A Boy and a War
S R Shuja
After we reached Karachi we stayed overnight in the Cantonment of Mali. We could not stay with Ayesha Apa and Jaman dulabhai this time. They were preparing to leave too. Their flight date was to be set later as they were civilians. Dad took permission to leave the cantonment to see them. Our flight was scheduled next day. This time we were allowed to fly over India cutting short the total travel time by quite a bit. Last time when we flew Milky was only a baby and had screamed our heads off, however this time around things were just opposite. He must have had mistaken the plane as a playground. It became really difficult to keep him constrained in his seat. He climbed down and ran up and down the aisle causing considerable amount of annoyance among some passengers. Rushi threw up twice. Dad was ready for something like this and no accidents happened. What I was surprised to notice that I had grown some sort of fear of height. This wasn’t something that I was aware of before. Not sure how I got it but I couldn’t even look out the window for most part of the flight.
I was about to doze off when the plane landed in Dhaka International airport. As I opened my eyes a glimpse of series of brick buildings and matured trees greeted me. It all felt so beautiful and personal. Even though I had never lived in Dhaka but still I had these amazing feeling of belonging to this city, this land. Mom was tearful. Not sure why. Dad smiled and said,” Finally back to home.”
In Dhaka we didn’t have any close relatives. Doctor Asfak of Khulna had several brothers living in Dhaka. One of them was Uncle Mustak, who was a reputed engineer. He and his family came to receive us at the airport. We were very eager to go to Khulna and see our relatives but dad had to join in his job first. Once things settled down for him at work he could take a few days off and we would be able to make the trip to Khulna. I was eagerly counting days.
We stayed with Uncle Mustak’s family for a few days in their house in Bhuter Goli. They had three children. Inti apa, Akash bhai and Shokash. Inti apa was a few years older than me and very affectionate. We liked her very much. Six kids in the same house – our days just flew by.
Dad applied for vacation almost immediately after joining in his job. His application was accepted and he was given a month off. We packed up our stuff again and got into a bus to Khulna the next day. Our plan was to stay in Khulna briefly and then go to Satkhira. After staying there one or two days we would go to the village.
It took us more than twelve hours to reach Khulna. The familiar view of the beautiful town dotted with coconut trees came as a big relief. Spending days in a train never felt boring or painful but sitting in the crammed space of a bus for so long was unbearable. Especially the smell of Rushi’s vomit was sickening. Considering our long travel plan I sort of felt pity for her. Throwing up wasn’t a pleasant thing to do. The only person who showed no sign of tiredness or annoyance was Milky. Every few seconds he came up with all these absurd questions and mercilessly bombarded us with them. We took two rickshaws from the Khulna bus stand. The pullers knew where khalu lived. In a town of this size reputed doctors, lawyers and politicians were known by almost everybody.
Our arrival in khala’s house stirred things up quite a bit. They already knew we were coming. When we reached we found half the neighbourhood had gathered there. Mom hugged khala and broke into tears. Rushi, scared of the crowd, grabbed mom’s saree and started crying as well. I only saw Milky for a moment since we climbed down the rickshaws before the waiting crowd snatched him away. He was born in this house so naturally everybody had a special soft corner for him.
The house hadn’t changed much in the last few years. Though khalu hadn’t been a supporter of independence he didn’t fully object to it either. Instead by chairing the local peace committee he had saved the life of many people. Possibly that’s why he had no trouble after the war. In addition when Roni bhai returned in one piece after the war ended the honour of this family went sky high. However, I learned from khala that like many other freedom fighters Roni bhai was unable to receive any reward or privilege from the government after the war.
Roni bhai didn’t look much different. The card games went on as usual in the roof top den. Moni bhai looked his normal self. He cracked jokes every now and then and everybody burst into laughter. Parvoti’s mom didn’t like the extra effort that she had to put to make and carry tea and snacks for the gang. She was complaining all the time. I got confirmed news that Yunus did join the war. Roni bhai saw him in one of the training centers. However, he did not come back after the war ended. Khalu checked with his parents in the village. He did not go back there either. Nobody knew if he was killed in the war.
We stayed only one day in Khulna. My parents were anxious to see their folks. They were very eager to go to the village as soon as possible. Even I felt a strange pull for the meandering dirt roads, the huts with thatched roofs and the tree lined shadowy ponds – I missed all of them. Never before had I felt such strong feelings for the village. The urge that I felt to get together with my grandparents, jhima and Rani apa was something that cannot be expressed in words. I could still hear the melodious tune that Alek played in his bamboo pipe. How was he? When he see me would he come running as always and hug me and say,”How are you Khoka? Why so late?”
The distance between Khulna and Satkhira wasn’t too much but it took six hours due to the local nature of the service. We were annoyed to the core but totally helpless. That was the only service available on this route. The bus stopped every few minutes to pick up and drop off passengers. Dad objected a couple of times but was ignored. When we reached Satkhira it was late afternoon. Chachu were informed about our arrival. He and Minu Apa were waiting for us in the bus stand. Dad climbed down the bus and hugged Chachu, his eyes welling up. It was not very apparent under normal conditions how deeply he felt about his older brother.
