The Boy Refugee is a seminal work, a one of a kind book by Dr. Khawaja Azimuddin, a well-known gastrointestinal surgeon from Houston, Texas. One could ask why this fact is important to mention in a book review, but the answer is clearly within its pages.
This book is non-fiction, one which details a segment of a journey, that of a young boy of about 8 who spends over two years of his life as a Pakistani prisoner of war (POW) along with his family in the town of Roorkee, India. This saga started in the year 1972 following the birth of a new country called Bangladesh (former East Pakistan) in December 1971.
During the year 1947, when the British hurriedly left their partitioned empire, lines were drawn on the basis of religion and two countries namely India and Pakistan came into being. It turned out to be a bloodbath. History repeated itself in 1971 but these timelines were drawn on the basis of language while another country was born out of Pakistan named Bangladesh. Many perished during this time as revenge often overtook reason well into the year 1972.
Khawaja Azimuddin’s minority Urdu-speaking family was on the losing side of the resulting historical events. The regional and global chess players were also in the picture as the movement by the Bengali majority, which gave many sacrifices, achieved its goal of independence with India’s direct military action. And the Urdu speakers in the area, many who preferred a united Pakistan, suddenly became unwanted refugees like Author Azimuddin, in the land of their birth.
“This book is dedicated to refugees all around the world,” states the writer right from the onset.
Sometimes the biggest challenge for non-fiction writers is how to make their book interesting enough for readers. The fact of the matter is that very few books have been written on Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 and its aftermath by those that lost (or from those who were not in any position of influence at that time). And none have been written from this particular viewpoint that of a 10-year-old boy (at the time) who was caught up in one of the furious funnel clouds of history.
This is where the reader will discover a truly unique book. Dr. Azimuddin today is accomplished in many ways and has helped many of his patients in fighting cancer in Houston, Texas. But in this book, he is an innocent kid taking us on a journey from Dhaka (Dacca then) though most of northern India to Roorkee. Through his childhood lens of wonder, we get a look at war, camp life, human relationships, and survival. His parents, siblings, and friends all have a major role in The Boy Refugee, but one cannot forget his “Little Green Suitcase” of notes and memories which one can describe as equally fascinating.
He lets us share his observations through such sentences here: “The Abduls, our house helps, were among the Bengalis. I was quite sad that they had left and without them, I felt very alone in our huge house. I went out to the backyard to play with my pet pigeon, Kabooter. I’d had six pigeons but a few weeks ago, all but one of them had flown away. Perhaps they too had sensed a need to return to their families. Kabooter was the youngest and had stayed behind, he was very attached to me.”
The innocence of youth reveals many truths in the book. The role of the Indian troops in safeguarding some of the Urdu speaking community after the birth of Bangladesh gets some mention: “The Indians knew that if they abandoned them, the Biharis would be killed in masses, and fearing international condemnation, they felt obligated to protect us, at least for the time being. And so, by a twist of fate, our enemy became our savior and protector.”
On the creation of a new country and its aftermath, its real impact on the Biharis can be felt through this work too: “During these days of confusion, no one knew exactly what to do or what would happen next. We knew that East Pakistan was no more and that, we Biharis were not welcome in Bangladesh. But West Pakistan was far away. Essentially, we were stateless.” (A reminder here to our readers that many of these Biharis are still living in refugee camps today in Bangladesh).
There are competing narratives on what really happened in the years 1971-72 in former East Pakistan. There was considerable loss of life as a new country, known today as Bangladesh was born. Parts of this book will not please some large groups, depending on which narrative they adhere to. But we all know that a 10-year-old boy can be as frightfully honest as he wants to be on sharing his observations. Dr. Azimuddin has not written this book from the perspective of any one country. His lens throughout its pages is overtly human and in parts really absorbing.
Ras H. Siddiqui is a South Asian writer and journalist based in Sacramento.