Short Story: Last Sojourn in the Sundarbans
by Sophia Ali Pandeya
Dhaka, East Pakistan, 1970
Even now, after all these years have passed, rivers, all rivers, hold a certain fascination and dread for her. Back then before rivers of blood had been shed, when there was not even a ruby blood drop, not even the tiniest nipple dot to prick the endless flow of a day, it was Nubia herself who was the river.
Theirs was the last house at the phallic tip of the cantonment cul-de-sac, lined with rows of colonial era brick and limestone bungalows. Beyond their back garden lay the great glimmering eye of the lake, Moti Jheel, where Nubia was forbidden to go by herself. Under Ayah’s watchful eye, she would play for hours with Anmol in their garden full of banana trees, where the siblings would go goose-stepping round and round the lawn, “Left right! Left right! Pajama dheela, topi tight! Aagey husband peechay wife!” until they collapsed in dizzy heaps of giggles on the grass. When she got up, Nubia was thirsty. She stuck her tongue out and caught the drip of recent rain from the glistening elephant ear banana leaves in whose lap sat fat yellow fingers of fruit plush with beckoning. Ayah mashing up the bananas, putting salt, pepper and sugar in them. The butter-yellow disks sweating until they swam in their own spiced up juice. Banana chaat was yet another one of Ayah’s delicious creations. There is nothing, however, that Ayah could do to milk to make it palatable to Nubia’s six-year-old tongue.
“Every morning she throws the milk down the sink when I’m not looking! Begum Sahib I strained this milk with muslin twice and she still didn’t drink! Ayyo! My bones are too old for this. Look at Anmol Baba. Every day he drinks down two glasses of milk. Gut gut gut. Drinks it down. See how fair he is? You will be as black as coal if you don’t drink milk and then no one will marry you!”
Fortunately, Nubia is rescued from Ayah’s tirade by the double honks that mark her ride to Farm View. A place she adores. “It’s not just any school,” she points out proudly to Ayah, Ammi, Abba, Anmol, to anyone who will listen. “It’s the Farm View International school.” As if ‘International’ made it unquestionably superior to all other educational enterprises.
Mrs. Shoma Chaudhri’s Farm View International School was one of those rare entities that lived up to every letter in its rather idyllic sounding name. Near enough for a daily drive but out of the orbit of downtown Dacca’s congestion; it was an experimental school surrounded by acres of paddy fields and fringed by palm and banana groves where pale-faced children of diplomats mixed with assorted denizens of East and West Pakistan. The day began with a thrilling slide off a huge jungle gym followed by a mad race to class. Mrs. Chaudhri had herself hated school as a child, and spent her early adulthood with the singular determination that someday she would create a school that was the very antithesis of her awful experience of learning by rote whilst being confined hour after hour in an airless room. As a result, every lesson involved song, dance or play. and barring rainy days, all classes were held under the generous shade of mango trees. To Nubia it was all so enthralling that she hated the weekends and longed for school every day. Her world would have been near perfect except for the other inhabitant of that Volkswagen. That cruel boy, Froggy.
Froggy’s real name was Farooq but of course no one called him that. He had long ago transmogrified into Froggy, thanks to his huge bulging eyes encased in thick coke bottle spectacles. Froggy was the bane of Nubia’s existence. Not only did he consistently beat her to first place in class, he had an endless supply of foreign chocolates and candies which he noisily, drippily consumed in front of her without so much as parting with a single sliver, in spite of her tearful pleas. Their dimpled and matronly class mistress, Mrs. Alvi, had scolded Froggy on several occasions, urging him to be generous with his bounty, but to no avail. Nubia’s misery continued unabated. She collected, yes collected Froggy’s disdainfully discarded wrappers; painstakingly pressing them in her scrapbook; ignoring the humiliation that this constituted. She was determined to have mementoes of “abroad” no matter how small!
