Of Martyrs and Marigolds by Aquila Ismail is a poignant and evocative portrayal of the so-far largely untold aspects of a sad saga. In a novelised form, the book depicts the shattered dreams and dilemmas of the Urdu-speaking Bihari-origin residents of East Pakistan, particularly in the years 1971 and 1972.
There has been patchy coverage of the roughly 200,000 Biharis living in refugee camps post-1971, who want to move to a Pakistan which is no longer willing to accept them. But news media in general and non-news media in particular have devoted little attention to the paradoxical plight of those Bihari East Pakistanis who genuinely loved the land and the people they had adopted. Many of them condemned the postponement of the National Assembly session by General Yahya Khan on March 1, 1971. They were grieved by the use of excessive military force against the Awami League onwards of March 25, 1971. And they did not support the pro-Pakistan militias that were pitched against the Bengali militias.
When these innocent, non-combatant Biharis and other Urdu-speaking residents of East Pakistan began to be indiscriminately targeted by Bengali Awami League extremists to settle scores against General Yahya Khan’s policies and the actions initiated by General Tikka Khan, tens of thousands of these persons became victims overnight at the hands of fellow countrymen. Suddenly, there was no room for them in the place where they had fondly made their home.
This novel of unadorned sincerity is a significant contribution towards redressing the paucity of literature on these facets of history. Despite its fictional format, the pivotal points of the story are thoroughly factual. Though the principal characters of the young woman Suri, her parents, siblings and the young Bengali man who loves her are imaginary, their identities are clearly rooted in reality. So are the specific episodes of cruelty and callousness suffered by them and others at the hands of extremist Bengalis retaliating for the atrocities — both actual and construed — committed by officers and soldiers of the Pakistan Army.
Writing with an intimate familiarity that is obviously shaped by an autobiographical perspective, Ismail observes the beauty, colours and fragrances of Bangladesh with deep sensitivity. The first paragraph of the book delightfully captures virtually all the senses: from the white shades of shefali flowers to the scent of raat-ki-raani, from monsoon rains to the flutter of butterflies. She sustains her special eye for detail throughout: from glowing fire-flies by the Padma river at dusk to the world’s longest unbroken beach at Cox’s Bazaar, from orange-yellow marigolds to the sacred red of martyrs’ blood.
As the narrative and the pace build up to the tension, tears and trauma of the final pages, characters become vividly real — endearing, or, as the case may be, menacing and repellent in their actions. The intra-family relationships, quirks and twists and all, are well-drawn. The novel powerfully conveys the agony of a peaceful family that genuinely cherishes ‘sonar Bangla’ sliding into the horror of becoming refugees and prisoners.
What weakens the novel is the depiction of the relationship between Suri and Rumi. While it is symbolic and moving, it is not amplified to its potential depth. In contrast to the engaging passages that set the scenes so well, the dialogue tends to be simplistic and literal.
Though instances of brutalities committed during the Army action in 1971 are part of the record, the claim of an order being given by the generals “to kill three million Bengalis” and the sweeping charges of a full-scale genocide are a gross exaggeration. The meticulously researched book Dead Reckoning by Sarmila Bose conclusively established how an entirely false charge has become part of a global narrative that unjustly maligns the name of Pakistan and its Army.
Of Martyrs and Marigolds is a novel and not factual history. But, because its story is so inextricably a part of actual events, there are some sections of the novel where this reviewer is of the opinion that the author should not have reproduced without question the fabricated accusations of wholesale, indiscriminate massacres. Every human life is sacrosanct and there can be no justification for the killing of innocent people. But is not the whole truth also sacred?
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 6th, 2012.
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