A Boy and a War
S R Shuja
Finally one day mom declared that she was feeling well enough to visit her parental house. She still had volcanic coughs and the dreaded morning sickness but not as bad as before – in her own words. Nana had already inquired several times making sure mom knew how eagerly he was awaiting her visit. Considering the drama queen she was I understood his anxiety. As for me I was counting days. I loved dadu’s house the most but the totally different set of activities and attractions that waited for me in nana’s house was simply irresistable. Of course, once there everything evolved around Rani apa. Having a gang of cousins enhanced the overall excitement by manifold.
Dadu arranged for our trip to Dorgahpur – nana’s house. One fine morning we started on a bullock cart. The cart would return after dropping us. Nana would arrange our return trip. To spice up our slow and steady progress I resorted to my usual catch-me-if-you-can routine. I jumped out of the cart, ran ahead until I was out of breath, stood under tall palm trees that lined many parts of the dusty road and waited for the cart to catch me up. Eventually it did cover the distance with its painfully leisurely movement but I again bolted ahead and gave it a new target. Mom and Rushi were quite comfortable under the covered hood, occasionally dosing off.
Many of our relatives lived by the road to Dorgahpur. News travelled fast in the villages. Hearing that mom was passing by many came out of their houses to greet her. ‘Jaira! It’s been so long we have seen you…”
We had to stop. Mom remained in the cart as the women flocked it, most with veils pulled far down. A quick session of chit chat was inevitably followed by tears and sobs. These village women were so emotional! Eventually we moved on, after an eternity. Every time we were interrupted my impatience grew. We were wasting time. Every stoppage added additional one hour to our dead slow journey. Mom read my mind and called out every now and then, “come to me, son.”
I didn’t; instead I bolted ahead and picked a tall palm tree to stand under until the cart caught me up.
We went and went on the meandering dirt road for several more hours crossing a number of villages before finally approaching the rickety red brick boundary wall of nana’s house. I was instantly pumped up. We went past by a small round manmade lake and a Madrasa – Islamic school – built next to it. The fading sound of a sweet voice reciting Quran in Arabic greeted us right before Rani apa and her army of kids broke the peace with a raucous welcome. Nana had married four times, under reasonable circumstances. He had many children, most quite young. Rani apa, leading the pack, picked me up in her lap. I blushed. She must have had forgotten that I wasn’t a little kid anymore.
My mom’s mother died when she was only a few months old. Her older sister (khala) practically raised her. She was my mother’s only sister from the same mother. Nana had two living wives (senior nani and junior nani) who lived in the same house in their separate sections. Each of them had several kids and looked beaten and weary. They came promptly to greet us. Nana was away but we were told that he would be back before nightfall. Knowing mom I was instantly alarmed. She did not disappoint me. Learning that nana decided to go out even after knowing she would be arriving today mom instantly welled up and allowed the stream of tears roll down her cheek profusely. This of course had a striking effect on the crowd that gathered around us. The sympathy that came flooding was overwhelming with senior and junior nani struggling to explain. Mom threw in some sobbing into the mixture before uttering the magic words. “Dad never loved me.”
This caused a gasp in the crowd. “He’ll be back soon.” Senior nani carefully said. “He didn’t want to go but had no choice.”
“Why don’t you step inside the house?” Junior nani added. “Your dad has slaughtered a goat for you.”
Mom snared. “Did I come all this way to eat? Do you think I don’t get goat in the city? How much did it weigh?”
“Almost 20 pounds.” Junior nani cautiously replied.
“Small goat.” Mom sighed. “Dad just wants me to go away.”
I had never understood her very well. Why would somebody create such a big chaos about something so insignificant? Even Rushi had now started to nag. “I want to see nana. I want to see nana.”
Aunt Morium, my father’s older sister (fupi), who was married to mom’s older brother Uncle Daud (mama), walked out in the yard briskly and took control of the situation. “Let’s save the emotions for later. Jaira, come inside. Freshen up, eat something, then we’ll decide what to do with your old man.” She said calmly, without sounding too imposing while not leaving much room for other alternatives. “Rani, take Khoka and Rushi out to play.” She spoke to Rani apa who was enjoying the circus. “Come back after half an hour. Meal will be ready. Jaira, step down carefully. Do you have any idea how many people are waiting inside the house to see you? Hold my hand.”
