Fri, 27 January 2023
The Daily Ittefaq

The Other Side- Mustafa Panna

Update : 05 Dec 2022, 00:55

Mustafa Panna was born on December 10, 1952 at Uttor Kakchira village of Bamna Upazila of Barguna district, Bangladesh. He was connected with progressive politics. He got arrested in 1969 for participation in anti-Ayub movement. He was sued by the Pakistan government in 1970, and warrant was issued. In 1971, he was one of the leading organisers of the freedom fighter progressive youths of Bamna-Patharghata-Mathbaria area. He took training at Solonibari Cantonment, Tejpur, Assam, India.

The books of short stories he authored include Loksakol and  Krishnapaksher Pratipod. Books of essays he wrote include Bangladesher Shramojeebi Manush. Along with Hayat Mamud,  he edited Kishore Bangla Ovidhan.

Mustafa Panna passed away on 21st October, 2022. He was suffering from cardiac ailments. 

"Opar" and three other short stories of the book "Magha Aslesha" written by Mustafa Panna present accounts of land-grabbing, repression and eviction of religious minorities of Bangladesh. 

(Introduction by Professor Dr. Kajal Bandyopadhyay)

Whatever actions great persons perform,

Common people follow.

Srimad Bhagavad Gita, 3rd Chapter, Sloka: 21

1

It was midnight when Abinash and his companion Shomsher Molla reached the courtyard of their pisha’s(paternal uncle’s) home in Sarkar Howala village. The Ashar (monsoon) rain was pouring heavily nonstop. Both got drenched to the skin. In that scary darkness of the night Abinash failed to guess at which corner his pisha’sroom was exactly located. As far as he could recollect, there were three rooms in the house—one at the west corner with four rusted sloping corrugated tin-roof belonging to his pisha’sbig brother Hemonta Haldar, half thatched and half corrugated tin-roofed room in the north owned by pishaHemonto Halder himself, while in the east in the tin-roofed room lived his first cousin Indrobhusan Halder. The north was open where there was a canal. The canal, in fact, had its source from the river Bishkhali that took its course towards the east. Presently the haze of interminable rain and thick darkness had blurred the distinction between the trees and houses. At the top of his voice Abinash began shouting, ‘Aunty . . . Amullyo . . . Minoti . . .’ Suddenly a light lit up in the west and a door slightly opened. A rough male voice called, ‘Who’re you at this odd hour of the night—come here.’ Abinash and his buddy Shomser Molla moved towards the voice. Standing at the door he said, ‘I’m Amullyo’s second cousin Abinash from India.’ The door finally opened with a sound. The elder brother of Abinashe’s pishaHemonta Halder said, ‘Get in and sit down.’ As they entered the room Hemonto Haldar lifted the lamp up a bit and shouted through the crack of the door, ‘Hey Amullyo, open the door, your cousin’s here from India.’ It was almost seven years Abinashe’s aunt had passed away. She left her only son Amullyo who happened to be one and a half years younger than Abinash. Whenever his mother and aunt had gotten together their routine gossip was, when Abinash was a toddler Amullyo was in his mother’s belly. Amullyo’s sister Minoti was three years younger to Abinash. She was married off to a college-going young man but had not been formally accepted by her in-laws because of some dowry hassle.

After a while Amullyo, with a torch and an umbrella, took Abinash and Shomser Molla to show their room. Pishi (aunt) and Minoti came. Minoti brought some dry clothes too. Abinash and Shomser changed their clothes and sat on the chouki (bedstead) in comfort. Abinash then narrated how they braved the heavy rain and storm to come all the way from India. A few days back he happened to see his aunt in his dream—Abinash dreamt he was a kid and his pishi took him to the mela (fair) at kacharibari. She bought him batasha (indigenous sweets). She got him a mohonbanshi (a kind of flute) too. He told his mother about the dream and his mother said, go and see your pishi.He said he had wanted to come alone but his Ma said, take Shomser with you. Shomserbhai was also very keen to see Bangladesh, Abinash added.

Listening to Abinashe’s dream-narrative his pishi cried profusely.

There had been no cooking in the night. They had to eat water-soaked rice with fried egg.

The rain did not stop the next day either. Abinashe’s pishi said, ‘There’s the dark of the moon soon, it’s going to rain until then.’

