Was I ever young enough to want to go out on New Year’s Eve? Or even to want to just stay up until midnight so that the new year wouldn’t catch me unawares? I have an occasional memory of venturing out on the T, or subway, as a graduate student, to see the ice sculptures in downtown Boston with my indomitable friend Lucilia, who made a point of resisting the winter inclination to hibernate. And once Alex and I braved an icy First Night on the town, only to discover that others had already beaten us to the free concerts we gravitated to—as much for the indoor warmth as for the music—and the ten-minute walk between venues, on black ice, and with a wind-chill factor of several degrees below zero, was enough to freeze out our enthusiasm to “do something” on New Year’s Eve. Even now, in temperate California, I prefer to watch the ball descend on Times Square a few feet from the television, as Alex and I are huddled with the children by the fireplace. After 9pm Pacific Standard Time, I’m satisfied that I’ve done my part to ensure the safe arrival of the new year and can retire in good conscience to my room, book in hand.
Click here for an Afterword by the author of Ring in the New
But I impose a fabricated consistency on my New Year’s Eves. The fact is that when I was a teenager in Pakistan, in the Karachi of the late seventies, Shahina Auntie would beep her horn—two short beeps, followed by three more—after ten o’clock at night and insist we go out on a New Year’s Eve drive.
Lively, bold, and resourceful, Shahina Auntie was not related to us. She had been my Aunt Talat’s friend since their college days in Dhaka, Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). Like us, Shahina Auntie is ethnically “Urdu-speaking,” though her ancestral province in India is Uttar Pradesh rather than Bihar. While my mother’s family (including her younger sister Talat) had left East Pakistan for Karachi by the time of my grandfather’s death in 1965, Shahina Auntie’s family stayed on in the East Pakistani capital of Dhaka. Her father owned two jewelry stores in Dhaka, and she and her younger brother, Parvez, grew up among the Westernized elite of the city in the largely Urdu-speaking neighborhood of Mohammadpur. Statuesque Shahina Auntie, with light skin and light brown hair, was a champion swimmer and table-tennis player, and a heartbreaker. But at Central Women’s College, she desired the attention only of my aunt, a poetical young woman a few years her senior. Aunt Talat was married before graduation, however—to my father’s younger brother, Ilyas, in fact—and, in 1965, moved to London with her husband. Over the next six years they would have two children, and my parents would join them from Karachi in search of a better future for their children, a search that would find both families going back and forth between England and Pakistan.
The start of the fateful year of 1971 saw Shahina Auntie a twenty-two-year-old graduate student of Political Science at Dhaka University. But the family’s fortunes, like East and West Pakistan’s, would turn dramatically by the end of the year.
In March, when the Pakistan Army’s Operation Searchlight began in East Pakistan, our family and Aunt Talat’s shared a rented home in the modest Karachi neighborhood of Samnabad, well over a thousand miles away from Dhaka. We had returned from Greenford (West London) some months earlier, hoping to resettle in Karachi. One day I answered a knock on our door, and there stood what to my eight-year-old eyes was a paragon of mysterious beauty, one who looked European but sounded Pakistani. A happy commotion ensued as Shahina Auntie and my aunt were reunited for the first time since Aunt Talat had left Central Women’s College six years ago.
Shahina Auntie had left Dhaka and arrived in Lahore (West Pakistan) just a few days earlier with her father, and within no time had hopped a plane to Karachi, equipped with a blue “air letter” from my Aunt Talat that bore her Samnabad address on the back. Sensing turmoil in East Pakistan, Shahina Auntie’s father had decided to move to Lahore in order to begin the process of re-establishing the family there. His wife remained in Dhaka with their son, 21-year-old Parvez, who was helping his father wrap up the family business. But as luck would have it, the siblings exchanged places by the end of the year. Shahina Auntie, determined to take her two remaining viva voce exams at Dhaka University in order to obtain her Master’s degree, flew back to East Pakistan in September ‘71. Meanwhile, Parvez Uncle had flown in the other direction, to Lahore, to get his father’s sgnature on documents pertaining to the sale of the two jewelry stores in Dhaka. On December 16, when Pakistan surrendered, Parvez Uncle’s flight to Dhaka was canceled. Father and son would remain in Lahore without news of Shahina Auntie or her mother for ten months.
