Translated from Bangla by Mohammad Shafiqul Islam
No sooner had Kamal stepped on in front of Mianwali Jail at Lyallpur, than both his body and mind shook up. Controlling the storm of clandestine excitement, he began to look back and forth. Although he’d thought of coming over here, he could never figure out it’d turn into a reality. And for this reason, he has been indoors since his arrival at Lyallpur.
The present name of the city is Faisalabad, eighty miles away from Lahore. Despite the change in name, the jail has remained the same. From behind, thin vines sprouting out on the walls and slick fungus were peeping out with marks of barbarity perpetrated inside the jail—amplitude of affection too.
Inside the jail exists a tin-shed quarter, looking just like a school, which contains a number of cells. Walking slowly, Kamal stood in front of the last cell on the northern corner of the shed, extended from north to south. He didn’t know how he’d gathered strength or who’d guided him to walk up to this. He felt as though someone had pulled his feet back, but no sooner had he got here lifting his chin up and defying resistance, than the door of the cell opened. Astounded, he spotted a ray of scorching sunlight like the scarlet sun coming out from the cell. Encountering the rare sight, he got awestruck and looked back. The sun descended on the western horizon, so sunlight was supposed to enter from outside, but something else was happening—the ray was coming out from inside!
There’s a small verandah before the cell, closed in on strong iron rods—grilles are locked too. One who’s locked inside can’t move much and has to be incarcerated within the small space—Kamal observed all this.
Turning left, Kamal saw a rusty tube-well, but he felt an urge to wash his face with its water. Although he’d flown a long distance from his own country to Lyallpur, he felt composed rather than exhausted. As soon as he got hold of the handle, he felt a jerk as though from an electric shock. Strangely, the jerk was different than he’d anticipated. Instead of being scared, he felt courageous a thousand times more, as if the handle had retained the touch of a great hand. He felt as though the touch had been fresh—just like the one that happened at present—real and true. With a distinct feeling of the touch, he resumed holding the handle, never wanting to leave it, nor press it. Just that moment, a jerk or vibration quickly stormed into his brain through nerve cells of his hand. The wave of the vibration created a new light in the nerve cells. Instantly Kamal heard an unbelievable great voice, “Why are you holding the handle this way? Press it, or else how do you get water? At fifty degree celsius of heat, you’ve almost bathed sweating. You should sprinkle water on your face to feel good.”
Although the words created a storm within his head, he could clearly hear the words, the unbelievably true words—he slightly lost control but came back to his sense and said, “I’ve got peace. No need to claim it again sprinkling water on the face.”
“This is not right, this is just your imagination. Reality is you have to press the handle to get water with which you can wash your face. And then you’ll stand straight, feeling better.”
“I don’t want to stand straight. Neither do I want to hold off the handle, not even your hand within my palm.”
“Can hands be stuck to a handle? Using brain, not with emotion, press the handle of the tube-well, get water. There’s no hand stuck to it. Since you’re possessed, you can’t think anything properly.”
“I want to keep possessed like this. How can I hold off the great hand that I’m in contact with? I don’t have that audacity.”
“Listen, try to understand, don’t act like a child; wash your face.”
“Won’t I be deprived of your touch if I now wash my face? Won’t you then stop talking? Will you be with me? Promise me first.”
Now laughter spread around. Awestruck by guffaw, Kamal asked, “Why are you laughing?”
“You’ve come this far, why? Out of what inclination? Don’t you trust yourself? You do, as I can see—you’ve already proved that. How confident!” For assertion of the words, Kamal retreated and pressed the handle. As a result, water came out like stream. With a handful of water, he washed his face. As soon as he took some more, he could see a water-sun on his palm. Instantly the dazzling light-water began to talk, “Your friend who you’ve come to see used to drink this water. Your friend whose memories you’ve come to explore used to bathe here too. He was offered the camel-mark clothes-washing soap for bathing. Could it wash his sweating body? No, it couldn’t. With all the love for him, I’d bathe him, clean all the dirt from his frame.”
Enraptured at the words, Kamal washed his face right away, feeling that someone spread love over his face. As drops of water were entering his eyes, he felt his eyesight was getting stronger. Instantly, his eyes began to talk, “Look on the right, see the land, the soil here. Look at the surroundings.”
Kamal saw a small barley-corn orchard—a wheat orchard. His eyes got hold of a spark from light in tender green leaves of the trees. Right away he went to the orchard. As soon as he touched the green leaves and grasped the branches, the trees began to talk, “I’m proud to be born here. Your friend who you want to see and you’ve come to find sowed the seeds of barley-corn here. Our forefather would gather green light for his eyes looking at those corn trees. The beautiful green Bengal rife with crops flashed before his eyes then; he could see his beloved Bengal, his dearest people of the country. He’d talk to them too. He’d talk to his children, his wife, his parents, and his co-fighters whom he had left in the country. He’d pray for their emancipation. He’d also talk to little child Russel. His mental strength was amazing—even being away from his own people, he didn’t shed tears. The enemies completely concealed him from the whole world. There was no telephone, no television, no newspapers here—only a few of us were his companions, his friends too.”
