Being Hindu in Bangladesh: The Untold Story. Deep Halder and Avishek Biswas. HarperCollins India. Pages 272. Rs 325.
The house in Bashudebpur, in Bangladesh's Rajshahi district, where my father was born, still stands.
Shrouded in the omen that "there dwells a god," no one dares tear it down for fear of death or affliction in the family.
In the past few years, as Deep Halder and Avishek Biswas have travelled extensively to Bangladesh to chronicle the fate of the Hindu in the country, I've thought often of the house where Baba was born.
And I think of that fateful day when my prescient grandfather sold the property to settle across the river, in Jangipur, Murshidabad.
But that wasn't the fate of authors Halder and Biswas.
Halder has written earlier of how his mother had to abandon the mansion they possessed in Bangladesh and rebuild a life in Kolkata.
Biswas' journey has a more detailed, painful account in their book Being Hindu in Bangladesh: The Untold Story.
Halder is a trained journalist of the finest, most sensitive calibre. I've often called him my conscience-keeper in the mayhem of spurious content that is Indian media today.
Biswas is a serious academic with a PhD (the Doctor of Philosophy degree) on Dalit Refugees from Bangladesh.
With their combined skills of meticulous research and stark objective accounts of various threads of historical and contemporary Bangladesh, the authors have given us this unique piece of non-fiction, intricately woven with the harrowing personal journeys of many characters that keep the reader personally invested in the lives of victims of rape, humiliation, wanton murder, loot, and religious fanaticism.
The narrative isn't linear, and this is a significant contributor to the overall effect the book has on you.
Stories and timelines shift from Direct Action Day to 2001, when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Khaleda Zia, swept to power.
This victory was followed by heinous retributive rape and killing of Hindus, who were largely perceived to be supporters of the Awami League.
Focus shifts to the promise of a secular Bangladesh that Sheikh Mujib had envisioned, to the 2021 anti-Hindu desecration of puja pandals and Hindus being bludgeoned to death under the government run by his daughter Sheikh Hasina.
The shifting timelines play a significant role in giving the author this tragic sense of the déjà vu. Because that is indeed the crux of the story of that country, and specifically its Hindus.
The senseless, vengeful cycle of violence is ubiquitous, no matter the phase of history. It's the fateful thread of dispensable lives of Hindus that holds the weave of this canvas together.
There is also a sub-narrative around the Constitution of Bangladesh and the fluctuating lot of its Hindus.
In less than a hundred years from its partition by Lord Curzon in 1905, to its reunification, to the partition of 1947 and the birth of secular Bangladesh, to Mujib's assassination and Mohammad Ershad and the persistent influence of the Jamaat, this piece of earth, language, and culture has seen its struggles and even genocides involving barbarism of unprecedented proportions — all to preserve its Bengali character, where the Hindus struggle for a right to exist in a country that has Islam as a state religion and also rising religious fanaticism across the board.
This story can lend itself easily to vivid imagery and extreme expression, and it would not be unwarranted; such is the scale of the human tragedy there, but mention must be made of the eloquent restraint with which this story has been told, to telling effect.
This book is an excellent case study of "Show, don't tell," and every so often I needed to put it down to cope with the abysmal pits to which human nature plunged.
"I was pure as the goddess. They trampled on me and broke me into pieces and left me bloodied on the ground to die of shame." Purnima Shil was 12; her fault — she was a Hindu. The BNP swept to power in 2001 and Shil was gang-raped to unconsciousness by marauding BNP supporters.
But is this story entirely hopeless? Does Bangla and Bengali culture not bind the two religious communities any more?
Of course, they do. Whether in upper-class Dhaka or rural Bangladesh, we see undeniable coexistence of the two communities. This aspect, too, the book highlights, but not without a realistic projection into the future.
Radicalism is on the rise and Hindu numbers continue to dwindle. India's hope is in the sustained rule of the Awami League, which, as a party, is struggling with its own youth wing getting radicalised.
What, then, is the cause of this fall in the fate of the Hindu in Bangladesh today? Why didn't the spectacular War of Liberation, 1971, and the birth of the first secular state in South Asia stay the course?
That's where we get a bitter aperçu of the poison and funding that drives Muslim preachers and political agents who use radical Islam to establish an Islamic state.
The derailment in 1971 notwithstanding, enemies of Bangladesh have systematically hacked their way into the institutions of Bangladesh over the decades and are still hell-bent on reversing fully the ideals of secularism and Bengali identity that gave birth to this nation.
For a final comment on the extensive referencing and annotation that accompany this book, two QR codes give the reader access and understanding of the meticulous research that supports every claim, recit, and figure in the book.
This feature is of capital importance in our times of derailed narratives, false claims, and outrageous victimhood, where those who suffer have barely the energy to pick up the pieces of their life and eke out a living, even as they carry the burden of unimaginable sorrow in dignified silence.
Who will value this book, then? I would say, every Indian, and all marginalised people in the world fighting for the right to live with dignity in the land of their birth and ancestors.
The story of Bangladesh and its Hindus is a story of resilience against unspeakable odds, abominable depravity, marauding genocides and pogroms, and continued persecution.
In a way, the fact that there still exist a few in Bangladesh who celebrate Durga puja is a story of triumph.
I heard recently that "People who do not know their history are open to persuasion." This cannot be allowed to happen for the Hindus of Bangladesh. And this book will not let it.
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