Among the final sessions at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival in London were sessions on the Bangladesh war of liberation and Charles Sobhraj, known more widely as The Serpent since the popular BBC TV/Netflix series…
BY Mamie Colfox
BANGLADESH’s ‘Brave Women’ or ‘Biragonas’ were the subject of a hard- hitting session called ‘Bangladesh: Birth of a Nation’.
On the final day of the three-day Jaipur Literature Festival at the British Library in London on Sunday (June 12) two women and one man all with Bangladeshi/Bengali heritage took centre stage.
Fiction and non-fiction translator Arunava Sinha; writer of novel ‘Hellfire’ Leesa Gazi; and economist and photographer Simone Sultana discussed the origins of South Asia’s youngest nation. It passed 50 in 2021.
In the spring of 1971, a full scale war broke out between the Army in what was then East Pakistan and the general Bengali population, which wanted to rule itself and yearned to become an indepenent nation, Bangladesh.
A war of liberation ensued and some women were raped by the Army – as a terrifying tactic to subdue resistance and shame families.
Horrifyingly, the Biragonas were labelled as ‘dishonoured’, or ‘violated women’, and were rejected – “they were shunned for decades by a society where rape is shameful for victims,” Gazi pointed out.
Biragonas, or ‘brave women’ in Bengali, was a title awarded by the Bangladeshi government to women who were violated during the war, whilst an estimated 10 million people fled East Pakistan during the war.
The session was punctuated by personal audience testimony. Sultana’s mother, who was in the audience, witnessed the war before fleeing to England, and she read aloud a moving account her mother had written “of the worry of moving to London to escape violence”.
Sultana is independent director on the board of Alliance for Worker Safety in Bangladesh, and it seeks to protect workers’ rights in Bangladesh as it is the “second largest exporter of garments in the world”.
Gazi’s novel ‘Hellfire’ is based around a family in Bangladesh and deals with themes of generational trauma and follows 40-year-old Lovely and her sister Beauty, as they cope with the lack of freedom given to them by their mother.
Gazi’s father himself was a Bangladeshi Freedom Fighter, and she spoke about the stories she used to hear from him.
“I cherish so many stories I heard from my father,” she recounted.
Nine survivors of the war are the subject of Gazi’s documentary ‘Rising Silence’. They share their stories of war, violence and daily prejudice as they heal. “I wanted to show that these women are someone’s daughters, someone’s mother,” she said.
Dhondy and The Serpent – Charles Sobhraj
Also speaking yesterday was writer Farrukh Dhondy in conversation Sanjoy K Roy about his extraordinary relationship with notorious serial killer Charles Sobhraj, whose fame has exploded in the UK, since the screening of a dramatised version of the criminal’s life was made by the BBC and shown in 2020. Starring Tahar Rahim, it shows how the mixed-race French-Vietnamese Sobhraj, who lived in India for a time, preyed on mostly young European backpacking tourists in South Asia and Thailand in the 1970s. He was convicted of murder and imprisoned in Kathmandu but escaped and was returned and remains imprisoned there.
Dhondy has written ‘Hawk and Hyena: What really happened to the Serpent’ and it charts his contact with a man who was known for both his deadly charm and his capacity for extreme violence.
“I was commissioning editor at the Channel 4 when my secretary told me that Charles Sobhraj was on the phone”, Dhondy said, describing when he first had personal contact with the killer. Sobhraj had written a few memoirs and wanted them published.
Dhondy was always on the other end of the phone for Sobhraj, and Roy asked Dhondy what drew him back to him.
“It was the other way around. He kept calling me for a film to be made,” pointed out Dhondy.
One peculiar request from Sobhraj resulted in Dhondy being asked to send a hot air balloon to Kathmandu prison. “I got a call from jail asking for a hot air balloon to fit in two suitcases. I never worked out why,” joked Dhondy.
During the course of his life, Sobhraj has always had people help him, which is why he managed to escape. When asked why this was, Dhondy speculated: “The power to have control over life and death”.
Sobhraj is in his late 70s and is still serving his life sentence in Kathmandu prison.
Leesa Gazi – Hellfire
Arunava Sinha – Rabindranath Tagore
Farrukh Dhondy – Hawk and Hyena: What really happened to The Serpent