The Bangladesh war of 1971, in which East Pakistan (Bangladesh) won its independence from West Pakistan, is estimated to have killed 300,000 to three million Bangladeshis. These numbers are striking not just in their terrible vastness, but in the disparity in the upper and lower measures; it’s hard to comprehend how the authorities can be unsure whether two million people are missing or not?
The differential estimates of the death toll are grim testimony to the confusion and denial shrouding this war. There has been little accountability or even acknowledgment of the genocide committed during this period, till date. Into this silence steps the Pakistani-American writer Sorayya Khan, with her courageous debut novel, Noor.
During the war of 1971, Ali, a young West Pakistani soldier, finds a child of five or six wandering dazed along a pavement in Dhaka. The child, Sajida, has lost her family to the cyclone which swept East Pakistan the previous year, and is all alone. Ali decides to adopt the orphan, and takes her to Islamabad towards the close of war.
After his return home, Ali never speaks about his participation in the war; he believes “his story, the sum of horrible details” is “neatly stored away”, and cannot trouble him if he does not think about it. Ali’s mother, Nanijaan, also never queries him about the past. As for Sajida, Ali is the savior who spirited her away from a war-torn existence to a life of love and comfort. Memories of her childhood in Bangladesh are remote, and, in any case, irrelevant to the busy, happy swirl of her life in the present day – she is now the contented wife of her college sweetheart Hussein and the busy mother of two sons, with another baby on the way.
The baby, named Noor, is born with Down’s syndrome. While Hussein is unable to accept his daughter’s “abnormality”, Sajida believes Noor is filled with something mysterious and magical. When, on her first birthday, Noor is given a box of crayons, the child proceeds to coat sheets of paper blue, ignoring all other colors. Sajida welcomes the pictures, seeing in them glimpses of the ocean of her childhood days, but Hussein tosses the sheets into the garbage, unequivocally rejecting his daughter and her talent.
As she grows older, Noor begins to draw other pictures – a fishing boat and fishing nets, and then, a scene from the cyclone that killed Sajida’s biological family in Bangladesh. Noor is somehow seeing events from the past – and not just Sajida’s past. Hussein, finding the picture of a once-beloved Italian shoe among his daughter’s drawings, is shocked into reconciliation with his daughter. The inevitable occurs, however, when Noor begins to draw Ali’s memories of the war.
Ali’s war-time role can no longer be ignored. Sajida, who has always considered Ali her father, now asks him what exactly he did in East Pakistan. Ali’s mother Nanijaan, who has “never thought to attach a number [of dead], any one number, to the war”, asks Ali if he killed anyone?
Ali has indeed killed; he cannot remember how many. When Noor asks why he fought in the war, he cannot remember.
“He wasn’t certain that, in the beginning, he’d needed or even had a reason to go to war. He’d rushed into it, an adventure of a lifetime. Now, he wasn’t certain any of the things he’d been told (except the facts about the Indians) had ever rung true to him. That Bengalis, dark and stupid, not really Muslims, didn’t deserve their own country, their own leaders.”
Many Indians’ knowledge of the war is confined to the awareness of India’s victory; Noor is the story of the ‘other side’, fleshing out the history we know, giving the event an urgent immediacy thirty-five years after its end. Khan unsparingly describes the racism in which much of the rationale for this war was rooted. Bengalis were deliberately referred to in pejorative terms that devalued and dehumanized them, so as to make the task of slaughter easier; when Noor asks Ali to relate a joke, he can only recall the denigrating “Bengali jokes” in currency before the war. Rape, torture, mass murder – Ali is guilty of each one of these crimes, and the author does not shy away from detailing these scenes.
Khan’s prose, even while describing the war, never strays into melodrama; her writing is always subdued and restrained. Noor is a quiet novel. The language isn’t inventive, the characters aren’t colorful, and the plot has few twists (it’s evident early on that the character of Noor is a literary device to showcase Ali’s story.) But the quietness of the work is a deliberate construction, a muted background against which the details of war scream off the page. Noor’s drawings force Ali to unlock his war secrets, but ultimately, it is through dialogue and not the child’s other-worldly eye that the process of atonement begins. Words, both written and spoken, Khan seems to say, are the tools with which understanding and consequent forgiveness may be achieved; the author’s message is not a whit less powerful for being stated quietly.
(This review originally appeared in Desijournal.)