On the evening of the last day of March in 1971, schools and colleges in the district of Tangail dimmed their lights and shuttered their windows for the night — and for good. The Pakistani military crackdown in the capital, a mere two hours away, shook the roots of this sleepy, stolid country town. Every inhabitant knew the army was coming, and those old enough prepared for it in any way they could — turning bamboo and hockey sticks into makeshift swords, and funnelling small firearms in from the town centre.
Only later would the state of East Pakistan realise they were facing a genocide.
A village scamp — known to his parents as Rafiqur, to his friends as Babul, and, thirty six years later, to a one-year-old me as simply ‘dad’ — watched the small town’s bravery with morbid attention. A child born after partition, the Pakistani government was omnipresent in his everyday life, from the national anthem he sang in urdu every morning, to the stories he read in delayed newspapers of the rising, red-blooded Awami League.
Even at the tender age of thirteen, my father knew change was on the horizon.
Yet within the confines of a town overturned, my father continued to meet his friends every afternoon on unpaved dirt roads under the shade of the same old banyan trees. They played football in the sweet, still noon. Ran on the wet ground near the river banks. Talked of liberation. Every night my father listened to the radio.
It was on one of these idyllic days — my father and his friends lying in lush, green, post-football splendour, the delicate breeze consoling their tired bodies — that it was decided. The five of them – a straggly bunch of Bengali adolescents from Mirzapur, schoolmates, long-time neighbours and football rivals — were going to India.
The plan itself was sketchy, drawn to life by fractured tales passed down from men who had left before. What my father knew was this: in a shrouded city, not far from his, revolutionaries helped recruits avoid checkpoints, pass the Indian-East Pakistan frontier, and into the rumoured training camps near Tura.
These boys from small country towns with full hearts and clear eyes spent the pre-monsoon season between raids and leafy woods, gearing for something greater than they could grasp.
Unlike his friends, the chance for my father never came.
On the night they had prepared to leave, my father was pulled into his family’s own escape to the deep countryside. When he returned weeks later, baffled villagers could not explain where four young boys had disappeared to in the dead of night. My father could.
In the years following my father would try to join the forces twice, and each time the winds of change would twist his fortune against him. Frustration sunk deep into his bones like an anchor chained to the bottom of his dreams.
In time, East Pakistan would win the liberation war. My father would not fight in it.
The days rolled on. My grandfather passed away from a heart attack; my father became a doctor in his memory, found himself engaged, moved to Dhaka. The chase for meaning never so much faded as it was constantly delayed. The path to security, as they say, is paved with old dreams. Later my father would tell me that worthwhile aspirations are not ones you dream of in your sleep, but the thoughts that keep you up at night.
A final chance came in the form of a letter of offer from the military; my father was in his late twenties. The kind of headstrong absolutism in his youth had become muted by a medical job, age, and a wedding in the near future. This time it was easier to say no.
Today my father and I sit in the living room of a Sydney house, 9000 kilometres away and worlds apart from his childhood town. He is arguing with my sister about a vigil she is going to attend in the city. Outside, we hear claps of thunder. “It’s dangerous in this weather,” he insists. My sister ignores him, feeling her coat for her car keys. “It’s important,” is her final response.
I imagine my father, thirteen years old. He’s sitting in the back of a rickety truck looking up to a kaleidoscopic sky — swirling magic, red with blue — dreaming of a city he would never go to and a life he would never lead.