A Boy and a War
S R Shuja
Finally, after plenty of effort, dad got a family quarter around the first week of August in Chaman, Baluchistan. The few Bengali doctors who worked in Pakistan continued to perform their job quietly. The impact of the war wasn’t that apparent yet. The news media in the West Pakistan took every attempt to describe it as lightly and incorrectly as possible. They portrayed it as a conspiracy of India and Awami league. For the Bengali officers and soldiers posted in East Pakistan choosing a side was an easy decision to make. However, personnel who were posted in West Pakistan lived in fear and confusion. They had no way to leave and risked serious consequences if attempted. In a situation like this their primary goal was to move their families to safety.
Once the house became available dad arranged for us to make the trip. Coincidentally we boarded the last PIA flight from Dhaka to Karachi in mid August right before all flights got suspended due to the war. Four of us – mom, Rushi, I and Milky in mom’s lap with his eyes bulging out in utter amazement, left Bangladesh for a land totally unknown.
Khalu had come to Dhaka with us. We stayed with a distant uncle for two days. He saw us off in the airport and waited until we were airborne. Khala wanted to come as well but she had to stay back to take care of the family. Before boarding the plane mom embraced khalu and wept quietly. She had grown up in this family as a child since her mother died. To mom khala and khalu were much more than just sister and brother-in-law. Khalu wiped off his eyes under his glasses.
The flight to Karachi took much longer than usual as we had to fly via Ceylon. We didn’t have permission to fly over India. The most frustrating part of the flight was Milky’s non-stopped howling and Rushi’s continuous nagging. Most troubling moments were during take off and landing as our ears got plugged. They were too young and cried not knowing what was happening. Frustrated, Mom was quite mad with dad. Why couldn’t he come to Dhaka and accompany us in this trip? Even I knew it wasn’t possible. When mad her rationality diminished, I figured. Fortunately, dad was able to take a week off from work and came to Karachi to receive us. Rushi and I jumped into his lap as he waited for us in Karachi airport. He smiled victoriously.
“How have you been, kids?’
“Do you have any common sense?” mom snapped, before we had a chance to respond. “Did you ever think what I may have to go through travelling with these three monkeys?”
Dad smiled ear to ear and picked Milky up in his lap. Milky gave out a huge cry. “Dad! Dad!” We tried to explain to him. “Why are you crying?”
He wasn’t about to listen to us. Once returned to mom’s lap he stopped crying and watched dad with his big baby eyes.
“Even if I wanted to I couldn’t have gone back to Dhaka.” Dad explained. “Government isn’t allowing anybody to return now. Be grateful that you were able to come. This was the last flight.”
Mom continued to grumble, still quite agitated. Ayesha apa and Jaman bhai had come to the airport to receive us as well. Jaman bhai worked in a government organization. They had been living in Karachi for long. Ayesha apa, a distant cousin sister of ours, was known to be rude and bipolar. However, she looked happy at our sight, to my relief. We collected our luggage and made our way out of the airport. The first thing that caught my eyes was the crowd. People crammed the streets in unbelievable numbers. Most part of my life I had either spent in villages or small towns. I was quite taken by the crowd and the assortment of vendors. Rushi who usually remained engaged with her useless dolls was also equally surprised. Only Milky didn’t know the difference and cried his head off.
Jaman bhai and Ayesha Apa lived in a small place but yet they had graciously welcomed us to stay with them for a few days. Dad didn’t yet have a chance to see Karachi at all. This was an attractive city and tourists flocked here from all over the world. It would be a mistake if we didn’t take this opportunity to check the city out.
We stayed in Karachi for four days and visited numerous attractions, of which a couple stuck in my mind quite strongly – visit to the Clifton beach and the grave of Quaid-e-Azam.
Clifton beach, situated by Arabian Sea was not too far from the city. The beautiful sand extended far away. There was an aquarium and a facility to ride camel and horses. This was a place where many city dwellers came to escape from the crowded Karachi to get some fresh air and relax in the soft sand.
