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Murshid’s Chronicle of Calcutta Days

April 27, 2015

Very few books demand readers’ full attention from the beginning to end. Ghulam Murshid’s ‘Jakhon Polatok : Muktijudher Dinguli (When on a Run: Memories of the War of Independence)’, published by Shahityo Prokash, is one such book.

His memoir, never tries to hide uncomfortable truth, documents his refugee days in Calcutta, now Kolkata, during the liberation war of 1971. A retired university teacher, a former journalist, and a researcher, Murshid, who does not restrain himself from calling a spade a spade, is well known for his top-notch prose.

After reading the book, one gets the impression that he has just glimpsed into a researcher’s notebook, has leafed through a traveler’s travelogue and has read undocumented history of people’s war that mainstream history often ignores.

His lucid style of chronicling the Calcutta days makes the book unputdownable.The highly readable book also captures the social and cultural lives of West Bengal during the time of his sojourn at Calcutta; furthermore, it presents snapshots of Naxalite movement that was sweeping across West Bengal in 1971 and moving accounts of its effects on family and society.

The memoir begins with dawn breaking out at a home in Indian village of Katlamari, across the river Padma on Indo-Bangladesh border, where Murshid’s family and few others took shelter. Murshid looked back how he escaped from and the March days in Rajshahi, the major suburb in the North-Western part of Bangladesh, where the writer was a lecturer at Rajshahi University (RU). By the time war broke out, he had already been in military govt’s bad books. Editing an anthology of essays on Bengali educationist and reformer Bidyasagar on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary was his crime. Later, another Calcutta-based publisher republished the book that financially helped him a lot.

On March 25 1971, the Pak army had begun its brutal crackdown. Its tremors also reached to tranquil suburb Rajshahi. One day a Pak Air Force Sabre jet strafed Rajshahi Police Academy. Having watched the attack, horrified Murshid decided to flee. One fine morning, he along with his wife, sister, the newly born baby and his mother-in-law set off for India.

The mundane journey itself became an escapade due to Murshid’s outstanding story telling skill.

After arriving in Calcutta, Murshid and his family took refuge at the residence of novelist Maitreyi Devi with whom Murshid had already been in touch via letters. Maitreyi Devi later introduced him to Justice Masud who let Murshid’s family stay at his flat on Nasiruddin Road without any rent. Prominent Bengali novelist Syed Mujtaba Ali used to live there and later Professor Ali Anwar and his family sought shelter at that flat during the liberation war.

Murshid was making do with his meager money that he had managed to bring with him. As his literary fame had reached to Calcutta, Daily Anandabazar, leading Bengali daily, took him on as a contributor.

Soon his wife and sister started to supplement family income as his lawyer neighbor Barrister Latif’s wife had placed orders to buy their home-made and hand-made bread , roti, which impressed her a lot.

The income was enough to provide the whole family three-square meal a day. Moreover, they did not need to compromise their protein demand since meat was cheaper than fish at that time. So, beef became their main protein source.

Compared to other scholar Bengalis, Murshid lived a better life, which he acknowledged quite a number of times in the memoir.

Overwhelming presence of women on the streets of Calcutta and their participation in daily activities highly impressed Murshid. Murshid observed that as Naxalite terror movement was at its peak many parents were too afraid to send their boys to kitchen market. So, female members of the family did the daily shopping.

The memoir offers riveting accounts on the little known US support to Bangladesh’s liberation war. Contrary to US govt, Senator Edward Kennedy and Congressman Gallagher who was a member of House Committee on Foreign Affairs stood by Bangladesh. Gallagher’s instrumental role induced the House Foreign Affairs Committee to urge US govt to hold back all military aid for Pakistan until a settlement of crisis in East Pakistan. Moreover, World Bank postponed vital financial assistance to Pakistan following a report, prepared by its team sent for assessing then East Pakistan’s situation, indicated that war-torn transport and communication system across East Pakistan might lead to a famine in future. Even New York Times ran investigative reports that laid bare the identities of two ships carrying arms for Pakistan.

In addition, the book is a testament to the subtle presence of communal feeling, which drew a curtain of distrust, among few people of both the Hindus and the Muslims in that turbulent period.

Murshid’s witty style of narrating the tragic events and social perceptions makes the book very special and leaves his readers shocked. He recalled the fate of his Rajshahi University colleague Sukhoranjan Samaddar , a professor of Sangskrit. The apolitical Samaddar believed in Indian astrology and pretty convinced that he would die at the age of 63, as the readings on his palm indicated.So, in the wake of intellectual killings by the Pak Army, he did not leave his RU campus. Murshid wrote: “He read his palm correctly, but could not figure out the exact orders of the digits ‘6’and ‘3’. That’s why he died at the age of 36 leaving behind three children.” After his death even his department’s library was not named after him as he was not involved in politics while the university authority named several buildings after his other colleagues who met similar fates but involved in politics, Murshid grieved. He further lamented that the position of the head of Philosophy department remained vacant for a long time as qualified ‘Bengali’ candidate was not found for the post.

In Calcutta, the night before he was coming back to Bangladesh he contacted a cab driver to pick his family up following day. When he handed him a piece of paper after scribbling down his name and address on it, the cab driver exclaimed: “Oh! I thought you are a Bengali!” Murshid insisted he is a Bengali. Cab driver said:” No, I mean , you are a Hindu.”

Murshid observed that “the cab driver cannot think ‘Muslim’ and ‘Bengali’ language can get along with. He does not know we (Bengali Muslim) became Bengali after falling in love with the language and we have been sacrificing our lives since March (1971) for this language.”

The end of the book aptly captures excitement of the freed people and their firmness to build a new country. While the rickshaws of Murshid family approached to Bagerhat, Murshid’s rickshaw-puller ran into another acquaintance rickshaw-puller coming from opposite direction. Having finished exchanging greetings, one puller said to the other: “Don’t worry brother! We have liberated this country. We will starve if it needs to build this country.”

As for Bengalis, starving days may be gone, but building the country is a journey that is still on.

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