The people’s war

September 16, 2009

Tahmina Shafique writes about the exhibition in London that records and retells the birth of Bangladesh and the images that bring to life the resilence and melancholy of people during 1971

Those who have lived through the war of independence in 1971, speak of it with tears of pride and inexplicable melancholy. Often, they struggle to fight back tears and find words that would perhaps justify the depths of the movement- the depth of the extraordinary power, resilence and belief of the people.

More often than not, they say, words fail to do justice- to the desperation, to the strength, to the struggles, the desperate cries, the haunting memories, the images, the bloodsheds and more.

True, words fail to justify even the bloodiest war of the twentieth century. And more often, words seem to die and with that a part of history seems to fade. So has the history of 1971 in so many ways. Even though the war stands till date as the worst genocide of World War II era – the number of deaths being well into seven figures, outstripping Rwanda (800,000 killed) and probably surpassing even Indonesia (1 million to 1.5 million killed in 1965-66), it remains to be a largely unacknowledged event in the history of the world.

The larger part of the world population seem to have very little knowledge and awareness concerning the campaign of violence on the part of the Pakistani army as the Bengali people of the then East Pakistan sought to achieve political sovereignty.

Thirty seven years on, the war remains to be a contested issue- those who had seen the war continue to fight to pass on the true stories to the next generation and at the same time fight between emotional and psychological intensity that the war left within them.

In the past 37 years, so much has been written, so much told, yet it is felt that none of it could bring to the life the true images of the war, none of it could justify what this people’s war meant.

Yet, amidst these, photographs speak the tale of the war that time may have forgotten. It is also true that war photographs remain to be powerful in history- because of the intensity – both emotional and physical that it portrays, but also perhaps the photographs of 1971 stand out for several other reasons. More than anything else, the photographers seem to stand out for the one fact that it was the people’s war- not the armies- but people- farmers, villagers, man, woman and child.

This month as an exhibition titled ‘Bangladesh 1971’ takes place at the Rivington Place public gallery in Shoreditch, East London, they retell the tale of the war visually, bringing back painful memories to Bangladeshis and leaving others in awe. These photographs of the war taken in 1971 bring to life the very images of the beginning of a dream- the movement of people and the birth of Bangladesh.

In this exhibition, most were amateur photographers at that time, men who just happened to hold a camera when they found themselves caught up in the war. For almost two decades, Shahidul Alam – director of the Drik, the photography Library in Dhaka and a curator of the current exhibition along with Mark Sealy, director of photographic agency Autograph ABP – went beyond the struggle to justify the war with words and collected these photos, visiting the photographers in their homes and saving their negatives.

These images taken by these accidental archivists, 37 years later have gone on to become an intimate, reflexive portrait of the war, ranging from photographs that are well known to others that have never been seen in public.

The exhibition consists of more than 100 images organised in loose chronology that begins with the first resistance of the Bengalis, to the Pakistani occupation. The exhibition portrays some powerful images. The spirit and resilience of 1969-70, when war was imminent is captured most powerfully by Rashid Talukdar’s image of a ten-year-old bare feet boy, leading a street march and shouting ecstatically and leading the group.

The collection includes many iconic images of war: Abdul Hamid Raihan’s image of two children staring into the distance, a carpet of missiles scattered at their feet; Mohammed Shafi’s portrait of a freedom fighter – a boy who could be from anywhere – reveals a young man’s fear despite his attempt at studied resolve. Other images depict the horror and the haunting night mares that many speak of till date.

On the night of December 14, knowing they were about to lose the war, the Pakistani army and its local paramilitary allies massacred the future doctors, teachers, lawyers, and writers of Bangladesh in an effort to cripple the new nation. The bodies were not found until after independence, when a mass grave was discovered in the city. The exhibition includes a powerful image of this massacre- a ghostlike face surrounded by submerged bricks and covered in a thin sheen of mud.

Bangladesh 1971 also showcases the many portraits of the slaughter. A photograph shows a uniformed man circled by a large crowd, stabbing a civilian with a bayonet; the caption tells us that it is not a Pakistani soldier but a Bengali one, attacking a local man who has collaborated with the army, is outstanding. According to reports, at Alam’s first exhibition of war photos in Bangladesh, the government had requested that he removed this image, in which the roles of victim and perpetrator are reversed. His refusal led to the exhibition being shown at a private gallery rather than at the National Museum.