The rain stopped in the afternoon but the sky was overcast. Amullyo took Abinash and Shomsher Molla to Uttor Kakchira bazaar. They stopped at Romeshe’s tea stall. There were a few other people whiling there. They were the kind who would suffer cramps if they failed to come to the bazaar at least once a day, and would have gastric pain or suffer from indigestion if they had not had Romesh’s tea made of creamy cow-milk. Rain or inclement weather, they were sure to wade through the deluge and mud and come to the bazaar. Rojob Ali Howlader, Shuddho-Babucharan Halder (he’s called Shuddho because he spoke standard dialect), Kashem Chowkidar—they all were regular bazaarvisitors.

Seeing Abinash and Somsher Molla Rojob Ali enquired, ‘Who’re these gentlemen? Where’re they from?’

Amullyo pointed towards Abinash and said, ‘He’s my second cousin and that’s his friend, your fellow bro, Shomsherbhai. They came here last night from India.’

Everybody in the stall immediately got inquisitive and started scanning them carefully.

Shuddho-Babucharan asked, ‘Where do you gentlemen live in Bharatbarsha (India)?’

Abinash replied, ‘We live in Angrailnear Bongaon, it takes about 30/40 minutes by bus from Bongaon. Many Bengalees live there. Jiten Roys of Hoglapati,Mondals of Rupdhon, Haladars, Horen and Noren of your family, many from Noli-golbania from the south.’

‘You migrated from this side too, bro?’ Rozob Ali asked Shomsher. Then he started giggling as if he cracked a huge joke. Others joined him too, which made Shomser uncomfortable to some extent.

Abinash arbitrated, ‘No, no,  Shommserbhai hails from that part. His house is only one block away from ours. He’s been eager to visit Bangladesh. Craving to eat Hilsha fish.’

Mokbul was sitting at a corner. He said, ‘What’s left there to see in this country? Hilsha fish? You can’t find that many Hilshasthese days in Bishkhali gung (river). Those days all neighborhoods used to go for fishing with their khontjaal (a special fishing net) during Sravana and Vhadra (Bangla months). Everybody would fish two to four at least. Nobody has fishing nets these days, neither any boat. Tudahali Khans have two boats with fising nets but a whole day’s fishing brings them merely two to four Hilshasof the size of Shwarputi (variety of small sweet water fish). We’re poor farmers; don’t get any share of it. Wholesalers like Jalil Khonkars buy the lot before they’re even brought on to the deck. Case them in the ice and consign straight to Dhaka. A few days back my son-in-law came to visit us, I went to the gung for three days in a row but found not a single Hilsha to buy. Once in a blue moon we get Hilshas from the sea though, but they don’t taste as much, do they?’

Suddhacharan intervened, ‘Hold your nonsense, Jomadder! Let me have a chat with these gentlemen. So, my dear nephews, you still live by the side of the rail-track or have you been able to buy a small land and build any shelter?’

Abinash answered, ‘What do you mean! Why should we live by the rail-track? Bababought a piece of land and built a half-building in Angrail as soon as he migrated there. We have a big grocery shop in Angrail bazaar—a few agricultural lands too.’

Razob Ali enquired, ‘What do you mean by this half-building?’

To that Suddho-Babucharan said, ‘You’re always a dumb type. Half-building means, building made of brick walls on four sides with a tin or tiles roof.’ With an erudite smile he added, ‘Whatever, it appears you’re fine there. But the ones who left East Bengal as refugees for India after partition, even after long thirty/forty years they live in the shanties by the side of the rail-track. Those who settled there were eventually not allowed to stay in West Bengal. My maternal uncles were sent to Andaman across the sea. The government doled a pair of bulls to every family to earn their living by tilling land. Some also fish in the sea. My second cousins say Andaman is filled with huge tortoises. They’re so big that the tourists come to swim riding on them. Andaman is an island in the middle of the sea locked by black water. During the British Raj if one were jailed for life for any crime they were hauled on a ship to that island. It takes a month to reach Andaman even by an engine-run ship.’

