The Bird of Life: Tales of '71 - Hasan Azizul Huq

যাযাবর ব্যাকপ্যাকার's picture
Submitted by Jajabor.Backpacker on Tue, 23/04/2013 - 7:12pm

It was how it usually looked like, all quiet from the outside. Although the windows and doors of the Doulatpur Brajalal College were all shut tight, there was a peacefulness in that silence. Looking at the tall grass that had grown into a waist-high jungle, and the cattle sitting in the shades of the trees under the winter sun, one could hardly realize that the country was flooding in a blood-bath. If you listened carefully in all this silence, you could even hear the echo of the warmth of life going on from the nearby bazaar. It wasn't impossible to hear the strangely grave sounds of the rising tide inside the people, like that of the long dried up river, The Bhairab.

In the meantime, on the morning of the 3rd or the 4th of December of 1971, arrived a notice from the Principal on a torn out piece of paper with the names of seven teachers. My name was the second on that list. It stated that the Pakistani Colonel staying in the Khulna Circuit House wished to meet these seven Professors. At the end of the note the Principal had added that the Colonel's wishes were actually his command.

I understood all too well what that notice written in English meant, yet I still read it a third time, and felt as if I was at a loss. It was as if the notice was vanishing from my sight.. it was almost gone, only the right corner was left in my vision now, if that too melt away, all will be vanished.. Just then the noise from the bazaar and the sound of the boatmen from the Bhairab kheya-ghaat came to my ears, and the piece of paper I held in my hands made a ruffling noise. I came back to reality and looked down at it again, to see that two of the teachers had not yet signed as they lived outside the campus, but the others already had.

I was at the Principal's house within five minutes. The tall, thin and dark man was sitting on a couch with a dragging face. He was more lying down than sitting, with his eyes half-closed. I went to him and spoke roughly, “What is this, Sir? You have sent the summon of Death for us with your own hand?”
Without moving an inch or opening his eyes, he made a gesture with the palms of his hand and said, “What else could I do?”
“What can you do?! Won't you consider our future?”

In my excitement I did not noticed that three of the teachers that had signed the Principal's notice, had already arrived and were present in the room. Most of the windows and doors were closed in that room, and it was quite dark inside even in daylight. They had been sitting on chairs scattered around the room. That's when the fourth person arrived. This person was six feet tall, with a sporty figure, looking at him you knew what the term 'broad-chested' meant. He was well known for being quite daring and he used to carry a pistol with him all the time. But the incidents of the previous nine months had somewhat humbled the recklessness in his nature. As he neared us, I saw that his nerves were so jittery that he had come without finishing the daily necessities he had been involved in. One side of his cheek had a cut that was bleeding, the other still had soap on it.
He roared at the Principal, “Why had you taken the initiative to send this notice, Sir?”
The principal replied in a broken voice, “What else was I to do? Do I have more than one head on my neck?” He sat a bit upright and blinked at us, “I was to notify you all, and I did. Why don't you pretend you haven't received the Notice? Or you can choose to ignore it too, right? It's not like I am forcing you to go.”
“But we must to consider the safety of our heads as well!”
“Then what am I to do?”, uttering this he lied back down on the couch completely.

We realized that talking to the Principal was pointless. The daredevil Professor was still shaking, but whether from fury or from nervousness I couldn't tell. Another Professor reminded him to apply some antiseptic to his cut and to finish his shaving.
The bold Professor didn't get embarrassed but replied, “Right! you think shaving is of importance now, but what happens when we lose our lives? What's a shaved face then?”
I interrupted them saying, “But what to do now? Are we to go or not?”
The Principal raised his head from the couch and said,”I was called from the Circuit House. You are to get there by 10AM. They were asking if a Jeep needs to be sent, I had declined immediately.”
“That was the correct thing to do, if the Jeep was to come then it would be more an arrest.” said the eldest of the Professors.
I am not sure today, why I had decided to go to the Circuit House back then. I could just leave the College. If we crossed the Bhairab and fled to the villages on the other side, who could have found us? Maybe it was my two little daughters that I thought about, or perhaps I thought of the eighty-six year old man, my father, who sat with his hands gathered together on the easy-chair. We were dead believers by then that the Pakistani Army could do anything and everything inhuman possible.