The day before Pakistan’s surrender and the birth of Bangladesh, 22-year-old Shahina and her mother receive word from a cousin in the Pakistan Army that they must leave their Mohammadpur neighborhood immediately. He sends an official car with a Bengali driver to pick them up and transport them to the relative safety of the Cantonment area. Shahina and her mother leave at once, joined by a caravan of two dozen people, carrying nothing but a single change of clothes each. Their destination turns out to be the house of a Pakistan Army officer--unlocked, empty, and abandoned. The family must have fled suddenly, in the midst of an ordinary day, as nothing shows signs of agitation; even the lipsticks on the dresser seems to be waiting for the lady of the house without alarm. There is, however, no food in the kitchen. So a couple of men from the group climb the wall in the backyard and go foraging next door. It is another quietly abandoned house but yields enough food for the group to live on for two days. Similar stealth excursions to silent homes follow as the need arises, and eight days go by in this way.
Then a young, Urdu-speaking family friend named Mansoor arrives with a trusted Bengali driver to help get Shahina and her mother to safety. Their choices are bleak: they can either throw in their lot with the POWs of the Cantonment or call on old Bengali friends for refuge until the present turmoil is over. Shahina’s mother opts for the latter. Rahat Apa, whom she knows through her Tableeghi religious mission, will take them in, she thinks. They get into Mansoor’s car and drive towards Rahat Apa’s house. But at Ramna Park, they are intercepted by two members of Mukti Bahini. They redirect the car to a nearby house that serves as a Mukti Bahini office, tell them to pull into the driveway, and close the gates behind them. Then they order Mansoor out of the car and into the building for interrogation. Shahina and her mother remain seated inside the vehicle, wondering if Mansoor will emerge from the building alive. Standing a few yards in front of them, a man sharpens machetes. At one point, he looks up towards the striking young woman in the car. Eyes focused on Shahina, and grinning, he holds up the machete and makes a horizontal gesture across his throat, as if to indicate the fate that awaits her.
Some fifteen minutes later, Mansoor returns to the car. Stonefaced, he tells his driver to resume the route to Rahat Apa’s. Questions from the women meet with complete silence.
Later he will tell them of the interrogation, conducted in Bengali. Could all their lives hinge on the answers he gave to such simple questions? Who were they, where did they live, where were they headed. Give us your wallet. And that watch. You won’t be needing them where you’re going. Then Mansoor lets drop the name of a Bengali friend he knows to be a Mukti Bahini guerilla. What he doesn’t know is that the youth has assumed a leading role in the movement. His interrogator’s face changes. He tells Mansoor to go home to his parents and even hands back his watch and wallet.
But before Mansoor returns to his own beleaguered family, he takes Shahina and her mother to Rahat Apa’s house in the neighborhood of Bakshi Bazar. They arrive at her door and ask for refuge—for maybe a week or two, they guess—until the violence has subsided and they can get their exit papers in order. At great risk to herself and her family, Rahat Apa takes them in.
Shahina and her mother spend eight months in Rahat Apa’s living room. Shahina is told not to step out of the house, not even to stand in the window. Kidnappings of young Urdu-speaking women abound—vengeance for the mass rapes and abductions of Bengali women by Pakistani soldiers—and Shahina’s light skin will betray her instantly.
What compels individuals like Rahat Apa to risk their own security in a violent and chaotic time? To do so without any prospect of personal gain—for no reason but to shelter the shelterless? I marvel that she could resist the national narrative of the day, defy Bengali solidarity, forgo righteous revenge and forgive the brutal, blurry enemy long enough to allow the faces of two women to come into focus, not as Bihari or Bengali, but only as individuals; a mother and her daughter with nowhere to go and everything to lose. Where does it come from, that capacity for human decency that disrupts group affiliations, resists the lulling rhetoric, and intervenes—so quietly yet sure-footedly—in history? Rahat Apa’s son was a Mukti Bahini freedom fighter who would come home every couple of weeks, often with loot, and rage against his mother, pointing out that if the Mukti Bahini discovered that his family was harboring Urdu-speaking women, they would kill not only the two women but him as well. Yet Rahat Apa, who must have loved her son, stood her ground. And in doing so, she altered the trajectories of two human lives—human lives and all their generations to come.
