Once she decided to banish love out of her life, her world turned upside down. She had never thought that later she would face any such problem that she won’t be able to solve. And trying to solve that problem, she would herself become a problem. She had never thought that in loveless times the flowers fade, the breeze turns into scalding wind, sadness engulfs the walls of your home and despite the cacophony of noises emanating from the courtyard, a deafening silence overwhelms you and takes possession of your heart like a cobra with its hood raised, whose hissing sets your very being on such a fire that neither the cold water nor the icy winds can ever extinguish. The heart burns, the cobra hisses, the fire rages and doesn’t die out. Whatever you do, it does not die out; it just refuses to die out.
She put her left hand on her chest and walked slowly towards the window. It was pitch dark in the street opposite. A municipal bulb, visible near the last corner of that lane near Zainab Massi’s [maternal aunt] house, looked like a lamp burning in a hut at the edge of a forest, which sometimes shows the way to the lost travellers. That bulb was surrounded by a silent darkness. A murmur could be heard coming from Uncle Arshad’s house, situated just opposite the window. Chachi [paternal aunt] Rashida will as usual be narrating the same old tale of Scheherazade to her grandsons and granddaughters. She would conclude with the words: “What a wonderful woman she was! How intelligent, quick witted and brave!” When she heard that story as a child, she had asked, flapping her eyelashes, “How come, Chachi?” “That is because instead of accepting defeat, she had decided to bravely fight the cruel king. God helped her succeed. Look children, it is an honour for the brave to die fighting. Then death ceases to be death, it claims the status of martyrdom and that is a very high status, indeed,” Chachi had said.
Chachi used to tell this story always on the last day of the week. This was her principle. The children waited for the story for full seven days, and then she poured it into their ears, drop by drop. That was why this story was very popular among the children. The next day was a holiday and she remembered how instead of flying kites, playing marbles or simply making noises on the roof with her siblings, she had spent the day engulfed in silence. The issue of dying while fighting bravely had got stuck in her young consciousness. She spent the whole day lying on the cot and looking into the sky. In her heart she repeated innumerable times what aunt had said. But she couldn’t figure out what was so special about dying while fighting bravely which earned such praise from Chachi. What courage Scheherazade had displayed that so overwhelmed the aunt that she was narrating her story to everyone? When she could comprehend nothing, she decided not to listen to the story of Scheherazade again and came down from the roof.
Great, Chachi! She felt the echo of conversation reach her ears, and a sigh escaped her lips. Your Scheherazade had succeeded in defeating death due to her narrative gift. But here life itself has been crushing everyone since centuries. I haven’t seen any Scheherazade who could prevail over it. Everyone is afraid of it, and can be seen bowing before it with folded hands. Death appears helpless in facing life. Death is kind and one’s own, at least, it doesn’t reject you. Rather it accepts one into its lap with a lot of affection. She felt like shouting at Chachi Rashida through the window and ask her to let go of the poor Scheherazade now, for god’s sake. To forgive that Scheherazade! The poor girl might have got tired of fighting death. Let her face life now. She should also know that there is a world outside the world of art, where there is hunger, there are worries, there is sadness, there is hatred, there are contradictions and…. And life is like the cruel king. And life doesn’t pay any attention to the narrative skills of the master storyteller. It has no interest in any such art. Rather, it would be more appropriate to say that it’s not possible to trick it with any such art.
Life cannot be appeased. It has its own facts, its own assessments, its own canvas, its own brush and its own colours. Ideas too are its own and so it paints whatever catches its fancy: Upright, inverted, oblique, crooked, as she feels like. And the remarkable thing is that nobody can mould life the way one wants. ‘O.K. Scheherazade! If you ever come out of the discourse created by Chachi Rashida, I shall tell you what life is all about.’ The sigh emanating from her heart became an expression of her very being. Now in her eyes could be seen the innocence of an eleven year old girl, who takes note of the quickly lengthening shadows on a hot summer afternoon; one who has a small painting brush in one hand and a simple page, torn from a notebook, fluttering in the other.
