A Boy and a War
S R Shuja
A few days later we received an urgent message about jhima. She wasn’t doing well. She had been suffering from varieties of health issues for ages and went through ups and downs but rarely anything life threatening. A man who had come to Khulna from village for personal reasons carried the message. He mentioned with great details how vulnerable jhima had become mentally and physically and demanded to see me particularly. Mom wasn’t in any condition to travel. She had difficulties just to go to the bathroom. Yet she told the man to let dadu know that if he sent somebody for us we would go. Who knew when death would strike? This could be our last opportunity to see jhima one more time.
Dadu himself came to get us the very next day after he got the message. We learned from him that jhima was bed ridden. Her body had swollen and she could barely move. She wasn’t in a condition to eat or drink normally and everybody feared that her last moment was nearing quickly. She had been constantly asking to see me. We knew it was against our best judgement to drag mom into this trip to the village but everybody bowed out to her determination and we were on our way the following morning.
The regular bus service between Khulna and Satkhira wasn’t operational due to some kind of labour unrest. We were forced to ride scooters, rickshaws and even walked some before reaching Kaligonj after dusk. Mom was totally exhausted but she tried her best to hide it. After crossing the river we found Alek waiting for us with his bullock cart and a mouthful of smile. Once on the cart mom collapsed on her back. With every movement of the cart she grumbled in pain. Comically Rushi echoed mom grumble by grumble. Alek and I burst into giggles. When was she going to get in her senses? Dadu had left his bike in a store in Kaligonj on his way to Khulna. He picked it up and rode it slowly beside the cart trying to stay with it. He looked worried for mom and inquired about her condition every few minutes. “How are you feeling now, dear? We are almost there.”
As we advanced slowly Alek Mia took the liberty to sing out loudly a familiar rural song “Oh, the lonely boat…”
Dadu instantly shut him down. “Alek, keep your mouth closed.”
Alek turned completely quiet. Dadu was known for his terrible temper. Everybody played it safely around him. With his permission I slipped out of the cover and sat by Alek at the front. Alek passed on the thin stick that he was carrying to me. “Go on; drive the cows for a little bit. Don’t hit them hard. They can feel pain.”
There were two oxen – one red and one black – pulling the cart. I gave a very soft tap on the back of the red coloured ox. “Let’s go, come on!”
It turned its neck and gave me a tender look. “This ox belongs to you.” Alek said. “Jhima gave it to you. And this black ox belongs to your dadu.”
It took me by surprise. “This red one is mine?”
“Yes. Jhima has three other cows. One of them is a female. She is pregnant again. Jhima says when she dies you’ll get everything that she owns. She practically raised you since you were born. She has unconditional love for you. Don’t ever hurt her, okay?”
I already knew jhima had special bonding with me. What I didn’t know was the fact that I had an ox, a red one! My heart filled with joy. The ownership of such a big and beautiful living thing seemed overwhelming. “Alek bhai, don’t hit it too hard, okay?” I pledged.
Alek laughed. “Why would I hit it, dear? I just poke them a little bit to keep them moving. They are innocent animal, I’ll never hurt them.”
His laughter echoed in the calm and quiet surroundings of the nightfall. Dadu looked annoyed. “Keep your mouth closed, Alek.” He gravely said.
“Yes, chaca.” Alek muttered, apologetically.
Seconds later he glanced at me stealthily and blinked.
At dadu’s house we were greeted by a large crowd, larger than I had ever remembered seeing. The news of jhima approaching her last moments had spread quickly and many of our relatives had made the trip to see her for the last time. There was barely any space in the courtyard. The place shone brightly with the lights from several powerful lamps. Our presence generated a loud buzz with everybody rushing forward to take a peek at us. Several voices called out with garbled words. The only one that I could recognize belonged to Shahid chacha. He kept on repeating himself. “Khoka is here! Khoka is here! Open your eyes, jhima, your khoka is here. Move away! Move away!”
Mom, Rushi and I moved through the crowd and climbed up on the porch of jhima’s hut. She was inside her room lying down on the floor over a handmade carpet. Beside her sat anxiously the village allopathic and the ayurvedic (an ancient healing practice from India) doctors.
Her body was swollen almost beyond recognition, eyes closed. When Shahid chacha announced our presence she opened her eyes, her murky vision roamed around aimlessly, showed no sign of remembering any of us.
Mom almost collapsed by her side, totally drained after the stressful long trip. “Jhima, wake up. Look, khoka is here. Can you hear me?”