“We express gratitude to you.”
“No, no, not to us—remain grateful to him, for whom you’ve achieved an independent country. Staying in this land of death, he didn’t forget us, and adorned this small place of only five yards with warmth of his heart. He’d draw the map of small Bangladesh in this land, dreamt of a green Bengal, dreamt to build a Bengal of gold. He was successful in turning the people into assets, and you’re the proof. What a great matter it is that you’ve come this far just to explore his memory, to feel his touch.”
“Yes, my corn-friend. Our friend had been incarcerated here for a long time, took breath in that tiny cell, tried to remain well keeping in touch with you. You extended your love to him—we’re really grateful to you.”
Air wasn’t flowing in this blazing area, with scorching heat reigning over. When Kamal arrived, his skin was almost burning, but he didn’t realize this. Suddenly as corn-trees were swaying, he figured out a wave of wind was flowing. Soaking the intensity of the heat, the wave began to touch him softly—he couldn’t come out of the engrossment of wonder. Seeing corn-trees sway and receiving wind’s warmth, Kamal remained awestruck for some time—it’s peace, Om Shanti! With this feeling, he wanted to get a deeper touch of the corn-trees holding them on his chest.
“Why are you doing all this? Why so crazy?”
“To make you sway, wind would create a wave that would love my friend, give him peace, and with the feeling, shouldn’t I be thrilled? What do you think?”
“Your friend also hugged our forefathers this way, would sit by the corn-trees of that time, and they’d love him with the touch of the wave of wind too. All this is true, and we’ve just tried to show you an ounce of specimen. You can realize this—we’re thankful.”
Kamal’s mind got filled with a distinct sense of serenity—he sank into a feeling of gratitude. And just then when he sat down on the ground, the soil began to shake, subsequently emitting, “Listen, with a thin edge of a piece of wood, your friend would weed us out, sprinkle water on our surface, and turn us fertile appeasing thirst of our sweltering hearts. And then with the help of a caretaker in the jail, he had sowed seeds of wheat that later became a beautiful corn orchard. Although its area was small, it was vast in significance, as if he’d weed out his own land sitting here, think about fertility of soil and improvement of agriculture of his own country. Can you make out what vastness is hidden into this simple thought?”
Kamal’s narrow mind instantly expanded. Bangladesh cloaked within the focus of electron microscope of his eyes emerged. Seeing the map of Bangladesh in the middle of green, he got slightly astounded. In these unbearable days of his jail life, he had been engrossed in the thought of Bangladesh and its map. Out of deep respect and love, Kamal stood up.
Now he walked up to the main gate of the jail. While entering inside, he felt a ray of sweltering heat, burning his skin and face and eyes. Arresting him from his own country, they had incarcerated him in this excruciating and sweltering little cell of the jail. Had they wanted to stop the freedom movement of the Bengalis this way? Had the enemies tried to foil the liberation war, doing away with the boatman of the movement? Anyone may break down or lose mental order in this vicious jail, inside the extremely sweltering cell. Anyone, no matter how strong he is, may completely break down in this place. How had he spent days here, so far away from people? Controlling a surge of questions in his mind, Kamal saw a mat laid out on the floor of a cell nearby, on its west a worn-out pillow—no furniture. The outside part of the cell was rounded by iron rods, the inside walls pressing the mat. Vapour of heat from the tin-shed roof was snaking into the cell, making him struggle to breathe. Just before falling down on the ground for his head spinning in suffocation, he sat down clasping the wall with his right hand. Now he could see an aluminium mug and a plate on the floor.
Had our friend passed these excruciating days here? Kamal laid bare the thought into words.
Right away the wall began to talk, “Listen, dear guest, listen, we’ve understood your agonies. The Military President of our country had exactly the same intention as you’re thinking right now. They hatched a conspiracy of making your friend psychotic, incarcerating him in this harsh and unusual environment. Look, such an isolated cell where there’s not even a fan—no one can remain sane, whereas your friend dwelt here bearing death threat in the firing squad. How could he endure all this—do you want to know?”
“Yes, I do. Please, go ahead.”
Thirst to know more was surging up. Upon that urge, Kamal strained his ears leaning against the wall.
