The Day An Indian Met A Bangladeshi
I wish it was a comfortable story of reminisces of Bengal undivided and a shared love for certain cultural traits. But no it is much more complicated than that. And no, it is not a work of fiction. Or maybe it is. Who knows! Aren’t our identities the very stuff of fiction?
Even if it all starts from a generalization – that of me, a Kolkata student who mugs up the definition of ideology representing India, and a respected Army officer speaking for Bangladesh, it does not stop there.At least, it doesn’t intend to… It rather investigates the personal which gives rise to the public, the political and maybe the idea of a nation-state.
At the time I was working for an online magazine through which I got to interact with a retired Army officer who fought in the Mukti Bahini for the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Our magazine was interviewing him because he was coming out with a book that narrated the true story behind the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh, beginning with Operation Searchlight and the war of independence against West Pakistan.
Later, our then assistant editor had to engage him in a conversation while introducing his book. Listening in on his experiences I felt like an outsider. It is true that the only information I had about this genocide was through popular discourse. Traditional historiography often misrepresented or completely obliterated this horrifying event. But did I feel like an outsider just because I didn’t have first-hand knowledge of the war? By now, we have come to believe that any form of knowledge is subjective and that’s why there is a need for counter-narratives and micro-narratives. Basically, there is a need in contemporary times to visit those sites of history and reinvent them through the art of narrative. Maybe retell them in a new way with refurbished metaphors, with underrated images and with a new idea of looking back at the past. But is this act of looking back in anger? Or is it something else?
I told my colleague who was sitting beside me that Dr. A (let’s call him that for the sake of anonymity) seemed to be a nationalist. His discursive formations, his manner of speaking, his art of elucidating his own history rested on an easy polarisation- that of Pakistan-Bangladesh rivalry. But then I wondered, if I can assume a position of exteriority by calling him a nationalist, am I not an Indian myself, following that logic?
I answered to myself, yes and no. Yes, I am of course an Indian. I don’t know whether I think like an Indian (how does an Indian think anyway?) but I definitely share some of the characteristics with other fellow Indians. But my positionality by virtue of not living through independence is a bit more complex.
I felt like an outsider even in discussions of Indian independence. I haven’t gained it so to speak. For me, 1947 is a page of history, it is inert, derivative and open to interpretation. I might have an emotional connection with my country but I do not have an intimate experience with the birth, the emergence of my nation. That way, the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 and our independence both exist for me in the realm of imagination.
So why do I feel like an Indian? But not in the same way as he feels like a Bangladeshi. What is the difference? It is in the realm of images it seems. His identity of being a Bangladeshi is linked to that precise moment when his country was liberated. My identity is a bit imbibed, derived from history books and learnt from maps and the national anthem. Our positionalities are at an angle to each other. How then do we meet? Where can we hope to find that space where we can have a dialogue? Can we shed our nationalities and interact? Are they an inseparable part of who we are? Can’t we think beyond them?
Any movement beyond margins has to be self-referential because it has to be aware of what it has left behind and an idea of where is it going. If I have to think like Dr. A then I have to un-Indianise myself and that process is painful because it’s about unburdening my history, my memories, my homeland. I tried and I failed. I tried again and I failed again. Something ties me here. He is tied there.
I am tethered to this country, this nationality, this religion, this body, this mind, this soul I suppose. He is tethered to his country, his 1971, his genocide, his friend who lost his life, his arms, his Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, his soil, his blood, his tears, and his angst. We are both transfixed in each other’s spheres. Yet, when I raised my hand to ask him a question, he smiled and invited me into his imagination. There I was, in his dreams, in his memories but I was an outsider. I am sure he was too in my mindscape. We met in certain times but we thought of uncertain times. Suddenly a line from a Wilfred Owen poem came to my mind, “I am the enemy you killed my friend.”
I told him that he reminded me of a line by Rushdie. I remembered Rushdie giving me a piece of his philosophy when he said that two nations were brought to life in a midnight declaration. A line was drawn and two nations emerged. Bangladesh was yet to be born. They had to wait for some years. But I am sure Bangladesh existed as an ideal somehow in East Pakistan, or perhaps it took birth at the same time we, midnight’s unfortunate children were born.
All three nations have a lot of commonalities. And yet, as Rushdie suggests we have had to experience the power of maps, the hegemony of political lines tearing down geographical spaces as if they were nothing. Histories cannot be abused and put away in boxes and forgotten. There was violence in realm of maps and geographies. Violence begets violence. My question was, “Can history be negated?” If not, then how can we ever dream of an inter-country dialogue where there was a space, a possibility for improvement?
I remember an essay by Paul Ricoeur where he stressed on the importance of apology. It seems that the power of apology is in its submissive stance, inclusive nature … the way it accommodates the ‘other’ in me. Can we do that? I remember the visit of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh to the Flame of Liberty Memorial at Jallianwala Bagh where the latter commented that the precise text (of the people killed which was around 2000) was a bit “exaggerated.” There was a demand for apology for the Jallianwala massacre too. But what does colonial ablution actually means? Isn’t it futile like the cleansing of Jews or anything else for that matter? Racial purity and the violence associated with its hegemony is something which exists till date in the face of US’s “galloping imperialism” (Ania Loomba).
How do we negate history, then? We don’t. We never can. Even an apology can be beneficial in terms of bureaucratic chauvinism but it is nothing more than that. And it is precisely in this sphere that I place myself at an angularity in relation to Dr. A. I believe history is like the blood on the hands of Lady Macbeth. Even the most vulgar of storms cannot obliterate our historical consciousness. It is deeply embedded. Dr. A escapes his mindscape by the act of writing, somebody else does by killing. I am not supporting the latter. I am just saying that the violence is history’s gift to us. It cannot be put down; it can be acknowledged and renegotiated. And that can be done by tearing the old institutions of knowledge and espousing a politics of resistance, whether symbolic or literal.
At the end of the conference Dr. A shook my hands and told me that it was a tough question to answer. I agreed but added, “It’s tough for me but it’s tougher for you Sir.”
We might never meet again but this Indian and this Bangladeshi surely met in times certain and reminisced in their own way about times uncertain.