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Sips from a Broken Teacup

By Raihana A Hasan

Ushba Publishing International, Pakistan

ISBN 978-969-9154-18-8

2011.429pp.

 

Sips from a Broken Teacup

Reviewed by

Naeem Sadiq

 

The rattling narrow-gauge Surma train that carried a  young urban bride  to a  far away and  unknown world of  tea plantation   stopped at the deserted    Shamshernagar  Railway Station on a dark wintry night of January 1962.   Little did  the disembarking passenger  know that  her prolific and perceptive mind  was already capturing the  first outlines of  what was to appear in the form of  a book some fifty years later.    Raihana Hasan  could not have chosen a more  thoughtful,  apt and  immaculate  title for her captivating  book, ‘Sips from a Broken Teacup’.  Each word  depicting  delicately woven themes that stretch from  reminiscence of  life as a tea planter’s wife to the  traumatic  events that preceded the break-up of Pakistan and finally the drama and the ordeal as the author and her family escape  from then East to West Pakistan.

 

‘Sips from a Broken Teacup’  shows  tell-tale signs of a meticulous and  devoted   diary writer   who has the skills and passion to effortlessly describe  each day’s  events, feelings and observations.   The author’s ability to zoom-in on the smallest intricate detail of life and yet be equally sensitive and cognizant of  the larger social and political happenings is truly exceptional. The book is divided into five main sections.  The first two cover the period between January 1962 to December 1970 and deal primarily with the life and the   life style  at the Allynugger tea estate some fifty years ago.   The book is distinctively informative in describing the history of tea, the anatomy of tea estates, the plucking and planting and the  shades and colours that abound a tea garden.  The author gives a warm personal touch as she describes the men and women who lived and worked in the tea estate. The  colonial life style  of  those  who owned and managed the tea estates stands out in great contrast to those who actually labored,   planted or  plucked the tea. The author is clearly perceptive, sensitive and sympathetic to the latter.

 

 

The last three sections of the book describe the rapidly unfolding events from January to May 1971.  The  leisure, serenity and harmony of  life at the tea garden giving way to the  suspicion, prejudice and hatred of many who never spoke this language before.  West Pakistan’s  exploitative policies and arrogance over a long period of time  had bred  discontent and anger amongst the Bengalis. There were reports of atrocities committed by West Pakistani army over unarmed Bengali civilians. Some of these stories were true but many were exaggerated to whip up the emotions for a larger struggle. Individual anger  gave way to mob hysteria,   hatred transformed into   acts of savagery and the struggle for rights became a militant war of liberation.  Life was no longer the same at the tea gardens. The raids, murders  and killing of  West Pakistanis by armed ‘Mukti Bahini’ gangs became the order of the day, and the tea gardens could no longer remain an exception to these threats.   When things became so bad that  death seemed only a matter of hours and not days away, the  Hasan family (the author, her husband and their two small children) decided to escape to India.   Slogging  under the cover of darkness through  uneven terrain, water, bushes, shrubs and ravines,  they undertook a nightmarish journey that could well be a suitable sequel  to “the great escape”.

 

‘Sips from a Broken Teacup’  would disappoint those who are looking at it to discover yet more stories of atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army or accounts of passive  innocence on the part of Bengali citizens. The book does not take any sides nor does it claim to be  an authentic know-all account of everything that transpired in those intensely trying  years.  It does not attempt to convince or convert the reader to any one point of view.    It is essentially a true story of life and events as experienced, seen, felt and narrated by a planter’s wife.  The accurate details and observations described in this book owe their substance  to the   hundreds of letters that the author regularly wrote to her family in Karachi between 1962 and 1970.  These stories revolve around the activities, loyalties, friendships, hatred and prejudices  of  the people who  were  an inextricable part of everyday life of the tea garden.  They  are a pleasure to read and also provide a fascinating insight into   the character of a tea garden and its people.

 

 

‘Sips from a Broken Teacup’ while not intended to be a book either on politics or on history of the division of Pakistan provides a significant and much less acknowledged view of the ‘other side’ of the story.    While it   deeply acknowledges  the exceptional  humanity  shown by  many Bengalis,  it also narrates how a large majority indulged in ruthless killing of thousands of innocent ordinary people merely because they happened to be  West Pakistanis.   The pattern of madness and savagery  at the people-to-people level described in this book could perhaps   find its parallel only  in the  communal killings of 1947   partition.  The author also highlights the  covert  intervention of the Indian army  and its direct cross-border support to the Mukti Bahini –   issues hugely  underplayed by the world media.   Thus the book provides significant new information and experience to suggest  the fallacy  of the generally accepted ‘uni-villain’ theory.      ‘Sips from a Broken Teacup’  written half a century later is an important first-hand account that also describes the other villains of this saga; a saga that need not have involved such anguish, pain and human suffering.

 

Did a half century succeed in healing the wounds and providing a better perspective to the events of 1971.   The author seems to be concluding at an affirmative note.  While most of the planters who played a role  in this story are no more, the few who are alive have managed to touch base with one another.  They  now  often share a sober and friendly  reminiscence of  the happy  times they spent at the tea gardens.  The hysteric  irrationality and the bitterness of the past slowly but surely melting away.

 

 

11 September, 2011