Found and Lost in Nationalism! – by Mahbub Talukder (tr. Sarwar Morshed)

by TBLM

The protagonist of this story is Mr. ABC i.e. Abdul Bari Choudhury. He has been residing in the US for a long time. Though seven seas and thirteen rivers away from the homeland, he has genuine feelings for his country. This feeling has dragged him to Bangladesh after a long time. He, however, did not embark on his homeward journey all alone. He made his better-half join the bandwagon. This he did deliberately. With the family getting ready to greet a new member, ABC has decided to come back to Bangladesh so that Nazia’s delivery is done here. The American physician has opined that everything is okay with the expecting Nazia. But if I continue this narrative in the linear fashion, your patience may be exhausted and you will not be willing to peruse the whole thing. Hence I solicit you to flex your patience-muscle a little bit!

When ABC phoned me from America some days back to inform me of his impending Bangladesh tour, I requested him to come as soon as possible.

‘Why?’ ABC queried.

‘We are all set to welcome the year 1400 of the Bangla calendar. The whole delta is in a festive mood. The celebration gala has transformed Dhaka into a blossomed, bejeweled beauty. You will understand how Dhaka has been metamorphosed into a spatial-Helen once you land at our premier airport.’

‘What an exciting event! I am coming before the New Year,’ ABC enthusiastically declared.

‘It’s not only Happy New Year, but it’s also Happy New Century, dear buddy. To be here during this auspicious festival is certainly a historical incident!’

Lowering his voice ABC said, ‘The real history is going to be created by your sister-in-law, I mean, my wife Nazia’.

A bit baffled, I asked, ‘Has she joined politics these days?’

‘No, No’ – ABC brushed aside my cheap assumption – ‘she is scheduled to give birth to our first issue next month. The new baby will be delivered back home in the new century! Isn’t that a novel historical incident? Isn’t that a unique record?’

‘Certainly,’ I responded.

ABC is a matchless patriot among my friends. Intense love for the motherland has pushed him away from Bangladesh. Rightly has Sharatchandra, the immortal novelist, observed,“Great love not only pulls, it has the potential to push away also.” In good conformity with the verdict of the celebrated writer, we friends left the country for India during our war of liberation in 1971. ABC did not join the India-bound exodus-party. Maybe his love for Bangladesh was more intense than ours and hence he opted for a trans-continental destination, the USA.

Apart from the centrifugality in his migration to the US, the best evidence of ABC’s patriotism can be noticed in his marriage. He married a Pakistani lady nearly five years back. He had started to cultivate Pakistani she-connections immediately after the war of liberation with his tying the love-knot with a Pakistani girl. That relation ended in T-20 style as Pakistan refused to recognize Bangladesh. But ABC, as part of his genuine patriotism, continued to nurture his deep interest in Pakistani girls which came to fruition in his wedlock with Nazia. Nazia is a hyphenated American with roots in Punjab. Who doesn’t know that, basically, the Punjabis exploited the Bangalis? What a sweet revenge taken, then, by a Bangali over the Pakistanis! Even though ABC is not vocal about revenge, he wants to prove that if you Pakistanis can embrace a Bangali as husband, why couldn’t you accept the great Bangali leader as the premier of undivided Pakistan? And there is yet another secret fact about the matrimonial alliance of ABC. After the war, Bangladesh was compelled to release 195 high-profile Pakistani prisoners of war. Now, through the nuptial bond, ABC has been able to house-arrest one Pakistani for a life term! Not bad, isn’t it?

ABC kept his word – he landed in Dhaka well before the new century. I went to the airport to receive the couple. Nazia, the beautiful Punjabi lady clad in jeans and jacket, greeted me in her accented Bangla, ‘Suprabhat (Good morning)’. I was extremely delighted to be greeted by a Pakistani in Bangla. Would she ever greet me in Bangla if Bangladesh were still a part of Pakistan?

ABC whispered, ‘We have committed a mistake. We forgot to bring saris and hence she is wearing jeans.’

