In the eye of a storm | Book Review – The Vortex: The True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm and the Liberation of Bangladesh by Scott Carney & Jason Miklian

A fresh take on the genesis of Bangladesh and the events leading to the nation’s birth.

In the eye of a storm | Book Review – The Vortex: The True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm and the Liberation of Bangladesh by Scott Carney & Jason Miklian
The book under review seeks to fill that gap in a racy and gripping fashion, though some risqué bits could have been avoided, but more about that later.

The bloody and triumphant birth of Bangladesh in December 1971 is one of the more significant, albeit relatively less acknowledged, events of post-World War II 20th-century history, as this tectonic development altered the political map of south Asia in a definitive manner. India’s politico-military role in enabling this transformation despite intense US opposition also burnished Delhi’s profile internationally. The dubious role played by the president of the world’s most powerful democracy in deliberately ignoring the yearning for freedom and liberty in one of Asia’s most impoverished regions will remain among the more shameful chapters of US history.

While the 50th anniversary of this event received reasonable attention in the region and was recalled and interpreted through the prism of geopolitics and the genocide committed by the Pakistani military, the cyclonic storm, Bhola of November 1970, that devastated the Ganga delta and the island of Manpura in particular, has not received the contextual attention it deserves. This mega storm, which killed almost half a million victims and rendered homeless as many if not more people, heralded the revolution which soon engulfed then East Pakistan. The book under review seeks to fill that gap in a racy and gripping fashion, though some risqué bits could have been avoided, but more about that later.

The authors combine the eye of the investigative journalist (Scott Carney) and the rigour of the academic (Jason Mikilan) to recreate the tragic enormity of what befell the people of East Pakistan under the combined onslaught of the Pakistani military jackboot and the ravages of nature.

First published in Canada, this is the Indian edition and given the import of the content—the blood-stained events that led to the redrawing of the August 1947 map of the sub-continent a quarter century later—it is especially relevant for young south Asians. The latter may not know of either bi-polarity and the Cold War, or that a Soviet Union existed at one point in recent history, much less that there was an East Pakistan.

The recurring theme of high political intrigue behind a veil of secrecy, impulsive policy making to ostensibly safeguard or advance major power strategic interests and the resultant cataclysmic effect on the lives of millions of hapless citizens can be discerned in the run-up to August 1947 and its tragic aftermath, despite the heady elation of casting aside the colonial yoke—and the tectonic events of 1971.

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The authors describe their book as a work of “narrative non-fiction” and add disarmingly that while all the details are “true and research based”, the text has been rendered in a manner to put the reader in the historical moment, which “required us to make judgments at times about motivations and states of mind that are not preserved in the historical record”.

These judgments and the distillate in terms of the writing varies—from being gripping, when describing the fury of cyclone Bhola and the trail of death it left behind; gut-wrenching, when it dwells on the killing spree that the Pakistani troops embarked upon in the first 12 hours of Operation Searchlight when 25,000 East Pakistani citizens were massacred; and lurid, where it takes the reader to the bedroom of President Yahya Khan and describes his satyriatic cravings.

The Vortex is presented in a three-act format and the 400 pages of the main text are divided into 64 readable mini chapters. For those familiar with the global geopolitical context, the dramatic Nixon-Kissinger secret machinations to open a dialogue with communist China and the role of Yahya Khan is the dominant theme.

This meta narrative is threaded through the stories of a few principal ‘actors’—an East Pakistani football star, two residents of the ill-fated Manpura island, a very courageous American couple and a weather expert; and their personal sagas are kneaded into the role played by the mega actors—the presidents and generals—Pakistani and American in the unspooling of history. Adding to the disparate cast is the inclusion of a Soviet admiral.

Yahya Khan, the Pakistani army chief who became president to usher in democracy in his nation, is painted in the most negative manner by the authors. References to his drinking binges, debauchery and reckless sexual conduct, the strong personal equation the general had with then US president Richard Nixon and his misplaced certitude about crushing nascent Bangladesh nationalism provide rich detail about the US-Pakistan relationship and the price that Washington was willing to pay to create a ‘bridge’ to China.

Many sections of the book focus on the reprehensible conduct of the Pakistani military in killing their own fellow citizens, including the bombing of orphanages in the final stages of the war for Bangladesh, and these grisly details dot the book. But alas, the accuracy of many such strands is questionable, as for instance the US-Soviet naval stand-off in the Bay of Bengal. Another example is the visit of the Shah of Iran to Islamabad and his purported attempt to meet General Yahya Khan late at night. The Shah is apparently escorted by General Rani (Akleem Akhtar), the chief procuress of the Pakistan president and the authors write: “Rani and the Shah reached Yahya’s bedroom door… (his) most recent object of desire was the actress Noor Jahan… Rani slid into the room to find Jahan fellating Yahya.”

This kind of salacious detour detracts from the credibility of the narrative and muddies the central theme of an epochal event—the liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971. Yet the authors are to be commended for their perseverance in conducting hundreds of interviews with some of the principal actors who lived through that tragic year—when cyclone Bhola heralded the birth of a new nation. The 49 pages of notes are comprehensive and provide rich archival material for future researchers.

In this narrative, Hafiz Uddin Ahmad, Mohammad Hai, Candy and Jon Rohde and Neil Frank emerge as the true exemplars of innate humanism, personal integrity and steely resolve in navigating through the ravages of nature and human turpitude. Their individual contribution, undoubtedly modest in the overall context but vividly recalled, was part of the collective effort that enabled the birth of Bangladesh, despite all odds.

Book details

The Vortex: The True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm and the Liberation of Bangladesh

Scott Carney &

Jason Miklian

HarperCollins

Pp 498, Rs 599

C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies

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