Saturday, July 19, 2008

This Above alL
Women & love in times of war
Khushwant Singh

File photo of Eastern Army Commander Lt Gen J.S. Aurora addressing people in a liberated town in Bangladesh after the 1971 Indo-Pak war
File photo of Eastern Army Commander Lt Gen J.S. Aurora addressing people in a liberated town in Bangladesh after the 1971 Indo-Pak war

THE story is a version of Waris Shah’s epic love story Heer-Ranjha in a modern setting with the 1971 War for the liberation of Bangladesh casting its ominous shadow on fertile wheat lands of Pakistani Punjab. It is built around a family comprising a widowed matriarch, Sardar Begum, who presides over a large estate of her own; her Oxford-educated son Tareeq Azeem, his wife Fareeda, daughter of a retired Ambassador, who has travelled around the world and their two daughters — Sarah, studying in a convent in Lahore, and three-year-old Laila, who lives with her parents.

The Azeems are westernised and live in a spacious bungalow in their estate Sabzbagh, a short distance from her grandmother Sardar Begum’s residence. Both households have a large number of servants inherited from their ancestors. It is the Punjab of the landed gentry. Unlike others of the tribe, Tareeq Azeem does not join the army or civil services but prefers to live in Sabzbagh introducing modern methods of farming, improving living conditions of farm labourers by offering them employment in a milk plant, garment factory and persuading them to send their children to school. His wife Fareeda shares his views. They are on friendly terms with British families, who have stayed on in Pakistan to continue farming. They do not share the average Punjabi Pakistani’s view of Bengalis’ (Bingos) desire to set up an independent state.

The story is largely based on the close attachment of little Laila to Rani, a 15-year-old daughter of a maidservant. Rani is patterned after Heer, the tragic heroine of Waris Shah’s love epic. She has a lover (Ranjha) whose identity is not disclosed. She becomes pregnant. She seeks help from nuns of church close to Sabzbagh for an abortion. Sister Clementine from Kerala refuses: it is sinful to take life. The nun tries to inform Fareeda, who refuses to listen to her. Her ‘sin’ is discovered by her stepfather Mashooq, an ugly, pockmarked lame drunkard. (There is such a character in Waris Shah’s Heer-Ranjha). In a fit of rage he bashes her skull and throws her body in the canal, which runs past Sabzbagh.

The body is found by some soldiers. The post-mortem reveals that she had died before her body was thrown in the canal and had a miscarriage. Mashooq is arrested on charge of murder. He makes a full confession before the police in the presence of Tareeq Azeem. He justifies his crime. Sardar Begum and most others, except Tareeq, are on his side. He is let off. Laila discovers the truth about Rani’s pregnancy when she is 15 and can understand what it means for a girl to have a bastard in a Puritanical Muslim society.

It is a sordid yet gripping tale told by Moni Mohsin, in her novel The End of Innocence (Penguin). All characters come alive, their dialogue in different forms of Punjabi and English sounds authentic. Her description of the flora and fauna of the countryside is true to life. Above all, she is objective because she takes no sides in the Indo-Pak conflict. She, however, punctures the inflated self-esteem of the martial prowess of Pakistani soldiers: one of whom is capable of taking on 10 Hindu soldiers armed to the teeth with the latest weaponry, including an atom bomb. Boasting (pharran marna) is in every Punjabi’s blood, be he a Muslim, Hindu or Sikh. War hysteria overtakes Sabzbagh. They dig an underground shelter in the garden. Sarah sleeps with a pocketknife under her pillow. Cooking staff sharpen their kitchen knives. Girls keep red chilli powder to throw into Indian soldiers eyes. But all the ‘action’ that takes place involves an Indian plane dropping a light bomb to see if it is worth bombing and decides against doing so.

War hysteria

Though not integral to Moni Mohsin’s novel, I take the liberty to explode some myths about the Indo-Pak war of 1971. It is assumed that Bangladesh was liberated by the Mukti Bahini and the Indian Army played a marginal role in the drama. I happened to be in Dhaka soon after it was captured by the Indian Army and courtesy General Jagjit Singh I was permitted to meet captive Pakistani officers and men. I had them over in my hotel for drinks and had a long discussion with them on what transpired. Foreign journalists, among whom was a German Tilo Bode, sought to get information from me. To me it was clear that Mukti Bahini groups were largely built up, armed, trained and frequently led by Indian officers pretending to be Bengalis. The Indian Army was deep inside East Pakistan before President General Yahya Khan was forced to declare war against India. It was an unequal combat. The countryside, though Muslim, was hostile to Pakistan. The logistics were against Pakistan as it was unable to send more troops, aircraft and warships to help the beleaguered army. City after city was taken by the Indians. And finally when Dhaka fell, the Pakistani army laid down arms and surrendered to the Indian Army (not to the Mukti Bahini). As many as 93,000 Pakistani captives were taken to India, and not kept in Bangladesh. When I told this to Tilo Bode, he expressed his gratitude to me saying "Since you have helped me out of my difficulties, I’ll tell you something you don’t know. Do you know the War cry of the Mukti Bahini?

"No, do tell me."

"Sat Sri Akal."

Female foeticide

Along with a pretty-looking bride,

they gave the groom a Mercedes to ride.

The bride’s father being the community’s king,

they gave every barati a diamond ring.

Rs two and a half crore was

the total bill,

But more was demanded still.

And more was paid,

till ultimately the one-year-old bubbling bride hanged herself and justified
the widespread practice of female foeticide.

(Contributed by Kuldip Salil, Delhi)