This was my first visit to a sea beach. I was speechless at the beauty of the surroundings – the long sandy beach looked the most beautiful thing in the world as the blue waves of Arabian Sea constantly broke against it and slowly but softly touched my bare feet with its cool, pleasing touch. I had earlier followed the steps of dad and hung my showes on my shoulder after tying them together with shoestrings. Mom stayed out of the reach of the waves with Milky. I walked over the sand along the shore line with my feet making clear prints on the soft sand. Rushi followed me from a safe distance. I waved at her to join me but she didn’t come. Mom was calling me back. I unwillingly returned. There was no good in agitating her. I also wanted to check out the Aquarium.
The aquarium was located in a building close to the beach. It consisted of several large tanks of different sizes housing many varieties of saltwater fishes and giant turtles. This was an amazing experience for all of us. This was mom’s first as well and she showed equal excitement as the kids. Milky who never did anything but cry had also remained calm and watched the strange animals. I was quite taken by the sharks in display. I had read so many stories about them. They had razor sharp teeth and could neatly cut off limbs from a human body. As they swam in circles with their slick bodies I watched them in pure awe and possibly some apprehension. Later dad had to pull me away from there.
Next we went to ride the camels and horses. Mom had a long time desire to ride a horse. She had read stories about Rajia Sultana since a kid, the Indian princess who fought battles riding a horse along with male soldiers. The desire sort of grew up from there. I heard in old days there were many horses in the villages. During his youth even nana had horses too. Once he became a family man and had kids he had gotten rid of that expensive hobby.
Mom passed on Milky to dad’s lap and went to ride a horse. After quite a bit of struggle she finally made it on the horse’s back but as soon as the animal started to move her face turned white as a paper. “I am going to fall! I am going to fall!” She screamed in panic.
The Urdu speaking horse owner tried to calm her down with his comforting smile and soft words but that didn’t do any good. She continued to scream, begging to be relieved from this predicament. Even Rushi burst into giggle. Once taken down mom was so relieved that she sat right on the sand. We all laughed at her a bit. Little Milky joined us too without knowing what was all the fuss about.
I was more interested in climbing on a camel. I expressed that to dad who took me to the camel owner. He had the camel sit on the ground and helped me on its back. As it slowly stood up I totally jammed. From the ground it didn’t seem like the animal was that tall. Falling from its back was definitely going to be pretty painful. I held on to the saddle hard. The camel walked slowly. With every step it took its back moved heavily, making me think that I was about to slip down. Overall a thrilling experience. After getting down I labored to look normal though inside I was quite relieved. Any display of weakness would allow mom and Rushi to tease me. Dad climbed both the horse and the camel. No amount of pleading worked with Rushi. She had no interest in riding anything that was living. She stayed with mom, holding one end of her saree.
The grave of Quaid-e-Azam was quite amazing as well. Everything was so neat and glazing. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah was the founder of Pakistan. After Second World War the British emperor decided to free India. During that tumultuous time he worked with Gandhi to create a separate nation for the Muslims apart from India. West and East Pakistan were the regions where most Muslims lived, hence these two parts constituted one Pakistan. I read some in the book, heard the rest from dad. Currently the war that broke down was between East and West Pakistan. Dad had already explained to me why East Pakistan was trying to separate. The central government of Pakistan had been acting as an authoritarian entity toward the East part since the very beginning. He made no reservation expressing to me his desire to leave Pakistan but unfortunately he was helpless for the time being.
We were to make the journey to Quetta from Karachi on a train. It was supposed to be a day long trip. From there we would be heading for Chaman – another seven eight hours train trip. Our plan was to stay overnight in Quetta. Dad had a few acquaintances in the Quetta cantonment who he wanted to meet. We would get some rest as well.
Our train started one beautiful sunny morning. When I was a little kid I had ridden in trains but I could barely remember. After arriving in the train station just watching this long snake like giant machine with huge lined compartments and big steel wheels Rushi and I both were quite astounded. We gave our constant bickerings a break and joined forces to count the compartments. We couldn’t finish counting them all as dad called us back when he noticed we were drifting too far away from them. Milky seemed to be very keen to share our joy as well. He threw his hands and legs in the air and struggled with mom to slip down from her lap onto the platform.
The train departed little later. We received tickets for first class and were very happy getting our own little room, especially mom. She had to feed Milky and didn’t feel comfortable doing it in public. Ignoring repeated request from our parents Rushi and I stuck our heads out of the windows as far as we could and watched the long train wiggle forward like a serpent. There was nothing compared to the beauty of that view. And the constant sound of the wheels rolling and the whistles blowing … chuga chuga chuga chuga choo choo …, it felt like we were heading toward a land of dreams riding on a mythical animal. Our excitement must have annoyed mom because she bitterly said, “Why are you kids so happy? Who knows which cave are we heading to?”
