Family secrets, state secrets

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Rahnuma Ahmed

History is never more compelling than when it gives us insights into oneself and the ways in which one?s own experience is constituted.
Amitav Ghosh, in a letter to Dipesh Chakrabarty
I do not see my life as separate from history. In my mind my family secrets mingle with the secrets of statesmen and bombers. Nor is my life divided from the lives of others.
Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones
?We hated it if anyone asked us about her?
?MANY widowed mothers were forced to re-marry, some for reasons of social security,? these were Amena?s opening words when I went to interview her. Amena Khatun works as a conservator and archivist for the Liberation War Museum. She was speaking of their family life after 1971.
Things did not always transpire as intended, she added. Her mother?s second marriage had been short-lived.
My father? He is Shahid Abdul Kader, he had a furniture business, it was new. But by then the war had started, and his friends and workmen had left to fight for liberation. I was a few months old, my other brother, the one younger to me, was not yet born. My elder brother was two and a half years old. I think my father was planning to go away, to join the struggle, but it happened before he could make arrangements for us. They took him away. We lived in Mymensingh, our area was full of Biharis, I think they could sense what was happening, and they targeted my father. Actually, it was a Bengali woman, a razakar, who came and called him. She came and said, so-and-so wants to talk to you. My father stepped out and found a group of Bihari men and women waiting for him. It was May 28, 1971.
My grandmother, it was her, my nanu who raised us. Her struggle was much greater. My mother? Oh, she was very young, only seventeen or eighteen, she hardly understood anything. She was forced to re-marry, this was later, in 1977 or 1978. She had no other choice.
For us kids it was a new experience, we had not seen a man before. My mama was five years older to me, he and my older brother, they were the only men in the house. My uncles came later but nanu didn?t like them, she was worried that they would take us away, put us to work on the farm, that we would have to give up our studies. My younger chacha had wanted to marry my mother but she didn?t agree to the proposal. She said, he was like a brother.
And in the middle of all this, here was this new man, we could tell that he was intimate with her. When he appeared, she was a different mother. Sometimes I think, did we deserve this? If my father had lived, life would have been very different.
By the time my mother gave birth to a daughter, that phase [her married life] was over. That little sister of ours was the most exciting thing that could have happened in our lives, she lit up our home, all our dreams centred around her. We couldn?t think of anything else. We didn?t want to.
But whenever we went to the village, people would say, she was born of your mother?s second marriage, wasn?t she? We hated the sound of those words. Of course, what they said was true, for them it was not unusual. They were just curious, they would keep asking us and I don?t blame them. But I hated it, bhaiya didn?t like it either. My sister? She was too young to understand. But how can you stop people talking, and so we stopped going to the village. We wouldn?t go, hardly ever.
Much later, right before my sister took her matric exams, we were forced to tell her. In a sense, she found out for herself. You see, her friends kept asking her, ?But if you were born in 1971, how can you be this young??
I guess we needed to grow older to come to terms with the truth.
?A dirty nigger?. Racial prejudice and humiliation in the British Indian army
?As a child, I remember hearing only idyllic stories of my father?s life in the British Indian army,? writes novelist Amitav Ghosh, in a letter to historian Dipesh Chakrabarty.
But towards the end of his life, before he died in 1998, my father told me a very different story. During the siege of Imphal, he had turned away from the main battle to confront a South African officer who called him a ?dirty nigger?. After this, other stories poured out, stories of deep-seated racism within the army, very different to the idyllic picture that Amitav had grown up with. He writes, why did my father (and, in some sense, all our fathers) avoid telling us these stories? Speaking of such things must have been difficult, he muses, especially because they were at odds with their vision of themselves as ?high-caste, bhadra patriarchs?. He adds, what may seem to be mere instances of racism were not so, they represented the system itself. Western liberal thought, whether that of JS Mill, or Bentham, or any other nineteenth century British writer, is built on racism, writes Amitav.
His question is: if we reproduce these silences of history, are we denying or abetting in structures of exclusion and oppression?

Post-independence armies of South Asia

Did racism survive the departure of the white colonisers in 1947? Are post-independence armies of South Asia non-racial and hence, non-racist? Is it meaningful to talk of race and racial differences in our cultures?
East Pakistani (later Bangladeshi) scholars spoke of ethnic differences in racial terms. They said, Pakistan?s military commanders perpetuated the recruitment policies of their colonial masters. ?Martial races? ? meaning Punjabis and Pathans ? were over-represented in the national armed forces, whereas the majority Bengali population, and smaller minorities like the Baluchis and Sindhis, were largely excluded. Indian historians maintain, imperial institutions like the army and the civil service allowed particular forms of racist practices, because of their proximity to the ruling race. They also say, racism survived independence. The north-eastern provinces, known as the seven sisters, have been subjected to decades of racist oppression by successive Indian governments.
Is ethnic discrimination in Bangladesh racist? Educated paharis, who have suffered militarily, tell me that ?ethnic discrimination? as a term does not do justice to the horror of their experiences. I was speaking to a young woman whose father was hung upside down for days, and later died a broken man. And to a young pahari man who was detained for several weeks, and was severely traumatised because of what he was made to witness.
Family secrets can be state secrets. Our mothers and fathers need to tell us stories. We need to discover ways of talking about silenced histories. And about the silenced present.
First published in New Age 26th May 2008

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.” His recent book “The Tide Will Turn” published by Steidl in 2020, is listed in New York Time’s ‘Best Art Books of 2020’. Alam received the “International Press Freedom Award” for 2020 from ‘The Committee to Protect Journalists’.

2 thoughts on “Family secrets, state secrets”

  1. The psychic scars and traumatic holes of prejudice, whether smothered or shrouded over, do not diminish or disappear with the passage of time. Crushed history paves the way for a crushed present. Both collectives and individuals continue paying the price of this self-flagellation far beyond the actual victimhood. The tragedy is compounded and prolonged when or if these silent pains, long suffered and long concealed, reify among our loved ones and affect them by some invisible quirks of our own violated personality.

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