A Boy and a War
S R Shuja
I fell in love with the new house at the first sight. While the inside of the house was great – specious and everything, that wasn’t the main reason of my excitement. It was the outside that I loved. The huge garden in front of the house consisted of several kind of fruit trees including apple, peach, apricot, grape and pears. There was also a rose garden in one side of the house. I was so excited that the only thing I left doing was performing a classical Indian dance. The apple trees were just flowering. I spent most of my time checking the trees, taking mental notes on their conditions, sizes etc. The apricot tree was quite large which I learned to scale. Rushni apa liked apricots. To ensure her continuous affection I filled up my pockets with apricots and delivered half of that to her. Apparently mom liked apricot too. But she was scared to let me climb the trees. However, after I showed her my newly earned skill she was pretty impressed.
There were two long grape vines that climbed onto our high boundary walls. Those were flowering as well. Rushi and I made time to examine them on regular basis. I never dreamt of getting such a wonderful garden almost like the one we had in the village in this exotic land. Very soon I forgot about losing Bashar and Ratul.
At the end of November dad had an opportunity to visit us in Quetta. He liked the house as well. Most of his life was spent in the villages. Greeneries moved him too. We had a large yard inside the boundary wall. During his short stay he prepared the soil and planted several pumpkin plants and sprinkled radish seeds. He heard from the locals that the earth here was good for pumpkins. It fell on my shoulder to water the plants and seeds and uproot the weeds. I loved gardening and spent large portion of my day either in the vegetable garden or in the fruit garden. Rushi would give me a hand sometimes too, depending on how she felt on a particular day. Milky had just turned five months. He kept all of us entertained with his baby talks. Lately he had been trying to crawl but no matter how much effort he put he wasn’t going anywhere with his puffy body. He seemed to patronise me quite a bit, smiling whenever I came into his view. When the time came for dad to leave even he seemed a little sad. He held Milky a little longer than usual but didn’t say anything. He left in an army vehicle. We walked behind the vehicle up to the main road. It was already getting a little cold. Seeing Milky shivering inside mom’s lap we quickly returned home.
On December 3rd Pakistan abruptly attacked India by air on the ground that the later was providing unwanted assistance to East Pakistan. The very next day Indian government decided to send army to help East Pakistan. Until then prime minister of India Indira Gandhi had been hesitating to formally approve the war. This attack made her job simpler. The initial air attack that Pakistan conducted was unable to do much damage to India. Very soon they took control of the air. The army that India ended up sending to Bangladesh was consisted of nine infantry division with armour units and arms units. They divided into five branches and moved through Bangladesh very quickly. Their primary target was to reach Dhaka, the capital of then East Pakistan. On the way they avoided the small strongholds of the Pakistani armies.
In this journey their primary help came from the innumerable units of freedom fighters who engaged the Pakistani army units into small, consuming battles all over the country. Four of the army divisions belonging to Pakistan initially resisted the advance of Indian army strongly but eventually they started to break down. All the supply routes and escape routes chocked they had no other option but to surrender. On December 16th Dhaka fell. Commander of Pakistani army Lieutenant General A.A.K.Niaji surrendered to the Commander of the joined forces of Indian army and the freedom fighters of Bangladesh Lieutenant General J.S.Arora. On the west front the war that had initiated between India and Pakistan that didn’t give any edge to Pakistan either.
In the news of independence the Bangladeshi community here became overwhelmed. Everybody was hoping to return home soon. Dad returned from the battle field almost immediately. There was no talk of getting us back to Bangladesh yet but having dad back made our lives pretty happy. Dad and I joined forces to clean our vegetable garden of weeds that grew abundant despite all my effort to stop their spread. The pumpkin plants had started to flower. The earth was clearly very fertile. In the apple garden the apple buds were turning into small apples. I made it my daily routine to walk around the garden and check on every tree. Rushi would accompany me most days. She had been showing unusual interest in nature since we moved in here.
Most of us hoped to return home without much delay. Such thoughts brought both happy and sad feelings to me. I was happy because it would allow me to see my relatives back home. The sadness came from the fact that I had already become so much attached to the gardens and the trees that I would miss them very much. If we had to leave too quickly we wouldn’t be able to see neither the apples growing nor the pumpkins. Some people had already been questioning my mental stability noticing my devotion to those plants.