The word cave increased our excitement even further. If we were really going to live in a cave that wouldn’t be too bad at all! Hope of something so bizarre happening disappeared soon. Dad chuckled. “Just because we are going in a rocky region doesn’t mean we’ll be living in caves.”
“We’ll see about that.” Mom shot back. “I heard only mountain people lives there and it’s very cold. How am I going to live there alone with this little baby?”
“We’ll be living inside the cantonment.” Dad comforted. “On the other hand people are not bad. They are actually very friendly.”
Mom didn’t look happy. In the mean time dad sat with us to answer our questions, especially mine. Where was Quetta? Where was Chaman? What was there? Who lived there? Etc. Pretty soon I learned quite a bit about the region we were heading to.
Quetta was the capital of the province named Baluchistan. The town was located in the proximity of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan borders close to the impenetrable Bolan Pass. 5500 feet above the sea level it was surrounded by mountains. Each of these mountains had beautiful names – Chiltan, Takatu, Mordar, Jarghun. Due to its location it became the most significant military base in whole Pakistan. It was about five hundred fifty miles away from Karachi, about seven hundred and fifty miles from Lahore and about a thousand miles from Peshawar. The name Quetta came from the Pashtu word ‘quetta’ which meant castle. In reality due to its mountainous location it did enjoy a castle like advantage. During eleventh century after king Mahmud of Gazhni occupied Quetta its reputation increased by manifold. In the year 1543 Mogul Emperor Humayun stopped here to rest on his way back from Persia. When he left he arranged for his one year old son Akbar to stay here. Akbar lived here for the next couple of years. Humayun later came back to take him back with him. Moguls ruled Quetta until 1556. After that it was conquered by the Persians. Later in 1595 Akbar conquered it back from them.
In 1839 during Afghan war the town temporarily went under the rule of the British who succeeded in strengthening their foothold here. After the division of India the population here increased drastically mainly because of military base and the massive commercialized cultivation projects. Unfortunately on 31st May 1935 the populous town was almost totally destroyed owing to a devastating earthquake. Forty thousand people had met their ends. From that land of dead the town slowly rose back again. But this time the town was built much simplistically keeping in mind the future possibility of more earthquakes.
I didn’t know when I had fallen asleep listening to dad. When I woke up I found the train stopped in a station. All of us climbed down on the platform. As I ran along the train Rushi rushed to join me. This was something new. Most times I couldn’t get her do things with me, not even by pleading. We ran all the way to the end. Dad and mom allowed us as there were only a handful of people in the station and we were never out of their sight. We ran our way back as well. Rushi was gasping for air midway. I helped her back. It was a pleasure to see that finally she was starting to see how much fun there was beyond her stupid, cute looking dolls. I could not tolerate those dolls. Though mom always mentioned that as a little boy I frequently played with dolls when in the company of Rani apa. What a bloody shame!
The train departed again. Clickity clack, clickity clack … the usual melody followed us along the way. Rushi went back to sleep tiredly. Milky was observing me with his big eyes. I smiled at him. “When we grow up we’ll become good friends, remember that.” I thought. He seemed to know what I was thinking because he smiled back. At that moment we two brothers built a bridge that would never break in our lifetime. Nobody else noticed what had just happened. Dad was reading, mom trying to sleep. I looked out through the window. The heat of the sun was decreasing slowly. The soft rays of the afternoon sun flooded the nature with affection. Slowly the pattern of the land was changing as well. There were fewer and fewer trees, more barren, and dry land. Dad mentioned that Baluchistan was desert like, mountainous; not like the province Sindh which was green with abundance of plants. Karachi was in Sindh. All my life I had spent in the naturally beautiful Bangladesh where the sky was deep blue and the ground was amazingly green. The love and affection that I had for greeneries would never go away but deep inside me I also felt this mysterious call of the desert, the mountains. The rough and the mystic land waved at me as if to say, “Come Khoka, come.” I stuck my head out of the window. Where are you? How far? When would I see you? The long train ran faster and faster as it buzzed into my ears, “Almost there, almost there.” As more and more hills popped up in the views I eagerly tried to look beyond them, my whole body shivered in the anticipation of the ensuing new world. How far are you?