“How are you, bhaijan?”
“We are fine. We are okay. Never thought we’ll see you guys again. What a war it was!” Chachu couldn’t hold his tears as he replied.
Minu apa observed me with a surprised look.” You grew up quite a bit!”
“Do you expect me to be little always?” I trivially said.
Minu apa hit me on the back affectionately. “You are not that big yet, big guy! Who is this little boy? Where did you find him?”
Milky giggled as she diverted her attention toward him. Soon Minu apa completely forgot about my presence and started to cuddle with little Milky. I felt a little jealous. Looked like all the love and attention I used to get before had to be shared with Milky now. Growing up wasn’t as trouble free as it seemed. Anyway, when dad told me, “Khoka make sure that all the stuff are loaded in the rickshaws” I had a different type of feelings. I wasn’t a kid anymore and was now a dependable person. It felt pretty good.
There was an even bigger crowd waiting to greet us in Chachu’s house. The whole neighbourhood had gathered there. It was a common knowledge that we were confined in West Pakistan during the war and two years after the independence. They all were very curious to know about our lives. The questions came in incessantly. Where we lived? What we ate? Did they put us in jail? Finally when everybody returned home we all sighed in relief. My parents were aiming to leave for the village the next day. There was no need to carry everything with us. Hence they needed a little time to repack some essentials for the trip. We chatted very late into the night. We were to start around noon next day. Minu apa was coming with us too. Kaliganj was only about twenty miles from Satkhira. In a bus it could take more than couple of hours. Dad decided to travel in a scooter. I could barely sleep in excitement.
Next morning it started to rain lightly. Rain was pretty common in Bangladesh. It was part of life. It didn’t stop anybody from travelling. Nobody seemed worried. But everybody agreed it was a nuisance. Six of us were planning to ride in one scooter, a vehicle built to carry only four. Which meant some of us would have to get more or less wet on the way. We had no other choice. Chachi pressed us to eat our lunch before starting. We quickly ate and climbed into the scooter that Chachu had fetched walking to the scooter stand with his umbrella. Mom sat at the back seat with Minu apa, Rushi and Milky. Dad and I squeezed into the driver’s seat flanking him on both sides. This was a common practice and the scooter drivers did not object.
Sitting comfortably in mom’s lap Milky curiously looked around and drivelled cheerfully. Where were we going? Why? What was a grandpa? Was there any cows? Could he ride a cow? We had to chuckle at the rate and manner of his questions. The rain stopped but the road was wet forcing automobiles to go slowly. Not ours though. The driver shot through the road overtaking whoever came ahead, totally disregarding the road conditions. It was a narrow one lane road, overtaking meant moving into the lane with oncoming traffic. The roads were busy and overtaking seemed like a risky business. Several times we narrowly made it back to our lane. However, the driver didn’t seem to be concerned at all. This was probably part of his regular chore driving on these roads. We were away for a while and were not at all comfortable. Mom warned the driver on regular interval. “Son, drive carefully. There’s no need to rush.”
There was a bus coming at us, overlapping on both lanes. This was enough to terrify us; however, our driver didn’t seem to care much as he smiled patiently to mom’s warning and moved to the shoulder to create enough room to pass safely. Something seriously went wrong at this point. It happened quickly, almost in a blink, like an absurd dream. The bus bumped into us, forcing the small scooter into rolling on its side and thrown into the paddy field next to the road. I tried to move but couldn’t. My leg was stuck somewhere. I saw dad jerking himself out from under the scooter. There was lot of blood on him. He had cuts but the location was not clear. The driver had serious head injuries. He looked weak, lethargic. His wound could be deadly. I looked back to check on mom. She had numerous cuts on her forehead with blood spraying out. She must have had sensed the accident was going to happen because she sheltered Milky with her body wrapped around him. Milky was unhurt but was howling at the top of his voice. Minu apa looked unhurt. I saw blood on Rushi’s forehead suggesting she probably had a cut. Panicked, Rushi jumped out of the scooter and ran into the paddy fields, crying. Dad called her out several times but she didn’t seem to hear and continued to run away.
A few farm hands were working in the fields nearby who had seen the accident and came to help us. They brought back Rushi from the paddy fields. Rushi looked possessed and kept on kicking and screaming making it difficult for the poor farmer who was holding her in his lap. The bus that hit us continued to charge ahead. However, to our relief, soon it slowed down to a total stop a few hundred yards away from the accident spot. We later found out that the passengers of the bus had forced the driver to stop.
Several of the passengers came running at us to offer their help. If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t be able to get to the hospital quickly and get necessary treatment. A few men pushed the scooter on its wheels. I was still stuck inside. My left leg was caught under the gear. I could not pull it out as I had no strength or feelings there, not even pain. As two-three men pulled on the gear it loosened a little, enough for dad and a volunteer to quickly free me. I tried to stand on my legs but couldn’t and fell helplessly on the ground. I could not put any weight on my left leg. Dad picked me up in his lap and carried me into the bus that had now backed up near us.
