An Intriguing Personal Chronicle of Bangladesh’s Liberation War
Eleanor Roosevelt, the American humanitarian and diplomat and the First Lady of the U.S. once wrote to Harry Truman: “I cannot believe that war is the best solution. No one won the last war, and no one will win the next war” (Letter dated 22 March 1948). Yet humanity has not been able to consign war to the domain of the obsolete. It is still there very much with us. A reading of Nicholas Faust’s South of the Padma is bound to make one feel sad thinking of the futility of war, its sheer waste. However, it is an absorbing one-man account of Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971, a war that actually lasted for only 13 days and ended with the defeat of the Pakistani army on 16 December 1971 by the combined effort of freedom fighters of Bangladesh and the Indian army. Yet, that war was the culmination of nine months of conflict in which more than three million people were killed.
South of the Padma begins with a description of the series of events that brought Faust to Calcutta. He was in the US marines and spent quite a few years in Vietnam and Laos. Then he came to Calcutta, got an old truck, drove it himself and remained involved with Mother Teresa’s charitable programmes. While delivering food to the refugee camps, he came to be acquainted with some officers of the Indian army. Subsequently, his work for the army was “legally covered by a special arrangement”.
What follows is the author’s checkered account of the war and his own experience of it. His work began with the supply of arms to the freedom fighters (Mukti Bahini) of Bangladesh. There are two particularly creepy accounts, one dealing with the capture and killing of a notorious Colonel of the Pakistani army while he was having sex and then when Faust and his friend Waldo had a direct confrontation with two Pakistani soldiers. In the author’s own words “it was a real WTF moment”. After killing the enemies, when he caught hold of their bags, Faust found in them gold jewellery including “gold earrings and nose ornaments with human flesh still fragmented on them”. Grisly indeed! The Pakistani Muslims not only killed millions of Bangladeshi inhabitants, they raped countless women and unleashed a reign of terror by their indiscriminate killings, loots and arson. South of the Padma allows us to feel the sheer savagery of the act that has left a deep emotional scar even decades after the event.
Although the events described are often terrible and sometimes even ghastly, the author’s sense of humour rescues it from being merely a grim account of war. He would often catch the readers unaware by phrases like “But then Calcutta always was a bitch” or “The young women looked very foreign and strange until you took their clothes off”. It is amusing when he, perhaps with justification, asserts that “the Hindu is not a good soldier. The Bengalis even more so.” He follows it up with something that borders on the hilarious: “They (Bengalis) don’t have the stolid unemotional ability to stick a knife in a man and lean on it. They get hysterical….They fought like women. They pulled each other’s hair……” True indeed and it is not a bad account of the Bengalis for those who know them well! There are many such entertaining observations sprinkled all over the book.
In spite of Nicholas Faust’s attempt to portray himself as a battle-hardened veteran bereft of softer human emotions, South of the Padma betrays his kind heart more than once. The way he rescued a small Bengali girl from a train full of corpses and finally adopted her as his daughter eminently reveals that he is full of the milk of human kindness.
Finally, a few minor slip-ups that came to the notice of this reviewer. ‘Mukti Bahini’ is translated as ‘the free men’ [Page 55]. It literally means ‘liberation army’. Neither ‘thug’ (orig. Hindi thag) nor ‘slum’ (orig. unknown) is an originally Bengali word. The word for the Indian crocodile called ‘mugger’ is not Bengali either, but is derived from the Hindi magar [Page 53].
South of the Padma is Nicholas Faust’s personal memoir that deals with a certain period of his life, years that incidentally came to be associated with a historic event. It is rich in experiences that are topical and for that very reason, readers who are not so familiar with this part of the world and its relatively recent history, may find it somewhat exotic and perhaps alien. But it is a good and edifying read for anyone interested in Bangladesh and its history. It is also a fair personal account of a very significant event in that nation’s life.
[South of the Padma; Nicholas Faust; Amazon Digital Services, inc.; 2013;]