Everybody listened to Babuchran dumbfounded. Babucharan went on, ‘Remember Ananto Baroi of that village? Guess where they sent him? Dondokaranya. Dondokaranya is a deep forest. In ancient times it was the kingdom of King Dondok. In a blink of an eye his entire kingdom was turned into a thick forest by an ascetic curse. In that very Dondokaranya Doshoroth exiled Ramchondra giving assent to his second queen—Bhorot’s mother Koikoyi’s evil counsel. His brotherLaxman and his virtuous wifeSitadevi accompaniedRamchandra. And now in that very DondokaranyaBengalee refugees are settled. Ananto had come to sell his lands about two years before Bangladesh was liberated. He said the forest was infested with big bhaua frogs (frogs that croak loud)—they are so big that they can gulp down one or two-month old babies all at a time. Large pythons also abound there that can swallow full-grown men like you and me.’

They were all avidly listening to Babucharon’s narrative at Romesh’s tea stall. Romesh then said, ‘You please leave now. It’s a rainy day—I’ll close the stall early and go home.’

Amullyo paid for the tea. As he was walking back home with Abinash and Shomsher bulky drops of rain started falling.

Next day there was no rain but stray clouds remained floating across the sky. Amullyo asked Abinash, ‘How about a boat trip? Let’s show Somsherbhai our river. What I heard about your Ichamoti river, I think, our Ramna canal is perhaps bigger than that.’

Amullya took them to the bank of Bishakhali near the Water and Power Development Authority sluice gate. Kalu Majhi’s boat was tied at the ghat(quay).

Amullyo told him, ‘Guests from across the border—wish to have a boat-ride.’

Three of them got onto the boat. It was low tide then.

Kalu said, ‘See that bend in the south, as we turn, that’s Majer Char. Kakchirar bazaar at the right, straight on to the south, the sea, as you go towards Pathorghata,at the left you’ll hit Borguna town.’

Shomser asked, ‘How far is the sea?’

‘Not very far, about half a bhati (four hours journey). Perhaps ten-twelve miles, isn’t it Amullyo?’

The boat meanwhile reached the mid-river. The fathomless turbid water all around and ripples on the river surface startled Shomser a bit. Kalu enquired, ‘Korta (master), are you scared? Bishkhali isn’t that big a river, only about two miles in width. Boleswar in the west is much bigger. The Sundarbons on the other side is visible just as a black line. Paira river is in the east, that too is huge, beyond that there’s Agunmukha—where high tide brings about big waves! You’ll get panicky seeing that. It’s said, he who tries to cross Paira at the high tide/His sexpot wife would turn a widow in no time.’

Kalu went on narrating his story. Amazed Shomsher listened to his account ardently. River gulls were flying around. Wild ducks swam rocking up and down rhythmically with the waves. At the turn a number of baby dolphins swished up from under the water a few times. A couple of hilshafishing boats were also seen. About three or four borial boats (gypsy angling boats) were floating on the water like banana cones. Kalu said, ‘You can catch ramsoch and poma fish with the fishing rod.’ Shomsher had no idea about ramsoch. Abinash explained, ‘Ramsoch is actually what you people call topshe fish.’

Soon the boat reached a char (strip of sandy land rising out of a river bed) in the mid-river. Wading through the alluvium and mud Abinash and his friends got to the char. Shomsher was awed. Tender green grass, tiny yellow and blue flowers, and butterflies of different colors filled the entire char. As Kalu shouted ‘hoi’ a flock of wild ducks flew away like a black cloud. Two hatiti birds (lapwing birds) called titri titri as they flew straight high up. A flight of white cranes was flying towards the choila grove. Some Hurriyals (Columba hurriyala) and cuckoos were heading for the grove too. Across the river the sun was setting. The river water assumed the color of shindur (vermillion). Shomsher said, ‘Bangladesh looks like a behest (heaven)! Amullyo Dada, I feel like migrating to this Bengal leaving the other.’

When the sun finally went down, Abinash and his friends got on to the boat. The river water by that time turned black.

Shomsher enquired, ‘Abinash, I don’t get it—what makes the Bengalees migrate to that sapless dry land?’

Abinash replied, ‘Fear of life.’