It is here that Alam is most successful in bringing the untold tales of the war and the complexities of the many roles played. The exhibition in all, documents the political story, the landslide election victory of Sheikh Mujib, the betrayals by collaborators, the massacre of intellectuals two days before the surrender of the Pakistani forces – and at the same time it reveals other stories- some untold, some silent.

Walking out in the newly liberated town of Mymensingh, the photographer Naib Uddin Ahmed had come across woman who had been raped and tortured by the Pakistani army: his picture of a woman covering her face with her hair bears witness to the contradictory state policy regarding such women and the powerful image seems to speak louder than words.

Another powerful image that showcases women’s struggle and their actions in the war is the image of women preparing for battle prior to the crackdown of March 25, 1971. The exhibition includes many more photographs- idyllic image of two women wading through a pond with a basket of flowers, carrying grenades covered with water hyacinth- show the strong role played by women. The countless images, a visual testament to the trauma and hope of independence.

Some of the photographers were also of actual freedom fighters, like Mohammad Shafi, whose diaries, buried underground and recovered after the war, are the only non-photographic artefacts on display. Alam characterises these Bangladeshi photographers as freedom fighters for the huge personal risks they took to preserve the only ‘physical documentation of this war’.

As Bangladesh 1971, a visual journey into the birth of Bangladesh brings to life the memories to many and awes the rest, thousands of miles away from home, in many ways at an important political time such as this, important questions once again appear and linger on- have we as a nation paid respect to those who fought for independence? Are we still fighting another fight?



Leave me a few good songs, take the rest

September 14, 2009

I need a week to pack up
or maybe more.
Could you do my work for this week?

I gotta dig a hole to keep
to keep too many things
your box would probably not suffice
nor would your biggest suit case
there are way too many moments we gotta wrap up tonight
too many moments to pack and lock away my friend
You can Keep them all for me, just leave me a few good songs.

Exactly, there are too many moments
Should we start packing them all? or should I just leave them in the attic?
Too many moments – too many little things and big ones
and none at all
too many first times
Too many aches, and too many scars

Too many words too, would you not say?
Chew them, and your jaws will start to rust
Swallow them and they would be too much to take in

Where do we keep them?
How do we keep away?
keep away from memories
Keep away from lonliness
Keep away from the scars that remain?

There are too many voices, too many silent screams
screaming at you. you just left too many shades of blue
or may be black
clean your own part, clean that dirt
why leave too many on this floor?
Why would you not bother?

Clean this surface
Clean that attic of mine
pack those things lying around
pack up the smell too,
the rotten smell of the many bitter memories
pack the good ones too

Take everything, just leave me a few good songs though
for now. forever.
forever is too long to hold you by
but those good songs of you and I will suffice
would you not say?

I am digging deeper
lets bid farewell to the many moments
to the broken promises, disappointments, bitter memories
to that screaming silence and you?



July 18, 2009

I think about writing every other day. about the little somethings that sometimes slip away, and nothing at all. clearly i never get around to do that.

Some days just pass too fast and I want there to be more hours in a day- to complete the neverending to-do lists, to breathe, to relax and ponder. and there are somedays like today, when i keep checking the time and it seems to stand still. Weekends are blissful most of the times. Except the Friday evening classes and make-up classes on saturdays and work that comes up once in a while.

In the past few months, I have been searching for answers, trying to figure out things- both about myself and others around me. Often, i lose track of time. of conversations. of patterns. I just phase out. my brain cells seem to shut down by evening, and i begin to ponder. at other days, i just keep thinking about 150 things at the same time. keep questioning, keep searching, keep exploring.

Sometimes, I just stand still and feel this would the moment that I would know the answers. to all those jumbled up puzzles and questions. but, that does not happen.

I am still searching. still trying to figure out the answers. there is no gurantee on anything. but i seem to seek gurantees, and assurance. not just for a specific time period, but for as long as i may be alive. that does not happen for products, does it? how would it happen to other things?


the ‘D’ tag

July 18, 2009

She was always very particular about things. Her own wedding, obviously was not an exception. she focused on each and every detail- the colour of the flowers, the candles, the sarees, the costumes of the dancers, the dance steps, the mehendi design- name it. It was a grand wedding. The kind every girl possibly dreams of- lights, candles, flowers, sparks. a fairytale wedding.

