I was supposed to go to Lahore in January 1971, but I didn’t make it there until just this year.
In 1971, my father—a Bengali—was still an officer in the Pakistan Army and he had been posted to the western side of the country. My mother, only 25 at the time, faced the prospect of traveling alone with both my brother, barely a year and a half, and me—practically a newborn—2,000 kilometers from her home in Dhaka. So she did the smart thing; she left me with my grandparents to go set up home first. My grandmother would follow in a few weeks and deposit me with my parents. Before that trip could take place though, war broke out.
The story of my family is not atypical of what many Bangladeshi families went through in 1971. My father’s youngest brother, a 17-year-old in Jessore, left home one morning with the hope of crossing the border to join the Mukti Bahini; he was never found again. Another uncle spent most of the nine months of war on the run, a hunted man. My mother’s brother walked all the way past the border to join the famous camp of Khaled Mosharraf. He came back to Dhaka with two grenades in his pockets, but was arrested by the Pakistani Army before he could carry out his operation. Fortunately, he suffered no worse than imprisonment. Another uncle was also captured, and tortured.
Everyone lived in terror and penury common to war times, and in dreadful uncertainty about the future. Despite the loss and the torment, my family was lucky. There are families who lost most of their loved ones; we lost ultimately only my father’s youngest brother.
Among those who made it back home, though, my parents and brother were the last to return. They had become interned in West Pakistan along with scores of other Bengali officers and their families during the war. For families on either side of the separated nations, the hardest part was not knowing when, or whether, they might be united again.
Through it all, of course, my brother and I were as carefree as children are. My brother grew up thinking of a prison camp as ‘home.’ I grew up thinking of my grandparents as ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad.’ What’s more, being a potential orphan, I was spoilt with love and care by a retinue of doting aunts and uncles.
Meeting my parents at last on a November day in 1973 in the old Dhaka airport, is among my earliest memories. What I remember best, however, are not the strangers who greeted me as their own, only to be rejected thoroughly by me in the coming days; the most vivid part of that scene for me is a series of bright red Cessnas parked on the tarmac.
Like many Bangladeshis of my generation, I was reared on stories of the Liberation War. Stories of the atrocities by the Pakistan Army and their local collaborators, as well as the heroic resistance mounted by our Mukti Bahini, filled my boyish imagination by turns with outrage and loathing, pride and awe.
I didn’t grow up thinking of Pakistan as an enemy nation; the war was over and we had won. Yet, I was nowhere close to feeling any easy friendship toward my Pakistani peers, even during my university years in the United States. Professions of a putative fraternity as Muslims were not good enough. I had to know where each one stood on the matter of ’71.
Over the years I found that Pakistani denial took mainly three forms: refusal to accept the scale and vicious nature of the violence that had been committed; pleading that ‘terrible’ things happen during wars; and, finally, that the Bengalis, too, did ‘terrible’ things. There is sufficient third-party documentation by now (most recently, say, The Blood Telegram by Gary J. Bass) for the denial of violence to be no longer tenable. It also doesn’t take much to see that there is great difference between unintended collateral damage and deliberate acts of mass violence against unarmed civilians.
The third issue—allegations of retribution or summary killings by members of the Mukti Bahini—is trickier. All such incidents need their own historic reckoning. Bangladeshis would do well to acknowledge any mistakes on their part as they seek redress from others. But, one must also note that the crimes of the Pakistan Army, in their scale and brutality, far outstripped anything committed by units of the Mukti Bahini in the brief period between the war’s final days and the new Bangladeshi government’s assertion of its authority. Also, the responsibility of a state and its forces committing genocide can’t be excused by citations of acts of an effectively militia-style force.
I invoke these issues not so much with the expectation that Pakistanis who are still in denial will be persuaded, but simply to hold up for them a view that I believe is common for many Bangladeshis. I have heard Pakistanis ask, ‘Why do you keep dwelling on the past? Why can’t you move on and look to the future?’ The answer is quite simple: some events are so great that you simply cannot move forward without an acceptable resolution.