She wanted to make a painting of the shadows; the shadows of the arches, walls, terraces and the attic of the house. The shadows that came down from the mulberry, mango, black plum and margosa trees growing in the courtyard and spread there in strange shapes, forms and directions. She used to watch the play of shadows while sitting in the centre of the courtyard in one of the arches of an old Baradari whose plaster was coming off. And her feeling of wonder used to multiply manifold when she would see an ill-shaped shadow emerge from the arch she sat under, and spread on the ground. “Do I look like this?” surprised she would wonder and run into the room. It was during those days that she thought of capturing the shadows in a painting. Perhaps in this way the shadows could be prevented from spreading and lengthening. But that day, her amazement knew no bounds when she saw a shadow in the middle of the arch, move strangely left and right with a yard long brush on a square shaded piece of paper. Do shadows also…? She thought and threw the painting brush away.
It was during those days that a strange accident took place which threw her into a never ending vicious cycle. All her later life was moulded into that cycle. And that cycle became her life cycle. She could never get out of it. Then she could see nothing. She closed her mind’s eye. All her innumerable little childhood joys were strung into an unending chain of tears. Unobtrusively she put that chain around her neck, never to take it off. And then that little girl metamorphosed from Mother’s Muni to Zohri, to Zohra Baji and finally to Zohra Aapa. Recollecting that transformation, Zohra felt a cold shiver quicken through her being. Wrinkles began to appear on her face, which expressed her innocent fears. Sad glitter of twinkling glow-worms began to flicker on her empty palms. A scene emerged in front of her gloomy eyes, a scene that had snatched the joy of breathing from her and had burdened a twelve year old girl with a load of centuries. When she tried to carry the burden, her shoulders slumped, her back bent double, her hands started trembling and legs turned shaky. But she couldn’t even complain against the burden.
She just kept laughing. To keep smiling in face of an extreme sorrow is also akin to defeating the grief. Implicitly, it was like victory over grief. But she learned too late that it was not so. Grief was a wrestler that displayed greater tricks when it was out of the arena. It was simply impossible to prevail over it. Now she left the window and sat in the chair. She untied her long black hair and resting her head on the back of the chair, closed her tired eyes and took deep breaths. “Life is a four-directional battle, Miss Zohra Sultan.” A whisper rose from somewhere close by. “How many opponents will you fight? You’ll get exhausted.” “This exhaustion is here since those days Professor Zaka, when I didn’t even fully understand the meaning of exhaustion.” She thought despondently, feeling the murmuring silence enclosed within the four walls of the room. How can I tell you, Professor Zaka? When the upheaval occurred, a good deal was buried under the rubble.
Long time ago, Professor Zaka, a dark night had swallowed the light out of my life like a cruel demon. The sleep had turned into a continuous wakefulness and dreams, into frightening dreamlessness. When a 12-year-old girl, rudely shaken out of her sound sleep by the frightening noises all around her, had chosen to plug her ears with her fingers. She had devoutly prayed to be blinded in both her eyes when she witnessed that horrifying scene. Finding herself defenceless and overcome by her vulnerability, she had accepted defeat and sitting near the mutilated bodies of her dear ones, had dipped her fingers in their thick blood and written a pledge on her own self. Crying, she had noiselessly run to the rooftop with Maya pressed to her bosom, to talk to God. Perhaps she had the illusion that God is nearer the rooftop. There is no barrier in-between, but this too was her delusion. She learned later that God is far away from everywhere. It is not so easy to reach Him. So she did not cry while giving the final bath and burying the blood-drenched bodies of her parents and three younger siblings. The dry dust flying into her eyes had settled on her eyelashes, spread on her lips and engulfed her very existence. Later, staring at the photograph of a terrorist, printed on the last page of a newspaper, she had tried hard to bring back tears to her dry eyes, the tears that got lost somewhere in the labyrinth of some dark alley on a brutal night.