Amullyo said, ‘You have a point there but that’s not the whole truth. Even a tiny little problem makes the Hindus cross over to India because it’s so easy-reachable. It’s true there are problems like communal riots, land grabbing, and some issues with women too—yes there’re many problems like those. Especially when any untoward incident happens in India it impacts this part too. In fact, the main problem is the mindset. Symptoms are more psychological than sectarian.’ Kalu added, ‘Those among you have landed properties, you can make money by selling them and leave but I aren’t going anywhere. Do they have this Bishkhali over there? Or Hilsafish to fry and eat?’

The discourse didn’t progress further. They came across a borialboat. Amullyo bought a score of ramsocha and poma fish. Amullyo asked if they drew hilsa net.

The borial replied, they did but got only two. The wholesalers bought all of them.

‘We can come tomorrow again and get hilsastraight from the net. Fresh hilsa tastes so yummy!’ said Amullyo.

2

After two days when the rain stopped Amullyo took Shomsher to Beparibari. Anil Bepari was knitting dhommojal (a special net for fishing hilsa) sitting on the verandah. Abinash touched his feet saying namashkar (obeisance). Anil Bepari could not recognize him at first. Amullyo had to introduc themselves. Bepari thereafter requested them with all humility to take their seats. He said, ‘How fortunate of you that you stay in Bharatbarsho. It’s full of holy places. Often I wish to go on pilgrimage there. This Hindu birth is a waste if one fails to go to sacred places of pilgrimage like Gaya-Kashi-Vrindavan.’

Abinash said, ‘Let’s all go together this time. I too want to take Ma with me.’

Anil Bepari sighed deeply and said, ‘One can’t go just like that. This ominous Jinnah=Gandhi partition has screwed up all of us. Whoever thought Bharatborsho would split into three pieces? My father would say if he decided at night to go to Kolkata he’d start early in the morning next day after filling his stomach with amalsa(bowl) full of panta (rice put in water for morning meal). By the time he reached Mothbaira-Tushkhali-Bagerhat-Khulna, the sun would slightly hang over the west.Boarding the trainafter having four anna (denomination of coin) pet-thika meal (contractual meal) at Joikali Pice Hotel he’d reach Bongaon in no time, and then Shialdah.He even watched the late-night show of a Kananbala movie—and now it's so much hassle! Go to Dhaka for a passport and visa, then toBenapole,and only then cross the border. My father-in-law went there three times—said it’s a huge bother.’

Abinash replied, ‘What’re you talking about? One doesn’t need a passport or visa to go to India! Come with me, nothing would be needed.’

After a while Anil Bepari’s wife brought tea and muri (puffed rice). As they were having tea-muri Anil Bepari enquired, ‘How are you there in Bharatborsho? We heard there’s a lot of hardship there. Even phan (scum) sells two and a half rupees a seer (0.933 kg). They eat a tiny bowl of rice at night, a piece of rooti (hand-made bread) in the morning, and two more at noon. Round the year they eat a kind of black pigeon peas and some vegetables. No fish at all. Eating kachki fish (a species of very small fish) they belch out with satisfaction saying, ‘What a feast we have had Dada (brother)!’ If they had any guest they’d ask, ‘Are you going to stay for long? If you do, we'd put some extra rice on the steam.’ When the guest is about to leave they’d say, ‘Come some other day, we’d have tea together.’’

Listening to Anil Bepari both Abinash and Shomsher laughed heartily.

Shomsher then said, ‘Those are stories of the past. India had to suffer a lot engaging in war with China once, and thrice with Pakistan. Moreover crores(ten million makes a crore) of refugees crossed over to India from then East Bengal and West Pakistan. India had to take the brunt of all these, didn’t it? But now India is one of the richest countries in the world. No food crisis, no unemployment.’

Abinash added, ‘World can’t move ahead without India. Super powers like Russia, America, China—all are eager to make friends with India.’

Meanwhile Anil Bepari’s brothers Shunil Bepari and Shushil Bepari joined them. Krishnakanta of Haldarbari also came. Abinash got acquainted with all of them. Shomsher was introduced as a leader of the Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPM), and vice-president of Bongaon Zilla Committee.

Abinash went on with his stories. ‘For the last twenty-five years CPM has been in power. There is no leader like Joyti Basu in entire India. Next to Sheikh Mujib, Joyti Basu happens to be the one and only Bengalee leader in the world. West Bengla is the most economically developed state in India. Bharatbarshois a get-all land. Whatever is there in the world is sure to be found in Bharat. You get jobs to do as soon as you get out of your home. Food is damn cheap. Bombay movies are the best in the world.’