I passed the first four decades of my life unable to bring myself to visit Pakistan. Even as other members of my family made the trip, I was held back by historic qualms and personal wariness. What kind of conversations would I have if I went there?
Is this tiny but deep strain of liberalism any match for the more ferocious ideologies that seek to crush it?
The prospect of visiting Pakistan came up again for me, decades after my first aborted trip, in the form of an invitation to the Lahore Literary Festival 2014. This time I was able to make the trip, thanks foremost to the friendship I had formed with a number of Pakistani authors in recent years, and their informed stance on ’71. For me, Lahore also held great fascination. This is the city where my father had studied engineering and spent nearly 12 years of his life. Prewar Lahore sounded entirely charming: a city of colleges and gardens, music and laughter.
My father’s tales faltered though whenever we reached ’71. He could not explain how a society that appeared so elegant and friendly in his personal accounts could also be the cradle of policies that led to one of history’s most horrific episodes. There was nothing to say besides that the well-meaning were too few, too powerless; and that the masses were whipped into hysteria with false information at a time when information was indeed far easier to control.
Bangladeshi intellectuals have long known and appreciated the opposition mounted by Pakistani liberals during ’71. What was interesting for me to discover on this trip is the abiding hold of that liberalism across generations. As a narrative of extremism has come to dominate global perceptions of Pakistan, the fact that there is a durable, indigenous tradition of liberalism has fallen by the wayside. In my university days, I regularly came across Pakistanis who, liberal on most counts, simply could not square the globally mainstream narrative about ’71 with their sense of identity. Education in the world’s best colleges, or living in the most cosmopolitan capitals, was not enough to open up the space that was required to question received narratives. But in Lahore I came across many young people from local colleges who did precisely that with ease.
Is this tiny but deep strain of liberalism any match for the more ferocious ideologies that seek to crush it? I know too little about Pakistan to make any pronouncements let alone predictions. I can only say that an encounter with this country that I had long resisted proved to be more full of surprises, and pleasanter ones, than I had expected.
Lahore as a city—Mall Road, Gymkhana, and much else—proved indeed to be as beautiful as my father always said it was. But a city is defined, ultimately, by its people. The Lahoris, certainly the ones who attended to us during LLF or entertained us afterhours, lived fully up to their reputation for charm and hospitality. What struck me most, however, was the crowd that came to the Alhamra: informed, open, and questioning.
I had invited my mother on this trip, so that she could show me the old places that my parents frequented: the old Gymkhana and Rahat Bakery; Coffee House and a spot in Anarkali where my father had taken her on a date, only to discover that he had forgotten to bring any money. We met old friends of theirs with whom they had reestablished contact. I was older today than they were when the war took place. Yet, I could see that in their eyes I was the child who had been left behind, the one they had never met. To know that one can hold such a place of affection in the hearts of strangers was something I didn’t know as a child, and it took me by surprise again, even now.
As a Bengali, I can never stop insisting that Pakistan as a state needs to apologize for the genocide of ’71. But I also don’t want my sense of peace to be in the hands of another person, let alone a deeply troubled state. It is each person’s choice if they wish to find a measure of reconciliation at a personal level, and how they do it.
In this respect, the kind of interaction I have enjoyed with my Pakistani peers has come as a deeply welcome opportunity. Our friendship, like all friendships, is based on an attraction of personalities and shared interests, or laughs; but given our history, there is a layer of special resonance that I suspect neither side can ignore. The fact that the tenor of my encounter with them was echoed by literary Lahore helps deepen the sense of personal rapprochement.
I was surprised by the rapidity with which I began to feel at ease in Lahore. One day, taking a break from the literary sessions, my mother and I went to the cantonment looking for their old house. It was believed to be on a small street off Safdar Road. As we stood on that quiet little road, on a cool and cloudy day, it was odd to think that I might have played on that mossy driveway. A green field stretched before us. The low height of the buildings evoked an era, especially for someone from Dhaka, long gone but not forgotten, and not to be forgotten.
Would I be quite the same person, I could not help wonder, if I had never been separated from my parents? To some questions there can be no answers.
Ahmed is the author, most recently, of The World In My Hands. He lives in Dhaka. From our March 22, 2014, issue.