It is the 25th of March in Dhaka again, 53 years since the Pakistani military crackdown in 1971. For those of us who went through that time, certain events are seared into our memories. Over the years I’ve tried to write some of them down. Other times I’ve tried rendering that time in fiction. Here are a few of those renderings. These memories run through my mind day in and day out when I read, watch, think of what cruelties are being inflicted by Israel on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

From the short story Orange Line, included in the book Killing the Water: Stories:

He was one of the last few people on the streets. As he walked with hurried steps towards the subway station, the young man heard the crashing noise of an iron grate being yanked across a storefront. Otherwise the night was still. Even the Salvation Army bell ringers had gone home.

            He was uneasy being alone on the streets. It reminded him of another time, in a place far from where he now lived. Late on that other night, he had left home heading for the riverboat terminal where he hoped to catch the midnight motor launch to the south of the country. But the streets had been deserted in a way that suggested everyone else knew something he did not. Unable to find transportation across town, he started to walk. After a few blocks, he changed his mind and turned back. Minutes after he reached his house, cannons and machine guns shattered the quiet of the night as military troop carriers stormed though the city. Anyone caught in the open had been shot. Three days later during a short break in the curfew, he learned that the passengers waiting at the terminal had been among the military’s first victims.

            He pushed aside those memories. That other night was nothing like this. Tonight the plaza was deserted for very ordinary reasons: a heavy snowstorm had been predicted. It would be the second in a row.

From the short story Kerosene, included in the book Killing the Water: Stories:

There is an idea among oppressors everywhere that when people resist, the way to stop this is to have a mighty fist strike them down once and for all. This rarely works, but the deed is repeated over and over. Our rulers played from the same book. One midnight the Westerner soldiers stormed out of their barracks, invaded the streets and sprayed gunfire in all directions. It is said that ten thousand people died that night, another five over the next few days.

            From that moment, what we would call the Night of the Bullets, the Westerners lost their ordinary name. They could no longer be considered human. To us they simply became known as the Demons.

            Most people were stunned by the assault and cowered inside their homes. But in an older part of the capital city, a neighborhood with crumbling structures and narrow alleyways, a Demon patrol was ambushed by ten of our young men. Armed only with knives, they had seized the Demons’ weapons and turned them back against them. They held off against repeated forays by the Demons. In the end, none of our boys survived but word of their act filtered out and became legend. When the rest of us heard the story, an amazing rush zipped through our bodies. Who knew our people, always ridiculed as cowardly, could do this?

            The season of war was upon us.        

From my memories, shared earlier on Facebook:     

            When daybreak came after the long night of bullets and cannons, the radio was our only connection to the world. We had no telephone. There was a curfew outside, with troops patrolling the streets; we couldn’t go anywhere. Radio Pakistan Dacca informed us: martial law was in full force, curfews would run for 24 hours until further notice, violators would be shot on sight.

            But as we moved the dial on the radio, we caught a faint station which seemed to be coming in on the same frequency as Radio Chittagong, the station from the port city 150 miles to the southeast. The announcer identified the station as Swadhin Bangla Betar. It broadcast news of resistance, announced the declaration of independence for Bangladesh. For the first time, we felt a glimmer of hope: there was resistance, there would be a chance to fight back, perhaps even to win.

            Besides hope, the radio also brought frustration that haunts me to this day. I had discovered that on certain shortwave frequencies we could listen to the military radio. We listened with horror. Conversations like these: There is a person shooting at the troops from such and such residence hall at the university. Send reinforcements and silence him. There is a Hindu family in Laxmi Bazaar. Send a squad and get them. Here is the address. You hear a death warrant spelled out, you know that within a few hours, death could come to a family simply because they belonged to another religion. But you can do nothing about it.

            I taped some of those broadcasts on my cassette recorder. When I journeyed to cross the border I carried that tape with me. I tried that journey three times before I succeeded. Should I have been stopped on the way, I knew the risk. Thankfully on that final try, we managed to cross without being stopped. After I reached Agartala, I handed over my tape to our liberation forces. I never learned what happened to that tape. I don’t think I’ve ever found out whether someone managed to preserve it.


            Three or four days after the first night, very early in the morning, there was a loud knock on my bedroom door which opened out into the veranda. Inside the house, we didn’t know how to respond. The knocks continued. There was no place to run, they could break in if they so wanted to. Trying to get sleep out of my eyes, I opened the door. I faced two peasants from far off West Pakistan in the uniform of the army, brandishing their AK 47s and barking at me in a language I did not understand. Punjabi? Pashto? Baluch? It was not Urdu. With their faces contorted in rage, they ranted on, making shapes and patterns with their free hands. Slowly I began to figure out that, no, they had not come for us, they wanted a large pot which they could use to boil water for tea. These were two of the soldiers who were going to be setting up a checkpoint at the intersection in front of our house, Pak Motor then, Bangla Motor today.

            During breaks in the curfew, I remember walking past the checkpoint. I could not tell if my face would betray me. How can you tell if your thoughts, seething with fear and anger, would somehow be betrayed by your face? I recall that when I passed by these soldiers I would try to empty my mind of all thoughts so that my mind would be blank and my face could not betray anything.

            A few nights after the checkpoint had been set up, we heard a couple of loud shots real close by. All we could do was wonder, who was the unlucky person this time? The next morning or the following one, a body floated up in the pond behind our house. It looked like the mentally deranged man who would wander the streets in our neighborhood from time to time. Politics meant nothing to him. Curfews meant nothing to him. Yet it ended up meaning everything. Did they give him a chance? Or did they treat him like a plaything, using him for target practice? Life held so little value to these men with guns.