A Boy and a War
S R Shuja
Once we reached Khulna mom collapsed on khala’s lap and cried profusely. We moved into the same room where we stayed before. There was no news of Roni bhai yet but everybody believed he was in India. Once his training was completed he would return with other fighters. I was really surprised to see how Moni bhai had changed in just a few days. He had almost totally stopped gathering with his friends at the den and spent most of his time alone. When I went to see him in the den he gestured me to sit down. “It’s good that you folks returned here.”
I nodded. “After the robbery mom got very scared.”
Moni bhai lit a cigarette and silently smoked for a little while. “What do you think? Is Bangladesh good or Pakistan?”
I didn’t have to think too much. “Bangladesh is better. Our struggle is for freedom.”
Moni bhai let go a heavy sigh. “You are just a boy, you wouldn’t understand this. Once Bangladesh is born the Hindus will rule this country. Today they serve in our houses. Then they will turn us into their servants. Do you know how the Muslims live in India?”
He paced up and down restlessly. “Roni joined the war. He is better off. I can’t concentrate on anything. What is more important – religion or country? Pakistan or India…”
“You mean Bangladesh?”
“Bangladesh? My foot. It’s going to be India. We’ll be nothing by suckers of India. Today Pakis are robbing us, next the Indians will.”
“Do you want to go to the war, Moni bhai? If I was older I would have definitely gone. They killed so many people the other day. I would shoot them all dead.”
“Be thankful that you are just a kid. Be truly thankful. Why should I go to the war? My mind doesn’t approve it. Let it go. Do you want to eat singara?”
They were fried delicious treats, made of flour dough and spicy vegetable or meat filler. I nodded thankfully. It was one of my favourite foods. We walked to the small stall of Kumar and occupied the broken wooden bench that was placed in front of his stall. Kumar was famous for his singara. He never let Moni bhai pay. Slowly in the next hour or so several of Moni bhai’s friends gathered there. Any other time they would all get into noisy discussions but today I found them quiet, unmindful. I went back home. Mom was feeling bad again. She liked it when I stayed near her.
In the evening the house seemed empty. Mom was lying on the bed in her room. Khala was with her. They chatted in low voice. Rushi went to the floor right above to play with the little girl of the family that rented it. Parvoti’s mom was handling the kitchen. Usually khala cooked, Parvoti’s mom helped. I peeked into mom’s room on my way to the veranda. The empty cage of the parrot was still hanging. That made me even sadder. Yunus had left. Nobody knew where he went. Khala believed he had also joined Roni bhai for the training. Khalu thought he didn’t have the guts to go in a war. Possibly he found a better paying job somewhere else. Didn’t look like his absence caused any difficulties in this household. He hardly helped in any housework anyway. In addition he was frequently getting into arguments with Moni bhai who gave him a smack on the face one day. He left after that. I learned this from khala.
I could hear khalu talking excitedly from his chamber. The door was closed so I couldn’t see his visitors. But I knew like most of his party members he was a supporter of Pakistani government. He had no interest in joining hands with Hindu inhabited India to become separate from Muslim Pakistan. But he didn’t believe in killings. Even though he had hatred for Hindu majority India nobody could suggest that he had any hatred for the people from Hindu community. Instead his friendly nature had made him quite popular among both Hindus and Muslims in the community. He had organized a peace committee to ensure that people in the neighbourhood remained calm and peaceful. Nevertheless, one thing I had noticed with amazement that whenever he mentioned Roni bhai he could barely hid his pride. He might have not supported this particular war but he was proud of the fact that one of his sons had the courage to stick to his ideology and fight a cause that he believed to be right. Moni bhai must have noticed it as well because he had stopped joining the family for supper. He ate later, alone.
Little after midnight mom’s water broke. Rushi and I were sleeping. We both woke up in mom’s painful scream. Khala came running.
“What’s happening, Jaira?”
“I think it’s time, bubu (sister),” Mom said, “Sermon the midwife.”
The only midwife who served the area was Turzo’s mom. She was Parvoti’s neighbour. Khala ran to the veranda at the back and called out for her. “O Turzo’s mom! Turzo’s mom! Jaira’s water broke!”
Turzo’s mom and Parvoti’s mom both stepped out of their huts. Within ten minutes they gathered few other women and came into the house. In the mean time Rushi and I got driven out of mom’s room. The lady on the next floor took Rushi with her. She would sleep with her little daughter for the night. Moni bhai climbed down hearing all the noise. I stayed with him. Just in case there was a need I wouldn’t have to go looking for him. Only Turzo’s mom and khala were allowed to enter into mom’s room while the rest of the women started a lively chat on the corridor. Khalu paced restlessly in his room. “Why don’t we take her in a hospital?” He questioned khala every time she walked in. “This is a serious matter.”
Khala chided him. “Both your boys were born in the hand of Turzo’s mother. Why are you suddenly making such a big fuss about hospitals? Jaira is doing perfectly fine. The baby is placed properly. There will be no difficulties in birth. Why don’t you go back to bed and try to get some sleep?”
“Are you nuts? How can I sleep in a situation like this?”
Khalu continued with his pacing. Moni bhai and I sat on the tiny porch in front of mom’s room. I didn’t even know when I fell asleep propping against Moni bhai. The cry of a newly born baby woke me up. Moni bhai must have fallen asleep too. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hands. “You have a new brother. Go, see him.”
