I am writing this piece for our Victory day. By the time it gets published, it will either be the day we won our victory or the day have had come and gone by. But does it really matter? This day still holds the same place in our hearts as it used to 39 years ago. Of all days of our national significance, this is the one that is closest to my heart. This is the day that I rejoiced, revered and cried out the most. A cry of happiness and pride.
When the Pakistan occupation army came down upon the Bangalis in Dhaka on the night of 25th and the morning of 26th March 1971, and when the independence of Bangladesh was proclaimed, we were too shaken; indeed too devastated to have taken notice of what was going on. The “Operation Searchlight”, was a wanton act of brutality unleashed by the enemy to maim and overcome an entire nation. We were busy saving our lives. Verily, all of us were solidly behind our leaders but little did we know about the kind of reprisal it would warrant.
I remember fleeing my beloved city of Dhaka, tears welling up in my eyes. Not out of fear but from the pain of having to leave behind all those memories that are associated with this city — my school days, the days in the college or the university, and the friends that I made in the journey to and through my youth. I was crying because I saw, as if in an apparition, all that we loved and lived for were done away with — our language, our culture, our values and ideals. The congregation of the book fair and the observance of the Shaeed Dibash were no more there. Bengali signs of the shops in the New Elephant road and the New Market were being lowered and Urdu signs hoisted in their place. I could not possibly have even dreamt of living in a city subjugated and captivated by a foreign force.
But 16 December was another day. It was almost the end of an ordeal. I was at a place near Navaron in Jessore with a tape-recorder in hand. This was an assignment from the Swadhin Bangla Betar. I was recording reactions of the local people as they were progressively becoming free. In the process, I was also falling in the footsteps of the advancing Mukti Bahini and the Indian army.
It was a rather cold December day. The sun was already going down in the western horizon. I was aware of the fact that Dhaka was already surrounded by the Bangladesh and Indian forces and would fall any time. A call for the Asr prayer by the muezzin heralded the late afternoon. The day of the 16th of December was coming to an end. Suddenly, I saw an Indian army jeep coming from the opposite direction. I was a bit surprised to see it because it was the time to go forward, not to turn back. When the jeep came close by someone stuck his head out and said, “Rejoice! The Pakistanis have surrendered”, and then he sped away.
For about a minute I was dumbfounded. I did not expect it to happen so soon. I was apprehending the worst thing to follow if the Pakistanis did not surrender. An artillery barrage created by the joint liberation forces could have completely decimated the city of Dhaka. Many of my friends and relatives were still captive there in the city. And I was naturally very concerned. But right then the foremost thought that pervaded me is the fact that we were FREE.
I remember releasing the tape-recorder on the ground as if in a trance. I looked up to the sky, infested with stars, and cried in silence for a minute. Then, on that road to Jessore — bereft of traffic, quiet and peaceful — I cried out with all the strength I could muster, WE ARE FREE! I kissed the soil of Bangladesh and rolled on its bosom like a man possessed. I rolled and rolled until fatigue took me over. This was the fatigue of nine months of uncertainty, of desperation, of hope and anguish.
I started walking back towards the border, stray thoughts crowding my mind. I saw in my mind’s eye, ‘Rustom’ running towards a Pakistani bunker with a live grenade in hand and jumping in to it giving the last battle cry of Joy Bangla. He killed himself and all those who were occupying the bunker. I saw the face of my dear ‘Kamol da’ who sacrificed one of his eyes so that we could be free. I remembered ‘Hafiz’ and ‘Mahoboob’, ‘Ashfaque’ and ‘Rumi’ and millions of others whose valour and blood mingled with this soil to give our posterity and us a nation of our own.
Within the confines of this column, it is impossible to express my exact feelings of that day and give an account of how people rejoiced our Victory Day 39 years back. The day we were returning by road back to Dhaka, I was a witness of how people from villages spontaneously and exuberantly engaged themselves in rebuilding roads, repairing bridges or offering food and water to others. This was a spirit of camaraderie of selflessness that we could not hold on to for long. Yet this is the only spirit that can remove all our miseries of toady. Could we go back to those days, relive the spirits of the Victory day of ‘71 and start it all over again? May be we could find a sense of direction from there. Otherwise, we’d fail to build a viable nation for our posterity. And that is devastating even to think of.
Aly Zaker is among the leading personalities in Bangladeshi theatre, a renowned actor on stage and television as well as a noted ad-filmmaker.