Of Martyrs and Marigolds
Sixty-five years ago, India was freed of two centuries of British rule. The freedom, however, came with massive human tragedy. The country was divided into what is present-day India and Pakistan, on the basis of religion. The Partition of India resulted in some of the heaviest bloodshed witnessed in the history of the subcontinent. More than 12 million people were displaced as a result of the division. Sadly, the bloodletting that started at the time of Partition did not die down with the passage of time. In the years and decades to follow, the monster of communal tension assumed numerous sinister faces across the subcontinent and continues to rear its head to this day.
One manifestation of this simmering tension was the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, triggered by the Liberation War–a conflict between the Pakistani army and East Pakistanis. The actual war lasted only 13 days, making it one of the shortest wars in history. But the events leading up to it had started long before, culminating in the formation of a new country called Bangladesh. These events and their consequences–tragic and irreversible–are at the core of Aquila Ismail’s debut novel, “Of Martyrs and Marigolds.”
The novel narrates the story of a young girl, Suri, and her family–Urdu-speaking Muslims who had moved to East Pakistan from India at the time of Partition. It is estimated that between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 civilians were killed in Bangladesh, and as many as 400,000 women were raped by the Pakistani armed forces. The conflict led a further eight to ten million people from the erstwhile East Pakistan seek refuge in neighbouring India.
The story of Bangladesh is mired in geographical, ethnic and linguistic complexities. In the division of India and Pakistan, the latter got parts of Punjab and Bengal, separated from each other by more than a thousand miles. Language emerged as a major bone of contention, with the majority East Pakistani population demanding Bengali to be made an official language. The language resistance that saw students becoming martyrs forms the backdrop of “Of Martyrs and Marigolds” as the story of Suri’s love affair with Rumi, a Bengali Muslim boy, unfolds.
The narrative, through rich detailing, reveals the liberal outlook of Suri’s father, a civil servant in the Pakistani administration. All through, Suri’s family remains supportive of the legitimate democratic movements in East Pakistan and critical of the high-handed and arbitrary ways of the West Pakistan leadership, which eventually unleashes military action upon its own people in East Pakistan. Numerous novels and short stories have brought to light the horrors of the atrocities committed by the Pak army on Bengalis.
In March of 1971, the tables turned with the same army conceding defeat to the Indian army. Along with freedom to Bengalis in the form of the new country of Bangladesh, this also brought reprisals against non-Bengalis, many of whom were believed to have colluded with the Pakistani military. However, as is the sad fallout in any conflict involving two communities, a lot of innocent civilians bore the brunt of the backlash too. Suri’s family represents one of many such Urdu-speaking units that got caught in the crossfire and were rendered helpless and homeless overnight.
“Of Martyrs and Marigold” impresses with its flourish of imagery–the verdant landscape of East Bengal, its folk songs, and cuisines happily share the pages with the Western influences–English literature, baseball, the Beatles to name a few–in Suri’s life. Remarkable too is the sensitivity with which a delicate subject that continues to generate strong reactions among people within the Indian subcontinent and outside it has been handled. The author’s sincere narrative stays away from vitriol or any suggestion of hate mongering, relying instead on a helpless victim’s heartfelt questioning of her fate.
The descriptions of reprisals against Urdu-speaking East Pakistanis are vivid to almost a disturbing effect. As in most conflicts, women are the worst sufferers, as they face both ends of the sword–the wrath inflicted upon those being targeted and a further sexual violence in the form of rape and physical torture. Ismail depicts instances of such violence with chilling workmanship. A few chapters towards the end present these horrors with excruciating details that continue to haunt the reader long after the book has been put down.
Some of the dialogues in the novel sound stilted and the pace of action slows down in the middle. The multiplicity of characters sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to follow the storyline, but this gets easily overlooked by the overall force of the story. “Of Martyrs and Marigolds” definitely instills hope in the reader for more such moving tales from Aquila Ismail’s pen.