Translated from Bengali by Parveen K Elias
The Bangla title of the story was “Aashonno”
Anwar saw a grayish fox dig its teeth into his shoulders and tear at his flesh. As he felt the searing pain, he lifted his hand to push the fox away. At that moment, he awakened.
Just like the hose which lies on the ground and spurts out water to wet the ground, so too pain spurted from Anwar’s left shoulder and arm-joints and spread across.
In his head, he felt numerous blunt saws hacking through his brain.
And just behind the retina of his eyes a hook now pulled, now slackened.
Anwar turned his head this way and that way as he lay. His eyelids fell down heavily from under which he watched with burning red eyes. Where was the fox?
Above him clusters of bamboo hung down on all sides. Crickets chirped intermittently. In the suffocating grove of pineapples, his body itched, not to speak of mosquito bites. Anwar lay flat and groped with eyes shut. He felt the stony coldness of the rifle.
Hafiz and the others must have certainly become stiff by now. Having become wet in the rain, would the rotting start right away? This soon? Who knew?
Anwar held his breath in the suffocating heat full of foul stench, the wet ground, his wet, hot body, the closed confinement of the trees. He believed that if he didn’t hold his breath, he would be bound to smell the stench coming from wet corpses of his comrades lying by the bank of the canal.
For a few seconds he remained in a dilemma. Then he closed his eyes and took a full, deep breath. Somewhere pineapples had ripened. That sweet smell penetrated his head. Some of it managed to enter his stomach also. It seemed as if the fox of his dream had now entered his stomach, and was ripping away at his intestines.
Anwar swallowed and his throat felt absolutely dry. His hot, wet tongue tasted bitter. His mouth was sticky. Anwar licked his lips. He felt a salty taste and kept licking over and over to savour this taste. Sand particles gritted at his teeth. He opened his mouth wide, took a breath, licked his lips again. If only he could eat something to fill up, then his head would lighten and he could sit up and look at his surroundings clearheadedly.
Maybe, he should just get up, sling his rifle on his shoulders and look for the ripe pineapple. This was a large pineapple grove. Surely there was more than one ripe pineapple!
He would rip off ripe pineapples from the plants, slash and thrash them and then eat to his heart’s content.
Anwar’s insides yearned for food. Lying with closed eyes, Anwar saw that he was surrounded by numerous golden pineapples and he was ferociously snatching and gulping down one after the other. The slightly yellow juice drooled from the sides of his mouth and fell through his fingers on to the ground.
Anwar could not stand it anymore. With closed eyes he jerked his body and sat up straight. The wound in his shoulder woke up with a searing pain and he felt dizzy and suffocating. His heavy head swung like a football on a finger-tip, numerous yellow bubbles danced before his eyes and darkness set in.
He fell flat on the pineapple plant and the sharp-edged leaves cut through his cheeks, ears, neck and hands.
Anwar bit his lips as tears flowed from his eyes. His body trembled a little, then became still.
When Ratan’s head burst open and his skull opened from near his forehead like the lid of a box, Ratan fell and at once his whitish-brown brain slumped out on to the ground. You could not see his face, his rifle lay beside, it seemed a torrent of bullets just stirred his lifeless body and vanished into the mud.
Lying in the pineapple grove, Anwar groaned and rubbed his face. His body heaved and his face started to turn blue.
With the piercing pain in his shoulder where the bullet had hit, Anwar kept running on and on. Was there no end to these jute fields that were stretched out before him?
The track between fields was narrow and very muddy in places. Sometimes hard sticks of stooping jute-plants had come over the track. Patches of grass were there on the slopes of the track, weeds of all kinds entangled his feet. In the darkness, nothing –neither mud nor barrier– was visible, and the steps were missed. In addition, there was hardly any air between thickly grown jute plants nine feet tall. This wall seemed to have choked even the normal space of breathing.
Anwar scrambled to rise like a man who is drowning under deep water. His feet wouldn’t move. He fell over in the field. The jute branches scratched at his face and he opened his eyes. He saw a long shadow and felt the touch of a hand on his forehead. He was about to shriek in fear but a hand closed over his mouth. He heard, “Anwar, keep quiet, I’m Hafiz!”
Anwar tried to sit up in great agitation. “You . . .you . . .!” Hafiz lay him down again, “You have a very high fever.”
Anwar shook violently, his heart palpitated fast. He held Hafiz’s hand and kissed it again and again; his eyes filled with tears.
