Debt of the Unsung Hero by Sarder Jayenuddin
On 16th December, Bangladesh celebrates Victory Day — a day when they gained sovereignty after a battle with Pakistan in 1971, a battle in which India backed Bangladesh. Here is a translation of a story by the acclaimed writer Sarder Jayenuddin set between pre and post-independent Bangladesh… a poignant story of sacrifice and heroism
Translated by Sohana Manzoor
It was the middle of the Bengali month of Ashwin*. The early nights were too warm, but the late nights were cool and sweet. It was difficult to get up from sleep. On such a night, I was in a deep slumber when there were quick and firm knocks on the door. Someone was urging us to open the door.
Even though I had been in deep sleep, I felt restless. It was not just me, but everybody felt uncomfortable during those days. How could we sleep in peace? The country was being plundered by the Pakistani Army shamelessly. They were killing people and burning homes. My situation was even worse as I had been absconding for quite some time. Basically, I had been on the run for four to five days. And then the boat I had taken was attacked by robbers. We had almost died. Even though we survived, we encountered some others who had jumped into the river to save themselves from the robbers. Actually, that was the main reason why the passengers of our boat were able to get away.
Okay, so we survived. But then, even after arriving at this remote village of Pabna, I felt scared stiff. The military could come here too. They might arrive any moment. The only hope was that they would not come at night. They were apparently terrified of the Mukti ( Mukti Bahini, the freedom fighters). So, who was knocking at the door? And it was quite loud by now. I sat upright and was sure that it would be robbers. Just as I had taken courage on the other day in the river, I took a deep breath and asked again, “Who is it? What do you want?”
A steady voice replied from the other side, “Be quiet. Where is the Professor? Call him.”
My son Shelly’s maternal uncle, Abdul Aziz Khan, alias Khoka Mian, was a teacher at the polytechnic institute. He was asleep on the other side of the wooden bed. At this, he jumped up and raised his forefinger to his lips and bade me to keep quiet. He picked up the lantern, reduced the light and whispered, “Get up quickly; we have to go to the next room.”
I could not understand anything; there was so little time and it all seemed so strange. But as soon as I got up at the behest of Khoka Mian, he packed up our bedding and went to the next room. I had to follow him too and lie down as instructed. Khoka Mian left me there and went to the other room. After a while, he came back and lay down by my side. I could not make head or tail of this strange behaviour and asked, “What’s going on? It all seems so weird!”
Khoka Mian whispered back, “Go to sleep. Will tell you tomorrow.”
But I could not sleep. I was astounded by Khoka Mian’s peculiar behaviour. Not much of the night was left and I could not sleep. So after about an hour I got up and sat on the bed and asked him again what was going on.
The reply made me open my eyes wide. They were no other than the Mukti Bahini, freedom fighters of whom even the Pakistani soldiers were terrified. They had been conducting an operation and now had taken refuge in this house for the day. They would leave again at nightfall. Khoka also said that the youngest of these boys belonged to this village. He was the son of a widow, about twelve or thirteen years of age. His name was Haran Sheikh. He wanted to meet his mother before going off and he would have to arrange the meeting.
After saying this much Khoka Mian told me, “Dulal Bhai, no one must know about this.”
That the freedom fighters had come to this house made my heart full. I felt a tremendous respect and compassion for the brave warriors. I earnestly wished that I could take a look at these brave young men who were ready to fight against the ferocious Pakistani Army and sacrifice their lives for the country. If only I could take one look! Freedom fighters! What kind of people were they?
So, I expressed my wish to Khoka Mian. He recognized my earnestness. But he agreed very unwillingly and said, “You can take one look, that’s all. Don’t enter the room. You understand the peril, right? If the news travels, it might cost lives. There are Pakistani collaborators here in our village. If they learn somehow…” he stopped and heaved a great sigh and then muttered, “These are the black sheep of the country. They should just cease to exist.”
I replied, “I heard that they too are at a dead end. Yesterday, as I was heading this way, I learnt that two corpses had been lying by the Dulai bridge for two days. Their hands and feet had been chopped off and the eyes and ears cut off too. Apparently, they are traitors and hence people even refuse to bury them.”
It was early dawn, not quite morning, and hence nobody was up. I went with Khoka Mian to take a look at the freedom fighters. The door of their room was locked from outside. He unlocked the door and went inside. A little later, he waved at me and I went ahead to peep in. Five or six youths or adolescents were asleep in the bed. They hugged their rifles like side-pillows and some round shaped black objects lay by their heads. Khoka Mian identified them as hand grenades. One of them sat erect on this side, keeping his eyes on the door. The boy who slept in the middle was the youngest among them—he must be Haran, the son of the widow I had heard of.
During the day, I looked at the room many times and always saw it locked. But apparently, they had all taken shower as they do not get a chance to clean up. And they had lunch too. Around ten at night when they were supposed to leave, Khoka Mian brought Haran’s mother with him. They had just come out to the yard. Haran approached his mother and bent down to pay respects. One end of his rifle touched his mother’s belly.