Professor Zaka, the walls of that room used to be very pitiless and chilly where I, clutching Maya to my bosom, attempted to get rid of the questions written over the frightened open eyes of those mutilated bodies, and to find some sleep by hitting my head against the pillow. Covering both my eyes with palms of her hands, I used to vigorously recite the Ayat-ul-Kursi [a prayer from Quran]. “Go to sleep, Go to sleep”, I used to admonish myself. Those days I used to feel very angry with God. I wished I would come face to face with Him and ask what type of a God He was who destroyed the world of the unsuspecting? Did He prefer those who haughtily roamed around freely, nonchalantly killing or injuring whosoever they liked, without any worry whatsoever? Pitted against them were people like us, who even after having been destroyed completely, kept on praying to You, talking to You.’
A car blew horn in the street below, she got up from her chair, shut the window and lay on the bed. On the wall facing her, was a photograph of twenty year-old Maya. Maya on whose lips a smile had spread out like flowering buds and life glittered in her eyes like a fountain in the hills. In her confident manner, there was an extraordinary openness. As if she will jump out of the photograph and exuberantly embrace her, “Aapa, Zohra Aapa, the blue sky, high snow clad mountain tops, adventurers conquering those tops and the determination visible in the eyes of those people, fascinate me. Aapa, let us also go to conquer some top. I wish to plant my Aapa’s flag on the highest peak of the world. Zohra Aapa, the Great! Zohra Aapa, the highest peak in the world, higher than the Himalayas, mad…” She turned in the bed and felt a sharp twinge of sorrow rise in her chest: “Wah Maya! How would you know of what brittle clay your sister is made of, how fragile is her being? It was for your sake that your Aapa transformed herself into something like the Himalayas. What else could she do?” “But Aapa you never revealed why we were so alone despite having so many relatives?” “Because we loved to live with freedom” she had smiled.” “That is okay. But, when our parents died, you were so young. Tell me, how you decided to live on your own?”
On this probing, a pitiless night buried deep in her heart stared at her ironically. But she was ready. Since long, she had prepared herself for this moment. So she spoke calmly: “Maya, you have always been stupid. You fool, how was I alone? My Maya was with me, so were Noor Chacha, Massi Khairan, and Chacha Rashid. There were Masi Zainab and Mama Tufail. And we were there. They all were there. We have been living among them all. They used to be here all day long. Leave that, Yaar Maya! The truth is that I didn’t like locking up our parental house and shifting somewhere else. Should I tell you the truth, Maya?” She became a bit sad. “You were so young; you do not know how our parents used to look after this house. They had supervised every brick that was laid in this house. They had carefully tended every leaf, every plant and every flower-bed with their labour and prayers. Then how could I desert this house and let others take its possession. Maya, this house is a place of worship for me, where love is a prerequisite and purity a duty; where you can respectfully pay your obeisance any time. Where you can worship and that is all.” Saying so, she tried to erase the image of that horrible night from her mind, when in that place of worship the blood of innocents was senselessly shed. That night, the cruel rite of butchering was performed; something, which was neither so ordained by God, nor expected as an offering by Goddess Kali. Perhaps, even she doesn’t demand such sacrifices any more. And God, He has been uninvolved from the very beginning, so uninvolved. Why should He require such sacrifices?
“What happened, Aapa?” Maya was troubled by the changing expressions on her face. “Nothing, my dear.” She had controlled herself. A smile was playing on her dust covered lips. “Then what happened, Aapa?” Detecting curiosity in Maya’s eyes, she continued slowly: “Then, your Aapa grew up, matured, became the most mature, maturer than our parents and she succeeded the mother, took over her kingdom. In her kingdom, she simultaneously performed the duties of the king, the queen and the slave. She ordered shut all the secret escape routes. She zealously protected the borders of her kingdom and began to enjoy life with her dear Maya Rani. Everyone was surprised; everyone was confident about the imminent collapse of the kingdom; everyone was waiting. Everyone spread rumours; because such things had not happened before. But as you say, your Aapa is stronger than the Himalayas, so everything went off well. (And… my Maya grew up. After a long time she breathed peacefully, holding Maya to her bosom.) Perhaps life would have gone on comfortably had Professor Zaka’s arrival not caused the upheaval. A little joy trapped in her heart for centuries escaped through some small crack and settled on the forehead of Professor Zaka. What? Completely oblivious of his presence, Zohra stared at him surprised.