Mom climbed down the cart. “I’ll take on dad later.”
Fupi nodded, “That’s the right spirit.”
Mama lived in a separate house next to nana’s house and shared the same courtyard. Whenever we visited Dorgahpur we always stayed in mama’s house. Nana had a large family and an old brick house with inadequate living space. There was no room for guests. Most meals we ate were also in fupi’s house. However, occasionally senior nani and junior nani invited us to have dinner with them. Each of them had their own separate kitchen and their children usually ate with their mothers.
As soon as mom settled down I followed Rani apa in to the neighbourhood. Rushi pondered a lot before following us. I warned her, “No nagging or crying.” She unwillingly agreed.
Nana had many brothers. They all lived in the same village, side by side, with each house separated by rickety brick boundary walls. We ran across the courtyards dashing through connecting rotting wooden doors, sped out into the backyard orchard where mango, berry, jackfruit, coconut trees grew in abundance, circled around the large pond and bolted into the open fields, aimlessly. Rushi was falling behind. Rani apa picked her up in the lap.
We roamed around the village constantly running into relatives who hugged, poked, patted and kissed before finally returning home in the late afternoon. We didn’t have to be scared of mom. Fupi would save us. “Why did you kids come back so late?” She chided mildly. “Go on, wash up. I am serving rice. Rani, take them with you.”
Mom was about to roll her eyes and say something unpleasant. Sensing it we quickly ran out of her view and headed toward the pond.
The pond had a paved dock with concrete benches and several steps that ran into the water. There were two big mango trees that leaned heavily toward the water. Both the trees bore delicious mangoes. We washed up sitting on the paved stairs and later got busy playing hopscotch on the paved platform. After about half an hour fupi personally made the trip to the dock and pulled Rani apa inside the house by the ear. We followed them quietly.
After meal we sat around the clay oven built in a corner in the courtyard. We lit dry hey to start up a small fire. Everytime we put new hey the fire leaped up triggering us to jump with our hands clapping in harmony. Slowly the last rays of the sun disappeared from the sky and the flames turned deep red and velvety as the darkness surrounded us.
Rani apa proposed to play tag. We all readily voiced our approval. In moments the quiet, shadowy courtyard turned into a noisy, screaming playground. Rushi was scared of dark to death. She hung with me grabbing my shirt tightly. We played for hours until the elders broke us up and sent inside.
Later that evening when nana finally returned home things turned quite dramatic. Mom had plenty of time to rehearse. She marvelled. First came the tears, then the sobbing followed by the deadly words that supposedly would hurt nana the most. Nana knew she was coming today and yet didn’t bother to change his plan. Why would he? If she hadn’t lost her mother so early nana would never dare to neglect her all through her life.
Nana had special soft corner for mom as she had literally grew up without the love of a mother. He chuckled foolishly. Mom went on and on until she started to feel nauseous. Nana helped her inside the house. The trouble was over for the time being. Nana had bought a nice saree for her – green body with yellow stripes and red edges. This worked magic in cheering mom up. Her sadness quickly disappeared and was replaced with cheerful giggles. It was hard to read her mind. Laughter and crying followed in random patterns.
As the night deepened our bed time was arriving quickly. Many kids had already hit the sack. Once the commotion subsided Rani apa and I left Rushi with mom and slipped out of the house. Mom had hawk eyes. She called out, “Listen! Where are you guys going?”
“Not too far. We’ll be back in no time.” Rani apa mumbled.
She pulled me out and we walked briskly across the courtyard, past the pond of the neighbouring house and then on to a narrow trail.
“Where are we going, Rani apa?” I asked.
“To the convenient store. Just a little ahead. They sell biscuits. You’ll love it.”
“What kind of biscuit?”
“They have all kinds but the one made from tamarind seed is the best.”
“You can make biscuits from tamarind seed?”
“I don’t know. That’s what they say.”
The store was a tiny shack with a flickering kerosene lamp. The store keeper was a middle aged skinny man. He smiled broadly at Rani apa. “I haven’t seen you for several days, dear. Where had you been?”
“Mom wouldn’t let me come after dark.” Rani apa replied. “I have to come secretly. Why don’t you open the store when there’s still light?”
“I want to, dear, but I have a day job to attend. I can’t make a living just from this tiny store. What can I get you today, my dear? Who is this boy?”