Her tormenter was strangely silent today. They had left the leisurely cantonment, crossed the noisy chaos of cycle rickshaw-car-bus that was Banglabadhu Avenue and were now traveling through the sun dappled gold-green blur of paddy fields, the quiet interrupted only by gurgling grinding gear-changing sounds. Nubia was puzzled. Normally by this time Froggy would have pulled out a whole cornucopia of candies with which to tease and tantalize.
“What’s the matter, Froggy?” she poked gingerly. “Run out of chocolate?” (though she knew that was unlikely)
“Na,” said Froggy glumly, staring out the window.
“Then whaat??” she asked, getting impatient.
“We’re leaving Dacca!” Froggy finally burst out in a flood of tears.
“What do you mean?” Nubia cried, taken completely by surprise. “Leaving Dacca? When?”
“Friday?” She could not believe her ears. “That’s only three days away!” She paused. “It’s the middle of school term!”
“I know,” mumbled Froggy, sinking back into a gloomy silence.
The rest of the way Nubia’s mind was racing faster than the car; on the one hand her daily torture would now be over; on the other hand, she was now bereft of even the beloved candy wrappers, her sole connection to a distant, longed for, world. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Finally, she said “Where will you go?”
“To Copenhagen,” Froggy sniffed as Nubia gave him a blank stare. Normally he would have gloated at her ignorance. Today he just said wearily, “It’s the capital of Denmark.”
Denmark. Of course. To add insult to her injuries Froggy was also half-Danish. She tried to conjure Copenhagen from a four-by-six postcard of a gilded opera house that Ammi had once shown her but the vision dissolved as they arrived at Farm View. It was time to sprint to the jungle gym, slide down and then race to class.
Farm View sent its students home with a constant stream of missives, monthly report cards, school excursions, parent teacher meetings and sundry notifications. Nubia got home and handed the Principal’s sealed letter to her mother impatiently, anxious to know if she had finally bested Farooq Hamid in the monthly rankings even though such an unlikely victory would be hollow now that he was leaving. Shehrbano read the contents and frowned. Nubia looked at her in alarm. Surely it was not a bad report? She had been slipping in her sums lately, but overall Nubia was intelligent beyond her years.
Shehrbano Ansari folded up the envelope, set it on her dressing table and sat Nubia on her lap, cradling her stick-thin dark limbs in her pillowy plumpness. Nubia admired her mother’s profile in the three-way dressing table mirror. The long aquiline nose, the perfect Cupid’s bow her lips made, how they seemed to be tinted even when she did not wear lipstick. At each end of the dressing table, wooden stands held glass bangles arranged by color. Yellows, oranges, reds, maroons, pinks, mauve and purples were on the left side while the right held an array of lime greens, emerald, turquoise, peacock blue, sky blue, ultramarine and indigo. Nubia loved to listen to the soft tinkling they made as she ran her fingers along the bottom of the rainbows. Her mother only wore bangles when she dressed up in a sari to go to parties. Otherwise she wore fresh white coils of motia flowers on her wrists every day, each night placing the discarded pearly blossoms in a bowl of water at her bedside so that faint hints of their delicate fragrance would linger in the room.
Shehrbano reached for the comb and began untangling. “I am sorry to tell you this Noobi but your school will be closing early this term.” Nubia was in shock. This second blow was too much. She picked up the offending letter and gave it to her mother to read aloud. Her parents’ names were handwritten in Mrs Chaudhri’s elegant cursive above the typed note.
“Dear Major & Mrs Ansari,
It is with deep regret that I am ending the school year at Farm View early. November 2nd will be the last day of school. My decision is taken in the light of increasing risks to the children and the staff by the worsening security situation. I look forward to reopening Farm View once things improve. Let us pray that this is sooner rather than later.
Mrs. Shoma Chaudhri, Principal
Farm View International School, Dacca”
“Risks? What risks? Nubia demanded to know, angry, distraught and strangely excited all at once.