They all listened to Abinash and Shomsher’s pleasing words with all eagerness. Shunil Bepari stated the mental sufferings of the Hindus of this part of the land. Krishnokanta and others present were in complete agreement with that. Along with many other things they discussed the problems of wearing dhuti (loin-cloth worn by Hindus), using shindur (vermillion) used on the forehead by Hindu married women, risk of adult women going out, hassles of enemy property, election-time trauma, impact of any Hindu-Muslim tension in India, and so forth.

Primary school teacher Krishnokanto Haldar’s plain and clear sum up was, ‘We Hindus live in dread, uncertainty and insecurity.’

To that Abinash asked, ‘Why do you live here amidst so much fear and risk? Why not sell out your properties and migrate to India?’

Shomsher said, ‘Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, father of Indira Gandhi, made it constitutionally obligatory to shelter and rehabilitate Hindus living in any part of the globe. Moreover, as soon as they reached India they’d be entitled to relief, ration cards, and citizenship. Educated ones would be employed immediately.’

Krishnakanta Haldar added, ‘I too have a few information. It’s very true jobs are easy available there. When Ershad was President, Sudhangsu, son of my wife’s uncle, M.Com (Master in Commerce) from Dhaka University remained unemployed for three long years here. Qualified in written tests several times but they failed him in interviews—dropped him from the list as soon as they knew he’s a Hindu. Frustrated, he went to India, became a citizen within six months, and got a job in Allahabad Bank as an officer. Now he’s building a two-storied building in Belghoria near Damdam.’

Shunil Bepari said, ‘Take the case of my daughter Shuniti. First division in Secondary School Certificate (SSC), completed Primary Teacher’s Institute (PTI) course, appeared in the Primary Teacher Examination three times, gave a Parliament Member (MP) a backhander of 50, 000. It all went waste and she didn’t get the job.’

Abinash said, ‘Indian government policy is—jobs for women first.’

It was time for the mid-day meal. Anil Bepari said, ‘Dear Abinash, take this oil and gamcha (handloom towel) and go for a bath. Share whatever dail-bhat (pulse and rice) we have to eat. Hope Meabhai (big brother, in this case Shomsher) has no problem eating with us, Hindus?’

Shomsher replied with a laughter, ‘I’m a CPM member. Communist. We’ve no religion. We’re secular, atheist, and omnivorous.’

As they ate Abinash continued talking with Anil Bepari. Anil Befari made up his mind. He’d sell his homestead and properties and leave for India. Sunil-Shusil, his two younger brothers would accompany him too.

Abinash started visiting different families from morning to evening. He once went to Gainbari of Thutakhali. Then he went to Paikbari of Ramna, also to Ghoramibari of Hoglapati. He visited Majhibari at Douatolaand Kirtoniabari across the river. He didn’t even forget to go to Mondolbari of Khashtabak. In twenty days the span of his network expanded remarkably.

3

Within a month or so Abinash began hauling up his net. He convinced seven families by that time. They secretly sold out their properties, houses, trees and plants, cattle, and all other saleable household goods. Abinash warned them not to carry any bags and baggage with them—only men, money and gold ornaments.

Abinash didn’t egg his pishis on to go with them this time.

Eventually it was decided they’d start the following Saturday night. Since it’d be dark of the moon that day—movements would be easier. 

On Saturday morning a stranger by the name Rajesh came.

They planned to split into three groups and start at midnight when the entire village would be asleep. They all would start from their own homes and meet at Tikikata Kacharibari coconut-grove of the Ghoshes. Keeping the Mothbaria bazar to their left and crossing the Goruhata-bridge they would walk towards west across the field. After one hour or so they’d reach the Boleswarriver. There would be three rented boats waiting for them at Choilabon. The three groups would sail to Swaronkhola by those boats from where two trucks would carry them to Sathkhira andBhomraborder in two and a half hours. It would be dawn then. People there would arrange their food and lodging and in the night help them cross the border. Abinash briefed them exactly like that.