“Jaira fupi’s son.”
“Really? He has grown up quite a bit. When did they come? I haven’t seen Jaira for long time. Son, I am your distant uncle. Tell your mother that you met Uncle Jobbar. She would remember me. As kids we played together all the time. Her mother had died early so my mom used to give her a lot of attention. Dear Rani, should I fetch some tamarind seed biscuits for you kids?”
Before Rani apa had replied a voice spoke out from the shadows. “Add in some lozenges with that, Uncle.”
Rani apa didn’t even look back. It was clear that she knew the man. I looked into the dark and saw a silhouette. As he stepped out of the dark his face became visible in the pale light of the lamp. He was much older than Rani apa.
“Bashir, don’t bother her.” Uncle Jobbar said. “Ask your parents to look for a bride for you.”
“Uncle, watch your mouth.” Bashir rudely replied. “Just do what I asked you to do. Give her some lozenges.”
“You eat the lozenges.” Rani apa strongly said. “I don’t want any. Uncle, please give two taka worth of biscuits.”
The man stepped foward and stood very close to her. “What’s the attitude about? You don’t like me?”
“She is much younger than you, Bashir.” Uncle Jobbar insisted.
“Why don’t you shut your mouth up?” Bashir yelled at him. “Rani, I love you. Don’t worry about the age difference. I look older than my age.”
Rani apa grabbed the packet of biscuits that uncle Jobbar held out and tucked in the two bank notes in his hand. She completely ignored Bashir as we started our way back.
“You can’t go far. I’ll find you.” The voice spoke from behind.
“I am going to complain against you.” Rani apa sharply said.
“Go ahead. Nothing is going to happen to me.”
Rani apa started to run. I followed her. We stopped after the distance felt safe.
“Who is this man?” I asked.
“A distant cousin. Bastard! Must be twice as old as I am. Sometimes I feel like shooting him. I am going to tell dad tonight. He has been bothering me for a while now. Devil! Eat the biscuits. I’ll take care of him.”
Upon our return we had to face combined scolding from mom and fupi. None of them approved us venturing out after dark. Mama had returned home. He indulged Rani apa beyond limits. He saved us this time.
Next few days just flew by – roaming around the village in gangs, buying biscuits and lozenges from the village market, flying kites in the fields, arranging fake marriage ceremonies between boy and girl dolls, playing hopscotch and tag. Time passed by so quickly.
Still, there was something that I couldn’t shrug off my mind. Rani apa had warned Bashir but at the end she did not tell anybody about him. I didn’t like him at all and wished somebody someday would beat him up. It would be a true pleasure. If I was grown up I would have definitely stand up against that creep. I dreamt of all kind of ways to kick his ass.
One night four of us were playing a card game called Ram-Sham-Jadu-Madhu. We cut playing card shaped pieces from white sheet of papers and wrote the words Ram, Sham, Jadu and Madhu on them, four of each. The cards were then distributed among four players. Game continued until somebody had all four of the same cards in hand. We played as a hurricane glowed dimly providing just enough light for the eyes to work. Suddenly our little card game was interrupted by a familiar voice. It was Alek. Surprised I heard mom inquiring, “What are you doing here, Alek? Is everything alright?”
Alec mumbled something back which I couldn’t make out. Curious I stepped out. Alek hugged me.
“How are you, bud? Are you having lots of fun?”
“What’s wrong Alek bhai?”
Alek smiled displaying the full set off long, uneven teeth. “Your chacha, chachi and Minu apa came. They want to see you. They sent me to take you all home.”
For a split second I felt disappointed. Minu apa was a bit older than me but she loved me very much too. My time with her was something to cherish for as well.
“Did you bring the cart, Alek?” Fupi asked.
“Yes. It’s on the front yard. We have to start early tomorrow. It gets pretty hot later in the day.”
Mom didn’t look very happy. “Can’t even stay a few days in peace.” She muttered in despise. “Who asked them to come now? Damn!”
“Can I go too, mom?” Rani apa begged fupi. “My school will be closed for next couple of days.”
“How will you come back?” Fupi asked, not fully blowing away the idea.
“Why, Alek could bring me back on the back of his bike. Hey Alek, do you have the extra passenger seat attached to your bike?”
“Of course!” Alek replied with a grin. “I sometimes use it as a helicopter. I could drop her off. Don’t worry about it at all.”
