Writing under siege: Universal experience
Creative persons find themselves under one or another state of siege at some point of their careers. For some, its duration is agonisingly long. Think of a writer in a war-torn country in the Middle East in 2016 or in the turbulent northern Africa in 2011. A few writers feel just a brush with their bad times. Many others have to keep fighting their way through odds all their lives. Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish, for example, had to go through challenging times all through his life. Scores of writers experience states of siege during times of social, ethnic and political upheavals.
Twenty-five years ago, in 1991, this writer faced the difficult task of narrating his own state of siege in his writing career. The occasion was an interview on a local TV in Iowa City, USA. Clark Blaise, Director of the International Writing Progam (IWP) at the University of Iowa, conducted the interview. It was early November. I was a participant in the programme from Bangladesh that year, along with twenty-three others from different parts of the world. The globally coveted programme was in its 24th edition that year. It began in 1967 at the University of Iowa as a writers' residency programme.
The 1991 IWP chose writers from among its participants for the interview series called 'Writing under Siege'. It was the authors from countries with turbulent times who were invited to talk about their experience during a siege. As a writer from Bangladesh, I was picked for my country's traumatic nine months of occupation during the 1971 Liberation War. The others included poets and prose writers from South Africa, Nicaragua, the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Zimbabwe.
Bangladesh under the nine months of Pakistan army's occupation in 1971 remained focused all through my conversation with Clark Blaise. The IWP director was well versed in the history of Bangladesh. He had been to Kolkata several times prior to 1991. An admirer of Tagore, Blaise married the expatriate Indian Bengalee writer Bharati Mukherjee in 1963. Mukherjee won several American literary prizes for her English short stories. She was originally from Faridpur in Bangladesh. Against this backdrop, it became easier for me to tell Blaise and the TV viewers about the situation that had prevailed in occupied Bangladesh. Except a few months outside Dhaka, I passed the occupation period in this city. Back in those days, Dhaka was a city besieged by Pakistan army personnel. Convoys, army checkpoints with stern-faced soldiers and Razakars, roads with lean traffic made up the general scenario. By July-August, the normally bustling city would watch pedestrians scurrying through deserted roads, their eyes downcast. More than half of Dhaka's residents had by then fled the city for safer places in remote villages. The mass exodus began after the start of the 9-month genocide on March 25. Schools, colleges and universities were made to remain open by the junta. There were no students. The offices, markets and other public places wore just a semblance of normalcy. The whole Dhaka seemed to be devoid of pulse. Instead, an eerie air of panic descended on Dhaka. As days wore on, the city people felt stifled with fear. The scary atmosphere took a dramatic turn from mid-August. During this time, the city people saw the start of guerrilla operations by the Freedom Fighters.
What once was 'a city under siege' eventually emerged as a 'city of resistance'. The hit-and-run assaults by the guerrillas on enemy positions soon became a normal spectacle in Dhaka. As dusk fell on the city after a frightful day, Dhaka nightscape would start being filled with sporadic blasts of grenades, gunshots and LMG brushfires. All this meant the Freedom Fighters were engaged in guerrilla warfare with the occupation Pakistani army. Months ago, sounds of gunshots would terrify the city people. Now they eagerly awaited the night-piercing sounds of gunfire and grenade charge. However, around this time, the 'gestapo' forces under the occupation army began their desperate operations of abduction, torture cells and killings.
How should I prevent myself from comparing this Dhaka of 1971 to a city under the occupation of an invading army? I just made it a point: the occupied Dhaka resembled Paris or Leningrad during World War-II, London during WW-I or, for that matter, Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. Clark Blaise did not fail to realise that our Liberation War was a war for an independent politico-economic and cultural entity. The writers, painters, musicians and others actively took part in the Liberation War. At the start of the war, scores of writers and academics crossed into the free area. It was from there the Bangladesh Government-in-Exile led the war. Many writers did not leave the besieged Dhaka. During the nine months of occupation, a number of the country's poets and novelists continued writing right under the nose of the soldiers. Since writing or painting doesn't require one to make sound or noise, they could avoid being detected. However, a few of them were shadowed by army sleuths owing to their sensitive position socially or professionally. But these writers would regularly pass their wartime work to the 'free area' clandestinely.
Clark Blaise appeared to be eager to know if there were wartime pamphlets, bulletins, etc. in occupied Bangladesh like those published in Paris and London. Yes, there were. During the occupation, Dhaka witnessed the regular publication of a handwritten and cyclostyled bulletin called 'Swadhinata'. It was purely Dhaka-based, with its office located in the city's Hatirpool area. The content of the bulletin comprised news from the front, expert opinions on the war and its strategy, political commentary, and appeals for international support to Bangladesh. Most of the bulletin's contributors lived in Dhaka. Of them, a few had to make occasional short trips to the 'free area' in order to be briefed. The bulletin was well circulated, with a group of valiant Dhaka-based youths in charge of distributing its copies among the subscribers. By July-August newspapers, bulletins and publicity materials began entering Dhaka from across the border with India. Thanks to the indomitableness, courage and patriotism of the 'Swadhinata' team, the paper was able to stand out among the dozens of wartime news bulletins.
No writers can avoid being involved in wars fought for freedom and protection of independence. In the modern times, people engage in wars to battle injustices, discrimination and exploitation. Aggression and protecting territorial sovereignty have been sparking war since time immemorial. As an inevitable part of war, nations fall under states of wartime siege inflicted by enemies. Writers are among them. Few can remain passive onlookers during these critical periods. The writers join the war in their own way. In the WW-II Paris Paul Eluard, Albert Camus, Rene Char and other writers took up arms along with their pens in bunkers. Andre Malraux actively took part in both the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. Despite their being consummate poets, Garcia Lorca and Rafael Alberti did not hesitate to join the Spanish Civil War as writers. Russian poet Anna Akhmatova called the WW-I and WW-II "frightening times" and "the dark storm" respectively. During the long siege of Leningrad by the Nazis, Akhmatova would recite her poems over radio, urging the blockaded people to remain heroic and not lose hope.
In November, 1991, the world was more peaceful and safer than today. Although the former USSR was about to dissolve formally, the East European bloc had already witnessed the fall of communism. The Cold War was all but over. Yet the impact of national uprisings and revolutions was still fresh in the air. Genocide let lose by a brutal occupation army, excesses of regimented rules and the curse of apartheid, etc. haunted writers in 1991. The state of siege keeps hounding writers in all times.