Translated by Mohammad Shafiqul Islam
Serial : 21
Grabbing a piece of paper, she begins to write a letter to Ashraf, but doesn’t post it, as she doesn’t know his current address. She fills page after page writing and thinks that one can also get someone closer this way. Dear Ashraf she writes and then looks out. The day is bright, with a soft wind cooling her down. She continues:
We got the news of genocide at Dhaka, and then a month has gone by, but I haven’t received any letter from you. The occupying forces have launched mayhem at the university area, haven’t left halls unharmed too, as we’ve come to know. A heroic policeman, wounded at Rajarbagh, has taken shelter at our home; we’ve known about resistance at Rajarbagh Police Lines from him. I don’t know where you’re staying now, but I inform you again that I’ll certainly join the war. Also know that it’s a matter of either independence or death. Love for you.
Closing the notebook, she puts it into the drawer of her table and stands by a window. After a few days, nor’wester will kick off, and many things will float away, but for now a storm seems more sought-after. Sabiha keeps her eyes on the expanse of the sun-soaked day.
Just then Sahana runs to her to say, “Come over quickly, Matin sir has asked you to meet him right away.”
“Why? What’s happened? Where should I go?”
Standing by the door, Taslim says, “Ma, don’t ask so many questions. As Matin has called you, you should go immediately.”
“Seizing Sahana’s hand, Sabiha leaves to meet Mr Matin. From a certain distance, she can see a group of young boys receiving training, and Madhab is teaching them various techniques of war—he has also been trained before. Excited, Sabiha meets Mr Matin and tells him, “Sir, I also want to receive training.”
“I want you to include in the next batch, Ma. Let this batch complete their training first. I called on you to sing mass music along with their PT and parades so that they feel more spirited. We haven’t received any arms yet, so music will be our inner arms. Which song will you sing now?”
“Sir, let me sing Kazi Nazrul Islam’s song ‘March, march on’,” says Sabiha, mulling over for a moment.
“Yes, a great song. Then, start off. Now you’ll sing alone, and when the practice is over, everyone will sing in chorus. While singing, they’ll run around the field, flags in their hands.”
Sabiha begins to sing, “March, march, and march on/ up above the sky plays the bugle/ below is the earth restless/ youths of red dawn/ March, march, and march on.”
Surroundings get reverberated in the cadence of the tune. Village people begin to gather around the school field, the song in their voice too. Actually this song of Nazrul is to awaken the Bengalis. Many people have had to hum it many times—in resistance, in awakening. The song is the symbol of youth—school teacher Matin Ahmed recalls it and begins to sing and looks around, saying, “The song of awakening. Bangabandhu, no one can stop us.”
At some point, when training rounds up, the boys stand behind Sabiha and say, “Let’s move forward, apa.”
“Shall we move, sir?”
“Ok, dear, move on. I’ll also go with you.”
A procession with songs starts, with many people of the village there. A long procession moves on by the river, with people walking along the village path. Taking a look at them, Mr Matin says, “Now we’ll go to our own houses, and then to war.”
A slogan kicks off, reverberating, “Heroic Bengalis, take up arms/ Free Bangladesh.”
Several young boys jump into the river, swim for a while, creating a chaotic atmosphere, as if the river were a war field now. The boys sprinkle water at each other, now and then shouting slogans. Listening to the slogans, Sabiha walks forward, clasping Sahana’s hand. “Bubu, let’s meet Koruna didi,” Sahana suggests.
“Yes, let’s go. I told you to give her a flag, didn’t I?”
“I couldn’t, but we can give it today.”
“Where’s the flag?”
“Here it is, tied with my dress. Getting there, we’ll fly it—a yellow map within the beautiful red and green circle. Ah, what a beauty!”
“You’ve become my sister, I can see.”
“To you, I’m merely a crazy little girl, wandering around catching grasshoppers and fireflies. I like to play in the field, a place more charming to me than my house.”
Taking a look at her sister, Sahana laughed out for a while. Shaking her hand, Sabiha emits, “You know places more than me, I see. One who loves fields more than houses has a bigger heart—no doubt.”
Sahana bursts out in laughter. When they reach the yards, they can see Koruna feeding her younger son Shishir. They stand close to her.
“Have you brought any news for me?”
“A flag will fly in your house, didi.”
“I don’t have any flag.”
“Here’s one for you.”
