A Boy and a War
S R Shuja
After the speech by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 7th March nobody had any doubt that the situation was quickly turning into trouble. Mujibur Rahman had declared loudly and clearly, “Our stand is for freedom. Our stand is for independence.” Kids of tender age were obsessed by such speeches. Many of us would repeat the whole speech word by word at any opportunity we got. One time I got severely scolded by Moni bhai for doing so. A supporter of Muslim league he believed in united Pakistan. Roni bhai had a completely different standing. He wanted independent Bangladesh. He was angry and complained about the way things were going. Why didn’t Mujib declared war on 7th March? What was the meaning of attempting to fix something that had no chances? Bastard Yahya Khan! Bastard Tikka Khan! They had no business in this country and needed to be booted without delay.
Naturally the frequency in which two of them got into arguments increased alarmingly after Mujib’s speech. Some even worried that the two brothers might try to battle it out long before the two Pakistan did.
There were some signs of ensuing devastation but nobody even imagined how heinous it would turn out to be. On March 25, 1971, in the dark of the night the Pakistani soldiers attacked the peaceful, self-righteous inhabitants of Dhaka. Their main targets were Dhaka University and Old Dhaka. They attacked the EPR base located in Pilkhana without any warning. Iqbal hall – one of the residential halls located in Dhaka university – was the headquarter of the freedom minded young men and became the primary target of the West Pakistani soldiers. A little after midnight the calmness of Dhaka was shuttered in the deadly firings of mortars and machineguns. The rushing blood of the dead and the final cries of the wounded filled the air of the city. The attackers then lighted the Nilkhet slum and when the helpless slum dwellers tried to escape from the deadly flame they shot them mercilessly. Jogannath and several other student resident halls were also attacked simultaneously. Once the main attack subsided the soldiers entered the student halls and in a display of most barbaric attitude shot and killed the students who were holed up inside the compounds.
When all these were happening I slept in peace. Rushi and I used to sleep beside mom. After an active day once the supper settled into my stomach I blacked out for the night. Even Rushi, a habitual bad sleeper who frequently moved all over the bed and rested her legs on me, could not bother me. Lately mom looked really embarrassing with her belly turning even bigger than ever. She had to visit the bathroom several times at night. Each of her visits caused a mini earthquake in the house. Even that wasn’t enough to wake me up. However, on 25th March, all the chaos that started around dawn was enough to make an exception. The streets seemed to liven up in grief and anger. I heard Roni bhai shouting at the top of his voice. “Those bastards think they can shoot us all dead. We’ll fight for independence. Wake up everybody. Listen to the radio. The sons of the bitches are drowning Dhaka in our blood. Get up all.”
Any other time Moni bhai would have yelled back at him for waking everybody up in the middle of the night, but today he was totally absent from action. I sensed khala and khalu waking up. Still quite sleepy I dragged myself up in a sitting position. Mom whispered to me, “Sleep baby. You don’t need to know this. Not yet.”
I didn’t object. I was too sleepy to give in to the curiosity. I didn’t even know when I went back to sleep.
As I opened my eyes a shiny sunlit day welcomed me. Stepping out of the room I knew something horrible had happened. The door of khalu’s chamber was tightly closed. We could hear loud arguments inside. There were many voices but unlike other days I could barely hear khalu. I found Moni bhai sitting quietly on the porch. Roni bhai was nowhere to be seen. Khala was making flat bread as she did every morning. A woman from the nearby slum came to help her in house works. She was known as Parvoti’s mom. Hindu by religion, she wore sindur (vermilion) on her forehead. She used to roll the flat breads while khala baked them on a flat pan.
Smell of the freshly baked breads filled the air. I peeked into the kitchen.
“Hungry?” Khala asked.
“Wait a bit. I am frying some cauliflower. It would taste good with flat bread.”
I patiently waited on the veranda. Moni bhai looked grave and grumpy, totally unapproachable. I stood by the grilled window and looked down to observe the daily chores of the slum next to the pond. Interestingly even there things looked different, grave to some degree. They had gathered in small groups and discussed in low voices. Even the toddlers with running noses stood by silently sucking their thumbs. My curiosity rose sky high. I gave another side look at Moni bhai and decided for the second time not to risk bothering him. I had no desire to get scolded so early in the morning. Suddenly Yunus bolted in from the streets.
