Bengali Girls Don’t
Based on a True Story.
Copyright © Luky Ali Sherman, 2011
All rights reserved.
Blue Sari Press
Cover photo by Z.M.S
Cover design by Sherry O’Donnell
I’d like to thank my family for being so supportive and God for giving me a life worth writing about.
In the summer of 1947, exactly 24 years before my story begins, the British left India, giving rise to two new nations: India and Pakistan. But back then, Pakistan didn’t merely comprise the western zone of India as it does today, but the eastern zone as well, under the name of East Bengal, then later as East Pakistan, before becoming a free nation in and of itself during my birth year, in 1971, under the name of Bangladesh.
Now, before that fantastic moment of liberation, when Bangladesh was still called East Pakistan, West Pakistan, which had less of the population but all the political power, treated East Pakistan and its people as the unwanted step-siblings, as the impure Muslim cousins from the east, as the speakers of an impure tongue (we spoke Bangla and they spoke Urdu), as the people who constantly needed help due to cyclones and floods.
In other words, they couldn’t stand us.
To make matters worse, on March 25, 1971, the day before my country, East Pakistan, declared independence, the government of West Pakistan sent in their soldiers to rape and slaughter their way through Dhaka, our capital city, to instill fear in the hearts of the people, leaving the Bengalis no choice but fight back and defend themselves. It was five months after this that I came into the world on a mud floor in a remote village, and four months more until Bangladesh won liberation.
At a February conference in 1971, shortly before the war broke out, General Yahya Khan, then president of Pakistan, when referring to the Bengalis to a reporter named Robert Payne, said, “Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands [like dogs].” (The dogs part is my own personal addition, but I always pictured him saying it whenever I heard this quote). Just like other maniacal dictators had done throughout history, he used genocide as a means to control his population. Anyway, this was the world I was born into and the place where my story begins.
P.S. Certain names in the book have been changed at my discretion, and faces in the photo section blurred, to protect identities, and I promise (truly, I promise) that I have tried to write everything exactly as how it all happened, based on my own memories and feelings of the events, as well as the memories and feelings of certain family members whose brains I picked with a fine surgeon’s scalpel. However, and to be quite honest, it’s possible I may have gotten a few minor details mixed up or mistaken (though not too mistaken), such as exact dates or times, but for the most part, I believe that everything I have written in these pages happened in the exact way that I’ve described.
Part I. Birth. East Pakistan. 1971. Summer.
They race through the doorway, two boys and their parents. They scamper over a pathway to check in on a neighbor, thirteen other Bengali families in tow, their eyes never leaving Rahman’s solid frame. The neighbor isn’t there. Thank God, Rahman says to them. Must have already left.
Backtracking, Rahman motions for them to follow, but they barely have an opportunity to round the corner when they see a group of soldiers flanking a motored vehicle and approaching fast, though still 150 to 200 meters off. Rahman knows they came from the market. Knows what they did there. What they did to his sister. What they tried to do to him.
Instinctively, they rush toward the tree line, leaving Rahman’s home in the rear-view. They know the Pakis won’t follow after. When they reach the forest, they stash themselves amid the thick brush where the undergrowth is as dark as it is dense. The women restrain their children by cupping their hands over their mouths and the men, vigilant, edgy, remain helpless. But how to run farther. Yet they cannot run farther. Why? Look to the tree tops. Hear those black things cawing? If more movements below, then more alarms in the air. And if that happens, the soldiers will have no choice but to turn their guns toward the forest, open fire, and revel in the clinking sound of shell casings hitting each other at their feet. So, for the time being, they are content to stay low, stay quiet, and wait.
All except Rahman.
Sunia, his wife, notices he is not among them. The others do too. “Where is he?” they keep asking. “Where…?”
“There,” someone whispers. “Up against the tin.”
The people look.
“Rahman…Rahman,” they call. Though not too loudly, so as not to alert the soldiers, who are still heading in their direction.
No answer. Nothing. Rahman remains stolid, his back resting against the outer wall of his home, his mind lost in some thought or paralyzed by some unknown fear, but not bothered by any worries. In a moment, he’ll look to his left, toward the jungle, where he’ll see his family and other Bengali families motioning for him to come to safety. He’ll then look to his right, toward the soldiers, where he’ll see nothing but foreign pigs encroaching onto their land, their homes, and into their lives. He’ll hate them at that moment. Hate them for the rest of his life.
“Rahman…Rahman,” they call to him again, but just like the last time, they receive the same answer.
