A-People in B-Land: An Interview with Aquila Ismail
By A.H. Cemendtaur

The following interview was done with Aquila Ismail several months ago.  And then, for various reasons, it got shelved.  Just last week when Delwar Hossain Sayeedi was sentenced to death in Bangladesh, for crimes against humanity, this interview suddenly became very relevant. 

So, what are the liberation movements actually about?  How do they influence ordinary people’s lives?  Can we play algebra here?  Let’s try.  Say two regions A and B are together in a political union — let’s call that setup the country-original.  There may be some A-people living in region B and some B-people living in region A.  But then B-people decide to break away from the union and get B-land freed.  Many in region A and some in region B wonder why the country-original needs to break.  But the momentum for separation builds up and with time the struggle gets bloody.  Eventually B-land gains freedom.  But then what happens to A-people living in B-Land? 

Well, that is what Aquila Ismail tells you in her book ‘Of Martyrs and Marigolds.’  You can also wonder about the few B-people who wanted country-original to remain intact.  If Delwar Hossain Sayeedi ever gets to write a book, we will get to know that point of view as well.  Similarly B-people living in A-land, at the time of separation, must have their own unique story to share with the world.

Historical events end up changing the lives of millions, but even when a multitude goes through a particular tumultuous period, only a few record these events.  It is through these recordings that history is understood, and written.   Over 70 million people, both Bengalis and others, living in the geographical entity now known as Bangladesh, went through the chaos preceding the creation of the new country, but few chose to write about it.  Aquila Ismail, born in Dhaka in an Urdu-speaking family, too remained quiet for over four decades, but she has finally broken her silence.  The world must listen to her as she has a unique story to tell.  Aquila Ismail’s novel ‘Of Martyrs and Marigolds’ is the story of an Urdu-speaking family ostracized, terrorized, and finally thrown out of the land it had embraced as its own…only because the family members spoke the language spoken by the hitherto tormentors of Bengalis.  Here is what Aquila Ismail had to say in a phone interview.


On why did she write ‘Of Martyrs and Marigolds’?

I wanted to make an account of what had happened in those days, by talking about the survivors of the conflict -- a conflict so horrendous it altered the lives of hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the divide.  There has been absolutely no talk of what had happened to the Urdu-speaking Pakistanis (living in the former East Pakistan) -- they suffered tremendously during those times. I wanted to document this aspect of the events of 1971 in which Bangladesh emerged from the ashes of East Pakistan.


On, if she considers ‘Of Martyrs and Marigolds’ a literary work, or a book providing information about a relatively unknown aspect of a historical event.

I do consider it literature because literature and fiction takes care of the humanity and history.  History is devoid of humanity -- it does not talk about individuals, it does not talk about the sufferings of all those who were involved.  History is about who won and who lost and what happened on what date.  Fiction puts a human face to the conflict.  Fiction allowed me to look into the complexities of what had happened in those days. It was not black and white.  Everything has a historical context, everything has a social context.  And the only way one can highlight these contexts is through talking about the human beings who were involved.


On, was writing this book a painful experience?

Totally--It was very painful!  I completely disagree with the fact that writing about a horrific event in your life brings closure to that episode.  It does not -- believe me it does not.   More than forty years had passed (when I started writing the book).  Every time I would dwell upon it, I would begin to write…thinking ‘Oh my God, this thing also happened with that friend, this thing happened with me, with my family, or that family.’

Many times I just threw away the manuscript, I did not want to write about those things, but then I thought I was one of the few people who could write that narrative.  I gathered myself and did it.  It was painful; it opened up too many old wounds — cruel things I had forgotten about in the course of living my life.


On the need for a Bangla translation of her book.

Absolutely!  There were two sides to the story.  I have tried to draw the line and say that violence was perpetuated by both sides; I have captured both sides.  My Bengali friends who read my book told me they felt happy that I was trying to tell the truth; truth being that both sides were equally involved in the violence.


On, how long it took her to write the book?

It took me four years.  I started writing it in New York in 2008.  I was visiting my daughter.  We went to the Central Park.  I just happened to remark to my daughter that ‘Look, this was where George Harrison of Beatles had his Bangladesh concert; where it all started to sink in the global conscience what was happening in East Pakistan.’

My daughter suggested I write about it.  That’s when I started writing.  I went on writing like crazy; I must have written over 200,000 words.  Then I went back to read it and I did not like it.  It was just a collection of random thoughts.  I went back to learn how to write.  I re-read all the classics that had always impressed me: Tolstoy, Marquez, Dostoyevsky, Prutz, and others.   While I was reading I was learning the art of writing. Then I went back to my own book and cut it down to 97,000 words.  It was finally published in February 2012.


On, living in East Pakistan, when did she realize she was not accepted as a Bengali?

First realization came in 1968, while studying at the Holy Cross College.  The Agartala conspiracy case was initiated against Sheikh Mujib.  We were aghast.  East Pakistan was always very politically conscious.  A (Bengali) friend of mine said to me, “Your people have done this to our leader.”  It was very strange.  I said, “What do you mean by ‘my people.’  There are no ‘my people’, or ‘your people’, we are all one.”

 Later, I did not get admission in the university even when I was in the Honor List.  I went to the Registrar’s Office with my father.  They said, “You took Urdu as your vernacular. How do we know that you were born in East Pakistan?”  Then we had to give an affidavit that I was indeed born in East Pakistan. It was very disquieting (to know that language was a thorny issue); this was mid-1970.  From there it just went downhill -- that’s when I figured out that we (Urdu-speaking people in East Pakistan) were different (and were not accepted).


On, if people of South Asia are now ready to look at the past 66 years and rationally analyze the two partitions.

I hope so.  The seeds of our sorrow were sown in 1947.  My father, an engineer, who worked for the government was asked to go to East Pakistan.  Being raised in East Pakistan provided me with a cultural richness.  But this thing would not have happened to us if my parents were not made to go there.  It is a continuation of partition (of 1947).  Once people leave their soil, they are not accepted anywhere.


On, what she wants her book to achieve?

We have to account for those who did not survive.  It does not matter whose blood was spilled.  This is my way of accounting for the blood that was spilled.  This book is being translated into Urdu, by Ajmal Kamal of Quarterly Aaj.  I want people in Pakistan to read it.


On, if she is still writing?

Yes, I am.  I am driven to write.  Next novel is based in Sindh. Karachi, Sindh is my home. I have traveled extensively in the interior of Sindh.  It is going to be the story of (Sindhi) women.


On, what else she would like to add?

Suppose I change the names and the places in my book — replace them with Bosnian names or change them to Sri Lankan names.  Then this story becomes the story of those places.  It is the same story, being repeated too often (in many places).   It is horrific!

Ordinary people, people who have nothing to do with power, who have nothing to do with the politics of the place ultimately pay the price of power plays and conflict.


Listen to the audio recording of Aquila Ismail’s interview here:


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