The house next-door to Rahat Apa’s had tenants on both its levels. The upstairs was occupied by a Bengali professor; the downstairs housed the Punjabi family of Shahina’s friend Zeenat. (All non-Bengalis were referred to as “Bihari” at this time, and all were seen as just targets of looting or worse.) Zeenat, who was married, normally lived in another part of town, Motijheel. But a spat with her husband had brought her to her parents’ home in Bakshi Bazar, and now she was as confined as Shahina within the four walls of the house. One day, Shahina couldn’t resist the temptation to go and see her; she covered herself with a chadar and made her way quickly but inconspicuously to the house next door, and Zeenat let her in.
But it was a dangerous time for tête-á-têtes between girlfriends. The Mukti Bahini chose that day for one of their appearances. The Bengali professor upstairs tried as usual to deflect attention from the Punjabi Khalils while his wife ushered Zeenat and Shahina up the back stairway, into the safety of their own apartment. She smuggled them into her pantry among onions and potatoes, shut the door, and clamped a hefty lock on it from the outside. There the two young women remained until the professor had persuaded the Mukti Bahini men to leave.
Zeenat’s husband, Taufeeq, and his family in Motijheel were less fortunate. Taufeeq and his brother were killed and their younger sister carried off. Their mother eventually found her way to Karachi with her surviving children, but when Shahina Auntie ran into her years later in our Gulshan neighborhood, she was still searching for her kidnapped daughter. Every now and then she would hear a rumor that the young woman had been spotted in this or that part of Dhaka, or seen working as a maid in somebody’s house. Once, when relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh had normalized and individual tragedies smoothed over with diplomacy, Zeenat’s mother-in-law even scraped the money to follow a lead back to Dhaka. But as recently as 2007, the woman whose two sons were killed before her eyes still cherished the hope that her lost daughter would reappear some day.
Months after the initial killing frenzy had subsided, Shahina and her mother were able to obtain visas for India. By this point, they were staying with the father of Shahina’s college friend Yasmin. He had sent his family to safety in Kolkata, India, but himself stayed on in their Kakrail home, near Purana Paltan. Though Urdu-speaking, he looked Bengali, spoke Bengali, and had a Bengali driver. Above all, he had a kind and supportive Bengali employer. In the relative calm, Shahina and her mother even had a source of income: the conscientious West Bengali manager of their jewelry store brought them money from sales for a couple of months until the authorities confiscated the shop and shut it down. The women purchased airline tickets for Karachi, but every time they’d plan to head to the airport, they would be tipped off that Mukti Bahini men were checking for Urdu-speaking passengers trying to escape the country. When the visa was about to expire, they knew they could wait no longer. They had to make their precarious way to Pakistan by road.
A male cousin would travel with them and a Mukti Bahini friend of his would accompany them to Jessore, on the Indian border. Whenever their car was stopped, this friend stepped out and did the talking. In this way, the young Mukti Bahini man did justice both to his nation and to his personal relationships in a time when these loyalties seemed mutually exclusive. He delivered Mansoor, along with Shahina and her mother, safely to the Indian border.
In Jessore, Shahina’s mother and cousin made it through the checkpoint and crossed into India. But the woman inspecting Shahina’s papers would not let her pass. The stumbling block was the question of Shahina’s ethnicity, which she claimed to be Bengali. Shahina had taken care to dress in a sari, the preferred Bengali attire for women, and another sari was all she carried in her small bag. Having lived her entire life in Dhaka, she responded to all questions in fluent Bengali. Though the border officer was unable to trip her up, she detained Shahina in her kiosk anyway. Shahina could see her mother and cousin on the other side of the checkpoint but couldn’t join them, and neither could they cross back into Bangladesh.
As the afternoon wore on and daylight diminished, Shahina’s anxieties grew. She was young, female, and vulnerable. The border would be closing soon, and what would become of her then?
Finally, the woman officer relented and told Shahina to go join her mother on the other side of the border.
“But I’ll tell you one thing,” she said coldly. “I have never in my life seen a Bengali with skin as light as yours.”
They got into a taxi on the Indian side and began the four-hour drive to Kolkata. After a week with relatives there, they picked Yasmin up along the way and drove to Kathmandu, Nepal, where they contacted Shahina’s father through the Pakistan Embassy. He sent airfare for all four of them, and the Embassy issued the necessary papers. On an October day in 1972, ten months after Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan, Shahina, her mother, her cousin, and her friend Yasmin landed in Karachi.
