"Every time Bangladesh faces Pakistan in a cricket match, it’s 1971 all over again," journalist Khademul Islam told an audience at the Hay literary festival in Dhaka last weekend. The topic of discussion was cricket and writing but in Bangladesh all roads lead back to 1971 and the bloody birth of the nation. 1971 is not history here. It is unfinished business.
I have never encountered another country that has such an intensely felt relationship with its own history. I travelled to Cambodia recently where the Killing Fields and the S-21 torture chambers have become more about death tourism than remembrance. More foreigners go there than locals these days. The Killing Fields are run by a for-profit Japanese company. “Some say we have sold the Killing Fields,” a Cambodian tour guide remarked.
In India, I personally am not aware of any memorials to the Partition. I don’t know of any museums devoted to the Independence Movement. Kuldip Nayar told an audience in Dhaka that he thought 1947 was a mistake. He held Partition responsible for the rise in religious fundamentalism across the subcontinent. But Nayar is an old man now and his regret over Partition feels like the autumnal nostalgia of a passing generation. While history is not uncontested in India, the birth of the modern nation of India is but one chapter in a larger history and by and large, a closed chapter.
Kangaroo courts and dessert knives
Bangladesh has no such luxury. The chapter of its birth is its history and it is still playing out. Forty years after 1971, the war crimes tribunal is finally trying some of the collaborators accused of murder, rape, genocide and arson. One is a former head of Jamaat-e-Islami. His incensed supporters declared a hartal in the city of Khulna last week. The trials are not without controversy. Its supporters say finally there is hope for some closure, and setting the record straight instead of manipulating textbooks depending on which party is in power. Others have criticised them because Pakistani army officers are not in the dock even though they claim to be “international” tribunals. Groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have expressed concern about process and the rules of evidence.
Writer K Anis Ahmed admitted that there have been some process problems. "But these are not kangaroo courts by any means," he said emphatically. The defense is offering its own evidence and calling up its own witnesses. As for the international criticism, Ahmed shrugged. "In this context Bangladeshis are not very interested in criticism from America or American based organisations because not only was America not by our side when we were going through this horrific history, but America effectively gave support to those who were doing the killing."
Ahmed has just brought out his first anthology of short stories. The title story is Good Night Mr. Kissinger. In it, a Bangladeshi waiter at a posh restaurant in New York finds himself serving Henry Kissinger and fantasises about taking a dessert knife to him to make him pay for his sins of 1971.
Ahmed points out that only two of his nine stories actually deal with 1971. But even when literature about Bangladesh is not about its history, it cannot escape it.
Bittersweet mishti doi
“The war of independence crept into the story of this novel,” said Philip Hensher, the British writer about his latest book Scenes from early life, a child’s eye view of Dhaka. It’s based on the recollections of Hensher’s Bangladeshi partner who was born in 1970. Hensher remembered him telling him about aunts who would constantly feed him dollops of mishti doi (sweet yoghurt). "They would do it so that he would not cry and draw attention of the Pakistani soldiers to a house with young women in it," he said.
In Bangladesh, nothing feels unspared by its history, not mishti doi or cricket. Khademul Islam remembered going to cricket matches soon after liberation where the teams battled it out while the smoke from burning tanks rose into the horizon. The hotel I stayed in looks like any other fancy hotel with welcome drinks and a breakfast buffet. But this was where Bhutto stayed while negotiating with Sheikh Mujib. Foreign journalists were forced out of the country from these rooms and one evaded the army and hid on its premises to report on the war.