Rahman looks straight ahead now and stares into the lush expanse he calls home, wonders if he’ll ever be back. His eyes become watery, and they close. He wipes them, but his vision remains cloudy so he blinks. When it clears, he sees he’s no longer squatting at the edge of civilization, about to flee for his life and his family’s lives, but he’s at the market buying naan, cilantro, jackfruit and mangoes, and two other items no Bengali household can do without: betel nut and paan, all of it to take to his sister.
He routinely goes to the market after morning prayers to buy things for his sister. She’s married, but lately her husband’s been ill. Been in bed resting for the past couple of weeks. Rahman helps out whenever he can, considers her husband a brother. He bargains for some jalebis, his sister’s favorite sweet, and hears some commotion down by the water. Walking closer, he sees people screaming and running and knocking things over. He hears gunshots. He runs, though not for safety, but for his sister, her husband. He knows his own family will be safe, at least for a little while longer, as they’re situated farther away from the main hub of the village.
He reaches the home of his sister and quickly looks around. Nothing’s afoot. He removes his sandals. Opens the door.
And the image he sees is one that will haunt him for the rest of his life. A woman. Her hands bound. Her lower half completely bare. The rusty blade of a machete buried deeply into her most private of parts.
Rahman steps toward the body.
The ground upon which she lies is soggy, squishy even, under Rahman’s barefeet. He wonders who this woman is in his sister’s home.
Surely, it can’t be my…
He raises his right leg, pulls his foot up over atop his left knee and scans the bottom of his sole. Wipes it with his hand. Blood. All blood.
He notices a man in the corner, his sister’s husband, lying face down in a pile of vomit. His hands bound behind his back. A single bullet hole through the back of his skull.
Oh no, they couldn’t have. Not to him, not to her, not to my…
Rahman bends down, slowly pulls back the woman’s sari, for it had been covering her head, and looks into his sister’s lifeless eyes.
Sons of bitches! Goddamned bastards!
He drops to his knees, gasps for air, and is about to cry out to Allah for justice when he hears voices outside. Men’s voices. Saying something about going back in for another ride.
He rises to his feet.
And tears mingled with rage stir rebellion.
He reaches for the machete.
The bootsteps grow louder.
He slips to the shadows.
The soldiers enter with smiles.
He holds the blade ready.
The soldiers step forward.
He leaps from the shadows with a grin.
For a moment, he can’t remember where he is or what he is doing squatting alongside his home. His head feels muddled, but when he glances toward the tree line and sees his wife and others motioning, waving for him to come over from behind a patch of closely knit bushes and shouting his name no less, he remembers. Only then does it all come flooding back.
He takes one more look at the soldiers—more of them coming now. He counts two more vehicles, two more trucks. More foot soldiers. Carrying rifles with bayonets. Rahman doesn’t waste any more time. He scurries off into the forest and then, as everyone else had been doing, crouches down low and waits, and is thankful it is no longer raining.
The vehicles drone by and then stop. Soldiers disembark and begin shouting. They order everyone in the trucks to get out and everyone complies.
Sunia watches a small contingent of soldiers enter nearby homes. A few even enter her husband’s home, but soon reappear as there wasn’t much left to see. Looking at the trucks now, she counts twenty-one men, all Bengalis, making their way from the rear of the farthest truck to the clearing adjacent her husband’s home. They walk quietly, eyeing only their barefeet, seemingly resigned to their unaccustomed fate. Some will welcome what is about to come. Some of their losses probably too great to bear.
In the clearing, they are ordered to stop. Thick black bands are wrapped around their heads to cover their eyes, and they are made to stand in single file, one behind the other, so tightly that not even an inch of space can pass between them. Yet why so close? Sunia wonders.
A solider with a rifle walks to the front of the line and shouts at the men to open up their gobs.
Defeated, they obey.
The soldier cocks his rifle and buries the tip of it into the first man’s mouth.
Sunia whispers something to her children, Abir and Saqir: Close your eyes. Then covers their ears and prays that no one in her company makes a sound, as even the faintest little din could put all their lives in jeopardy.
The soldier yells, “Allahu Akbar.” God is great.
The air about them turns grim.
“Allahu Akbar,” the soldier repeats the mantra.
“Allahu Akbar.” Sunia closes her eyes.
The soldier pulls the trigger.
A single shot leaves the barrel and enters the first man’s mouth and exits through the back of his head, doing so, more or less, to each and every one of the prisoners, knocking them over, killing some, injuring others.
When Sunia opens her eyes, a ghastly scene awaits her vision: 21 bodies being doused with some sort of fluid and a single soldier lighting a match. Horrified, she watches the match.
Minutes later, the pile of human flesh is afire, the byproduct thereof a dark-gray smoke plume, a testament to its vulgarity. But the soldiers, in their vehicles now, never look back, never feel guilty concerning their fellow Muslim brothers whom they charred; and in the bushes only silence and blinks.