Rifles Bread and Women
Translated by: Kabir Chowdhury
Bangla Academy, Dhaka
DAWN descended on Bangladesh. Sudipta always woke up from his sleep early in the morning and today was no exception. But it could have been. Night before last he had not gone to sleep till to sleep till it was very late. Even last night shots were heard off and on. And he had felt afraid. Not of death. He no longer feared death; But if he had to go on living. Could man live in the mist of such flames and bullets and shells? Strange, disjointed thoughts had crowded into his mind and sleep came to him very late. You could not blame sleep for that. Was it merely fire and bullets and stark terror? Even if none of these things were there it was not likely for one promptly to fall asleep in a strange place. And yet Sudipta’s sleep was disturbed precisely by the sound of those rifle-shots and mortar shelling. He had completely forgotten that he was in a new place. He became aware of it only after awakening from his sleep. He did not see that familiar face of building No. 23. The neatly arranged book-cases, the table, chair and clothes rack¾none of them greeted Sudipta at the dawn of a new day. Of course Sudipta remembered them. And he remembered Firoz. He was now in the home of his friend Firoz. Mahiuddin Firoz. Once upon a time it was a familiar name in the pages of journals and magazines. He used to write poetry.
This first night he spent at his friend’s place. Professor Sudipta Shaheen of Dacca University passed the night following the 27th day of March in the year of our Lord 1971 and arrived at the dawn of 28th March. What about the two immediately preceding nights?
Sudipta thought of the two nights that followed 25th and 26th. Were they two nights only? More like two decades. The quintessence of two decades of Pakistan. Firm concrete revealing of the Pakistan’s attitude towards Bangladesh during the last two decades. Domination and exploitation. Keep Bengal dominated anyhow and exploit her. If there is any difficulty in exploiting her, tighten the strangle-hold of domination. And go on tightening it. If the rule of law proves inadequate unleash the rule of rifles, of cannons, of machine-guns, he had survived even two such nights of mighty rule.
Strangely, he was still alive. But he could have died.
Many of us can’t do many things. For example, Sudipta could not be an officer of the Civil Service of Pakistan by merely wishing to be one. Could he become a rich man by going into business? No, be couldn’t. Some people can’t even marry and get a wife. But there was one thing which was absolutely certain everybody died. So Sudipta thought that there was one thing everyone could do; everyone could die. No effort was called for¾you ate and roamed about and made merry, and then at one point in time you inevitably accomplished that task. You died. Your friends and relations then faced a number of tasks. Burial of the dead body, reading of verses from the Holy Book, expression of grief, eulogy of the virtues of the departed, and in the end an inventory of the assets left behind by you oh, there was a lot to be done. At least your dear ones won’t have to complain for a few days that they had nothing to do. You, all by yourself, would keep a few minds totally occupied for a few days. You would accomplish all these things without any effort on your part.
But no, all these ideas of Sudipta and been proved false on that day. Although death was so easy, so close, he didn’t die on that day. He didn’t know why he did not die. Perhaps such an easy death was not his fate. Thousands of people accomplished that task on that date with utmost ease, but Sudipta could not do it. He could not die. Sudipta had to think now, perforce, that it was no after all so easy to die.
Not easy? Didn’t Sufia die? Didn’t you see how easily hundreds of your dear friends and brothers died on that day? Yes, he had seen that. Yet he had also seen it in his own life that it was not so easy to die. And it was still more difficult to kill. Who would you kill? Faith could not be killed. That’s right, the bright petals of a thousand lives¾love, affection, trust¾they were not dead. Not a bit.
And Sudipta was not dead. Professor Sudipta Shaheen of the English Department of the University of Dacca.
Why, was there any teacher by that name is the English Department of the Dacca University? There wasn’t, ever.