By that time, our family and Aunt Talat’s had grown weary of our attempt to settle in Karachi, and, having lived through the bombings of the December ‘71 war with India, we retreated to Greenford for another couple of years. Since my family was ethnically Bihari, everyone in my parents’ generation seemed to know of someone who knew someone who had suffered in this second, bloody Partition. In Greenford we heard of unimaginable horrors occurring in the newly independent Bangladesh: of “Bihari” children fishing among corpses for their parents’ missing body parts; of men, old and young, being blindfolded, lined up, and shot at close range, of elderly women brutalized. As a nine-year-old, I didn’t dare ask questions, but I’d overhear the adults whispering the rumored redness of Dhaka’s rivers, and I’d see their furtive sharing of photographs in the newspapers. Years later I’ll be in a library in Fresno, California, looking through British photojournalist Harold Evans’s 1978 book, Pictures on a Page, and I’ll shudder, both at the gruesome full-page image in black and white, bearing the caption “The Bayoneting of Biharis,” and at the memory of the grownups’ faces as they stared into the Sunday Times in Greenford.
Shahina Auntie began the new year of 1973 in Pakistan, grateful for her life but uncertain what to do with it.
* * *
On the eve of 1980, when I was sixteen, we heard the familiar sound of Shahina Auntie’s five beeps outside our Gulshan home in Karachi. By this time she was married and had a toddler girl. Her husband was an Urdu-speaking man who had been lined up for execution along with his brothers outside their home in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and was saved by the miraculous appearance and intervention of a Bengali friend. But safe domestic roles couldn’t contain Shahina Auntie. She liked to be free, and her fearless driving on the chaotic streets of Karachi was an essential part of that freedom. Luckily, she lived with her husband’s large family, and her unmarried sisters-in-law could always be relied upon to attend to the house and toddler. So at the sound of Shahina Auntie’s familiar beeps, we said a hasty goodbye to my father and dashed out to meet her. My mother must have pulled out our Volkswagen Beetle to form a caravan because I don’t know how else we managed to squeeze in Aunt Talat and her two children (the baby asleep at home), my mother and her three, plus my older aunt, Anjum, and her daughter, Naghmi, and Shahina Auntie’s friends Yasmin and Arifa. Like these girlfriends, my Aunt Anjum was a lonely woman. Long divorced from her abusive husband, she lived with her mother and daughter in a nearby apartment. Eighteen-year-old Naghmi, who had grown up without a father, would be married in the new year. So it was a particularly poignant New Year’s Eve for her and for all of us who loved her. Naghmi had never met her betrothed but, raised by her mother and our maternal grandmother on very little, she stood on the threshold of more possibility than her young life had known until now.
Our middle-class neighborhood of Gulshan greeted the Western new year—among Muslims it begins with the lunar month of Muharram—with a nod of acknowledgement but not much more. So New Year’s Eve in Gulshan was a far cry from the gaiety that marked the night in richer parts of town like Clifton and Defence. There, the younger women decked out glamorously in Western attire to attend parties, men and women dancing to Western pop music, the booze flowing freely in a country where alcohol is supposedly illegal unless you can prove your non-Muslim status. I was part of that party scene only once in Karachi in my early twenties, and, uncomfortable around alcohol, felt no inclination to repeat the experience.
Our New Year’s Eve caravan stopped outside each house on our Gulshan circuit, Shahina Auntie announcing our arrival with the same distinctive five beeps. If the girlfriend or cousin who emerged from the house voiced any reservations—so late, possibly unsafe, the elderly to look after at home, and so many chores still to finish--Shahina Auntie would counter them with her combination of persuasion, charm, and good-natured mockery. If permission was required from a guardian, she would get out of the car and do the sweet-talking herself. Feeling adventurous and daring, the young woman would join the caravan, and away we’d go.
We headed south for Clifton, not to any parties but to the seashore. Along the way, we waved, poked our heads out of the car windows, and shouted, “Happy New Year!” at unsuspecting strangers. How must we have appeared to them: carloads of women and children, laughing and hollering into the Karachi night, giddy with a sense of our own recklessness and revelry. We might have stopped at one of the many roadside restaurants that served spicy chickpea chaat on Tariq Road, or the pink semi-liquid dessert of falooda in Bahadurabad, or the carcinogenic after-dinner treat of paan at the PIDC building. Paan, with or without tobacco, has always been favored by Karachiites; for our New Year’s Eve caravan, it meant a mix of areca nuts, slaked lime, shredded coconut, and cardamom, wrapped in a betel leaf. Sweet and succulent, it left our mouths and tongues a bright and garish red.