“Really Noobi,” said Ammi wearily. “Must you know?” Sensing the onset of a tantrum, her mother abruptly gave in and blurted out, “They call themselves the Mukti Bahini, freedom fighters. They want East Pakistan to be a separate country.”
“But why? Everyone’s so happy here!” Nubia desperately tried to rack her six-year-old brains for any signs of discontent around her and could find none. Who could possibly be unhappy?
“It’s not as simple as that beti,” her mother wearily tried to explain.
“But what about us? I don’t want to leave. Can’t we be in the new country too?”
“I am afraid not sweetheart, the new country is just for Bengalis and we are not Bengali.”
Nubia looked at her mother, dumbfounded. She had never thought of herself as non-Bengali. In fact, she had never thought of herself as anything at all except a rather clever girl who longed for unattainable chocolates and a glamorous life visiting “abroad” someday.
“Anyway,” said Shehrbano, belatedly trying to cheer her up her despondent daughter,
“We don’t know for sure that this will happen. it could also be that they just have kutti for a while and they will talk and make up and be friends again, just like you and Froggy.”
“Froggy is not my friend!” Nubia retorted angrily. “ You made me share rides with him to school and besides he’s going to Denmark.”
“Noobi we will be leaving too, no matter what happens. Abba’s two years are almost up. We will be posted out of here soon.”
To Nubia, who was beyond consolation, this inevitable circumstance now seemed like a minor detail. The rest of her day went by in a daze of tears.
By the time Major Ansari arrived home the evening sun was already departing, leaving a long red-rimmed eyelid of horizon in its wake. Nubia had been waiting for him for what seemed like an eternity, walking back and forth on the triangle edges of brick-bordered flowerbeds lining their semi-circular driveway, until the arches of her feet ached. Her father gently took Nubia’s hand in his. “Come on betay, let’s go for a walk.”
Nubia loved that he called her betay, son, rather than beti, it was part of their special secret bond and it made her feel important. She knew her father confided things in her that were beyond her years and she knew somehow not to tell anyone these things and especially not that he chain-smoked cigarettes on their daily walks, as he had lied to Ammi that he had quit for the umpteenth time.
They strode quickly in the fast dwindling twilight, trying to shake off the constant clouds of mosquitoes that whined and buzzed above their heads. Abba said nothing. He didn’t need to. His grip on Nubia’s hand was firm and reassuring. Eventually the yellow flickering street lamps came on one by one, each acquiring its own following of light crazed insects. “See betay, thats progress for you,” he said sarcastically. “In the old days the insects were known as parvaneh, they used to die in the living flame; it was sacred to die like that; it was the symbol of junoon.”
“What’s junoon?” Nubia interrupted.
“Junoon is a very special love, a love that doesn’t care what happens, you could say it’s An All Consuming Love.”
“Ahh,” Nubia sighed, suddenly longing in her heart for An All Consuming Love.
“Now with the invention of the light bulb, they all live. The bastards. Leaving us to die.” Major Ansari stubbed out his cigarette on the lamp post and unfolded the wrapper of a paan, placing the stuffed leaf triangle that would serve as breath camouflage in the side of his mouth.
“But thats terrible!” she said. “I wish we never had lightbulbs, then we would have had a lot less mosquitoes!”
“True,” gurgled Abba in a paan-filled laugh before he swallowed. “Let’s go see what Mir Hasan’s made for dinner.”
When they entered, the aromas of Mir Hasan’s cooking had already colonized the house. “Can I go and see Mir Hasan make the phulkas?” Nubia pleaded.
Ammi frowned but gave in, afraid to provoke another outburst. Watching Mir Hasan make phulkas was a fascinating spectacle. He had a little mountain of dough balls and with what seemed like incredible speed would flatten them into perfect circles with his rolling pin, then slapslapslap they flew from one hand to the other then quick-as-a-flash on the round skillet. Already rolling the next one, Mir Hasan paused for a split second, flipped the phulka, then catapulted it onto the open flame where the phulka puffed up like the cheeks of a shehnai player or a crazed bullfrog in courtship, puffed up in a pride about to be devoured. She ran back to the dinner table as soon as enough of the puffing breads were done. Steam singed Nubia’s fingers when she tore the phulka open but undeterred she wrapped the now flattened bread around drippy morsels of Hilsa that Kanchon had bought from the fish market just that morning.
