A Boy and a War
S R Shuja
Only about a week had passed by since Rani apa had left. Jhima had been healthy and returned to her normal routine of pestering everybody with her usual manners. Mom wasn’t doing any better. She spent most of her time on her back. Rushi and I spent a lot of time in the vegetable gardens with dadi, helping her picking varieties of vegetables and fruits. It wasn’t very exciting but I wasn’t particularly bored, especially considering the fact that since mom was bedridden I was saved from all the scolding that was due every day. I was savouring these moments. Jhima told me that after the baby was born mom would be limited in movement for at least a month or two. This meant I would be enjoying my freedom even longer than I anticipated. Unfortunately my happiness was very short.
One night my dadu’s house was breached by a group of dacoits. The house was secured by almost eight feet high walls made of mud and bamboo sticks. The main house, kitchen, outhouse, Jhima’s hut and the cattle shed everything was inside the walls. They had four wooden grain storages (gola) all of which were located on the yard between the main house and the outhouse. Every day after dusk when the cattle was driven inside the shed, the main door was tightly closed by bolts and extra strength log placed across the door (hoorko). Once the poultry moved into their coup the back door was bolted and secured by a hoorko as well. The domestic helps returned to their homes before it was dark. Time was not good and things turned very quiet after dusk. The fear of thieves and dacoits had increased drastically.
Many years back dadu’s house was robbed once. Overall situation of the countryside was not very good. Many did not have food to survive. The dacoits took the grains from his storage, did not harm anybody. Police were informed. Nobody ever was apprehended. Even though dadu was well off today but he wasn’t so rich that the dacoits would be interested in robbing him. Their main target was cash money and jewellery. Dadu had much land but practically no cash. Dadi and jhima had a handful of gold jewellery. Nobody ever thought dacoits would care to take the trouble to get those measly valuables.
That night after supper we hit the bed in between eight and nine. I was listening to jhima telling me some more stories and didn’t know when I fell asleep. Suddenly there was a loud noise and I jumped out of the bed. Jhima had waken up about the same time. We could clearly hear four or five male voices roaring in the courtyard. “Hey old haggard, open the door.” Somebody shouted. “Step outside. Now!”
I heard dadu’s door opening. Dadu slowly walked out in the porch. He was holding a hurricane. In the pale light he looked weak, helpless. I peeked through the narrow gaps of the wooden door and saw the yard was flooded in light from several powerful flashlights. A few men with their faces covered in a thin towel (gamcha) were walking up and down the courtyard restlessly. One of them approached dadu in long and strong strides. He was probably the leader of this group. “Get me all the money and jewellery that you have in the house.” He said coarsely. “You have ten minutes. If you don’t comply I am going to cut everybody’s throat.” He pulled up the long curved knife that he was holding in his hand and shook it menacingly.
“Son, we don’t have much cash or jewellery.” Dadu calmly said. “The old women have a few ounce of gold and I have couple of hundred taka in cash. If that’s what you are looking for I’ll get you that.”
Before he could finish dadi came out of the house holding a small packet in his hand. “Here’s all my jewellery. Please take. Dear, give them the two hundred taka. Don’t make them mad.”
The leader of the dacoits impatiently looked at the rest of his group. Clearly he was very annoyed. One of his team members who were standing at the back suddenly said,” Army’s wife is here.”
The voice was slightly muffled as it came from below the thin towel but it surely sounded familiar.
“That sounded like Mintu.” Jhima whispered in my ears. “He worked here as a day labourer, helped in harvesting the grains. That bastard brought these dacoits!”
I had seen Mintu bhai a few times. He was a little shy type, in his early twenties. It was hard for me to understand why in the whole world he would bring these dacoits in our house. At the same time I wasn’t sure who he was referring to as ‘Army’s wife’.
Dadu and dadi looked quite worried now. “She is eight months pregnant.” Dadi pleaded. “She has a few more ounces of gold ornaments. If that’s what you are looking for I’ll go get them. Please wait here. I’ll be back in no time…”
The leader looked suspicious. “No, you wait here oldie. Let me go check.”
