Published:  09:44 AM, 14 December 2020 Last Update: 09:57 AM, 14 December 2020

Footfalls (Syed Shamsul Haq’s ‘পায়েরআওয়াজপাওয়াযায়’): Representation of mass participation in the war of liberation

Footfalls (Syed Shamsul Haq’s ‘পায়েরআওয়াজপাওয়াযায়’): Representation of mass participation in the war of liberation

-Dr Khairul Chowdhury

The Bangladeshi war of liberation of 1971 was characterized by mass participation when West Pakistani occupation forces started their orgy of mass murder and provoked the resistance that was built by the students, peasant-workers, intellectuals, soldiers - in a word the whole Bengali nation.  The claim for power at the state level of Pakistan with the mandate of the majority, the empowered Awami League and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was answered with bullets and when the people of East Bengal realized that the West Pakistani Military Generals would never hand over the power to people’s representatives, the war of liberation was aimed at total liberation of Bangladesh with establishment of a secular, democratic state, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.  The dream of an independent secular state of Bangladesh surfaced right after the partition of Sub-continent in 1948.  The disillusioned Bengalis of East Bengal realized that a kind of unnatural exploitation of its politics and economics in the name of Pakistani nationalism had replaced the British imperialism.  This is why, the history of 1947 to 1971 is the struggle of East Bengalis to bring a kind of order by establishing democracy and power of the masses in the unnatural state frame of Pakistan as it was formed with the nationalism based on religion.  The war of liberation is the culmination of the effort, in the face of Military guns, to uphold the East Bengal’s democratic Ballot victory.  In March 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and East Bengal became one to face the West Pakistani forces.

The occupation forces started their massacre of students, intellectuals, and common city dwellers in Dhaka on the 25th March in 1971.  Gradually, this genocide spread all over Bangladesh.  During the nine-month-long occupation of Bangladesh the West Pakistani forces killed three million people.  More than ninety percent of this mass murder comprised the killing of peasant-workers of Bangladesh.  When in the play the Villagers ask Mathobbor about their safety on the eve of liberation, the collective voice specially asks the elite audience to recognize the contribution of the Villagers in the war against occupation.   

Footfalls solves the debate about writing the story of liberation war highlighting the mass participation by foregrounding the realistic time and space, populating the play’s stage with the villagers.  Their reaction to the uncertain near future, that is going to befall them, features their concerns.  This is both the setting and one of the themes of the play.  As a setting it physicalizes the fear of the Villagers that puzzles them because of their role during the liberation war.  It was influenced by Mathobbor’s role and forced participation with the occupation forces.  It is mostly a fearsome reality for the Villagers; their existence is at the brink of collapse.  Throughout the period the villagers have guarded the villages from the possible intrusion of the Freedom fighters to carry out the orders of Mathobbor - whenever they found somebody suspicious in their villages they have handed the suspects to Mathobbor’s forces.  They clearly understood that some of the suspects had been killed, yet they did not dare to question the acts of Mathobbor.  

Because of this forced subordination that characterizes the relationship between the Villagers and Mathobbor, they are entrapped in an imminent fearsome, and uncertain future.  The fear of the Villagers is expressed by the rumor that the freedom fighters are going to liberate the villages from the occupation forces of West Pakistan. The Villagers, who normally depended for their safety on Mathobbor, now want assurance of their safety from him.  While to participate with Mathobbor is to go against the cause of liberation by collaboration with the occupation forces, their questioning of him about their future figures them on the role in favor of liberation in other words to question the collaborative role of Mathobbor.  By condemnation of their own role under the subordination of Mathobbor, Haq suggests that the Villagers could overcome their ignominious role during the liberation war.