An hour or so afterwards, when I was getting off the rickshaw at the gate of the Circuit House, I could see the huge black military van standing at the left hand side field across the gate. All my doubts were gone. I still remember, I glanced at the sky for one more time. It was bright with the December sunshine. The neat city, Khulna's houses seemed to be submerged in a sleepy kind of delirium. A careless sleepiness momentarily engulfed me too. It was like I bade farewell to the World.
Everyone knew that black van. This was the Butcher's van. Many a dark morning, noon and night I had seen this van carry crowds of people. Most were young men – captured from the nearby villages, all of them sat in rows, bare skinned, speechless. They were taken to Gollamari, away from the city in the South, near a cove of the Bhairab. This was the Angel of Death.
When I was staring at all these horrible things standing near the gate, I suddenly had the urge to run away as fast as I could by the paved road at the right hand side. But instead I found myself entering the gate of the Circuit House the next moment, with my nervous colleague. He was calm now, serious and without concerns, at least that's how it seemed to me.

Entering the hall room of the Circuit House I found that many others had gathered there. School and College teachers, a few of the Principals, lawyers, doctors, all together some twenty-five to thirty people. Not a bad game-plan, I thought to myself, if these 20-30 people were murdered, Khulna will be a clean city!

Everyone was talking carefully in a low voice, with bowed heads, looking at the person next to them stealthily. Everyone was trying to be as normal as they possibly could... but a heavy panic was casting a shadow upon their forceful cheery faces, as if the panic was working under the layer of cheerfulness. It was like they were cracking jokes with someone while staring at their own skeletons.

An uniformed young officer came near our door with harsh noises of his boot and in bad English informed us that the Colonel will speak to us shortly. The young officer was good looking. Very young indeed. His fair face was oily from perspiration, and his eyes reflected stupidity, prejudice and envy all at once. Just then I noticed Rashidul Hasan, the D.C. of Khulna, cross the corridor and rush into the Colonel's chamber. Through the open door I saw that Rashidul Hasan's clothing was in a mess and his hair uncombed. He didn't once turn towards us. I used to know him. In 1959 or 1960 we had participated in an English debate competition in Dhaka University. He wasn't supposed to remember me, but he had managed to make quite an impact on my mind. Later on I got to know him afresh as the D.C. of Khulna.

Rashidul Hasan came out of the chamber of the Colonel within a short time. He looked at us standing near the open door. Anger, excitement or frustration I was unsure of what, but something made his face blood red, eyes crazy, and trickles of perspiration rolled down his face. All of us were staring at his face, trying to read something from it. He looked at me, but didn't seem to recognize. He went to the other end of the corridor. A silence fell across the room. So many people who had been talking for so long, suddenly stopped at once. The ticking of the wall-clock was like a pressure to our ears, when the cry of a baby came across from some distant place and broke the silence. I cannot express how exactly I felt. Fear, panic, worry, etc. cannot explain the actual feelings of my heart. Because I had never experienced a situation like this before. At one point it seemed to me as if I am halting very near the end of the mystery called LIFE, I would know it's answers all too soon.