The closer we got to Quetta the landscape continually turned more and more rugged. Our train rolled up scaling the steep slopes of stony mountains. Additional engine was attached to strengthen its power needed for the journey uphill. The sound of its rhythmic movement echoed in the ridges … Clickity clack, clickity clack. Clickity clack, clickity clack. I listened to that sound with all my heart. It felt as if we were going in this impossible mission through the beautiful but dangerous land around us. The further we went the denser the mystery turned. The best parts were the tunnels. As the train passed through assortment of tunnels, small to big, everything turned completely dark. Suddenly the sound of the wheels increased manifold, almost hurting the ears. The pitch black darkness along with the loud reverberating echoes made me shivering in excitement. My hair stood up in anticipation every time we approached a tunnel. Rushi must have felt the same way because she held my hand tightly as we peeked through the window into the darkness. Moments after we passed through it the darkness would blend into the shining sun, blinding us with flash of brightness.
“What are you kids watching?” Mom inquired, finding us glued to the window.
Rushi was three but had a pathetic vocabulary. “Mountains. Big mountains.” The answer miraculously came from her.
“What’s so interesting about mountains? They all look same.” Mom muttered.
I didn’t try to explain this to her. She had no heart for all these natural stuff – mountains, rivers, creeks. All she did was to drive us to either eat or sleep and be bossy all the time. Dad was sleeping on a bunker. He had gone through this route a few times. His interest in nature wasn’t too bad but repeat trips could take away the thrill – I concluded. “Tullen, tullen.” Rushi added as if to answer mom. She still had issues with ‘l’ and ‘n’. My attempts to correct her usually met with frantic objections and denials hence I stopped trying. Someday she would definitely figure it out, I hoped.
I didn’t realize when I fell asleep. At the first light of the morning I jumped out of my bed. The deep red sun rising at the backdrop of the blue sky and the riffs was a mind blowing view. This was my first trip to the mountains. Mesmerized I observed how a new day embraced this rough, rocky land with the rays glittering between the occasional tree leaves and meandering thin streams. I watched with all my heart and listened with all my soul as the train continued in its journey – rugged land, barren desert, rugged land, barren desert…”
Thanks to dad I was already familiar with Nazrul’s work, one of the most prolific writers of Bengali language. In these unique surroundings snippets of his writings came to me naturally.
Rugged land, barren desert, a distance hard to pass,
Conquer we must, sailing in dark after nightfall,
Watch out partners!
…What could be more thrilling and interesting than this journey?
After twenty four hours in the train we finally reached Quetta. Here we were to stay a day in one of dad’s friend’s house. Then we would start for Chaman, another seven-eight hours of train. Chaman was located almost next to the border with Afghanistan. We would be going through the famous Khojak Pass. I really didn’t want to get down from the train in Quetta. Anyway, that night we stayed in the house of Captain Bajlur. His wife Saleha was very nice. They cordially welcomed us in their house and treated us very well. Their only son Moti quickly became my friend. He was about the same age of me and we played together for long time mostly running around in the house. Rushi also joined us. Usually I would have discouraged her but in the train we had made some sort of connection. She had proven to me that she could go beyond her stupid dolls if she wanted to.
In the afternoon we went to the bazaar situated on Jinnah road. The place was crowded with Pathans wearing their usual head dressing (pagri) and the Beluchi hawkers wearing hand designed red hats. The local mountain women covered in colourful dresses were selling cloths with flashy designs and sequence work. There wasn’t a thing that one wouldn’t find there. From handicrafts to far coats, shoes and sandals, Afghani carpets, colourful decorative stones, all kind of fruits, nuts, pistachio etc. We purchased some food. Rushi wanted to buy a small shawl made for kids. Dad didn’t have much money left and had to pass. At her tender age how would Rushi know all the complexity about money? She shed some tears in protest. I liked a pair of mountain shoes but didn’t even have the courage to bring it up to dad’s attention.
Later at night the adults chatted until very late. After the long train trip Milky must have been very tired because he slept like a rock which gave mom some time to relax. Rushi was still sad for that shawl and cried to sleep. Moti and I played mock shooting games for a while. After we broke a water glass the parents interrupted and forced us to bed.
