In his diary Padma Surkh Hai, Anwar Shahid (I’m grateful to his son and my friend Taimoor Shahid to correct me on how he spells his name in English) brings out in detail what he saw and experienced while living in Behrampur across the Indian border. The refugees had their individual, family and group interests — that sometimes clashed with each other — while their ‘hosts’ had theirs. The hosts complained that some of the young men who had fled the high-handed West Pakistani army had been running off to Calcutta to watch three films in a row, while the job of fighting back had been left to the Indians. Some refugees resented the East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) troops who had clashed with the regular army as rioters, bragged about their invincibility and ended up killing defenceless Biharis instead.
While entangled, like others displaced from their homes, in the mundane daily business of surviving — finding shelter, food and a place to relieve himself every morning — Shahid had an additional burden of keeping his real identity hidden, in order to save himself and the family which had taken him in as one of its members. The atmosphere was full of suspicion and conspiracy. They could watch for several days the distant town of Rajshahi going up in flames. Those coming from there after the army entered the town as conquerors had many stories of destruction to tell. One man, a peon working in a branch of a bank in Rajshahi, described how he was stranded in the empty, dark building of the branch when suddenly it started to rain and a bunch of army soldiers took shelter in its veranda. They were talking to each other in Punjabi and Urdu. The peon could not follow Punjabi but could make sense of the Urdu conversation. One of the soldiers, according to him, suggested to his colleagues that they should burn and destroy that bank as well, but other decided that it might be done on their way back. They left when the rain stopped.
The peon spent the night in the bank and fled in the morning. He found many people running towards the border and joined them. Two men were walking carrying a suitcase turn by turn. At one point they stopped to rest a little and put the suitcase on the ground. Suddenly two bullets came and killed both. The peon was some twenty paces ahead of them. He and other people started running faster. On their way to the river, they came across a lot of dead bodies over which vultures were circling. Sahib Bazar, the town’s biggest market consisting of winding lanes, was burning.
After days of watching clouds of white smoke over Rajshahi town from across the border, they came to know that the invading army had boarded 126 trucks and left for the next town: Nawab Ganj. (It was later revealed that the number of trucks was slightly exaggerated; in fact, twenty-six trucks had taken the troops away from the town.) One day, Rajshahi radio station, which had been silent ever since the town had been captured, suddenly came alive. There were announcements in Urdu, English and broken Bangla informing people that the law and order had been restored, and ordering them to come back and start living their normal lives forthwith. (These were the only transmissions of the station and lasted only a few minutes.) Hardly anyone was convinced of the ‘orders’ to live normally but a boy was sent in the morning to Rajshahi to bring news. He came back in the evening and told them that people who had taken refuge in nearby villages had started trickling back and usually they were not being harassed on return. Some people warned those getting ready to go back that in case they survived the West Pakistani army’s bullets, they would be killed by the guerillas of the liberation army, as a list was being prepared of all the people who were returning to Pakistan. The Indian army, too, was vigilant to stop the return exodus. However, Imdad’s family, along with Anwar, decided to go back in the face of all the dangers.
When they returned after somehow surviving the walk through the fields — all kinds of rumours being spread about everything, and harsh questioning of the Indian border check-post — they finally found themselves back on the riverbank looking for a boat to cross over. The boatman warned them to throw away anything Indian that they had brought from the other side of the border as it would be a sure invitation to the army bullets. Imdad’s father had procured some packets of the Char Minar cigarettes as he was told that there were no cigarettes to be found back in Rajshahi. He had to abandon his treasure of nicotine with a heavy heart, while those who had bought pairs of chappals on the other side had to rub the embossed ‘Made in India’ signs off them.
As they entered the town, they saw a cycle-rickshaw. Anwar spoke to the rickshaw-puller in Bangla and he refused to take them. But he relented when Anwar scolded him in Urdu. The blessed language seemed a symbol of security and safety! They saw before them a war-torn Rajshahi: fallen roofs, walls blackened with smoke, destroyed buildings, gutted and looted shops, burned down straw huts along a main road, bullet holes on most buildings including mosques. Some houses had handwritten signs like these: Yeh Bihari ki dukan hai. Yeh Mohajir ka makan hai. (‘This shop belongs to a Bihari. This is a Mohajir’s house.’) Almost all houses and shops had put Pakistani flag on the rooftop.
Following the Martial Law regulations, all Bangla signboards had been replaced by those written in Urdu and English. The translations seemed to have been done in haste. The municipal staff had used their less-than-perfect command of the national language to translate ‘No Entrance’ as: ‘Ruk jao, mut jana!’
Published in The Express Tribune, February 4th, 2012.