I was in primary school when Bangladesh was born, too young to remember everything.
But some images remain seared into my memory. Like the famous picture of the surrender of December 16, 1971 which showed General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, in charge of the Eastern Command of the Pakistan Army, publicly surrendering to the Indian Army’s Lieutenant Jagjit Singh Aurora. That clip played in every cinema theatre across India. I also have vivid memories of eagerly listening to the savagely witty news updates from Chorompotro (Extreme Letter), a popular underground radio show in Bengali. While Bangladeshi civilians battled Pakistani armed forces, the radio talk show host shared his humorous takes about the discomforts of the Pakistani forces and the victories of Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini (freedom fighters).
Those childhood memories came back in a flash as I read Nadeem Zaman’s In the Time of the Others. Zaman, who was born in Dhaka, and grew up there and in Chicago, uses the format of fiction to give us the multiple sides of the story and the backstory of Bangladesh’s War of Liberation. This is his first novel.
Everyone is familiar with the big story of 1971 – the horrific repression of Bengali citizens in what was then East Pakistan by the military regime in (West) Pakistan, the battle for freedom led by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and the Awami League, the killings of Bengali civilians, rapes of women and the millions of refugees who poured into India through the eastern border, triggering a military confrontation between India and Pakistan. That blood-soaked, gut-wrenching big story which took such a massive human toll had a happy ending. Bangladesh became an independent nation. And it was among independent India’s most triumphant moments.
Zaman tells the small stories that swirl around that big story.
The novel is a compelling fictionalised account of the lived experiences of a whole galaxy of characters from all sides. The more academically-inclined would perhaps read the book as a treatise on identity and culture, the making of a postcolonial nation state from Bengali nationalism to Bangladeshi sovereignty. To me, the book’s power lies in the many truths it seeks to convey about the monumental, historic event of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 through compelling and nuanced stories.
Zaman’s cast of characters are human beings, not cardboard heroes and villains, with their human frailties, caught in the crossfire of conflict, upheaval and violence.
There is no one central figure. But someone through whose lens the story is largely told is Imtiaz Khan, who arrives at his uncle’s house in Dhaka, for what he imagines will be a short visit to sort out an inheritance issue. It’s a personal matter. But within days of his arrival, the military regime of then West Pakistan declares a crackdown on Dhaka. Civilians are killed in cold blood, and young, feisty fighters from the Mukti Bahini take refuge in the home of Khan’s uncle and aunt. Khan is sucked into the whirlpool of a narrative over which he has little control.
On the other side, there is Faizal Shaukat, a young captain in the Pakistan army, a military man of pedigreed stock, who finds himself conflicted on many occasions, which starts affecting his domestic life. His superior Major Pervez Shahbaz is a more predictable character, cast in a classic, villainous mould.
Interesting though peripheral characters in the novel include Helen and Walter, a journalist couple from the United States who get a ringside view of the momentous events; and Sam Truman, a member of the diplomatic corps.
What really resonated with this reviewer are the internal stories of conflict playing alongside the big story of violence and upheaval.
What does a ‘war’ do to a relationship between husband and wife? A telling example is the conversation between the Pakistan Army captain Fazal Shaukat and his wife Umbreen.
The following passage leapt out. “How many people have you killed, Fazal? Have you raped women? Did you watch your soldiers rape them?” The shoe dropped from his hand. “You are a drunkard and a slut.” Shaukat’s trembling had him spent in seconds. He sank onto the bed. Umbreen’s clenched fist next to his head, inches away. She wanted to ask him how many lowered heads he had looked at in the same position, at his feet, begging for mercy, before sending bullets into them.”
Even Helen and Walter get punchy lines. They spar with each other on whether the Mukti Bahini can be compared to the Vietcong. To Walter, the Vietcong is nothing more than “a bunch of Communist thugs. Murderers.” He is horrified at the suggestion that they have anything similar to the Mukti Bahini. “The Vietcong wants the US out of Vietnam; it is seen as an occupying force and they want them out, the same as here,” quips Helen.
The other interesting character is Suleiman Mubarak, a Bihari judge, who empathises with the Bangladeshi cause but is viewed with suspicion owing to his non-Bengali heritage and is killed by Mukti Bahini soldiers the day Dhaka was liberated.
It’s a sharp contrast to the camaraderie between the Indian and Pakistani military officers, even as Niazi signs the surrender document. Niazi had reportedly refused to lay down arms at the feet of the Mukti Bahini. A decorated officer of the Pakistani Army bowing in defeat to a Bengali guerrilla force was not a humiliation Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi was prepared to take to his grave…” the author writes wryly.
The novel is full of these contrasts — between the loud violence and death on the streets and the minds of the characters caught in a maelstrom.
Zaman’s novel deep-dives into the minds of each of his characters, exploring their motivations and anxieties. But it does not shun the raw violence of the events on the ground.
As the author describes in unsentimental detail the Dhaka University killings, the savageries on ordinary civilians, the torture sites, even a brothel where captured women are kept as sex slaves, the effects on the minds of both perpetrators and victims are finely etched.
The storyline is taut; the plot never flags. I finished the book, 300-plus pages long, in one sitting.
The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org...