Now and then: My chronicles in Bangladesh

I have recently arrived back from Bangladesh. Tired, exhausted, but nourished. It was the first time in seven years I had been back to the Matribhumi.

>>Nabhan W Uddinbdnews24.com
Published : 16 Dec 2016, 08:39 AM
Updated : 16 Dec 2016, 11:49 AM

The decision to go back was impromptu, sudden, and very much ad hoc. We tend to be like that as a family when it comes to holidays and travelling.

I kind of cheekily decided to take some Instagram photos and hashtag them all while I was there. And to be honest the desire to connect with my background stemmed partly from watching British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain’s superb BBC documentary The Chronicles of Nadiya.

The first episode especially connected with my immigrant experience of navigating life.

Growing up in London, there is something that pulls at your spirit, knowing that your browned complexion will always stamp your origins as ‘elsewhere’. But this sort of introspection tends to wax and wane.

For no reason in particular … just depends on the mood. Yet when in Bangladesh, there is a flicker within your thoughts that you are not quite from this part of the world either. That tense feeling of being from one place, but being from another. Londoner or Bangladeshi. British or Bengali.

What struck me most this time was the beauty of Sylhet. When I was younger, we had visited the mountainous regions toward the Bangladesh-India border in the north east of the country.

Yet it was both the jagged beauty and the softness of the green fields which struck me this time. It was the plush greenery, the rice fields staggered with water buffaloes or the plenitude of water. I recognise there is a tendency to romanticise communion with nature. For instance, we fortunately arrived in the aftermath of the monsoon season, when the violence of the rain had already abated for the most part.

The trip itself was a two-week whirlwind, in which four days were completely lost to jetlag. Arriving at our home in Moulvibazar, I felt a sense of calm. I had last visited this home in the summer of 2009. Moulvibazar is a maximum one and half hour drive from Sylhet town, a straight drive.

I loved the natural backdrop during that drive. During another time driving to Srimangal, I rolled the window down (I didn’t really roll the window down, I pressed on the automatic button), and caught a glimpse of a cricket match taking place on a plain cleared amongst the shobuj fields. A bunch of kids played under the midafternoon sun, against the backdrop of rubber trees and mountain range that kissed the clouds.

I wanted their life. In fact it was during my trips to Bangladesh as a youth that I learned to play cricket with my uncle in our gramer barhi in Fatehpur.

But I found myself wondering whether I was becoming one of those folks who perpetrate ‘Orientalism’ – exotifying without understanding, going for the “aww shucks” approach and smiling at others’ simple life from a distance, without knowing what the everyday struggle is. I don’t know…

We drove to Sylhet town, where my khala lives. As we crossed the Surma River into the town boundary, what struck me as ajob was a 7-feet billboard of Kareena Kapoor promoting some random soap company. 

Anyway, bit weird, but let’s keep it moving. Sylhet city is cosmopolitan, buzzing, and nowhere near as offensively male as the mini-bazaars you drive past on the way. My mom, my sister and I spent a year in Nayasarak in Sylhet back in 1999 and 2000 - going to school, living away from my father, the full works. But even though I was here just a few years back, the scale of development was kind of shocking. There were huge buildings everywhere and infrastructure in terms of decent (well, decent enough) roads.

One definite mental approach I had during my short stay was to emotionally understand the connection between land and people. But to understand it, I had to allow myself to understand the trauma which took place on the land over forty years ago…

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Fatehpur village in Shahabondor, where my grandparents had lived, was originally a Hindu majority village with generations who had possibly lived in this region for thousands of years. 

The village is named Fatehpur after Fateh Khan, a Muslim settler and progenitor of our family tribe, who had arrived from the West (possibly Afghanistan) and settled in Moulvibazar approximately 200 years ago. 