“You are alive! How amazing!” He got up and touched Hafiz again and again as if to make sure of his presence. Hafiz laughed silently.
“What about the others – Barkat, Hormuz, Mian?” “I don’t know; they’re probably gone.” Hafiz spoke between pauses, in a solemn voice.
Somewhere a bird fluttered its wings. The crickets screeched ceaselessly, the mosquitoes buzzed. In the deep darkness of the last hours of the night, two war comrades sat silently beside each other. Through the shoots and leaves of the bamboo grove came the very faint moonlight and the fragmented shadows of the two friends fell on the pineapple plants. As he looked at the shadows, Hafiz saw himself standing in the dirty, neck-deep water of the canal with hyacinth leaves on his head.
Anwar could not keep sitting any longer. If he lay on one side his mouth filled with salty water. A surge of vomit seemed to push it up. But nothing came out of his empty stomach, only salty-bitter glutinous saliva. Hafiz caressed his head. Anwar lay gasping with his mouth wide open. His mouth got dried up quickly. From his mouth down to his throat and chest persisted a dryness which was worse than the dry pools and puddles in the month of Chaitra. At least some dust rose from those puddles but nothing emerged from the dryness within Anwar.
Hafiz looked around and said, “I can smell ripe pineapple, let me go and see what I can find.” Hafiz got up and left. His footsteps on pineapple leaves made a rustling sound, and as they became fainter, Anwar began to feel drowsy once again.
Anwar was being lifted into space slowly, up above the heads of bamboo trees. From up there he saw the fox pulling out the intestines from Hormuz Ali’s stomach. Anwar began to come down, and seeing him, the fox fled.
“Look Anwar, look! This way, see how many shaplas there are!” The little boy Barkat was laughing in his boat as he called out. Shapla flowers filled his boat to the brim.
Waving his hands like a flag, Barkat rowed his boat further and further away. Anwar wondered how Barkat had become so little again.
“Listen, Barkat . . .”
“No, I can’t– I’ll be late for school.”
Anwar opened his eyes and saw Hafiz standing beside him, holding out a piece of unskinned pineapple.
“There are no houses around here, only jute fields. The condition you are in, I’m not sure how far I can carry you by myself. If the bullet in your shoulder is not taken out soon . . .” Hafiz looked very worried. Then he changed his tone and asked, “Has your nausea disappeared”? Anwar replied, “Huh?”
“Isn’t it strange that there should be a pineapple grove in this place? Does the owner get anything for his fruit?” Hafiz laughed.
“Thank God for the grove. I never imagined I would find you like this. I stopped when I heard the sound of someone groaning in pain. I felt instinctively that it must be one of us. It was such a thrill! You were groaning and scratching your face. Your shoulder was wet with blood. I felt and saw that the bleeding was now normal, but you were burning with fever. Anwar, have you fallen asleep? Listen . . . Anwar!”
“Huh . . .?”
“It might be a good idea to take off your wet shirt. The fever is so high.”
Anwar opened his eyes. The aches and pains in his entire body plus the heat — it would really help if he could take off the sticking, wet shirt. But that was impossible in his condition. He couldn’t do it.
“Here, eat this,” Hafiz gave him another piece of pineapple.
They sat silently, eating pineapple.
“Ugh! What an awful lot of mosquitoes!” Hafiz slapped another mosquito. Anwar tried to remove the buzzing gang of mosquitoes away from his face as if he were trying to scrape the layer of dirt and moss from a pond. His hunger pangs had vanished, just a blunt leaden weight lay in his stomach. The raging pain in his shoulder had also decreased somewhat, but his head still felt heavy as if someone were working an axe through it, and heavy eyelids kept drooping.
Hafiz had stopped eating and was lost in thought. His shoulder-long hair had not known the touch of oil for a long time. The moustache and beard on his tanned face, the slight bulge in his belly which lent a look older than his years.
What is Hafiz thinking of? His comrades?
Anwar realised that he was sweating profusely. This meant that the fever was coming down. He called, “Hafiz!”
“Huh! What is it?”
“Couldn’t it be that the other two are alive, just like us?”
“I doubt it,” Hafiz’s quiet and calm voice appeared to come from a great distance. “Even after I had given order for retreat, I saw them climbing up with grenades in hand. I have no idea what happened afterwards. I had to crawl to avoid the onrush of bullets, and finally I fell into the canal.”