One day all soldiers and officers were called in a meeting in the Camp Coulee which was part of Quetta cantonment. Everybody was asked whether they desired to stay back in Pakistan or return to Bangladesh. A handful of men had married Pakistani women who opted to stay in Pakistan, the rest eagerly wanted to return. Pakistan government confirmed that everybody would return home though the schedule was not yet fixed. When Pakistan surrendered India took about 75000 soldiers as prisoners. Pakistan was trying to use the expatriate Bangladeshi soldiers and officers to bring back some of those prisoners. At this news mom again started to cry. Honestly, I was sort of happy. This would give me a few months. It was decided that everybody would continue to live in their current abode but the men would have to show up in an assembly once every day. The government didn’t want anybody to escape.
December in Quetta was cold. Hail and snow both were possibilities. We started to feel the coolness to some extent. Every night three of us siblings took bathe in water that was warmed up using small dip in heaters. After bath mom would quickly wipe us dry, help us put on night dresses and sent us to the bed under the warm waiting blankets. Milky was about six months old and was a lot of fun. His excitement increased considerably at my sight, especially when I would open the front or back door and would allow him to crawl out in the yard. Sometimes I carefully picked him up in my lap and took him around the gardens. Mom didn’t fill very comfortable about it fearing I might drop him. But Milky liked it so much that she was hesitant to stop me from doing it. Rushi often struggled to pick Milky up in her lap but she herself was so skinny that it was out of question. One time in her request I had put Milky on her lap. After just two shaky steps she fell on the ground with Milky rolling on her. Not sure where she was hurt but she did cry for a while. The good part was Milky had a blast in the process and giggled unstopped. Rushni apa and Roushan bhai both were big fans of Milky. Rushni apa took Milky with her in her frequent social trips into the neighbourhood. She met a few girls of her age in the area. Milky soon became very fond of her. We were really blessed having the two (Rushni apa and Roushan bhai) and really enjoyed all the affection and indulgence we received from them.
Amid all this one day I ended up doing something very undesirable. I had accompanied dad to the local store. It was night and the store did not have very bright lights. When dad was busy purchasing essentials I observed the glass cases where various sweets were neatly arranged for display on ceramic plates. They looked so tempting that at one opportunity I picked one up and put it in my mouth. However, soon I remembered dad had mentioned to me not to eat anything from a store without paying for it first. I was in trouble. I could neither chew it nor take it out, both of which were risky as either one of dad or the store owner might notice it. I placed the sweet in one corner of my mouth and stood innocently. I noticed the store owner smiling at me. I acted as if I had no clue. Anyway, dad eventually noticed the bulge in my mouth. “What is it in your mouth, Khoka?” He asked.
I kept quiet, naturally. The store owner laughed. “Don’t worry about it. He is just a kid, got tempted.”
Dad was mad. “If you wanted to eat it why didn’t you ask me? Throw it out.”
I threw it out. Dad bought some sweets to take back home with us. On our way back I looked down the entire path. Even I didn’t know why I had done something so foolish. Dad remained grave serious. He was a man of principle and never took such lapses very well.
As we approached our house I muttered,” I’ll never do it again. They looked too good.”
“That was stealing. Do not ever do it again. Are you going to remember that?”
I nodded. After reaching home I ate half of the sweets. “Why are you eating so many sweets?” Mom inquired. “You already have too many cavities.”
I didn’t respond to her. Luckily dad did not tell her about the incident in the store. It really saved me from a lot of agony. If she heard about it she would have made my life miserable for months bringing it up in every possible opportunity.
Almost before our eyes the pumpkins continued to grow larger and larger into sort of giants and the radishes became thicker and longer with the green leaves growing taller. This practically wiped out any doubt that we might have had about the fertility of the land here. The question now was what to do with all that harvest. We ate and distributed in the neighbourhood in plentiful but there was still much left.
The apples grew slowly but steadily. A few more days and they would ripe into delicious fruits. I tried out a few but they were still very green and tasted sour. The trees were mostly medium in size but they bore so many fruits that the branches leaned visibly toward the ground. I couldn’t help but wonder what we would do with so many apples.