I have always tried to quiz my dad on his childhood, about what he remembers living in this Hindu village, surrounded by colours and customs which unfortunately are not found in conservative Bangladeshi Muslim households here in the UK. 
He told me he remembers the smoke of cremation ceremonies rising above the trees; going to a Hindu wedding ceremony to see the bride and groom do 
Saath pak
, which is taking seven laps around a fire. 
But when I ask him about what he remembers from the War of Independence, he becomes slightly glassy-eyed, and the ever so-slight memories of trauma cross over his brows…

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The War of Independence was a vicious war between Bangladesh and Pakistan, when Bangladesh claimed its independence after an almost year-long genocide committed by the Pakistan forces, where an estimated three million people were slaughtered by the regime and its supporters.

When I was scrolling through the internet doing my ‘googles’, I found a poster from the War of Independence which read as follows in Bangla:

 Banglar Hindu,

 Banglar Christian,

 Banglar Bouddho,

 Banglar Musolman,

Amra Shobai Bangali.

This poster was powerful for a couple of reasons: it challenged sectarianism which had eviscerated South Asia and announced an ethnic unity which was being challenged and tortured by the Pakistan regime.

While Bengali Muslims also faced death and torture – and there is literature available on how the Pakistan regime assassinated Bengali intellectuals of the nationalist movement, I tried to understand what had happened in the far flung regions of the bhatti desh, where coverage of atrocities might not have made it to mainstream knowledge.

When my dad was about seven years old, he remembers anticipating an attack on his village. My dadu took all her kids, and fled to her sibling’s village. Panicked by what might happen, she remained in hiding at the rural gram, away from the savagery.

Hindus were killed at will. Hindus would be asked their name by a Pakistani soldier or officer. Some would spell out a Muslim-sounding name, hoping to be let off. Some could only spell out their own name and be taken to the execution patch in their own village. Yet even then, a soldier would order them to raise their 
lungi
, to examine whether they were circumcised or not.
As this is not part of the traditional Hindu male custom, this method made choosing victims ‘easy’. Hindu women were violated indiscriminately. My dad remembers walking back from school, and a 
Razakar
, or a local collaborator for Pakistan, had thrown a local Hindu woman onto the ground, demanding to know where her husband, a guerilla fighter, was hiding the weapons. She refused, and instead was beaten and abused outside on the road, in the afternoon sun. It is perhaps inappropriate for me as a man to go into detail about the types of violations that women faced. Young girls were taken, kidnapped, and forced into holdings, others violated right in front of their families… their sense of self physically and emotionally violated, their life changed as a result of continual trauma.
There are women who had children as result of rape. Some were cast out by their families because of the shame, and only but a handful were able to carry on and raise their children with the support of their families…

School life during the war was also about visual terror. At the local government school that my dad attended, the Pakistani army would drive a jeep around the football field on mornings, the back of the truck filled with dead bodies. Some of them were teachers, some freedom fighters and many were Hindus.

And then the megaphone which was clasped onto the top of the jeep would blare out inane messages, to warn and traumatise schoolchildren of the consequences.

What is the purpose of recounting these collective memories of loss and trauma? It is about understanding and remembering those who cultivated the greenery, commemorating the generations who had lived in these plush green lands.

During the War of Independence, Hindu families in Sylhet fled the region to seek refuge in the bordering Indian states of Assam and Meghalaya. In the immediate aftermath of independence, there is a further sordid tale of loss, when looters and young men claimed property and land for themselves in Sylhet town, possessions for which the
haqq 
remained with the others. 
I am part of a generation that escaped the physical trauma and can visit these lands for leisure. I am a child of those who escaped genocide despite the unfurled terror of 1971. I am probably bastardising a Mandela quote here, but spiritual growth can be reflected in the largest of trees. The tree that grows the tallest has the deepest roots, and understanding the depth of our roots will hopefully allow us to grow the tallest. Joy Bangla.
Nabhan W Uddin completed his Bachelor of Arts in English & American Literature from Warwick University.
Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher