Sons of the soil
A story on Bangladesh’s Liberation War. The Bangla title of the story was “Nochiketagon”.
With sixteen persons huddled together in a narrow bathroom, there was no way one could even sit comfortably, let alone lie down. Sitting day and night against the wall with knees hugging the chin caused aches and pains all over the body. Fatigue made one drowsy, but sleep steered clear of unwashed, hungry bodies plagued by endless tension and discomfort. There was only one door which remained closed, no window, only a 10 inch x 8 inch ventilator up by the ceiling at one end. Sixteen people urinated and defecated here; the embarrassment was far worse than the stench.
They picked me up from my home on early Wednesday morning and brought me here. In the back seat of the jeep, I was flanked by two armed soldiers sitting face to face. In front were the driver, and probably an army officer in the passenger seat. I could see the side of his face—smooth cheek, fair-skinned under his moustache, a bluish tinge on the cheek. So clean shaven that early in the morning.
The two soldiers beside me held me under a persistent stare. It was so disconcerting that all I could do was to look outside.
The street was quite deserted; one bus went by, two rickshaws, one dog, and two men. The street took a turn—a park on the left, water reservoir on the right, three rickshaws, one baby taxi, one old beggar, the court building on the right, church on the left, treasury building on the right, cinema hall on the left. The jeep kept moving along familiar streets, familiar houses, vehicles and peoples. I moved on in an infinite stream of meaninglessness.
I looked again at the two soldiers; they were still staring at me in the same manner. One had the slightest hint of a smile on his face, but his eyes remained fixed and piercing.
As I shifted in my seat, I realised that I was trembling. My knees and my hands on my knees were shaking uncontrollably.
I could not see the faces of the two beside me, but they too must have noticed my trembling all along.
I hung my head and clenched my teeth. But I did not seem to have any control over my own body. My hands were resting on my knees, and drops of sweat fell through the fingers. I realised that my whole body was sweating profusely in this month of September.
Someone coughed. A hoarse noise. Who was it? Anis?Dulal?Azad?Atiq?
We had all been strangers to one another; now we all knew each other so well.
We all wait anxiously for the sound of the door opening in the morning. Each person thinks he will be taken today. But they don’t take everyone. One day maybe eight are taken, another day twelve, and sometimes only four or five are taken away.
They return at night, staggering. Throughout the day, even as we talk among ourselves, one thought keeps recurring: Will all of them return?
When they return at night, we do a headcount. Actually, no one has died during the past few days. No one new had been brought in either; of course, where was the space for more?
When I first came, there were ten of us. I was locked in and the sentry closed the door from outside.
Until then, it seemed I had been shouldering the burden of another body. As soon as the door slammed shut, I let go of that burden, and collapsed on the bamboo floor mat among strangers. I thought I heard someone comment, as I entered: he is scared. But fear has several countenances. Suppose you are told that tomorrow morning at 7:30 am, you will be held against the wall and shot dead. Think of the dread which would loom over you until that moment actually occurred. That terror is quite different from the fear aroused when comrades are targeted, taken away, and tortured underground, or when they are taken away again from captivity for interrogation, or when the door closes behind the sentry and you are left to take care of them. It can be said that in the familiarity of routine, fear builds up a resistance to fear also. The fear I felt now was far different from what I felt when I first came here. Did it mean that we had acquired a sense of the limits of fear?
But I am not sure yet about what is happening to me.
Nothing more has happened to me since the day I was first brought in. No interrogation, no physical torture. I had been left alone to just sit and wait it out. Every two and a half days, we got scraps of hard bread and stale daal. Beset by the monotony, tension, fatigue, body pains, and splitting headache, I felt like tearing out my own hair. I wanted to scream out loud and bring down the four walls around me.
What did they want to do with me? My younger brother Dipu had suddenly disappeared from home around the end of June. After 7/8 days of dread and suspense, one evening a 20/22 years old boy came and reported that Dipu had joined the liberation war. Mother wanted to ask a lot of questions; the boy had probably not eaten the whole day, mother held his hand and told him to eat, but the boy left right after giving the news.
By that time, freedom fighters had entered Dhaka city and were planting bombs here and there. There came a time that if there was no sound of a bomb blast on a particular day, we became depressed. But except for the one boy who came to give us news of Dipu, I had not seen any freedom fighter, let alone know one closely. Though we waited each day, Dipu had not once come home even for five minutes. I knew for sure at least until 6 am last Wednesday morning. I don’t know what has happened in the meantime. It may be that Dipu has returned home and heard about me. I can see Dipu clearly. Mother is hugging him closely and crying; Baby is standing with her head bowed and her tears are flowing. Dipu is biting his lips and his jaw is stiff. Abba, sitting quietly composed in a chair, says in a calm voice: “Don’t make him late.” What is Dipu doing now? Is it possible that Dipu has found out about our place of captivity, that he is now planning with his comrades how to attack this thana. It is a difficult task, no doubt. But I am, after all, his brother.
Pooh, these are all childish thoughts. But why am I here? There is no specific allegation except against two or three of those held here. Even so, except for me, everyone has been taken outside for interrogation; everyone has suffered physical abuse to some degree. But they are totally silent regarding my case. It has been five long days now. Is this another form of punishment? To witness the maiming and abuse of others, and suffer the agony of anticipation!
