Under Such a Sheltering Sky
By Sarmila Bose
Lightstone, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9697161690
97pp.

I was a teenager at the time, and I remember grown-ups, who could hold back their tears, sunk into silence with misty eyes.

It was a cold, blacked-out night in December during the 1971 war with India. On the radio and television, it was announced that “Indian forces have entered Dacca [Dhaka] and the Pakistani commanders signed an agreement with them to surrender and to transfer control of the Eastern Command …” That day still remains one of the most traumatic in the history of Pakistan, more so for those who lived through it.

Under Such a Sheltering Sky by Sarmila Bose is a short novel — or a long short story — that reads as a diary of a Bengali family living in Dhaka and spans the months from the announcement of 1970’s election results to the break-up of the country, when Pakistani forces surrendered to India on Dec 16, 1971.

Despite a few instances of misalignment in the printed text, Under Such a Sheltering Sky is a compelling read, written in a lucid, matter-of-fact style. In an impartial manner, from an ordinary Bengali civilian’s point of view, the author meticulously narrates the political and historical background that led to the tragic event and the resultant loss of many innocent lives.

Spanning the months from 1970’s election results to the break-up of Pakistan in 1971, a novella brings out the broader human, social, political and historical dimensions of the ‘fall of East Pakistan’

Set in the environs of an upper middle-class Bengali household, the novel revolves around a father who is a businessman and traditional follower of the Muslim League, and his two grown-up sons — one of whom is studying in West Pakistan — and a daughter who are active liberation fighters with leftist leanings.

The book’s title is a loose translation of a popular song from the 1964 Bollywood film Door Gagan Ki Chhaaon Mein [Under the Shade of a Distant Sky], sung by Kishore Kumar:

“Aa chal ke tujhay/ Main le ke chaloon/ Ek aisay gagan ke talay/ Jahan gham bhi na ho/ Aansoo bhi na hon/ Bas pyar hi pyaar milay”

[Come/ So I can take you/ Under such a sheltering sky/ Where there is no sorrow/ Nor any tears/ But love, only love that blooms]

It is a refrain repeated more than once in the novel.

Bose sails through the points of view of two bloodthirsty sides with admirable neutrality and integrity. In fact, she succeeds in bringing out the broader human, social, political and historical dimensions of the fall of East Pakistan, and the ensuing atrocities, without fear or favour.

Through her characters from both sides of the divide, Bose highlights the suffering of helpless ordinary human beings, who have been thrown into a hell beyond their control. It is poignant to read how the lives of her characters are turned upside down and scarred forever, and sticks, guns, knives and lynchings take over their finer pursuits, such as poetry, music and love.

The arrival of a young army officer from West Pakistan symbolises the other side of the divide. Captain Sameer has come to this part of his country for the first time, and for the worst imaginable reason: to fight his own fellow citizens. After a bomb blast in a girls’ school in his jurisdiction puts him in disgrace with his superiors, he is transferred to a post near the Indian border, where East Pakistani youths illegally cross over for basic military training, and cross back as saboteurs in their own homeland.

Captain Sameer apprehends the businessman’s young son, Milon, at the border with incriminating evidence — as well as a book of Rabindranath Tagore’s songs — in his possession. Milon is severely tortured during interrogation, but then it transpires that his father is a contractor who is a registered supplier to the Pakistani forces, and possesses a special permit to enter the cantonment area in Dhaka. This fact softens the severity of the castigation meted out to the errant young man, and his father is allowed to take him back home.

Meanwhile, the civil disturbances, as well as underground activities of the rebels, intensify and spread in the urban and rural areas. When the Indian army takes over, the news is greeted with jubilant hysteria.

Celebratory mobs pour into the streets and, in the frenzy, the crowd spots a man, all alone, wearing the uniform of the Pakistan Army. It is Captain Sameer. The sight of him turns the dancing youths into a bloodthirsty gang out for vengeance, and Milon struggles to restrain his angry companions from killing Sameer for real and perceived crimes against them.

Eventually, the crowd concedes to fetching Milon’s father, who had met Sameer earlier when he had obtained the release of Milon from captivity at the border. The father persuades the gang to let him take Sameer home. While hiding out in Milon’s father’s house, Sameer’s talent for singing is revealed and captivates the family: “He sang, they sang. It seemed the most natural thing in the world.” Music becomes a bond between enemies.

Through her characters from both sides of the divide, Bose highlights the suffering of ordinary human beings thrown into a hell beyond their control.

The family shelters Sameer for a few days, all the while trying to figure out how to save the Pakistani officer from both the angry Bangladeshi public and the Indian invaders. As they all sit down to dinner, Milon’s mother wonders if Sameer could go to Burma [Myanmar]. Bobby — Milon’s future brother-in-law and an air force pilot who had defected to the liberation movement — offers to fly Sameer to Nepal. Ironically, only days earlier, Bobby was flying the helicopter that shot rockets at the army station of which Sameer was in charge, and where Milon had been tortured under Sameer’s supervision.

However, Sameer decides the honourable thing to do would be to join his troops and surrender officially, rather than flee. Milon’s father drives the captain to the familiar cantonment. It is now under Indian control, and Sameer is escorted to his cell by an Indian soldier whose amiability — and this is a brief, but telling moment — increases when he learns that Sameer originally hails from Ludhiana, the same city where the Indian soldier’s wife is from.

In the epilogue, after several decades have passed, Sameer calls Milon and, over the distance between them, they attempt to catch up with each other’s lives, only to learn that neither has turned out very rosy.

The author of the novella is a journalist, academic and lawyer. An ethnic Bengali, she was born in 1959 in the United States to an illustrious family and brought up in Calcutta [Kolkata]. She holds a PhD from Harvard University and is the author of Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War.

Under Such a Sheltering Sky is her first work of fiction and, although the journalist in Bose seems more pronounced here than the novelist, the narration has a certain cathartic effect on those emotionally shaken by the trauma of the break-up of Pakistan in 1971 — and probably for the author as well.

The reviewer is a freelance writer and translator of Freedom of the Press: The War on Words 1977-1978 and Mr. and Mrs. Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India, in English and Urdu respectively. He can be reached at mehwer@yahoo.com

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 19th, 2021

Opinion

Editorial

March in Pindi
Updated 26 Nov, 2022

March in Pindi

WITH the chief’s appointment out of the way and the army intent on staying out of politics, the fight is now down...
Tough IMF position
26 Nov, 2022

Tough IMF position

THE IMF has made it clear that Pakistan’s “timely finalisation of the [flood] recovery plan” — the key ...
The youth vote
26 Nov, 2022

The youth vote

PAKISTAN is an overwhelmingly young nation, with about 64pc of the population under 30. Yet our political system has...
Hard reset
Updated 26 Nov, 2022

Hard reset

IT is done. What should have been a routine matter in simpler times had this year become a vortex that seemingly...
Order of precedence
25 Nov, 2022

Order of precedence

IN Pakistan as well as abroad, there are few illusions about who actually calls the shots in this country. This...
Politicised police
25 Nov, 2022

Politicised police

AN important case is being heard at the Supreme Court these days, whose outcome could have a far-reaching impact on ...