Last night I met this little Bangladeshi-American girl at a special celebration in the Boston area to mark Victory Day, when Bangladesh celebrates its liberation from Pakistan at the end of the 1971 Liberation War. “Her name is Yanka,” her father said, spelling it out for me, “it actually is not really a Bangladeshi name, more Russian.”
To mark the 45th anniversary Victory Day, BANE, the Bangladesh Association of New England, organized a night of festivities with speakers, traditional dancers, fabulous food (samosas, chicken and beef curry and mango lassis), and Bangladeshi singers. Women were dressed in spectacular saris, their arms weighed down with shiny bangles.
Speakers recited the Koran, the Tripitak, the Geeta and the Bible. We sang the Bangladeshi national anthem and the American national anthem. No one spoke about politics, religion and immigration. I was told the group is not political.
After all the tensions during the presidential election and hostilities towards so many groups, it was a relief to be at such a celebration. This is what I love about the United States.
Throughout the evening one name was mentioned over and over again, Nazrul. Nazrul, the great Bengali poet, singer and musician. Not being familiar with Nazrul at this celebration was like being at an event with a group of Italians and asking “Who is Dante?” I will start remedying that today.
My father, John Thomas, had been invited to speak about his connections to Bangladesh and his efforts to help those involved in the liberation movement. My father worked for CARE (the NGO) in Bangladesh from 1960 to 1962 when it was still East Pakistan. My older sister was born there. We returned in 1968 to live another two years in Dhaka when my father was working for the Harvard Institute for International Development advising the government of East Pakistan on agriculture and rural development. According to my father, the tensions at that time were starting to come to a boiling point.
Briefly, in 1947 the British randomly divided up India and created Pakistan, bunching together two predominantly Muslim populations, Bengali East Pakistan with Punjabi West Pakistan, to make one nation. My father explained to me that the two populations consider themselves very different. The West Pakistani Punjabis consider themselves fierce, proud warriors and the East Pakistani Bengalis consider themselves intellectuals, poets, musicians and singers.
In the early 70s, the Bengali leader of the independence movement, Sheik Mujibur Rahman returned from West Pakistan – where he had been held in prison – and delivered a speech to roughly two million people on the Ramna racecourse in Dhaka. My father described last night how he, together with millions of others, rushed to the racecourse to listen to the speech. Although the speech was in Bengali and he could not understand a word of it he felt a frisson in the air and knew that the civil war was coming.
I was just five at the time and was oblivious to all of this turmoil below the surface. We had a big house in the Gulshan neighborhood of Dhaka with a swimming pool, a lovely large garden with exotic flowers, and a cook named Totamiah who would chop off heads of chickens in the side yard, pluck them and then cook them up for dinner. I remember little Bengali girls my age standing outside our front gate holding babies on their hips and staring in at me – the rich, spoiled foreigner in her fancy house. We moved back to Boston shortly before the civil war broke out in 1971.
Back in the US, my father worked to help Bangladeshi who were living and studying in the Boston area to remain and helped to get others, whose lives were at risk, out of the country. Last night he spoke about efforts to raise awareness in the US government by contacting Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, who became actively involved (his former aide was there last night) and Henry Kissinger, who was National Security Advisor at the time about the ruthless killing. Apparently the world was not aware of the atrocities that were going on at that time.
Here is what a recent AP story reported, “Bangladeshi authorities say Pakistani soldiers, aided by local collaborators, killed 3 million people, raped 200,000 women, and forced some 10 million people to flee the country during the nine-month war in what was then known as East Pakistan, renamed Bangladesh after independence.”
Eventually India intervened and helped bring an end to the civil war on December 16th, 1971.
So, last night, 45 years later, we celebrated the end of that brutal conflict.
And I also quietly celebrated a beautiful Bangladeshi-American girl named Yanka and this remarkable group of people who have assimilated to American life and retained a passion for their unique cultural heritage. They reminded me what the US is really all about.