Karthika Naïr brings to us five narrative strands which are summaries of some of the stories that composed choreographer Akram Khan’s multiple-award-winning dance solo, DESH …
They came again today. Our soldiers. Only, they are not our soldiers anymore. You don’t want to be Pakistani any more. You want to have a new land: Bangladesh. You want to stand on your own feet? And then, they brought out the bayonets.
It is all changing.
The names we give ourselves, the names we give others. The roles they play; the shape of our land, the curves of its borders.
It is all changing, again. Bangladesh, India, Pakistan. Friend, enemy, brother, neighbour.
I was seven when it first happened. We were playing after school, Tapan and I. Tapan lived next door, he had always lived there. Suddenly, people thronged the streets, shouting, singing. No more British rule. We rule our land now.
Three nights later, Tapan’s house burst into flames. I never saw him again, never heard if they fled or died. The two cousins who had survived the massacre in Calcutta rebuilt Tapan’s house and moved in. It was like that, 1947. The year of independence, newspapers had announced. The year of the wandering dead, my mother called it: a million murdered, six million homeless.
It’s that time again.
South Wimbledon, 1982
We left Bangladesh seven years ago, just after the first military coup.
Sometimes it feels like yesterday: I can still hear Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s voice thundering across the Ramna Race Course in Dhaka. This time the struggle is for our freedom. We had stood there in that swelling crowd, glowing with pride and hope.
Sometimes it feels like we have been here forever. Like all I have known is these long winters, the measured sunshine and the clean, even sounds of this language, English, which I teach all day.
In the evenings, I try to teach Akram Bangla. But it can’t be a real language, he says sometimes: it is not taught in school and none of his friends speak it. My mother cried when she heard that. What did your brothers die for?
But Bangla should not be a language of martyrs and tears for Akram. So I tell him stories from the magic kingdom where honeybees light up the earth by night and demon tigers save mangrove forests.
I tell him the password to enter this kingdom is in Bangla, and it will be lost forever if no one learns Bangla.
No, Amma, I am not being reckless. There will be thousands of us on the streets today. We need to act. How long can things go on this way?
It’s not just for the politicians, the professors. It’s up to me, too. All we are asking is fresh, fair elections and a neutral, caretaker government. Military rule was not meant to last.
It isn’t enough that your brothers fought for this country sixteen years ago; we have to do it again today.
Don’t say that, Amma. It does matter.
We live in fear everyday. Everyday you wonder whether Abba will reach home. Everyday you wake up scared of arrests.
It shouldn’t be that way, Amma.
Fear should not be the language you speak. Not in your land, the land you helped build.
Look around, Amma. It is a time for beginnings. Look: around us earth rises again, green and ripe and firm.
The Buriganga becomes younger; all the rivers return, tame – the monsoon is over. Even the flowers dare to bloom. It is autumn, Amma. In our country, autumn belongs to the youth.
We will win. If not tomorrow, soon.
Now, go home before the protests begin. Allah Hafiz.
The rivers. That’s what I miss most. I lived there for two years, and I am happy to be back, don’t get me wrong. When did you go last? Yeah, I was there for work. But the rivers, mate. The Jamuna, Padma, Buriganga… They blew me away. At first, it was just water, right. Everywhere. I’d go for field trips to Porabori and there was a fisherman there, Jibenda, who’d row me across the Jamuna? He used to talk to her, yeah, to the river. Weird, huh? Thing is, my granddad was a fisherman in Finistère, he liked to talk to the sea, and suddenly, Bangladesh got closer home? Jibenda showed me amazing stuff. Like how the rivers are like gods, they can do anything. Rewrite maps. Swallow land and spit it out. Tear away acres of fields and bang! You get a new island or settlement a hundred miles down. Nothing ever stays the same, no straight lines, no full stops, no rules. But the people, mate, the people just adapt. They build their homes and when their land goes under, they move to another patch and just rebuild. They’re survivors, mate. They’ll be here even after we’ve nuked ourselves to kingdom come.
Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), 2009
There’s this guy calling our Tech Support hotline these days. He doesn’t know nuts about configuring the planner on his phone and claims that’s totally messed up his life. He introduced himself as British-Bangladeshi, so I said I was Bangladeshi too. He suddenly went ballistic about syncing. Yelled and swore and said do you know who I am? I am world famous. I dance at the Sydney Opera House. Who cares? It’s not like he’s Lady Gaga!
Anyway, I fixed his life. He called back to thank me. In Bangla. I just froze him. Imagine speaking in Bangla to me, to a Jumma? Dork. But it turned out he didn’t even know about Jumma! Nothing, not about the minority communities, the massacres in CHT, not even about other languages in Bangladesh. His uncles had fought to free Bangladesh, he said, way back. Cool, I replied, mine are still fighting for Bangladesh. Not all of us are free yet, to speak our language or till our land or visit our gods.
How on earth do they get to be so rich and powerful when they know so little?
These were first published by the theatres Sadler’s Wells (UK) and MC2, Grenoble (France) during the tour of DESH. The Noor monologue – an imagined account of martyr Noor Hossain’s last meeting with his mother – also appeared in The Daily Star in November 2014.