None of us noticed when chachu stood by us. “Jhima hasn’t been talking since noon. Go on khoka, sit by her side for a little bit.”
I did as told. That didn’t do any magic. Jhima lied down on the floor with her eyes closed like a corpse. Looking around I noticed with surprise that not only Minu apa had come from Satkhira but also came nana and several others form maternal side. At the sight of nana mom suddenly lost all her resistance and broke into tears. Nana hugged her and patted her, speaking soothingly. “Don’t worry. Everything will be okay. You should rest.”
Mom howled. Any other time this would be pretty embarrassing but for the time being it wasn’t totally out of place. And then I saw Rani apa in the crowd with mama and fupi. She waved at me. I waved back with a big smile. I was already feeling much better.
That night none of us got much sleep. Most people slept on the courtyard on handmade carpets. The weather was warm with no rain. Nobody complained. We – Rushi, Rani Apa, Minu Apa and I slept in dadi’s bed. Rushi was knocked out in moments. The three of us stayed awake quite late whispering under the sheet to avoid attracting undue attention. I didn’t even know when I dozed off.
Next morning when I woke up the sun was already high in the sky. I noticed the crowd had lightened. I climbed down to the courtyard and found a small crowd in front of jhima’s hut. Pushing through the crowd I saw both Minu apa and Rani apa patiently sitting on the floor. Minu apa waved at me. “Jhima is well now.” She sounded excited. “Since morning she could sit on her own and has been making conversation. Come, she has been asking for you.”
Jhima was lying down on her back, eyes closed, still very weak. She must have sensed my presence because she slowly opened her eyes. Her lips extended in a pale smile. “Khoka! When did you come? Come to me. All the kids, come, sit by my sides. “
We hugged her tenderly and sat by her quietly for a while. She wasn’t in a condition to talk much but she wept silently with tears running down her cheek.
“Why are you crying?” Rani apa wiped off the tears. “You are okay now.”
“Allah spared me this time just for the kids.” Jhima whispered. “What else do I have to live for?”
Most visitors left that afternoon. The caravan of bullock carts parked in front of the outhouse disappeared one by one until only one was left. This was nana’s cart. Allah must have had listened to my silent prayers because soon we learned that while nana with junior and senior nani would return to Dorgahpur Rani apa and her parents would stay a few more days. Alek would drop them later. This was something to celebrate for, especially when I found out even Minu apa and her parents were staying back for a few more days. This was getting better and better.
It was summer time and the mango trees scattered all over my grandparent’s property had fruited profusely. There were several varieties each with its specialty – East Indian. Florigon, Glenn, Imam Pasand, Mallika, Neelum, Edward, Bombay, Alphonso, Cushman. They came in all shapes and sizes and had distinct tastes, textures and flavour. Several of the trees were grafted and produced the best fruits. Most mangoes had local names to quickly identify them. Two of our favourite ones were ‘Kacha-mitha’ (green and sweet) and ‘Kolop’ (grafted plant). The mangoes had just started to ripen, some varieties more than the rest. We always targeted ‘kacha-mitha’ mangoes first for its fibreless flesh and the delicious taste that had the touch of both sweetness and bit tanginess. They were usually large when matured. The problem was this tree was very tall, almost like an adult coconut tree. None of us could climb this tree and resorted to throwing rocks or pellets in our futile attempt to drop some of the fruits. The tree produced few mangoes and they were usually at the top of the tree. We had to ask for Alek’s help. He was a master climber who was expert in scaling coconut trees. I had seen very few people who could scale vertical length so deftly. If he could spare some time he climbed up the ‘kacha-mitha’ tree and got us a few mangoes. We peeled them, cut them into small pieces and mixed them up with salt, milk, lemon leaf and chilli. We devoured it often fighting for larger share.
The pond in the backyard had a huge mango tree leaning over it. This one had small yellow fruits. When bathing in the pond we threw pellets to drop the mangoes. When one fell we competed to grab it first. The ‘Kolop’ tree was located on the other side of the pond, near the small family grave where dadu’s parents were buried. This tree produced large mangoes with beautiful green and red hue. This was a small tree but bore so many mangoes that the branches leaned in the weight of the fruits. These mangoes didn’t taste very well when green but was something to die for as it ripened. We had already noticed some of them were ripening.
A few days later one afternoon dark cloud rolled in and covered the sky. People anxiously wrapped up whatever they were doing, moved dry stuff indoor, drove the brood of chickens and ducks in their coup, closed the doors and finally took shelter inside the house. “There’s going to be a tropical storm.” Rani apa said. “The mangoes will drop like hails.”
