A Boy and a War
S R Shuja
My dad was posted in a government hospital in a town named Navaron in southern Bangladesh, then East Pakistan. He had landed this job after graduating from medical school the year before. This was a small, quiet town located near Jessore, a major city. I was five. My memory isn’t very vivid about that town. My grandparent’s house from father’s side was in a village near the suburb called Kaligonj located in the district of Satkhira. It was only about 50 miles away from Navaron, connected by regular bus service.
Grandpa (dadu) visited us frequently bringing along grandma (dadi) and great grandma (jhima), who was his step mother and much younger than him. His dad – a rich landowner – in his old age convinced a poor family to give away their teenage daughter in marriage to take care of him. His first wife had died long ago. Little after the marriage he passed away but Jhima had stayed as a widow since. She had no children. We, her great grand children, were the jewel of her eyes. She had a great sense of humour and indulged Rushi – my kid sister – and me to no limits. In return each of us loved her to death.
Grandma (dadi) was a pretty woman who happened to be very quiet. Her display of love and affection was not very apparent but we felt it deep inside our heart. Whenever the trio visited us in Navaron we became ecstatic. Rushi was only two and had an exceptional tendency to nag just about everything, which often turned into incessant crying. At times this became intolerable. You coo at her she goes berserk, you cuddle with her she still goes berserk. My parents gave me grief believing me to be the inevitable source of all her agony. They would give a deaf ear on what I had to say. Luckily, when we had visitors she was usually better. With her tears subsided to some extent, the amount of scolding heading my way proportionately decreased.
Dad was working for East Pakistan health services. He was the assistant surgeon of the main hospital. Fortunately he received government housing. This was a blessing as his salary was barely enough to maintain a descent life. There was never any savings. Mom never really liked dad’s job. The law and order situation in the region was deteriorating and the rate of murder was relatively high. One of dad’s responsibilities was to issue death certificates which he ended up doing too often for comfort. Mom had been a little bit on the timid side and worried about practically everything under the sun. Even a little thing would cause a severe nervous breakdown in her.
Our house was near the hospital. Sometimes corpse bearers would pass by our house carrying the hastily covered dead bodies. If mom happened to be looking out at that moment and had a glimpse of the corpse she wouldn’t be able to sleep that night. Her sleepless nights meant constant moaning and sobbing. Rushi and I used to share the same bed with our parents. On the nights when mom cried Rushi made it a routine to join mom with her signature nasal, utterly annoying crying. There was very little I could do but to listen to their wailing contest while keeping awake for most part of the night. Mom usually cried relatively quietly but not Rushi. She was loud as a horn and was incessant. Talk about nuisance! Dad was having second thoughts about his job as well. The money was nothing to brag about; in addition he had to deal with dead bodies all the time. He started to look around for other works.
In the mean time a famous circus came to Navaron. I was ready to bolt to the circus arena. I had heard so much about it! There were tigers, lions, bears, elephants! How could anybody let go such an unbelievable opportunity? I begged my dad to take me. I even bribed Rushi with some lozenges and urged her to do the same. Unfortunately she was just as scared of circus animals as mom was. The mention of tigers and bears instantly intimidated her. After constant pledging dad finally agreed to take us to the circus. We got a ride in his government vehicle.
This was my first time in a circus. The animals were simply out of the world. Dad had hard time managing my enthusiasm. Rushi on the other hand got really scared with all the crowd and noise. She held on to mom tightly. One of the main attractions of the circus was a gigantic elephant. As we approached the elephant mom got very scared. This wasn’t her first time seeing an elephant close up but it’d been a while and she seemed to have forgotten how big they actually could be. Rushi screamed in fear. Mom quickly stepped back with Rushi in her lap. I was not scared. Why would anybody fear such a gentle animal? They were also available to ride for a fee. With dad’s approval I was soon placed on the back of the elephant. The animal walked in a small circle before I was brought down to the earth. I walked to mom and Rushi with a victorious smile. Mom looked nervous and pale. “How in the whole world did you ride on that animal?” She gasped.
She remained shaky even after we reached home later in the evening. She had nightmares and screamed us awake. Dad tried to be patient. How could anybody freak out just by watching an elephant?
Next morning something even worse happened. Couple of murders were committed in a distant village the night before. The dead bodies were carried to the hospital in the morning. Talk about stroke of luck – they went past right before the very eyes of my mother! She passed out immediately. Fortunately I was nearby. I ran to get the lady from our neighbouring house. She sprinkled water on mom’s face and fanned her with a hand-held fan.
That night dad declared that he would actively look for other work. He had a desire to join the army for a while. It was considered to be a stable job with good salary and additional facilities. After discussing with mom he decided to give it a try. Mom was always terrified about wars. However, there was no reason to believe that a war was imminent. Pakistan was under the martial law rule of Yahya Khan. There were occasional civilian disturbances but no sign of any large scale military involvement. On the other hand dad was a physician. Even if there was a war he wouldn’t be sent directly on harm’s way.
