Published in The Kathmandu Post
Dhaka Night Drive
What comes to your mind when you think of Dhaka, Bangladesh? Specially if you have never been there -
I tried not to think too much during the weeks preceding my first visit. There were enough reports about its terrible traffic, floods, garment industry and such. It was Eid week and my New York-based friend Sharmeen invited me to spend a few days with her family. There was a lot to catch up.
Shortly after I landed, Sharmeen’s brother offered to take us on a night drive. “Do you remember this place? The TV studio?” The brother, Salman, pointed to a roadside building. “Wow. It seems so close now,” she exclaimed.
“Yeah. 10 mins. This Hatirjheel project has made a big difference.’’ It was the night before Eid, past midnight. Traffic was light anyway. But the project, which took some five years to complete, interconnected different parts of the city with overpasses, bridges and viaducts, making movement easier.
That was my first impression of Dhaka - steel beams that curved and glistened around the Hatirjheel lake. Salman drove us through a series of bridges (eight, I learned later) as I tried to capture them, rather unsuccessfully, with my smartphone. “So it literally means elephant-lake,” Sharmeen was explaining. A nawab had once used these wetlands for his tamed elephants.
As we headed towards Dhanmondi, via Gulshan, to see her friend Tasmiah, Sharmeen pointed at a gate across the street, “That’s the park named after our grandfather.” She had mentioned him before. Was he a politician? I couldn’t remember clearly. But I knew that he played an important part during Bangladesh Liberation War with Pakistan.
“So why is he famous?” I asked casually.
“He was killed during the war by the Pakistani army.”
“So what happened was that,” Sharmeen turned around from the front seat to look at me “When the Pakistanis realized that Bangladesh was becoming independent, they sought out all the intellectuals, people who were best in their fields, and killed them.” It was a tactic used to cripple a newly independent country.
“Well, they killed tonnes of people before too,” interrupted Salman.
“Right. So in March, 1971, there was a lot of unrest and Pakistan launched Operation Searchlight. It’s one of the largest genocides ever recorded.” The Pakistani occupation army systematically killed around three million Bangladeshis between March and December. Thousands of women were also raped.
“Our grandfather was a famous cardiologist,” Salman continued.
“He was also a popular professor at Dhaka Medical College.”
“Both him and grandmother were very active during the war, treating and helping all kinds of people. She was also a doctor.”
“Bangladesh became independent on December 16. He was killed that same day, in early morning, a few hours before the Pakistani Army surrendered.”
“They came to his house the day before, on the 15th. The Pakistani army. They were aided by the “Rajakkars,” a sect within Bangladesh who, instead of liberation, wanted to remain a part of Pakistan and form an Islamic Republic.” Sharmeen’s voice was crisp and clear. It wasn’t emotional or sad. What did it sound like? Was it pride? Did it sound elevated because of the historical crash-course she was giving me?
“He knew they were coming, and so did my grandma, yet they refused to hide or flee. When they came to pick him up – his only words were “Don’t touch me, I am coming”. Ironically, just a couple of hours before this, he had seen his last patient, who happened to be a West Pakistani guy. Our mom saw everything – my grandma locked up her three children in the bathroom. But my mom somehow broke out, and when she reached the balcony, she just saw her father’s back, stepping out of the main gate, and her mother lying on the pavement. My grandma had run outside and demanded that the army officers tell her where they were taking him and why they were taking him – but she was held at gunpoint and she apparently passed out when they took her husband away.”
Throughout the war, the Pakistani army kept a list of the best professors, doctors, lawyers, students; everyone who excelled in their fields were taken away. “And they took his heart out,” she said.
They did that to everyone,” Salman turned a corner. “Based on people’s professions. One of his friends was an ophthalmologist. So they killed him by taking his eyes out. Since grandfather was a heart doctor, they ripped his heart out.”
The next morning, I sat next to Sharmeen’s father, sipping tea. He was a young soldier during the war - he, like many patriotic, able-bodied youngsters joined the “Mukti Bahini”, which the freedom fighters called themselves.
But he didn’t speak much about his experience. Instead, he also mentioned his in-laws.
“Sharmeen’s grandfather, great man,” he spoke softly. “Her grandmother too.”
It was the grandmother I had heard about more than the grandfather back in New York. How she had gone on to become Bangladesh’s Director General of Health Services after her husband’s death, how she had the presence of mind to invest in real estate and the stock market. She also raised three of her children completely on her own without accepting any aid from the post-liberation government or from her family members.
The lady liked to travel. She had been to Thailand and several other countries. Once she bought one-way tickets to India and took Sharmeen with her. They traveled through the entire east coast and returned twenty-six days later. During her travels, she picked Gucci bags, chiffon and silk and sarees.
At that point, Sharmeen sleepily walked out of her bedroom. “She was awesome. You know that she wanted us to put lipstick on her dead body?”
“That’s what she told my mom and me. It caused quite a scene the day she passed away,” Red lipstick. And Chanel No. 5 perfume She didn’t see anyone, even visitors inside her house, without these on. Her whole life, she kept saying that her family should not let her go to her grave underdressed and unprepared. She had made her daughters and Sharmeen promise that they would spray Chanel No. 5 on her dead body and leave the gold jewelry - a small pair of earrings, a necklace chain, and a ring - on. She wanted to be buried with full make up on, particularly the red lipstick.
Sharmeen chuckled at the memory, “The imam was there. And hundreds of people, some of them actively protesting, calling us anti-religious. According to Muslim custom, when a person dies, she should be bathed, all trace of make up removed and the body wrapped in an unstitched white cloth. But my mom, aunt and I stood our ground.”
“So did you do it? Put lipstick on her?”
“Of course. That’s what she wanted. Red lipstick on her lips. And her favorite perfume. She wanted to go away in style. That’s my grandmother, man!”
What comes to my mind when I think of Dhaka? Food. The delicacies prepared by Sharmeen’s mom on the day of Eid, eating leftover chicken and pulaoo for breakfast. All the other meals at their home. That night at Tasmiah’s. Meeting their childhood friends. Neville’s red bar stocked with whiskey and vodka. And his slim cigarettes. Tasmiah’s beauty. Chats with Ambica, another New York friend who was visiting. The heat. The sticky, humid air. More food at Tasmiah’s. Lamb Biryani and steak that I didn’t have room for. The times we went to hotel cafes to get a strong cup of coffee. The early evening scene. Youngsters in sherwanis and salwar kurtas with their Eid dates. The long sightseeing drives. Learning about Shaheed Minar and the Bengali Language Movement. How students had revolted in 1952 when Pakistan tried to impose Urdu on East Pakistan as the official state language. The two decades of simmering discontent in Bangladesh following the Partition. And the year 1971. Imagining the fear. The killings. The rapes. Many things come to mind when I think of Dhaka now. But two images have been imprinted in my psyche, images of Sharmeen’s grandparents who seemed to be with us that week. As if they were living and breathing next to us. Images of their dead bodies come to mind; how, in death, they defined their entire lives - one heartless and the other one with bright red lipstick.