“Do you have any idea what happened last night?” He wearily said. “Pakistani soldiers killed many people. They took away Sheikh Mujib. Now they are going to regret it. We are going to hit back with maximum force. They don’t know the Bengalis.”
I knew he was going to get it.
“Shut up, you idiot.” Moni bhai snapped at him. “What do you know? This is the result of conspiracy by the Hindus. They want to break down the unity of the Muslims. They want to make this land another kingdom for the Hindus. Good that a few Hindu bastards were killed. All of them should be killed.”
I have never seen Yunus speaking up on anybody in this household. Today he must have been possessed.
“What are you saying, Moni bhai?” He quickly responded. “Did you hear what they said on the radio? They killed Muslims mostly. Do you know how many students were killed in Dhaka University? I know I am an uneducated idiot. I barely understand all this. But you do, don’t you? Do you think these killings were good? Muslims killing Muslims?”
For a moment it seemed that Moni bhai was about to burst into anger but he struggled to contain himself. “This is what happens when you hold hands with the bastard Hindus.” He muttered, almost illegibly.
Parvoti’s mom had worked in this house for many years. I barely heard her ever talking more than a few words. “Chachi, why is Moni bhai so mad at us?” She mildly objected from the kitchen. “What did we do? This is our country too. What sin did we do by taking birth as Hindus? This is the religion of our ancestors. “
“Let it go.” Khala said. “Don’t take it seriously. This is all political talk. You know Moni since he was a little boy. Don’t listen to all this crap.”
“All Hindus should go back to the Hindu kingdom of India. Bangladesh is the country of Muslims,” muttered Moni bhai before thumping his way out.
Parvoti’s mom started to sob. Khala tried to soothe her.
“Don’t listen to Moni bhai.” Yunus whispered in my ears. “He doesn’t want freedom. He likes to do slavery of the bastard Pakistanis. They are nothing but sons of bitches. Muslim – my foot!”
I knew Yunus had become a protégé of Roni bhai. “Where’s Roni bhai?” I asked.
“In the school ground.” Yunus whispered. “Many have gathered there. We are going to fight. We can’t keep quiet anymore. Do you want to come with me?”
I nodded. I knew mom and khala would try to stop me, so we tried to slip out secretly but to no avail. Rushi saw me. Immediately mom came screaming out. “Khoka, don’t go out of the house.”
I was old enough to know no good could come from breaking such direct command. When angry, mom was capable of making things quite uncomfortable with her barrage of slaps, pinches and hair pulling. Yunus read my mind. He shrugged and promised to take me another time.
“Yunus, where are you going?” Khala called out.
“I’ll be back in a minute.”
“I didn’t ask when you’ll be back. Where are you going?”
Yunus had already slipped out.
On 26th March from the radio center of Chittagong Major Ziaur Rahman announced the declaration of independence on behalf of the provisional government of Bangladesh. This created a huge wave of commotions in the country. Most greeted it with joy and enthusiasm. Waves of people flooded the streets announcing solidarity with the provisional government.
The heat was felt clearly inside khala’s house as well. Naturally, Khalu and Moni bhai were under immense pressure. They remained quiet, cautious. On the other hand Roni bhai romped around in support of the war. Many wanted to join the war but had no battle training whatsoever. The possibility of setting up training facilities in this side of the border looked bleak. Roni bhai and his friends planned to make the trip to India. We heard many had already gone to India to train with firearms.
Khala broke down at this news. Mom tried to talk Roni bhai out of it, unsuccessfully. Even Yunus was all set to go with him. However, under pressure from several fronts he eventually backed away. At the end Roni bhai quietly left for India with a few of his close friends. Moni bhai continued to have small gatherings in the den on the roof but he could barely hide his anxiousness. It was one thing to support Muslim league and another to oppose the independence of your own land. From their discussion it was easy to make out that they were confused. Sometimes when they didn’t have enough partners Moni bhai allowed me to play cards with them. I took this opportunity to pick up a few games. Roni bhai came up frequently in their discussions.
“Eh, what a warrior! He’ll pass away in one slap on the face.” Moni bhai often muttered in disgust.
It was quite clear that the sudden fame that Roni bhai gained had made him jealous. Even some of the pretty girls in the neighbourhood had stopped me to ask about Roni bhai, inquiring to know if he had really gone to join the war. In my mind I had no doubt that when Roni bhai returned from war he would have no problem getting one of these pretty damsels.
