1971 as seen by a planter’s wife

Reviewed by Naeem Sadiq

Sips from a Broken Teacup
By Raihana A Hasan
Ushba Publishing International, Pakistan
ISBN 978-969-9154-18-8
2011. 429pp.

The rattling narrow-gauge Surma train that carried a young urban bride to a far away and unknown world of tea plantations stopped at the deserted Shamshernagar Railway Station on a dark wintry night of January 1962. Little did the disembarking passenger know that her prolific and perceptive mind was already capturing the first outlines of what was to appear in the form of a book some fifty years later.

Raihana Hasan, the author

Raihana Hasan could not have chosen a more thoughtful, apt and immaculate title for her captivating book, Sips from a Broken Teacup. Each word depicting delicately woven themes that stretch from reminiscence of life as a tea planter’s wife to the traumatic events that preceded the break-up of Pakistan and finally the drama and the ordeal as the author and her family escape from then East to West Pakistan.

Sips from a Broken Teacup shows tell-tale signs of a meticulous and devoted diary writer who has the skills and passion to effortlessly describe each day’s events, feelings and observations. The author’s ability to zoom-in on the smallest intricate detail of life and yet be equally sensitive and cognisant of the larger social and political happenings is truly exceptional. The book is divided into five main sections. The first two cover the period between January 1962 to December 1970 and deal primarily with the life and the life style at the Allynugger tea estate some fifty years ago. The book is distinctively informative in describing the history of tea, the anatomy of tea estates, the plucking and planting and the shades and colours that abound in a tea garden. The author gives a warm personal touch as she describes the men and women who lived and worked in the tea estate. The colonial life style of those who owned and managed the tea estates stands out in great contrast to those who actually laboured, planted or plucked the tea. The author is clearly perceptive, sensitive and sympathetic to the latter.

The tea pluckers

The last three sections of the book describe the rapidly unfolding events from January to May 1971. The leisure, serenity and harmony of life at the tea garden giving way to the suspicion, prejudice and hatred of many who never spoke this language before. West Pakistan’s exploitative policies and arrogance over a long period of time had bred discontent and anger amongst the Bengalis. There were reports of atrocities committed by West Pakistani army over unarmed Bengali civilians. Some of these stories were true but many were exaggerated to whip up the emotions for a larger struggle. Individual anger gave way to mob hysteria, hatred transformed into acts of savagery and the struggle for rights became a militant war of liberation. Life was no longer the same at the tea gardens. The raids, murders and killing of West Pakistanis by armed Mukti Bahini gangs became the order of the day, and the tea gardens could no longer remain an exception to these threats. When things became so bad that death seemed only a matter of hours and not days away, the Hasan family (the author, her husband and their two small children) decided to escape to India. Slogging under the cover of darkness through uneven terrain, water, bushes, shrubs and ravines, they undertook a nightmarish journey that could well be a suitable sequel to “the great escape”.

The author with her husband

Sips from a Broken Teacup would disappoint those who are looking at it to discover yet more stories of atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army or accounts of passive innocence on the part of Bengali citizens. The book does not take any sides nor does it claim to be an authentic know-all account of everything that transpired in those intensely trying years. It does not attempt to convince or convert the reader to any one point of view. It is essentially a true story of life and events as experienced, seen, felt and narrated by a planter’s wife. The accurate details and observations described in this book owe their substance to the hundreds of letters that the author regularly wrote to her family in Karachi between 1962 and 1970. These stories revolve around the activities, loyalties, friendships, hatred and prejudices of the people who were an inextricable part of everyday life of the tea garden. They are a pleasure to read and also provide a fascinating insight into the character of a tea garden and its people.

Scene from a tea garden

Sips from a Broken Teacup while not intended to be a book either on politics or on history of the division of Pakistan provides a significant and much less acknowledged view of the ‘other side’ of the story. While it deeply acknowledges the exceptional humanity shown by many Bengalis, it also narrates how a large majority indulged in ruthless killing of thousands of innocent ordinary people merely because they happened to be West Pakistanis. The pattern of madness and savagery at the people-to-people level described in this book could perhaps find its parallel only in the communal killings of 1947 Partition. The author also highlights the covert intervention of the Indian Army and its direct cross-border support to the Mukti Bahini — issues hugely underplayed by the world media. Thus the book provides significant new information and experience to suggest the fallacy of the generally accepted ‘uni-villain’ theory. Sips from a Broken Teacup written half a century later is an important first-hand account that also describes the other villains of this saga; a saga that need not have involved such anguish, pain and human suffering.

Did a half century succeed in healing the wounds and providing a better perspective to the events of 1971? The author seems to conclude on an affirmative note. While most of the planters who played a role in this story are no more, the few who are alive have managed to touch base with one another. They now often share a sober and friendly reminiscence of the happy times they spent at the tea gardens. The hysteric irrationality and the bitterness of the past slowly but surely melted away.

3 thoughts on “1971 as seen by a planter’s wife”

  1. A superbly written book that will involve the reader in the fear and the hatred in East Pakistan, that needed telling— about what really occurred there . I served there, there flying DC-3s and Fokker F-27s with PIA during 1963-64-during which many of my West Pakistani friends in Dacca could speak Bengali although much disinformation was disseminated by Mujeed and his thugs to the contrary.
    Raihana's absorbing story takes the reader through the transition from an idyllic life on the tea gardens to the terror of the changing times when she never knew when the mob would come for her and her family–leading up to their dramatic escape. You won't be able to put this book down!

  2. Having spent my childhood in the Luskerpore valley from 1947-1963, I found Raihanna's account of the period she covers, absolutely fascinating. It is a great shame that the book is not more widely available internationally, as I am confident there are many potential readers, particularly amongst retired planters and historians interested in that period of East Pakistan's history.

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