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The best books on Bangladesh

recommended by Syed Ashfaqul Haque

Syed Ashfaqul Haque is Chief News Editor at The Daily Star, the largest circulating English language daily newspaper in Bangladesh. He recommends the best five books on the country

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Syed Ashfaqul Haque

Syed Ashfaqul Haque is Chief News Editor at The Daily Star, the largest circulating English language daily newspaper in Bangladesh. Ashfaqul began his career as an apprentice subeditor at The Daily Star nearly 20 years ago, when the newspaper was a year old. In 2009 his investigative report on corruption in imports won the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Investigative Journalism Award, the Unesco-Bangladesh Journalism Award and the Dhaka Reporters Unity Award for best economic investigative report. Ashfaqul talks to Five Books about his nation’s struggle for independence, the repression of journalists and his five favourite books about Bangladesh.
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Has journalism in Bangladesh changed since you first joined the profession in the early 90s?

When I joined it was not the way it is now, or the way it is in the West or perhaps anywhere else in the world. At that time, all the bright people graduating from university wanted to join the civil service or become army gentlemen – because it meant having power. Some who were not very bright and who perhaps didn’t have a job became journalists.

Why did you decide to become a journalist?

When I was a student at Dhaka University it was the hub of protests against the autocratic regime of Hussain Mohammad Ershad, the chief of army staff who took over. Many students were killed and I lost a friend during a police attack. This injected something into me to find a profession through which I could say something and protest against injustice.
About 30 of us from Dhaka University responded to an advertisement from The Daily Star. But when we joined all our supervisors had grey hair – and they thought we were no-good young things who had no real intention of becoming journalists. They thought we would move on to another profession soon enough. It took me three years to prove to the management that I was here to stay, and in 1995 became a permanent member of staff.

Could you describe a particular incident when journalists at The Daily Star were intimidated?

Last year there was a gang rape in Patuakhali and two of the local lawmaker’s activists were involved. The lawmaker took the extraordinary step of asking everybody not to go to the police station or court to file a report because he said he would punish the culprits vigilante-style. He captured the 14 boys, took them to a classroom, brought the girl and her parents, and demanded each boy pays the family 10,000 taka (£89). And then in front of the girl he beat the boys black and blue.
The parents were mightily happy, because in Bangladesh what happens in these situations is that you go to the police and file a case and then the next day the culprits get bail and they go and intimidate the family. And the girl came from a poor family, so the money mattered a lot. But the family was then denying what actually happened to her.
When The Daily Star came to know about it, we felt that this girl’s honour should not be worth Tk 140,000. We were the only newspaper that ran a campaign against it. The lawmaker was furious with us. He said, ‘It would have taken three or four decades to get a verdict because our legal system is so lengthy. Here I executed justice and you newsmen are criticising me?’
Our reporter encountered many threats and the journalist from another newspaper who first broke the story was sacked. But my editor stood by me and we ran more than 13 stories, always with the by-line of ‘Staff Correspondent’ rather than the reporter’s name. We never use by-lines if it could be harmful for the reporter. Eventually the culprits were arrested and the prime minister weighed in. The case is ongoing at the moment.

Could you tell us about the investigative report about corruption in imports for which you and a reporter won three awards?

It was a very complicated story, involving many powerful big shots. It took us at least six months to investigate – the information is not easy to obtain because the machinery is corrupt. I knew that as news editor I was running a risk so I had to be careful with every word.
When the report was printed, all hell broke loose. My editor’s good childhood friend was the main culprit and led the crusade against me. I received threatening phone calls and the sources who fed us the information were under watch. The editor called me and the senior reporter, Julfikar Ali Manik, to his office to meet with his childhood friend. We had a confrontation and he said I was a very cunning journalist and that I wrote the report in such a way that he couldn’t nail me down. He was so angry that he just blurted it out. The editor threw him out of the office.
For the next two months I received threatening phone calls. The caller would say things like, ‘I will get you. I will make your life difficult. I will get your kids.’

Could you describe the events relating to the 1971 Liberation War?

It was a strange war, in a sense. Until 1947 the Indian subcontinent was one country. West Pakistan [now Pakistan] and East Pakistan [now Bangladesh] were 1,400 miles apart. We were separated from India on the basis of religion, and thanks to the British. Before 1947 there were Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians living harmoniously. I remember my family used to go to see the Hindu ‘puja’ and we attended Christian ceremonies. And they came to ours.
After partition the West Pakistanis dumped a decree on us that Urdu rather than Bengali was the state language. There were protests and bloodshed. There was also economic repression and in 1971 it culminated in our Liberation War. It was a wild war and the killing was ruthless. In nine months three million people were killed and two million women were raped.
The irony is that although it was a war for liberation, within that some were fighting about religion. The Pakistanis had a different campaign of propagating religion. Some Bangladeshis sided with Pakistanis and became collaborators.
On December 14, 1971 just before liberation, the Pakistanis killed 140 of our top intellectuals. Many more went missing. Later their relatives discovered mass graves.