All through dinner Mir Hasan kept shuttling in through the kitchen door to deposit freshly puffed phulkas on their plates until Ammi motioned for him to stop. Every time the door swung open, Nubia had a brief glimpse of Ayah and Kanchon hunched over a large aluminum platter balling rice and leftover Hilsa into their mouths. She had never seen them eat Hilsa with phulkas or any other type of bread and was wondering about this, when the reason finally dawned on her.
“So what are we?” Nubia’s question sounded unnaturally loud, a clattering spoon of a question.
Sheherbano and Akbar Ansari looked up from their plates at each other and then at her with expressions of dismay. “We’re Pakistanis, of course,” her father firmly replied.
“No, no I mean what are we?” Nubia persisted. “As we’re not Bengalis,” she added, making herself irrevocably clear.
There was a long uncomfortable silence at the table.
“We are Mohajirs,” Shehrbano said finally. Mohajirs. This was a new term for Nubia.
“Mohajirs are people who came to Pakistan from India after Partition,” her mother informed her.
“In 1947,” Nubia said triumphantly. “I knew that!”
“Yes, your Abba’s family came over in 1947 and I came later in 1960.”
“Later, why later?” Nubia prodded, trying to digest all this new information. “That’s a lot later.” She tried to subtract 1947 from 1960 in her head.
Shehrbano looked at her as if she might say something but thought better of it. “Yes Noobi, I just went to Karachi to attend a wedding and met your Abba over there and he proposed and that was it. I left India to marry your father.”
“How romantic,” Nubia mused, “Is that junoon? An All Consuming Love?”
“What did you say?” Ammi’s voice was a shock-knife. “Chee chee chee. Who has filled your head with all this love-shove bakwas!?”
Nubia dared not look in the direction of her father.
“Lets go for a holiday.” Her father’s voice came booming into Nubia’s crestfallen silence.
Shehrbano was incredulous. “Really janum? With things the way they are? Do you think thats wise?”
“Much wiser than sweating in the cantonment like sitting ducks. The November weather is perfect. What’s more it will be Baqr Eid in a couple of days. A little trip down the Sunderbans is going to do us a world of good.”
“The Sunderbans!” Nubia exclaimed, trembling with excitement. They were going to the jungle. Abba had done it again. Resurrected her day. She went to bed filled with dreams about Tarzan; the object of his All Consuming Love; flying gracefully at his side from limb to limb with a chorus of adoring chimpanzees swinging close behind them.
Nubia had never before seen such a press of people as the hectic crowds at the Sadarghat terminal where they were to board the Ayon. It was a “Rocket” steamship booked exclusively for their party which, besides Ammi, Abba, Anmol and Nubia included Abba’s batman, Nubia’s ayah, the bawarchi, the beara, and several armed sipahis for security. Along with the Ayon’s crew, they were more than a baker’s dozen, but the upper deck of the steamship, where Nubia had immediately clambered upon boarding, was gloriously empty. From here she had a sweeping view of both the river and the docks, whose tumultuous throngs also resembled a river, but with competing opposite currents of disembarking and boarding passengers clattering across the gangplanks. The arriving current was besieged by coolies and rickshaw wallas, while the departing one was harangued by fruit vendors and newspaper sellers desperate to make a final sale before the ships departed.
The Buriganga river along which they were to journey from Dacca to Khulna, was no less jam-packed. Floating almost cheek by jowl on its waters were all manner of boats from slender naos to squat dhows and every imaginable sailing craft in-between. But the venerable Rocket steamships with their triple decks crammed with passengers, dominated the docks.
