My First Freedom Fighter

Published in 5X5, Summer 2012.

In May 1971, like countless refugees of the Liberation War of Bangladesh, my family fled when news of the approaching Pakistani Army reached them. Their refuge was Nolam, a village several miles north of the newly constructed university where my father taught, and my mother studied literature. They took with them my mother’s jewelry, food, and my brother. My brother, three years older than me, was barely a month old at the time, and for the first two days of his life, my mother had nursed him in a hospital bed in Dhaka as Operation Searchlight commenced with rumbling tanks and explosions echoing in the streets.

Dhaka University had been razed to the ground. Other places would follow. My parents, my mother’s parents, and her six younger siblings straggled along dirt roads with long lines of people merging from different directions, leaving behind their lives. The fire-brick roads of their campus gave way to yellow-brown pathways. The sun beat down as they crossed fields and passed canals, top-heavy Palmyra trees looming ahead.

They walked miles, sharing the burden of the infant. Finally, my mother was tired, and the baby hungry. The others continued; she rested under a tree.

She sat with her body twisted away from the sight of others, holding up her sari-end, trying to create some privacy. Villagers lined the roadside, watchful and quiet. An old woman passed by, cautioning her against nursing her baby under that tree. It was a bad one, that shaggy old tamarind tree; it harbored spirits that would cast an evil eye on mother and child. A lungi-clad old man, his bare torso displaying ribs as curved and bony as the unfinished hull of a dinghy, planted himself in front of my mother, a bamboo pole in his hand. “It’s alright, child,” he assured her. “I will stand guard over you; you feed your little one. No harm will befall you.”

“That old man,” my mother wrote years later, “was my first freedom fighter.”

 

Unlike my brother, I was born to a country already free. A land already tainted by easy money, nepotism, and other failings of a burgeoning post-war nation. The freedom fighter I met was a colleague of my parents’; his children went to the same school my brother and I attended. When I heard him talk of blowing up bridges, sleeping in mud, the harsh weight of LMGs, legend took on face—the mythical became real. Yet, later, there were rumors of his jockeying for power, of selling university appointments to the highest bidder with the right politics. We were no less shocked by that, however, than by the knowledge that a friendly distant relative passing through town had been a dreaded Peace Committee member, a collaborator. Past glory was no definer of right or wrong; neither was past infamy.

The freedom fighters were there, all around us. We knew them as rickshaw-pullers, teachers, neighbors, shopkeepers—as if they were no more than that. What we also realized was there were all kinds around us: the unrepentant ones; those who changed sides during the war; those who changed sides after. We also came to understand that their everyday faces weren’t what kept us from knowing them. Four decades of independence later, do we know who they are now?

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