Let’s turn to your first book, Ekattorer Dinguli or Days of 1971 by Jahanara Imam.

This is the book I like most – it’s an amazing story. It was written by a woman who lost her son and her husband during the war. Before the war broke out, her son was supposed to go the USA for a few months – to us that was a highway to heaven. At the time, her son, Rumi, had long hair and liked jazz music. Everybody questioned his patriotism but he became a freedom fighter. And he turned out to be a valiant fighter. His guerrilla group, Bichchu, turned fun-loving kids into guerrillas and they tormented the Pakistani army.
So this is the recollection of the mother who allowed her dear son to go away to fight. It was an agonising experience for her. Her husband was a chief engineer so he had the designs of the power stations and gave them to his son so he could blow them up. She went to the shops and bought supplies for her son. The whole family took part in the war.
Eventually the Pakistani army picked up her husband. And the collaborators passed some information to the Pakistanis and her house was cordoned off. Her son was picked up from the family home and murdered.
It’s an amazing story of how it was a peoples’ war and how much a mother had to sacrifice. The recollection of a mother and a father crying silently together for their son is very powerful.

What happened to Jahanara after the war ended?

Twenty years passed and the war criminals who killed her son and husband did not face justice. The collaborators were given general amnesty in 1973 by the Awami government, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, also known as Bangabandhu, the Father of the Nation. [He is the father of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.] The collaborators were awarded, praised and rehabilitated. Jahanara could not take it so, despite having cancer, she organised the Ghatak-Dalal Nirmul Committee (Committee to exterminate the Killers and Collaborators), and in 1992 she held mock trials of war criminals in Ramna Park in Dhaka.
The Awami League was in power then but they could not join hands with her because those elements were still so powerful in our society. So this great lady died without having seen the war criminals being punished. That’s why the recollections of a mother and our war still make me so emotional.

Why were the collaborators pardoned when Bangladesh won the war?

That’s a million dollar question. The answer is still being explored.
Bangabandhu thought that in such a densely populated country, if the war criminals were tried a third of the population would be eliminated. It’s a complicated picture because of the religious elements involved. There were many people who were exploited by their religious feelings. They were not collaborators. Lessons could be learnt from how Germany dealt with the Nazis. Something could have been done. It was one of the biggest blunders and Bangabandhu paid for it. [Bangabandhu was assassinated in 1975.]

What are your own memories of the war?

I was five years old and I lived in the small town of Magura, more than 200km from Dhaka. My father was a leading businessman in the locality so before the war we had a big house and a very peaceful life. During the war my father became a freedom fighter. He was the area commander. One of my uncles – my father’s elder sister’s husband – was on the opposite side. He was a leader of the collaborators. When my father joined the Liberation War and our relatives were leading the repression, he had to flee from our house. We lived alone, except for a few hours in the early morning when he would stay with us and then disappear. I have memories of my relatives coming to our house to search for my father. I was very young and very frightened.
I also have a sweet memory of the war. It took place two days before Bangladesh was liberated. There was a Pakistani soldier camp with a large compound about a mile from our home. The Indian planes were coming to our aid and they started bombing the camp. We dug trenches underground and spent the day there. When the bombing stopped in the afternoon we crawled out of the trench – and to our delight we saw our friends munching on biscuits. During those war days these delicacies were unavailable. We were barely surviving. When we enquired about the biscuits our friends told us that we would find a lot of biscuits at the compound. So my brother and I followed them there.
Before reaching the camp we had to cross a big field. We could see the Pakistanis had left and that people had started to loot the crockery, arms and ammunition, whatever was there. We grabbed some packets and started to run back across the field and as soon as we did planes appeared and started firing. A big plane hovered over us and I could see the machine guns protruding from the wings. We just ran and made it to the other side. Then I realised I had lost one of my shoes. So I hurried back to find it, just as the plane turned and started to come again. A neighbour recognised me and ran to pick me up.
When I got home my mother was crying and went crazy. But my brother and I were smiling from ear to ear and we showed her the prized biscuits for which we risked our lives. Unfortunately it was not appreciated and we were beaten!

Why do you recommend A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam?

While Days of 1971 is the recollections of a mother, this is a different generation writing about the Liberation War. Tahmima based her book on the memories of her grandparents. She also paints a bigger picture of 1947 and how we were separated again and again.
The main character is a Pakistani woman living in Bangladesh, and she sided with Bangladesh during the war. This was a very emotional decision. She is an amazing character but you would find many others like her in real life – there were many cases of Pakistanis siding with Bangladesh. And there were many families with a Pakistani father and a Bengali mother, or vice-versa. It was a very complicated and intertwined thing and Tahmima portrayed these feelings masterfully. It is a story of divided hearts. When this book was published it sent ripples throughout Bangladesh. It is now very popular across the globe.

