Even as the surrender documents were being signed almost to the month 44 years ago in Dhaka, I was appointed secretary of a committee to organise relief supplies to newly liberated Bangladesh. The assignment enabled me to make several visits there, on the first of which I found myself sharing a breakfast table with Sydney Schanberg, the great New York Times reporter who had been instrumental in informing the world of the horrors inflicted on East Pakistan by Pakistan’s armed forces. He remonstrated that the Indian army was taking far too much of the credit for the victory and denying the kudos due to the Mukti Bahini without which the defeat of the Pakistanis could never have been assured.
Anisul Hoque’s novel corrects the balance. Told entirely from the perspective of a non-political young man drawn into the vortex of the armed struggle, the Indian army gets but a bare mention in it. So intimately is it woven into the fabric of the Bangla insurrection that it is difficult to classify this as a “novel”. It is the story of the mothers, sisters and wives who saw their lives being taken from them even as they suppressed their personal fears of the worst in the larger cause of the motherland. Anisul is perhaps Bangladesh’s most popular writer, this book alone in its Bengali original having gone through 44 editions. It is easy to see why despite the stiltedness of the translation—which at far too many points reads like one with an idiomatic misstep here and an English transliteration—it is actually great literature in the original. The story is told with fluency, almost telegraphically, as the author quickly sketches both the characters and his storyline before smoothly moving on to the next incident. There is a touching authenticity to the dialogues and the characters ring true.
Dominating the book is the young protagonist, Azad’s mother—hence the play on Azad’s name, ‘Freedom’s Mother’. She brings enormous good fortune to her businessman husband who quickly rises along with the rise of East Pakistan into a wealthy industrialist and fixer with wide-ranging contacts and an imposing mansion. In that mansion, his wife is the undisputed mistress, the keys tied to her pallu jangling her authority. But when rumour becomes fact and she finds herself having to share the house with a second wife, she walks out, taking little Azad with her into an unknown but austere future. As her boy grows up—and we the readers with him—her single-minded dedication to him becomes the cause of a dilemma because the boy’s father is willing to pay for his undergraduate education at Karachi university, but which will mean the mother is left behind in Dhaka lonelier than ever.
Till this point, politics has not impinged on the story. But in Karachi, Azad and his Bengali companions discover the reality of the West Pakistanis’ contempt for their eastern countrymen. In a beautifully recounted vignette of young love, he finds solace in a fellow Bengali student, Milli, but when her family discovers that she is befriending the son of a man who has two wives, they shunt her out of Karachi to Lahore. We believe till almost the end of the novel that she has been forcibly married to someone else but there is a tantalising and poignant moment when Azad learns on the eve of embarking on his career as a freedom fighter that she has returned to Dhaka and was perhaps not married in the west wing at all. His short life is ended too soon for him to ever learn the truth or meet her again.
Before that, the Mukti Bahini, led now in the urban jungle of Dhaka by those who have been trained in India, including the till-then-wholly-non-political Azad, get caught up in the swirl of the freedom movement. His home becomes a safehouse. Fully aware of the risks she is running, but pleading silently for her son to be spared, Safia watches in mounting despair as her son is drawn further and further into the insurgency till there is a raid on her house and the denouement becomes inevitable. The story needs no rhetorical embellishing. The sheer horror of what the Bangladeshis went through as they fought their own army to gain a modicum of respect overwhelms the reader as, in the straightforward manner he has of drawing the reader into the heart of the moment, Anisul moves through the torture chambers of the Dhaka cantonment, to the defeat of the Pakistan army and then swiftly through the next 14 years, before Safia’s death in a dreadful chawl convinced that her son still lives and will one day return to her.
This novel came out a while back but it is to be strongly recommended, especially to a younger generation that did not live through those heroic times.