Fupi furrowed her brows. “Ask your father. He might get mad at me later.”
It took some clever pledging but finally Mama gave in to Rani apa. We were overwhelmed in joy. The night passed by in a blink. Next morning we woke up before dawn and boarded the bullock cart. It struggled its way through the first light of the day on the familiar dirt roads. On the way, Rani apa and I took every opportunity to jump down the cart, ran far ahead and waited for the cart to catch us up. Five miles just flew by.
Chachu greeted us cheerfully. “Finally you guys are here. Is that Rani? Good to see you dear. Minu! Did you see who are here?”
Minu Apa came rushing. “I have been waiting so long!”
It didn’t take us too long to gather up some of our distant cousins who lived next door to form a gang. A picnic was planned with overwhelming enthusiasm. Minu apa and Rani apa were the natural choices for cooks. Rest of us collected dried sticks and leaves for the fire. A make shift oven was built by digging a small hole in the ground and making room for air to pass. One of dadi’s chicken was slaughtered and cooked with home grown potatoes and plenty of spices. It smelt so good that we could barely wait to gorge on it. Even some of the adults came to check what was cooking Rice was boiled. Alek and I went to the banana groves and cut a bunch of long leaves, which we cleaned and divided into smaller dinner plate size pieces. Later we sat in a circle and ate on the banana leaves. Mom, chachu and chachi also joined us for the meal. Incidentally, the chicken curry had no trace of salt in it but that didn’t stop us from savouring it. “Damn! I forgot to put any salt in it.” Rani apa admitted bitterly.
We broke into laughter. One of the maids brought some salt which was passed along the circle. All was fine.
Rani Apa returned home after couple of days. Mama missed her so much that he personally came to take her home. I was a little sad as mama paddled away with Rani Apa in his bike.
“Don’t be sad.” Mom said. “We’ll visit them again. Soon.”
Hope was all I needed to feel better. I packed up with Minu apa and explored the neighbourhood visiting some of her friends in between. Generally the villagers had admiration for the Morol family – dadu had been the vice president of the Union for many years, chachu was a reputed teacher in Satkhira and dad was a passionate physician who volunteered his service to the poor. People patted on my back and said encouraging words, mostly demanding that I followed the trend of the family, especially because I was the oldest grandson, at that point the only one. This was somewhat indulging but mostly stressful. Who ever wanted to bear such high expectation on such small shoulders?
Lately we were having grandiose meals in rural standard. Dadi slaughtered a chicken or a duck almost every day. Dadu bought beef or goat meat from the village market. Chachu and chachi ate very little but dadi wouldn’t listen. I didn’t have to be a genius to figure out dadi had a special bonding with chachu, her first child. Perhaps my mom and I had the same. I just wished it didn’t get so personal at times in the form of screaming, berating, yelling and all other things closely related.
Visitors came in regular interval, mostly the village elders. They sat in the outhouse in flickering hurricane light and engaged into loud discussions, almost always about politics. Yahya Khan didn’t accept Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s six point demands, the first and foremost being – the constitution provided a Federation of Pakistan in its true sense on the Lahore Resolution and the parliamentary form of government with supremacy of a legislature directly elected on the basis of universal adult franchise was allowed to be established on the basis of electoral majority. Public support in East Pakistan was gaining rapidly. People of East Pakistan had given their verdict. The leaders of West Pakistan were using the smoke of nationalism to suck up the juice of East Pakistan. They cared nothing about the welfare of the people of this country. Why would anybody trust them? Mujib was right. We needed self-governing rights. Our own kind will be our leaders, not someone from West Pakistan.
The discussions continued deeper into the night. Trying hard not to dose off all I could make out was that Yahya and Bhutto were the villains and Mujib was our hero. One day Mujib was going to beat the hell out of them. I neither tried nor understood anything more than that. The problem was chachu wasn’t getting the message. Alek used to sleep at one corner of the outhouse, in a small room. He would cough quietly when he wanted to attract my attention. I would then mumble ineligibly about peeing or getting a drink and slip out. Two of us would then make our way through the vegetable garden to the rear pond and sit by the water. A bamboo flute would appear magically in his hands. He could play the tragic tunes with such passion! It was so appealing that even the ghostly creatures who resided in the nearby dense bamboo groves stopped to listen to the tune. At least that’s what some people believed. The thought of such ghoulish existence brought shivers in my body.
