December 16: Seeking closure for a national and personal tragedy
We put the flowers in a clay pot and let it float in the Jhelum while the river was still trapped in the Himalayas. The fast-moving current took it downstream towards the mighty Indus. We prayed and withdrew.
When we went to the place where Kabul joins the Indus, offered flowers and moved downstream where Jhelum had joined them too. There we saw our flowers planted in the riverbed. We thanked the three rivers and moved on.
In the Ganges, we surrendered the ashes of our grandfathers to the river and asked it to carry the remains to the sea. It did and the prayers of our grandfathers came back to us with the clouds, bringing elixir of life to the parched land.
Near Khartoum, where the White Nile meets the Blue Nile, our brothers gave the river a message for us and we collected it from the Indus where it meets the sea. “Move on,” it said. We did.
And while crossing the Mississippi, we rested on a bridge near Louisville, Kentucky, where a black boxer, Mohammed Ali’s, gold was thrown into the river. The river smiled at us and asked: “Are you tired now?”
“Yes,” we said and asked, “is the journey over?”
“It is never over until it is over,” said the river. So we moved on.
But when Khalilur Rehman and Jamilur Rehman visited the Old Ganges, the Burhi Ganga, near Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, the river did not ask them to move on.
They had come to the river, looking for the graves of their fathers but rivers keep no graves. So the Old Ganges kept quiet.
The burning happened 41 years ago, but their children were still looking for a closure. They got one. Did they?
When Khalil and Jamil approached the river, it had completed a loop around the city and was ready to move on to the sea. They tried to stop it but it did not. A river never stops.
It was here, along the banks of the Old Ganges that an old man, Bazlur Rehman, sold sweets. We saw him every morning, carrying Bengali sweets, butter, yogurt and eggs. He kept his merchandise in two large clay pots, balanced on his shoulders with a long stick.
Bazlur stopped in every street, put down his merchandise and shouted: “Lal mohan, kheer mohan, roshogullah,” naming Bengali sweets. “Matha, makhun, doi.” When we had money, we bought some sweets from him or walked quietly to our school.
Whether we stopped or not, he always did, offering little pieces of a sweet that he kept for children.
This was Dhaka before 1971, a city of rivers, boats and flowers. Our most vivid memory of Dhaka is that of small and large boats, sailing across the Burhi Ganga.
Also fresh in the memory is the fragrance of the gandhraj and motia flowers and the pristine lotus dancing gracefully in the river – always out of our reach.
Then there’s this song that we heard on the radio almost every morning, “Allah megh de, pani de … God send clouds and rains.” Although, we often wondered why they prayed for rains in a land so full of water, we loved the song.
But as 1971 came, the songs were silenced. The fragrance evaporated, replaced by a foul stench, the stench of blood and decaying corpses.
The sweet meat man disappeared when the troubles started. This was early 1971 and it had become dangerous for people from rival ethnic groups to visit each other.
We did not see Bazlur for weeks but one day, while visiting a Bengali friend in a Bengali neighbourhood, one of us saw him. He went to the sweet meat man and asked: “Chacha, why don’t you come to our neighbourhood anymore?”
Bazlur saw the child, a non-Bengali in a Bengali neighbourhood, held him by his arms, walked him to a nearby bus stand and said: “Stay put in this bus. It goes straight to your neighbourhood.”
He added: “You speak good Bengali but they can still detect an accent. So do not speak a word. Sit quietly and get off when the bus reaches your area.”
There was another man, Jalilur Rehman, an Urdu speaker. He had a small tea stall, and also sold pakoras and biscuits. He had an arrangement with Bazlur. When Bazlur finished hawking his sweets in the streets, he came to the tea stall and put his sweets in a corner.
He stayed there all day, selling his sweets and serving tea to Jalil’s customers. They shared the profits as well as the shop’s rent.
They had no interest in politics. So they ignored whatever was happening around them. But others did not. One day, a crowd set the shop on fire. Trapped inside, both burned alive. Their bodies were thrown in the river.
The story ended but not for Jamilur Rehman and Khalilur Rehman. Jamil was Bazlur’s son and Khalil was Jalil’s. Both were less than 10 when their fathers died.
Jamil stayed in Dhaka with his mother, while Khalil and his mother moved to Karachi. But the two women stayed in touch, writing letters to each other – in Bengali – whenever they could.
Meanwhile, their children grew up. Khalil became a motor mechanic. Jamil became a welder. He went to Dubai, and on his mother’s advice found a job for Khalil too.
Dubai brought some prosperity to these poor families, so they decided to get together, in Dhaka. Actually, it was Khalil’s idea. He had no memories of his father, so he wanted to know more about him.
He thought Jamil and his mother would know more because they stayed back in Dhaka but they did not. The shop was on the borderline, so they too stayed away from it during the riots. And when they finally went to the area, the bodies had already been disposed of.
Some of their fathers’ friends were still alive, so Jamil helped Khalil meet them. But whatever he learned from them was not very useful either.
Everybody told them what they already knew, that their fathers were burned alive in the shop but their bodies were thrown into the river.
Still, Khalil kept looking for someone who might have witnessed the entire incident. And one day, he found one, Sharfuddin, a retired police constable, who said he knew their fathers, had witnessed the attack and also saw their bodies being thrown into the river.
Although, Khalil already knew these two pieces of information, meeting an eyewitness made him feel as if he had seen his father dying. Now he was ready to bury him.
So the next evening, Khalil held a Quran-Khawni for his and Jamil’s fathers and after the guests left, for the first time in his life Khalil cried for Jalil.
The next day Khalil and Jamil went to the Old Ganges with a basket full of flowers. Khalil threw the flowers into the river and returned to Karachi as the river urged him to move on.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.