True, there wasn’t. And true, there isn’t, evern now. But this is true, too, that the person known as Sudpta Shaheen among his friends was a teacher of the Dacca University and that he belonged to the English Department. But there he had a different name, for his original name was unacceptable in holy Pakistan. Sudipta Shaheen! Did the think of having a gay happy life in this holy land with such a name as that? Was that what Pakistan was created for? Oh, no, that would never do.
The name Sudipta Shaheen wouldn’t do in Pakistan Sudipta had realised it soon after his arrival in Pakistan. He had left West Bengal following the riots of the fifties and come over to Dacca. Chief Minister Nurul Amin and his party, the Muslim League, were then moulding Bangladesh into Pakistan.
A Pakistan was of course born on the 14th of August, 1947. That was Pakistan’s political entity. Its body, the life of a State was its economy. And its essential self found expression in its cultural development. Therein lay the trouble. If one economy grew up between two parts separated by a distance of a thousand miles then the inevitable possibility existed of one part being exploited by another; one part would then surely dominate over another in the field of economy. The Muslim League tried its utmost to establish the centre of that economic superiority in the western part of the country. As Muslims they considered it their duty. For the Muslims always had to turn their eyes towards the west. Ergo, the western part of the country was the holier part, and you couldn’t deny that it was nearer to the holy Ka’aba. In order to direct the eyes of the heretical Muslims of Bengal towards the west the Muslim League established the centre of the country’s economic life in West Pakistan. And it put up sign boards in every railway station and market-place of Bengal with an arrow mark facing the west. And thereon the letters “Kebla” were etched clearly in Urdu and Bengali. Turn to the west. Not merely in the field of economy, but in the field of culture too. Not even a crazy fellow could think of one culture for two lands geographically so wide apart. But we were the inheritors of one culture¾this had to be true, or where would the moral and psychological basis of Pakistan’s existence be? What would people say? Therefore declare that our cultural entity is one and the same. One religion, one dream, one soul, one language, How could there be a strong modern state without these things? All these strange doings greeted Sudipta on his arrival in Pakistan. The Muslim League government and then just embarked on their conspiracy to wipe out the economic and cultural life of a land in order to knit two countries separated by a thousand miles into an indivisible one in all respects. It was then that Sudipta had come to Pakistan. Well, twenty-one years had rolled by since then, Many of the children born at that time were Sudipta’s students today at the university.
As a student Sudipta did not face any serious difficulty. He might have had to. The issue that Sudipta Shaheen was a name unacceptable in Muslim society could have cropped up even then. But the head of the English Department was an English lady who was not quite aware of the mysterious mystique of Pakistan. So Sudipta found a place as a student in her department without any difficulty. After his M.A. final examination he worked for a while in an English newspaper. But the problem started just after that. After passing his examination he tried to get a job in some college and then it started.
“So you are Sudipta Shaheen? I never heard of such a name before.”
“Well, you can here it now. Sudipta had wanted to retort. But he did not. For the needed the job. So he stomached that stupid question. But even so he was not spared. He was asked again, “What are you? A Hindu or a Christian!”
“It is clearly stated in my application, Sudipta gave a short, quiet answer, which however gave rise to a lot of words,
“Well, it seems to me that you have lied in your application. Can Sudipta ever be a Muslim’s name?’
The above conversation took place during the interview. Another member of the interview board said stroking his beard, “What does the word Sudipta mean?” Sudipta had realized by that time that he was not going to get a job there. He answered. “One that is radiant,
“It is a Bengali word then. So you want to be a Hindu!”
“Why? What for?”
“What else If you use Bengali in this field everything automatically is Hinduized, And if that is done the country will also become Hindustan. You have all come to Pakistan as Hindustani spies.”
“Truly said, Howlader Bhai. This language movement-it took place because of such men as these. It is they who are spoiling our children.”
