By Nikhat Sattar
Sherlock Holmes is credited with the saying ‘the past is another country’. In my case, it was mine, to begin with. Forty two years later, I still find it difficult to comprehend that I am no longer a citizen of the place that reared me and instilled in me the love of all that is beautiful in God’s world. I had to leave it as a child, vowing to return, as I looked at its receding coastline. Return I did, as an adult, several times, and each time as if I had never left. I was frozen in time, 1971 and space, in Chittagong, the second largest city in what is now called Bangladesh.
Chittagong is thousands of years old, and has a rich history of Roman, Arab and East Asian trading by sea. Indeed, its name is supposed to be an Arabic derivative of Shetgang, which comes from Shatt-al-Ganga, meaning Mouth of the Ganges. There are other sources that claim that the name comes from the Bengali Chatt-Gaon, meaning rock and village, referring to the hilly landscape. A sleepy town-village of outstanding beauty, it was a magical place of winding streets going up and down the hills, huge lakes, dense foliage, large fields and pristine beaches. The overwhelming colour was green, but with heavy rains and salty sea, buildings often took on a dark hue that somehow attached itself to my memory. The Kaptai Dam, Foy’s lake, Rangamati, Faujdarhat and Karnaphuli Paper Mills , each a few hours heavenly drive away from settlements are etched into my mind like fairy tales.
The heady, soft, sweet breeze, undulating land that my small legs could climb and nooks and corners I could hide in is still the stuff that dreams are made of. The best scenes I loved were the small canoes called ‘noukas’ which fishermen took out for fishing, singing songs of Tagore, or even playing these on the radio. Often, Urdu songs from the films of yester years would ring out from afar. I attended my very first open air ‘mushaira’ in Chittagong, listening to Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Himayat Ali Shair and Iqbal Azim Abadi. It was there where I developed my lifelong taste for the geets and ghazals of Talat Mehmood, Saigol, Pankhaj Malik and Jag Mohan, listening to them on the Patanga beach.
My earliest memories are of a lashing wind, terrifying sounds throughout the night, and roars of thunder. Ma was quietly reciting a dua, and trying to keep the wooden doors barred with metal chests, but even then the doors were threatening to break down. As morning dawned, and I looked out of the window, most of the trees were on the ground and everything was calm and peaceful. The storm was over. I did not know it then, but this was the cataclysmic cyclone of 1963. Since then, I seem to have developed an affinity for the forces of nature.
I went back, again, this year, and traced the paths I knew. I went home, standing in Ma’s kitchen, where I had learned to value the simplest but tastiest dishes, cooked on small, kerosene fueled stoves. I walked in my school, which is now 135 years old, and stood in my class, and could almost hear Sir Ghosh, expounding on a critical appreciation of Macbeth. It was there that I picked up my love for mathematics and literature, and the sense of diversity and tolerance. Most of my school teachers were Hindus and the school itself was managed by nuns from Scotland.
Much has changed, the population has multiplied several times over and the vast green expanses are being destroyed to make room for industrial and residential buildings. There are still some of the old familiar smells, and riding the hand pulled rickshaws between home and school, I felt I was back at home. But change is also visible. There are no signboards in Urdu, only a few in Arabic. And while many speak Urdu, they call it Hindi, courtesy Indian films and soaps.
Back in my room, I looked at the internet, a harsh reminder to the present. The Taliban and target killings in Karachi, missing persons and bomb blasts in Balochistan were all too vivid. The war of 1971 is the liberation war in Bangladesh. Much has been written about war crimes purported to have been committed against Bengalis fighting for freedom. Here, in the truncated Pakistan too, books have been written about what had really happened. Strangely though, the civilian account is missing. What happened to the thousands, nay, millions of the so called Urdu speaking who had lived there, and then after 1971, were no longer there? What were the stories of the shiploads who left via the ‘Shams’, crossing the Bay of Bengal into the Arabian Sea? There is little dialogue between civil society groups of both erstwhile wings, now two separate countries, to try to come to an understanding of the wounds that had been inflicted on both sides.
Ultimately, the wrongs done were political in nature. They were wrong decisions made by those who were then in power, and mainly by those in West Pakistan. Had sanity prevailed, particularly in 71, Pakistan today may have been very different, socially and economically.
Much has been lost. But there are no signs that anyone is ready to learn any lessons. As I read the sporadic reporting about what is happening in Balochistan, and look at the occasional photographs of the people who have walked all the way to Karachi to have their voices heard against their missing loves ones, I think of all the Bengalis who were killed and raped, all the Urdu speaking who were similarly tortured, and of those who had to migrate, yet again, from their own country which was no longer theirs. And I think of the child who left on the MV Shams, suffering with an intense pain of being separated from her homeland. I pray to God that this history may stop repeating itself.