Saturday midnight all left their homes except Krishnakanta. At the last moment he said he had a few things left to attend. He would go at some later date. Anil Bepari said, ‘Why lie? Your daughter eloped with Noor Islam Jomaddar’s son—you think we have no news of that?’ Krisnakanta pleaded vehemently saying, ‘Bepari is prone to speaking evil of others. Did we ever spread the news that some Muslim boy impregnated your sister-in-law? Shefali is gone to her uncle’s. The truth is she’s qualified in the primary teachers' written test and has her viva on Saturday.’

The argument ended there.

4

It was almost dawn though the hours of darkness was not altogether over when the two trucks dropped them in front of a building surrounded by trees.

In a way the tall trees camouflaged the house. It had five-six rooms of different sizes. The biggest was of rectangular shape, brick built with tin roof and un-plastered walls. Remaining rooms were made of mud and thatched with golpata(big size leaves of a tree). All rooms had wooden floors. Abinash divided them family-wise and assigned their rooms. He warned all never to leisure in the courtyard and walk in the pathway in front. They should spend most of their time sitting or lying on the wooden floor. The latrine was at the back of the house and a tube-well too. Assigned men were there to bring them foods in time.

Anil Bepari fostered boundless inquisitiveness for everything within him. He wished to make a reconnaissance of the backyard of the house but before everything he needed to drink tea. He went to the kitchen to find a way to make himself a cup of tea. He, in fact, brought two small packets of tea and sugar with him. He felt hugely sloppy if he hadn’t had five-six teas every day. Disappointingly he discovered a broken oven in the kitchen that perhaps wasn’t fired for months. Anil immediately realized the house had no regular occupants; it was solely used as a means of human trafficking.

Anil Bepari went to the garden from there. Latrine is located by the side of a koroitree. A black pot was lying by, and the area stank horribly. As he removed the hessian curtain of the latrine a swarm of big green bottle flies flew all over. He also noticed innumerable white poop-eating worms briskly moving up and down on the human waste. Anil threw up.

Pulling himself together from the wave of nausea he hurried towards the west. At the edge of the garden he found a river full with crystalline water. He bent down to sprinkle his face with the river water. He then brushed his teeth and tongue with his fingers and gurgled a few times. He also inhaled water through his nose several times. In spite of all those exploits he couldn’t get rid of that unpleasant poopy stink.

Suddenly he caught sight of the tent of the Border Security Forces (BFS) on the other side of the river. Two Jawans with thick mustaches were sitting in front and two others were guarding the tent with rifles on their shoulders. Anil got overawed and dropped down on his knees silently. Then he almost crawled on all fours through the garden to come back to his room. As he narrated his experience to Abinash he instantly got frenzied and said, ‘Moshai, you could have brought us a lot of trouble. If they had seen you they’d definitely fire at you and then we all would be dead.’

When Abinash calmed down a bit Anil Bepari told him, ‘See, I’m arthritic, need to drink tea to keep myself moving. Can you arrange?’

Abinash replied, ‘Come with me.’

Abinash took Anil across the street. There was a tea stall by the side of a grocery shop. They sat on a bench. Abinash ordered two teas.

The shopkeeper with a bushy salt and pepper beard asked, ‘Well, Abinash, how many dudeshave you brought on this trip?’ His words made Abinash both embarrassed and irritated. He didn’t bother to answer.

Shopkeeper served tea saying, ‘Moshai, what benefit would you get going to the other side selling all your ancestral properties? You’ll be rootless poppers over there.’

While paying for the tea angered Abinash said, ‘Khura (uncle), you talk too much,’ and he instantly started walking back with Anil Bepari. The shopkeeper then began chanting proverbs from their back, ‘Losing his property and honor there walks the goldi-face. Sundri (a kind of tree) timbers can’t be sweeter than sugarcanes. So can’t chira (flat rice) be replaced by real rice and mother by auntie. You can never be happy crossing over to a foreign land leaving your motherland. A dog can never look better than a deer. Never be charmed by the sweet talks of the evils—ever! Tare nare, tare nare, na, na, na . . .’