It had spoiled Sudipta to. He was criticized and condemned at three successive interviews, for his name every time. At last, however, he got a job. A rural college for away form Dacca could not get a teacher of English for a long time. Sudipta started his career as a lecturer there. That was a long time ago in 1953. Today Sudipta was an experienced professor with eighteen years of service behind him. He had advanced also career-wise step by step. From that remote provincial college to Jagannath College of Dacca city. And then into the Dacca University.
A kind of intoxication had taken hold of Sudipta. The intexication of climbing up. Higher and still higher. And this intoxication was contagious. It had gradually spread and enveloped all of Pakistan by then. A big chunk of the Hindu middle-class population had only recently left the country. The field was empty, and who took pain and learnt to play the game when you could score in an empty field? And if you wanted to win the game without learning how to play you simply had to lose your character. The assets of the characterless were the qualities of the sycophant and a pimp. It was heyday for the pimp and the tout in Pakistan; everywhere shameless nepotism and bribery were life. Sudipta sometimes felt a terrible pang of remorse. He had learnt only to compose verses. If he could write short stories? If he could only paint in his stories all the strange faces that he had seen of the shameless flatterer and the tout! He could almost be peerless in the whole world. And he did not need to go very far. If he related the life story of some of his colleagues at the university as bare facts of history even that would sound like a strange novel. Sudipta was well aware of it. But it could not be helped. He did not know how to write a novel or a short story.
He did not also know how to become a tout. But he had done one thing. And he had done it because of his intense desire to climb and succeed. He had changed his name by making an affidavit so that he could get a job in the university. The new name, however, stood only in the records of the university, everywhere else he was known by the name of Sudipta Shaheen as before. And even now he used that old name when he wrote poems.
In Pakistan Sudipta concealed his name for the sake of getting ahead in the world. And on that fateful night he concealed himself under his beg for the sake of saving his life. Sudipta was never known as a very courageous man. There was not, however, a second instance in his life of lying under a bed. Was he never visited by a night of fear in his life? During the riots of the fifties? No, when their area was attacked at that time did not think of hiding in some dark corner. On the contrary they had thought of their friends. They had taken to the road hoping to find a shelter in the home of some friend. And they had found it. This time too on that black night he had tried to nurture a fond hope in his breast that perhaps the radiant love of some friend would render pale the face of the fear of that night.
But no hope dared come anywhere near them that night. No one hoped that he would survive the night and live to see the dawn of 26th March. And yet many had lived. And this fact that many were still alive was a great wonder to Sudipta. The many who had died had performed a very natural task. Everybody felt about them a strange dullness, But about those who were still alive there was no end of wonder.
“You! You are alive?”
“God has saved me brother. How about you?”
“Five have been killed in our building. God alone know how I managed to escape.”
Sudipta still felt that he did not know how he escaped death on that night. God knew. But it was true that those who were dead were really gone and dead. That was no news.
What made news? That which did not fit in the run of normal incidents, which was abnormal or which exceeded the bounds of the ordinary, people accepted that as news. But was death any news since the night of the twenty-fifth? Death now was a very ordinary, common, everyday affair. Such a famous man like Professor Govinda Chandra Dev or take the case of Professor Maniruzzaman¾they died. Were brutally killed; why, think of what big news this would have made at any other time!
Sudipta turned on his side and tried to steal a few moments of sleep, but failed. One by one a few faces came and rose before his eyes¾his teacher and later his colleague Dr. Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta, his nearest neighbour in building number 23 Dr. Fazlur Rahman, his dear friend Dr. Muktadir. He did not know Dr. Muktadir very long. They had first met at the university Club. He had a hair of gold. How could any one kill such a man? But whose killing was right? One did not wish such cruel death at the hands of brutal soldiers even for his bitterest enemy. Were those who shot dead a man like Professor Govinda Dev human beings?