“Really!” This was news to me. “Are we going to pick them?”
The answer came from chachi. “I don’t want to see anybody going out during the storm.” She warned rather sternly.
We restrained from responding. When the mangoes would be dropping how could anybody possibly stay home? Who had ever heard of such impossible thing? Especially in the villages not only the kids but even the adults dared the storm to pick fallen mangoes, Rani apa educated me. It was of a big concern to us that the opportunists might rush to the garden first and picked up the desired ones before we had a chance. We waited patiently for chachi to move away to help others preparing for the storm and concocted a secret plan. We anxiously observed the progression of the storm hoping that it would blew on us before it was too late at night. If we dozed off the others might beat us to the chase.
The sky turned darker and darker by the minute. Even the wind stopped blowing. The domestic hands hurriedly returned to their homes. My uncles and aunts gathered in grandpa’s room prepared to pass the storm there. We kids took shelter in jhima’s hut along with mom. We huddled with jhima in the king size bed she slept on. Due to the oncoming storm we had eaten our supper early. Alek had driven the cattle in the shed long ago, ate his supper and took shelter in the outhouse. He alternatively went back home or slept here at night. Today dadi had specifically asked him to stay back. If the cattle felt distressed during the storm he would come very handy. We had stopped by in the outhouse to see him once. He had spread out a handmade carpet and was preparing to sleep. After spending whole day on the fields he used to get very tired by dusk. I had seen him gobbling up a large plate filled with rice and then go to bed directly.
Tonight we had given him an added responsibility. During the storm children from the neighbouring houses came out to pick mangoes. While some of them were from well-off families a majority belonged to families who were poor. Even though there were so many fruit trees in the villages many of these poor people had very little access to those. Tropical storms gave them an opportunity to grab a few fruits. Alek’s job was to shout to keep them away. Once we were done they could pick to their hearts content. This was our garden and we felt we should get the priority.
Hunkered down inside jhima’s hut we chatted on to keep us engaged and awake, our eyes and ears focused outside. The storm seemed to take awfully long to hit us. Rani apa called out for Alek every few minutes to ensure that he didn’t fell asleep. Initially he was responding but as the night deepened we stopped hearing from him. Rani apa was upset. “Great! He fell asleep. Why the stupid storm isn’t here yet?”
“Sleep.” Jhima urged. “Who knows when the storm would come?”
After struggling to keep awake for another half an hour we finally gave up and went to sleep. There was little chance the storm was coming tonight. After running around whole day I was pretty tired and probably was the first one to fall asleep.
Suddenly I was shaken out of my sleep. Rani Apa stood by my side, all ready to go. “Get up.” She said, boiling in excitement. “The storm is here. Can you hear the mangoes dropping?”
I was tired and had to force myself to get up. However, soon the excitement captured me as well and I jumped out of the bed, slid the sleepers into my feet and was already to venture out. I could hear the wind blowing forcefully. We opened one of the doors slightly and slipped out into the courtyard. It was dark and I could barely see my own hands. Minu apa grabbed a flashlight and lead us through the backdoor into the garden. Jhima was a light sleeper. The blasting of the wind against the walls and trees must have had woken her up. She called out to stop us but to no avail. We heard the mangoes dropping constantly, almost like rocks falling from the sky. There was no stopping now.
We fought the strong wind and ubiquitous dust on our way through the garden. We had to cover our eyes with the palm of our hands to save them from the gust and flying debris. We could hear the voices of other people nearby. Clearly many had already beaten us to it. Desperation and anger both flashed through my mind. We started to run ignoring the turmoil that was happening around. Our first destination was ‘Green and sweet’ tree. Rani Apa was carrying a large jute bag.
To our relief there were only a handful of people under this tree. We knelt down on the ground and looked as several flashlights danced around. We found fewer than we expected. Annoyed Rani apa even tried to drive the visitors away. The wind blew so hard that we could barely hear us standing next to each other. It wasn’t clear if the intruders heard her or not but they continued their search. We did not want to spend too much time there and moved to our next primary target, the ‘Kalap’ tree. That tree had a superb fruiting and naturally most would rush there hoping to pick many. We again dared the strong wind roaring at us and walked by the backyard pond to the ‘Kalap’ tree. Minu apa stayed ahead and focused her flashlight on the trail as Rani apa and I almost flanked her.
