Every year around Mother’s Day, I find myself looking for films that portray most introspectively the concept of the mother. My all-time favourite is Soviet director Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (1959), an existential film about a mother’s love and yearning for his son, an adolescent Red Army soldier. Set during World War II, the film was less about war than about the anguish of a middle-aged woman, who just heard that her son had been killed and buried in a foreign land. Mothers, it seems like, have a peculiar propensity to whip up matriarchal reckonings during the times of war.
I, too, was witness to a nerve-wracking intersection between war and my own mother. It was a sunny yet foreboding day in early May 1971 in Chittagong. The streets were desolate and quiet, their tranquillity sporadically interrupted by speeding military convoys and the haunting acoustics of machine guns.
The bloody liberation war of Bangladesh had started less than two months earlier when West Pakistan’s military regime led by President Yahya Khan sought to quash the democratic and legitimate claims of the Bengalis to the political space of Pakistan. The country was burdened from its inception in 1947 with the impossible geography of two wings separated by the antagonistic India lodged in between. Although bound, if precariously, by the common thread of Islam, the political destiny of the two wings of Pakistan was complicated by different mother tongues and asymmetric economic growth in the West, often at the expense of the East.
I was a kid then, and have fuzzy memories of the war, but I distinctly recall what happened to my family that day. Our neighbourhood in Panchlish was totally deserted. Most households had decided to take refuge in the relative safety of their village homes. Feeling confident that we would somehow elude the atrocities of the war, my family remained.
But on that fateful day, the Pakistani military descended on our three-storied house and sprayed it with indiscriminate gunfire. Two massive tanks blasted shells that left gaping holes on the front façade. My parents, my siblings, and I huddled together and cowered under the dining table, shivering at the thought of our impending death.
A contingent of soldiers led by a menacing officer burst open the front door and ordered my father and my elder brothers to line up in the hallway for what seemed like a point blank execution order. The accusation: collaboration with the mukti bahini. My two sisters and I watched in horror as my mother stood there, petrified with helplessness.
Guns were raised and the obvious was about to happen. In that split second between life and death my mother pleaded with the commanding officer for a reprieve as she ran inside the bedroom. When she came out running, something clutched in her hand, a family legend was born, a story of personal luck and one woman’s quick thinking.
But it was also a larger story — of humanity, of motherland — a universal story demanding that Mother’s Day be recognised as deeply meaningful, beyond wishy-washy formalities, to reckon with the matriarchal narrative that cuts across the human history.
The soldiers left without killing my father and brothers. We hugged and cried while my mother was still numb with shock and disbelief. It seemed like a miracle that she had been able to save us on that day, but a great many Bengali mothers were not so fortunate during the war.
In post-1947 South Asia, Islam was meant to be a complex political totem for an integrated Pakistan. But it eventually proved far too inadequate when the West Pakistanis began killing their fellow citizens of the East for the sake of elusive territorial integrity. Although the Pakistani military, in collusion with local collaborators, embarked on an indiscriminate killing campaign, we are yet to present to the world community a researched history of this genocide as one of the darkest episodes of human history. The systematic butchering of the country’s intellectuals to cripple the nation when secession seemed inevitable is unprecedented. But does the world know enough about the massacres of 1971 the way it knows about the holocaust or the “killing fields” of Phnom Penh or the Armenian tragedy? It seems like 1971 still remains political Islam’s dirty little secret.
As a result, 40 years after the birth of Bangladesh, the judicial quest to bring the local collaborators to justice remains a politically divisive and challenging project. Ironically, in a world of surging political correctness, Pakistan still evades the moral imperative to formally acknowledge and apologize for its actions in 1971.
The Liberation War of Bangladesh amply demonstrates why the Western world must avoid seeing Islam as a uniform political cement binding a vast territory into a coherent concept. Countries with Islam as their main faith are, on the contrary, fraught with all kinds of ruptures, fragments, colours, shades, and differing worldviews and aspirations. Osama bin Laden’s secret presence and killing in Pakistan’s political and military hinterland, and the shell-shocked Pakistani government’s dubious explanation of a sprawling Abbottabad house with invisible occupants, seems to be a continuation of corrupt, behind-the-door political practices that characterised West Pakistan’s brutal action in 1971.
For my family, 1971 was both a tragedy and a gallant story of survival, thanks to my mother’s bravery. When she returned from her room, proclaiming our family’s innocence with the Quran in her hand, the military officer was unsettled and called off his arbitrary justice. Whether it was reverence for the Quran or the sight of fierce and desperate mother love that humanised the commanding officer has always been a puzzle for me.
Every year on Mother’s Day I renew the epistemological force of this puzzle.
Dr. Adnan Morshed is an educator, architect, and urbanist in Washington, DC.