“I never made your friend feel suffocated, never let him suffer; rather, from this tiny cell, he could see your whole country—so he didn’t feel stifled in this congested cell. He never broke down. I could never match him especially for your fearless friend’s mental strength and his indomitable spirit. Keeping away, we made the tiny cell your country. Sometimes we noticed he’d gasp in pain—the image of his suffering still persists in our heart. In anxiety about the country, indiscriminate killing, and its future, he at times looked perplexed and therefore kept groaning. He sought pen and paper, but they didn’t follow, so with a stick, he’d write lots of things on our hearts. The devils have wiped those wall writings.”
“He’d use a black pipe to smoke. Was it here with him?”
“Yes, it was, but they wouldn’t supply tobacco and fire even though he asked for that. The main intention of the devils was to hurt him.”
Feeling the pain of his friend equally and finishing talk with the wall, Kamal looked at the tin shed that instantly said, “Don’t blame me. You know how easily we get heated, and it’s usual that the heat would spread inside the cell—this is science. But I found loophole of the general science. Here you can see the wooden beam elevating us, bearing our weight—we’d drive away the scorching heat through its inner part. Through the apertures—see there’s apertures between us and beams—a large amount of heat would go out of the cell. And your friend was also very intelligent. His potential and creativity were more powerful than heat. He wouldn’t shut the door, always kept it open, so the heat in the cell would easily get out. Still the heat that spread on the floor was enough to torment your friend—his suffering would bring tears to our eyes. Weaving the wall of confidence and with mental strength, he built his own safety wall. And neither the heat in the cell nor the government could crack his confidence wall.”
Hearing all this, Kamal felt almost suffocated; yet, he said, “My heartfelt gratitude to you. Our friend certainly got your help, for which he could survive the unbearable suffering in isolation.”
No sooner had Kamal finished his words, than the plate on the corner of the cell stirred and said, “Putting me on the hand, your friend would sit down to eat. Holding me with the left hand, he’d eat with his right one.”
Soon after the words, Kamal took the plate in hand. Putting it on the left hand, he lifted it up—strange, he could see a plateful of rice. On the rice in the plate he also noticed large-headed black insects—he felt as if a baton of unbearable agonies was falling on his back. Overwhelmed with grief, he uttered, “Oh no, I don’t want to see such a brutal scene anymore.”
In the stream of tidbits of the aluminium plate, Kamal’s feeling began to flow. With that stream was flowing the wave of empathy for the guest. A piece of new news reached the brain. Thrill said, “One day Bangabandhu revolted—he declared he wouldn’t eat rice with insects. He also let them know that he’d eat ruti.”
“Then what happened?” Kamal enquired.
A big officer of the jail told him, “Ruti is the staple food of the people of this country, so it wouldn’t be offered to a traitor like him.”
“Did he get ruti, in any way?”
“In the face of his strong claim, the authority was forced to give him ruti. When the higher authority came to know about this, they began to offer him rice again.”
“Could he eat it?”
“A Bengali named Abdul Malek was a prisoner, whose recruit companion Ashraf, a Punjabi, was also here. As Ashraf was somewhat educated, he worked as Munshi, a writer of documents in the jail, like a clerk. With the help of Ashraf, Abdul Malek secretly fished out the insects from the plate, but your friend didn’t know it. He could easily eat the rice without insects.”
In deep respect for Abdul Malek, Kamal closed his eyes.
Suddenly the aluminium glass began to sparkle and spoke out, “I was a very close companion of your friend—the touch of your friend’s lips is still stuck in a corner, touch of his hand too. First he’d wash me with a camel-mark soap, later with foam of the imperial leather soap.”
“Where did he get the soap from?”
“That Abdul Malek who I just talked about—with his own money, he brought three imperial soaps. Bangabandhu used the soap a few days. Bathing with the soap, he felt good and fresh.”
Again Kamal recalled Abdul Malek’s support with gratitude. And then with two hands, he began to rub the glass. At some point his lips touched a corner. Feeling the touch of his friend’s hands and lips, he got rid of fatigue and felt excited.
At once he heard something snapping—where did the sound come from? Looking here and there, he didn’t locate the source of the sound. Suddenly he noticed the pillow on the west of the mat. As soon as he touched it, he felt dejected.
“What you’re thinking of is true—Bangabandhu would be hurt putting his head on the stone-like pillow like me. I’m still bearing the weight of the agony. At times he’d put his hand beneath his head. As a result he’d suffer neck pain, sometimes groaning too. Still I’m chased away by a sense of shame and of guilt for hurting him so cruelly.”
“Could he sleep then?”
“He often spent night after night tossing impatiently without closing his eyes, sometimes rising up and sitting on the bed for long. And to assuage restlessness, he took the empty pipe onto his lips as if he had really been smoking. At the dead of night when heat abated, he could sleep a little.”