Two years later, she sits at a crowded restaurant joking about her friend who met the (fat) girl of his dreams at her wedding while the girl was dancing. The irony was that as we spoke of the (fat) dream girl, she was sitting at the other end of the restaurant with her friend. We keep our voices low and laugh about how the friend is still with this girl! ‘Yeah, how funny! My marriage fell apart just like that and look they are still together,’ she says laughing and looking away.

She does this a lot. Laughs it off as though it does not hurt anymore. as though she is immune to any kind of pain. i would not blame her if that was true though. she has had to swallow so much. its sometimes unbelievable. and at others, just scary.

This friend stayed in an abusive marriage for two years and did everything she could. But why? She is beautiful, educated, confident and eligible in every possible way. ‘It was a marriage. You just cannot walk away like that – there is the family and the society to answer.’

So, she did stay on in this marriage, with a man who married her as part of his obligations to his parents (yes, you can play with someone’s life just like that) and took her to the US and continued his relationship with his girlfriend, right before his wife’s eyes. and at the end, just kicked her out of his life, because he could not stand her voice, or her presence.

Did this man’s parents stand and say this was wrong?No, they didn’t. Why would they? They can blame it on her. Maybe she was not patient enough, or good enough, or perhaps too short, no? And our wonderful society followed their voice, and had a blast talking about her.

Her’s is not an isolated case sadly. There are so many more.  Just among a single group of friends, there are six divorcees i know. Tanu has been living through the worst nightmares ever. Five years on, she still sometimes struggles to fight back tears when she speaks of her abusive marriage and divorce. Ridita still swallows everything that the society has to say to her because she is a young, single mother. There is always someone or other, (even the closest people) who remind her she is “different” because it is her “fault” that she is divorced with a child at 26. Nadia is back in Dhaka and she is still dreading it- the society will not spare her at all.

Each of one of these women and countless others have a story to tell. There are those who speak of stories of abuse that they kept hiding for years, until it was enough. and there are these younger women, who are stepping out of marriages as they become nightmares. It takes a lot of courage. a lot of strength to start new. Even after these women pick up the pieces and try to move on, there are always people to pull them back.

The rate of divorces have certainly gone up- at least among the urban middle class families. Putting aside the fact that it is undesireable and indeed a painful experience to go through, it does indicate the fact that women/men are aware of their rights, and have the courage to walk out of marriages, instead of keeping silent forever in an unhappy marriage.

This group is clearly a minor group in the larger society that is still undergoing a transition. The growing numbers of divorce rates do indicate that the stigma associated with the word ‘divorce’ is slowly starting to peel. Families are slowly being supportive, although the numbers are still very low.

Even if there is that family support, there is still the rest of the society that is up on their heels to talk. to analyize the situation. and start the blame game. and mind you, it is always and invariably the woman’s fault- She could have been patient, she was just a rude person, she was too fast, she had to many guy friends, she was just not goodlooking enugh, she needed to be able to know how to keep her man, she did not try enough, so big deal if the man was sleeping with someone? she could compromise for her family or her kids, how hard is it to stay?

Surprisingly, most people who do make these statements are women themselves. I do often wonder. When we do speak of women’s rights and liberation, and the inherent need for the men to realise that it is time for change, do we realise that there is a huge chunk of women who need to help these women too. If women are the once demeaning other women, where do you find the strength to carry on?

Look around you- at home, workplace, get togethers and any where, it is women who are often making other women’s lives miserable. This past week, one of my ‘so-called’ friend comes up to me and whispers about this friend who went through a terrible divorce. ‘She could have compromised a little, couldn’t she? She is a woman afterall. it’s a marriage for the love of God! Is she nuts? who is going to marry her?’

And this is coming from a so-called educated young woman, who presumably believes in equality and works in an international agency. really. my friend, yes she could have compromised just a bit more. really she could have kept silent and be unhappy for the rest of her life. but would you do the same, had you been in her shoes?

Perhaps not. or maybe you too, would have remained silent like countless others and not do justice to your own life.

*names mentioned here have been changed.


writing again

April 18, 2009

I have been planning on writing on this blog for a whole now. But, procrastination, in my case, has not led to anything beneficial.

I have often considered being a regular blogger, write a post everyday, on anything random- on work, on the little somethings and nothing at all. One of the issues I faced, the very few times, I got around to start writing something was, do bloggers have a private space? Maybe yes, or maybe no.

