass slaughter. Even as the Indians approached Dhaka, the Pakistan army and the collaborators of Al-Badr had specifically picked up intellectuals, journalists, writers, film-makers, basically the best of the cultural class who supported independence and killed them, ripping out a generation of potential teachers and leaders in one night. We had no idea that these razakars of Al-Shams and Al-Badr would slime out, some of them reportedly flying out in the last Pakistani flights to leave. We had no way of knowing they would re-appear almost 20 years later as community leaders in England asking for the head of the blasphemous Salman Rushdie, and then plugging into the jihadi networks that have used their base in the United Kingdom to spread terror around the world. Nor did we have any way of imagining that one day these murderers would actually be back in power as part of a ruling coalition. We had no premonition that Mujib would be dead in four years, gunned down at home with his entire family. We knew, even as kids, that things would be difficult for the new nation, but no one had any idea exactly how difficult. We had no projection, whether kids or political pundits, of the huge stresses and strains that would fray relations between Bangladesh and India. Despite the grotesqueness of what had just been inflicted on Shonar Bangla, that December forty years ago now seems like an innocent time when simple celebrations were still possible.

This column is dedicated to the memory of my friend Tareque Masud, film-maker and a passionate fighter for freedom of expression and secularism, and an equally passionate chronicler of Bangladesh’s formative history. Tareque was tragically killed earlier this year in a highway accident near Dhaka, a victim of the traffic madness that joins both Banglas.