“Zohra Sultan! Time is fast running out of your grip. There is only one path available to those obsessed with the quest for truth in this universe; it is that they surrender their true need to the care of some Mansoor without wasting any time. Why do you forget that you are not alone in this universe? There are some other equally headstrong people here, who are driven by the same spirit, who live with that spirit and love their selfless desire.” She saw that a ray of happiness was now playing on Professor Zaka’s chest.
“Zohra Sultan! Howsoever high your aim, it should not defy nature, otherwise, the aim does not remain aim, it grows into obstinacy. Those who go against nature suffer and cause suffering to others also.” “Professor Zaka, I don’t understand why you are after me? What do you want from me?” she heard herself speak. “I don’t mean any harm, Zohra Sultan.” She observed that the glitter of some unseen happiness shining in Professor Zaka’s eyes had suddenly begun to fade away. He bowed a bit to place the notebook he was carrying, on the table. And she observed that the little ray of happiness that had been glowing on his chest suddenly vanished. “I wish to draw you out of your self-created world where you have imprisoned yourself since ages.” “It is not like that, Professor Zaka.” The confidence in her voice had a ring of defeat to it. “Yes, yes, I know you regard this as your kingdom,” he spoke aggressively. “But without seeking your pardon, I wish to assert Miss Zohra Sultan that you are making a big mistake, a very big mistake.”
This was the moment when angry Zohra Sultan ordered him out of her world. Banished love out of her life. And taking Professor Zaka’s spirit as an illusion, she withdrew completely into her own little world.
But after this, the time sense began to go awry. The tastes began to alter and the moods underwent transformation. After moving at her own pace for such a long time she began to feel an innocent urge in her heart to stop, to rest which she tried her best to suppress with her strict rules and discipline. But she saw that the urge was growing like the bamboo. The system of her kingdom got disturbed within days, hours and moments. The eyes, on guard since so long, began to feel heavy because of the sleeplessness; the eyelids tended to close under the weight of some unknown burden. In her heart she felt such a pang that she was even afraid to name. “Is that all Zohra Sultan! How strange that you, despite being so courageous, intelligent, and self-confident, don’t know what is in your heart? Something that you long for, but can’t admit to yourself. Perhaps admission is defined as cowardice in your dictionary. But I would like to make this clear to you that there is limit to denial also. ‘If defiance crosses a certain limit, it results in problems.’” The words of Professor Zaka came from so close that she was surprised.
“Professor Zaka! Long ago I tried to make a painting of the shadows. But I was so frightened by my own shadow that the painting brush fell from my hand. But do you know what happened after that? On seeing the innocent blood of my dear ones, I dipped my finger in the blood and wrote a pledge on my very being. The surprising thing is that this scene didn’t frighten me but a strange defiance permeated every pore of my being I cannot get rid of, now. Professor Zaka! You are right this ‘kingdom’ was a delusion; I have no hesitation in admitting this. I am in love with you but, believe me, my defiance creates a wall between you and me, a wall made of such a mirror that I find myself standing on its both sides. On both sides, I find myself. In such a situation, I do not understand where you disappear. Now tell me, where should I go? What should I do?”
Far away, Professor Zaka was fast asleep in a room in the youth hostel, when something suddenly woke him up; as if the touch of a wing of some divine angel roused him, saying “Get up, Professor Zaka!” He got up, and yielding his fulfilled dream to his shortened sleep, went towards that part of the city where a girl, captive of a cruel moment and sleepless since ages, was standing on the crossroads, carrying the burden of defiance on her head.
I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.’
— Antonio Gramsci, Marxist theorist, politician, founder of the Italian Communist party
It was a victory for electoral democracy.
