This is from Chapter-4 of my book, “Born for 71,” describing the journey to join the Mukti Bahini (Freedom Fighters against the Pakistani Army) in 1971.
On the morning of 3 April, I went out around 9:30 a.m. and after moving around aimlessly for a few hours, returned home when everybody was at lunch, I informed them that thePakistan army had found a list of names from Iqbal Hall and I believed my name also was in the list. I added that for my safety it was necessary for me to leaveDhaka immediately; otherwise, the army might pick me up anytime. This news scared all my peace-loving family members. I did not, of course, forget to offer a solution. I announced my decision to join the Mukti Bahini (freedom fighters), and asked for some money for the journey. Everybody was so scared after my adumbration that nobody objected to my plan. My brother gave me Rupees 115: a Rupees 100 note, which I hid under my socks; and Rupees fifteen in small change, which I kept in my hip pocket. My brother also wanted to give me a small piece of gold. He had a small gold bar and he proceeded to cut a small piece out of it. Not finding any suitable instrument other than a beetle-nut cutter belonging to my eldest sister, he struggled for a while to cut the gold bar with an instrument that was clearly not up to the task. Meanwhile, I was also getting impatient. Therefore, I told them not to bother about the gold. We quickly completed our parting ceremonies; my sisters were in tears, and my brother was also lugubrious but gave his best effort to hide it. I hurriedly left home fearing exposure of my deception. Fortunately, my brother-in-law was not at the house at that time.
Hoping to get a companion, I went to my friend at the Circuit House at Paribagh. My friend has a peculiar habit; he habitually animated his limbs in various gestures and signs in a very characteristic manner while speaking. When I told him that I was on my way to join the Mukti Bahini and invited him to accompany me, both his voice and animation deserted him; he contorted his face, as if, trying to decipher my language; his eyes widened and the color of his face turned crimson; he quickly extended his arms as though trying to push an abhorrent object away from him; while the expression of his face continued to change. Finally finding his voice and animation, simultaneously shaking his head and animating his hands in various ways like a dancer, with a quivering voice he suggested that I must have turned into a lunatic. Moving his arms in various postures and gestures he tried to express the ferocity and barbarity of the Pakistanis and declared that it was quite impossible to fight them. He urged me to go home and stop being an insane.
Surprised, disappointed, and angry, I left him.
Next to the Circuit House was the Paribagh bus stand. I hopped into a double-decker bus bound for Gulistan. My plan was to catch another bus from Gulistan to Demra, from Demra to Narshingdi, and finally try to find a passage to Bhramanbaria as I knew from the radio broadcasts that it was still under the control of Bangali resistance forces. Fortunately, about a year back, I had accompanied a friend on a trip to Narshingdi and I knew that Narshingdi was on the route to Bhramanbaria. I had never ventured beyond Narshingdi; however I was confident of finding a passage to Bhramanbaria from Narshingdi.
The bus conductor was a Bihari; rudely he inquired about my destination. I told him and gave him the fare, which was accepted with rudeness. After 25th March, we the Bangalis became the lower caste ofDhaka. Most Biharis misbehaved whenever they interacted with us. Even some of my Bihari friends did not hesitate to boost their higher pedigree either by their attitude or behavior. A sudden loud explosion jolted us, making us jump from our seats in apprehension. We were greatly relieved to discover that one of the tires of the bus had burst, stopping it near the General Post Office, adjacent to the Stadium. The haughty conductor informed us that the bus would go no further. We disembarked and started walking toward Gulistan bus stand. From Gulistan bus stand I boarded a bus for Demra.
When the bus started for Demra, I turned my attention to the fellow passengers of the bus. Nothing was unusual, all appeared to be average citizens with worried and apprehensive expressions. We were all looking through the windows and trying to reconnoiter the surrounding areas as the bus lazily maneuvered through the narrow but sparsely trafficked streets. Even though the Pakistani administration had tried to efface all traces of carnage, the signs of destruction were still evident. People spoke in whispers inside the bus and it felt like in the company of many corpses devoid of humanity.
Suddenly, the bus stopped a mile short of Demra throwing the passengers into a nervous quandary—trying to find an explanation for the abrupt stoppage. Soon we came to know that the Pakistani Army had surrounded Demra Ghat and was inspecting all vehicles and checking the identities of the passengers. They were arresting anyone that failed to provide satisfactory explanations or if they suspected anyone.
Panicked, the bus passengers hurriedly disembarked from the bus. I followed a group that I came to know (in the bus) was heading for Narshingdi. There were about five persons in our group and we trekked cross-country–through the paddy fields– toward the Dhaka-Narshingdi road which lay across the river. We found some country boats and crossed the river by paying a small fare to the boatman. After crossing the river we had to walk through the paddy fields for another 15-20 minutes until we reached the Dhaka-Narshingdi highway. Fortunately, we found a couple of Baby Taxis (three wheelers) on the road. We bargained with the drivers, agreed on a fare, and subsequently the overloaded Baby Taxi labored toward Narshingdi with the five of us; two sitting on either sides of the driver.