As soon as Sahana shows the flag, Koruna’s eyes begin to sparkle in a sense of distinct happiness.
“Flag in our house? Your brother would definitely be glad if he were here.”
“You’ll certainly show him the flag. If you can’t fly it, put it into a box. When he’ll come back, he’ll see it.”
Koruna nods, saying, “But some villagers speak differently—they want Pakistan, not independence.”
“They’re all devils. I’ve also heard, but don’t pay heed to them. Now feed Shishir, didi. We have to go now.”
Sabiha and Sahana leave. Just in front of Koruna’s house expands a vast field where Sahana runs to and fro. She likes to run after different kinds of flying insects, says it’s a sort of game for her, and she’ll play the game even when she’s grown up. Insects are indeed her friends. Once her mother said, “Are brown grasshoppers your friends? But they destroy paddy fields.”
“No problem,” said Sahana, “they’re my friends. I don’t’ understand destruction of paddies, and those who own the fields need to mull that over. I understand only beautiful insects and brown grasshoppers. That day, Ma said, smiling, “Okay, then the field should be your home and insects your friends.”
From a little distance, Sabiha watches Sahana, and then leaves for home. Sabiha feels good about Sahana’s way of living her life—knowing nature and trying to understand insects. She thinks Sahana has built a kingdom of her own, adorns her daily life in her own way. But Sabiha has made friendship with music. She has built her life with music, extending her horizon among others. This is indeed a green field for her. Absorbed in thoughts, she recalls Ashraf, saying within her mind, “It seems I haven’t seen you for years—a vast time of your absence before me. A net of black threads has tangled time. Our time is a gargantuan fish, on which we put our hands to count time. When shall we beat time and make it our own together, Ashraf?” Sabiha imagines, looking around. She knows the village people have both dream of independence in their eyes and fear in mind. Collaborators of Pakistan are spreading rumours throughout the village, saying military will come soon to give you all a good lesson.
Getting back home, Sabiha enters her room. She can have the smell of food her mother is cooking, especially burning chillies, spreading all through the house. She covers her nose as she can’t breathe in the smell. As her throat has already started itching, she sprinkles water all over her face from a nearby tube-well, but doesn’t ask her mother what she’s cooking. She won’t ask, but will know about the items when she eats. While washing her face, she was thinking it was not time to brood over “Life and death follow footsteps, while spirit is free.” Yes, life and death indeed follow footsteps, but spirit mustn’t be free—spirit should always be awakening, remain full of ideas each moment, and arrange fastening iron thread into the net of independence. We have to make each step very carefully.
While wiping her face with a towel on the verandah, Sabiha figures out tears and water are becoming one, as she intensely recalls Ashraf. Ahead of them are uncertain times—everyone has to face war. She quickly wipes her face. As she doesn’t know whereabouts of Ashraf, she’s feeling sad, but remaining worried won’t make sense these days. If she can’t communicate with Ashraf, she’ll prepare herself to go to war with Matin sir. No more waiting—she accumulates mental strength. Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra has started broadcasting that the liberation war has got under way, as everyone has come to know. The valiant boys of Bangladesh have spontaneously joined the war.
During lunch, Sabiha tells her parents of her interest to participate in the war.
“Abba, I’ll join the war. I can’t sit idle at home.”
“What do you say?” Amena is startled.
Before putting a morsel of rice into his mouth, Taslim puts his hand down on the plate. Keeping his frozen look on Amena’s face, he breaks in, “This is time for war, and the boys from the village are joining it spontaneously. Then why should we sit idle? We all shall join the war.”
Surprised, Amena interjects, “Me too?”
“Yes, Ma, you too. You’ll indeed turn this house into a fort. Responding to Bangabandhu’s call, you’ll also burst out, “Turn each and every house into a fort. This is also war, Ma.”
Gulping down a mouthful, Sahana asks, “What shall I do?”
“You’ll also do some work, but carefully. You’ll do whatever you’re capable of doing. To serve an injured freedom fighter is also to contribute in the war.”
“Then, I’ll do such acts. If anyone asks me to mount up a palm tree to see if military is coming, I’ll happily do that. If someone else tells me to hold his rifle, I’ll follow him.”
“Bravo!” Sabiha pats on her back, whereas Arif bursts out in laugher.
Talking of some other matters too, as soon as they finish lunch, Taslim says, “I’m going to market to know about what’s happening around.”
