The polymath leaned back in his statuesque chair, and closed his eyes. The angst of his countrymen weighed heavily on him. His beloved Bengal was going to be severed. I cannot allow my brethren to fight on communal lines! But what could he do about it? The decision had been taken by the British Raj. The Viceroy Lord Curzon had maintained that it was for administrative efficiency. Rabindranath chuckled to himself. Don’t I know the reason behind it? The Muslim dominated areas would form the state of East Bengal, clearly revealing the nefarious intentions behind the partition of Bengal. Religion had always been the Achilles heel of Indians. He knew he had to rise to the occasion. Taking a deep breath, he took out his pen with a flourish, and started to weave his magic on the crisp white paper. This is the only way I can rekindle the ruptured spirit of my Bengal!
Amar Sonar Bangla,
Ami Tomay Bhalobashi!
Like an unhindered brook flowed the words. Mercilessly unstoppable! Such was the fury that oozed from the ink of the multi-faceted man! Finally the storm in his mind abated, and a stony silence swooped down upon the room. Rabindranath kept the pen down. His eyes roamed over his piece. A faint smile formed on his lips. He started to hum.
The young woman stopped in her tracks, and immediately made a dash for her room. She reappeared in a minute with a pen and a paper. Indira Devi then tiptoed to Rabindranath’s room, and sat down noiselessly. Her soft, feminine hands started a duet with the deep voice of her uncle, and she jotted down the musical notation of the surreal words, delivered in that impeccable diction.
The hairs on her skin stood up, as the significance of the lyrics struck her.
O My Golden Bengal,
I Love You!
This was the perfect song to unite a beleaguered Bengal, as her people reeled under the chaos unleashed by the British!
[East Pakistan, March 1971]
A lump formed in Murtaza’s throat, as he looked at the sea of humanity around him at the sprawling Ramna Race Course, Dhaka. Like him, they too had placed their unwavering faith in their Bongobondhu, and had delivered a clear mandate for his Awami League. Alas! Their joy proved to be short-lived. They seethed with rage, when West Pakistan annulled the national elections. Clearly the military junta was feeling the jitters! How could they allow a Bengali to become their equal?
The soft murmurs in the crowd gave way to a thunderous applause as the man of the moment appeared on the podium, and waved at his supporters. The atmosphere was electric, with chants of Bangla reaching a crescendo. And then, like a mother’s soothing lullaby rose the song.
Amar Sonar Bangla,
Ami Tomay Bhalobashi!
Tears welled up in the eyes of the ten lakh Bengalis, who had gathered there, to hear their leader speak up against the injustice meted out to them by West Pakistan. As the song ended, the Friend of Bengal Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took the mike.
[West Bengal, India, May 1971]
Chinmay took out a cotton handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped the beads of sweat which had formed on his forehead. The rays of the ruthless summer sun showed no mercy, as they targeted army personnel, civilians and refugees alike. His eyes darted around, and finally rested on a wiry young man. Someone had stubbed out their cigarettes over his brown hands, leaving behind a trail of uneven purple blisters. Chinmay winced. The man looked at him and smiled, revealing a gap where four of his front teeth should have been. Despite the ungainly sight, Chinmay found himself reciprocating his smile. Of his own accord, his feet moved forward, as if drawn by an invisible magnet.
“What’s your name, dada?” he asked softly.
“Murtaza Mir!” the man whispered hoarsely.
Chinmay nodded. “Where is.. I mean, where was your village?”
After an uncomfortable minute, Murtaza broke the silence. “Bhai! Are you from the army?”
Chinmay shook his head. “Do I look like someone from the army? Look at my paunch! Filled with fish and roshogollas.”
Murtaza grinned. His eyes crinkled at the corners. “Then you must be one of our Bengali friends from India helping us in our struggle for liberation! I did hear about this from a friend. I don’t know where he is now. I wonder if he succeeded in crossing the border!” Murtaza paused for a second, and resumed, “I’m so delighted to meet you!”
Chinmay raised his hand in acknowledgment. “Time for me to leave, Murtaza da!
“I need a favour from you, Chinmay bhai!”
Chinmay’s heart gave a lurch. I hope he doesn’t ask for money or shelter.
Sensing his discomfort, Murtaza got up. “Bhai! I would never think of endangering your life. All I request is a meeting with a member from the East Bengal Regiment. I know they are here. I want to join them. I can’t sit idle here. My hands are itching to take revenge on the West Pakistan army.” His voice quivered with rage.
A lump formed in Chinmay’s throat. “I am so sorry for what happened to you, dada! But it could have been worse!”
