Several years ago, I had two of my closest friends staying with me at my home. They had not previously met but, in the way that friends often do, they knew about each other from me. In the normal course this would have been an occasion for joyful feminist banter, serious discussion, and immediate bonding.
But that was not what happened. For the few days they were there, my home turned into a place of great tension and bitterness. One of my friends was from Pakistan — at the time visas were granted sometimes — and the other from Bangladesh. It was a decade and a half after the 1971 war of liberation.
Anger between friends
In South Asian feminist circles, solidarity and empathy between women of the different countries of our region is common and taken for granted. I had thus not bargained for the enmity and anger that was so palpable between my friends. At the time, I was deep into the study of Partition and it was becoming clear to me that the history of that moment was looked at very differently by Pakistanis and Indians. In hindsight I realise that before throwing my two friends together so blithely, their histories were something I should have thought of.
That moment came back to me powerfully as I read Anam Zakaria’s important book, 1971, in which Zakaria, a Pakistani, with her considerable experience in oral history, makes the journey to Bangladesh to explore the history of 1971 through the stories of people. The two dates: 1947 and 1971, in her telling, inextricably link the stories of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, and her journey then takes her to each of these places to seek out witnesses, survivors, their children, academics, military men and others.
As the stories unravel, you discover the differing narratives of the three States: for Bangladesh, Pakistan’s arrogance and ill-treatment; for Pakistan, Bangladesh’s disloyalty and attachment to a ‘Hindu’ language and culture, for India, playing the ‘caring’ big brother, rising to the defence of the defenceless. You find too that for the two enemies of old — India and Pakistan, the war becomes about themselves, the India-Pakistan war, and somewhere Bangladesh’s independence is incidental.
Underneath these narratives lie the more complex, and much more complicated stories of people: a Pakistan armyman who fell in love with Bangladesh, a Bengali fisherman who moved to Pakistan after Bangladesh became independent and who today cannot be a citizen of the nation he chose (shades of present day India are hard to ignore), of Biharis in Bangladesh who still live in camps, of people who killed and those who saved, and of how this common history is twisted and turned and inconvenient truths and faultlines obliterated in the pursuit of some kind of ‘nation building’.
This is evident enough in the telling of the stories, but Zakaria takes the reader not only into how the histories are constructed in oral narratives but also in how ‘knowledge’ is passed on.
She notes how textbooks in the three countries tell the history only from their point of view, remarking on what they conceal and what they reveal and as memory fades, it is these tellings that acquire the status of truth, especially for generations who have no history or memory of that time.
And even that manufactured ‘truth’ is not permanent for as regimes change, so do their truths.
Act of solidarity
In many ways Zakaria’s book is an important act of solidarity on the part of a Pakistani. For many years Bangladeshis have been demanding that Pakistan should formally apologise for the atrocities of 1971 but such apologies are not easily given, particularly not by states. Citizens, however, have that option.
Many years ago, in a women’s meeting in Lahore, Pakistani women’s groups exercised this option when, over a day of moving music and intense conversation, they offered a formal apology to their Bangladeshi sisters. Zakaria’s book follows this distinguished heritage.
No X factor
If I have one complaint about this book, it is about how little attention Zakaria pays to women. It is not that they are absent, and there are some significant interviews with women. But just as the question of punishing men seen as collaborators has been a very troubled one, so also has that of the rape of women, and the status accorded to them as birangonas (brave women heroes) — this complex history intersects at so many points with the larger narrative of the war that it seems like an opportunity lost that it is not explored in more detail.
1971 ; Anam Zakaria, Penguin Random House, ₹699.
The reviewer is a writer, historian, publisher.