Vortex: Bhola cyclone saga that changed Bangladesh's history
How much power does a piece of literature or film possess?
The answer is found during the legendary scene of Pather Panchali, the magnum opus of Satayajit Ray, one of greatest auteur directors. Sarbajaya, the mother of the deceased little girl Durga, failed to convey the news of her demise to her father Harihar who returned home with gifts following a profitable venture.
Satyajit and Ravi Shankar, the maestro of Indian classical music, harnessed the immense power of creativity to create the scene where it is seen Sarbajaya burst into tears but remaining mute and her excruciating agony is conveyed to the viewers through the background score of Shankar. The scene, however times one observes, cannot help every time cry as tears fall through the cheeks and the heart bleed with the sharp dagger like strike of unworldly anguish.
What is the relationship of the finest Bangla movie and a recently written book titled "The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation."? What is the resemblance with Sarbajaya and Mohammad Hai, an unfortunate man of Manpura, the remote island of Bhola in Bangladesh?
And more importantly why should everybody read the book that describes one of the greatest humanitarian crises in history and its consequences that brought even greater chapters in the annals of Bangladesh?
On 11 November, 52 years ago, Bhola was struck by a powerful storm that took the lives of around half a million people and inflicted unimaginable damage. But the future result, as mentioned, was even more dramatic. The national election of Pakistan was due in 25 days and despite the catastrophe it took place as per schedule.
The ever-deprived people of East Pakistan with sheer anger and frustration found out that the lives of their fellow countrymen meant nothing to the rulers of West Pakistan and the negligence of supporting the hapless people of Bhola stumped the claim.
As a result, the whole nation got united, they effaced whatever doubt they had about the Panjabis and made sure Sheikh Mujibur Rahman-led Awami League gained a landslide majority. As they say, the rest is history.
Yahya Khan, the president, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the leader of Pakistan People’s Party, that expected to win the election and keep the Punjabi hegemony throughout Pakistan, and other Punjabi leaders reacted the defeat in the most heinous way. They attacked the hapless civilians, killed around three million people in one of the most horrendous genocides.
Everyone knows the story. But as said in the beginning, the power of literature is it invokes the deepest of feelings, excavates the profoundest of facts that brings out all possible human feelings like grief, agony, despair, happiness, hope, empathy and so forth.
Writers Scott Carney and Jason Miklian have exactly done so. From the very beginning they knitted the story in the most astonishing manner that reminds one of the artwork of Ray and Shankar. Their description is lucid, language is fluid and crafty and most importantly it intrigues the readers throughout.
They describe the true stories like brilliant fiction and many short chapters were told with the point of views from a giant like Yahya to Candy Rohde, an astonishing young American, to Mohammad Hai, a young man of Bhola who lost all the members of his family except his lucky father who was somehow away from home during the apocalypse.
And, whoever reads the moment of the union between these two, may remember the scene of Pather Panchali. Hai, still busy burying his villagers, met his father, who was still unaware about the harrowing fate of his family members, with a glee but the very next moment his suppressed emotion came out like an avalanche. The reader, with tears flowing, envisages the most unbearable tragedy. And one may even listen to the Sankar’s depressing melody hitting inside the head.
Carney, the author of the bestseller "What Doesn’t Kill Us," and Miklian, an assistant professor at the University of Oslo, said they took two hundred interviews, multiple sources in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, the US, the UK, South Africa and elsewhere.
They talked with cyclone survivors, freedom fighters, members of Pakistan military, historians, scientists, policy makers, hotel employees, TV broadcasters, climate experts and many others regarding the matter.
And their deep research is evident in the narrative nonfiction that they composed like an unputdownable novel. For us, the familiar setup and recall of our own history has made it even more enthralling.
And our emotion floats from one end to another. People like Candy, who single handedly formed a huge organisation called HELP (Hatiya Emergency Life Saving Project) gives us tremendous hope. We feel gratitude to her and her amazing husband Jon, who stayed with her throughout.
We learn the story of Hafiz Uddin Ahmed, a star footballer turned army man and Neil Frank, a passionate American weatherman, among many others.
The authors composed the narratives of war, politics, the likes of Yahya, Nixon, Mujib with great eloquence but at the same time also knitted the story of people like Hai, his friend Malik Mahmud and other laypeople with care. That juxtaposition creates a lucid flow.
We came to know that even the crisis could be evaded had Pakistani rulers showed even slightest of care. A minimal warning could save hundreds of thousands of lives. Even the erstwhile technology was adequate enough to save most of the lives. It was a big lesson that politics and human decisions are still paramount using the technology as the latter alone can do nothing.
"Bhola won’t remain just a lesson from the distant past," the authors write. "It’s a harbinger of our future."
And as Rabindranath Tagore said, we must know our past to shape our future. On the anniversary of one of our greatest tragedies, we must once again remind ourselves of that sage.