Dad joined army in August, 1970 as a Lieutenant Doctor. He was posted in Comilla cantonment, East Pakistan. After one year of service with favourable reference from his senior officer he would be promoted to a Captain. Dad was very pleased. Not only he would be making more money but also would be spared from dealing with dead bodies on regular basis. This would supposedly make mom much more comfortable as well. Before reporting to his job in Comilla he left us with his parents in the village. We were to join him later once he made proper arrangement for housing. There was no housing available inside the cantonment. We didn’t have to wait too long. He found a house nearby Cantonment area. Housing inside the cantonment would have been free of cost. For this one he would have to pay half the rent. With no other choice he took it and brought us there.
Comilla cantonment had a mixed population of people from both East and West Pakistan. There were several Pathans and Panjabis in dad’s group. Dad’s C.O. (Commanding Officer) Lieutenant Colonel Romijuddin was from East Pakistan. He was a nice person. Dad’s promotion would depend on his recommendation. The officers from West Pakistan were generally nice. Regardless, in many occasion there were disagreements between the two, primarily due to ongoing political tension between the two parts of Pakistan – East and West. Briefly, at the end of the year 1970 Yahya Khan called for an election. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a reputed politician from East Pakistan and the head of Awami League, won the election clearly by majority of votes from constituencies located in East Pakistan. On the other hand Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of Pakistan People’s Party, won large number of seats from West Pakistani constituencies. Bhutto refused to accept an Awami League government and demanded Sheikh Mujib formed a coalition government with PPP. However, Sheikh Mujib did not agree to such undemocratic demand and as a result Yahya Khan postponed the inaugural session of the National assembly. After that the political situation started to heat up quickly. Army was no exception. More and more incidents, though minor, were observed among both soldiers and officers.
Amid this there was a talk to send dad and several other doctors to West Pakistan for training. Mom was not happy. If dad went away for training then she would have no other choice but to take her two kids and either go back to our village home to live with our grandparents or go to Khulna to stay with her older sister and her husband. Dad studied medicine after he and mom got married at an early age. Mom had to stay away from him for a while. Even after completing his degree they didn’t have much opportunity to live together. The thought of living without him again put a serious strain on her. Dad tried his best to assure her that he would be taking us to West Pakistan as soon as possible. He could have taken us with him but he neither knew the country nor had any acquaintances there. He didn’t feel comfortable taking the whole family with him in an unfamiliar place. However, in Karachi we had some family friend but he didn’t have an opportunity to contact them. Mom went into her so familiar breakdown feat. I wasn’t totally sure what she was so sad about. No matter where we went, grandparent’s house or Aunt’s house, it was all about running around, playing with cousins and friends, lots of freedom. Why was she so teary-eyed?
Soon we learned that the training schedule had changed. Nobody was being sent for training at that time. Was mom happy! I was slightly disappointed. Whatever! Life inside the cantonment wasn’t too boring either. I made a few friends and we played all over the area. I was spared from listening to Rushi’s agonizing nagging at least for some time. A few of my friends were Urdu speaking. I picked up a few Urdu words from them. Things were sort of good. The only trouble came from mom. She started to push me to study harder and harder. Did I mention she had a short temper? Most part of my evenings was spent being yelled at. It was difficult to see how somebody who got mad so easily could cry like little girls when the situation demanded.
Couple of months later dad’s C.O. changed. Lieutenant Colonel Jahangir from East Pakistan became the new C.O. We heard good things about him. As time went by the differences inside the army grew steadily. It was not very apparent at first but couple of incidents over the next few months underlined it.
The first incident happened when a West Pakistani general came for a short visit. A big party was thrown in his honour where the general and his companions drank profusely. Later all officers were asked to pay an equal portion of the fat bill. Many officers who abstained from drinking refused to pay. They didn’t mind sharing the price of the food but not the liquor. Dad was one of them. He was determined not to pay the Rupee 30 asked by the authorities. Some of his colleagues from East Pakistan Doctors Mohsin, Faruk, Jahangir and a few Pathans from the West heavily objected too. Most Pathans came from northern frontier of Pakistan and were much more sympathetic to East Pakistanis than the Panjabis were. Many times it was the Pathans who often sided with the East Pakistanis. After plenty of arguments and finally with the help of the high ranked officials a solution was reached. Dad and his friends wouldn’t have to pay for the liquor. But the event imprinted a permanent concern in the minds of many.
The second incident took place during one of the officer’s open discussion meetings. Some officers from both ends were outspoken about the current political situation. There was a fear that the existing situation could deteriorate any time. Officers from East Pakistan were clearly unhappy with the way Yahya Khan gave in to Bhutto and did not allow Mujib to form government. On the other hand officers from West Pakistan felt just the opposite. They didn’t want Awami League to lead the country, regardless of the election result. They felt the politicians from West Pakistan should form the government. In the meeting dad expressed his discontent using chosen words making sure the overall tone didn’t offend anybody. However, not everybody was able to keep their composure. Lieutenant Makbul from Education core became so agitated that he even went as far as to say that the state of East Pakistan had no choice but to separate. The patience had worn out and it was time for the East to throw back all the crap that West had thrown at it since the birth of Pakistan in 1947. After this the meeting turned into a screaming match between the East and West. Eventually Lieutenant Makbul was escorted out of the meeting to bring the situation under control. Later Bengali officers cordially congratulated him for speaking the inevitable, appropriate or not. The situation remained tense in the coming days.