Our fear proved to be true. When we reached the tree we found several older girls had already gathered there. We competed with them to pick up as many as we could. Rani apa again shouted at them a few times to discourage them. But they didn’t pay much attention. In any case, soon our bag was full. I still continued to pick and shoved them into the large pockets of my shorts. The storm seemed to pick up speed. We shouted at each other to ensure that we didn’t separate. I could hear chacha and chachi calling out for us. “Let’s go back.” Minu apa shouted. “Dad and mom found out. We are into lot of trouble. “
We had to head back, which turned out to be more difficult now with the heavy sack filled with mangoes. Three of us dragged it slowly careful not to lose any. Finally when we struggled our way back to the house we were greeted by chachi who looked very much mad. She berated us mercilessly. The good part was we didn’t even hear most of it because of the roaring wind. We carried the mango sack inside jhima’s hut and counted the mangoes. Total eighty five. Not bad. We smiled with satisfaction.
Next morning we woke up early and went back to the garden. The storm subsided long ago. In the dark our vision was limited and we missed out many. In the day light we found several more mangoes that went unnoticed by everybody. At the end we had collected more than one hundred and fifty. However, we didn’t keep all the mangoes. Not all were good to eat. When mom heard about our night venture she turned quite mad as well. However, when we prepared the ‘Green and sweet’ mangoes with salt and spices and offered her a generous portion she was all smile and licked the last bit of it. “Did you kids pick up these mangoes last night? Not bad at all.” There was sign of admiration in her voice. This was something new for me. I frowned. How about considering that before going ballistic? Who wanted to be embarrassed in front of the whole household?
Minu Apa and her family left couple of days later. The war had started. Even though the impact wasn’t yet noticeable in our region but they didn’t feel comfortable to stay away from home for too long. Who knew how the things would turn? I heard that many people from the neighbouring villages had signed up for the war and went to India for training. Indian border was only two – three miles away.
It was a common fear that the war would turn bigger and bloodier. India hadn’t yet expressed its support directly but was helping in various ways. Many people trying to escape the brutality of war had left Bangladesh and entered the Indian Territory. India had to make shelter for those refugees. They were also helping the freedom fighters with battlefield training. Moti bhai, Alek’s older brother, had joined the war and went to India for training. Rohim and Liakot worked as day labourer for dadu. They had gone with Moti bhai as well. Though there was contrasting opinions among the villagers but we heard that some people were doing horrible things in the name of the war. Some were even engaged in robbing houses of the rich farmers. Rani apa believed that Bashir had joined a team of robbers. She was scared. Who knew what was Bashir planning to do? She had no choice but to tell mama everything about Bashir. Since then Mama wouldn’t let her go alone anywhere. He also bought a rifle. But could a single rifle save them against a heinous gang?
After Minu apa left Rani apa and I had little more time to discuss some personal issues. I felt her deep anxiety about Bashir. I was angry with the fact that a twelve year old girl like her had to be worried about such things. Looking at her I failed to see anything that may interest an adult. Why would a young man like Bashir come after just a girl like her? Rani apa smiled when I asked her.
“You know nothing about the village life.” She answered bitterly. “There are so many girls of my age who are forced into marriage now. By the time they are seventeen they are mother of two. That’s the tradition here. I’ll get out of here. I already asked dad to send me to Khulna. Who knows how the situation would turn in the village as the war continues? You must know how difficult it is for woman during the war times. Not only the enemies but even the compatriots become formidable. They are left with no place to go.”
I sat silently for a long time with a sore heart. I didn’t yet understand the concept of war fully. I didn’t even know clearly why there was a war being fought between East and West Pakistan but just the thought of Rani apa being harmed got me filled with both anger and distress.
Within a few days jhima started to feel much better. She started to walk around using her stick. Not everybody in the household welcomed that though. One of her shortcomings was to pick on others at every possible opportunity. Not only the servants but even dadi was afraid of her sharp tongue. When she was bedridden everybody felt a little relaxed. But as soon as she started to walk around the household with her stick things turned a little uncomfortable. However, jhima seemed to have a change of heart. To everybody’s amazement she ignored most and spent majority of the day with me and Rani apa. After Alek took the cattle to the fields in the morning three of us would walk to the vegetable garden outside the courtyard. As we picked vegetables we talked about many things. I had no clue that jhima had such a rich collection of stories in her stock. Most of her stories were about the kings and landlords, some were quite scary. Especially the story she told us about the pond in the backyard gave me nightmares for several nights.
A few generations before our ancestral house weren’t located here. Instead a heinous dacoit named Bishnu lived here. During day time he was a good farmer who spent time cultivating the small amount of land that he had. His wife Sulekha was a simple woman who loved her husband dearly. She was very devoted to him. BIshnu loved her as well. At least that’s what everybody thought. But Bishnu was a good actor. He changed his nice personality at night and robbed the rich farmers of their valuables.