The village elders organized a meeting before chachu left. The overall situation of the country was turning bad and a general unrest was not out of question. How would the villagers handle such situation? What would happen if God forbidden a war broke out? The meeting took place on the courtyard of dadu’s house. Wobbly chairs and hand crafted carpets were offered to the attendees based on social distinction. The commoners stood in a semi circle at the end of the gathering. The courtyard was crowded to maximum capacity. Uncle Motaleb, a diehard supporter of Mujib, attended and addressed the crowd with his usual bluntness. He demanded that if a war broke out all adults must sign up. Young men in the village seemed to get quite excited at the possibility of war. Alek’s older brother Moti Bhai voiced his unconditional devotion to Mujib. War or unrest – he wasn’t going to miss any. Shahid chacha’s face darkened. He looked worried and dejected but laboured to look brave. This definitely wasn’t the time to display fear.
As the chief speaker chachu spoke calmly. Yes, the possibility of war was real but a peaceful resolution was most desirable. Yahya khan couldn’t have been a total idiot. How could he not see that a war against East Pakistan would be devastating for both East and West? War was not in the best interest of anybody.
While the adults continued with their speeches, discussions and occasional arguments, the kids took it one notch up. We ventured in the fruit orchard at the back of the house and started a battle. The dry fallen branches became our guns, our screaming mouths did the rest as we tried to shoot each other down …bang…bang…whoosh…whoosh…POW…POW…We continued into the dusk totally oblivious about the proceedings of the meeting.
It was almost dark when the meeting finally ended. People returned to their homes in small groups. I heard pieces of discussions, some for the war, some against. Some wanted independence; some wanted to stay integrated as Muslim Pakistan. They did not want to pack with India. The despicable Hindus! The disrespect and distrust was crystal clear. I had already started to fall into the dubious effect of religion by then. There was no doubt in my mind that the Muslims were much better than the Hindus, though I wasn’t quite sure about the reasoning behind such belief. The few families of Hindus who lived in our village were all poor, hard working people. There was no lack of nicety in their behaviour. Hindu men wore dhuti, a long piece of cloth, as oppose to lungi, a sewn piece of cloth that Muslim men wore. Hindu married women put vermillion or Sindoor at the parting of the hair and maiden girls put dots on their forehead, often matching the color with their dress. I had noticed some Muslim women using dots as well. I heard that the Hindus ate turtles, crabs and pork. I never saw them eating but they were sold in the village market. Komol da, who worked for dadu, processed the date trees to collect sap in the winter and carried the round belly clay containers full with sweet sap in the mornings to my grandparent’s house. That sap was then boiled in large containers over clay ovens to make dense molasses. Just the other day he had smilingly called out, “How are you little brother? Why didn’t you come during the sap time? Did you eat the molasses? The molasses that your grand ma makes has a special taste to it.”
Komol da was a good person. He had a large swell on his forehead. Dad said it was a tumour. One time I visited their house and had some sweets that they distributed after worships, which brought me some scolding from mom. Alek got even more for taking me there. However I had visited the houses of many Hindu families with chachu and even ate the meals they offered. Chachu never considered them different than us.
Chachu and his family left after a few days. Dadu looked very worried. Mom wanted to visit nana again but he (dadu) wouldn’t allow. The political situation was not good. Our village was very close to the Indian border. He felt it was probably a better idea for us not to stay in the villages at all. Mom became nervous and started quite a tantrum. “Didn’t I tell him not to go to West Pakistan for training? He left us here in this village all by ourselves. What are we going to do if the war starts?” She lamented.
Jhima couldn’t contain her annoyance. “Can you stop blaming our son for a moment?” She barked.
Mom paid no attention to her. I only prayed she didn’t lose her cool. I had seen them going at each other. It always turned into a screaming match and wasn’t a pleasant experience for the hearing mechanism.
After much pondering it was decided that we’ll move to Khulna and stay with khala until dad returned or we made the trip to wherever he was. The thought of leaving the village made me sad but at the same time I was elated with the thought that life in Khulna wasn’t too boring either. With khala and khalu over indulging, a pair of older cousin brothers – charming and constantly bickering, a hilariously interesting young domestic help – there was not much room to complain. It never felt anything but a second home.