But the real festivities occurred by Clifton beach, across from Sea-View Apartments. In Karachi’s temperate winter, moonlight and streetlight illuminate the waves of the Arabian Sea as people from all walks of life converge by its silver-sand shores. In a rigidly stratified society, the long, broad strip of sidewalk and the low wall lacing the shoreline are magical, if momentary, levelers. Big families, their women hidden in white or black burqas, dipped their toes in the same waters as Karachi’s westward-looking yuppies. Turbaned old men, clandestine lovers, and newlyweds—awkward or laughing—nestled together in the city’s generous bosom. We emerged from our cars to join them, threading our way through the crowds gathered around the performing monkeys, past the men, women, and children lined up (inasmuch as anyone lines up in Karachi) for roasted channa in paper funnels; beyond the fruit-sellers bearing the season’s gifts of guavas, or miniature, apple-like bayr, and my favorite: cheekoo, which looks like a fleshier kiwi on the outside but is caramel brown on the inside, and, except for its single, black seed, silky sweet. We weren’t about to sit contentedly on the low wall and watch; egged on by Shahina Auntie, we dashed down the sandy slopes, hopped across rocks, and splashed into the sea fully clothed. In the moonlight, we thronged the little kiosk-by-the-sea for mango, pistachio, or coconut ice-cream. We shared the waves with chattering multitudes, their saris, chadars, and shalvars flapping in the breeze, and with the occasional camel that clip-clopped by us, squealing children seated between its humps as its trainer held the leash. At the stroke of midnight, firecrackers resounded, along with celebratory honks from all the cars parked by the low wall and shouts of “Happy New Year!” in multiple languages. And shortly thereafter, in an attempt to beat the inevitable gridlock at Sea-View, we made our way past the motorbikes doing wheelies on the roadside, got into our cars, and headed back to Gulshan.
* * *
It’s the last day of 2012, and I sit in the family room of my home in Fresno, looking at a decade of handmade ornaments on our five-foot Christmas tree. Alex bought this synthetic tree for his company office in Boston long before the children, or even I, entered his life. Maya and Cyrus have crawled and toddled around it, looking up at its baubles in awe. This year, at twelve and ten years of age, they rival the tree in height but refused to replace it with a taller one. Instead, for the first time, they took complete charge of decorating this tree that no longer towers above them and hung ornaments made in daycare and primary grades on its familiar branches.
I look past their dangling little photo-hearts, glitter-glued stars, and paper angels to that long-ago New Year’s Eve in Karachi. Still morning in California, it is 10pm on December 31st in Pakistan. Though I rarely call her, tonight I find Shahina Auntie’s number among my cell-phone contacts and wait to hear her say hello from eight thousand miles away.
Her cell-phone is busy, so I call my Aunt Talat instead. After all these years, after the children and grandchildren, and the wayward trajectories of their marriages, it’s a safe bet that where you find the one, you’ll find the other.
I strain to hear my aunt amidst the din in the background, but we talk for a few minutes, and then I ask for Shahina Auntie. It takes Shahina Auntie a little while to extricate herself from her cell phone—she’s still the life of the party for many women—but she sounds happy to hear from me. I remind her of our New Year’s Eve thirty-three years ago, and she laughs her hearty laughter. Then her voice grows somber.
“Well, no such drives about town this New Year’s Eve,” she says. “Sea-View has been closed off. It’s amazing we still have cellular connection; they had threatened to cut that off, too.”
“Fear of violence?” I ask.
“Always that. When have we ever known a nonviolent Karachi?”
This is true, whatever my defining memory of New Year’s Eves in Karachi. Memory is driven by tacit temporal comparisons and, in comparing, oversimplifies. Peace and violence are relative terms, after all.
“But,” she continues, “it’s become harder and harder for us to bounce back. And now they won’t even let us celebrate.”
“Who’s they?” I wonder aloud.
“Hard to say. All part of the Talibanization of Pakistan. We’re not allowed to celebrate a decadent Western tradition.”
Incredible that the democratically elected, corrupt, and godless government of Pakistan has imposed a ban on New Year’s Eve. But it’s a spineless government, easily cowered by the Taliban on one hand and the all-powerful military on the other.
“No celebration, Samina,” Shahina Auntie says again. “They’ve barred our access to the sea.” They’ve barred our access to the sea.
