By Rashid Askari
The rusty old bus skidded to a halt with a screech of brakes. The engine stopped with an ear-splitting sound. Exhaust fumes were winding into dark clouds. It was a routine picture. There was, however, plenty of room for controversy as to whether it could be called a bus. It was little bigger than a minibus and much smaller than an ordinary one. It looked like a tin-can with a turtle neck. People would call it murir tin. This grotesque shape was made by a local carpenter-cum- bus mechanic who went by the name of Dilu Mistry. Rumour had it that he was capable of making a jet engine only out of the motor accessories. However, the proof of the pudding was never in the eating in Dilu Mistry’s case. If ever asked, clever Dilu would wear a mysterious smile on his face that left a cryptic message that his hidden worth was one of the unsolved mysteries of the locality. Dilu Mistry’s name was so strikingly inscribed on the turtle-neck’s body that it would tickle your fancy on sight. But the optical attraction would fly out of the windows after you had squeezed into it through the narrow door. Jam-packed with passengers the motor turtle used to move so sluggishly that it would take the whole day to cover the distance of about fifty miles between Rangpur and Gaibandha suffering at least a couple of engine failures. It might have amused people to call it a buffalo-cart, but they were left with no second choice.
Haripada would travel between his home in Mithapukur and workplace in Rangpur once a week. Every Thursday he would come home in the evening, stay one day and two nights and the next Saturday go back to his workplace. He was a lecturer in English at a non-government college on the outskirts of Rangpur town. He joined the college immediately after he had completed his Master’s from Dhaka University. He could have got a much better job in Dhaka, but he missed it for no fault of his own. Dhaka on and after 25thMarch (1971) was blazing. The horrific Operation Searchlight was stalking through the city. Mujib had declared independence of Bangladesh and been taken prisoner. The marauding Pakistani armed forces had overrun the capital and unleashed a reign of terror upon the defenceless people. A mighty eagle swooped on the innocent chicks.
When the buffalo cart driver with a stubbly beard braked hard, the passengers dozing fitfully woke up with a start. But Haripada was not one of them. Nor was he wide awake. Seated by a window he was brooding over his life. How things had been out of joint over a few days! The son of Kalipada Master and the grandson of Bishnupada Master had to be Haripada Master. People would call him Professor. Lecturers of non-government colleges were professors in the eye of the common people. But Haripada was not happy with his position. He was not willing to take up his ancestral profession. He had rather a mind to serve in the civil service and had the ability too. But a violent storm from the western sky had dashed all his dreams.
“Get off the bus. You, the bloody Bengali. Get cracking.” A throaty voice boomed like a rumble of thunder.
Haripada got flabbergasted. However, he instantly realized that it was not a routine stop nor was it a mechanical trouble. His apprehension came true as he saw a hefty man in military robes standing at the bus-door. The driver was the first to follow the command like a docile cat without a mew. The passengers hurriedly started getting off the bus jumping the queue. Meanwhile about fifteen military men surrounded the bus. All had bowler hats and bristling moustache. One of them approached Haripada and poked him in the ribs with the muzzle of his rifle:
“You bloody bugger, why don’t you come down? Need kicks on the ass?”
Haripada gave a distinct gust of groan. The soldier uttered a loud toothy laugh and attempted another poke at him. Haripada felt like nothing on earth. He rose from his seat and took slow paces towards the doorway. A shiver ran down his spine. The sacred thread worn around his body and neck seemed a real albatross. He wished he were a Muslim or at least a low caste Hindu devoid of the sacred thread. He had to get rid of it. His hand slipped into his shirt and gave the piece of string a yank. It tore easily but he could not drop it before the army men at the door. He coiled it up and held tight in his hand. While jumping from the bus-door he pretended to stumble and secretly put it in his mouth and swallowed. He heaved a sigh of relief.
All passengers were lined up. A tall husky soldier with a hooked nose started running a check on them.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked the first man in the queue in Urdu.
A lanky man wearing a long coat, drainpipe trousers and a Jinnah cap was translating it into Bengali.
‘My name is A-A-Abdur Rahman,’ the man stammered in his faltering Urdu.
‘Are you a Muslim?’ The army man scanned him from top to toe.
‘Yes sir, yes, I’m a Muslim. On my oath, a devout Muslim!’ Despite his fear Abdur Rahman tried to manage a smile and catch his eye to the black patch on his forehead which he had developed over the years by falling prostrate in prayer.
‘Hmm.’ The soldier seemed reassured. He beckoned him to depart and came to the next man in the queue.
‘Recite the first kalema.’ The soldier from Pakistan roared out an order.
‘It’s very easy sir. I know all the five kalemas with their meanings and explanations.’ Shamsul Alam tried to force a smile, and made a humble attempt at recitation by clearing his throat.
‘All right, all right,’ the army man gave him the full benefit of doubt. He ran his eyes through the queue like a camera panned across the faces of the lined up suspects.
