Note: This memoir is published as part of Bangladesh’s 50th Independence Anniversary Celebrations. This is the 2nd instalment.
I called Alim in haste and told him of the widespread unrest. He said he’d return immediately. I tried to explain everything I knew of the situation, but Alim replied that he was already aware. He would later reveal that he’d hidden much of what occurred in those days because he’d wanted to keep me from worrying.
That day, Alim examined his patients with a troubled mind. As he conducted his examination, he made a point of warning each patient of the dangers to come. He would later drive home those that lived further away, and to them he gave the additional advice of temporarily relocating for their safety. Having done all this, he returned home that night around half past eleven.
That very night, Syed Nazrul Islam, who’d be acting president of the provisional government of Bangladesh in a month, came to our house. He was married to the sister-in-law of Alim’s elder sister, and would stay at Apa’s Moghbazar house whenever he came to Dhaka. From there he would attend the meetings of the Awami League and take part in other political activities. He’d spend the rest of the time during his stay discussing various matters with Alim and his younger brother Hafiz. He was very fond of them both.
Our nephews Adil and Taiyab brought Nazrul Saheb to our house from Moghbazar. At the time, my parents occupied the third floor, and we rather hastily brought my father one floor down to accommodate him. It was the most sequestered part of the building, and therefore the most fitting.
The flag we had hoisted with such pleasure still flew on the roof of our building. With great regret, we took it down. Syed Nazrul was already a man of few words, but that day, he became almost silent. His looks at the time spoke of unusual worry.
Despite his move to Purana Paltan, there was no real change to his demeanour. Still, we sat with him for dinner. His mind thus preoccupied, he ate with no awareness of his surroundings. At one point he picked up the bones from a small plate and moved them to his own plate. I quickly removed the things in front of him. Alim then led him back to his room.
A terrible racket suddenly began after midnight. Everything seemed to tremble. It quickly became apparent that the Pakistani army had begun an assault on Dhaka city. Machine guns, tanks, mortars were being used to attack civilians. Our shock at such cruelty was nothing compared to our despair. Our grief had no words.
We had known that the failure of negotiations could only bring us grief. A reality so fearsome and fatal was beyond our worst nightmares. Never had we imagined the mass slaughter of our people.
In those terrible days, our main concern was keeping Nazrul Saheb concealed. We had no doubt that if they found him, they’d kill him. The only question was how much he would suffer. What would happen if they caught and harmed him in our home—this thought alone left us guilt-ridden. With that in mind, Alim blacked out the third floor, closing up the windows and putting out the lights. He came down soon after, his face bearing the marks of deep concern. His anxiety at the time could not be hidden.
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Alim checked up on Syed Nazrul several times that night. Every time he went, he found him pacing the roof while smoking anxiously. It was very dangerous for him to be up there—he could have been shot from any angle. Such a thought hardly seemed to occur to Nazrul Saheb, however; it was obvious he was not in his right mind.
We thought that that terrible night would never end. Through the window, Alim and I witnessed acts of appalling cruelty. Balls of fire rained down around us—large and small. Their explosions were the deafening backdrop to an ever-increasing chorus of screams. This made it amply evident how very close we were to the attacks. At some point, the night turned to dawn. Yet the attacks continued without a pause.
Even for those of us who sat at home, the brutal wrath of the Pakistanis was evident. To them, our ballots for the symbolic boat of the Awami League had been a criminal offence. Their retaliation was to put in every effort to eliminate us. They had no need for “traitorous heretics” like us Bengalis. Their only interest was the money from our jute, leather and tea industries. It was our fertile lands they wanted, not our people.
With the attack on, the 26th of March dragged on. No information reached us, and we had no means of obtaining it ourselves. Even the land phone had stopped working.
Syed Nazrul seemed to grow old overnight. He became totally silent. Signs of deep worry cast a pall over his features, and he all but gave up eating. On the 27th of March, the curfew was lifted for a short while. We immediately decided to leave the area. Earlier, we’d learnt that Pakistani soldiers had conducted a thorough search of Apa’s home the night before. Not finding Nazrul Saheb, they had decided to kill her three sons. They had taken them outside, and made them line up so they could shoot them. Apa knew some Urdu, and quickly had begun to plead with the captain being present. “Their father is dead,” she had said, “please let them go. They have never been involved in politics and they understand nothing of it. Syed Nazrul Islam is only their ‘phuppa’. He’d stay with us because no other place was available for him. He left our home just yesterday.” After this entreaty, the soldiers decided to release her sons. They were safe, at least for the moment.
After the raid on Apa’s house, we had good reason to fear that our own home would be their next target. Alim’s ties to Nazrul Saheb were well-known, and many people in Moghbazar could recognise our house. The soldiers conducting the search could easily bring someone to identify our building. Our decision to leave was to pre-empt such an occurrence. If anyone arrived in our absence, my mother issued instructions to say that we were away, and that Alim was with a patient. Nazrul saheb was told to remain indoors with the doors and windows shut. Alim then secured the door with a padlock from the outside. We’d already decided to leave for Alim’s cousin’s house on Nazimuddin Road. Our daughters Neepa and Shampa in tow, we were quick to depart. The path to our destination was littered with corpses.
By then it was obvious that Syed Nazrul would have to be moved. Staying in one place would only further his chance of being caught. It was decided that he’d be moved to another location under the guise of a woman. A nephew of ours spoke to their aunt in Hussaini Dalan and managed to arrange a place for him to stay.
I returned home and went to the house of our neighbour Matin Saheb to get a black burqa from his wife. I’d later buy her another burqa. Something—perhaps these actions or my demeanour—seemed to then rouse her suspicions, but she never said a word. Having acquired the burqa, I returned to Nazimuddin road with Alim.
Together, my mother-in-law and mother helped Syed Nazrul dress in a sari. Along with it, he also wore a petticoat and a blouse usual for such an outfit. On his feet were sandals, and a bun was made for his hair using a black cloth. The finishing touch was the black burqa. Nazrul Saheb made no objections at any point of this process. It was my younger brother Shwapan who then had the responsibility of leading him away. As planned, a rickshaw was called, and they soon set off for Hussaini Dalan.
Nazrul Islam Saheb kept tripping as he made his way down the stairs. Shwapan held him tightly and managed to help him onto the rickshaw. Despite these precautions, they soon found themselves followed by a soldier on a cycle.
Shwapan began to sweat profusely in fear. Thinking quickly, they instructed the rickshaw-puller to make some diversions through the narrow lanes and alleys. They reached Hussaini Dalan long after the intended time, and Shwapan then returned by taking another circuitous route.
We returned home after receiving the news. My nephews and their cousins helped Nazrul Saheb escape to India within a few days of his arrival. After the Pakistani army surrendered, Syed Nazrul returned to Dhaka and spoke of how the Pakistanis killed the friend who had saved him.
On the 22nd of April, 1972, the Dainik Bangla newspaper published an article in which they reported the following:
“On the night of March 25th, as Pakistani forces carried out their brutal campaign, Syed Nazrul Islam took refuge in the home of eminent eye specialist Dr. Alim Chowdhury. Dr. Alim is no longer with us. A mere day before our victory, he met his tragic end at the hands of Al Badr.”
Originally written in Bangla by Shyamoli Nasreen Choudhury, wife of DR Alim Choudhury, recipient of the Ekushey Padak for her contribution in Education. The article is translated by Farah Naz and Manoshi Quayes.