A friend once, gave a very logical explaination- why write them on a blog, if you want them to be private? write a diary instead and keep it to yourself. But, maybe people do find peace or some form of consolation in writing about their trying days, about their challenges, about their never ending complaints or the like- maybe the idea of people, unknown and far away, reading and understanding, matters. Maybe, when the loved ones fail to understand, strangers do. I do not have the answers yet. But, I would like to give it try again.

My writings till date have been features, as the readers will note- mostly human rights, education and other issues,published in New Age, the National Newspaper, in Bangladesh. This blog started with the idea of posting my published work- stories that I had felt passionately about. Few years later, I moved to a consultancy firm, which I must admit was a tough call. I dreamt upto being a journalist- but that didn’t seem to be financially viable.

Like everyone else, I had to move on and like they say, sell my soul to the corporate world. Writing as a result, has taken a back seat. I do contribute occasionally, but there is nothing like staying up all night to meet weekly deadlines to file stories, or exploring around to unfold a story!

My friends, who have always said I am a wonderful writer and that I should never stop writing, also admitted that I only write well about thing I care about or feel passionately about.

To myself, writing has always been a space where I find myself. where I have found peace.

and that is a good enough reason to start over, wouldn’t you say? I have not done real time blogging, but here is a start.


Talking Gender Parity

March 19, 2009

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Tahmina Shafique recaps the steep climb for women’s rights in Bangladesh, starting from the initiation of the National Women’s Development Policy in 1997 and the follow up, or lack thereof

photo by Al-Emrun Garjon

Like every year, this month we will be celebrating International Woman’s Day across the world. This is presumably the day when women on all continents, despite differences of class, ethnicity, culture and economy come together to celebrate their day. It is a day to reflect back to a tradition that represents at least nine decades of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development.

It is in this very month that once again the fact dawns that Women’s Day, in a country such as Bangladesh that is structured and characterised by patriarchy, is till date a singular attempt to recognise the fundamental right of a woman and the need for change in our inherent social norms that further isolate a woman from her right to protection, freedom and decision making.

Yet again, Bangladeshi women find themselves sifting through the tales of many movements, protests and struggles.

According to a recent survey report released by Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), a human rights organisation based in Dhaka, violence against women claimed 518 lives across the country last year. Of the victims, 172 women were killed over dowry and 246 in domestic violence while 83 killed after rape. The list also includes 17 female domestic helps.

Besides that, 367 more women were raped and eight of them committed suicide during the one-year period. Two domestic helps also committed suicide. Twenty women fell victim to fatwas (religious edict).

The report points out that a total of 168 people were killed in shootouts with the law enforcers and 68 people died in the police and jail custody in 2008.

Add to this, according to a study undertaken by the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Diseases and Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR,B), about 60 per cent of women of reproductive age (15-49 years) have been physically or sexually abused during their lifetimes. The finding was based on a survey of over 3,130 women.

These statistics are sheer reflections of the struggles that Bangladeshi women face in several spheres. It is here, that important questions begin to appear. In a nation where violence against women is a major issue and where a large segment of the women fight for their basic minimum rights, let alone any other, one cannot help but wonder as to why the state does not step up. Why is the much talked about National Women’s Development Policy yet to be implemented?

‘We really need to have the policy implemented,’ says Ayesha Khanam, president, Mahila Parishad. ‘How much longer are we going to wait?’

In the election manifesto of the Awami League, there was great emphasis on working for women empowerment. The manifesto read, ‘In order to ensure women’s empowerment and equality in rights and opportunities, the Women Development Policy formulated by Awami League in 1997 will be revived. The number of reserved seats for women by direct election in the Parliament will be increased to 100. Necessary measures will be taken for appointment of women in senior posts in the administration and in all spheres of employment. Strictest legal measures will be taken to stop oppression of women. Discriminatory laws against the interest of women will be rectified.’

Over a month after AL has assumed its seat, we are yet to see any concrete steps being taken. This past month, several women’s right organisations including Bangladesh Mahila Parishad demanded the immediate implementation of the National Women’s Development Policy of 1997.

The policy needs to be implemented urgently and immediately and this should have been on the top of the present government’s mandate, say women activists. There is a reason for this sense of urgency.