Shahin refers to Julius Fuchik frequently in his conversation. He is a sophomore, and one can see just by looking at his eyes that he is full of imagination. He was picked up from a restaurant in Malibagh.
He has suffered interrogation and physical torture many times, but his response is to give the example of Julius Fuchik who suffered horrendous torture before he died. In comparison to that…
Perhaps he believes that because he is in no way involved with the liberation war except for giving moral support, he would be released sooner or later. That’s why he prattles in this way about Julius Fuchik. Poor boy, he has just stepped into youth. In one leap, he had traversed from Sarat Chandra to “Notes from the Gallows.” But does he still abide by his belief? Why, then, does he make such a hoarse sound, why does he shake like a leaf?
When they returned Atiq Bhai last night, we could not fathom anything. Atiq Bhai was always subjected to more physical torture than we were. But he never uttered a single word about how he suffered, nor let anyone look at his wounds.
Because one boy turned informer and betrayed Atiq Bhai, the Pakistani army found a trunk full of weapons when they dug the grounds outside his house.
Atiq Bhai was active in the language movement, he had been to jail, and was involved with every democratic movement after 1952. Yet he did not leave the country after March 25. For a while he remained in shock, then slowly he initiated contact, and his house soon became a rendezvous for freedom fighters. The boys stayed there after they completed an operation, or when they were planning a new attack. Atiq Bhai also recruited new boys, and arranged for them to be sent to Khelaghar camp. His family members repeatedly begged him to go across the border. His response was non-committal. He was not inclined to leave his homeland; besides, there was a lot of work to be done here, someone had to stay behind to do it. I heard all of this from Azad, a first year student of MSc in Physics, who was Atiq Bhai’s neighbor.
I asked him, “Is it wise to tell me all this? Suppose I open my mouth under torture?”
Azad replied, “Nobody will question you about any of this because this is not your concern. They are fully aware of all of this. If you mention any of this, you will unnecessarily be implicating yourself. Who knows who will live and who will die! One should know what really happened. Maybe not all of us will die; at least someone will keep this in his memory. It is certain that they will not spare Atiq Bhai; he will definitely be killed. I’m sure you can understand how painful this situation is for Atiq Bhai and for all of us.”
When they brought him back last night and we all hovered anxiously, he just said, “It is alright. I am fine.” Then he leaned against the wall and remained motionless. We did not say anything more. But he was probably in great pain. When it became intolerable, he said to me, “Let me lie down.”
I took his head in my lap, and saw that one of his eyes had been gouged out, and each of his ten fingers had been cut away at the middle. Something struck at my heart and I cried out, “Look, Shahin!” Shahin and the others gave me a startled look. I pointed my finger at Atiq Bhai’s eye and hands, and said to Shahin, “Here is your Julius Fuchik!”
Bewildered and shocked, everyone gazed at Atiq Bhai. Shahin had turned pale, and he hung his head; his lips unconsciously twitched like those of a trapped fish gasping for breath.
The night was almost over; after a little while, the morning light would seep through the gap in the ventilator. With the light would come the little sparrow. I noticed that each morning the sparrow would appear at the break of dawn, and sit on the ventilator, watching so many people crammed together in this bathroom. What did it understand about what was going on? It chirped for a while and then flew away. I gazed at its unimpeded flight; the lightening emptiness across the ventilator gave a hint of the vast world beyond.
Atiq Bhai lay still. With what ease I looked upon that sight of barbarism! All across the bathroom lay these figures, like a mass of unattended corpses.
Shahin opened his eyes. His face was ashen under the pale light of the 40 watt bulb. He looked around, touched his eye with his hand, held both hands in front of him and examined each finger meticulously. Then he collapsed, groaning, and his body trembled.
The bulb went off. It was getting lighter outside. The rays of light were falling on the ventilator.
I have a distinct feeling that they will take me today.
What will they do with me? Will they hang me feet up, head down and flog me? Will they singe my flesh with a cigarette butt? Will they tear off my finger nails as they did with Azad? Or will they cut off my fingers as they did Atiq Bhai? Or will this eye, the eye with which I am looking at my comrades, with which I can see the light coming through the ventilator, will I lose this eye? Or …
The sparrow has come.
What are you looking at, little bird? Do you see some prisoners waiting for death?
But do you know that they are freer than you are? Look at Atiq Bhai, whose eye has been gouged out, whose fingers have all been cut: his cries of pain echo a protest. See that Shahin moaning in fear, shaking– each moan, each tremor belies his desire for freedom. None of those who are sleeping has been vanquished.
Here I am, my heart throbbing with apprehension. I can see myself held against a wall, a raised rifle pointing at me. Looking at the rifle butt, I curl up in terror and want to blend in the wall, animal-like sounds issue from my mouth; in that terror is an intense yearning for freedom – you will never feel that kind of urge for freedom.
The sound of heavy boots is coming closer to the door. The sparrow flies away. As I watch its unimpeded flight with vacant eyes, I hear the sound of the door being opened.