I sprung into my feet and bolted in mom’s room. There was this tiny baby lying right by mom. I checked it out with amazement. It cried louder at my sight. Mom weakly said,” Looks exactly like you, only the hair is curly.”
I hugged mom. “I am going to love him a lot. I’ll never hurt him. I promise.”
Rest of the night passed by quickly. In the morning the neighbouring women came along their children to see the baby. It felt like a big festival. Khalu bought plenty of sweets and had them distributed among the neighbours. I ate to my heart’s content.
About a week later after lot of pondering the baby was named Milky. I can’t remember who had first proposed the name but it must have had something to do with his frequent feeding tendency. Pretty soon we became quite close. He would twist his lips at my sight. The only sad thing was that for some strange reason he liked Rushi more than me. He went ballistic with his hands and legs as soon as she went near him. I couldn’t understand why would he like a girl so much, especially someone who nagged all the time.
Few weeks elapsed since Milky was born. One evening we ate our supper, played a little bit before being sent to bed. Rushi and I slept next to mom. Milky slept in one side and us on the other. Not sure how late it was but we all woke up in a big commotion. For a little while I could only hear a lot of noise but nothing meaningful. Slowly as my head cleared up I started to understand what it was all about. A few young men were calling out khalu by his name. There iron gate in the entrance of the house was followed by a small yard and then a long porch. All the bedrooms were along this porch, ours first, then khalu’s and a third one sometimes used as a guest room. The young men were standing on the porch. I could hear the sound of glass panels breaking, must be of the windows.
“Come out, Mosabber. Come out you bastard. You are an accomplice of the Pakistanis. Today is the end of line for you. Come out you murderer.” Several voices roared.
Mom held two of us tightly and trembled in morbid fear. Milky had woken up in all these noise and was howling at the top of his voice. At this point we heard the bolt in khalu’s room making a cracking noise and the door opening. Next we heard khalu’s voice. “Who are you calling murderer? Me? Who did I murder? When? Answer me. I am a true Muslim. I’ll never hold hands with the Hindus. Is that my sin? Is that why you rascals want to kill me?”
His words were sunk by the trembling voice of khala, “Sons, don’t you all know him very well? He doesn’t harm anybody. You guys are freedom fighters. Why would you kill a good man? My one son went to war. You know Roni, don’t you? He went to the war.”
“Your husband is a Pakistani spy.” One young man yelled back at khala. “We want independent Bangladesh. We want to kick those bastard murderers out of this land. Your husband held hand with those murderers. We want eye for an eye. Go on, kill that spy.” He gestured at another young man with a gun.
“Go ahead, shoot me.” Khalu sounded all pumped up. “I don’t fear death. I have followed the words of Allah all my life. Shoot…”
Suddenly mom released us and jumped off the bed, her fear gone. Possessed in a burst of braveness and strength she unbolted the door and rushed out to the porch. I ran after her. Rushi hid under the bed and joined Milky in a crying contest.
Once out in the porch I was horrified to notice that two young men had really advanced at khalu with their rifles levelled at his heart. Several other youth with guns stood on the porch. To everybody’s bewilderment mom ran in front of the two advancing young men and stood with her hands extended as a blockade. “Don’t do this, boys. I am not saying this because he is my brother-in-law but I have never seen him harming anybody. All Hindus in the neighbourhood comes here when in trouble. They trust him with their lives. Please don’t hurt him.”
“Move out of our way, apa (sis). If we don’t shed blood as a response to the murders they committed, those bastard Pakistanis won’t stop. They have made this country a killing field. Cohorts like this man are allowing them to continue in their barbarian invasion. We need to kill them all one by one.”
“Shoot.” Khalu boldly repeated his open invitation. “I am not afraid of you. I only fear Allah. Shoot me.”
Mom held the hands of the young men and begged, “All of you are sons of Khulna. Most of you know this man more or less. Have any of you ever heard him hurting anybody? Have mercy, let him live. Please don’t do this.”
The youths turned soft in her pleadings. They exchanged glances. Mom continued,” Go on, boys. I’ll pray for you. Free Bangladesh from the enemies. We are all so proud of you.”
The youths looked restless as they glanced around. Situation wasn’t very safe. Pakistani soldiers might show up getting tips from the neighbourhood. Before leaving they cautioned khalu,” If you ever harm any freedom fighter we won’t spare your life next time.”
“My son went in the war.” Khalu raised a fist in the air and proudly said. “I would never harm any of you, remember that. I am a true Muslim not a killer. I’ll embrace death without fear when my time comes.”
Before leaving the youths did something unexpected. They touched my mom’s feet asking for her blessings. “Apa, please pray that we can free this country and come back alive to our families.”
Mom could no longer stop her tears. “I am always praying, boys. Every time I sit on the prayer mat, I pray for each and every one of you. Be careful…”
The team of the freedom fighters disappeared quickly in the darkness. With them gone everything abruptly turned unusually silent for a few moments. Mom collapsed on the stairs, tired and shaken she burst into silent tears with her face drowned between her knees. Khala and khalu almost picked her up and put her back on the bed. At this point Moni bhai came down tip toed. Finding me curiously observing him he explained,” I know those boys. They are juniors to me. They would have insulted me if I came down. It was good thing that Roni went to the war. You must pick a side. Staying in the middle is no good. You get harassed by both parties.”
We shut down all the doors and windows of the house and spent the rest of the night awake. Mom fell asleep around the morning. Khala tried her best but could not take khalu back to the bed. He continued to pace briskly up and down the corridor.