The din in the background comes from her three grandchildren. She and Aunt Talat are looking after them while her daughter Usaima—the toddler of thirty-three years ago—and her husband try to pave a future for their family in Dubai.
“You know that I’ll be moving to Dubai with them in March—to look after the children while Usaima and her husband work?”
Yes, I have heard. And I have wondered what will become of my aunt.
“Karachi will be emptier without you,” I tell her.
We are both silent for a moment. Then:
“I’ve lived through the fall of Dhaka,” she says quietly.
Shahina Auntie seldom talks about Banglades. I let her go on.
“Yes, Karachi has always been a tumultuous city, but it’s far more so now. Shia-Sunni killings, ethnic violence, anarchist terror. And there’s no protection from the government. I remember Bangladesh, and I’m scared for my daughter and my grandchildren.”
Another migration, then. To add on to your parents’ and grandparents’ migrations from India to Bangladesh to Pakistan to Dubai. Onward, possibly, to England or the United States, like us. In your sixties, to be uprooted once again and try to re-root yourself in yet another ethnic and linguistic environment. After a youth spent defying gender norms, to mold yourself into the domestic role that you know was never your forte.
But you mustn’t look back. Forget independence. Forget your life with my aunt. Forget even mobility and driving for a while. Live through the children and grandchildren who will grow up with fewer and fewer memories of any land you ever called home.
I hear sounds of rambunctious play in the background.
“It will be hard at first. But I’m sure you’ll find your way, Shahina Auntie.”
Shahina Auntie agrees. Happy New Year, we say.
* * *
When the British partitioned India in 1947, carving the new Muslim state of Pakistan out of it, the lands that formed West and East Pakistan were separated by over a thousand miles of India in between. The two regions shared a majority Muslim identity, which was why they were merged into a single nation, but ethnically, linguistically, and culturally they had little in common. East Pakistan identified mostly as Bengali—though Bengal itself (like Punjab) had been split into two: West Bengal, which went to India, and East Bengal, which became part of Pakistan. Over a million Urdu-speaking Indian Muslims migrated to East Pakistan after the Hindu-Muslim bloodletting of 1947, many of them were from my parents’ ancestral province of Bihar, by virtue of its geographical proximity to Bengal. Because Urdu was imposed as the official language of West and East Pakistan alike, the Urdu-speaking population of the Eastern wing had an unfair advantage over the native Bengali-speaking population. In effect, Partition for the people of East Bengal meant that they had exchanged the British Raj for colonization in brownface by the government of Pakistan, centered first in Karachi and then in Islamabad. While the country depended on East Pakistan’s resources, it remained indifferent to the needs of the Bengali people, and therefore exploitative. Resentment brewed; it came to a head in 1971 when both President Yahya Khan and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, leader of the rival Pakistan People’s Party, refused to acknowledge the absolute majority of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s East Pakistani Awami League party. Civil war ensued, and the Pakistani Army’s ruthless suppression of Bengali self-assertion, known as Operation Searchlight, began in March 1971 under General Tikka Khan. India supported the Bengalis, amassing its forces on the eastern border, until Pakistan’s “preemptive” strike against Indian airbases on December 3 led to all-out war between the two countries. Thirteen days later, Pakistan surrendered to the far superior Indian military. On December 16, 1971, East Pakistan seceded, and the independent state of Bangladesh was born.
Between March and December 1971, the Pakistan Army, in its attempt to squelch Bengali “rebellion,” raped and massacred anywhere from 300,000 to over a million --and by some estimates as many as three million--Bengalis, a horror still to be acknowledged by Pakistan’s government. (This despite the fact that, shortly after the war, Pakistan’s own Hamoodur Rahman Commission recommended a public trial of the generals involved.) Like most colonial violence in world history, Operation Searchlight was motivated by economic interests but fueled by a potent blend of ethnic, gender, and religious bigotry. The Pakistan Army consisted of taller and lighter-skinned men, a significant number of whom, like General Tikka Khan himself, identified as Punjabi; these soldiers were trained to perceive the Bengalis as inferior because of their darker skin, and as “effeminate” because of their slighter build and scant regard for machismo. Above all, Pakistan’s government and its military perceived Bengalis to be unduly influenced by the culture of their Hindu minority. No surprise, then, that a disproportionate number of Hindu Bengalis bore the brunt of Operation Searchlight’s terror, and over a million fled to West Bengal, India, never to return.
