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Review: Caught in history

Updated September 22, 2013

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A t first sight, Sips from a Broken Teacup: Sketches from Life on an Assamese Tea Plantation by Raihana Hasan seems to be a personal memoir. Yet the title — instantly engaging as it is — and the content that follows prove that a book should not always be judged by its name. For this work is more than just about life that relates to the cultivation, harvesting and shipment of the leaf which makes the safely-addictive beverage. Here is a spontaneous blend of social history and political commentary relevant to public record. Along with being an account centred on the life of a single person and a single family, Sips from a Broken Teacup is also a suspenseful narrative about the wrenching-apart of millions within a nation in 1971.

As the Karachi-based wife of Ashhad Hasan, a young tea planter from north India and West Pakistan, Riahana Hasan discovers an entirely new world in 1962 in the remote tea gardens of Sylhet, a district in then East Pakistan bordering Assam. She returns about a decade later as a wiser and deeply saddened yet relieved mother of two boys who had managed, with her spouse, to make a nerve-wracking escape from the emotional turmoil and the physical bloodshed which marked the birth of Bangladesh.

Between those two landmark events of her life, Hasan takes the reader into several realms. To begin with, she teaches us about tea — its origins and appeal, its spread, production and the plantations: “A tea garden was more like a kingdom,” she writes, “with the manager as king. Each kingdom is a distinct entity ... with its own customs, folklore and hierarchy.” Plantations had male labourers, female pluckers and armies of domestic staff. The Hasans initially lived in small, modest bungalows and then, as their career progressed, in spacious mansions, like castles on the estates.

Then there was the diversity of ethnicities, nationalities and faiths — Scots, English, Punjabis, Biharis, Urdu-speakers, Bengalis, even a sole Sindhi speaker, Muslims, Christians, Hindus. Compressed into communities isolated from Dhaka, the contrasting identities were sometimes combustive yet often fraternal and accommodative, especially during social events at clubs and gatherings. As characters spring to life in the book, a complex web of relationships emerges: professional and personal, linguistic and parochial, cultural and functional, some destined to endure and transcend diversities, others to disappoint, some to surprise and delight, others soured by bitterness.

Then came the tremors of the unravelling nation state. Hasan’s encounter with villagers during a road journey to Balisera vividly captures the ominous signs of times to come. Bejewelled and clad in a glittering sari while on her way with her husband to a social gathering, she impulsively decides to visit a wayside haat, a clustering of vendors. Suddenly, they notice a silence. Clad in their poverty, the villagers stare at them, unsmiling. As the couple slowly retreats to their car, the villagers follow, clapping their hands, not in a friendly applause but in resentment. She writes: “I had no words with which to express my dread, an undefined fear of something lurking just beyond the edge of consciousness ... a palpable hostility.”

Yet years later, when rapid flight from Mukti Bahini was the only option but the decision to leave had not yet been taken, Hasan writes of how Bengali labourers on the estate pleaded for their immediate departure: “They stood respectfully at the gate. A woman was crying, wiping her nose with the edge of her sari. Another was touching Ashhad’s feet. A man was wringing his hands … my eyes filled as I watched.”

Hasan seems to have a rare capacity to recall meticulous details. Of words spoken and nuances unspoken, of inanimate objects observed and lively scenes witnessed, of lilting tunes remembered and moving events recaptured. The detail is always evocative without becoming cumbersome.

Sips From A Broken Teacup also contains brief portraits of landscapes and lifestyles, conveying aura and ambience: “Our bungalow lay on a plain, but as we drove into the heart of the plantation, the road began to climb and twist, the ground swelled on both sides, and vista upon vista opened out in front,” Hasan writes. “Gentle slopes rose and fell away, one beyond the other, far into the distance. Under their patchwork of tea bush, jungle and field, hills slid down to meet in the green depths of narrow valleys. Here the terraced hills raised their humps to crowd the road and squeeze the sky into a narrow blue ribbon. There the ground fell steeply to form a vast bowl, filled with the green and gold of sunlit leaf.” With the turn of events in 1971, the book’s second half swiftly turns into a fast-paced, action-packed thriller. With each stage of the escape across borders and barriers, there come new jolts and uncertainties to keep the reader glued to the book.

To point out some errors and omissions is to suggest possible corrections for future editions of the book. Towards the end, reflecting a general, widespread misconception, the total number of Pakistani prisoners-of-war, 90,000, is said to be soldiers. The actual number of soldiers who became POWs did not exceed about 42,000, the other 48,000 plus were civilians. Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, not 1988, which may well be a proof-reading error and news of unfolding events is cited but without attribution of sources. And when Hasan interrupts her stay in Sylhet to visit the US on a Fulbright scholarship for several months, I was left wondering how the experience affected her. Also, after becoming so intensely engaged with her family, we are given little or no information at the end about how this charming and courageous group of people re-built their lives in West Pakistan.

These minor criticisms should not divert the potential reader from reading the book. Each chapter resonates with a special aroma, each sip of the past invests the present with a distinct flavour.

The reviewer is a writer, film-maker and analyst

Sips From A Broken Teacup: Sketches from Life on an Assamese Tea Plantation (Memoirs) By Raihana A. Hasan Ushba Publishing, Karachi ISBN 9789699154188 430pp.