The Villagers are presented as a collective voice that could be of any Bangladeshi village.  The play’s world is crowded with at least twenty villagers to suggest the rural masses.  They form a chorus representing the teeming millions who invested their labor for the lifeline of the whole population of Bangladesh of 1971.  The playwright’s gaze defines the villagers of 1971 as he says in the stage direction to the play:
The number of villagers on the stage is to be decided according to the requirement, but there must be male and female villagers of various age groups.  At least twenty villagers will be an ideal number on the stage.  I imagine at least one female villager who is nearing 100 years, and another who is at least ninety.    . . . The role of off-stage-sound of rhythmic footsteps and the regulated lighting on stage is a must as the characters in the play. The off-stage-sound must start to rise in scale with the entrance of Mathobbor’s Daughter and must reach the climax.   . . . There will be a musical sequence of flute and country-drum from back of the curtain; it gives the effect of beats of a heart or the footfalls of many nearing gradually.  (13)
The stage direction suggests the mass participation of the villagers in the liberation war against the West Pakistani occupation forces.  It was essentially a war of the villagers as it was thrust upon them with the atrocities of the West Pakistani forces.  Their participation and sacrifice are indicated by the fact that more than 90 percent of 3 million killed by the occupation forces were villagers.

The characters of Mathobbor and Pir constitute the power group of the village.  These characters are the representatives of the rural power group of Bangladesh in general. The character of Mathobbor signifies the economic and social power in the village.  Pir has domination in the spirituality of the villagers.  Mathobbor goes on wittily to suggest that they share the power in the village:

MATHOBBOR [to Pir]:: 
In heart, you are in favour or against me
You are not the soul
To deny the truth, everyone knows.
They also know 
For three generations, your father, grandfather
All being sustained by my family.
But, I must tell you 
As always I looked after your worldly existence
You have also looked me after.
Is n't it true?
The religious and spiritual priests of your family 
Have bestowed their blessings on our generations
Is n't it true?
Taken-given, Given-taken.
Now at this dark time
We two are under one umbrella
All others have no umbrella. (34)

Mathobbor’s speech sets forth the institutionalization of power in rural Bangladesh.  It indicates the power of domination of the rural power group represented by Mathobbor and Pir as supplementary to each other, their mutual dependence signifies that by virtue of his birth, Mathobbor can subordinate the affairs of the villagers in deployment of their labor to increase and accumulation of his wealth which he does because of his ownership of land and other production machineries.  Pir, with his power of regulation of the religious and spiritual belief of the villagers, directs their allegiance to the continuation of power of Mathobbor to regulate their everyday life. 

This power group of village-Bangladesh has played the role of anti-force to the mass struggle against the occupation forces of West Pakistan; the role of this class is stereotypical of enemies of the villagers and in the war in general.  In this role they have helped the occupation forces in killing freedom fighters.  They have provided food and other supplies to the occupation forces.  This class is also responsible for justifying killing of millions of Bangladeshis with the religious explanation that the freedom fighters are the agents of non-believers, and India.  This explanation as the main undercurrent has been put forward by the West Pakistanis in waging a war against Bengalis:

This is a war between the pure and the impure. . . . The people [East Bengalis] may have Muslim names and call themselves Muslims.  But they are Hindu at heart. . . . We are sorting them out. . . . Those who are left will be real Muslims.  (Mascarenhas cited in Feldman 179)

In the play, Mathobbor is the pure Muslim who has participated in the massacre of his own impure kin.


By this collective representative character of the Villagers the dramatist actively tries to recover their resentment at the forced participation with the occupation forces.  

THE VILLAGERS: 
Salamalekum, Salamalekum
No one can sleep in peace 
Loo wind is blowing away the fields
Quite a few of them are telling
Look the Freedom Fighters marching in from the east
Swimming through the Jamuna, definitely 
They  will come today or by tomorrow, definitely,
Deep inside in every one's heart 
Something like a blind animal jumps in everyone's heart
Eats their hearts 
No one can abstain from looking around,
All the  youths, olds, wives and peasants of all the villages, all around
Came to you.  Tell us what to do?    
We obey you as our father and mother, you told us
Keep away from the freedom Fighters, you told us 
Though they are our children and brothers dear
Yet they are agents of our enemies, you told us
Keep no relation with the Freedom Fighters,                              
They want to hand over this country to our enemies, 
you told us
What to do now?
Today or by tomorrow they will march in.  (18)

Vivid images of entrapped scenario and darkness of sufferings transform the villagers as the forced participants in the cause of Mathobbor.  The imminent liberation enables the Villagers to be active in assertion of their disapproval of Mathobbor.  Their collective defiance to Mathobbor’s cause is expressed by the role of a judge at the end of war when the freedom fighters are approaching the village.    

