Much has been written on East Pakistan, but unfortunately most of it is tilted, depending on the side the author represents. Even foreign writers, despite reservations, have relied on available sources and versions in the absence of a means of verification. Available literature mostly chronicles the events leading to the formation of Bangladesh, including the long years of injustices and atrocities carried out by the Pakistan army against the Bengalis.
However, this is an incomplete picture as it doesn’t take into account what the Liberation Front and the Bangladesh army did to the Urdu-speaking people, generally known as Biharis; the former when Pakistan Army regained control of cities outside Dhaka; the latter following liberation. These were the people whom West Pakistanis classified as Bengalis and the latter treated as “aliens” and who bore the brunt of Bengali reaction.
Only a Bihari who has lived in Bangladesh till after liberation and has intimate knowledge of the land and people, their language and culture, can present this side of the picture. Aquila Ismail is such a person. Her novel, Of Martyrs and Marigolds, unveils horrors that have largely remained unacknowledged.
The novel centers around Suri and her family — parents, brothers Sadi and Sami, and younger sister, Munni — who are Biharis. Her father is an officer in the telecommunication department and she and her siblings have been born and raised in East Pakistan, can speak Bengali and have many Bengali friends. Suri is in love with a Bengali boy, Rumi.
Her father builds a house in Mirpur, a Dhaka suburb inhabited almost entirely by Biharis. In 1971, many young Biharis from the area enlist as Razakars, a paramilitary force, to assist the Pakistan army in its crackdown against the Bengalis. In early February 1972, the Bangladesh army cracks down on the Biharis in Mirpur, driving out the entire population from their homes and dividing them into three groups — young men, old men and women. The young men, including Suri’s brother, Sami, are taken away and killed. The old men are sent to Dhaka Central Jail. Women and children are taken to an internment camp. Suri’s other brother, Sadi, leaves home and is never heard of again.
Rumi rescues Suri and her mother and sister through a common friend, Hiru, who is a Bangladesh army captain, and lands into trouble for sheltering Biharis. Suri later shifts to the house of another Bengali friend. With Hiru’s help, Suri’s father gets reprieve and is brought home. Meanwhile, Suri contacts the mother of her college friend, Pippi. They are Ismailis, whom Sheikh Mujib, under a deal with the Agha Khan, had given protection. Suri therefore moves to the safety of a flat in the Ismailis’ Scout Colony.
The confirmation of Sami’s death kills Suri’s mother and Suri decides to migrate to Pakistan to join her mother’s relatives, leaving Rumi behind.
For anyone looking for an objective study of the conflict between the two wings of Pakistan and the salient events right from the language movement till after the independence of Bangladesh, Of Martyrs and Marigolds is a must read.
Ismail pulls no punches in exposing the players regardless of who they are: the Pakistani government, Pakistan Army, Jamaat-i-Islami, Biharis and Bengalis. The powerful narrative offers graphic details of spine-chilling brutalities inflicted on non-Bengalis. If some events sound fictitious it is because that is the unalloyed — and verifiable — truth.
Yet, the book is not all about blood and tears. It also captures the charming landscape, the strains of Bengali songs, the bright colour of Krishnachura, the sweet fragrance of shefali, and romance that soothes the senses.
Of Martyrs and Marigolds (Novel) By Aquila Ismail CreateSpace, US ISBN 1463694822 304pp. $12