A Boy and a War
S R Shuja
We started from nana’s house at dawn. Rani apa walked as far as a mile along with the bullock cart. It was clear she didn’t want to stay in the village anymore. She walked up to the village market of Tetulia before stopping. She waved as far as I could see her. Mom said, “She is very loving.”
I was sad. I wish I could take her with us. She needed to be moved from here for her best interest. But who was going to pay any attention to a kid’s opinion.
A few days later we started for Khulna with dadu. Alek dropped us to the boat ramp of Kaligonj. We crossed the river on a paddle boat to catch the bus that took us to Satkhira. We stayed overnight in chacu’s house. The house was within the city limits but wasn’t very urbanized. The two storied building had a large orchard in the rear with trees like mangos, berries, jackfruits. Minu apa had planted beautiful flowers at the front of the house. The garden had many blooms of roses. Rushi liked roses. Minu apa picked some for her. She was ear to ear smile.
“Situation is turning bad, exactly what we suspected.” During supper time chachu gravely said. “National assembly has been postponed for indefinite period. Movement of Pakistani soldiers has increased. Yahya khan and Bhutto are up to something. I have a bad feeling. “
“I heard he made Tikka Khan the military governor of East Pakistan.” Dadu said. “Who is going to submit to that?”
Chachi rarely participated in these discussions but today even she could not keep quiet. “God is sure to punish them. He is never going to tolerate this quietly. I fear for all these Hindu families who have been living in the vicinity of my house for decades. Poor, hard working people. If war breaks down, what will happen to them?”
Chachu smiled. “Worry about them later, dear. Fear about your own family first. What makes you think that they would spare you just because you are a Muslim? War is devil’s weaponry, it spares none.”
After supper two other teachers who taught in the local college stopped by. They engaged into long discussions with uncle and dadu. At night I found mom sobbing. I knew she was scared. With dad away she had no one to lean on. I wanted to soothe her but didn’t brave it considering how peevish she was lately. I quietly prayed. Allah, let everything be good again. The faith on celestial matters at that age was incomparable.
We climbed into a bus the very next day, destination Khulna. Mom was very uncomfortable moving around with her big belly but what other choice did we have? Once we settled into khala’s house in Khulna mom clearly wasn’t planning another trip soon. She declared that in every opportunity she got.
We reached Khulna at dusk. We climbed up into two of the waiting rickshaws and asked to be taken to lawyer Mosabber’s house. The rickshaw pullers stormed through the light traffic and dropped us in front of the wide iron gate of khala’s two storied house on the street named cemetery road. This was a very familiar gate. Rushi and I jumped down the rickshaw and ran inside the house. Khala and khalu already knew we were coming. They hugged us dearly. “Where is your mom?”
Mom seemed to lose all her strength at the sight of her sister and brother-in-law. She had to be carried inside the house. Khala had set up a room for us to stay. Mom was taken in that room where she collapsed on the bed. She embraced khala and burst into tears for apparently no reason. Soon Rushi glued herself to mom and joined her in the wailing as well. I shrugged in despair and went on to the top floor to look for my cousin brothers, Moni bhai and Roni bhai. Usually in the evenings they gathered in the roof top den with their friends. In their late teens both were healthy, worked out with weights and had reputation as gangsters, a term used loosely to describe young men with attitude. They received plenty of respect from the local boys. Most times they would play cards in their den. Usually carefree and happy they went along considerably well but there were times when fight would break down between them owing to differences triggered by various issues – from wearing a shirt without prior approval to hitting on the same girl. The fights invariably brought commotion in the neighbourhood as both had a fascination for swearing, something they marvelled in, and opted for more howling and banging than just getting outright physical.
I walked across the flat roof to reach the den at the other end. The den was structurally complete but had no electricity. They played under the light of hurricane. The shadowy roof reminded me of the villages after dusk. I fearfully checked around. Khala’s house bordered a Christian cemetery. Who knew why such a cemetery was created in the middle of the town? It was a well known fact that ghostly presences inhibited the place. I had seen them in my own eyes. One time I slept on the open roof along with Roni bhai and Moni bhai. At midnight I woke up for a totally unknown reason and noticed strange lights running around right over my head. I remained motionless for the rest of the night. I heard the best way to deter those ghostly creatures was to act dead. They might have looked like pulsing crickets but in reality were monsters in disguise, I already knew. That was the last time I slept on an open roof.