“I’ll go with you, Abba. I’m coming back after washing hands.”
“I’ll also go,” adds Sahana to Arif’s words.
“What will you do in the market? Will you find grasshoppers there?”
“I’ll get lots of insects along the way. You don’t need to interfere, rascal.”
“Stop,” Taslim shrieks at them. Soon after, they both run to the tube-well to wash their hands. Sabiha gets into her room, thinks about writing a long letter to Ashraf, but the pencil isn’t working—it needs to be sharpened, but she can’t find a blade in the room. Everything appears messy to her, so putting the copybook and pencil into the drawer, she collapses onto her bed. Now she feels like sleeping to see Ashraf in a dream. As she thinks, Ashraf comes into her dream—they’re walking hand in hand through the Racecourse, tree leaves swaying in a soft breeze. On the other side, white flowers of chatim tree in front of Bangla Academy are also swaying, as if they were calling them, saying, “Please, stand near me for a while. I’ll take you to haor, where you can realize how sweet the sound of life is. Impressed at your presence, the stream in the haor will flow on.”
Immersed in deep sleep, Sabiha doesn’t figure out evening has already descended. Taslim, along with Nayan, has come back from the market. Sahana wakes Sabiha up from sleep.
“Bubu, your university friend Nayan bhai has come.”
“Nayan? What do you say?”
“Yes, indeed he came to our house before, right? Abba could recognize him easily, so could I.”
Instantly Sabiha jumps on her feet, enquiring, “Where’s he now?”
“He’s talking to Abba in his room.”
Making her own hair and hair-bun well and setting her sari right, Sabiha goes to her father’s room and gets excited seeing Nayan.
“How are you, Nayan?”
“I’m well. Ashraf has already organized many things—he has sent you a letter. You have to go with us. We three have come by a boat, which is now tied somewhere in the river. As soon as evening descends, we’ll begin our trip. Get ready, and here’s Ashraf’s letter.”
Taking out a piece of paper, Nayan hands it over to Sabiha. She says, “I’m telling Ma to give you tea. Abba, you must know him.”
“Yes, I do. I’ve indeed brought him home.”
“I’ll go to war, Abba.”
“Is it important to prepare oneself to go to war?”
“Not only we but people from around the country are prepared too to fight against Pakistan, uncle. While walking towards home from the market, you said you’re also ready to join the war.”
“We’re unarmed, still I’m ready to do anything needed for independence.”
Before anyone saying anything, Amena brings tea and puffed-rice mixed with onion and chilli and serves it to Nayan and Taslim.
“Eat it for now, dear. I’ll serve rice in the evening.”
“No, I won’t eat rice. I don’t have time because my friends are waiting on the boat. I’ve come here to take Sabiha along.”
In her room, Sabiha is reading Ashraf’s letter.
I’m sending Nayan to bring you to us, as you promised to fight for the country—I also gave the word. At Amtoli, we’ve built a camp where we’ll stay two more days. Nayan will reach you a certain place where you can meet many people. Either death or independence—with this wish “Joy to Bengal.”
At Ashraf’s widely familiar cursive handwriting, Sabiha keeps her eyes on for some time. It’s a matter of a few moments, but it seems years have passed by. Controlling herself, she quickly puts some clothes into a bag. At this moment, Sahana enters the room.
“Bubu, where are you going?” enquires Sahana.
“To join the war,” Sabiha pipes in.
“I’ll go too.”
“You’ll fight from here, staying with our parents. Follow their words.”
Amena brings a small bag and says, “Take it, Ma. When hungry, eat these puffed-rice and molasses.”
Sabiha puts it into her luggage.
Evening has already turned the atmosphere a bit dusky. Everyone bids them bye from the gate, when Taslim gives Sabiha some taka. Amena also puts off her bangles and gives them to her.
“What should I do with these bangles? I don’t need them.”
“Keep them with you; they might be of help during crisis.”
“Danger in the war should be tackled by fighting, Ma—keep it with yourself.”
Putting his hand on his daughter’s head, Taslim wishes her, “I pray for you, Ma, come back home after freeing the country.”
Selina Hossain : Fictionist in Bangla Literature
Mohammad Shafiqul Islam : poet, translator and academic, teaches English as Associate Professor in the Department of English at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet 3114, Bangladesh
Illustration : Najib Tareque