Hafiz stopped. He was lost in deep thought again. Suddenly he said, “Could you try a little? Remember Doctor Amanullah– the one at whose house we spent the night when we were put on a mission to Narsingdhi?”
Anwar’s head felt a little lighter. He said, “Of course I remember. It’s really amazing that such an educated person could spend his entire life in a village.”
Hafiz said, “His house is probably not more than three miles from here.”
Hafiz looked at Anwar, but it was difficult to discern his facial expression in the hazy light. Hafiz’s shadow covered Anwar and extended to the pineapple plant.
“Moreover, we have not gone very far from our spot. I have a feeling that this area might be attacked towards dawn. Because we fled through bushes and woods, we could not see properly, but there must be villages nearby. After what took place, I’m sure, the bastards will not sit idle, their witch hunting will begin soon.”
Hafiz placed his hand on Anwar’s forehead. Right then a booming sound hit and the earth moved. Hafiz sprang to his feet. Anwar sat up, then with Hafiz’s support, he stood on his feet. His weak body trembled, he felt light-headed, and beyond the dense woods he saw intermittent sparks of red. Ta-ta-ta, thush, thush, thush, drim, drim, tra-rara — a variety of noises kept coming. Some timid animal fled through the pineapple grove. Strange birds fluttered wings and flew over the heads of bamboo trees into the darkness. From a great distance came the collective shrieking of thousands of people. Mingled with those shrieks was the constant flow of bullets.
Anwar commented, “It seems like thousands of people.”
“Yes, a large radius has come under attack.”
The inside of his chest kept scraping. The pain in the shoulder would not go away. His eyes became dazed with staring. Hafiz focused his eyes beyond the jute fields into the vast space and said absent-mindedly, “I guess we will just have to take position here and wait.”
Anwar whispered, “No way out.” His words could not be heard.
The place was quite high. Hafiz looked in all directions and asked, “Do you think you can fire a rifle with one hand?”
“I guess I must.”
“It may be that you will not need to fire at all. No one may come this way at all. We may just have to wait here quietly all day long. By dusk their mission will have ended and they will return. Then we can leave.”
Was Hafiz trying to console him? Was the group leader giving moral support to his comrade? He even punched in a little humour, “We do have plenty of pineapples, so why worry?”
In the midst of bullet shots and the screaming of people, Hafiz’s words sounded very odd. Shots were being fired, people were dying, and here were two freedom fighters who had arms but who could do nothing to give the people any protection. Wasn’t there any pain, any guilt, any shame on their part?
Anwar knew that in such situations Hafiz could detach himself very easily. May be he derived his strength from within this wall of detachment. He did not want his comrades to be affected by the gloom and feel dampened in spirit. That is why his words were always morally uplifting.
Anwar lay face down behind a bamboo grove and took position with rifle in one hand.
Hafiz commented, “Good! I’ll be on the other side. I’ll move as the situation demands.”
Hafiz took his LMG and took position behind a bamboo grove far left of Anwar.
Near them was a slope, then a small canal. On the other side of the canal was a wide and high ridge surrounding the pineapple grove and beyond the ridge were jute fields.
The pain in the shoulder gnawed intermittently, but it wasn’t severe. Lightheadedness was the same as before. But at least he could open his eyes wide and look around. His body remained weak but his eyesight was more important right now.
The sound of bullets seemed to be coming nearer. The cries of people were also clearer than before. Lying still and listening to the mass wailing, Anwar began to remember his home. His eyes closed as familiar faces passed by as on a screen. A flash penetrated his closed eyelids and he was startled.
Anwar opened his eyes. A fire had started sometime ago. From a distance, at first a black cloud could be seen twisting and turning towards the sky and absorbing its blueness. Then suddenly red flames would burst into the open space and redden everything.
From so far off, the above sequence was not evident, but now the horizon was red with flames. The waves of wailing lashed closer and closer. About half a mile on both left and right and behind these the bone-penetrating sound of machine-gun fire. Fields which looked like a dense, dark wall cast in stone were now softening in the emerging light and branches and leaves could be discerned.
The darkness was falling off silently from the leaves, from the branches as if the surrounding trees were sucking in the juice of darkness and transporting it to their roots.
As the darkness was receding slowly, a single, detached and fearful cry gradually came nearer and fell over in the fields ahead, shaking the heads of jute-plants violently.