‘So what’? I tried to make them comfortable.

‘Nazia started for Bangladesh in salwar-kameej. But I didn’t approve that anti-national dress. So, I made her wear jeans. After all, it’s a western dress that would be considered neutral in Bangladesh.’ ABC continued his explanation.

‘We don’t have any sartorial prejudices now in Bangladesh. There is no problem with salwar-kameej,’ I tried to dispel his fear.

‘Really? Have the Pakistanis left the legacy while quitting Bangladesh?’

‘Salwar-kameej is not only a Pakistani dress. The Indians also have their share in the outfit. So with it, you do not bear the risk of being branded as either pro-Pakistani or anti-Indian.’

ABC whispered something into Nazia’s ears which made her face glow. Possibly, he informed her that she could wear any dress in Bangladesh without fear or favour, even salwar-kameej. ABC seemed to be relieved by dispelling the discomfort from Nazia’s mind.

Despite my repeated requests to stay in my family home, the tri-national (Bangladesh, Pakistan and the US) couple choose to board in a hotel. What a huge personal loss they have incurred on me! I was planning to make my maiden visit to the US after six months. To save some dear dollars, I intended to stay with the ABCs. Now that plan has been nipped in the bud as they are not staying in my home!

‘Your sister-in-law does not intend to stay in any home,’ ABC said.

‘Why?’

‘For her language problem.’

‘Does she have any speech impairment? Stammering or something like that?’

‘No, nothing like that. She can’t speak Bangla. I am worried if in the course of the conversation she unconsciously switches to Urdu!’

‘What’s the problem with that?’

‘Hosts of problems! I have made her read (in English, of course) the history of our 1952 Language Movement. She is well aware of the anti-Urdu sentiment of the Bangladeshi people. That’s why she was unwilling to come here.’

‘Gone are those days, dear friend! Nobody here will mind at all if anyone speaks in Urdu.’

‘I have briefed her about the anglophilia of the Bangladeshis. People here feel privileged by sending their kids to English-medium schools. This English-craze of my compatriots has made her change her decision and, finally, she is here. As Nazia had her schooling in the US, she is well-versed in English,’ ABC enlightened me.

I dropped them at the hotel. Putting all his immobile belongings and the mobile Nazia into the hotel room, ABC came downstairs with me. Under his insistence, we went to the café. The revelation that was made by ABC while sipping cold beer surprised me. He had come to Bangladesh along with his spouse to submerge in Bangali culture! ABC’s trip to Bangladesh had a lofty mission – to introduce his wife to Bangali culture and to rejuvenate his own Bangalitva! Even very few resident Bangladeshis possess this sort of phenomenal attachment towards their country and culture! Among the expats, this is simply out of the question!

‘Yet there is another issue that has brought us here,’ ABC told me emptying the beer-glass in a long sip.

‘What’s that?’

‘I want my issue to be born here. They must be a pure Bangali. I convinced Nazia about this.’

‘What a glaring instance of patriotism!’

‘You will be delighted to know that according to the doctors we are going to be proud parents of a male issue. I have already chosen a name for my son.’

‘What?’

‘Sheikh Ziaur Rahman. Nickname will be Mujib.’

‘Fantastic! You have reached Olympian height in your patriotic zeal.’

I felt like bowing down in unamalgamated reverence to ABC. Who can assume that an unalloyed Bangali is camouflaged under the glittering shell of an English acronym! Really, I am exceptionally lucky to be a friend of this never-before-seen patriot! An NRB with this intensity of patriotism is surely an unknown entity.

As the New Year approached, ABC’s Bangalitva got more intense. He purchased all the books written on the history and culture of the Bangalis in English from the hotel bookshop. He even remembered to purchase and peruse available English translations of Bangali poems. He made Nazia read all these books. ‘Nazia has come to this country at a very auspicious time! The more Nazia will read or think about the Bangali culture, the stronger will be the infusion of Bangalitva in the child!’

