Set over a period of nine months in 1971, Nadeem Zaman’s debut novel is a fictionalised account of the bloody events that culminated in the creation of Bangladesh
Lamat R Hasan
Nobody knows exactly how many people were killed in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 in what was then East Pakistan. Nearly half a century later, first-time author Nadeem Zaman offers a detailed, albeit fictionalised, account of the bloody events that culminated in the creation of a new country.
Set over a period of nine months of 1971 – March 25 to December 16 – Zaman recreates the violence that led to what the Bangladesh government has since called a genocide that killed 3 million people. The crackdown began with the killing of students and professors at Dhaka University, soon after a regional party, the Awami League, demanded greater autonomy for East Pakistan.
The Awami League won the elections and launched a campaign of civil disobedience. Its supporters – the Mukti Bahini – started attacking non-Bengali civilians, upsetting the military regime of West Pakistan led by General Yahya Khan. The army launched a strike against the Awami League and the Hindu community, who at that time made up about 20 per cent of East Pakistan’s 75 million people, according to a BBC report.
Using the war as a backdrop, Zaman tells the story of Imtiaz Khan, a man who is unemployed and broke, and is trying to save his marriage with Lubna, who hero worships her well-to-do older brother. Imtiaz travels from Chittagong to Dhaka to claim an inheritance that his mother has left him. It is not the best of times to travel to Dhaka, which is experiencing political turmoil following the breakdown of negotiations between Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and has been placed under curfew, but he has no choice. He wants to quickly sell off his property and return to Chittagong to clear his mounting debts, and win back lost respect.
Imtiaz is the guest of Kamruzzaman and Aisha Chowdhury, his maternal uncle and aunt, and within days of his arrival, it becomes clear to him that East Pakistan is at war, and there are no takers for his property, or anyone else’s.
However, after the war breaks out, Chowdhury Villa is a safe haven for the young, multi-faith and fiery pro-independence fighters of the Mukti Bahini, mostly former students of Aisha, who are plotting for a separate land for Bengalis, as Kamruzzaman spends time in the storage room of the house, trying to tune into a mid-century Grundig SO 380 – the family’s prized possession – to hear Bangla radio.
On the other side of the spectrum is Fazal Shaukat – a young captain in the Pakistan Army with a family name to live up to, and an alcoholic wife to deal with. He is disgusted by the army’s brutality, especially the treatment meted out to women – “raped with bayonets” – but he tries to fit in as best as he can. However, his overzealous, nationalistic and sadistic boss, Major Pervez Shahbaz, is not happy with a thinking soldier by his side, who does not match his hate for the “Mukti vermins”. He is doing everything to make Shaukat’s life miserable, as much to his disbelief, he has failed to make an impact on Shaukat.
Zaman’s characters – both lead and supporting – are fighting for independence, in one way or another, and he successfully captures the nine tumultuous months in an unbiased way from the perspective of all the characters and what it means to live in violent times. Be it the distinguished “Bihari” judge, Suleiman Mubarak, whose personal belief in a separate nation for Bengalis is seen with suspicion, or the American journalist couple, who ignore their country’s double game in global politics but are appalled by the Pakistan Army’s brutality in Dhaka. The members of the Mukti Bahini who are out to seek revenge for Bengalis or those whom they perceive as anti-Bengali, or, for that matter, Imtiaz, who is rather apolitical, and mostly concerned with the turmoil within, driven by an urgent desire to set his own house in order.
Zaman’s intelligent, honest, non-judgmental and sensitive portrayals are based on stories of the Liberation War as told by his parents and grandparents. He told a Bangladeshi newspaper that his mother and father narrated the stories so well and with such rich descriptions that he started imagining the scenes in his head, and by the time he was in college, he was convinced the Bangladesh Liberation War had to be presented on an international platform.
It is not the oral histories alone that shake the reader. Zaman has done a terrific job of recording the littlest details of the war, a result of sound research. Zaman’s best portrayal is of the stately Judge Mubarak – who “never thought of himself as anything other than Bengali” – yet he is a top target of the Mukti Bahini. Without taking sides, Zaman lets the readers peek into the heads of characters and see how each reacts to war and violence. Judge Mubarak drives around Dhaka University following the killings, “looking out over the mounds like humpbacks on the ground”, and wonders what it means to be a Bihari, and why was it a generic term to refer to non-Bengalis if they did not hail from Bihar?
The war is also seen from the army wives’ perspective, even as their husbands laugh at them for being brainless and gossipy. Captain Shaukat’s wife Umbreen tells him she wants to vomit each time he returns home. “How many people have you killed, Fazal? Have you raped women? Did you watch your soldiers rape them?” she charges at him one night.
His boss, Major Shahbaz, who is losing two battles – on the outside and the inside – is found sleeping with a gun pointing to his head by his wife. His wife doesn’t scream at the sight, but quietly loosens his hand, frees the gun and waits for him to wake up.
Zaman was born in Dhaka and grew up there and in Chicago. He studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Louisville. The novel is a part of Zaman’s dissertation to study the making of a postcolonial state and the emergence of a postcolonial nation-state from Bengali nationalism to Bangladeshi sovereignty.
At a time when Bangladesh’s Liberation War is being reassessed, ‘In the Time of the Others’ fills several gaps. That it often reads like a Hemingway novel is a bonus.