Next morning we got into another train. I felt a little sad saying good bye to Moti. Coming so far from the familiar land and making a friend in such a short notice wasn’t a regular thing. I invited him to visit us in Chaman before climbing up into our compartment. Captain Bajlur and Saleha repeatedly mentioned that they would definitely visit us at the first chance they got. Little later our train moved ahead leaving the three of them behind on the station.
Rugged land, barren desert…. Clickity clack… Rugged land, barren desert….The feeling of shivering returned. Such wonderful feeling I felt only when I walked on the dusty roads of my village. Memories of dadu, dadi, jhima, Rani Apa, Minu Apa and many others flashed before my eyes. I wondered how they were all doing. The war was going on in full force, people were dying. I heard Captain Bajlur and dad discussing about it gravely. They had to be very careful. Even a slight suspicion of treason could be the cause of court martial. There was no chance for any of them to join the independence war of Bangladesh from here. There only option was to wait for the right moment. Low ranked officers and ordinary soldiers were yet to show any disrespect to them but there was no telling that the situation won’t change. Nobody wanted to put their families into a dire situation. In public they restrained from showing any interest about the ongoing war. There was no reason to make anybody suspicious.
The train continued its journey through the elevations. I heard that the trip to Chaman was even more thrilling than to Quetta. The reason was not difficult to see. This was a totally mountainous terrain with tall peaks and ridges as it approached the Afghanistan border. Kandahar wasn’t too far from here. The biggest attraction and the most thrilling part of this train trip was the Khojak Pass tunnel. Located about 7500 feet above the ground this tunnel was 3.2 miles long and ended in the Pakistan Railway Terminal in Chaman. Dad mentioned that it was the longest tunnel in South Asia, a wonderful specimen of engineering marvel. The work had started around the end of eighteen century. The tunnel was dug simultaneously from two end of the mountain body and was supposed to meet half way down. However in reality things didn’t go as planned and story went that the engineer who was in charge tried to commit suicide. Later a solution was found and the tunnel was opened for use in 1892.
Rushi and I eagerly waited for the Khojak Pass tunnel. We had been going through numerous small tunnels but after hearing about the giant nothing else impressed us anymore. In his attempt to keep us occupied dad started to talk about the rock formations that surrounded us. Thousands of years ago as a result of frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions various types of rocks were created in this part of Baluchistan. There were two main lava stream in this region – uh-uh and pa-hoy-hoy. The stones that looked like twisted ropes or the triangular boulders were all created from lava. Often they looked as if some artist unmindfully created such beautiful sculptures. Uh-uh and Pa-hoy-hoy the two words were originated from Hawaiian. The stream of lava that contained triangular pieces is called uh-uh. Such lava streams could be as thick as 100 meters. On the other hand Pa-hoy-hoy flowed smoothly and was only a meter thick. Beside the lava rocks this region had its own look and feel, something one can only find here.
Finally we entered the Khojak pass tunnel. Like a mythical monster from the magical world of imagination our vehicle slithered its way into the dark world. Suddenly we discovered ourselves in a mysterious world submerged into the eternal darkness. The monster’s angry roars echoed again and again on to the walls of the cave until they slowly died off and new stronger echoes took their places. I was completely lost in this strange world of darkness, roars and echoes. I stood with my eyes wide open, ears standing. Rushi stood by me holding the bottom of my shorts tightly. Mom was awake. She impatiently said,” How long is this thing? When is it going to end?”
Mom was afraid of darkness, especially if she was in tight space. Milky slept in peace. He didn’t even know what he missed. May be on our way back he would be old enough to understand. Who knew when we could return?
The train moved slowly. Time seemed to stop in the underground world. “Watch out! Watch out! Watch out!” The monster made its way through the darkness cautiously. Finally a flash of light popped up at the end of the tunnel hinting the end of it. I let go a deep breath, slowly, little sad. Mom was relieved. “Finally! I can’t stand tunnels.”
Slowly we emerged out into the sun, leaving behind the mystic world.
