Refugee is a memorial to those who died in the struggle that resulted in the break-up of Pakistan. It is a tribute to those who suffered and survived and an inspiration for everyone. It is a story about war and history, but above all, it is a story about people — a human story.

The book is subtitled Unsettled as I Roam: My Endless Search for a Home because it is an account of author Azmat Ashraf’s life, punctuated by a total of six migrations. He begins with the last, when he is on his way to Canada with his wife and three daughters and, although he says, “Unlike in the past, this migration of 2002 is planned, and I am in control of events”, he is still unsure: “Human nature doesn’t change, and in the post-9/11 world, people from my part of the world may have to face new and unknown challenges even in Canada.”

He wonders how many times his family will have to migrate before they settle down in one place, but hopes that “Perhaps my final resting place will be the one that my children begin to call home; perhaps it will be Canada.”

The first chapter continues to move between past and present, linking the two not only through cause and effect, but a sense of history constantly repeating itself with each migration: “Different actors, different country, different time, but the same script.” On the flight to Canada, he asks himself why he is running away again at the age of 50, and his answer is, “I am afraid ... of losing everything, including our lives, in a society threatening to disintegrate.”

That’s Pakistan he is talking about. Every Pakistani who was an adult in the decade of the 1990s will testify to the accuracy of his overview of the situation then, and empathise with the agonising decision to leave a successful career and luxurious life in pursuit of greater security and stability. Many are going through exactly the same agonising process even now.

Despite documenting a personal perspective on tragic events, a book manages to be not only informative and enlightening, but uplifting

The rest of the book is mainly chronological, beginning with a brief account of Ashraf’s parents’ background and marriage in Bihar in pre-Partition India, their migration to East Pakistan in 1953 when the author was a year old, and subsequent migrations of what remained of his family after 1971 to Karachi, London, Saudi Arabia, back to Karachi and finally to Canada.

What makes this book so engaging is the way the characters and scenes are brought to life through small, but vivid details. Almost every family member, friend, relative or teacher who plays a part in this narrative is immortalised through well-executed descriptions of physical features, quirks of speech or personality, and anecdotes.

Where Ashraf lacks first-hand experience of these, he allows his imagination to take over, aided by the memories of others who were there. Only a year old himself on that first train journey to East Pakistan, he imagines what his elder brother, Iqbal, would have felt as he wiped the coal dust from the locomotive from his eyes, or, terrified by the shrill train whistle, grabbed a corner of his mother’s sari for comfort.

In Karachi himself during the massacre of Biharis in East Pakistan, he returned to his hometown to painfully piece together the story of the last days of so many of his family members and friends from eyewitness accounts: “A Bengali boy who witnessed the final moments described how they were made to stand in a line under the bridge and shot one by one. “‘None of them uttered a word or begged for mercy,’ the boy told us.”

His own memories are beautifully articulated. The chapter titled ‘The Innocent Sixties’, for instance, is a lovely evocation of childhood in the village of Thakurgaon, of fun, love and security amid the lush setting of waterways and fruit trees — mango, lychee, jackfruit, bokul, ber, jamun and grapefruit — and the carpets of flowers, that were blown down by the wind, beneath. It is an idyll made poignant by the fact that it was destined to end so tragically.

Anyone can read a history book or watch a documentary of the events that led to the establishment of Bangladesh. Every December, such programmes are aired on Pakistan Television. What makes this book stand out is the personal and immediate nature of the narration. Because one feels so connected to the people and places described by Ashraf, one is invested in their experiences.

History has already told us what has happened, yet, as we read this author’s first-hand account, the suspense builds; we are imbued with a sense of foreboding and doom, and can empathise with the terror of the marginalised and targeted characters, as they try to negotiate the minefield that their country has become. Ashraf also does some skilful foreshadowing, not giving us all the facts at once, so that we vicariously share his own shock and pain. “Memories of childhood run wild in my unsettled mind. I hear the faint laughter of my brothers playing in the courtyard as I feel a creeping pain in the corner of my chest.”

Where Ashraf lacks first-hand experience of these, he allows his imagination to take over, aided by the memories of others who were there. Only a year old himself on that first train journey to East Pakistan, he imagines what his elder brother, Iqbal, would have felt as he wiped the coal dust from the locomotive from his eyes, or, terrified by the shrill train whistle, grabbed a corner of his mother’s sari for comfort.

At the same time, there is a refreshing lack of self-pity or over-dramatisation. Ashraf shows keen awareness of the fact that he and his family are not alone in what they suffered. This awareness extends even to the “enemy”: “Such was the irony of the time that the killers went scot-free, and the blood of the innocents on both sides was spilled freely ... the target of the backlash were the innocent Bengalis who had not fled since they had done nothing wrong.”

He stands by his Bengali friends stuck in West Pakistan and, as they escape across the border into India, worries about the dangers they will face and wonders if they will ever meet again. They do — 20 years later, along with seven other Bihari friends who had survived the massacre, but lost family and friends: “The way they received their Bengali friend Saif with open arms was not something anyone could have predicted.”

This same balance of perspective is visible in Ashraf’s accounting of the history and politics of the time. He shows an objective understanding of the dynamics of Partition and where things went wrong: “The Bengalis’ aspirations were harnessed well by the Muslim leaders of the Subcontinent in their struggle for a separate homeland. But the logical second step of letting the Bengalis be truly independent was forgotten. Just as the Bengali leaders at the time failed to define their true objective within the struggle for Pakistan, Pakistan’s founding fathers showed little wisdom to accommodate that logic into their ideology.”

۔
۔

Ashraf is iconoclastic in his criticism of all the leaders involved, both political and military. “Indira Gandhi was believed to be the last of the three principal architects of the violent break-up of East Pakistan, which cost so many innocent lives, the other two being [Zulfikar Ali] Bhutto and [Sheikh] Mujib [ur Rahman]. All three had met a violent death, and all three eventually lost their male heirs to violence too. Those who had paid the price for Bangladesh’s independence with their own blood fully understood what divine justice meant to them.” His overview of the situation in Pakistan since that time and up to his exit in 2002 is equally honest and clear.

A reviewer is obliged to mention any flaws observed in the book, so here is what I noticed: while the table of contents makes it clear that there are sections and subsections in the story, this is not so apparent while actually reading the book. Perhaps these should have been more clearly marked. Section Two, ‘Birth of a Refugee’, is a little choppy and lacks focus. Proofreading for spelling and other errors could have been more efficient. However, given the impact of the writing on the whole, these are petty issues.

Despite the tragic events of which this book is composed, reading it is not only informative and enlightening, it is an uplifting experience, and this is because — as mentioned before — it is, above all, a human story. It documents courage and persistence, love, comradeship, hope and loyalty. We may not all have faced the extent of suffering and loss described in this story, but we can all take from it the lessons of hope and survival that it offers.

The reviewer is an educationist and author of Made in Pakistan: A Memoir

Refugee: Unsettled as I Roam, My Endless Search for a Home
By Azmat Ashraf
FriesenPress, Canada
ISBN: 978-1525563836
252pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 3rd, 2021

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