In the past one decade, there has been the constant struggle of women rights groups to voice these very rights that are still confronted with the most medieval of customs, constraints and abuses. Although the movement has made great strides in several ways, in adopting a global perspective on women’s issues, and translating and adapting that perspective into ground level reality, they continue to struggle on certain issues. Despite all that has been achieved, gender parity is still a distant milepost, because of a specific, political, anti-women agenda of the day – which is narrow and regressive, say experts.

More importantly the sense of urgency comes due to the sheer challenge that has been seen in implementing this policy that has been due for over a decade now.

The long cycle

The National Women’s Development Policy in Bangladesh dates back to 1997, which was the result of long struggle of women’s movement in Bangladesh which indicated equal status and sharing of power for women in written document.

‘It was one of the major successes of our time, to introduce such a policy where major issues such as women’s reproductive rights and equal inheritance rights and more were included,’ points out Dipu Moni, foreign minister, also secretary, Women’s Affairs, Awami League and a lawyer and public health expert.

The original policy was formulated in 1997, following the United Nation’s Beijing Women’s Conference, directly involving activists and thinkers in the process. The policy adopted by the AL-led government in 1997 said that steps would be taken to provide women with ‘equal opportunities and share of resources, employment, market and businesses’. Underlining the importance of ‘economic empowerment of women’, the 1997 policy stressed their ‘full opportunity of owning and equal right over controlling property, earned through better health, education, training, lifelong education, vocational/technical training, information, employment opportunities, inheritance, resources, credit facilities and market management and their right to land’. The policy also stressed the need of ‘enacting fresh laws required to put these rights into practice’.

The 1997 policy had 104 principles, grouped into 14 areas of concern. While the policy was an eye-opener, and in several ways a landmark in the form of a written document, the government failed to implement it.

In May 2004, the BNP-led government’s policy, adopted the policy – almost a duplicate of the one adopted by the government of the Awami League in March 1997. ‘But while copying it, they deliberately changed, as well as dropped, certain words, phrases and paragraphs, making the policy document much worse, undermining some democratic responsibilities of the state to empower women, particularly in terms of ensuring equal political, economic and other material rights,’ says Ayesha.

In addition the 2004 policy adopted by the BNP-led government dropped the idea of providing women with ‘share of resources’, let alone equal share. Furthermore, the idea of women acquiring property through ‘inheritance’ on the one hand and the ‘right to land’ on the other was excluded.

The 1997 policy clearly valued the role of the women’s rights movement and NGOs. While sidetracking this issue, the new policy had also dropped the principle of inspiring these two groups of actors to take up campaigns for encouraging women’s participation in politics. On violence against women, the 1997 policy expressed concern about state or police violence and community edicts subjecting women to public lashing, stoning, even burning to death. The 2004 policy did away with all of this.

The 1997 policy also highlighted ‘induction of a significant number of women in the cabinet, the highest decision-making forum (of the government), under the relevant articles of the constitution, if necessary’. The 2004 policy diluted the need for inducting ‘a significant number of women’, particularly in the cabinet, by technically re-phrasing the sentence. It opted for induction of ‘a significant number of women’ in the decision-making bodies ‘at all levels’, ignoring the importance of the presence of more women in the cabinet.

Finally, last year, in 2008, the policy the military-controlled interim government tabled the National Women’s Development Policy (NWDP) 2008, but with that important questions were raised as to why the content of the policy had omissions and lacked clear and detailed issues that needed to be considered. Above that, the recent outrage of religious clerics and different Islamist radical groups, have given rise to suspicions of political machinations, say some women rights activists. The policy was attacked in processions and protests by a section of the Islamist groups. Several thousand activists of different Islamist outfits staged demonstrations protesting the policy and demanding its immediate withdrawal.

‘The policy brings to life some actions and beliefs of the state,’ points out Farida Akhter, a women’s rights activist and head of Nari Grantha Prabartana, a Dhaka-based NGO. ‘When we had protests on the streets by women, police chose to hit women and stop them. Yet when other groups, who are undoubtedly anti-women rights, came on the streets giving religious excuses in 2008, we saw the state defending itself, justifying its steps, giving explanations to anti-women rights groups. What does that reflect?’ she asks.

About time

Experts agree that the 1997 policy introduced by AL by far, among all the others introduced the best reflections of issues to be addressed. As the manifesto of the present government suggests, it is expected that the policy will be implemented. But at the same time, it is important to note that after 11 long years, the policy needs to have further progress in terms of empowerment in education, jobs and more. As the manifesto points out, seats for women would be increased to 100, indeed a laudable step, if implemented, given the decade-long fight of women for this significant political right.