Haripadashuddered in fear. His yacht was foundering in heavy seas. He had a horrible sinking feeling. He tried to catch at a straw. He mumbled the words of kalema he had recently learnt from a Muslim friend of his. He had had a premonition of this kind of sticky situation. He had been informed that if he could recite the kalemas fairly correctly, he might be mistaken for a Muslim and might stay safe from the mindless Pakistani prigs who had an ostentatious passion for religion which was taken advantage of by all but for the freedom fighters. The freedom fighters were their pet aversion. They were more hostile to them than to the unbelievers even if the freedom fighters were better Muslims.
Haripada was not a freedom fighter. But he wished he were one and could present his breast to the enemies. He wanted the freedom fighters to kick the last member of the occupation army out of Bangladesh. He believed the days of occupation would come to an end. Vietnam was a shining example. He hoped the valiant sons of this soil would overcome someday. He wanted to see with his own eyes the Pakistani possession was fast receding and from the ruins was emerging an independent Bangladesh. A free Bangladesh! No more chains, no more shackles! Haripada would join the civil service in the newly independent country. He felt called to serve his country directly by way of turning an Islamic Republic into a People’s Republic. He would help protect the good people and punish the bad ones. This was precisely the way to carry out his father’s ideal and to pass it on to his posterity through his baby boy. Krishnapada was still in the swaddling clothes. His toothless smile floated through Haripada’s mind. Life was so beautiful, so meaningful! But the point was to stay alive, to survive at the present moment. Haripada had to survive by any means. Is it the lure of life? May be! He felt lured to it. He became desperate for it.
Haripada tried to recall the kalemas. Wow! Perfectly all right! Even with the accents and intonations! Now they could not catch him out with kalema. He, however, felt a little guilty at the bottom of his heart for his Brahmin father, but soon he came down to earth with a bump. No matter! It is a part of life. Self-defence is the first law of nature. Haripada justified his defence mechanism and resolved not to give up. He tried to hang on in there although he had a lurking fear at the back of his mind.
The Jinnah cap kept his stare fixed on Haripada. There was no mistaking. He could bet his bottom dollar that Haripada was a Hindu by religion. He whispered something in the ear of the hooked-nose. The hooked nose got electrified and pounced on Haripada like a hungry wolf on a sitting duck.
‘What’s your name?’ The wolf howled.
‘Jainul Abedin,’ Haripada had butterflies in his stomach.
‘Father?’ The wolf tried to play with his prey.
‘Shamsul Abedin,’ Haripada improvised the family name so easily that he could not believe his ears.
The wolf looked a little astonished. But in a second he picked up the thread of questioning.
‘Grandfather?’ He was climbing the family tree.
‘Fazlul Abedin,’ Haripada broke out in a cold sweat. He knew he had been dicing with death. But he could not help it. The moment he failed to move his pieces, he would be checkmated.
The wolf was getting impatient. He looked at Jinnah cap raising his eyebrow questioningly. Jinnah cap gave him a meaningful wink.
‘Recite the first kalema.’ The wolf resumed with renewed interest.
Haripada was skating on very thin ice. He screwed up all courage and recited the kalema quite uninterrupted.
The wolf did not want the game to end there. He wanted to have the last laugh. He shot his last bolt.
‘Pull off your pants.’ He played a sure card.
Haripada could not quite catch the meaning in the first instance. All on a sudden, he felt a twitch at his belt and found himself with his pants down. In the twinkling of an eye, Haripada could make out what they wanted. This was for the first time that he smelt real danger. Fear sent his pulse racing. His sixth sense was telling that something terrible was going to happen. He would meet his waterloo. He saw shadow of death in the dusky blue sky over his head. There was no earthly means to prove he was circumcised. This made his blood run cold. He could no longer stay the course. He felt utterly helpless. He was going to die for his foreskin. Circumcision was the potential lifesaver.
‘Eureka, eureka, I have got it.’
The wolf shouted out as if he had discovered the eighth wonder of the ancient world. All the army men rushed to Haripada. He was a weird creature who had foreskin. The wolf was overwhelmingly pointing to it with a nasty grin on his face. The Jinnah cap gave the panicky passengers a signal to leave. The turtle head hared down the street at the double with all but one.
Haripada was left behind, rooted to the spot completely numbed. The single thread which he was hanging by had torn. He knew his hours, minutes and even seconds were numbered. But he had no sense of fear now. He had been afraid and trembling when he had chances to live. He kept staring vacantly at the back of the bus until it turned a speck on the horizon.
A military jeep emerged as it were from the ground and screeched to a stop by Haripada. The door opened. Two soldiers dismounted. They held Haripada by the hands and took him away in the jeep. The olive-green jeep faded into the dark of night.
Dr. Rashid Askari is a bilingual writer, fictionist, columnist, media personality and the current Vice-Chancellor of Islamic University, Bangladesh. He emerged as a writer in the mid-1990s and by now wrote 7 books and lots of articles/essays which were published at home and abroad. His two Bengali books: Indo-English Literature and Others (Dhaka-1996) and Postmodern Literary and Critical Theory (Dhaka-2002) and two English books: The Wounded Land (Dhaka 2010) and the edited book English Writings of Tagore (3 vols) Dhaka 2012, deserve special mention. His short fiction collection Nineteen Seventy One and other stories (Dhaka 2011) has been translated into Hindi and French.
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