God must have taken my worries too seriously because a few days later suddenly one night there was a big hailstorm. I could barely sleep that night worrying about the apples. The hails would either detach the fruits or damage them. Next morning as soon as I woke up I ran to the apple garden along with my dad. We walked around to check on all the trees. The damage was far more than what I had anticipated. There was not a single apple that wasn’t damaged. If we left them in the trees they would eventually rot. We decided to harvest all of them. Mom knew how to make good jelly.
For the rest of the day we filled out bushels with apples and carried them inside the house. The ones that we couldn’t reach from the ground I quickly climbed up the trees and picked them up. Watching me running around busily Milky got really excited and tried to follow me into the garden on four. Mom picked him up ending his adventurous expedition. He screamed and cried in vein. Rushni Apa, Roushon bhai and their parents joined us in the garden as well. It turned out to be something like a festival. For the next few days mom cut the apples, separated the white flesh and boiled them in large pots. The whole place smelled strangely, not something very pleasant. Later she mixed up the broth with sugar and continued to heat it up until emitted the appetising smell of jelly. Later the jelly was poured into containers of all kind and shape. After distributing half of them what remained even that was enough for a year.
A new problem popped up in the beginning of January. A few Bangladeshi officers had escaped from another region. Pakistan government didn’t like that. They took precaution to ensure that the folks who were staying in Quetta did not try anything foolish. Soon all the officers and their families were moved to hotel Jiltan located inside the cantonment which was used to host officers who came for training and the soldiers and their families were taken to Camp Coulie. Each of the officer’s family was assigned a suite. Moving to a small hotel suite leaving behind such a beautiful house and garden made me very sad. The suite had two rooms with a small kitchen and a balcony. We were told that this arrangement was very temporary. Soon the government would move us all to another unspecified place. All together we were a few hundred families. The new place would have to be big enough to hold all of us.
Once the initial shock was over we kind of started to like it in the hotel, especially me, after realizing that this allowed me to get together with Bashar, Ratul and Moti again. We were also delighted to find out that there were at least six – seven other kids of our age in the camp. Our lives became exciting again. We packed up and played as long as we wanted. There was no schooling, little studies. Just play, play and play. The adults weren’t having a bad time either, especially the dads. They still had to attend the daily roll call but after that they were free to do whatever they wanted. There was a field in front of the hotel with a volleyball ground at its center. Soon the men teamed up and started to play volleyball in the afternoons. The women gathered on the front balconies to either watch the men and kids play or just to chat with each others. There was definitely some advantage of living in such a close community.
Since coming to West Pakistan I didn’t see such festive mode. We kids also copied the elders and tried to come up with our own sport experimenting with soccer, cricket, and hockey. Unfortunately there weren’t enough space and none of the games stuck. Finally we got creative and collectively came up with the one deadly solution that everybody readily agreed to – the war games. We divided into two groups with Bashar, Ratul, Moti, Ranju, Ovi and I in one team and Tanna, Mishon, Mijan, Aman, Joti and Roni in the other. A few girls tried to join us but were not allowed. They tend to get tired quickly and were prone to start girlish conversations instead of battling it out. Nobody appreciated such childish behaviour in a serious matter like a war. Our rifles were branches, rocks grenades, a light post in front of the hotel became the war bell. The game started with several bangs on the light post – dong, dong, dong…and continued until one of the teams got tired or surrendered.
Every afternoon when men went to play volleyball, we got busy fighting mock battles. Often hours would pass and none of the teams would give up. We rattled rat-a-tat-tat…dashed for shelter…hid behind the trees…dived inside holes on the ground…more rat-a-tat-tat…threw grenades…kaboom! Almost every day we had to be yelled at and forced into our homes, often by the ears. Soon we became skilled soldiers and knew all the hiding places in the hotel premise like the back of our hands. We also introduced battle plans and spent hours plotting strategy to beat our opponent. I was the self proclaimed commander-in-chief in my team while Aman with his heavy set body easily became the chief of the other team. He was the only son of Uncle Syed and Aunt Misha and was slightly older than us. He was quieter and a little weird. Everybody avoided unnecessary encounters with him, fearing that getting into trouble with him couldn’t be anything pleasant.