Grave as that history is, another grim but lesser known history resulted from it, one that finds little space in the textbooks of either Bangladesh or Pakistan: once Pakistani soldiers had withdrawn in defeat, enraged Bengalis avenged the Pakistani Army’s excesses by killing Urdu-speaking civilians living in their midst. Most had been Pakistan loyalists; some had actively assisted the brutal paramilitary Razakars.But vengeance has no patience for fine distinctions between guilty and innocent; all Urdu-speaking civilians, including the very old and the very young, became fair game with machetes and bayonets. The Mukti Bahini, lovingly revered by most Bangladeshis as freedom fighters, struck terror in the hearts of this hapless Urdu-speaking population abandoned by Pakistan in December, 1971.
Historians emphasize perspective, and they are right, of course. How can these backlash killings, even if in the thousands--and few studies have been curious about their number--compare with the Pakistan Army’s state-sponsored atrocities, including the planned and systematic targeting of journalists, artists, intellectuals, professors (many of them scholars of Bengali and English literature), and the wholesale slaughter of students at Dhaka University with which Operation Searchlight began? But, the hierarchizing of horrors, though vital for a sense of scale and perspective, is ultimately an empty endeavor for the human heart. In the end, most of us are left only with some personal form of reckoning, some kind of pondering, of the immeasurable effects of a single, individual death. And so, a Bihari friend of my Uncle Idris’s in Islamabad found himself raising his niece, who had been orphaned by the violence. Twenty-five years later, my mother would meet and marry an Urdu-speaking man who lost both parents and three siblings in this smaller-scale massacre. His is a lifelong reckoning with the haze of memory--of men breaking into their home and shooting the family at sight; an older sister wounded in the hip, her voice urging him to save himself by playing dead.
To this day, close to 300,000 “Biharis” remain in the original sixty-six refugee camps in Bangladesh. Initially, when given the choice between staying in Bangladesh and being repatriated to Pakistan, two-thirds had opted for repatriation. According to most estimates, Pakistan admitted some 170,000 by 1974. The majority of these individuals began their lives afresh in Karachi’s Orangi Town, the largest slum community in South Asia. But Pakistan, faced with its own ethnic strifes, balked at repatriating any more Urdu-speakers, even as it admitted three million refugees from Afghanistan in 1979, and as tens of thousands impoverished Bangladeshis arrived in Karachi illegally, looking for livelihood. In short, the “Stranded Biharis” had left their ancestral Indian province of Bihar after 1947, either out of fear of religious riots or out of faith in the newly created Muslim state of Pakistan, and had survived the ethnic cleansing that followed Bangladesh’s independence only to find themselves abandoned by Pakistan and unacknowledged by Bangladesh. Occasionally there would be talk of “repatriating” them to Bihar, but what claim could they possibly have on India? Finally, in 2008, Bangladesh granted citizenship to the Bangladesh-born-and-raised inhabitants of the camps, who now formed the majority. But, until that point--for no fewer than thirty-seven years after Bangladesh’s Liberation War--the Stranded Biharis and their descendants remained a stateless population, not even acknowledged as refugees by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), their hopes toyed with by self-serving politicians in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
With neither Bangladesh nor Pakistan interested in the plight of the Urdu-speaking minority of Bangladesh--either those who escaped to Pakistan or those who remained stranded in the camps--the hush of historical amnesia has, for the most part, enveloped the facts of Bangladesh’s early reign of terror. Even if some day the government of Pakistan were to do the right thing and make a formal apology to Bangladesh for its terrible cruelties in 1971, who would care to make amends to the survivors of that era’s subsequent, and all-but-forgotten, ethnic cleansing?
Yet individual lives, however broken, have a way of defying historical obliterations. The mere fact of their flesh-and-blood existence, charged with memory, challenges the collective amnesia despite abiding national narratives.
Art by Mikhail Zahranichny via Shutterstock.
Samina Najmi is associate professor of English at California State University, Fresno. A scholar of race, gender, and war in American literature, she discovered the rewards of more personal kinds of writing in 2011 when she stumbled into a CSU Summer Arts course that taught her to see. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Progressive, Pilgrimage, Asian American Literary Review, The Rumpus, bioStories, Gargoyle, Chautauqua, and other magazines. Her essay "Abdul" won Map Literary's 2012 nonfiction prize. Samina grew up in Pakistan and England, and now lives with her family in California's San Joaquin Valley.