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BERKELEY'S NEWS • NOVEMBER 17, 2023

Heirlooms of resilience: Stories from my Bengali grandparents

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BRYNN GIBSON | STAFF

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NOVEMBER 13, 2023

F
or many years during my childhood, both my maternal and paternal grandparents would live with us, alternating every six months. As a kid, this meant I had built-in friends — I grew up on a steady diet of warm tea and biscuits every evening paired with stories from their lives.

My maternal grandfather, my nana bhai, told the best Bengali fairy tales. He got along with all of my friends and always had chocolates in his pocket when he came to pick me up from school. He would never return from the masjid empty-handed. When someone would offer him baklava, he would refuse to eat it there, telling them, “I have a granddaughter at home. I will eat with her.” 

My maternal grandmother, my nanu moni, would tell me about how she and her many siblings spent their childhood climbing trees, swimming and fishing, and how she’d get in trouble for reading her brother’s novels too late into the night. Nanu’s cooking was some of the best food I had ever tasted — she neatly wrote her recipes down on notebook paper and gave them to loved ones. She taught me to read Arabic and Bangla and how to braid my hair. 

My paternal grandfather, my dada bhai, refused to let go of my hand when we walked together. He worried about me constantly because I’d want to stop at parks, jump around and race him to the end of the street. As I grew up and wanted to experiment with new recipes, I always knew to bring anything I made to him. He would eat every bite and was the only person in the family I knew I would still get compliments from even after feeding unsalted, overcooked food. 

My paternal grandmother, my dadu moni, taught me how to make the best papaya salad and would let me style her hair in any way I wanted. Even as I poured way too much coconut oil and left it with many intricate knots she would have to undo later, she would smile, thank me and let me do the exact same thing the next evening. 

With my dada and dadu, I would go on neighborhood walks and pick plums and apples from the trees at Ohlone Park. They both took ESL classes at our local adult school. During evenings after maghrib prayer, they would put on their reading glasses and the three of us would sit down on the floor and work on the homework together. 

All four of my grandparents are resilient and selfless. They are the best people I know. 

All four of my grandparents also survived a genocide. 

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The Bengali Genocide of 1971 was a systematic campaign of murder, rape and looting carried out by the Pakistani army against Bengalis — specifically targeting the Hindu population and those who wanted independence from tyrannical Pakistani rule. 

Once India and Pakistan finally won their independence following a century of violent British colonial rule, Pakistan was divided into two geographically and culturally distinct areas — West Pakistan, modern-day Pakistan, and East Pakistan, modern-day Bangladesh. Even though East Pakistan had twenty million more people living there, Bengalis were denied self-determination and access to their own resources. West Pakistan was a center of wealth and power through which all decision-making was concentrated. Resources and taxes were funneled from the East to the West. For example, between 1947 and 1970, East Pakistan produced 59% of Pakistan’s earnings — but Bengalis never saw the fruits of their own labor and only received 25% of Pakistan’s industrial investments and 30% of its imports. Urdu, the language of West Pakistan, was also enforced on Bengalis who had their own language, Bangla, which they had been speaking for over a thousand years. The Pakistani government wanted to remove Hindu Bengalis from East Pakistan while Bengalis themselves wanted to be able to live alongside their Hindu neighbors in an independent country. While the partition had created tension between Hindus and Muslims in much of West Pakistan and India, East Pakistan maintained a cultural identity that had been built over thousands of years. This Bengali identity often superseded religious divide. 

In a movement to liberate and reclaim the Bengali identity from West Pakistan’s oppression, East Pakistan fought to become a separate country: Bangladesh. This became known as the Bengali Independence Movement. During this period, West Pakistan sent the Pakistani Army, known as the Razakars, to the East in an effort to curtail the resistance. Once there, the Razakars began systematically killing all Hindus, able-bodied men, intellectuals and anyone who seemed to want to separate from West Pakistan. Women in particular faced the brunt of this when they were met with a campaign of genocidal and murderous rape. They faced systematic sexual violence at the hands of the Razakars — many of whom believed that through rape and subsequent births, Bengali ethnicities could be wiped out. To hide evidence of their crimes, some immediately killed their victims after raping them. 

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During the genocide, my nana and nanu hid neighbors in their home for months on end and donated a storeroom next to the house to the Bengali resistance, Mukti Bahini, to hold their meetings and store their supplies and arms. Soon after, my nana left home to fight in the war. He had no military training and, just a couple of days prior, had only ever been a civilian. Most of the people he fought alongside were college students, activists and civilian volunteers who, like him, had no training or access to military weaponry. 

One of my nana’s close friends went into town to buy groceries for his kids and was captured by the Razakars. They interrogated him and ended up torturing him to death. He had refused to give his abductors the location of the Mukti Bahini base. His refusal to speak cost him his life, and saved the lives of my nana, nanu, uncle and all the resistance fighters in the area. If he had given up the location, they would have come straight to my grandparent’s house and indiscriminately killed everyone there. More than 50 years later, my nana keeps up with his friend’s widow and children. To this day, they never found his body. 

My khalo, my aunt’s husband, was in his early teens in 1971. He and his brothers showed up to every protest and all underground resistance meetings. They lost so many of their friends in the war, ages fifteen, fourteen, thirteen, twelve …

On the other side of the family, my dada bhai worked for the government and was captured by the Razakars, set to be murdered. In his fear, he quietly prayed over and over again, “Please Allah, I have a baby back home. Please don’t let him grow up without a father.” My dad didn’t grow up without a father but my dad’s cousins weren’t as lucky. My dada bhai’s brother’s body was returned to the family so mangled that the first person to open up the white sheet refused to let anyone else do so, knowing how horrifying it could be for loved ones to see. To be able to get a body back and have a burial was a huge blessing. 

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It has been estimated that for each Pakistani soldier, 26 Bengalis lost their lives. The genocide took place over the course of only nine months but three million Bengalis were murdered and about half a million women were raped. Around thirty million Bengalis were displaced from their homes. On December 16, 1971, Bangladesh was able to declare its independence from East Pakistan when the Razakars officially surrendered, marking the end of the genocidal war. 

The Bengalis were now free but had paid the price of their freedom with their blood. 

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My heart aches and I feel restless. 

Today, we Bengalis are no longer facing genocide but the stories I tell about my grandparents from fifty years ago sound all too familiar, even so many years later. 

My grandparents fearlessly and without hesitation hid their Hindu neighbors in their home, picked up rifles for the first time to defend their right to self-determination and freedom and showed up to rallies and protests where they knew people were being killed for doing so. They did not give up hope or falter in their conviction even after losing their closest family and friends. They were willing to give their lives to the cause. 

Today, I put my pen to paper and type out my name on petitions. I sign up to give public comments and bare my stories, hoping someone will listen and not let injustice repeat itself. I stand up for what I believe in and know is right. 

I send pictures of the protests I’ve been going to and the signs my friends and I have made to my nana bhai back home. He tells me he is so proud of the woman I’ve become. 

But I am so disappointed in myself. I feel restless that I am unable to commit to even a fraction of the work that my grandparent’s legacy demands. True activism is believing in something so strongly that you’re willing to give your life for it — my grandparents taught me that. I pray that if it ever comes down to it, I am willing to sacrifice the things I love, for the ideas of liberation I believe in. 

My family heirlooms are heirlooms of resilience, and I can only hope to one day live up to them. In the echoes of my grandparents’ stories, I find my own voice. 

Contact Nishat Tasnim at 

LAST UPDATED

NOVEMBER 13, 2023