ABC was on a shopping spree on the New Year eve. He bought white Punjabi-pajama, lungi, fatua, and sari. This year, indeed, the New Year is going to be celebrated in an exceptionally festive mood. ABC has already collected an exhaustive list of programs arranged in different venues. He is hell-bent to enjoy all of these programs in the warm company of Nazia. He is so elated that he has grabbed the golden opportunity at hand to be Bangali once again after so many years.

The night before the New Year ABC called me. ‘Do you have a maidservant?’ he queried.

‘Yes, we do.’

‘Could you please lend her?’

‘Maidservant on loan!’

‘Yes, buddy. It’s an emergency. Please bring her to our hotel immediately.’

‘At this late hour?’

‘Certainly. I need her right now. Initially, I thought to manage with a sophisticated Bengali lady from this hotel. But now I think that for the task I need a rural woman who will readily serve my purpose. If your maidservant could–’

‘What the hell are you talking about? Are you out of your wits?’

‘Buddy, it’s not me, it’s her Excellency – she is out of her wits! She has been frenetically trying to wear sari since the evening. But she’s meeting her 1971!’

‘She’s defeated by a sari? Has she never worn a sari?’

‘She has, certainly. But on those occasions she wore sari in the modern style. Now as we are going to enjoy New Year programs, she wants to wear a sari in the proper Bangali style – in rural fashion. Please rescue us from this, do something for us, dear.’

In the tone of a messiah, I said – ‘Don’t feel helpless at all. I am coming with my wife tomorrow morning to your hotel. My wife was born and brought up in a village. So, she will deftly apply all her skills on your queen.’

ABC heaved a great sigh of relief.

The next morning, ABC’s phone call woke us up. He didn’t want to miss the musical program arranged under the banyan tree in Dhaka. ‘Life is hollow and meaningless if you fail to enjoy that program in the New Year,’ ABC asserted.

We reached the hotel without delay. What a scene it was! Like a new bride, Nazia was waiting for us wrapping herself within a piece of sari. ABC was not lagging behind in his nationalistic fervor – he wore a striped lungi and a fatua. Their feet were not deprived of their due share in their new-found Bangalitva – both of them wore Bangali wooden sandal, kharam.

My wife took Nazia to the ante-room.

‘Why haven’t you worn the Punjabi?’

ABC stammered. ‘See, my wife is a Punjabi lady. Now if I wear a Punjabi, people might discover some hidden motive in that. From that point of view, fatua is a safe and neutral dress for me. Is it true that these days people are wearing fatua with the pants?

‘But will you go to the programs in lungi? What will people think of you?’

‘I do care a fig for peoplesay! We must uphold our own culture. Think of the peoples of Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. They proudly wear lungi.’

‘What about your antique kharam? Do you plan to make a display of your kharams outside?’

‘No doubt at all! It’s an integral part of the treasure trove of our indigenous culture. I think if we can brand it properly, the westerners will love it. In that case, we can export kharams to other countries and can earn–’

Our conversation was interrupted by the appearance of the sari-clad Nazia along with my wife. Now, she very nearly looks like a maidservant. But to achieve this look, my wife has had to use lots of safety pins and small strings. My discerning home minister hadn’t forgotten to bring all these paraphernalia. In sari, Nazia seems to be satisfied. She had seen this style of wearing sari in a book titled, The Traditions of the Bangalis. Now she feels complacent with the happy thought that she looks exactly like the Bangali woman whose photograph had been used in the book.

Nazia and ABC enjoyed a lot in Ramna Park and other surrounding program venues. They thought themselves to be phenomenally lucky by enjoying Tagore songs under the banyan tree. To further strengthen the Bangali spirit, they collected many traditional items such as dolls, earthen utensils, cane and pottery goods from the fair. The couple intends to take these memorabilia to the States to make their friends understand that even though financially poor, culturally Bangladesh is a rich country.