Behind this was the sound of heavy boots, and crazy, insane male laughter. Then frenzied shrieks of a woman like that of an animal that had suddenly been trapped. Then an abraded, hushed groaning. The jute plants over a wide area kept moving. The whirlpool from under kept them twisting and turning and they kept bending down. There was a lustful, saliva-drooling male voice followed by a piercing shriek. The shriek was distinctive. It was as if some one had lost her core of being and was completely shattered. At intervals came trembling groans as if some one were being assaulted. The jute-plants were uprooted as by a severe earthquake in which the earth had burst open. Suddenly a cyclone seemed to move through the field. A young girl, totally naked, emerged followed by a pursuer, a big, helmeted man like a lion in pursuit of a prey which had just escaped him. One could not see their faces, just their silhouettes.
A loud ringing sound rang through the pineapple grove. The pursuer with hands held out towards the naked girl in unfulfilled lust, gave out a strange cry and fell backwards in the field. The alarmed girl looked back at the fallen soldier for a moment and vanished rapidly into the jute field.
Beyond the wide ridge, at the mouth of the narrow ridge dividing the fields, one could glimpse those two only for a moment. Within seconds each moved to one side of the narrow ridge and disappeared into the field, crawling on their stomach and blending into the earth. They were shielded by the wide ridge in front of them. Protecting themselves with drawn helmets, they kept on firing their LMGs.
The entire episode of the two soldiers coming forward, jumping down to take positions, and their firing of machine-guns all took place with such unpredictable speed that Hafiz was totally taken aback.
Ah, if only the pineapple grove extended a little further! Then this spot would be directly in line with the narrow ridge and here would be the ideal spot to shoot from. It would be easy to shoot them before they reached the wide ridge.
Now it would not be easy to overcome these two skilled LMG holders who had clung to the earth and taken positions. These two would be a real pain. The way they were brush-firing 303 in hand, it could be fatal for injured Anwar. It would be difficult to do anything from here even with an LMG. The bullets kept flying near the roots of bamboo trees in front of Anwar.
Hafiz crawled closer to Anwar and said, “You must go back!”
Anwar moved further back into the pineapple grove.
Hafiz took out a grenade from his pocket, started the LMG5 rapidly, took off the pin, and rising up a little, charged.
The grenade burst with a great noise. The earth near the ridge flew upwards like a fountain. A shriek could be heard from there.
There was a short interval, but the rounds of reply from below began once more. The two hiding in the pineapple grove realised that now only one LMG was functioning. The other one had stopped.
Hafiz took out another grenade from his pocket and prepared to charge again. But before he could do so, he fell down groaning in pain.
Anwar dragged himself closer and closer. Hafiz bit his lips and said in gasping voice, “I’m all right! Charge! Hurry!” As Anwar took the grenade from Hafiz and prepared to charge, he saw the soldier retreating with his arms. Anwar picked up his rifle. He jumped up behind the bushes, placed the butt under his arm, bit his lips and pressed the trigger desperately. Resting his back against a bamboo tree he withstood the jerking and fired another round.
The figure which had almost vanished into the jute-field sprang up, convulsed like a slaughtered chicken and became still.
The tense alertness now gave way and Anwar felt he would collapse. The rifle lay heavily laden in his arms. He sat down with the rifle, leaned against a bamboo tree, closed his eyes and breathed in and out. Then he leapt up suddenly and came back to Hafiz.
Sprawled flat on his back, Hafiz was gasping. One side of his chest was bathed in blood. A confounded Anwar rushed and put Hafiz’s head on his lap. He called, “Hafiz!”
Hafiz looked at him once with hazy eyes, his lips moving, but the words could not be understood. Anwar put his hands on Hafiz’s chest, bent down and called again, “Ha fee z!”
Hafiz’ eyelids were closed. He saw a dense wide expanse of greenery. A large striped tiger waved its tail and walked through with a calm majestic tread.
A happy serene smile came across Hafiz’s face as he watched the tiger. When Anwar gently laid Hafiz’s head on the ground, that smile remained on his face.
Anwar could not bear to look again at that face. He just looked down once at the sprawled body, then picked up the LMG and threw it deep into the pineapple grove. With his own rifle hanging by the shoulder, he walked down the slope into the jute-fields. He ran and threw all three LMGs into the jute-fields. Then he himself vanished into the dense vegetation.
He must make sure to take out the bullet in his shoulder as soon as possible.