Next to the cemetery there was a muddy pond, the kingdom of the mosquitoes. Around this pond were several thatched huts where few Hindu families made their homes. They were clearly poor, lived in village like settings with hurricane as their only source of stable light.
I stood halfway down the roof and called out, “Moni bhai! Roni bhai!”
After several tries I got their attention. The door opened and both the faces peeked into the darkness. “When did you guys arrive? Why are you standing there? Hop in here.”
I briskly walked into their den. It was filled with smoke. I detected a few beer cans as well. Moni bhai blinked at me. “Don’t say it to anybody. It’s okay for the grownups to try it sometimes. Not for you though. You may get drunk and make a big show. Ha…ha…ha…”
Everybody broke into laughter.
Roni bhai pulled me close to him. “Don’t listen to him. Drunken bastard! Sit beside me. I am getting all the bad hands. How is khala?”
“Anytime now. Her belly looks like a big balloon.”
This caused another burst of laughter. “You shouldn’t talk like that, idiot.” Roni bhai said. “Pick up my cards. Let me see how lucky you are.”
Looking at the bets I figured out they were playing flash. Moni bhai was winning. Everybody else was losing including Roni bhai. My presence did not change his luck much.
After supper as mom and khala sat in the attached grilled veranda along with a few neighbouring women for a chat, in the absence of anything better to do I stationed myself nearby and kept my ears open just in case something interesting came up. Rushi had gone to sleep long ago. Moni bhai was out. Roni bhai was having a smoke on the front yard. Both of them had to smoke right after any meal, religiously. Khalu did not come for supper today. He was a lawyer and seemed to be extremely busy most of the time though rarely missed supper – the only time when all members of the house ate together. He was also a leader of Muslim League and frequently hosted party meetings in his chamber. That day he was having a meeting with the local leaders of his party. We heard noisy arguments in regular intervals coming from his closed chamber. Every now and then his voice rose over others. “Sheikh Mujib wants to sell this country to India. He wants us to become slaves of the Hindus. Muslims must remain together. If there are any issues we must resolve that politically. We are not going to hold hands with the agents of India. What do you guys think?”
The audience howled in support. Encouraged, khalu spoke with even more enthusiasm. Khala looked worried. “I really fear for him.” She told mom. “Now it’s time of Awami league. They have supporters all over the country. People want freedom. These religious themed ideas don’t work anymore. “
“Why doesn’t he change party?” Mom said. “Everybody does. Just go with the wind.”
“Not him!” Khala bitterly said. “He is about sincerity and honesty. He is never going to switch.”
I was tired and fell asleep soon.
The main two attractions of khala’s house were their long time servant Yunus and a pet parrot. The parrot was very fond of Yunus. He had taught it to say several words. Yunus was probably fifteen or sixteen year old. Some of his favourite things were to blow big bubbles with his saliva through his lips and to make inappropriate remarks at the other young female servants who worked in the neighbourhood. He had worked really hard to teach the parrot phrases like the following: “Get out! Get out!”; “Hello beauty!”; “Mr. Lawyer steals money” and many others of same quality. When somebody stood before its cage the parrot would randomly say something at that person. One time after it called khalu “Hello beauty!” he got so mad that he took off his sleepers and beat Yunus until both the straps snapped. He then threw the pair at him and asked him to go to the cobbler and get them sewed.
Yunus was away for a few days visiting his family in the village. Once he returned my boredom evaporated completely. We started to venture out in the town. Even though he was a domestic help he rarely did any work in the house. Khala was very annoyed with him, naturally. But she couldn’t drive him away either. Yunus’s father had left him in this house when he was just a little boy. Yunus had become almost like a child. He did get smacked by khalu every now and then but so did Moni bhai and Roni bhai on regular basis as well. That was part of life, Yunus reasoned. One day he even took me to a movie theatre to watch the matinee show. After returning home I proudly disclosed it to mom and Rushi. The outcome was not very pleasant. Khala gave him a good smack on the back with a roller used to make flat bread. “How could you take a little boy in a movie theatre? Don’t you have any common sense?”