The Bhola cyclone, a devastating tropical cyclone, struck East Pakistan and India’s West Bengal on November 12, 1970. It was the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded with up to half a million people losing their lives primarily as a result of the storm surge that flooded much of the low-lying areas of the Ganges Delta. The cyclone practically destroyed the coastal areas of Noakhali. Villages were flattened, crops destroyed, lives lost.
Dad and his team of doctors went there to treat the sick and distressed. The devastation was so bad that they had to struggle to keep their sanity. There were bloated, rotting dead bodies floating all over the place. The survivors lived in inhuman conditions with no food or drinking water. The storm and subsequent flood had ripped open the wooden silos where the farmers traditionally stored their grains. Yesterday’s rich was today’s homeless. They had nothing to quench thirst, nothing to stop hunger. Dad and his team tried their best to treat the survivors. However, the supplies for food and water dripped in slowly and inadequately.
Fortunately a Hindu rich farmer with the title Sadhu (saint) opened a food kitchen in his yard. Magically his house was unharmed and he suffered very little grain loss. It was a general belief that the densely grown tall coconut trees that surrounded his house worked as a natural barrier. It must have had absorbed the thrust of the storm surge and the wind. A good and generous man Sadhu fed the hungry in his yard for two long weeks and provided shelter to the homeless. He knew that the rich farmers who had become homeless would never let go their pride to come to his food kitchen. He sent food and water to those families. Dad was impressed at his generosity. He wasn’t the only farmer saved from the wrath of the calamity but none came forward with such kindness.
During one of his meeting with Sadhu when dad inquired he solemnly answered, “God saved me from this disaster. The grains that could have been destroyed by the water I am sharing that with my neighbours. This is my duty. If we can’t help when others really need us then why born as a human? “
Dad never forgot about Sadhu.
Dad got selected to go for the training, once again. This time there was no talk of postponement. Mom was tense. I had to cop up with incremental berating for practically everything. Rushi seemed to nag with double intensity. Our home suddenly turned into a morbid place. I wondered what would happen when dad really left. No date for departure was fixed yet but January or February looked bright. Our friends and families were concerned. The political situation had been steadily getting worse. Going to the West at a time like that didn’t seem wise. The country was becoming restless. Awami league was still not permitted to form the government.
The rebellious student body of East Pakistan was getting impatient by the day. In 1952 it was primarily the students who had initiated the Bengali Language Movement advocating the recognition of the Bengali language as an official language of Pakistan. On 21st February when police fired and killed some of the protesters a civil unrest started led by the Awami Muslim League, later renamed as only Awami league. After years of conflict the central government granted official status to Bengali language. The memory of that glorious victory was still bright into their minds. It was only a matter of time before they burst into another uprising against the West Pakistani rulers. Demand for separation hadn’t been raised yet but clearly it crossed many minds. The sign of a brewing problem was evident. However, dad wasn’t ready to refuse to go for training, not unless something drastic had happened. The situation in the Army was still relatively normal. Two of his friends Drs. Mohshin and Jahangir had completed their training earlier. They were both posted in Comilla.
Finally his training date was fixed in February. If we went with him government would have paid all our expenses. The same would be true if we joined him within six months. Dad did not want to take us all into an uncertain situation. We had to stay back. There was another reason which I learned a few months later. Our plan was to stay with my paternal grandparents (dadu – dadi) for a little while and then move with mom’s older sister (khala) and her family in Khulna. Dad would try his best to arrange for our trip within six months which would definitely save us a lot of money.
In January dad received a sermon from Jessore Court of law regarding a death certificate that he issued when he was working in Navaron. He was a witness for the defendants. Such sermons were normal but until then he never had to physically show up in court. This time he had no choice. Dadu’s house was only a few hours away from Jessore. He planned to take us all with him and drop us in dadu’s house in the village. Once the court matter was resolved he would return to Comilla and fly to West Pakistan where his training would take place.
I was very excited. The memory of all the wonderful things in my grandparent’s house flashed before my eyes – the vast fruit garden with dozens of varieties of mangos, several varieties of berries, jackfruits, coconuts, leeches etc.; the fields of sugar canes; the ponds; the cattle grazing in the fields; the magical tune from the shepherd boy’s flute – all together a complete recipe for adventure. Most part of my early childhood was spent there. I rolled and crawled on the clay courtyard, toddled in the neighbourhood, grew up in the lap of the loving but dirt poor village women. Those memories got imprinted so deeply in my mind that the possibility of returning there filled me with joy and anticipation. I could barely wait.