Small town but the cantonment was comparatively large. Dad was able to secure an officer’s quarter – specious two bedroom house. Mom liked it instantly. There weren’t too many officers in this location. In total six-seven with two families from Bangladesh – Major Altaf and Major Jafor. Both of them were senior to dad but they became good friends. Dad was the first doctor here. Aunt Nuri, Major Altaf’s wife, was very social person. She arrived with plenty of cooked food the first day we moved in there. With her came their two children – Roushan bhai and Rushni apa. They couldn’t have been older than 14 and 12 respectively. Both were easygoing, cheerful. They were very happy to have Rushi and me. Clearly they weren’t having much of a good time in Chaman. They had no friends in here. There was no school either. As a result whenever new kids came in they became excited. We liked both of them very much too. They lived just couple of house apart.
Major Jafor and his wife Aunt Asifa were on the quieter side. They had two sons – Bashar and Ratul. Bashar was a year older than me, Ratul was a year younger. It didn’t take us too long to get going. However, I soon realized that Aunt Nuri and Aunt Asifa were not in best of terms and the two families had limited social connections. After we moved in mom invited both the families several times. We also joined them for dinners and other functions. It took considerable effort but eventually the ice broke.
Chaman was located right next to Afghanistan border. In this region beside Beluchis presence of Pastuns were very prominent. They were very religious and independent minded. Women didn’t wear traditional burkha but wore all covering colourful clothes revealing their faces only. Men wore traditional loose pyjama, long kurta and either Pagri or hat on their heads. Most of them were pretty big. The first local family that we got to know was Jahir Khan and his family.
Jahir was Beluchi. He was very poor and worked as a gardener in the cantonment. Even though civilians weren’t supposed to live inside the cantonment an exception was made for him. The officers had arranged for him to stay inside the cantonment near the officer’s quarters. It was an old brick building where Jahir lived with his wife Fatima, mother and half crazy brother Amir Khan. He was mild in manners and shy with words. He worked quietly. Their house couldn’t have been more than a quarter of a mile away from where we lived. Bashar, Ratul and I went down there quite frequently. Fatima had no children. She seemed pretty young. She liked us very much. To earn some extra money she used to work with her mother-in-law, sewing cloths in colourful designs with sequences and selling them. Many of the officer’s wives bought those. Some they sold in the market. At our sight she always smiled affectionately.
“How are you boys today?” would be the first thing she said.
Next she would quickly bring out some lozenges from a glass container and distribute among us. Cheap stuff but tasted delicious. Three of us fought for those. However, beside Fatima we had another reason to visit Jahir’s house. It was Amir Khan. Right in the middle of the front yard of the house Amir was digging a deep hole. He used to spend most of his time during day digging. It was close to 10 feet deep and going deeper. Untrimmed beard and layered in dirt Amir continued to work with his shovel hours after hour. We stood by the hole and watched him with deadly curiosity. He never really cared about our presence. Still Fatima would always caution us, “Not a word. When mad he can be dangerous.”
After such warning we would take a step back. We wondered how he might have lost his mind in such young age. Jahir’s mother was old but very nice. Like Fatima she enjoyed our presence as well. Sometimes she would even tell us stories. We learned from her that since his childhood Amir had been suffering from an untreatable disease. There was no good physician in the area. Even if there was they probably wouldn’t be able to afford his service. She was very much worried about Amir. A few years back when her husband died he had instructed Jahir to look after his brother. It was a big burden on Jahir but yet he did his best. He even took him to local doctors who practiced traditional medicine a few times but they couldn’t provide any treatment. The old woman wanted to get him married but wondered where would she find a girl who would agree to marry her crazy son.
It could get pretty cold in Chaman, especially in December, we learned. At the end of August the weather was comfortable, especially for the kids. We ran all around the cantonment area. Sometimes we even allowed Rushi to join us. One day she did something very unusual. She went for a mid afternoon stroll or something like that on her own. When mom started to panic not finding her anywhere she could think off I was alarmed as well. Bashar, Ratul and I joined mom to look for Rushi, even dad came back from work. Finally we found her in Jahir’s house. It was Fatima who waved me in. Stepping inside I saw Rushi sitting comfortably on the ground chewing on a thick wheat bread. Mom, a total wreck by now, was running all over the place with Milky in her lap. Once I gave her the message she sighed in relief and followed me to Jahir’s house. At the sight of Rushi she couldn’t stop the tears of joy that rolled down her cheek. Rushi however foolishly kept on smiling.
