A Boy and a War
S R Shuja
The small town called Fort Sandaman was located in the valley of Jobe. The word Jobe meant stream of water. The name reflected the fact that it was the source of the river Jobe. A part of Baluchistan this region was on the north-east border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This valley was famous for its mountainous geography and historical value in whole of Pakistan. This valley begun from Muslimbag, a place 7500 feet above the sea level and ended in Fort Sandaman, 10000 feet above sea level. The town was named after Sir Robert Sandaman who established the rule of British Empire in this region. He was the political agent of the Governor General of Baluchistan in 1890. This town was located about three hundred kilometres away from Quetta. (* Today it is called Jobe. In 1976 July 30th Zulfikar Ali Bhutto changed the name of Fort Sandaman to Jobe.)
We rode the train once again. Another memorable trip! We passed through mountains after mountains and tunnels after tunnels on our way to Fort Sandaman. It was a small town surrounded by pine forests. We were placed inside the cantonment. There were inadequate officers housing hence two families had to share the same house. Major Yunus’s family and our family shared a two bedroom house. Uncle Yunus had two sons – Tanna and Mijan. We were three siblings. It was very difficult for one family to live in just one room. Dad applied for new housing. He was informed that in the officer’s housing there was no other vacancy however in the GCO housing there were. Dad readily accepted it. We packed up again, bid farewell to Tanna and Mijan and moved to the GCO quarter nearby. This house was also a two bedroom unit but we had it all by ourselves. Dad and mom sighed in relief. They occupied one room with Milky sleeping with them, Rushi and I took the other. We got our own beds. Rushi was a bad sleeper and continued to fall from his bed almost every night. Sometimes she managed to get back on the bed, some other mornings we found her curled up on the floor. This soon became a cherished joke among us. Milky had started to crawl. He looked very happy in the new house.
The houses here were built in rows with tilted roofs. A road ran across just ahead. Tall light posts flanked it on both sides. Officer’s quarter was only a few minutes’ walk. I used to walk down there very often to play with Bashar and Ratul. Roushon bhai and Rushni apa’s family got a specious house. I visited them whenever an opportunity came. Dad and Uncle Altaf still hadn’t completely warmed up. However, their coldness did not have any impact on the kid’s. Very often Roushon bhai and Rushni apa walked us home.
One day with pure shock I discovered that Aman’s family occupied a house very close to ours. Since he injured me our relationship had remained cold. We played together but barely spoke. Being forced to come to our house and apologize to me must have been very embarrassing to him because every time he saw me his face turned dark.
Since we moved to Fort Sandaman our war games were on hold primarily because it was winter here. This region could get pretty cold and heavy snowfall was a usual thing. We were from tropical region, not accustomed to severe cold. Many of us suffered from cold and cough on regular basis. Nevertheless we bolted out at every opportunity we got. The temptation to play outdoors with friends was too strong to be held back by petty weather. On my regular visits to Officer’s housing I started to meet Aman quite frequently. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that Aman planned it that way. Against all odds we soon became good friends though I had to initiate the process. One day as he silently walked with me to the officer’s quarters I stopped. “Let’s be friends.” I proposed.
Aman twisted his lips and observed me thoughtfully. Finally he nodded approvingly. We curved our pointers and held them briefly together like hooks. We now became committed to a lifelong friendship.
“My forehead is fine now.” I said casually.
Aman smiled quietly. He wasn’t very good with words but his smiles were meaningful. It clearly told me that he was very happy.
Next afternoon it snowed a little. The rolling hills, tilted roofs, asphalt roads everything became covered in white snow. Mom had cautioned me earlier not to go out in that weather. I had nothing much to do and was quite bored at home. I wondered what Aman was doing. Mom was keeping a close eye fearing I might ignore her warning and slipped out of the house. Suddenly I heard a loud bang …dong…dong…dong…somebody was using a rock to bang on the light post – the war bell! Mom heard that as well. “Step outside and I’ll break your legs.” She issued a stern warning.
Helpless and unhappy I stomped inside the house restlessly. Dad chuckled. “Let him go for a little bit. Don’t go too far.”
“You indulge him too much.” Mom shot back. “He slips out as he wishes. Doesn’t listen to anything I say.”
I bolted out of the door before dad changed his mind. Stepping out I got a pleasant surprise. All the boys from officer’s housing including Bashar and Ratul had come and Aman was diligently banging the war bell. We didn’t waste any time. Two teams were formed quickly and the game started – once again. The only difference this time was that Aman and I belonged to the same team. Pretty soon with all our shouting and screaming we shook up the neighbourhood.