As we all boarded the bus the floor turned red with the blood that streamed out of the injuries. Looking at mom my heart sunk. Her face was covered in thickened red blood and sprinkled white material, possibly tissues from her cuts. I wasn’t sure about my injuries yet but as there was no pain I felt pretty normal. We were driven directly to the Satkhira Central Hospital. After initial checkups we got the full damage report. Mom had two cuts on her forehead; each required four-five stitches. None of them were serious! Thanks God! Rushi needed three-four stitches as well. Dad’s cut was on his thigh. It was deep but fortunately missed the vein. As for me, my upper left leg bone was broken into two pieces.
The same evening I returned to Chacha’s house with my leg plastered in thick white mold. A separate bed was set for me in a conveniently located room on the first floor. The plastered leg went up on a sling attached to the frame of the bed and stayed there full time. I had never felt so miserable in my whole life. The most painful was the itching inside the plaster. Sometimes I felt like going crazy with multiple spots begging for a scratch, places where even the ruler wouldn’t reach. Who knew such misery was waiting for me on my return to Bangladesh? I wept in despair days after days.
However, not everything was bad. Soon I started to see some good sides of it too. Everybody in the household took turns to take care of me – feeding me, cleaning me and giving me company. Relatives and family acquaintances travelled from far to see me. Dad, mom and Rushi healed up quickly. If my leg didn’t break we could have made the trip to the village home. They didn’t want to go without me. As a result folks from village came to see me. Dadu, dadi and Jhima came first. Shocked to see me lying on my back with my plastered leg hanging from a sling jhima broke into tears. “Oh my God! What you guys have done to my Khoka?”
The few days she stayed she barely moved from my side. Unfortunately they had to leave soon as the labourers were working back in the farm house and they needed to be present. I was hoping Rani apa would come soon but news came that they won’t be able to come now. Mama was very busy at school. Final exams were approaching fast. He had many duties to perform. They were planning to come after the exams. Nana also sent news that he would come as soon as possible. Both mentioned that whoever came first would bring Rani apa with him. I sighed. I wasn’t going anywhere. Doctors said it could take me a few months to heal.
In the meantime talk of us going back to Dhaka came up. There was little chance of me getting proper treatment in such small town hospital. I felt disappointed. The hope of seeing Rani apa this time around shrunk considerably.
After about three weeks I was taken back to the hospital for another check up. An x-ray revealed that the bones were not placed properly and if left alone could join slightly overlapping. That meant I might end up having to hobble all my life. A decision was taken to cut down the plaster and try to set the bones in right place. Next day I was carried to the hospital again. The nightmare that took place after that was something that I could never describe. Five – six adult men held my broken leg from two ends and started to pull in the opposite direction. The pain was so excruciating that I screamed and moaned vehemently trying to get away from the stronghold. Dad had grabbed my torso tightly to the bed. “A little longer, dear; just a little longer.” He continuously pleaded. The pulling went for about five minutes. It felt like eternity. Finally when it stopped I wept in joy. A new plaster was put on. The doctors didn’t look happy. They were doubtful if the approach worked. Dad decided to return to Dhaka as soon as my new plaster dried up. This took four – five days.
The day before we started for Dhaka nana, mama and Rani apa showed up in Satkhira. Rani apa looked sad at my immobile, helpless condition. Every time we got together we ran around, climbed trees, swam in the ponds – all the kiddie things. This was an unusual situation for us. She had grown up a little bit, the childish restlessness seemed to be gone, replaced by a slight matured demeanour, though not like an adult. She brought me some tamarind seed biscuits from Uncle Jobbar’s store. I ate them with great satisfaction. Milky seemed to like them too and returned for more. Later it turned out he was more interested in feeding the chickens chachi kept.
Rani apa mentioned since the liberation the overall situation in the villages had turned even worse. Mama was seriously pondering about moving to Khulna. He was looking for a job there. If things worked out then he would definitely make the move. He would have to employ somebody to take care of his farmland back in the village, but that was a minor obstacle. I voiced my total approval in anticipation that I could see her whenever we visited Khulna.
Dad rented a microbus to take us to Dhaka. With my leg on plaster I couldn’t have travelled in a bus. We started pretty early next morning. Mom held nana and cried for long time. For the first time in my life I understood why she cried. Under her tough, often bi-polar personality there was a helpless, emotional little girl who never fully grew up. Rani apa held my hand. “You’ll be alright.” She said. “We’ll pick mangoes again. When you can walk come back. Won’t you?”
I nodded. I would. The corners of my eyes became wet for no apparent reason. I had travelled this far for nothing. I couldn’t even make it to the villages. I could clearly hear the call of the beautiful greeneries and the far stretched fields. Once back to Dhaka dad would return to work, I’ll eventually have to go to school, once my leg cured. Who knew when would we be able to come back again?
Rani apa and many others walked behind our microbus as it slowly advanced over the gravel road heading to the main street. I watched them as long as I could see. Deep inside my throat a knot formed, I couldn’t even swallow. Perhaps I was just as emotional as mom was.