They cast off when the light was beginning to turn from white to a wilting pink muslin the color of Ayah’s sari. Nubia stayed on the Ayon’s upper deck soaking up the wind and sounds of the clamorous river, until Ayah’s wiry grip brought her down to the ship’s dining cabin just as the Buriganga turned into a thick lapping blackness, whose shores disappeared into the night.
The next morning, Nubia was greeted by an immense expanse of water whose far banks, already barely visible in the steaming mists, were further obscure by masses of water hyacinth. The crash and clang of the crowded Buriganga had given way to the sleepy Meghna, as if a magical hawker had opened her tight bundle of improbable malmal to reveal a generous rippling pallu whose span was so wide that no borders were visible. The Meghna reminded Nubia of potato stew, a muddy brown under shimmering, bubbling oily topcoats of light. The Ayon dropped anchor at Khulna’s sleepy river port, so they could hire smaller boats to row them up the narrower waterways of the Sundarbans.
Kanchon had been sent onshore to haggle with the boatmen. He returned with two slender necked naos, with an oarsman each at their fore and aft ends. As they made ready to board, Nubia noticed several empty jute baskets being lowered into the boat along with the dal bhaat, fish curry and banana chaat that was to be their lunch. When Nubia asked why they were carrying empty baskets, Ayah replied that Bagh Ali had told her that Sahib wanted to gather some plants from the Sundarbans.
Suddenly the overarching urgency of this trip in spite of their increasingly perilous circumstances, made itself clear to Nubia. This was the last chance her father, avid botanist that he was, would have to gather the rare plant specimens he so often rhapsodized about from the sanctuary of the Sundarbans, or Beautiful Forest. This also explained why Kanchon, a lowly houseboy had been brought along. He was from these parts, having worked as a wild honey collector risking life and limb in the dense, swampy jungles rife with man-eating tigers, to harvest the prized honey of the scarlet mangrove flowers that bloomed each March. It was he who pointed out the sundari, keora and goran trees that interspersed the thick swathes of mangroves, as well as the autumnal blooms of the sheuli, prized for their fragrance. He nudged Nubia into the awareness that what appeared at first glance to be just a floating log, was a muggermuch, or crocodile. On the other end of this deadly spectrum were the spindly and majestic Goliath Herons, the Brahminy Kites and the brilliant orange-blue flashes of the rare Blue-Eared Kingfisher. Once in a while they would pass small riverside shrines. Kanchon explained that these were sacred to the benevolent forest goddess Bonbibi and her tiger consort, and both Muslims and Hindus would place offerings of flowers and sweets for protection. For the dwellers of the Sundarbans, no matter their religion, the tiger was an ancient and powerful god that must be propitiated.
The only other craft that plied the waterways were khoro kishti, long flat-bottomed boats carrying straw from the Sundarbans all the way to Dacca propelled by both sail and oar. The river songs of the wiry boatmen soared across the water as they steered their craft.
“No matter if the rain comes,
No matter if the storm comes,
Take my boat across to shore,
O Mahjhi ré.”
Their songs were still echoing in Nubia’s ears when the boats turned around and made their way back to the Ayon. Her father was disappointed, because he had not managed to find the genwa, a plant prized for its flaming red leaves. But Kanchon and the boatmen insisted tha they return well before twilight, when the crepuscular tigers would come out to hunt.
The next day was Baqr Eid and the sipahis on the ship were clamoring for a sacrifice. Major Ansari did not want to shoot the chital or spotted deer native to the Sundarbans.
“It’s not the same as slaughtering a goat,” he protested.
“Sir jee, Sir jee,” the soldiers crowded around him, begging and humbling themselves, and praising the wild venison of these parts as unmatched in the world, until it was finally decided that the two boats would venture into the junglee waterways in search of chital.
They glided deeper and deeper into the forest without sighting any deer. Hours had gone by and the lengthening late afternoon shadows had begun to alarm Kanchon. “Sahib! Not safe to go further! Tiger come out at evening time. Must go back, now!”
