When December is gone

Afsan Chowdhury
Thursday, December 21st, 2017


 

Our friends died in 1971 and we remember most of them but not all of them anymore. We are aging and our time is growing older even more quickly. In that race for the end, the names of those who did or never returned home after 1971 will be gone as well. Winters are unforgiving as graves yield so little information and even before the next summer rolls in, the grass hides the past.

 

Such names have become like points of light in the dark that once showed the way but with dawn the lights are gone. That was 47 years ago and not many have bothered to ask after the war was over about who was it that went missing. Now after so many years the names are mostly forgotten and those remembered will soon be forgotten. It will become a war without memories.

 

Our history gathering is at one level all about names but then only a few names and then there is nothing, no names. It’s such a strange war and an even stranger history where forgetting is almost as obligatory as remembering.

 

The mother from the river

 

I was on a completely different assignment when a woman hearing that I worked on the history of 1971 began to talk to me about that time. I know from experience that many talk to me only to unburden themselves and so I wait. I waited till the time was right for her and then she told me that her child was not her own but one she picked up from the banks of a river. “He is tall and fair so he must be a Punjabi child. A launch was escaping from Khulna with Pakistani families and was ambushed and many were killed. It’s a mother’s child and so I have taken him and I have raised him as my own.

 

“Don’t people know? Or say something?“

“They know but no one cares. No one cares about you if you are poor.”

 

The war made the child an orphan and the same war gave him a mother.  It took something away and gave something in return. She told her story and disappeared never mentioning any of the names. I never asked either.

 

And what would you call them?

 

The havildar who escaped from jail in Pakistan and came to join the war in distant Barisal was awakened one morning and told that thousands had corralled the local thana. A group of pro-Pakistani police officers had taken shelter there along with many razakars. They had gone on a massive looting party but got in trouble and had been chased by villagers. They had run back and had taken refuge in the thana where the SI was in charge. The police and razakars had rifles and with that were firing back. Sandbags had provided security to them. Apparently, Pakistani ‘gun boats’ were expected soon as the thana had wireless.

 

A trained soldier, the Havildar used his rifle bullets to poke holes in the sandbags. A young FF recently returned died from a shot from the thana while standing behind a flimsy wooden door but the veteran went on firing.

 

“By 12 O’clock I was very hungry so I asked for some food. A young boy immediately got up and raced away to his home to get some food. He ran through the nearby paddy field but a shot cut him down and he died instantly. It was terrible. I forgot everything till all the bags were gone and then the few thousand strong crowd attacked the thana and killed everyone. But the boy was dead, the young FF died too. I don’t even remember the names.”

 

The man who told me this passed away last year and the names have all entered the list of the unknowns

 

The older woman’s memory of forgetting

 

She came to see me in 2003 hearing our research project on 1971 history. An upper middle class educated lady in her late 50s she was a grandmother. She had been violated by the Pak army and had never told anyone before but wanted to share now in case she died. “My family doesn’t know and they will suffer if they did. But I don’t want to keep it a secret so I am telling you. Tell my story without my name.”

 

A day later the lady’s daughter and granddaughter came to see me. They said, “nani came here yesterday to tell you er story. She doesn’t know we know f er 1971 experience. Please don’t tell her we know. She will be so hurt.”

 

Perhaps another nail in the box of forgotten memories.

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