Mothers soon reigned in our freedom and drastically increased our study times. We were no more allowed to go out in the mornings. As a result we eagerly waited for the afternoons. Once the sun leaned toward the west and the day started to cool off slowly the men made their way out to the field in small groups, opening the door for us to go out. We bolted out at the first opportunity, competed among us to bang the war bell …dong…dong… dong… and got engaged into fierce battles …screaming and rattling…running around like loose cannons.
I met Aman after moving in Hotel Jiltan. For reasons unclear to me we didn’t hit the right notes. We settled as rivals instead. When we came face to face we glared at each other and barely spoke. Since we started to play war games our relationship had deteriorated even further. Now when we saw each other we actually frowned. The conversations went something like this:
“Yesterday we won.” Aman would gravely declare.
“Don’t be silly. I killed all of you with my machinegun.” I would disregard his claim with disgust.
“No way! I blew all of you with my bombs.” He would insist, aggressively.
After such exchanges naturally the excitement ran high in the battle field. None of us wanted to leave any doubt about the outcome. During the battles I led my team through the battle field attacking the enemy with spraying bullets rat-a-tat-tat….Aman’s primary strategy was to hide behind the trees and throw bombs constantly. Initially he threw mock bombs which quickly became small rocks. As the rivalry increased between us the size of the rocks grew bigger as well. It did not worry any of us. The dangerous the enemy the more was the fun. We dashed from shelter to shelter avoiding the bombarding rocks that Aman and his team kept on showering at us. When somehow we made it behind them without being detected a sudden ‘Hands Up!’ cleanly made us the winner.
After losing out a few consecutive times Aman must have felt very embarrassed because he resorted to extreme measures. Nobody had any idea what mischievous plan he was plotting. One day as we played out our regular battles I followed my usual strategy and hid into my favourite ditch shooting relentlessly rat-a-tat-tat….The bullets were sprayed at such a rate that there was no question of any enemy soldiers approaching me, as they would definitely get shot. However, today Aman broke the rule. He ignored all the shootings and bombings directed at him and walked straight to me with his assortments of rocks acting as grenades.
“Aman you are dead.” I screamed after spraying him with another round of deadly bullets. “Drop down.”
“No, I am not dead.” Aman shouted back stubbornly. “I am wearing a bullet proof vest.”
Before I had an opportunity to object he started pelting rocks at me. I successfully avoided some by diving low but wasn’t fast enough to move out of the way of a large rock that got me right on the middle of the forehead. It didn’t hurt much but I saw blood gushing out in a stream. I knew I was wounded. Dad was in the field playing volleyball. I climbed out of the ditch and darted toward him leaving behind a streak of blood. Aman had already disappeared. Rest of the boys followed me to the ground. Dad came rushing at me, picked me up in his lap and ran toward the hotel. The boys and some of the men followed us to the suite. Dad laid me down on a bed and stitched my wound. The cut was relatively big and required six stitches. After losing considerable amount of blood I felt really weak and drowsy. However that didn’t stop mom from berating me. “How many times did I tell you not to play that game? How about now? If I see you playing again I am going to break your head myself.”
My friends quickly disappeared. Dad didn’t return to play. He sat by me and took my temperature in regular interval. Rushi parked herself at a safe distance and watched me cautiously. She had no stomach for blood. I called her several times but she made no attempt to move closer. Milky was the happiest. When I went out to play with my friends he stayed back with mom, not something he appreciated. Now that I was stuck inside the home he spent most of his time crawling and drooling over me. His joy had lessened some of my pain.
Next few days I had to stay inside the house. Any attempt to step out met severe warnings and screaming from mom. Bashar and Ratul had come to see me but terrified of mom they didn’t dare to knock on the door and left after waiting sometime in the corridor. I could hear them whispering. Our war games had stopped. Everybody heard about the misdeed of Aman. His parents had put him under house arrest as well.
“He should face court martial.” I demanded to dad.
Dad smiled. “Both of you should face court martial. There are so many sports and you guys have to play war games?”
I couldn’t answer him. How could I possibly explain to him how thrilling and exciting it was.