Dadu took a stand this time. “Watch it! If you touch her…”
The leader grabbed dadu by the neck. “What are you going to do old man? I can kill you anytime. Guys, keep an eye on them. If anybody makes a noise just cut the throat.”
He started to climb up the stairs toward my grandparent’s bedroom. This is when I suddenly realized what was happening. They were talking about my mother! I felt this sudden rush of anger in me. Jhima was holding me tightly. I shook her hands off me, unbolted the door and jumped outside the hut. “Don’t touch my mother.” I shouted with every bit of strength that I had. “When I grow up I’ll kill all of you. MIntu bhai, I’ll tell the police that you brought the dacoits.”
For a second the yard turned completely silent. The leader standing half way up the stairs watched me with shear amazement. Then he roared, “You bastard Mintu, even this little kid recognized you. Finish him off.”
Jhima had walked out and stood by me. Fearing for my life she lit up like a fire. Her thunderous voice echoed in the darkness of the village. “If you touch him I swear upon god every member of your families will die in leprosy. Your kids will die in fever. Your houses will burn into ashes. Your grains will be eaten by the rats…”
Suddenly we heard a lot of noise outside the boundary walls. There were more shouts and footsteps at a distance approaching fast. It was clear that the villagers had found out that the dacoits had attacked my grandparent’s house and they had come to help.
“Let’s get out of here, boss.” One of the members of the dacoits fearfully said. “If we get caught they’ll beat us to death.”
The leader looked scared as well. No matter how dreadful they were they had no chance against hundreds of villagers who would mercilessly kill them if gotten an opportunity. He ran down the stairs.
“We have to get out through the back door. Mintu, where is the back door?”
Mintu ran toward the back of the house. The rest followed him. In the next few seconds they were out in the garden. We could hear their footsteps quickly moving away. The villagers started to bang on the front door. Dadu opened it up.
Shahid chacha was standing at the front of the crowd holding a long bamboo stick. His wife stood right by him with a special vegetable cutter (boti). Alek Mia stood behind them with a sharp spear in his hand. They were accompanied by at least fifteen to twenty men and women. All of them made a living working in this household. During the time of need they had rushed in to help before anybody else did. Dadu hugged Shahid chacha tightly. “The bastards ran away.” His voice almost closed in tears. “You guys came at the right time.”
“Don’t worry, Morol sahib.” Shahid chacha said. “We’ll guard the house for the rest of the night.”
Within a few minutes another thirty to forty people with sticks from the neighbouring houses rushed in to help. There were several young men in this group. They dared to chase the dacoits through the garden. Uncle Shahid and the others spent the rest of the night in the courtyard. Jhima held me tightly in her lap, closed the door and lied down on the bed. I checked on mom as soon as I had a chance. She was very nervous, her face white in fear. Dadi sat by her and tried to comfort her. “I’m heading for Khulna tomorrow.” Mom tearfully repeated. “I can’t stay here for another night.”
Next day dadu arranged for us to make the trip to Khulna. He decided to accompany us as well. Around noon we packed up all our stuff and started. As usual Alek was going to take us to Kaligonj. He handed over his cattle to another boy for the day. Jhima hugged me dearly and cried her heart off. “Will I see you again, Khoka? When will you come again? Will I still be alive?”
All the tears made me somewhat tearful as well. I muttered something under my breath before running to catch up with the bullock cart that already started its slow journey. Looking back I saw jhima, dadi along with several other villagers standing quietly. Suddenly I felt an overwhelming surge of emotions. They all seemed so much of an integral part of my existence. A mixed sense of loss and agony flooded me. The house, the yards, the orchards with all its exciting varieties of fruit trees, the bamboo groves, and the ponds – everything seemed so precious and endearing! With my vision blurried as tear filled my eyes I quietly climbed up on grandpa’s bike. We rode slowly beside the bullock cart on the meandering dirt road, behind remained a plethora of my most cherished memories.