In the context of regional geo-politics, Chittagong Hill Tracts are a strategically important area. In the plush of natural beauty and resources reside many culturally and linguistically diverse communities who have been subjected to state violence for decades now. History of state violence inevitably met with political resistance, even a period of armed struggle. Suhan Rizwan, in his The earth shivers beneath the feet (2019), sketches an account of this complex political reality of CHT, reviews Nahid Riyasad
Whenever there is a humanitarian crisis, let it be in Syria, Palestine or New Zealand, social media is stormed with ‘thoughts and prayers’. Despite the fact that these are incidents happening elsewhere, distant matter to prompt sympathy, raise voice against the wrong or rendering condolences and there is nothing wrong about it. In the context of the very vocal public response, Suhan Rizwan, the author of the novel The earth shivers beneath the feet (পদতলে চমকায় মাটি)raises question of a public silence — how many of us know Matiranga, Longadu or Logang massacre — that took place in Chittagong Hill Tracts in the independent Bangladesh?
Suhan Rizwan’s novel is published in 2019 from Oitijjho Publications. Unique aspect of this novel is it depicts a story encompassing past and future of CHT, struggle of its people and political-economical-cultural turmoil and sufferings of the people. The novel, on the one hand breaks the notion of homogeneous cultural identity of Bangladeshi people and on the other hand, it chisels out stories and history of repression and oppression that different ethnic communities of CHT have been subjected to for years.
The novel creates a square with its story line — a group of urban youths, a football coach who is trying to brush off his past guilt, a Chakma footballer battling with his memories and trying to regain confidence and political history and present condition of CHT. All the incidents are interconnected and interwoven cautiously to make a novel out of it.
Samar Kumar Chakma — the protagonist — is an aspiring footballer from Rangamati. He is spotted by Shamim Azad, a first-division football coach and is brought to play for a Dhaka football club. Samar, throughout his football career, has been playing barefoot and has developed a keen sense of distrust and fear of playing wearing boots. For Suhan, boot is a symbol of state violence and author’s use of metaphor to speak to a complex reality is commendable.
Samar’s father Ratan Chakma, a former member of Shanti Bahini, the armed wing of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti, is mentally unstable and has to be taken care of. During Ratan’s youth, he revolted against Bengali oppressive ruling in the CHT and was brutally tortured by the military.
In Samar’s memory, his father still bears signs of boots on his body, after being stampeded by military. Subsequently, Samar is carrying the same fear and is reluctant to wear boots. This indicates how decades of militarisation of CHT has ruptured the cognitive development of youths and installed fear in them instead of hope.
Shamim Azad, the football coach, who lives with his elder sister, brings Samar to live with him. His sister, though, not very willingly, accepts Samar. However, her character showcases ordinary urban Bengali people’s view of a Jumma person — they are very reluctant to accept a ‘pahari’ person among them.
A rounded character at the end, Shamim’s nephew Arif, studies at University of Dhaka and apparently has little interest in politics. His friend, Himel, contrary to him, is highly capable of lecturing on national and international issues. Himel works for a non-government research organisation and recruits Arif for a project. The duo goes to CHT for a project which serves two purposes for the author. The first, during the forty-five day long field work, they encounter a number of local issues which unravel the highly complex political reality and situation and the second, the field work hands Arif a political epiphany.
A number of storylines from different time frame run simultaneously in this novel. For an unseasoned reader, this might pose an obstacle. The novel encompasses Dhaka club football scenario of present time and its glorious past of 80s and 90s. It shows Samar’s childhood and present career as a professional footballer, as well as his struggle to cope up with urban infrastructure.
Historical accounts of Shanti Bahini’s struggle of the past, as well as present are observed in this novel through the character of a mentally unstable guerilla — Ratan Chakma. Th pre and post-accord political resistance of Jumma people against oppressors (military or everyday Bengali settler land-grabbers) is also elated here. Arif slowly learns tragic political history of the region, a history that is often unspoken. And, it is through his research experience that the author finds ways to bring silenced history to the public domain. Bijay Dewan works as the local resource person for Arif’s research and Himel is conducting. When group of labourers started grabbing stones from an adjacent jhiri to Bijay’s home which might create landslide and drying of jhiri, community’s main water source, locals resist. This infuriates the investors and they send hired goons, mainly Bengali people with couple of Jumma youths to terrorise the locality.
Later on, the goons threat and severely beat a people from the community, igniting resistance force among the people. Locals then organise a protest at the town which is interrupted by the police, in allegation of holding a gathering without authority’s permission. Bijoy, along with five others, end up arrested by the police.
Kalpana Chakma was the organising secretary of Hill Women’s Federation. Six-seven hours prior to the national election of 1996, she was abducted from her home, allegedly by members of Bangladesh military and her whereabouts has been unknown since her abduction. Likeminded people and human rights organisations have protested the incident but no one is charged for her abduction. The entire incident is described meticulous details that send chill waves down the spine.
Accounts of Baghaichari massacre of 1986 where more than 500 indigenous women and children were killed or Logang massacre in 1992 which claimed over 400 lives are described in details. Arif’s experience while visiting a freshly burnt village in Longadu is also written with ethnographic precision.
Tourism sector is turning into one of the major revenue generators for CHT. Arable lands and villages are taken by force displacing local communities, to make tourist spots mainly by direct and indirect involvement of security forces, agencies. This tourism sector, apart from exhibiting the beauty of CHT, is profiteering by objectifying Jumma lives and culture. Moreover, most of the Bengali tourists who go to CHT to rejuvenate in the lush hilly terrains of CHT are unfamiliar with political struggle and people’s condition of the region. Also, this kind of ‘ethnic’ tourism, which is based on exploiting community lands and culture is nothing but an extension of colonial mentality.
As the football league approaches the end, Samar manages to establish himself as an emerging star and is in talks to get a place in national team. He also bags a lucrative contract with his club and now is solvent to financially help the person who is looking after his father. Before the final match of the league, which will decide the trophy — Samar becomes shaky.
Moreover, the burden of expectations from his coach Shamim Azad and his past pulls him back. Samar and his team, none can get a good hold of the final match. As the match progresses, suddenly, Samar gets a chance to score.
Will he be able to score to bag the championship for his team? Will he be able to get over his lack of confidence? Will he be able to forget the boot marks of his father’s body? Will he be able to forget the face of Shantipriya Chakma, who was sexually assaulted by a Bengali settler, whom he secretly loved? Most importantly, will he ever be able to come to terms with playing in boots and get past the history of oppression of Jumma people?
Suhan Rizwan keeps the answer for the last. What can be said about The earth shivers beneath the feet is that this novel is an account of a terrain with its complex political scenario and cultural diversity of people which have been subjected to exploitation by a oppressive Bengali majoritarian state. Time and again.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.
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