When Abinash and Anil were back they heard an uproar from the room in the north. They both rushed and found Kirtonia’s wife wailing on the floor stretching her two legs out. She whined, ‘I can't find my seventeen bhori (180 grains a bhori) ornaments. How am I going to marry off my three daughters? Oh my Bhogoman!’ Abinash consoled her saying, ‘Auntie, please calm down, I’m looking into it.’ She started whining twice as much, ‘My dear, you please get back my ornaments, I’ll gift you a chain.’

This time Abinash rebuked her harshly and shut her up. Then he told Shomser, ‘Fetch all dudes in this room.’

Shomser did so. None was left. They all sat on the gtound.

Abinash asked Shomser, ‘Take out the thing.’

Shomser took out a fish-shaped knife and gave it to Abinash. He unfolded it with an ominously sharp sound. Like a villain of the Hindi movie he then touched his cheek with its sharp blade and declared, ‘I warn everybody, whoever pinched or got the ornaments return them instantly or I’m going to stick this knife into their belly.’

All got a little panicky. Two or three among the females began crying, covering their faces with their anchal (loose end of sari).

Anil Bepari said, ‘How come you’re so sure it’s us who pinched her ornaments? She might have dropped them somewhere. Moreover, how is it that Kirtonias have so many ornaments? I don’t get it at all!’

To that Sorot Kirtonia replied, ‘How could an experienced man like you say that, Bepari? Hindu families always have two possessions—gold, brass and silver. During the war brass and silver were all looted but not all of gold.’

Abinash said, ‘I’ve no time to listen to this nonsense. Shomserbhai and I would search each of you here. Males, females or children—none would be spared. After that we’d search all your belongings.’

Shomser went to Anil Bepari’s wife first.

Anil Bepari said, ‘Dear Abinash, you two please go out. Let me talk to them privately.’

As Abinash and Shomsher went out Anil Bepari took his wife away from others and whispered for a while. His wife then unfolding her anchaltook out the bundle of ornaments and gave it to Anil. Anil hurried immediately to the courtyard and handed it over to Abinash saying, ‘Your kakima (aunt) found it in the courtyard. Thinking people might take it otherwise she didn’t share it with others. Now everything rests on you, my dear. Do whatever you think is right.’ Abinash then reentered the room and asked everybody to get back to their own boards. After that he gave the bundle of ornaments to Kirtonia’s wife and said, ‘See if everything is in order. If so, just keep mum.’

Abinash wasn’t found the whole day after that. Shomser strolled from one room to another. Sitting on the wooden floor he hung around with young girls, and touched them whenever he got any chance commenting, ‘Hindu girls are good. Soft! They have loving hearts. Respect their husbands a lot. To get their husbands’ blessings they touch their feet as they start their day. Even drink the foot-washed water. They stay with one husband all their life. Muslim wives on the other hand are generally quick-tempered. If they have any tiny trouble with their husbands they don’t hesitate to divorce them and marry another. Keramot’s mother from our village changed her husband eight times.’

Sunil Bepari’s wife said, ‘You Muslims can keep four wives all at a time. How do you manage so many?’

Shomser replied, ‘It’s written in our Shariat all rightbut I’ve only one wife. Yet I can’t manage her. Minding a wife is as difficult as minding an elephant.’ The discourse didn’t progress further, for Abinash called on Shamser at that moment.

They chatted quietly for a while and then Abinash left.

5

When night grew thicker Abinash came with a stranger. The man was medium built with crew-cut hair.

Abinash called Shomser softly and asked him to call up all male members of the family. When they all assembled in the yard he pointed at the stranger and said, ‘This is Khan Shaheb, a BDR Havildar.’

The so-called BDR Havildar said, ‘You won’t have to worry, I’ll safely cross you over to the other side exactly at 3 in the morning.’ Then he asked Abinash, ‘How many do you have on this trip?’

Shomser replied, ‘Ustad, not very many. All together merely twenty-eight.’

After that Abinash whispered something to Shomser. Then Shomser announced, ‘Everybody listen up. Pay five hundred per head quickly. We’ve to pay Havildar Shab for his kind help. Quick!’

Anil Bepari raised a mild objection. Shomser told him, ‘If you don’t pay you don’t cross the border.’

The so-called BDR Havildar left as soon as they all paid five hundred per head.