We received another letter from dad soon after. They had received the news of the barbaric events of 25th March but did not get the true picture. The radio centers in West Pakistan had presented the news in a way as if the West Pakistan military had only captured a few conspirators. During their operations some Hindus might have met their ends. The number of East Pakistani soldiers in dad’s regiment was only about 5%. Most of them were doctors. Their main task was to accompany the Pakistani soldiers to different engagements and treat them for sickness and injuries. They continued their duties despite the declaration of Independence of Bangladesh. They weren’t quite sure what role they needed to play. Confused and worried they performed their respective tasks. Dad was very anxious to see us. He hadn’t found any housing for us yet. His anxiety was so overwhelming that finally in desperation he decided to meet General Gul, who was the superior authority of the Quetta cantonment. He would be able to help him, dad believed. Mom read the letter infinite times and cried relentlessly. I wasn’t sure what all the crying was about. There was no way she could even make the trip to Quetta in her current size and shape.
In the meantime like an added trouble arrived my toothache. I had sweet teeth from very early age. Lozenges were my inseparable company. Often I forgot to brush or floss. As a result my milk teeth were mostly destroyed by cavity. My broad smile used to make even the most serious person chuckle. Such clownish was my appearance. When several teeth started to hurt like hell and gave me sleepless nights I had no other option but to resort to the least popular solution – visiting a dentist. One fine day it was decided that we would visit the dental clinic of Asfaq chacha.
A very big man Asfaq chacha was dad’s second cousin. Just looking at him could make a kid run away. Many times I had wondered how a man with such large stature managed to walk around doing regular chores. Our planned visit to him must have imprinted sign of anxiety on my face because even mom felt the need to put up some kind words. “What’s there to be scared of? He really likes you.”
“What liking has anything to do with extracting teeth?” I muttered.
Mom laughed. “How many times did I tell you to brush properly? Now you’ll have to face the consequences.”
“Cavity boy!” Rushi giggled. I glared at her.
I would have given her a smack on the head but had to pull myself back. It would be a bad idea in mom’s presence. We were to visit Asfaq chacha in the evening. My heart started to beat faster. I couldn’t concentrate on anything and spent most of the day lying down on bed.
Asfaq chacha’s clinic was in the first floor of a two storied building located at the corner of the block known as Dak Bangla. He allowed himself a broad smile at my very sight. “How are you doing, son? You succeeded in destroying most of your teeth, haven’t you? Don’t worry. These are all milk teeth. You’ll get nice new teeth once these are gone.”
All these pep talk didn’t make me feel better for a second. Asfaq chacha had me seated on a high dental chair and examined my teeth. Every now and then he mumbled, “Exactly what I thought. This one is totally gone. That one doesn’t look very good either. You need to cut down on lozenges.”
“I keep telling him. He wouldn’t listen.” Mom spread some salt on the open wound.
After his examination concluded Asfaq chacha gave up a big smile, which totally freaked me out. “Nothing to worry! For now I’ll just take out the two teeth that are hurting you. If you are still in pain come back. I’ll take care of the rest.”
He smilingly picked up a gigantic syringe. “Just need to put your gums to sleep.”
I saw total darkness for a few seconds, mostly out of fear. The actual experience turned out to be nowhere as painful as I was anticipating. He quickly uprooted the two teeth, folded them in a piece of paper and handed them over to me. Mom had almost no money with her but she still offered him the regular fee. He refused to take it. “Sis, I can’t take money from you.” He smilingly added. “I’ll take it from his dad when I see him again. If the boy is having any other issues just bring him back. Don’t be shy. I haven’t done much for them. This way I can feel a little less guilty.”
I tried to hide my worries. I had no desire to head back this way again – painful or pain free. Nevertheless I had to revisit him twice more that month. He merrily pulled out half of my teeth. When the ordeal was over he patted on my back and smilingly said,” Take care of your teeth. Next time I’ll pull all the rest.”
I feared the gigantic syringe. Returning home I brushed and flossed several times for a few days before the lapses started to happen. Sensing my degrading motivation mom put Rushi on my back. This strained our sibling relationship further but worked. I would do just about anything to make Rushi quiet.