Every month he robbed one household with his army of robbers. With their giant knives when they broke into the houses of the rich farmers there was nothing they could do but panic. Bishnu would command them to put all their jewellery and golden coins in a sack. If anybody objected he slaughtered them. After sharing the loot with his gang members Bishnu took his portion and put it in large round clay pots and stored them in an underground storage. When the pot became full he closed the mouth tightly and sunk it in the pond. That way even if anybody ever suspected him they couldn’t possibly find any evidence. Bishnu’s plan was to have four or five such pots full with valuables and then pick them all up secretly, move to another place and buy lots of lands to become a landlord.
He had never shared any of this with his wife Sulekha but she was becoming suspicious. Sometimes when she woke up at night she didn’t find her husband by her side. When asked Bishnu would say he couldn’t sleep so just went for a walk by the river. Sulekha had hard time believing that. One time after a robbery Bishnu hid his loot inside the secret underground storage and found himself face to face to his wife as he walked out. Left with no other option he shared the secret with his wife. However, he also cautioned her that if anybody knew anything about it he would kill her.
Sulekha loved her husband but she also feared him equally. Especially now that she knew about this totally new and fearsome side of her husband she was truly scared. Terrified that something may slip out her mouth mistakenly and put her in danger she even stopped going out of the house. Bishnu continued to rob without any trouble. His fifth pot was about to be filled. He decided that he would rob only one more house. He picked a well off farmer who lived far away from his home and broke into his house with his gang in the middle of the night. However, unlike other times, o when he saw the unmarried young and beautiful daughter of the landlord he totally lost his mind. This time not only valuables but on his way out he also tied down the girl and brought her with him. Sulekha rolled her eyes and objected.
“This girl will stay with us.” Bishnu declared. “I’ll marry her.”
“How can you take another wife when you already have one?” Sulekha bitterly demanded.
“I did not think about that.” Bishnu thoughtfully said. “Okay. I’ll return her tomorrow. Let’s hide her in the underground storage for just tonight.”
Sulekha felt relieved. But Bishnu had another plan. Next day during meal he secretly mixed up poison into his wife’s food. After consuming that poison Sulekha lost consciousness. Bishnu tied her up with his fifth pot and sunk it in the pond. His plan was to marry the other girl first, then when the proper opportunity came bring up the pots out of the water, carry them to a distant village, buy a few hundred acres of lands and build a palace. Even though he had snatched the girl away, once they got married she would have no choice but to accept her fate, he thought.
As planned he forced the girl into marrying him. Everybody learned that Sulekha had lost her mind and went away without telling anybody anything. Bishnu stopped robbing and looked around for a suitable village to settle in.
Finally, one night he dipped in the pond to pick up his clay pots with valuables. After picking up the first four pots and placing them by the side of the pond he went to get the fifth one. The pot still had the corpse of his wife tied to it. The corpse had started to rot. Bishnu tried to untie the rope and separate the pot from the corpse but to his amazement the long saree that Sulekha wore suddenly came at him like a snake and coiled around him. The more he tried to swim up the more it pulled him down. After struggling for sometime Bishnu could no longer hold his breath and slowly died. Next morning people found the four pots on the side of the pond but even after searching thoroughly inside the pond they neither found the corpse of Bishnu and Sulekha nor the fifth pot filled with valuables. But the legend went that the pot rose above the water randomly with Sulekha’s corpse tied to it and at length floated Bishnu’s corpse coiled in Sulekha’s saree. Anybody who would see that view would die exactly in one week.
After hearing this story I totally stopped going to the backyard pond. Especially after dusk I avoided the vicinity completely.
A few days later Rani apa left too. We were under a lot of confusion. Mom hadn`t been doing very well. I heard that the baby who was growing inside her belly was scheduled to come out soon. Would it be a wise decision for her to get into another trip to Khulna? The situation in the rural areas wasn’t that bad yet. So why not wait until the baby was born? Dadu, dadi and jhima reasoned to convince mom. Mom must have had plans to go to her sister’s house and have the baby born there but at the end she bowed to her poor physical condition and decided to stay back in the village.
We hadn’t received any more news from dad either. We had no way to know how he was doing in Pakistan. As the possibility of joining with him kept on pushed back mom became more and more melancholy. I could sense her agony. Even I felt quite a bit of anger on dad for taking so long to have the family reunited.