I was the first one to cast my vote. We had gone, en famille. My mother was next. Rini, my sister-in-law and Saif, my brother, had taken their precious national ID cards with them, only to be told by polling centre officials that these were not needed, that they should go to the stalls opened by political parties outside the polling centre grounds to get their voter registration number. That updated and complete voter lists were to be found there. Rini was astounded and kept repeating, even after she had cast her vote, `But it is the national Election Commission that registered me as a voter, I didn’t register with any political party’. Someone else’s photo, name, and father’s name graced the space where Saif’s should have been. After a lot of running around and long hours of waiting, he gave up. It was close to four, the polling booths were closing. He was dismayed, and perturbed.
Shahidul, made wiser by their experiences, ran off to a political party booth to collect his serial number. After quickly casting his vote, he rushed back to take pictures. A handsome young man, showing-off with a thumbs-up sign, caught his eye. He was proud. He had voted for a return to democracy.
A landslide victory for the Grand Alliance and its major partner, the Awami League. As the results emerged through the night, I remained glued to the TV screen, hopping from one channel to another, listening to election reporting, news analysis, and discussions. As votes in favour of Abul Maal Abdul Muhit tipped the scales, I watched seasoned journalists debate over whether political superstition — whichever party candidate wins Sylhet-1 forms the government — would prove to be true. And it did, yet again. The BNP candidate, ex-finance minister Saifur Rahman lost to Abdul Muhit by over 38,000 votes.
In the early hours of the morning, as AL’s massive victory became apparent, I watched Nurul Kabir voice strong words of caution on one of the election update programmes on a private channel: given the rout of the opposition, the biggest challenge for the incoming Awami League government would be to not lose its head. Words to be repeated by others, later. Sheikh Hasina herself, in the first press conference, pronounced it to be a victory for democracy. A victory for the nation. People had voted against misrule and corruption, against terrorism and criminal activities, and against fundamentalism. They had voted for good governance, for peace, and secularism. Poverty, she said, was enemy number one. Expressing her wish to share power with the opposition, Sheikh Hasina urged ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to accept the poll results. Our government, she said, will be a government for all. It will initiate a new political culture, one that shuns the politics of confrontation.
Congratulations poured in, in both the print and electronic media. A new sun had risen over the political horizon. December 29th were the best elections ever, kudos to the Election Commission. Awami League’s charter for change was a charter for the nation. It was a charter that had enabled the nation to dream again. To wake up again. A historic revolution — a ballot box revolution — had taken place. Let 2009 herald new political beginnings for Bangladesh. Let darkness be banished, let peace and happiness engulf each home. Let insecurities and turmoil be tales of yester-years. Let us, as a nation, build our own destiny.
There were more cautious, discerning voices too. Promising to lower prices of daily necessities is easy, effect-ing it, is harder. Democracy is much more than voting for MPs, it is popular participation, at all levels of society. In order to change the destiny of the nation, the AL needs to change itself first. Landslide victories can herald landslide disasters.
I turned to analysts who sought to explain the victory. What had brought it about, what did it signal? It was the younger voters, a whole new generation of voters. It was women voters. It was the Jamaat-isation of the BNP, and that the anti-India vote bank, the Muslim vote bank, were now proven to be myths. Khaleda Zia’s pre-election apology had not been enough, people had not forgiven the four-party alliance government’s misrule, and its excesses. The BNP party organisation at the grassroots level had failed to perform their duties with diligence, during the election campaign, and also later, when votes were being counted. The spirit of 1971 had returned, thanks to the Sector Commanders Forum, and to writers, cultural activists, intellectuals, media. People had cast their votes for a separation between state and religion, for the trial of war criminals, for re-building a non-communal Bangladesh. I watched Tazreena Sajjad on television argue that we should not go into a reactive mode, that we should not pre-judge that the AL, since it had gained victory, would now forget the war crimes trial issue. It was important, she said, that war crimes trials be adopted as a policy approach, that the government review the available expertise, the institutional infrastructure, and witnesses needed etc. It was important, added Shameem Reza, another panelist on the programme, that the social pressure for holding the trials should continue unabated.