Yunus avenged that by blowing several bubbles with his saliva at her back. With his close guidance I quickly progressed to marvel in the art of blowing bubbles with saliva. When Rushi reported this to mom I had to suffer severe humiliation in her hand. I learned that it was not a good practice. When I questioned how come Yunus could do it and not me she lowered her voice and gave me an earful. “Don’t compare yourself with him. He is a servant. Your father is a doctor. How can you act the way he acts?”
I didn’t fully grasp it but made mental note to be aware of Rushi. The older she was getting the more trouble she was turning out to be. Girls were always trouble, I concluded.
One morning I had just finished my breakfast with khala’s handmade flat bread and a piece of white sweet ball (rasgolla) when the quietness of the morning was shuttered by a big commotion. Clueless for a few long moments I wondered if the soldiers were coming to kill us. Soon though, once my mind recovered from the shock, I realized it was just another fight between the two brothers. Both yelled and swore at the top of their voices and slammed the bamboo sticks each held on the side wall of the house in clearly fruitless attempts to scare the other. Khala, who had come out to inquire, was frantic. “Stop! Stop! Are you boys out of your minds?”
Moni bhai, bloodshot eyes and dry mouth from all the shouting, howled over her.
“This idiot is an agent of India. He wants to hold hands with Awami league. We are Muslims, we must hang with Muslims. Pakistanis are brothers. We need to shoot agents like you to death…” The last part was aimed at Roni bhai, to everybody’s relief.
Roni bhai wasn’t going to lose in this shouting match, not without a fight. “Shut up you suck up of the Pakistanis.” He shouted back. “They neither feed us nor shelter us. Why should we stay with them? Sheikh Mujib is right. No co-operation with them anymore. Enough is enough.”
At this point both banged on the wall several times to make their points. Khala had had just enough. She chased the boys. “Are you boys trying to break the house? Go somewhere else if you must fight. You are not damaging my wall.”
“Get out! Get out!” The parrot joined in.
Khalu had just settled in his chamber with a cup of tea. He hoped to check out quickly the case load of the day. All these noise must have had a less than desirable effect on him because he came galloping with his sleepers in his hands. He gave both the brothers a few smacks. None of them cared much but returned the favour by losing their sticks and wrestling away to the street.
Khalu threw his sleepers in front of Yunus. “Go on. See if the cobbler is there. “
I went along with Yunus. I really loved to watch the cobbler sewing the shoes and sleepers. There was a nice rhythm to it. I wasn’t really dreaming to become a cobbler when I grew up but wished to buy the equipments and try the art secretly at home.
Most days the supper dragged to midnight. Heavy afternoon snacks were customary resulting into no appetite until late at night. In addition, khalu regularly retired from his chamber late, often juggling his time with the case load and political agendas. A few days after the rumble between the brothers khalu looked anxious during supper time. Usually he ate silently and didn’t say anything unless spoken to. Today was an exception. The brothers were about to restart their perennial argument about Awami league and Muslim league in between munching their mouth full of food when khalu rebuffed them strongly. “Listen all, time is bad. Yahya and Mujib were unable to reach an agreement. Lots of Pakistani soldiers are coming here. Watch out when you speak. Having political difference is not unusual but that doesn’t mean you have to act on that.”
“We are not afraid of them.” Roni bhai strongly said. “We’ll grab Yahya by the neck and throw the bugger into the trash. Bastard!”
“Shut up….” Moni bhai shouted back sputtering mouth full of rice all around him.
Khalu snapped. “Don’t fight like kids. Nobody knows how the situation turns. Remember, family is above everything. Don’t fight among brothers. Siblings are the dearest of all.”
In this grave moment the crazy parrot called out, “Hello beauty!”
Khalu looked mad. “Why doesn’t somebody kick this stupid bird away?”
“Innocent bird, why blame it?” Khala said. “It’s Yunus who taught it to talk like that.”
Khalu looked around for Yunus. He had already fled out of there.
Waking up next morning I found Yunus mournful. I knew something was seriously wrong. He silently pointed out the empty cage of the parrot. So, beauty had escaped. Who knew how? Yunus and I went out to look for the parrot. We searched all over the town with no luck. I had never before seen Yunus shading tears, didn’t think he was even capable of. On this day he knelt down on the ground, hid his face between his knees and cried like a little baby.