Firoz saw that lady yesterday. He had gone to the Medical College. He had gone there with a gentleman of their party. To take him there. And at the same time to take a look at things. But he did not see much yesterday. He went to Gulistan from the Medical College and then back home by the same route. On both sides of the road still lay many dead bodies. And rows of living trudged on, side-stepping the dead. Those unfortunate living, who had escaped death by mere chance. Among those who were alive there was that baby. He was no more than a year old. Who could tell his story? Firoz broke into tears as he tried to tell Sudipta about him.
A huge stem of a giant tree lay by the road; perhaps it was dragged in there to build a barricade. A frightened helpless woman had perhaps tried to hide herself behind it and so escape death. Perhaps when her home started to burn she came out on the street seeking safety somewhere. She tried to save the child at her breast. Firoz saw that the silly, innocent, miraculously spared child was still trying to keep alive by sucking at the breast of his dead mother. This he saw on his way back. And he had seen the lady on his way out. Clutching her only child to her breast, holding a suitcase in one hand, she was going in a rickshaw. The widowed daughter-In-law of the adopted son of life long bachelor Dr. Govinda Chandra Dev. Did you long to see a modern-day saint? You only had took at Dr. Dev. How much did he earn as a Professor and as the Head of a University Department? Whatever was that amount he didn’t spend perhaps even one-tenth of it for himself. And the rest? That was spent on charities and for his adopted sons. He had nurtured and brought up many poor children, not all of then Hindus by any means, was the Hindu-Muslim distinction some thing to be seriously considered in this age? Benoy da. Sutapa-di, Sukanta or Mandira, had Sudipta ever thought of them as persons particularly belonging to any religion? Dr. Dev did not belong to any particular religion. Perhaps he belonged to all religions. How could one who was truly a philosopher with all his heart and soul allow himself to be imprisoned in the confines of a particular religion?
“Hello, are you awake?” asked Firoz. The ladies where in the next room with the children, and here in this room were the two friends. They had planned to gossip far into the night but the mood was lacking. Besides wearied by a hectic day Firoz bad promptly fallen asleep. He woke up only just now, and immediately on awakening he called out to Sudipta, who let him know that he was awake, and then asked, “Look, you told me yesterday about Dr. Dev’s daughter-in-law. Did you know her?”
“No, I didn’t. The gentlemen who was with me in my car pointed her out to me. She was the sister of a friend of his. Her husband’s name was Mohammad Ali or something like that, I was told, but I don’t recollect it now.”
That is, he was a Muslim. The Pakistani soldiers had placed Dr. Dev and his Muslim son in one row and shot them dead. The dead bodies were seen lying side by side. Also was seen the dead body of Modhu Babu. Dear Madhu da of the students of the Dacca University. When he remembered his student days Sudipta too found the bright memory of Madhu da warmly ensconced in a niche of his heart. Madhu da’s canteen¾the place of what memories of how many moments of joy, malancholy, annoyance and fierce debates! Why did they kill you? On the night of the 25th even as she nestled into Sudipta’s bosom Bela seemed to have been terribly frightened. And at that moment Sudipta had heard his daughter ask one heart-reading question, “Father, why would they kill us?” as he remembered Madhu-da he seemed to hear again the same question of his daughter¾why would they kill Madhu-da. Yes, stupid girl, the answer was one and the same, they would destroy the University of Dacca. They would destroy everything that the students and the teachers of the Dacca University were fond of. At least that was what they wanted to do. They wanted to kill, to demolish to destroy.
And why wouldn’t they, you tell me that! All this precocity in the name of free thinking. You are engaged in teaching students: well do that. What business have you to poke your nose into how we rule or do not rule the country? It is entirely our affair to decide on the route our aeroplanes will fly along or the base we shall get our oil from. But you had to go to the British Deputy High Commission and ask then not to let us get our fuel at Maldive. How absurd! Loog, who told you to worry about the welfare or otherwise of the country? Is that your headache or ours? What did you say? You too wanted to know what was good for the country?