Tahmima Anam is the daughter of the editor of The Daily Star, Mahfuz Anam. Do you know her?

I’ve met her three or four times. Her father is quite powerful in Bangladesh but she has built a brilliant career of her own in London.

Why did you select Pather Panchali or Song of the Road by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay?

This is my childhood favourite. It is a novel about a boy called Opu growing up in a very poor family. His father is a Hindu priest but he leaves the family to take up a job in very rich Hindu businessman’s house. The mother fights with her elderly sister-in-law until her death and it is only when she herself becomes old that she can understand her. It’s very touching, the way the writer depicts our strong sides and our weaknesses, and how we grow up and stop fighting over the small things. Then Opu’s sister dies and the family decide to leave their ancestral village. His mother dies along the way.
I was not born in Dhaka so when I was admitted to university I had to move away from my home. In Bangladesh we live together and we are emotionally bonded. When I left my house in Magura – my mother and father and my everything – I felt like the boy in that story when he left his village. There was a strong similarity to all the emotional turmoil he felt.

This book was set in 1929. Has life in the villages changed much since then?

Perhaps in some villages the standard of living and culture has changed a little bit. But this internal migration of young boys and girls separating from their families and coming to bigger cities for education or jobs hasn’t changed. People in the West may not understand this, but it is a very emotional story for so many of us in this part of the world. A famous Indian filmmaker made a film about it and it’s still hugely popular.

Why did you choose Rabindranath Tagore’s Selection of Short Stories?

It’s a masterpiece and hugely read. If you go to any house in Bangladesh or West Bengal you will find a copy of this collection of stories. In it you will discover everything about the lives of Bengali families. It would be very unfair of me to single out one or two stories because it will undermine the others – the collection is so good.

Could you describe the plot of one story to give us a flavour?

If you insist, there is one story I’ll describe, called ‘The Wish’. A father tells his son that he must read and not play, and the boy doesn’t like this. The boy thinks if he could switch places with his father he would enjoy great freedom. And the father wants to be his boy, to enjoy youth again. The wish is granted, but suddenly the boy feels pain in his back and he has all sorts of problems. And the father, after so many years of freedom, finds himself being punished. It’s quite a funny story and also very interesting.

Was Rabindranath Tagore famous in his own lifetime?

Yes, he was a very famous man and he came from a very rich family. He had a home in Kolkata in India as well as a home in Bangladesh. He was one of the lucky few who didn’t have to worry about their bread and butter. He just wrote and what he produced was amazing.

Let’s discuss your final selection, Sei Somoy or Those Days by Sunil Gangopadhyay.

This story is also set in undivided India and it describes how we came to be separated. After 1947 many Hindus went to India and many Muslims came to Bangladesh. But although the country was divided, the people were not. The people wanted to live together peacefully but the state did just the opposite.
This book is still relevant because our freedom of movement is restricted. There are border hostilities due to the undercurrent of politics. Every day at the border town of Benapole, Indian border guards are killing Bangladeshis when they try to cross the border – or Bangladesh soldiers are firing at Indians. This is the state, the politics – but the people in Bangladesh and West Bengal are like family. After 63 years of separation, you will still find a lot of families going to and fro to find their roots.
Those Days describes how people grow up and raise their families in a new place, but their heart remains in Bangladesh. It is the story of the pains of separation.

Is it fact or fiction?

It’s a combination of both. There are references to public figures, such as Rabindranath Tagore, and the historical facts are there. Gangopadhyay also wrote about his own experiences, though some parts are fictional.

Why did you choose to work on an English language paper rather than one in Bangla?

I am very proud of my language but I wanted to pursue my journalism in English. There is somehow a gap in our society in terms of being able to write in English. When I noticed this gap I felt challenged to pursue it. There are a lot of journalists in Bengali newspapers who have few educational qualifications but they are good at writing Bengali. So I thought, ‘Let’s not crowd in there. Take the challenge of learning English and also take up journalism.’ It’s a two in one.

What do you think explains the popularity of The Daily Star?

It has good editorial policies. The policies of a paper are vital. We are very balanced and have high – if not the highest – ethics. From the day we deviate from this I am sure it will not take long for us to lose popularity. You cannot fool the readers. The Daily Star has many shortcomings and on some occasions we may not live up to expectations. But in one area we never fail. We are sincere and try to do our best, and people like that. We have a very good team.

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Syed Ashfaqul Haque

Syed Ashfaqul Haque is Chief News Editor at The Daily Star, the largest circulating English language daily newspaper in Bangladesh. Ashfaqul began his career as an apprentice subeditor at The Daily Star nearly 20 years ago, when the newspaper was a year old. In 2009 his investigative report on corruption in imports won the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Investigative Journalism Award, the Unesco-Bangladesh Journalism Award and the Dhaka Reporters Unity Award for best economic investigative report. Ashfaqul talks to Five Books about his nation’s struggle for independence, the repression of journalists and his five favourite books about Bangladesh.
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