A Voice from Pakistan: Of Martyrs and Marigolds

Aquila Ismail
Aquila Ismail
Karachi, Pakistan

“Each survivor owes it to those who do not survive to account for them.”


For forty years I wanted to write of the one bloody spring day when the land of my birth was no more mine. That soft, misty February morning dawned forty-five days after the sixteenth of December 1971, when East Pakistan, the land my parents had chosen as their home following the great partition of the Indian subcontinent, had become Bangladesh. And all those who had come to this land from India or had, like me, been born to parents who had made the trek to this land in 1947, were no longer of it.

Living in Karachi since August 1972, I willed my mind to only remember the golden land’s offerings of the scent of mango blossoms, of the delicate shefali, of the perfectly formed gardenias, the sweet happiness of childhood, the trembling ecstasy of first love, the smell of the earth when the first slanting monsoon raindrops fell on the waiting plains. But the odor of that spring day! The damned odor! The odor of the brown-red stain on white flowers growing among green grass, the odor of crushed marigold petals, of the damp moss covered walls, the smell of burnt globs of rice and lentil, and the rank smell of rotting hyacinth – all indistinguishable from what was gentle and what was not – always took over my soul and made me not want to remember.

The first realization that I had been cast out from the land of my birth came on the bus that took my mother, sister, and me, along with hundreds of other women, away from our homes in the suburbs of Dhaka. The roads we passed through every day to get to school, to spend the day with friends, to go to the bazaar to buy olives in winter and mangoes in summer and, until only a few weeks back, to the university campus, were suddenly unrecognizable. That night, in a dark room, lying with my cheeks on the cold floor, I heard a dog barking in the distance, another barking back as if conversing in a derelict cemetery. Even today coldness descends on me when I hear a dog bark in the dark distance.

How was I to express the memory of gentle rain, the kind that mists up the surroundings, as well as the storm that ripped through my life that spring morning? How was I to stop the sweat-drenched awakening from uneasy sleep, and calm the beating heart each night that I dreamt that I was back in the red brick house and the red brick house turned into the abandoned mansion on the banks of the Sitalakhya River . . . women huddled in the dark with men with flashlights stalking the corridors . . . red lines streaking down virginal thighs to the cold stone floor. . . and the stars weeping and the day waiting to dawn.

In writing a novel instead of a memoir, I have sought to stride the battlements readers most like to stalk: those of objective narrative, full of facts and persons, from which the reader can extract history articulated through the characters, plot, drama, and imagery, and ultimately render it into the broad canvas of all humanity. The book’s meaning is therefore to be sought in the totality of its images and sensations, in the flavor of life, in its invocations and its silences.

Historical fiction thrusts history into the realm of individuals. It is a conscious engaging with history. It is only in fiction that compassion for any blood spilled, even enemy blood, of those who died without knowing why, can be fully expressed. How can one escape the responsibilities of history, especially when war and bloody conflict fill the world with the horribly wounded, disfigured, dispossessed, exiles, refugees, evacuees, and prisoners? Each survivor owes it to those who do not survive to account for them. Their life, and death, cannot have been without meaning.

Of Martyrs And Marigolds Book Cover

Suri, the heroine of my novel, is cast out on the fourth day of February in 1972, and this is where her story begins and ends. Her parents are part of the six million who crossed the borders in 1947 when the British relinquished their empire in the Indian subcontinent and created two nations, Pakistan and India, based on the majority religions, Islam and Hinduism respectively. For this reason Pakistan, as well as India, had population caches of those who were not born in that land.

In 1947 Pakistan consisted of two parts, East Pakistan and West Pakistan, separated from one another by almost one thousand miles of Indian territories. If you imagine the Indian subcontinent to be a triangle with its apex pointing downwards, then the two parts of Pakistan were, up until 1971, the two points of the base.

From its inception East and West Pakistan were at odds with each other, over language and culture, over resources, and most of all over the exercise of political power. Early on, in 1952, the first major conflict, over the imposition of Urdu as the national language of Pakistan, although the majority spoke Bengali, resulted in the killing of six young men in Dacca and sowed forever the seed of division between the two parts. The fact that there was a common religion between them was not enough to exist harmoniously.

In 1971 the adversarial relationship came to a head when the Pakistan army, in a bid to put down protests against its denial of the right of the majority to rule, committed horrifying acts of brutality against the Bengali population. The resistance to this act, urged and helped by India, which fought a war with Pakistan in support of the Bengali liberation struggle, brought about the creation of Bangladesh – the land of the Bengalis – in 1971.

However, forgotten in the documentation of the history of Bangladesh are the unspeakable acts of torture and murder committed by the Bengalis on those who spoke Urdu and had migrated to East Pakistan at the time of partition. Of Martyrs and Marigolds puts on record the dispossession and massacre of Urdu-speaking Pakistani men and women as Bangladesh emerged from the ashes of East Pakistan. It bears witness to a subtext of the Bangladesh Liberation War that has been forgotten. Perhaps this way the storm clouds hanging over my head all these years would pass into the dust cloud of memory and my feet rest once more on grass without the odor of blood getting in the way.

Ideological discussions are bound to flare up round my novel, and I do hope they do. The consequent disagreements about history, the individual, politics, religion, and the even the art of fiction will, perhaps, create an echo chamber for the brutal life-changing events individuals face in the bloody march of men who seek to redraw borders, impose new boundaries, and create new divisions amongst human beings.

Now, two and a half decades later, a neighbor asked another what was the tongue of their mother, as at the time of the cleavage they had asked if the man of the house was circumcised or not, and further lines had been drawn on the map of the world, and here she was thrown out of her home on that fourth day of February.

Source: Peace X Peace

5 thoughts on “A Voice from Pakistan: Of Martyrs and Marigolds

  1. i am little bit confused despite as feared by the novelist —Ideological discussion are bound to flare up round my novel , and I do hope they do . ——nothing substantial has been surfaced so for . All is quite on western front . Will anybody tell us the reason behind it .

  2. A touching and well balanced view of the facts.

    The main fact is that '“Each survivor owes it to those who do not survive to account for them."”

    In other words I can say : "Apne liye jiye to kiya jiye, tu jee e- dil zamane ke liye". To live for self is a worthless life. Live to serve the next generation so that the Earth remains green.

    1. Thank you Bajaj jee, tell it to our political masters both in Pakistan and India, who know nothing of the higher thinking, and the noble values .
      They are not "what it says on the tin", they are something veil and less than wholesome, otherwise they will think of the numerous poverty stricken fellow countrymen.

Comments are closed.