Of Martyrs and Marigolds is an elegantly written, powerful story of a young Pakistani woman, caught in the throes of revenge in the after birth of Bangladesh. Suri is born in the eastern part of Pakistan to parents who chose to migrate to it from India in 1947, when the British Empire dissolved its colony in the Indian subcontinent. She leads an idyllic life informed deeply by the Bengali culture, British colonial past and the social character of a country created for Muslims. However, in the rapidly unfolding violence that accompanies the liberation struggle of the Bengalis, Suri is considered to be a ‘Bihari’, a migrant from India, who speaks Urdu and therefore has no place in Bangladesh.
At its center is the defiant love between Suri and Rumi, which blossoms in Dacca University. The campus is the focal point of the resistance to the atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army as it was of the 1952 Bengali Language Movement. When Suri becomes a victim of a division based on the mother tongue, the intensity of their love tries to transcend the political facts of Bangladesh. Placed in an internment camp, she has to choose between her family and her love for a man who belongs to the side that massacres and dispossesses her people.
Ismail writes affectionately of life in East Pakistan. Her narrative makes the cities where the story is set become real. Her evocation of the brutal manner in which the Pakistan army put down the demands of Bengalis for autonomy, the horror inflicted by the Bengalis on the Biharis, and India’s war with Pakistan culminating in the creation of Bangladesh, is devastatingly real. Adapting real history into page-turning fiction, Ismail captures an important era in South Asian history with intelligence and grace. Part historical drama and part romance, Of Martyrs and Marigolds is testament to fiction’s unique power in documenting the complexities of human conflicts.
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