When we reached the outskirts of the town, we saw two Pakistan Air Force F-86 Saber Jets screamed over our heads, heading in the direction of Narshingdi town. Terrified by the jets, the Baby Taxi driver screeched the vehicle to a dead stop, almost throwing us from it. We quickly scampered and took shelter behind some trees by the side of the road. We could now clearly see the plane as it circled a few times over the town and then started strafing and firing rockets; the load explosions petrifying us in awe. I had never seen jets strafe and fire rockets before—it was a terrifying sight.
After about ten minutes, having finished strafing and circling the town, the jets again screamed overhead on its way toDhaka. Even though we could not directly see the conflagration from our location, we could clearly see column of swelling black smoke sprouting from multiple locations; indicating the destruction the jets had caused. We debated for a while whether to enter the town or wait where we were due to apprehensions that the jets might be back for a rerun. Our courage returned after an hour and we entered the town.
Entering the town, we witnessed the destruction caused by the jets. Many building were burning and people were trying to salvage whatever they could from the burning houses. We did not see any injured because they probably were already shifted to the hospital. We, however saw many people leaving the town in panic. In short, the town was in total chaos.
We reached the launch ghat (terminal) but unfortunately all river crafts, including country boats, had deserted the ghat. Therefore, we had nothing to do other then wait for a launch to arrive. It was already 3:00 p.m. and since I did not eat anything but the paltry breakfast, I was very hungry. Unfortunately, we could not find any food in the vicinity. After waiting for an hour in constant apprehension of the jets, a launch finally arrived. It was likely that the launch driver was not aware of the strafing. We quickly boarded the launch and the launch similarly left the ghat in haste.
While I wanted to go to Bhramanbaria, I discover that the launch’s destination was Nabinagar. Since I had never been to these parts of the country, I had no idea where Nabinagar was. I found out from one of the fellow Baby Taxi passengers that his destination was also Bhramanbaria and that Nabinagar was only ten miles from Bhramanbaria. He assured me that I could easily walk that distance. He also introduced me to two other Baby Taxi passengers also going to Bhramanbaria. As the four of us were heading for the same destination, a kind of comradeship soon formed and we started chatting in the relative safety of the wide limpid river.
Half an hour after the launch had started and as I was enjoying the peaceful late afternoon river breeze on the deck, a person rudely interrupted my solitude. “Jasus, you are a Jasus,” he shouted angrily at me. I was perplexed. Neither did I know the man shouting at me nor had I any clue about what he meant by “Jasus.” I was also irritated at his shouting at me. “Who are you?” I snapped back, “What are you shouting about?”
The man affronting me was at least double my age; well built, and in comparison I looked really small. It seemed that my response had further infuriated him and now he came almost chasing at me. I held my ground, spread my legs for better balance, clenched my fists and became ready to defend myself. Reaching very close to me he stopped and in a voice full of venom hissed, “You are a ‘Jasus’, you are a Spy!” He accused me of being a Pakistani spy!
I was now dumbfounded. Why should anybody mistake me for a Pakistani spy? I offered my identity and wanted to know his. His reply was incredulous—he identified himself as a Dog Shooter of the Bengal Regiment! A Dog Shooter! What was that? The qualification of Bengal Regiment, to my dismay, seemed respectable enough to the small crowd that had already assembled around us. Encouraged by the crowd’s acquiescence, he was about to tie me up and it seemed that he was looking for something suitable for that purpose. Fortunately, my Baby Taxi companions came to my rescue. They told him that I was traveling with them and they will not allow him to harm me or tie me up. “As we are heading for Bhramanbaria, proper authorities would decide his fate when we reach there,” they declared. The ‘Dog Shooter’ was visibly annoyed at the resistance by my new companions. But I guess I looked harmless enough to the small crowd surrounding us. The ‘Dog Shooter’, visibly displeased and irritated, continued to grumble at not having the opportunity of teaching me a lesson—a bloody spy that I was. Fortunately, he refrained from displaying an immediate desire to harm me.
The sun had gone down behind the horizon, but his rays still rested upon the passengers of the launch in the river, our temporary refuge. The effulgence of the dying light on the blue-green water made the water appear glowing. Clouds of red and white and purple wafted like a glory upon the sky; the last of the flocking birds heading for the safety of their nests; the bats embarking on their nocturnal quest; the beauty of the last radiance gradually fading into a blanket of engulfing darkness; the brilliance fading and gradually the surroundings turning into an amorphous nothingness of mystery and gloom while I stood on the deck of the launch; dark premonitions invading my thoughts.