The high-water mark of my journalistic career was reporting the Indo-Pak War of 1971 for the New York Times. I had the rare opportunity of meeting some of the
leading characters of this dramatic episode in history including Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, known as Banga Bandhu, Maulana Bhashani and General Jagjit Singh Aurora. A year earlier I had been commissioned by the Indian Government to write a booklet on the influx of over 3 million Hindu refugees from East Pakistan. I was then editing Yojna. I spent a week visiting refugee camps with a Bengali photographer to help me out with my language problem. My lengthy report was published by the Government under the title No Wanted In Pakistan”.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi realised that Pakistan was never likely to take back the refugees. And India could not afford to absorb them. She first tried to convince the
western countries and briefed them on the predicament India was facing. War with Pakistan could no longer be avoided.
She faked the hi-jacking of an Indian plane by Pakistan and forbade their planes flying over India. By then the Indian Air Force had bombed the run-way of Dhaka Airport and made lit difficult for Pakistani planes stationed there to be able to take off. With a single direct strike it also knocked down Pakistani Air Force quarters across the road from the airport. By then our Army had infiltrated over 40 miles into East Pakistan and our officers were heading many units of Mukti Bahini. The people of East Pakistan had been subjected to severe cruelties and humiliations by General Tikka Khan, regarded as “the butcher of Bangladesh”.
Thousands of innocent Bangladeshis had been killed, their women raped and the Hindu population forced to migrate to India. By the time Pakistan declared War against India, the Indian Army was more than 40 miles into East Pakistan and welcomed by the locals. The strategy worked out by General Manekshaw and his advisers paid handsome dividends. Our Army avoided direct conflict with the Pakistani Army. Instead it by-passed them till lit got to the capital, Dhaka. It overwhelmed the Pakistani units posted there. The Pakistani Army was left with no option but to admit defeat. 93,000 Pakistani solders laid down arms to become prisoners of India. The victory was acclaimed as a jewel in India’s crown. Indira Gandhi, who masterminded the aftermath, was conferred Bharat Ratna.
An amusing episode remains in my mind. A German journalist who relied heavily on information I gave him wanted to repay me. He asked me “do you know the war cry of the Mukti Bahini?
I replied I did not know they had such a thing as a war cry. “They have,” he insisted, “I will tell you for all the help you have given me, is Sat Sri Akal.”
A Genius Born
If I were asked if I had ever met a genius, I would reply promptly, “yes one — Vikram Seth”. Two of his works have attained literary immortality — The Golden Gate — a long love epic told in Sonnet form and A Suitable Boy, a lengthy novel about present-day India which will never get dated.
Vikram is a phenomenon. He can pick up a new language in a couple of days. Last year when attending a conference of Malayali writers, when asked to speak he wrote out his message in Malayam. The next evening he happened to be in my home. He wrote out a message for me in Urdu. He loves calligraphy in all languages, particularly Chinese written downwards. He can write languages written from left to right as well as those written from right to left. His latest offering to The Rivered Earth (Hamish Hamilton an imprint of Penguin Books).
Vikram Seth was born in Calcutta in 1952. His parents are Punjabi. He is a product of the Doon Public School and Tonbridge Wells. He graduated from Corpus Christi College, Oxford where he also studied Chinese. Then he moved to Stanford University, USA to do a course in Creative Writing. Finally, he joined Nanjing University, China. He spent two years there translating classical Chinese poets. When there was turmoil in China, he made his way through Tibet to his homeland India. He has settled in England and frequently visits his parent in Delhi.
The Rivered Earth has a baffling variety of poems, many inspired by the Vedas, a few by latter day Urdu poets. I give one example of a poem entitled Fire:
Mother, give me the moon
I want it as my toy.
Mother, I want it soon
Or I’ll be papa’s boy.
No, I won’t plait my hair.
I won’t go but to play
I’ll sulk on the ground all day.
I won’t come to your lap — so there!
Nor will I drink this milk from Surabhi, our cow.
Mother, I want the moon – and I want it now.
Here in this bucket filled with water it scatters.
But that one there never
Cold in its silver fire,
Climbing higher and higher
I now know, mother
You only love Balram, my brother.
Who loves to drive me wild.
He says you bought me, that I’m not your child;
No, don’t sing me a tune
Mother, give me the moon.
The moon, the moon.
A friend of mine went to a lecture on acupuncture. “The audience was so fascinated,” he told me afterwards, “that you could have heard a pin drop.”
(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Tezpur)