ABC got excited by the sight of a makeshift stall selling pantha (rice preserved in water to be eaten the next morning). No one can claim themselves to be a pure Bangali without ever eating pantha. He briefed Nazia about the inseparable connection between pantha and Bangalitva. Both ABC and Nazia expressed their satisfaction-induced wonder at the nastily cheap price of pantha – pantha with dried fish for two only costs 1$! To keep pace with their explosion of Bangali spirit, we two also had to undergo the ordeal of gulping street pantha. We parted with them at noon when our spirit was exhausted.

In the evening, ABC called and informed that Nazia had belly-ache.

‘The doctor should be informed. I have given all the necessary instructions to the hotel authorities. They will transfer you to a clinic.’

ABC added, ‘I don’t know whether it is delivery pain as I am also experiencing the same kind of pain. I have never heard if at the time of childbirth, both husband and wife can experience pain!’

I enlightened ABC. It’s not only you, we are also having abdominal pain. Both the emblems of Bangali identity, pantha and dried fish were really stale and rotten. Bangalitva made us oblivious of everything at the time of ritual rice eating and hence we didn’t take notice of the bad smell or taste!’

We recovered by our self-prescribed and administered medicine. After a few days, I came to know that Nazia was very close to delivering. She was being taken to the doctor frequently. The physician had advised her to be admitted to the clinic well before the delivery.

As per the advice of the doctor, ABC got Nazia admitted to the clinic. ABC didn’t forget to bring his books on Bangali nationalism and culture to the clinic. ABC wanted Nazia to read these books before the delivery so that their offspring came to the world as a pure Bangali.

The doctor was surprised to see so many books peacefully co-existing with medicine at Nazia’s bedside. The patient’s devotion to books made the doctor curious. But when he had a look at the titles of the books, the doctor was clearly upset.

ABC asked nervously, ‘Anything wrong?’

‘You make your wife read these titles?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Your wife reading these books before delivery will make your child a future agent of India! Do you want that to happen?’

‘Never ever.’

‘Does your wife want that?’

‘In her case, it is completely out of the question. She’s a pure Pakistani – from both the sides of her parents.’

‘Then you should remove these books. Please burn them.’

‘Why?’

The doctor picked up a book and drew the attention of ABC to the title – The Essence of Bangali Nationalism. ‘Books like this will transform your child into an idolater.’

‘What should I do then?’

‘Please don’t panic. I am giving you the right prescription.’ On the prescription pad, the doctor wrote names of some books and advised ABC that Nazia should immediately read those books to protect their child from the adverse effect of the previous books.

ABC had a glimpse at the prescription – it contained titles of some books on ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’. Though baffled, he promptly purchased the biblio-doses prescribed for his wife. Even at this critical time, he was engrossed in the dichotomy of Bangali vs Bangladeshi nationalism.

The next two days Nazia was under the constant supervision of the doctor, who made sure that his prescribed intellectual doses were properly administered to the patient. Diligently, Nazia read the books on Bangladeshi nationalism. The doctor was satisfied with the performance of the patient. ‘You have been splendidly saved! Now your child will chant “Bangladesh zindabad”, never “Joy Bangla”. Please attempt a final revision of the books before delivery,’ the doctor prescribed.

That day, ABC’s non-time phone call surprised me. Normally, he didn’t call at this time. Certainly, the delivery has happened, I thought. I was impatient to receive good tidings. But instead what I heard was quite unexpected. ‘I am sorry that I couldn’t meet you before departure’.

‘Departure? What does that mean? Where are you now?’

‘At the airport. We are leaving today.’

‘But what about the delivery?’

‘It shouldn’t be here.’

‘Strange! Why?’

‘Nazia is absolutely confused about Bangali and Bangladeshi nationalisms. I am unable to comprehend the controversy as well. Which camp should I support – “Joy” or “Zindabad”? I am perplexed.’

‘Extremely pathetic!’

‘We can’t afford to let our child to be born in this confusing milieu. That’s why we have decided to leave Bangladesh before the delivery.’

‘Where are you going now?’

‘To Nazia’s house, I mean, my in-laws’. Before hanging up, ABC pronounced in a low voice to dispel any ambiguity, ‘To Pakistan.’

***