In his desperation, Mathobbor tries to win back the power of domination back on the Villagers by asking them to surrender to the will of God, the Villagers do not accept his logic of Allah’s ways to Mankind:

THE VILLAGERS:: You made Allah responsible for everything, as if a
Human being has nothing to do in the world, 
He gave us hands, intelligence and conscience
And told to create thy own fate.
Never confine to the house, said Prophet  Mustafa
Leaving your own efforts, said Prophet Mustafa
He migrated to Medina from Mecca, Prophet  Mustafa
One has to be steadfast in efforts; it’s his words. (25)

The severe words of the Villagers disrupt the very base of the rural power structure.  Mathobbor tries further to terrorize them by describing their act as a blasphemy which questions their belief in the oneness of Allah.  He invokes the century-old rationalization of the dominant classes which uses the religious belief of the Villagers to construct the subordinated groups in their location, and if somebody tries to analyse this situation then it is an act of blasphemy.  The religious explanation terms poverty, famine, and sufferings of the peasants in rural Bangladesh as divine intervention.  The natural calamities are inflicted from above and those who suffer are pre-ordained by the divine.  Similarly, the rich and the poor are the divine creation.  The main purpose of such an explanation is that the peasants must not be discontented with the rich and powerful, rather, accept the catastrophes stoically.

The thematic strand in the play, the historicisation of the war of liberation comes under the event that purges the Villagers of their guilt from the forced involvement with the anti-force of liberation war, they are able to do that by passing their judgement of death sentence on Mathobbor and by his execution.  This act has potential to be used for writing the Bengali nation’s participation and sacrifice for the better future.  The entrapped and enforced participation with the occupation forces by the Villagers symbolizes the entrapped population of Bangladesh during the nine-month’s war of liberation.  Mathobbor symbolizes the reactionary elite of the nation that has co-operated with the occupation forces in killing their own people, intellectuals, freedom fighters and peasant-workers.  The killing of Mathobbor is thus becomes an act of purgation of the guilt for the whole nation:

THE VILLAGERS::It is required.  There is urgency.
Not so much as an evildoer you will give your life, 
More than that, for we allowed you to be an evil-doer
For that, we want your death today.
If not your blood wets the village-road
Then how people will walk with their heads erect on the village road?  (54)    

The symbolism of this act provides the dramatist to write off that part of disgrace in the event of liberation war when he extends the particular nameless village of the play to link with larger frame of the whole country.  It is the shame of collaboration with the occupation forces of West Pakistan by the extremist religious parties such as Jamaat-e-Islam and The Muslim league.  The paramilitary forces formed by the members of these political parties are largely responsible for the killing of Bangladeshi intellectuals in the war.

PYEK:: This way, all come this way now
Let me show you all then,
In what nightmare everyone was
When cruel despot had rule
Hundreds of kin were killed by that rule.
Come this way, all come this way now
Let me show you  how when
How many Military troops made camp here
Who collaborated with them then? (55)
When the actual entrapped scenario of Bangladesh is vividly described, an extended depiction of entire Bangladesh is brought into focus.  The nightmarish entrapment, cruel despotic rule, and killing of kin illustrate the entrapped Bangladesh during the war of liberation. 


Of course, the character Daughter does not have a fully fleshed-out identity; rather, she embodies the Birangona or the female sacrifice of the nation in the war of liberation.  She is not a name.  She is an unmarried daughter of Mathobbor.  She is identifiable by this title, a girl confined to the household of Mathobbor.  She had a little religious education from the village religious or spiritual leader.  When she enters the stage, her entrance marks a defiance of the male standard of purdah or the veil.  Her painful questions to the Villagers:

DAUGHTER:: Yes.
Telling you all present, believe me 
My baba [dad] is telling the truth
Military [member of the west Pakistani force] came to this 
house yesterday.
There is no mistake in it
No doubt about it
That he himself came yesterday.
As human leave footprint on path
Like that there is the footprint 
As flood-water leaves alluvial soil on banks 
Like wise there is alluvial soil
As cold winter night leaves dew on leaves of tree
Likewise there is dew.
That there is not a single letter lie that he came yesterday.
But you ask
You ask my baba. (39-40)