Haran’s mother placed a hand on her son’s head. I was right beside them but I could not be sure if they cried. I thought someone heaved a sigh. Haran stood up quickly and said in an emotional voice, “Pray for us, Ma, we’ve so much to do.”
His mother caressed her son’s face and replied in a broken voice, “I’ve put you in the hands of Allah. He’ll look after you, son.”
And they disappeared beyond the mango grove.
After independence I often recalled the face of the young freedom fighters. And among them, the most prominent was the face of the child Haran. Oh, how they slept with the rifles in their arms! I wondered how those boys fought for the country and finally brought about the independence of Bangladesh. I bowed my head in respect to those young warriors.
I often wanted to visit that village of Ataikulo, the home of Haran Sheikh. I wanted to understand how the sparking and fiery star was doing. However, I could not find the time. After independence, I had become the boss in my office and I always had much to do. Yet, whenever I wrote to Khoka Mian, I never forgot to ask about Haran. About two years later, I learnt from his letter that Haran had gone astray, he had become a miscreant.
I was astounded and regretted that the piece of iron that could have turned into steel, had gone rusty. What was the point?
Since then whenever the memory of Haran sleeping with rifle popped up in my memory, I banished it with disdain. Then I forgot about him.
Five to six years had passed. Then one day, a young man that looked more like a tired and skinny dog than a human being, came to my door. He had a letter in his hand from Abdul Aziz, the second master of the Pabna Polytechnic College—that would be Khoka Mian. The letter said that the young man was Haran, suffering from many complications. He was shot in his back years ago and that still bothered him. “He has been cursed and thrashed by the people and police alike. Do something for him if you can,” the letter said.
I looked at the young man. He was not the bright hero that I remembered, but a bent skeletal figure. I felt love and disdain coiling in my mind simultaneouly. “Take a seat,” I told Haran. But he hesitated as his clothes were soiled and the sofas in my room were neat and clean. I pointed to a chair made of cane and said, “Okay, sit over there.” I then asked, “Do you have papers and prescription?”
He nodded and brought out a bunch of papers from the bag hanging from his shoulder. Among the torn papers and prescriptions, I saw the certificate he received signed by the General Osmani. “Didn’t you try to get a job by showing that certificate?” I asked.
He nodded, “I did. But I don’t know anybody and I have so little education. Who will give me a job?”
I travelled from this office to that and finally had Haran admitted to a hospital. After that I felt that my duty was done. I felt relieved. I wrote to Khoka Mian that it was very difficult to get anybody admitted to hospital these days, but I had done it. So, Haran would survive this time.
A few days later, Khoka Mian wrote to me again saying, “Dulal Bhai, Haran knows nobody else in the city. Do visit him at the hospital once in a while. His poor mother comes to me every week. If you could let me know, I could tell her about her son.”
We were a newly independent country. And we were awfully busy in building up the nation. My office had grown so big — where would I get time to visit Haran? The thought did cross my mind a few times, but somehow, I just could not make time. I had seminars to attend, cultural programs as a well-known writer too. Besides, he was at the hospital — the doctors were supposed to look after him.
One afternoon, Haran himself came to my office. He was gasping for breath as he was unwell. Why did he come? I said, “What are you doing here? Why did you leave the hospital?”
He did not reply immediately. Then he said, “The doctor said that the bullet is stuck in my spine and it will require surgery. And the medicines are not available at the hospital. They are costly too. I also need blood. One bottle costs fifty taka. If someone could donate, that would be great, but if not, well, I don’t have the money.”
After that, he sat gasping for breath. I was in a very uncomfortable situation. Then I put my hand in my pocket and took out a five taka note and handed it to him. “You take a rickshaw and go to the hospital. I will visit you when I can make arrangements for the money. And meanwhile, do submit an application to the welfare trust.”
Haran looked at me with eyes full of pain and sorrow. Then he said, “I did apply once. They gave me 25 taka and said that the trust was not doing well and they could not afford to help more.”
“Still, do apply again,”I said. “I’ll see what can be done.”
Haran did not anything. He just looked at me sadly. I noticed a while after he left that the five-taka note was lying on my table. I thought that maybe he left it by mistake.
Then I had forgotten about Haran altogether. Maybe I would have never remembered him. But some time later, he rose before my eyes as a news item. Many of you may have seen that piece of news just as I did. The valiant freedom fighter Haran Sheikh committed suicide by jumping off the fifth floor of the hospital. He left a note saying that nobody is responsible for his death. He did it because he failed to get the money necessary for the blood and medicine he needed.
So, I could not forget Haran after all. In death, he ignited a fire that left us all burning. And as I can see, it is unextinguishable.
Sarder Jayenuddin (1918- 1986), acclaimed Bangladeshi novelist and short story writer, worked for different newspapers throughout his life time. He became popular mainly for his short stories. He was a social critic and portrayed various discrepancies that he noticed around him. He was the recipient of 1967 Bangla Academy Literary Award. In 1994, he was awarded the Ekushey Padak posthumously.
Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities, University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh.
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