Sumana Roy

Drowning: 16 December, 1971

‘Yahya Khan drowned the two-nation theory.’

Tikka Khan(1), we only went looking
into the water to stare
at ourselves in a mirror.
It’d been long since
someone had looked
at us. Wet claps. Glare.
Butcher of Bengal,
as if we care!

Its holy emptiness,
its calm siege,
its comforting resilience,
its picket fences neutrality –
these are all your gifts, Padma.(2)

‘Men kill in hundreds,
women hunt in pairs.’
First Bhola(3), then Yahya(4)
death’s laissez faire. 

The awkward smoothness
of a nascent nation’s dreams
is a lizard’s tail.
Loss is a wound up future,
four legged river,
a zoo of our wedded fantasies.

Water is a colloquial
we’ll learn shorthand.
Mukti Bahini(5) – they’ll take us
to our constellation,
to hallucination-land.

Drowning fails all grammar.
A language country’s corpses
perspire in the Padma.
The holocaust of rain,
the illiteracy of death,
and Mori hai, hai re, O Ma(6)...

(1) Tikka Khan, the first Chief of Army staff in the Pakistan army, was called the ‘Butcher of Bengal’ for his ruthlessness against East Bengali freedom fighters.
(2) Padma is the name of a trans-boundary river in Bangladesh that is also a distributary of the Ganges.
(3) Bhola cyclone struck East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and West Bengal in November 1970 resulting in the loss of more than 500,000 human lives.
(4) Yahya Khan was the third President of Pakistan and its military dictator from 1969 till 16th December 1971.
(5) Mukti Bahini, meaning the ‘Liberation Army’, were East Bengali freedom fighters who fought against the Pakistan army in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.
(6) ‘Mori hai, hai re, O Ma’ is a line from the national anthem of Bangladesh. ‘I die, o mother’ expresses the feeling of being overwhelmed by the aroma of the mango orchards in the country.

Drowning’s Antonym: 21 February, 2013
Freedom is its own trauma –
its opposite a resident ghost in the contract.
Invisible but breathing, its godown of horrors.

But Shahbag was only a parking depot, not cemetery.
Now there are only half-torn parking tickets.

Death survives everything,
its archive full of flags, skulls and safety pins.
Every Falgoon, man must become smoke –
lose feet, rise to the sky, become wireless, turn into news.
History’s lessons are slush piles.
And yet one remembers antonyms.
That the opposite –
of white is a cotton plantation in new America,
of raised hands is a guillotine in old France,
of calm is a palace in Kathmandu.
That the antonym of drowning
should be #shabagh on Twitter. Mouth-to-Mouth.
Hashtags flood my screen:
#Warcrimes, #Bangladesh, #Jamaat-e-Islami.
The dirt from my left ear loosens in late consolation.
I hear better. The air feels like antacid.
My aunt would have been sixty this year.
Retirement age. She who chose water to blood.
On my computer screen, there’s fire on the faces of men.
I suddenly spot a friend I’ve never met – he wrote punchlines.
Is this what he looks like when he’s angry for others?
And then my dead aunt, a ghost and yet not a stranger,
her mouth spouting ammunition – an eye for an eye,
death for death, men without heads. Genocide.
My aunt, who had no English, who chose to drown
because she was scared of blood.
Death is an arrow she releases from her mouth.
I close my eyes to stop it coming my way.

These days, revolution is always on evening TV.
My father, happy immigrant, revs up the volume.
His curiosity is as old as his age – five days older than ‘India’.
Ma looks at him looking for his cousin, for justice delayed.
‘I could have been them,’ he says,
pointing to the thalamus of heads inside the TV.
There’s a commercial break.
‘Or them,’ he annotates later, his finger limp,
pointing to dead men on posters.

Black and white televisions were better, my mother says.

Power cuts are not what they used to be.

Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal. She is at

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