After two hours or so Abinash once more came with two other men. Both were tall and strong build, and had thick and well-grown mustaches. Abinash once again asked Shomser to summon all. When they gathered in the yard Abinash introduced those two men as BSF Jawans. Conversing with them in Hindi Abinash finally said, ‘Getting away from the BDRs isn’t so difficult, but crossing the border is hell. Without BSF help it’s impossible. The new BSF members are menacing. They have been brought from Kashmir, prone to shooting at sight. Only the other day two Bengalees went to the river to bathe, they shot both of them.’ Anil Bepari instantly felt thirsty.

Abinash added, ‘These gentlemen need to be paid one thousand per head. If you don't, you can’t cross over.’

Sunil Bepari argued, ‘We’d settled with you to pay three thousand per head, which we already paid. A while ago you took another five hundred for BDR. Why’re you asking for one thousand more now?’

One of the alleged BSF members slapped Sunil Bepari’s shoulder and said in Hindi, ‘You’re a dangerous man, come with me.’ With those words he started dragging him away from others.

Anil and Shushil Bepari ran to him with folded hands and begged, ‘Singbabu, forgive him, as naïve as he is, can’t realize the gravity of the situation.’

As they paid one thousand per head the two so-called BSF Jawansleft. Abinash also accompanied them.

An eerie silence engulfed the entire house.

The night advanced. They all remained in apprehensive waiting.

It was midnight then. Suckling their mother’s breasts all the babies retired to sleep. Young girls whispered guessing about the would-be life on the other side or reminiscing the sweet days of youth they had spent this side. They talked about the fields they played in, the rivers they knew or cruised, and Chitrasankranti mela (fair) they went to. They recalled the festivities of Luxmipuja, Durgapuja, and the time they spent with their friends and dear ones.

The males remained awake waiting for Abinash to come and help them cross the border.

Suddenly a sharp torchlight beamed on Anil Bepari’s face. His eyes dazzled, the bright light blinded him. Before he could puzzle out the situation two masked men from both sides blindfolded him in an instant. Other masked men rounded up the rest that ventured to run fast from there. They even slapped some of them. There were about ten-fifteen masked people there and all were armed.

All of them were hauled in a room. The masked men drew knives and pistols, and cautioned, ‘No shouting at all! Take out all your gold and money!’

The burglars raped the young girls, mothers or even mothers-in-laws, whoever they could lay their hands on in the dark. Some were even abused two-three times. They requested, begged, urged, moaned, touched their feet and called them their fathers and brothers—yet nothing could dissuade them. They were all animals let loose—whoever could stop them!

They looted all their gold jewelry and money. The hellish raid continued for almost an hour. Finally they left.

Once the raiders left the entire building collapsed into deep darkness. Only stifling whinny female cries were audible. All males were flabbergasted. They utterly failed to protect their daughters, wives, mothers and mothers-in-laws. What a shame! They didn’t even suffer any injuries safeguarding their women folks—not to speak of sacrificing one’s life because they had no chance to fight!

Anil Bepari lamented in a choked voice, ‘Why did I decide in the first place to leave my ancestral home instigated by Abinash? Now I’ve lost everything—left with nothing to start my life anew! Moreover we’ve failed to keep our female folks safe! Lost all our gold and money! Bhogoban, why have you put us in such trouble?’

Around dawn Abinash and Shomser came. With them came three more men. After listening to the incident Abinash said, ‘Things shouldn’t have been like this! However, what can be done now? Time is very short. Cross the border and then let’s see what we can do. Everybody, quick! Let me help you go to the other side right now. Both BDR and BSF have given green signal.’

The entire group followed Abinash. They walked to the south for a while and crossed a field. Making their way through a small forest they stopped by a river. Abinash said, ‘There isn’t much water in the river, merely knee-deep. Silently, slowly, making no noise whatsoever, walk to go over to the other side. That’s India there.’

Shomser put off his pant and waded the river in his briefs—then did Abinash, followed by Rajesh.

The rest of the group crossed it following them.

They all went to the other side plodding their way across the water and mud.

As he reached the other side Anil Bepari looked back wishing to see his ancestral home—his homeland for one last time! But nothing could be seen on the other side of the river in deep darkness.

Abinash commanded, ‘Walk ahead!’

To Anil Bepari everything appeared void and dark ahead.

(The translator teaches English at Central Women’s University, Dhaka.)

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