Needless, to say that the challenge for the present government comes in several folds. For one, it is likely that given that the 1997 policy is followed without the omissions made, it is a test for this government to fight through the expected chaos and protests by religious groups – specifically in case of equal property rights.

‘Through this new law they want to teach us what we know and practice before them,’ said Mohammad Kamaruzzaman, assistant general secretary, Jamaat-e-Islami. ‘Is there equality between man and man in society? Some men are rich and some have nothing, so where is equality? The idea of equality is vague, what we can do is to reduce the existing difference between man and woman. This step has been against Islam and all of the recent actions show that politically the state wants to show that we are not for women’s right but the truth is Islam does ensure women’s rights.’

According to the constitution of Bangladesh, section 19, Equality of opportunity, sub clause 2, it is stated clearly that ‘The State shall adopt effective measures to remove social and economic inequality between man and man and to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth among citizens, and of opportunities in order to attain a uniform level of economic development throughout the Republic’.

The constitution clearly says any law inconsistent with the equality rights will become void. The government can discard religion-based personal laws. Instead it is regularly stated that discriminatory laws in inheritance, rights in marriage or divorce cannot be touched because that would hurt religious sentiments. ‘Personal values in religions are always applicable, but that does not mean that we cannot have a state policy that supports equality in all spheres,’ states Ayesha.

It is here that formulation of uniform family code becomes significant. ‘Women in different religions get different shares of properties – equal in some religions and less in others. Our demand was to formulate a uniform family code giving women equal rights. The issue was not made clear in the policy,’ said Sultana Kamal.

A Uniform Family Code is still a far cry, believe women activists, yet it is not impossible.

To challenge personal laws is to go against religion and challenge the constitution of Bangladesh, which declares Islam as the state religion, which will be the basis of all actions. While many Muslim countries have ratified CEDAW and included Uniform Family Code, it is yet to be widespread. With this government, it is hoped that that there will be the courage to break tradition.

The choices for this government remain quite clear. With over a decade of rule with two women as the head of the state, it is not too much to ask that the policy be taken a close look at, in the current context and implement what has been the right of women in Bangladesh.



‘Even before I could speak, I was humming’

March 5, 2009

Celebrated singer and thespian Shimul Yousuff turned fifty this week. In a moving interview with Tahmina Shafique, she talks about her childhood and a death that will haunt her forever

photo by Al-Emrun Garjon

This week Shimul Yousuff, the stage performer, is celebrating her fiftieth birthday and a career that has spanned forty-five years. She is renowned for her versatility as an actress and singer, and is famed for her appearances in plays such as Binodini, Moner Kalindi, and Shukhoni and for her screen performances in Ekatturer Jishu, Agami and Ghuddi. However, despite her numerous successes and awards, she tells me that it was the death of her brother-in-law, the music composer Altaf Mahmood in the Liberation War, that stands out as the most abiding and powerful memory of her life.

Shimul was nine when Altaf married her sister, and he immediately became more like a father to her, as well as a guru and a close friend. She was present when he was caught and tortured by the Pakistani army in 1971 and the incident has shaped the rest of her life. Although she has been left with permanent scarring of the soul, it also gave her the impetus to move on and become what she is today.

‘I still remember the look in his eyes – he had so much to tell me,’ says Shimul, fighting back the tears. ‘I was standing there in front of him when they started punching him and slashing up his skin; he was covered in blood.

He looked straight at me – the look seemed to last forever – and his eyes commanded me to promise him so many things – to make the most of my talents, to look after the family, especially his daughter, and to be strong and resolute in whatever I chose to do. I felt numb and didn’t move because, somehow, I think I knew that it was the last time I would see him, and that I had to come to terms with it’. Her voice trails off and she remains silent for a while.

Perhaps this is what gave her the determination to get so much out of her own life, achieving enormous popularity for her singing, composing and acting. In fact, it would appear, as I sit down in a cosy corner of her Dhaka apartment, that the entire nation were paying tribute to her cultural contributions; the sprawling drawing room is filled with bouquets of flowers and cards.

The sunlight is streaming through the window making her eyes look even more exotic than usual. Her face seems to exude more and more confidence with age, and she is beautiful in the way strong women are. She talks to me, excitedly, of her childhood and of her versatile career that started at the age of five.