We didn’t play every day. Sometimes Aman and I walked aimlessly in the surrounding areas. It became one of our favourite activities. Often we met the locals. They waived affectionately, sometimes made small conversations. Every time we went in new direction. Occasionally even Rushi joined us with her favourite doll in her lap. Many of the soldiers knew us. “Boys, don’t go too far.” They gravely warned. “Go back home before its dark.” We adhered to those rules anyway. First of all, getting back late would mean relentless scolding from mom; secondly, both of us were more or less scared of darkness.
There was no school here. We were all being home schooled. Dad and mom suddenly started to push both Rushi and me harder into studies. They feared that once we returned home we would be behind considerably than other kids of our age. At this point our lives became quite difficult. I heard that everybody was pondering to start a temporary school inside the confinement for the expatriate Bangladeshis. To find proper books and eligible teachers for the older kids could be difficult but getting something going for the younger kids like us was relatively easy. However, owing to various issues the school didn’t materialize during the winter months. We were very excited about the school. Under normal conditions getting out of the house before afternoon was hard for all of us. With the school open we could spend a major portion of the day away from the hawk eyes of our parents. We weren’t too crazy about studying but we were ready to take it for some freedom.
In the mean time dad found a hafiz (a religious scholar) among the soldiers. He was about 24/25 and grew up in Khulna. He had memorized the Qur’an to its entirety. A cheerful person in nature he taught kids how to read Arabic and eventually the Qur’an. I liked him for his carefree nature. His name was Mohammed Meher, we called him Meher bhai. He called mom aunt and quickly became an integral part of our family. He taught Rushi and me how to read Arabic. Rushi got stuck on the alphabets while I quickly passed through the intermediate stages and started to read Qur’an. Though I didn’t understand the meaning of the words but I learned to read it very well. Meher bhai tried to teach me how to recite Qur’an but I had no interest in that. All I wanted was to finish reading the Qur’an at least once and stunt my friends many of who were struggling to finish Ampara, the intermediary step.
Meher bhai used to teach Bashar and Ratul Arabic as well and both were stuck in Ampara. He felt they were not paying much attention. I on the other hand continued to surprise him, according to him, with my hard work as I read through half of a chapter in one sitting, not a simple task for a novice reader by any means. What he didn’t know was a little secret that worked like steroid for me. My parents had promised me to arrange for a milad muhfil (a religious gathering) to celebrate my completion of Qur’an where all my friends along with their families would be invited. Just the thought of everybody coming under the same roof to acknowledge one of my great accomplishments gave me goose bumps.
Few days later we received a letter from Dadu. This was the first letter since independence. Dadu wrote that they were safe and sound in the village. After the robbery attempt things had been pretty quiet. The dacoits were never caught. Everybody was fine in nana’s house as well. Knowing my especial concern he specifically mentioned about Rani apa. She could not go to Khulna and stayed back in the village during the war. The worthless Bashir apparently joined a unit of freedom fighters and was killed in an operation. His death was sort of suspicious as nobody saw the dead body. Dadu cast his doubt about him really joining the war. Chachu and his family were okay in Satkhira. They had suffered no damages. To his best knowledge khala and khalu were doing just fine in Khulna.
We were all very much relieved, especially me. The news of Bashir dying came as a pleasant surprise. I had no doubt Allah was beating the hell out of him. That’s what you get for eve teasing. Dad and mom arranged for a religious gathering where one or several persons would recite the Quran from start to end. Meher bhai decided to recite it all alone throughout the day. As a Hafez he had the Quran memorized. The event created big commotion in the kid’s circle. How could anybody memorize such a large book when we had tough time remembering tiny verses! Everybody came to see him reciting from memory. In the evening when the recitation finally completed mom offered everybody her homemade sweet balls and galebi. Her galebi turned out reasonably good but the sweet balls often came out kind of hard. Today was no exception. However, everybody gorged on them anyway.
The winter passed by eventually. Here the summer was hot but not as humid which made it kind of bearable. After a lot of trouble finally a school was established for the kids. There was a single storied building near the officer’s housing which was converted into the school. Initially it started with only three grades – two, three and four. Even though I had completed all the grade two books at home I had to be admitted in grade two because of my age. The only other student in my class was Ratul. Rest of the boys who came to attend the school were slightly older than two of us. Most of them were put in grade three with a handful in grade four. This was the first time ever for me and Ratul in a school. We both loved it especially the short recesses after every lesson. We all poured out in the field and kicked around a soccer ball until call for the next lesson came.