Her questions to the Villagers in metaphoric language reveals what painful loss she is undergoing from the night before when the West Pakistani Military Captain took her virginity.  However when the Daughter’s chastity is lost, she is allowed to show her anger and sorrow in front of the Villagers.  In contrast to her anger and accusation, Mathobbor tries hopelessly assuage his guilt by describing her as abnormal and being possessed by an evil spirit. He also appeals to his daughter as a father not to reveal the truth of how he gave his own daughter to the Captain.  Nevertheless, Mathobbor does not find any ground to defend himself in front of the Villagers and his daughter’s accusation. When he tries to dismiss the proposed arranged marriage of his daughter with the School teacher on the ground that the teacher has joined the Mukthi Bahini [liberation army], the Villagers reject Mathobbor’s reasoning and want to know details about how he has given his daughter to the Military Captain in marriage without observing the Islamic rules:

THE VILLAGERS:: Mathobbor shaheb, we want to know  
everything clearly.
One who encourages others to have courage
Had his own house-hold being eaten by the time-mouse.
When fearsome darkness is approaching
When head of state can save all
When all eyes on him
If he fails to assure of safety with courage
If he can’t utter nothing than empty words.
Then the empty sandy shores of the Jamuna emerges
In everyone’s mind. Then all of a sudden  if we hear 
Our head is shelterless himself
That pleases our mind
If not in good luck but in bad luck
We are equal.
Tell, tell us clearly.
When did it happen with your daughter?
When did the Captain flee with your honor and chastity?
When was the marriage solemnized ?
Who conducted it? (43)

The loss of Chastity is the loss for all members of the Villagers.  The ironic logic of the Villagers suggests that if they are not equal to Mathobbor “in good luck” then at least they are equal in “bad luck.”  It also transforms their  judgement on Mathobbor into an opportunity to turn the innocent girl’s slaughter as their sacrifice to the war of liberation.


Mathobbor’s confession when all the fingers point to him and accuse him as a war criminal is used by the dramatist to expose the role of the collaborators during the war of liberation.  The collaborating forces have caught and held their own people and handed them to the occupation forces to kill.  That crime became a boomerang for Mathobbor when the Captain of the occupation forces wanted to satisfy his sexual desire with the daughter of Mathobbor.  Mathobbor’s persuasion to restrain the Captain from molesting his daughter exposes the act of collaboration:

I said, Captain Shab
I have never disobeyed your words,
Never protested, if you remember
You remember certainly, your interest always
I have considered  my own interest. Thus,
I have left nothing unturned to give you.
When roads were unknown, I showed you the roads
When you failed, I handed over lot of Freedom-Fighters to you
When  you had shortage of ration, I arranged  your food 
I gave you more than I afford. (46)

The paradox of collaboration and faith in same religion is explored in Mathobbor’s speech.  The collaborators of 1971 united with the occupation forces in a bondage of faith in one religion indicates the formation of the state of Pakistan.  Religion became a tool to justify the exploitation of the majority of the population and rule of the few.  Mathobbor’s inability to utter kolma or a Koranic verse that signifies one’s faith in oneness of Allah expresses the sheer exploitation of the faith for the crime of exploitation.  

At the climax of the play, the stage is described as the liberated Bangladesh signified by a large flag of independent Bangladesh at the background of the stage (55).  The stage is crowded with the figures of freedom fighters.  Pyek is standing with the case of a sharp hidden spear in one hand and the blood stained spear on the other, the dead body of Mathobbor is fallen on the stage.  Pyek declares that he has “finished the great Satan.   But there are smaller Satans left around, if they are not searched for, they will flee away” (55).  When Pyek declares this, the opportunity for the dramatist is evident to enlarge the issue to identify the collaborators of the occupation forces.

The play suggests that the history needs to be reformulated to include the Villagers’ struggles so that it does not reflect only an elite story of triumphal participation in the independence war.  

-Dr Khairul Chowdhury is a writer, critic and academic based in Australia


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