At a record 87 per cent, the voter turnout was the biggest ever. International poll monitoring groups, including Washingtonbased National Democratic Institute, Commonwealth Observer Group, Asian Network for Free Elections, an EU delegation and a host of foreign observers, unanimously termed the polls free and fair, the election results as being credible. There was no evidence of ‘unprecedented rigging,’ or of the polls having been conducted according to a ‘blueprint’. But, of course, observers maintained, ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s allegations should be carefully investigated. At a press conference, the leader of the 33 member NDI delegation, Howard B Schaffer, also an ex-US ambassador to Bangladesh, said that these elections provide Bangladesh an opportunity to nourish and consolidate democracy. As I read reports of the press conference, I think, neither the US administration, nor its ruling classes are known for nourishing and consolidating democracy. The NDI delegation had also included a former USAID official, an organisation that is known for promoting US corporate interests, rather than democracy. Most of USAID’s activities are, as many are probably aware, concentrated in Middle Eastern countries. Many Arabs regard US foreign aid as ‘bribe money’, offered to governments willing to overlook Israel’s policies of occupation. Larry Garber had served as Director of USAID’s West Bank and Gaza Mission from 1999-2004, a period that was partially preceded by four years (1996-200) of USAID withholding $17 million in assistance for a programme to modernise and reform the Palestinian judiciary. The Israelis did not want an independent judiciary. They were afraid it would lead to a sovereign Palestinian state. USAID obliged. And of course, there are other, much worse, US administration stories of felling rather than nurturing democracy. After Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature in January 2006, the Bush administration had embarked on a secret project for the armed overthrow of the Islamist government.
Will the victory for electoral democracy in Bangladesh be a victory for long-term, deep-seated democratic processes? This, of course, remains to be seen. I myself, have two serious misgivings.
A ‘smooth transition’: impunity in the offing?
Reporters had asked Sheikh Hasina as she came out after her meeting with Fakhruddin Ahmed, chief adviser, on December 31: will your government legitimise the caretaker government? The reply, highlighted in nearly all newspapers, was: it will be discussed in the parliament. Parliament will decide. I have initiated discussions with constitutional experts. A committee will be formed to discuss the matter. Sheikh Hasina also added, government is a continuing process. It is the duty of a new government to continue processes that have been initiated by the preceding government, in the interests of a smooth transition. But I had watched news reports on TV, and had noticed the slip between the cup and the lip, between what was said, and what was reported in the print media: the ordinances passed by the government will be discussed, those that are good will be accepted, and those that are not…
How can something as grave, as sinister as the takeover of power by a coterie of people who were backed by the military, a government that was unelected and unaccountable, the suspension of ‘inalienable’ fundamental rights of the people during a 23 month long period of emergency, the abuse of the judiciary, the intimidation of the media by military intelligence agencies, illegal arrests leading to already bursting-at-the-seams prisons, custodial tortures, crossfire deaths, the destruction of means of livelihood of countless subsistence workers, the closure of mills, the havoc wreaked on the economy — be referred to as a bunch of ordinances that need to be discussed and separately reviewed, maybe some of these are to be accepted, others not?
Diluting? Diverting? As I said, I have misgivings.
Allying with bigger terrorists
The separation of religion and politics subsumes the issue of the trial of 1971 war criminals, the local collaborators, the rajakars. But as I watch AL parliamentarians talk on TV channels, I notice a linguistic elision, a seepage occur into discussions of the trials of war criminals. The present is carried over into the past, the past slips into the present. Those who had collaborated in the Pakistan army’s genocide take on Bush-ian overtones: rajakars are religious extremists are Islamic militants are ‘terrorists.’ A seamless whole seems to be in the making.
And, as I read of Sheikh Hasina’s support for the US war on terror (expressed to the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Richard Boucher, 25th of July 2008), and her more recent pledge to work for the formation of a joint anti-terrorism taskforce by SAARC countries, I wonder whether ‘the spirit of 1971’ will be cashed-in to manufacture support for the US-led war on terror, one that has killed millions, and made homeless several more. All in the name of democracy.