‘I have been told that I was a natural born singer. Even before I could speak I used to hum nonsense,’ she laughs. She was born into a family where music was a part of everything. ‘My father had a powerful voice and I still remember the prayers that he used to sing. My mother also had a beautiful voice and I cherished the sound of her singing from the Qu’ran each morning.’ She and her five brothers and two sisters shared an idyllic childhood but when her father died, when Shimul was just four years old, everything changed.

The family suffered from severe financial problems. ‘I have known what it is like to be poor and I know the pains and struggles of growing up without a father,’ she says. There was no alternative but for two of her brothers to give up their education in order to work and support the family. ‘There were days when we could not even afford two meals, yet my mother’s determination that I continue my education and singing held firm, and she insisted that we keep my music teacher!’

In 1962, when Shimul was five, the radio programme Kochi Kachar Mela took notice of her recitals. ‘I was not formally involved, I was just one of the kids who were occasionally given the chance to sing at the end of the programme,’ she laughs. After a few recitals, Sufia Kamal encouraged her to participate in a live radio programme for children. ‘I couldn’t even read then so Sufia khala taught me, and I managed to do my job well.’

The following year, she was signed up as a singer with the radio programme and a year after that, she started singing on PTV. ‘I began to work harder and to contribute my income to my family,’ she recalls. ‘Although I was still only five, I understood the problems. As I was very close to my mother, I understood her pain and that probably made me grow up faster, and made me more understanding.’ However, it was a stressful job for a child of that age. ‘The worst bit was having to wake up when it

was my turn to sing or recite when all I

wanted to do was sleep,’ she smiles ruefully.

But her precocious talent gained her immense popularity and in 1965, she was awarded as the Best Child Singer in erstwhile combined Pakistan.

But everything leading up to her fourteenth birthday loses all significance in light of what happened on the night of August 30, 1971. The family was devastated when Altaf was killed. Remembered chiefly for composing the immortal song – Amar bhaier roktey rangano ekushey February, ami ki bhulite pari as well as his overall contribution to the war of independence, he will always be held warmly in the hearts of Bangladeshis, but none more so than his wife’s younger sister, Shimul.

‘My five brothers had also been captured but they were released when Altaf told the army that no-one in his family had been involved in anything that he had done. But my brothers had seen him before he died on the balcony of the factory in which he was imprisoned. He was tied up and his hands and legs had been broken into pieces. They had slashed his entire body; not a part was left untouched. When the soldiers walked past him, they would stub out their cigarettes on his skin.’ It is almost as if reiterating – reliving – the gruesome details stops her from forgetting the brutality with which he was killed. ‘I have not spoken to a Pakistani since, or been associated with them in any way – and I never will.’

In the years that followed Shimul admits that she suffered a crisis of faith. ‘I couldn’t trust anyone and had it not been for the Dhaka theatre, I would never have carried on in this career. It was the only place where I felt understood. I found that everyone there had a tale like mine, and I suddenly realised that I belonged,’ she says. Although life at the theatre was a struggle, Shimul has fond memories of her time there. ‘We didn’t have the money to travel, so the whole group would go everywhere on foot and get by without eating. I remember, when the bhaiyas used to bring us food, we would devour it in seconds.’

It was also there that Shimul first met Nasir Uddin Yusuf, the now acclaimed film and theatre director and who, after she completed her sociology degree from Dhaka University, would become her husband. ‘Like everything else, I knew I was sure about him – I could not have married anyone else because he is probably the only person who really understands me.’

The couple have two daughters – Shaon and Esha. When I meet her, Shaon tells me that Esha, who is studying Film and Television at MediaCom in Thailand, had come all the way back to Dhaka to surprise their mother on her birthday. It is not until much later that Shaon tells me that she is, in fact, Altaf’s daughter. ‘I promised him I would take care of her,’ says Shimul softly.

As more and more visitors pour in to wish her happy birthday, our interview comes to an end. That evening Shimul is appearing in the show Binodini. ‘What better way to celebrate my fiftieth?’ she laughs.

Her stage presence is mesmerising and flawless and she seems to have even more energy and passion than ever. ‘Of course I want to continue my work; I still have so much to learn, and the fact that audiences today seem to prefer talent over mere celebrity is encouraging,’ she adds.