“It’s by the grace of Allah that I am alive! Maybe it’s His will! Those dastardly pigs are destined to die at my hands!”
“I will try, dada. But they might not trust you. There were quite a few rebels amongst our brethren who were supplying West Pakistan with all the information. Just the other day I saw a couple of them. I heard they would be executed. But I will definitely try!” With that, Chinmay patted Murtaza on his back, and turned back.
The Bengali Muslim hummed the first line. Amar Sonar Bangla!
The Bengali Hindu took it from there. Ami Tomay Bhalobashi!
Saqib Ahmed, the commander of the East Bengal Regiment, emerged from his makeshift tent, mumbling to himself. When will this insanity end? But he knew he couldn’t rest. Not until the Bengalis had a motherland they could finally call their own. Chinmay Das, the unofficial leader of the clandestine group from West Bengal supporting the liberation movement, had put in a word about an ‘angry young man who could be of some use to him’. Saqib sighed. I hope he is not a spy implanted by those bastards!
The man stood before him, upright as a bamboo pole. Saqib had one long look at his calloused hands. He seems to be genuine!
“Name?” he hollered.
“Murtaza Mir!” The steely voice didn’t betray any fear.
“Why do you want to join us?”
“I want to wring their necks!” At this point, a hint of rage flashed across Murtaza’s face.
“Why? You are safe in India now.”
“How can I live peacefully when my brothers and sisters are dying? Is this what our Bongobondhu wanted when he spoke of liberating our land?”
“Didn’t he address the crowd in Dhaka?”
“You mean to say you went all the way from Khulna to Dhaka to hear his speech?”
“No. I had taken my master there on some errand. I used to work as a driver.”
“Where is he now?”
“He is dead. Killed by the army. Operation Searchlight!”
“I’m sorry to hear that!” Saqib said in a soft tone. His eyes then bore into Murtaza’s. “Do you know what I can do to you if you betray us?” He paused, and raised his right hand, and pointed it towards a lamppost. “This is where I hung them!”
Murtaza didn’t flinch.
“Alright! We will train you! But you must be patient. There might be some delay in getting explosives and other stuff. Chinmay Das and his friends help us with provisions and financial aid. You need not worry on this front.”
“I will make you proud!”
“Make our struggle worthwhile! That’s enough for me!” With that, Saqib nodded, gestured Murtaza to leave, and entered his tent.
** A month later **
The moon was in its final waning phase. Countless stars twinkled in the inky sky. The incessant chirping of crickets was interrupted by murmurs of men in camouflaged clothing, who huddled together. Their faces were smeared with black stripes, making them look like ferocious tigers.
Saqib spoke, “Remember! We have only ten minutes. The guards at the border will be distracted by Amulya. Murtaza! It’s your cue. You have to sneak across. Have you memorized the location?”
Murtaza whispered, “Yes!”
Saqib continued, “Good! You proceed to the guest house. Careful! You shouldn’t get caught! Else, we will be forced to disown you.”
The men put their hands together. The chant came in undertones. Amar Sonar Bangla! It was payback time!
The diversion tactics employed by Amulya was successful. Murtaza quickly crossed into the border, and took refuge behind a huge tree. Pausing for a brief moment to catch his breath, he started to walk. Stealthily, like a tiger on the prowl, he moved, taking utmost care to hide behind bushes if he discerned the slightest movement. Thankfully, the night was as still a graveyard, the quietude broken only by the barking of stray dogs. Being familiar with the layout of Jessore, Murtaza had an easy time negotiating the pitch-dark alleys. He stopped in his tracks when the spruced up guest house came into view. This was where the trusted aide of General Yahya Khan would be holding talks with his peers the next morning.
Murtaza sent out a silent prayer to God, and reached out for the pouch tied around his waist. He grabbed a round object, flung it towards one of the windows, and scampered to hide behind a parked car. The loud explosion was followed by a macabre spectacle of blinding light. Soon, fumes started to spew out from the guest house, attracting shocked gasps from the men posted there. Thank you, Chinmay bhai! The risk of being apprehended by the Calcutta Police hadn’t deterred the young man from supplying explosives to the freedom fighters. As the guards ran haywire to grab buckets of water, Murtaza fished out the pistol from the pouch, and opened fire. As the men fell to the ground, Murtaza felt an ironlike grip around his neck.
Oh no! I should have been more careful!
Murtaza stood still. He knew he had to conserve his energy. He closed his eyes. Visions of his beloved Bongobondhu flashed before him. Of the look on his master’s face as the Pakistani soldier took out his sickle. Allah! Have mercy on me! I cannot die now!
