In November of 1972 we escaped from Pakistan to Bangladesh.
After Pakistan split apart like an overripe fruit in 1971 we Bengalis trapped in Pakistan had to get out. Official repatriation to Bangladesh seemed remote and in Pakistan there was increasing talk of herding Bengalis into detention camps. In this climate of fear and uncertainty Bengalis began to flee from Pakistan to a friendly India, from where they could head for Bangladesh. One escape route was to cross the highly dangerous India-Pakistan border either from Punjab or across the marshy Rann of Kutch in Sind. The other way was across the Durand Line into Afghanistan. We chose the latter route.
One wintry night our family of five slipped out of our government colony flat and took a taxi to Rahimbhai’s house in the narrow alleys of Karachi’s old town. Rahimbhai was a businessman friend of my uncle who had arranged for a Pathan smuggler – Fazl Khan – to take us across the border. Rahimbhai was fat and sharp-eyed. Crates of foreign, black-market cigarettes and soaps were stacked in the back rooms of his warren-like house. Soon, about forty of us had assembled, including two infants in swaddling clothes. We boarded the train for Rohri Junction. It was in the opposite direction to the border town of Quetta, which was our real destination. The move was to throw off the Pakistan police, who were now capturing and jailing escaping Bengalis.
We reached Rohri Junction at noon the next day. That afternoon we boarded the train for Quetta, chugging steadily through a bleak Baluchistan. Around 10:00 the following night we rolled into a spookily quiet Quetta railway station. Rough-looking Pathans appeared out of nowhere and hustled us to a huge lorry parked outside a side entrance, its engine running. After we and our suitcases had literally been thrown into the back, the truck gunned out of there like a bat out of hell. We heard shouts. Beams from car headlights lighted up the tailgate. Rifle shots rang out and bullets ricocheted off the truck’s sides. Chased by jeeps, we roared through the town’s dark streets until we heard a train, and could see its headlamp boring down on us. Just when it seemed it was on top of us we raced across the tracks, leaving our pursuers on the other side.
Soon we were deep in the Chaman badlands. In the pitch dark the truck bucked and swayed over trackless smugglers’ trails like a camel on amphetamines. We clung on for dear life amid tumbling suitcases. As the night wore on, the sweet smell of hash mixed with the stink of vomit. Finally, near dawn, the truck stopped. We clambered out, dazed, into floating clumps of fog. Nearby, a hole in the ground glowed orange. It was the mouth of a large, round underground cave, into which we descended via a wooden ladder. The orange glow turned out to be a campfire, with a kettle of kava – Afghani tea – bubbling on top of it. Crates of luxury foreign soaps and cigarettes were stacked on the floor. Naan bread was nailed to the mud walls. Fazl Khan turned out to be a rangy Pathan with a rifle slung on his shoulders. In the morning my brother and I ventured out above and the desert’s stark golden beauty was a sight never to be forgotten.
We set off in another truck for Kandahar, then a town with lanes of cypress trees silvery beneath a full moon. There we stayed at the Spozmai hotel, and breakfasted next morning on poached eggs, real English jam and toast beneath a huge portrait of King Zahir Shah. Later that day, nervous about the police, Fazl Khan moved us to a brothel, a mud-walled building in the more crowded part of town. Plump Pathan women in various states of undress shot out from the rooms assigned to us. When I and my brother were lugging our two suitcases up a short flight of stairs from the pile of luggage dumped at its foot, Fazl Khan stood at the top looking down at us. “Bring the other ones too,” he commanded. “But they are not ours,” I protested. In a flash he came down the steps, eyes spitting fire, drew the heavy knife from his belt and said menacingly “Bring up the other ones.” We let go of our suitcases, which clattered down the stairs. Bile and tears of rage rose in my throat and eyes, but there was nothing to do except obey him.
But he kept his word to Rahimbhai. He got us out of Pakistan, without robbing us or letting us be robbed. We went to Kabul by bus, winding our way at times through snowy mountain roads. A Pathan boy walked in front of the bus during the most treacherous stretches in his sandals, bulletproof against the bitter cold. Kabul at night was a stunning valley of lights. We stayed at a rambling wooden hotel whose boozed-out owner was a dead ringer for George Harrison. Everybody gathered in our room for afternoon tea, with the men playing low-stakes poker long into the night. We shopped for winter coats in Kabul’s used-clothes market and ate pomegranates bursting with crimson juice. The Indian embassy stamped visas on our Pakistani passports and arranged for Air India tickets to Delhi.
In Delhi the Bangladesh High Commission housed us in rented accommodations in Greater Kailash, a tony neighbourhood. The first evening I ventured out to see a huge, ornate temple at the end of the road with boys in whites playing cricket in its shadow. India was startlingly normal, nothing like what we had imagined growing up in Pakistan. We toured Delhi, standing on the ramparts of the Red Fort overlooking the bazaar-lanes of Chandni Chowk. This was where the denizens of old Karachi had come from, fleeing in their turn to Pakistan during the 1947 Partition. Food coupons issued by the high commission were redeemable at the Muslim restaurant in the market, where we ate stupendous bowls of beef keema and naan.
We took the Rajdhani Express train to Calcutta, which flat out covered the distance in a little over twenty-four hours. Our fellow passengers were Hindu Bengalis, whose accents were profoundly foreign to my Muslim Bengali ear. The train’s menu was also a surprise, a watery mix of rice and fish curry. We landed in a ghostly Calcutta during its nightly brownout. With cash running low, we bunked down at a cheap hotel near Chinatown. Men slept on pavements tightly packed together, and around 4:00 in the morning a powerful blast sent shock waves through our room. “Naxalite revolutionaries,” explained the sad-eyed hotel manager the next day as we checked out. We hired an Ambassador taxi and rode through an iridescently green countryside to the Indo-Bangladesh border crossing of Benapole.
Our passports were stamped by the Indian guards. Lugging our suitcases we walked across the no-man’s land and presented our passports to the Bangladeshi border guards. They stamped them. We stepped out of the sentry box and onto Bangladeshi soil.
We had made it!
Khademul Islam is a Bangladeshi writer and translator.