stories all around us…

General Manager Mahbubul Alam, Liberation War Museum, Dhaka, Bangladesh (photo from my 2013 Bangladesh visit and interview)

Yesterday, I returned to the printer cartridge store where I had purchased toner for my laser printer. The woman behind the counter greeted me by my name. I was not entirely surprised that she remembered me. She, too, is South Asian, and though we didn’t exchange personal information when I purchased my cartridge, we registered that we were from the same part of the world.

“You’re from India?” asked her husband, Omar, when he emerged from the back of the store to help with the cartridge.

When I told him that I was from Pakistan (with origins in India), he smiled and said that he was from Pakistan (with origins in Bengal). As he tinkered with with my printer, he told me his story:

I was trained in the military school in Sarghoda, Punjab, but when the 1971 war broke out, I wanted to fight for the Liberation Army — not for Pakistan. So another Bengali friend and I decided we would cross the Punjab border into India. My friend was able to get away, but I was caught. I spent three and a half years in a Pakistani prison. After Pakistan lost the war, and the Shimla Agreement was signed between Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto, all prisoners of war were released, I was flown into Dhaka. Bangladesh had achieved independence, and I went on to serve in the Bangladesh army.

In 1974, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Shaikh Mujibur Rahman invited Bhutto to Dhaka and told people to give Bhutto a warm welcome even though the Pakistani army had conducted rape and genocide in Bangladesh. Bhutto never invited Mujib to Pakistan, but in Dhaka, Bhutto was met with cheering processions.

Some years ago, I also went back to Pakistan for my military school reunion. I was welcomed like a raja-prince. The taxi driver didn’t charge me money when I told him I was Bangladeshi. “You are our guest!” the driver told me. Everywhere I went, people welcomed me. And when I got to the reunion dinner, white tents were laid out for us beneath which we would dine. General Musharraf was in the middle tent, and he asked for all Bengalis to sit with him. They redid the seating, and my Bengali friends and I celebrated our reunion with Musharraf. 

I got the opportunity to come to the US and serve in the army here. I have served in three different armies in my lifetime.

By the time, Omar finished telling his story, my printer was working again. “Come back and visit,” he said as he helped me load my printer in my car. “I have more stories to tell.”