Taking a deep breath, using his right elbow, he kicked the man hard. As the enemy took a step back in shock, Murtaza spun around, and slashed his neck with a pocket-knife. Blood trickled out through the tiny outlet, and before the man could realise what had hit him, Murtaza pushed him, and heaved a sigh of relief. He then whistled, as instructed by Saqib.
“Psst! Here! Careful!” Murtaza heard a man whispering. Ears perked up, he sped towards the source of the sound. By that time, a few lights in the neighbourhood had been switched on. The police will be here soon. A man stood outside the gate of a nondescript one-storeyed building. Saqib’s plan was fool proof. Murtaza was to take refuge at an acquaintance’s place until it was safe for him to return to West Bengal. Nobody would ever think of searching the house of Zakir Ismail, an official in the West Pakistan Army, who worked as a double agent for East Bengal Regiment.
THE GLIMMER OF HOPE:
The December wind blew in all its fury. Saqib tightened the windcheater around him. Murtaza was barking out some instructions to his aides, his voice as impassioned as ever. The commander smiled to himself. In a couple of months, Murtaza had proved his mettle. He had blown up cars, as though it were a stroll in the park. The Pakistanis had announced a huge bounty on his head, but he had managed to slither out of danger every moment. The staunch devotion to his beloved Bongobondhu kept him going.
India under the leadership of Indira Gandhi had officially declared war against Pakistan. The dream of an independent nation was finally inching towards reality. They could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Saqib and Murtaza were secretly relieved that Chinmay and his selfless supporters would no longer find themselves in any trouble. The circumstances under which their meetings were being conducted meant there was no time for small talks, but an unspoken friendship had been forged between them.
Tears streamed down Murtaza’s cheeks as his eyes scanned the newspaper headlines and the accompanying picture. Pakistan had capitulated to the Indian armed forces and Mukti Bahini. People took out victory marches on the streets. The radio played the national anthem of the new nation.
Amar Sonar Bangla,
Ami Tomay Bhalobashi!
This was the moment they all had been waiting for.
“Happy?” a familiar voice chirped.
Murtaza turned around to face Saqib. Over the months, they had become good friends. Theirs was a bond cemented by patriotism. The two Bangladeshis hugged, as the song penned by an Indian continued its melodious run on the radio.
[Dhaka, March 2016]
“Dadu!” Runa turned towards her grandfather. His eyes were however glued to the television screen. The World Cup T20 league match between India and Bangladesh would commence soon.
Murtaza smiled at the little girl. “Yes, my angel, tell me!”
“Is it true that Jana Gana Mana has been composed by Rabindranath Tagore?”
“But our teacher taught us that our national anthem has been written by Tagore!”
“That’s also true!”
“How come, dadu?”
“That’s a long story! You are too young to understand this. Now run and get me a glass of water before the match begins.”
Runa got up, threw her hands around Murtaza, planted a kiss on his cheek, and hopped to the kitchen. The old man smiled. His phone buzzed. It was a WhatsApp notification. Murtaza picked up the mobile, and scrolled through the App till he reached the group “Bangla”. It was a message from Chinmay.
Indian will sin this matches!
Murtaza chuckled. How many times have I told him to type slowly! So many spelling mistakes! Can’t he take help from his grandson?
With an amused glint in his eyes, he began to type. Dream on! You were beaten so badly by New Zealand! Forgot it?
Chinmay is typing… appeared on the screen. Murtaza sighed. It would be an hour before a single sentence would appear in the group. He kept the phone down, and closed his eyes. It was tough to negotiate through the intricacies of technology at this age, but this hadn’t stopped the friends from keeping in touch, and engaging in friendly banter. They missed Saqib Ahmed, their charismatic friend, who had lost the battle to cancer a few years ago.
“And now! Ladies and Gentlemen! Please stand up for the national anthem of Bangladesh!” the velvety voice of the announcer drifted across the room.
Oh my arthritic knees! Murtaza placed his right hand over his chest. Runa came running to him, and placed a glass of water on the table. She stood in rapt attention, and started to hum along with the men in green.
Amar Sonar Bangla,
Ami Tomay Bhalobashi!
In their quest for liberation, Bangladesh was helped immensely by West Bengal. Most of the support was unofficial.
Bongobondhu – Bengal’s friend. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the 1st president of Bangladesh, was given this title
Mukti Bahini – The guerilla resistance movement consisting of military personnel and civilians
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