FOR Aftab Alam and his younger brother Shahab Alam, running a shop in Bangla Bazaar of Orangi Town is more than a business. When I used to pass it as a child, I’d always wonder at the billboard: “Hamaray haan Mashriqi Pakistan ki masnooaat dastiyaab hain [Products of East Pakistan are available here].” Years later, I was able to connect the dots.
For many, it may seem a state of denial or a kind of an illusion that they are living in. But the Alam brothers insist on believing in this “myth” that East Pakistan is still part of the country. As I meet them a couple of days before the 44th anniversary of the secession, they insist that it was the “conspiracy of others” and “our dishonesty” which led to Dec 16, 1971 — the fall of Dhaka.
“But what’s the point in still calling it East Pakistan?” I ask, referring to the board outside the shop, as Aftab pauses to take a gulp of tea in his Dhaka Fabrics and Clothing.
“Because I like that,” he smiles. “I have turned 53 listening to and learning about only that introduction for that part of the world from my family. I can’t call it Bangladesh. I was born there, spent my childhood there and still have friends and relatives there. I often visit that country. I still feel like that is my home. It’s a myth, I know, but I like to keep it.”
Some memories keep Aftab thinking positively, but there are many others that he wants to forget — bloodshed, violence, hatred and the “distorted history” of the country. As a nine-year-old boy, the eldest among five siblings, he spent nine days relying only on water, without proper food, as the family fled death and finally reached ‘West Pakistan’ three days before Dec 16, 1971.
“Those wounds are still open,” he says. “While we were in Dhaka, every other day we would come to know about the killing of a relative or a person whom we knew well. We were scared and losing hope fast. I still can’t believe the way we survived amid that genocide all around us.”
In the densely populated neighbourhood of Sector 15 of Orangi Town, I find many stories relating to Dec 16. Here, a significant section of the population comprises migrants from the erstwhile East Pakistan after 1971. Each one has a different incident to narrate but the horror of that time is common in all their stories. On Aftab’s suggestion, I meet Aqeela Karim — his paternal aunt — who lives half a kilometre from his shop.
Once leading a wealthy and happy life, she had never thought for a second that all she had been saving for her children’s future would be bargained for their lives. She had to offer every single piece of her jewellery to the Mukti Bahini when they stormed into her home one terrible day and killed her brother-in-law with sticks and knives before aiming their madness at her and her children.
“I had heard terrible things about them,” she recalls, tears rolling down her cheeks. “We were amongst the richest people in our town. We used to run a production unit of fabrics and bags. I had enough gold. So I begged for the lives of my children and handed over to them all the precious gold lying in my house. I was doing this while my brother-in-law Tehseen was lying lifeless in a pool of blood. I don’t know what they [the Mukti Bahini] felt but they walked off with the gold and spared our lives.”
I ask her if she remembers the total worth of the jewellery that saved their lives. She can’t exactly recall, but says “I remember it was more than two kilos”.
Riding back on my motorbike through the narrow streets of Bangla Bazaar, I spot Aftab adjusting his wares on the shelves of his shop. I stop by to have a quick chat.
“These are Bengali ghamchha [handkerchiefs],” he says holding up one in green. “These are the best quality-wise. People from all over Karachi come to my shop to buy this. Some like the lungis of East Pakistan. We have good connections there so we bring wares from there and sell them here with a decent margin of profit.”
As we are busy talking about the variety of Bengali products available at Dhaka Fabrics and Clothing, an aged man drops by to meet Aftab. The latter introduces me to the man. He is Habib-ur-Rahman, his neighbour and a migrant from ‘East Pakistan’.
“How can we forget Dec 16?” says Habib when he is told about the reason for my presence at this shop. “But memories of that Dec 16 are fading away because of what happened last year on the same date,” says the elderly man, referring to the massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar.
And he muses: “Do you know what’s common between the two Dec 16 tragedies? In both, we were the victims as well as the assailants.”
Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2015