As far as I can recall now, Rashidul Hasan had returned and entered the Colonel's room once more, but I cannot remember exactly. He was about to say something to us standing at the door, but instead moved away. And then we were called to the Colonel's chamber.
In a half-dark room the Colonel was sitting across a huge desk covered with velvet. I couldn't spot him at first. We had entered the room rather unorganized. Someone tumbled on the doorstep, another person's feet got tangled in the heavy curtains hanging on the door. The room was dark, and there were not enough chairs for everyone to sit down. After my eyes got accustomed to the darkness I could see the Colonel, a very fair complexioned middle aged man, with thinning hair parted in the middle. He kept saying, “Please have your seats, please don't mind the trouble I've given you.”
After everyone had entered the room, it was quiet, as if every person froze in his own place. The colonel was smiling to himself momentarily. I could see his eyes smile as well. But as soon as that smile had gone, the face looked unnatural, as if it wasn't the face of a human being, it was some other animal.. cruel and frozen expression in his eyes, and his face being just a mask, behind which a massive bloodsucking monster was hiding.
May be all this was my imagination, maybe not.

When the Colonel opened his mouth to speak, we realized that for some reason or other our lives had been exempted. In a very slow and calm manner he gave a speech:
“You are the teachers, you are the intellectuals, you are the most worthy citizens of Pakistan. The nation is grateful to you. The nation needs your help in time of crises. We are now in a crisis, India is trying her best to destroy Pakistan..” and after continually speaking such nonsense for some time he was still not satisfied, a suppressed anger and irritation was still on his face.
“Khuda Pakistan ko hefazat kare (May the Lord bless Pakistan)”, he uttered something like that and dismissed us.

I really cannot put my finger on whether it was the 3rd or 4th of December. Back from the Circuit House as soon as I had entered the college, three bombers flew overhead with loud noise. That was the first time I saw bombers. I cannot recall if I had seen bombers in the war of '65. These turned back and flew very low with cracking noise. Although they disappeared quickly, the angry bee-like hum was hanging in the air for a while. I could understand that these might drop bombs anytime but had no idea what damage a Bomber could actually do, so I had actually enjoyed looking at them!

Around that evening we saw the first heavy tanks in the ashen darkness. Then continued the four day long restless withdrawal, the retreat of the Pakistan Army. Leaning on the closed iron gate of the college I observed the procession of tanks, and heavy artillery, trucks, vans and Jeeps vibrating the roads, in the darkness. The Pakistanis were drawing back, escaping/evacuating. I was thinking where will they escape to when they reach Khulna? The Bay of Bengal was in the South.

I went to the quiet and dark two storey house of the Principal and found the tall man half lying on the bed throwing his fists towards the open Western window and saying, “Juta maar, juta maar, beat 'em up with your shoes!”

The next day the first bomb hit the oil tank near the college right at 10 AM. This one sound crushed all the excitement and romanticism of the movies and imagination of bombers and brought death right down in front of us. Huge pillars of dark smoke rose to the sky and the four bombers returned over and over again like angry wasps. I witnessed a plane sweep up and then down and drop a bomb right on the Jute-storehouse on the opposite river-bank, as I dragged my old parents into the trench that was dug that very morning and held my daughters heads down. Thus the bombings started.

I am not sure today, whether it was because the Colonel wanted to avoid killing the 25/30 people before the escape, or was it because Rashidul Hasan had interfered somehow and managed to cancel the decision of murdering of all of us gathered that day, that we were let free. Rashidul Hasan's father had also written this exact same thing to me. I didn't know then, and I still don't know. I couldn't confirm that old gentleman undoubtedly. But I keep picturing the desperate look on Rashidul Hasan's face. I wish to believe that it was due to his earnest help that we managed to escape the Circuit House alive that day.



  • 1. This is from the translation project some of us are working on of the book 1971: Dreadful Experiences (১৯৭১: ভয়াবহ অভিজ্ঞতা). The book is a collection of witness accounts to 1971 Liberation War and the Independence of Bangladesh by the country's educationists, writers, professionals. The book is edited by Rashid Hayder and was first published on the Victory Day of 1989.

    This is the personal account of author Hasan Azizul Huq, Educationist; Professor of Philosophy at the University of Rajshahi of early December, 1971. He was a professor at the Doulatpur Brajalal College, Khulna in those days.

    Any suggestion regarding the translation will be appreciated by the translator in the comment section.
    Thank you.


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