She suffered a stomach upset that very night. The flat bread that the locals made at home was delicious but I guess it was too much for the tender stomach of Rushi. She had to be on bed rest for the next couple of days. This incident did bring some good for mom. She met Fatima who with her friendly and cheerful manners quickly won over her. Soon she started to pick up sequence and bid works and knitting wools from Fatima. I found myself fascinated with knitting and helped mom during my leisurely moments, acquiring some expertise soon, especially knitting woollen strings. This was done using a wooden block with a hole in the middle and four nails placed apart in equal distance around the hole. The technique was to continue to wrap the wool around the nails at the top and have the string grow through the hole. Mom knitted a hat for Milky for the ensuing winter and I knitted the string for it.
In this far border land people were aware of the ongoing independence war of Bangladesh but they didn’t have much reason to become too much concerned. Dad listened to B.B.C. and other media like that and tried to understand the current situation. Sometime he would get together with Uncles Altaf and Jafor and discussed quietly. From hearing pieces of talks what I understood was that the war was moving ahead in full force. The freedom fighters of Bangladesh were vehemently resisting the Pakistani army’s aggression. They had better success near the Indian borders. India had strengthened its assistance toward Bangladesh. Pakistan had also increased its number of soldiers in the war zone. In various border areas they were exchanging shots with the Indian army. Nobody knew which way the war was going. I quietly prayed with all my heart so that nobody in Khulna and villages were hurt. Especially I worried about Rani apa. I wondered if worthless Bashir would try to harm her in any way.
Dad’s winter military exercise started in September and continued until end of November. One morning he bid us byes and went along the border to another part of Baluchistan with his unit. Mom cried a lot. I was quite sad as well. Dad won’t be coming back for a while. Before leaving he took me into his arms and said,” Take care of your mom. She won’t be able to handle both Rushi and Milky alone. You must give her a hand.”
This new responsibility enhanced my sense of pride by manifold. I nodded seriously. Uncles Altaf and Jafor also went away for winter exercise. I won’t lie, after that our life felt a lot free. Especially considering the fact that mom truly became so engaged managing both Rushi and Milky that she would barely have time or desire left to give me hard time. At every opportunity I grouped up with Bashar and Ratul and drifted into the surrounding areas. We would also party with Roushon bhai and Rushni apa. Roushon bhai taught us a few card games. We played them whenever we got together. I tried my best to keep it a secret from mom. Playing cards wasn’t considered as an acceptable activity for kids and she might tell dad when he returned. I didn’t want any unnecessary trouble.
In October we heard that the freedom fighters had increased their resistance by manifold. Pakistan also increased its military presence to 80 thousand. India hadn’t joined the war directly but did everything to assist the freedom fighters who had their major camps in Tripura, Assam and West Bengal. Refugees from the war affected country continued to flood bordering India. Suddenly Pakistan army decided to send the Infantry battalion located in Chaman to Mirpur Khash, located in Sindh, near the border of Rajasthan, India. Dad was ordered to go with this battalion to cover medical needs. Before leaving for Mirpur Khash he came home for a short visit. Mom was devastated in the news and became sick. Dad had to put her on saline. Thankfully Aunts Nori and Asifa volunteered to take care of Milky and Rushi during this challenging time. Bed ridden and tearful mom repeatedly would ask, “Why are they sending you to war?”
“I am a doctor.” Dad would explain patiently. “They are not sending me to war. I’ll be going with the soldiers just to cover them medically. After we reach there, I’ll come back. Why are you so worried?”
Mom didn’t find much consolation. She continued to shed tears even after dad left. Rushi joined her sometime as usual. However, to everybody’s surprise Milky remained in good spirit, smiling and giggling throughout the entire family crisis.
Dad’s battalion moved ahead in a long caravan. It took them five – six days to reach Mirpur Khash. The trip went without any incidents. After reaching there, dad was asked to find his own unit. Dad was a member of 31st field ambulance. Fortunately his unit was nearby with another battalion. He joined them and stayed in Mirpur Khash until the next instruction came. In the mean time army decided to move all the families from Chaman to Quetta. Several of the families including us packed up and moved in army vehicles. We had no contact with dad in between. But we were told that all the officers who were away on duty will meet us in Quetta when they are released from their duties. Mom could barely wait. She stayed on the prayer mat most part of the day.
We were given housing inside Quetta cantonment – a specious house with two units. Roushon bhai and his family occupied the unit attached to ours. Ratul’s family got a house far from us.