That’s what is wrong with the Bengalees, you know. For God’s sake, why don’t you leave the matter of the country’s welfare to the jawans of the west wing? Get whatever poor meal you can scrape up and rest content. And produce jute and tea in large quantities for the rapid advancement of the country. Or if you belong to the gentry work for national integration, or write a thesis and get a tamgha, a State honour. If you did not like to do any of these things? Well, then they would kill you. And that killing would be legitimate.
Many were unaware of this simple thing till the 25th of March.
Madhu da did not know that it was an offence to be loved by the students. But not to speak of Madhu-da, no human being was supposed to know this. How shat I we ever repay Madhu-da’s debt? Were the students of the Dacca University alone indebted to Madhuda? It was literally true. Many students were unable to fully clear the bills they ran up in his canteen. Some of them defaulted not unwillingly. All students were not surely angels. But Madhuda considered all students good and decent. How he loved the boys!
You will save the country, and shan’t I save you?
Of course, I’ll have to do that. Didn’t the boys call him their Madhuda, an elder brother to them? An elder brother would of course love his younger brothers. How could he punish them for their minor shortcomings?
Well, if you couldn’t then you were a criminal.
Therefore you had to be killed. And what about Dr. Dev? He did not believe in the ideology of Pakistan. Therefore he too had to be killed.
Sudipta was told by a teacher of his own University that Dr. Dev was an anti-Pakistani. The teacher was Dr. Abdul Khaleque, the famous scientist. It was a little difficult to place Dr. Khaleque, but if you were told that he was Mr. Malek’s brother everyone immediately recognized him. He had gone to England with his wife’s money. Returning from there with a Ph. ‘he had become the Provost of a students residence hall. Now, in addition, he ran two shops in the New Market under another name. He had also joined the Rotary Club with the intention of doing social service. Sudipta knew him fairly well, but generally speaking, he did not like to mix with everybody. As a result he was not personally so well known as his name was. But Mr. Malek, from this aspect, was quite a renowned man. His degree was in Political Science, but he did not indulge in politics. He did not even read any book on that subject any more. Instead he wrote poems. And he attended the club regularly. In this regard he was just the reverse of his younger brother Dr. Khaleque. He knew now to mix and make a party come alive. And he could tell lies unblushingly. If some day Sudipta sat by Mr. Malek at the club he found himself drenched in a shower of lies. He could tell lies beautifully and in most cases they were not very harmless either. He could effortlessly tell such lies that might badly hurt some body. Snapping the train of his thoughts, in this moment, sounded the voice of Firoz.
“You know, this mad act of Yahya, this may, in one sense, be to our gain.”
“But I can see that it is positively to your loss. Here, look at us; five persons suddenly forced on you. It is not a matter of jock.”
“It certainly isn’t. How I am suffering! But, remember, this is nothing compared to what we are going to make Yahya suffer Perhaps it will kill the poor fellow.”
‘Oh, please, don’t do that, A number of people will become orphans, you know.”
“You are speaking of the collaborators, aren’t you? No, we won’t add to their grief by orphaning them. We shall liquidate them before that.”
The two brothers, Malek and Khaleque. Belonged to the category of collaborators. Malek, in particular, was unparllelled in this regard. He was quite senior in age too. But in juvenile exuberance he was second to none. That was what attracted Sudipta and his friends.
Thinking about those two brothers Sudipta said at this point, “Do you know what I would like to do when I think of certain collaborators?”
“Yes, what’s that? Would you like to leave the country? Or, commit suicide?”
“I would like to become, at least for an hour, one of Yahya’s savage soldiers.”
“That’s where you are making a mistake, Professor. Yahya’s brutal soldiers cannot kill touts and collaborators. They can kill only good people.”
That’s right. Firoz had spoken truly. Did beasts ever kill beasts? Beasts killed men; that was their religion. And men killed beasts. So he had to become a man. A strong, healthy man. But did they kill only good people on the night of the 25th? Yes, nearly always, only once or twice they had scored same side goals by mistake….