But he was drowned out by the clamoring sipahis who begged, “Just a little bit longer Sir jee!”
As luck would have it, just then a mother and calf came to drink water on the riverbank. Nubia’s father aimed at the doe but shot the calf instead. A brief and piteous bawl arose from the yearling as she stained the mudbank red with her blood. Nubia watched the whole thing with a transfixed gaze, unable to look, yet even more unable to tear her eyes away.
A great cheer arose from the sipahis. The forward boat with two soldiers on board was already rowing ashore to fetch the slain deer. They had just disembarked, carefully to avoid the mangrove pneumatophores, the spitefully pointed, upright breathing roots that could cut and impale a careless step. But before they could toss the calf in, a huge Bengal tiger was growling at them barely five feet away.
The terrified soldiers were frozen for a split second. Then, like skinned bananas jumping back into their shells, they were screaming in panic as they threw themselves back into the boat. The oarsmen frantically paddling to build up speed as the tiger dragged the dead calf back into the dense veil of the mangroves.
Nubia’s world was a tumult of emotions. The awe of seeing the tiger was jumbled up with the shock of the murdered baby deer, with the fact that her beloved Abba had killed, actually killed an innocent animal because he had been persuaded to do so. He was not brutal but he had done something brutal. Why did he not resist? Nubia would always love her father but she could never look at him the same way as before, with the unadulterated adulation of innocence.
School was closed. Nubia spent her days listening to the whispered rumors of killing, burning and looting flying from the mouths of Ayah, Kanchon, Mir Hasan and Bagh Ali. Something inside her was strangely benumbed, as if no horror could surpass what she had already seen with her own eyes on that calamitous trip. Three weeks had passed since their return from the Sundarbans, the situation was steadily worsening and there was still no sign of the promised posting.
“What’s going on janum?” said an anxious Sheherbano over breakfast, oblivious to the fact that Nubia was uncomplainingly drinking down her milk so as not to add to her mother’s stress. “When are we getting out of here?”
“I have arranged for you and the children to get on the next military transport to Karachi,” Akbar replied. “It leaves day after tomorrow.”
“What do you mean?” Shehrbano cried wildly. “What about you? What about your posting?”
“They have canceled my posting.” Her father’s voice was trembling. “Because my replacement has refused to be posted to Dacca. It’s war janum. I cannot leave my men, it would be desertion.”
Nubia’s mother begged and pleaded, but there was no getting around Akbar’s grim determination. So Shehrbano spent the next forty-eight hours shouting out panicked instructions to Mir Hasan, Bagh Ali, Kanchon and Ayah to pack-this-leave-that and hurry hurry hurry until the next thing they knew they were on a rattling C-130 military transport plane to Karachi.
On the 16th of December 1971, the Pakistani army surrendered to the the Mukti Bahini and the Indian Armed Forces. East Pakistan was no more.
The 14th Division of Sylhet along with its commander Major Akbar Ansari, were taken captive and sent to separate prison camps. The soldiers were packed off to Kanpur while Akbar and his fellow officers were sent to an Officer’s Camp in Bareilly. Ironically, this incarceration was the closest Akbar would ever get to the home he had left behind in the violent Partition of 1947, Bareilly being a scant hundred miles from his birthplace, Lucknow. It would be three long years before Nubia would see her father, but never again would she glide through the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans or set eyes upon its magnificent man-eating tigers.
Sophia Ali Pandeya is a South Asian-American poet and writer whose work dwells in the liminal, engages with linguistic, cultural, religious, temporal, personal, geographical and metaphysical borders. Publications include Cactus Heart, Askew Poetry, Bank Heavy Press and Spilled Ink as well as Poetry International, The Adirondack Review, BlazeVOX, The Daily O, Lantern Journal, Convergence Journal, AntiSerious and Full Of Crow. Peripheries, her debut collection of poetry, was published last Fall by Cyberhex Press. She tweets @SophiaPandeya