In grade two our teacher was a young woman named Nabiha Khan. She was very pretty and kept herself well. She spoke softly and smiled frequently. When she spoke both Ratul and I listened eagerly. We competed against each other to become her object of affection. We raced to finish our class works ahead of the other. Fortunately I beat Ratul most of the time. When she smiled beautifully at me and said in her pleasant voice,” Good work Khoka!” my world became so much better. Sometimes if Ratul was sick I was sent to grade three. I hated those days. I wanted to be in Miss Nabiha’s class. Eventually Ratul and I learned to share this wonderful gift between us. Miss Nabiha must have guessed something fishy was going on noticing our constant nudges and whisperings because I found her chuckling every now and then. Talk about embarrassment!
Time passed by in Fort Sandaman. While the kids had considerably good time with school and sports the adults were more or less bored. My parents were anxious to go back home. How long could one remain stuck in a foreign land? I noticed dad looked worried sometimes. The new prime minister of Bangladesh was naturally Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He returned to Bangladesh on 19th January 1972 after being released from the Pakistani prison. At first he occupied the position of the president but later resigned and accepted the position of the prime minister. On 4th November same year Bangladesh created its first constitution in the same form of British styled Indian constitution. All the news that we received gave us an impression that the situation in Bangladesh could take a while to settle down. Many freedom fighters did not give up their weapons after the independence. Many joined the Bangladesh army and occupied higher ranks too quickly. Dad and other officers who were stuck in Pakistan feared that when they returned home they won’t get their fitting ranks. It was their misfortune that they became stuck in West Pakistan and did not have the opportunity to participate in the war for Bangladesh. They believed officers who were juniors to them would grab this opportunity to embarrass them. I could make out from his expressions that he was seriously pondering of quitting army once he returned home. However returning to Bangladesh seemed a distant option. Pakistan was using us to have India release the large number of soldiers and officers it took as prisoners. Exchanging prisoners wasn’t an easy thing especially when this was done with a third country. There were also many Biharis stranded in Bangladesh who wanted to return to Pakistan. Overall quite a complex situation. Things seemed to move very slowly in the political arena. We knew unless things started to go much faster our chances of going back home too soon were an unrealistic one.
Mom planted some vegetable in the small patch of land attached to the house. I lend her a hand whenever possible. Milky had turned a year old. He was power crawling and had started to stand up on his own. He was already trying to follow me everywhere. If I went outside he would scream to go with me. If I went to the garden he would also crawl to the garden. Helpless I had to pick him up in my lap or he would plough through the plants. Aman became very fond of him. He had no siblings. He must have felt very lonely at home because he frequently visited our house. Mom liked him for his quiet and calm nature. Later he even joined us in Arabic class. However Meher bhai was not impressed with his progress and often teased him. “Aman, are you reading Bengali or Arabic?”
Aman was determined not to get discouraged. Meher bhai was a patient man. He tried hard to help him pick it up. My progress, on the other hand, started to make both my parents and Meher bhai suspicious. They did not appreciate my fast pace. Could it be that I wasn’t reading properly? May be I was making a lot of mistakes. They hinted at many things. I remained motivated ignoring all criticisms.
The short summer raced by as the winter was approaching fast. I still had several chapters to read and was starting to have serious doubts about meeting my goal. The final test in school was also coming up. We learned that the first boy or girl in every grade would get a reward. Beating Ratul didn’t seem like a problem at all. I was already speculating about the nature and size of the reward that I was going to receive.
In this mountainous region winter came abruptly. Before we knew the summer was gone. The feeling of coolness felt sort of good in the beginning of winter but later things became shivering cold. Every morning Aman and I walked to the school all wrapped up in warm cloths. I was in grade two, Aman grade three.
Miss Nabiha prepared the question papers for the final exam. She explained repeatedly the full syllabus of our ensuing tests. There will be two tests – English and Maths. Her question papers were usually easy. The thought of receiving the prize from her hand sounded so luring that I studied very well. Ratul and I sat side by side on the same bench and wrote the tests. Miss Nabiha sometime sat in front of us, sometime stepped out to get fresh air.
