Mid-August, people in Pakistan and India observed the 70th anniversary of independence from the British Raj. The country that is now Bangladesh also came free from the Raj at that time but it would be as part of Pakistan and the people there would learn that they had exchanged one colonialism for another. Bangladesh did not have much discussion about 1947.
Much of the conversation this year is focusing on the other reality of August 1947: the Partition of the subcontinent into two states, borders emerging to divide centuries of social, economic, and cultural relationships, accompanied by great cruelty and the massacre of millions of people.
Over the years I have been troubled by Partition and have written a number of essays related to that momentous change. Here I bring together links to all those articles:
- Partition at 70: Why does Bangladesh act as if this anniversary only concerns India and Pakistan?, written on the 70th anniversary of Partition.
Why do we act as if this anniversary does not belong to us, that it only concerns India and Pakistan? Was this not the moment that people in Bangladesh said farewell to the British? True, we became East Pakistan then and that phase in our history would prove disappointing and we would have to fight again for independence. But that cannot take away from the fact that August 1947 was momentous for us as a people, a time combining great promise and immense tragedy.
I believe we keep quiet about August 1947 because as a nation, we are uncomfortable about how to fit that into our national narrative. The result is doubly tragic. We fail to discuss the challenges of creating a society free from British colonial baggage. And we do not reflect on our role in the history that led to Partition, our own complicity in communal division, a reflection that could allow us to build a society respecting all our citizens.
- Looking Backwards: 1947 and After written on the 60th anniversary of 1947 when I was living in Dhaka. It tours around my family’s relationship to Partition and 1971.
When the white crescent on green flag was hoisted in Dhaka, as the Raj took leave, I was yet to be born. The only family story I have heard of that day is that my Dada — really my Nana, my mother’s father — lit a cigarette. He was not a smoker.
Lighting a cigarette can have different meanings. Some smoke to calm their nerves. Some light up after they make love. I was never a habitual smoker. Now and then I smoked with friends, enjoying their company. One winter I even tried cigarettes to ward off cold.
For my grandfather, it was an act of celebration.
There would have been others that day smoking with different feelings. For many, their lives turned upside down, that day was not a happy one.
I was born in Dhaka seven years after Dada’s cigarette became ash.
This essay was also redone as a graphic narrative by Pinaki De and published in This Side, That Side, Restorying Partition, edited by Vishwajyoti Ghosh.
- A translator’s journey: From Kalo Borof to Black Ice. This essay describes my journey towards translating a Partition Novel from Bangladesh. While there are many Partition novels from India, there are few from the Bangladesh side. “Kalo Borof” by Mahmudul Haque is one of the few. The English translation is Black Ice.
Mahmudul Haque wrote Kalo Borof in a ten-day burst in August 1977. The novel was soon published in an Eid Supplement, but it didn’t come out as a book until 1992.
I chose this novel because it is about Partition. Lost in our other preoccupations, we often overlook 1947. But that event played a momentous role in shaping who we are. Born in its aftermath, I come from a family only tangentially affected by it. I was familiar with some Partition narratives from writers who migrated to West Bengal, but I could find few stories of those coming east. Kalo Borof was the first novel I read that showed the long reach of Partition into a person’s adulthood in Bangladesh.
- Agunpakhi: Chronicle of a Life, Place and Time. This is a review of Hasan Azizul Haque’s novel Agunpakhi, one of the other Partition novels from Bangladesh.
Near the end of Hasan Azizul Huq’s novel Agunpakhi, the narrator tries to wrap her mind around the concept of Pakistan.
The novel is set in rural Rarh, now in West Bengal. Before Partition, when people around her become excited about a separate homeland for Muslims, the stench of blood is already in the air. They clamour Lorke lenge Pakistan. She asks, “What will you do with it once you win it? Do you even know where Pakistan will be?”
After Bengal is split into two, she asks her husband’s brother, “You’ve achieved Pakistan with your lorke lenge. Now do you know what that country is like? Won’t you now go to that country you won through all that wrangling and killing?” He replies, “What a thought. Why will I go to Pakistan? Why would I leave my own land?”
The narrator remembers her world being consumed by a divisiveness that had nothing to do with their lives. So much bloodshed and for what? At the end of the novel, her children leave for Pakistan, and later they ask their parents to come. Her husband agrees, but she refuses to go.
- A mythical place called Bangla Motors Bangla Motors is a neighborhood in Dhaka. But it’s a ghost since there never was a business named Bangla Motors. One by the name of Pak Motors did once exist.
The change of name from Pak to Bangla Motors makes me think about other names around the city. What is curious is that while Dhaka obliterated nearly all names associated with the Pakistan period, the city continues to preserve many place names linked to the British era. There are Minto and Bailey roads in Ramna, Fuller Road and Curzon Hall at Dhaka University, and English and Johnson roads in the old town.
The English ruled us for about 200 years and that legacy is deep. We have our grievances against the Raj but over those two centuries we also developed a fondness for many things British. Their imprint is strong in our economy, culture, and politics; the legacy especially strong in state institutions. Our police still operate according to the Police Act of 1861, our prisons according to the Jail Code of 1864. As a society we never came to terms with any serious effort at decolonisation.
The Pakistani period, however, left less room for ambivalence. Their domination lasted a mere 24 years, the memory of that time tainted with military rule, relentless efforts to negate our culture and language, and eventually the brutal war they launched against our striving for freedom. It is no surprise that long after the worms in their graves were consuming the remains of Minto and Curzon, place names associated with the lat shahebs like them would not bother us as much as anything linked to Jinnah or Ayub.
We might have done away with Pakistan and its symbols, but beyond the matter of signboards and labels, what is the exact legacy of the Pakistan period in Bangladesh? From police rules to fruitcake, it would be easy to list examples of the British residue. What is it that the Pakistanis brought here that seeped into our social fabric and left a lasting imprint?