A few days later, Aman and his parents visited us one evening. Uncle Syed and Aunt Misha were kind and affectionate people. Aunt Misha brought me some sweets that she made herself. I devoured them. The best part came when both of them demanded that Aman formally apologized to me. Aman put on a nasty frown on his face, stubbornly looked down on the ground and robotically recited, “Sorry. It was a mistake. I’ll never do it again.”
His mom prompted him to say some additional stuff which he didn’t even attempt to. No amount of scolding or pleading made Aman open his mouth again. Frustrated his parents said many kind things and promised to come see me again before pulling Aman away.
My parents ruled that until my stitches completely healed I wouldn’t be allowed to go out. As a result I had to spend my afternoons in the balcony. Bashar, Ratul, Joti, Roni and others played hide and seek. They didn’t let Aman play with them for several days. Aman used to stand all by himself. After I urged Ratul he was allowed in. I thought after that we would become friends but in reality he continued to hold grudge against me.
In the mean time something much serious happened. A few days later one afternoon mom went to visit the neighbouring suite taking Milky along with her. I was sitting in the balcony watching the regular activities on the ground. Kids were running around as usual. Men grouped up and just started playing volleyball. Dad went to play after missing a few days. I noticed that the men had two teams with fixed members who faced each other every day. In one team belonged dad along with Uncles Syed, Bajlur, Jafor and Joti’s dad, Roni’s dad and two other officers. The other team was consisted of Uncle Altaf, Captain Sujon, Major Nayeem, Shirin’s dad, Ovi’s dad, Ranju’s dad and other two officers. In total eight players in each team. Someday additional players came in who were randomly distributed between the two teams. Most of the officers were captains and majors but there were a few colonels as well. In dad’s team only Uncle Jafor was a major, rest of them captains. In Uncle Altaf’s team he and Uncle Nayeem were majors and the rest captains. Captain Sujon who played in his team was very noisy and temperamental. Most had already seen him losing his cool a few times. However, things had never gone too far primarily because nobody wanted unnecessary trouble.
Today I noticed Captain Sujon was pointing a finger at dad and was speaking aggressively. Dad was generally very calm person but when mad he could get out of control. Soon I realized he was engaged in an argument with Captain Sujon. Most probably it was about scoring a point. Dad had carefully left alone a service ball served by Captain Sujon which bounced outside of the playing area. However Captain Sujon would not accept that and insisted that the ball actually bounced inside the court. Members of both teams sincerely tried to resolve the issue but for whatever reason things went out of hand. Eventually the argument spread out among others and soon two teams engaged into a shouting match. The sudden turn of events took everybody in such shock that the children stopped playing and the women hurried out. The argument turned uglier and a skirmish broke down. Major Jafor and Captain Sujon got into a fist fight. At one point Captain Sujon pulled a knife out of his pocket and attacked Major Jafor with it. Uncle Altaf reached out and held him tightly in a lock immobilizing him.
“I’ll arrange for your court martial.” Uncle Jafor shouted. “You’ll be returning to Bangladesh, won’t you?”
Several women had run to the ground. They tried to pull away their husbands from the field. I saw mom bolting toward dad with Milky still in her lap. Uncles Bajlur and Syed had already pushed dad out of the field. Mom held his hand and stubbornly pulled him in the suite. Still too agitated dad stepped out in the balcony and continued to yell at his opponents.
The situation in the ground had improved considerably by now. A few men held back Captain Sujon while many others had already returned to their homes. It took another few hours before peace returned. But the impact of this event continued for several days. The trouble in the volleyball ground touched our social lives as well. Uncle Altaf and dad were very good friends but after that incident their relationship turned cold. They only exchanged stiff pleasantries when faced each other. The volleyball game had also stopped for a little while.
In the mean time, my stitches were opened. There was a clearly visible scar on the forehead, which I thought gave me something to be proud of. After all it was received during a battle, mock or not. That afternoon stepping out after weeks I banged on the light post with a fist sized rock dong…dong…dong…At first a few of the boys came out curiously. Soon we called out the rest, even Aman, collectively agreed not to use any rocks and started the battle in full force. A few days later the men were back in the volleyball ground however captain Sujon was nowhere to be seen.
At the end of January a decision was taken to send us all to fort Sandaman.