The English test went very well for both of us. We answered all the questions correctly. Ratul was good in English. His problem was maths. I had strong belief that in maths I would have no problem beating him. Once I looked at the question paper I could not stop smiling. It was so easy! Even Ratul looked very relaxed. However, around the end he faced some difficulties. When Miss Nabiha stepped out he asked for my help. The thought of not helping a friend never occurred in my mind. I, rather foolishly, showed him everything he needed. What a catastrophe! When the results came out I found out that I scored 1 point less in English than Ratul. We both scored same points in Maths. Ratul was first, me second.
On the day when Miss Nabiha brought the huge wrapped up gift to Ratul’s house I was playing in the vicinity. She waved at me. I waved back dryly. Finally it was Ratul who won. I didn’t have to help him with maths. I shook the thought out of my mind quickly. He was my friend and helping him was the right thing to do. Who cared about a stinky award? Aman read my mind. He approved, in his own way. “This is a worthless prize. Let’s go for a walk.” I quietly followed him.
My parents had much more difficulty in accepting it. None of them had any doubt that I secured the first position. Recently news were being leaked that the kids whose parents were in the governing body of the school were receiving undue favours, especially from the teachers. I found it difficult to believe that Miss Nabiha would intentionally give me low score. In English I was generally better than Ratul but perhaps I didn’t do as well in this particular test. May be I did a few silly mistakes. My being second had nothing to do with Ratul’s dad being a member of the governing body. But it was difficult to explain that to my parents especially mom. The suspicion became so strong that next year I wasn’t sent to school any more. I was being home schooled. I had no desire to leave the joyous environment of the school and stay home but there wasn’t much I could do. I saw my friends in the afternoon. Recently we stopped playing war games and started to play soccer. Who knew there was so much pleasure in chasing a ball around! My skill grew fast. Soon I became a key player in the group.
One night in the wee hours a sudden loud noise woke me up. Dad and mom woke up too. Dad looked outside through the windows to figure out what might have happened. That didn’t help much as none of the windows in our house had a clear view of the road. But we agreed that it sounded like a car skidding and hitting something. “Could be an accident.” Dad said. “You guys go to bed. I’ll go check.”
I wanted to go with him but mom stopped me. Disheartened I went back to bed. I thought of staying awake until dad returned but I was tired and soon went back to sleep. In the morning after waking up I slipped out of the house. Aman was coming this way. I learned from him that the commander himself had a car accident the night before. We ran toward the street. After looking around for a little bit we found the spot. The wreckage of the car had already been moved but the sign of the accident was very prominent on the lamp post where it happened.
That night I had a bloody nightmare. Screaming at the top of my voice I woke everybody up in the household. Mom was merciless. “Did you go to check out the accident site? Did you?” She screamed. “No wonder you are having nightmares. Didn’t I ask you not to? One more screams and I’ll slap the crap out of you.”
I dipped inside the blanket and tried to sleep. I used to see a lot of dreams but not scary ones. This really freaked me out.
Finally at the end of March 1973 I completed reading Qur’an for the first time. Still suspicious about the quality my parents arranged for the celebration anyway. Mom prepared her famous galebi and hard sweet balls. Dad bought some stuff from the market as well. Meher bhai lead the milad muhfil with every bit of his heart. All the boys had come though not all of their parents did. I was noticing as the days passed by the kids were gradually learning to stop quibbling and to be friends while the grownups were getting more divided. It was becoming difficult for us to keep track of the bickering parents who weren’t in talking terms.
Roushon bhai and Rushni apa came in the milad but Uncle Altaf and Aunt Nuri didn’t. After that fight in the volleyball ground the relationship between the adults never really went back to the way it was before. Since Ratul secured first position the interaction between my parents and Uncle Bajlur and Aunt Saleha turned cold too. But I wasn’t to be bothered with those tiny details. I was happy to see all my friends in the milad. We screamed at the top of our voice ‘Yea nobi salam alaika’ (salute to you dear prophet) with Meher bhai. I felt quite proud knowing that my friends were looking at me little differently at my achievement. Meher bhai was so happy that he bought a hat for me.
However, there was a by-product of this that made my life little painful. My parents started to push me to pray. Dad sometimes insisted me to join him in a group prayer. I obliged. However, after each prayer I raised my hands to Allah and prayed for toys and picture books. And surprisingly Allah listened to me and left small toys and occasionally story books under my pillow. That was probably the beginning of my reading habit. The few books that I received were written in easy English. I read them many times. Soon I noticed that Allah wasn’t paying heed to my prayers any more. As a result my interest in prayer diminished too.