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The Search

  • Published at 06:56 pm December 20th, 2018
Taraman Bibi
Illustration: Jahid Jamil

Tribute to Bir ProtikTaramon Bibi who passed away on December 01, 2018

[Excerpt reprinted with permission from ‘The Search’ by Shaheen Akhtar, published by Zuban Books, 2011, and translated by Ella Dutta]

Tuki fell asleep, dreaming of another people’s court. Now it was Mariam’s turn to shift restlessly in her bed. Would she testify if there was another people’s court? Who would she testify against? All the Pakistani soldiers who had raped her day after day? She didn’t know the names of those rapists, or their ranks. Even their faces were indistinct in her memory. The person whom she remembered after so many years of war was Major Ishtiaque. How would she classify her love affair with Major Ishtiaque? Would her evidence go for or against the man? And then there were Abed Jahangir, Abed Samir and Momtaj– didn’t she have any charges to make against them? Those who destroyed her life? The death of Mariam’s younger brother Montu who was martyred in combat could never be brought up for trial. Because he was no civilian, but a guerrilla fighter. But there was no answer to the question why he had to go to war even before he had hair on his face. Mariam’s uncle Golam Mostofa was a collaborator with the Pakistan army in 1971. He was a war criminal. The house in which Mariam lived was enemy property. Kafiluddin Ahmed had bought this property, a home abandoned by Hindus, at a rock-bottom price. He was dead now. Mariam inherited this property. Would history exonerate her?

For the two decades of the seventies and eighties, Mariam had been involved with her own problems. The nineties was a time of reckoning, of settling issues. But no one could say who would win and who would lose. If suffering was counted as a yardstick, then Mariam would surely win. Because the amount of torture perpetrated on her by Pakistanis was like an ocean in which her affair with Major Ishtiaque was like a dewdrop. And Mariam had no links with Golam Mostofa’sRazakar activities. Besides, she had always disliked him. 

The night was spent in alternately playing the roles of plaintiff and defendant. Like Bangladesh, she was bewildered about trying war criminals. Tuki had no such dilemma. She was from the proletariat. In her dreams, she was rushing towards a future that promised happiness and prosperity. Her destination was another people’s court .

Years passed but another people’s court was not held. Tuki questioned, “Mary Apa, have you scanned the papers carefully? Put on your glasses and concentrate.” Tuki could not believe that people were delaying the setting up of another people’s court for so long. Mariam now had a new problem with her eyes. Earlier, things at a distance got blurred without glasses. Now she had to take off those glasses to be able to read the newspaper, otherwise the print looked indistinct. She looked at Tuki with her glasses on and the next moment took them off to read the newspaper. Tuki didn’t like any of it. Mary Apa had a detachment about her. She was going through her life as if she was half dead, and she didn’t want Tuki to make something out of her life either. God! What kind of a person was she? 

While the thought of a people’s court was getting erased from Tuki’s mind, as Mariam leafed through the newspapers, the name of guerrilla fighter Taraman Bibi surfaced in her clouded vision. Her home was on the eastern side of River Brahmaputra in the riverine tracts. It was an arduous trek. The journalists were crossing the river and rushing over the hot sandy soil of the tracts. Taraman Bibi appeared in person after the news reports and photographs were published. A woman with sunken cheeks, disease ridden appearance. A beggar by profession. She was facing the nation twenty-four years after independence when she had reached the last stages of a life ravaged by tuberculosis. Just open a newspaper and you saw her photograph, a news item, an interview. Taraman wanted a full meal of rice. Taraman wanted to live. Taraman’s message to Bangladeshis, “Once upon a time my body was strong, now I am just skin and bones with no strength left. My appeal to you is, hold on to this country, do not let it pass into other hands.” Taraman stated, “I think the country has become free once again.” The reason Taraman participated in guerrilla warfare, “West Pakistanis were taking away all our best foodstuff, our textiles. We tried to hold on to these, we have fought and liberated our country.” Taraman was awed with her experience of Dhaka. “Here people eat such delicious food, have a roof over their head. And I can’t even manage to get a meal of rice and salt.” Taraman complained to the BBC, “If I was someone accused of murder, surely the government would have hunted me down or locked me up in jail. Yet I’ve fought, I’ve shed blood during the war, and today I sit at home. No one even bothers to ask after me.”

Tuki also harboured such thoughts. If she could get up on stage and express these thoughts, it would have been nice. But that chance had come only for Taraman. Even if she stood on the street and jumped up and down, the camera would not turn towards Tuki. They were busy capturing Taraman--the prime minister awarding Taraman Bibi a medal, Taraman Bibi inaugurating the Victory Day programme at Shahid Minar, Taraman Bibi offering wreaths at Savar Memorial, artists singing patriotic songs in the presence of Taraman, women leaders holding a mike before Taraman’s face. 

Tuki heard from Mariam that the government had given Taraman Bibi twenty five thousand taka. “So much money! She’s rich now, Apa! What has she done to deserve so much money?” 

“Taraman fought with weapons.”

“You get money if you fight? Won’t there be another war in this country?”

Tuki Begum forgot about waiting for a people’s court for war criminals and began to wait for another war. Then she could take up arms and fight. But money and fame arrived only when you got tuberculosis, twenty four years after independence. Did she have all that time in her hands? Tuki sat in sadness amid a clutch of roosters and hens. Her life was not improving because of the lack of opportunity. What could she do by selling eggs for fifty or hundred taka? If she could get twenty-five or fifty thousand taka at one go like Taraman Bibi, that would be another matter.

About a week later, Mariam suddenly realised that the number of chickens was going down rapidly. When she asked Tuki, she snapped back, “A mongoose is getting them, what can I do?” In Dhaka, where even cats are scarce, where could a mongoose come from? After persistent questioning for two or three nights, it came out that Tuki was selling off the birds to hawkers. She was no longer happy with her small-scale business. What would she do then? Mariam became upset– whoever came to live in this house seemed to lose their heads. Whose fault was it– the house or Mary’s? Should she once again get bottles with spells in them and plant them in the four corners of the house? Mary would get that done. But before that, to satisfy Tuki, who had such a craving for fame and money, she should phone the newspaper offices and let them know that Tuki was a Birangana. The journalists may come with cameras although that will not guarantee that she would get money. Besides the newshounds may discover that not one but two Biranganas lived in this house. The second one was educated and had a job. So far, all the Biranganas who had been tracked down were poor. They had humiliated themselves in front of society for the second time by describing their dishonour in 1971 as they were seeking money or jobs for their children. The educated ones are faceless, anonymous. Professional actors played their roles on television. If journalists found her, then it was probable that they would dismiss Tuki and zero in on her. 

Shaheen Akhtar is one of Bangladesh's most famous fiction writers. Her books include 'Mayur Singhashon', 'Sakhi Rangamala' and 'Ashukhi Din'.