Hearing the stone-like pillow talk all this, Kamal felt an excruciating pain. Spending a little more time there, he went out to breathe a long sigh, and holding an iron rod, began to look around. Suddenly the iron rod emitted, “If he had an opportunity, Abdul Malek would stand here, and your friend would talk to him in Bengali—getting an opportunity to speak and listen to Bengali, your friend tossed like a child, his mother’s face surfacing over his eyes and face. Seeing him then, I could make out how sweet it is to speak one’s mother tongue.”
Hearing the rod speak these wonderful words, Kamal shut his eyes, and noticing it, the rod resumed, “Open your eyes, listen—in fear of security guards, when Malek had to leave, Bangabandhu extended his hand through grilles to gently stroke his head with warmth. And then I thought he was putting his hand not on Malek’s head but on your whole nation.”
In deep respect, Kamal’s head bowed down.
With a feel of great peace, he looked forward and found a pit like a grave. Crossing the gate, he stood by the pit.
“Dear guest, I’m not any grave-like pit,” the sound issued forth from the pit. Astounded, Kamal asked, gathering courage, “Have you understood my mind’s thoughts?”
“Then tell me what you are.”
“Indeed I’m a grave, not something like a grave.”
“Then why are you empty? Where’s the dead body? If someone isn’t buried, how come we call it a grave?”
“I was dug to bury someone.”
“That’s the cell you just came out from—a great man was incarcerated there. In 1971, he had been isolated from people for nine months and fourteen days. After your victory on 16 December 1971, he was moved from here to an impassable and perilous place. And they dug me to bury him after killing.”
“Did he know anything about this?” asked Kamal, piercing pain in his heart.
“Yes, this was indeed ferociousness and beastly exultation of our military president. He’d be killed, then his dead body would be thrown into a grave, not even a bird would know anything about the killing—all this was conveyed to him after the vicious plan had been hatched. The Army Chief of our country wanted to break his heart into pieces.”
“Did they put forth such a mental torture upon our friend?”
“The military government tried to kill him through the court-martial just to show people, and to do this, they also put pressure on Bangabandhu to hire a lawyer.”
“Did he hire any lawyer?”
“No, he didn’t pay heed to them at all. We heard a lawyer was hired by the government, but Bangabandhu shouted, holding the iron rod I’m a politician. My party bagged a majority of seats in the 1970 general election, and you’re trying to stage a comedy of trial against me? Don’t forget the brave youths of my country will give a sharp and befitting reply to your conspiracy; God willing they’ll free the country too. My goodness, standing at the verge of death, can anyone speak so valiantly if he isn’t a braveheart? What an indomitable spirit! How strong mentally he is! Observing him closely, I’ve preserved all the memories in my heart. Sharing all this with you, I’m feeling relieved.”
“But I came to know he’d been brought to a military court.”
“You’ve heard right. There he behaved like a king too. The judge asked him about hiring a lawyer, but he didn’t pay heed to him; rather, keeping his eyes on the other direction, he was jiggling his favourite pipe with all the love he had had for it.”
“How did you come to know all this?”
“Were these things kept concealed? No, actually the prisoners could know everything. As they’d natter sitting on those places at the top, I could overhear them—that’s why I can share it with you. We also heard commando attack might have taken place—the purpose was to kill your friend, the news that he also knew. During those days, Yahya became crazy to destroy the Bengalis. Drowned into frustration, he said My biggest mistake and failure was not to hang Mujib and kill him.
On the other side, on 16 December 1971, General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, along with ninety-thousand Pakistani soldiers, yielded defeat and surrendered in presence of India’s Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief in the Bangladesh Liberation War. So Yahya didn’t find courage to kill your friend, skipping out on the international concern.”
Kamal wanted to ask something more but it slipped away from his mind. All of a sudden he heard commotion in the grave. Following the sound, he sat on his knees and looked inside. Instantly the commotion stopped. Kamal saw the flag of Bangladesh drawn inside the grave—the red map in the middle of the flag looking at him.
“How come you’re lying there this way?”
“Grabbing the iron rod of the cell tight, your friend would said Dear grave, if they kill me and throw me onto you, please hold me gently. Please turn into the flag of my country before they bury me, eventually covering me with the flag. If possible, fly to my country. As the last resort, I want the land of my own country.”
Hearing this, Kamal felt blank and began to lament.
The grave emitted once more, “Since that time I’m a piece of Bangladesh. In this Faisalabad, the grave dug by notorious Yahya turned into an independent country, Bangladesh. I exist as an emblem of Bengal of gold gifted by your friend, the greatest Bengali of all time, your Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.”
Kamal thought the tiny cell of Mianwali Jail has a pair of red and green eyes, through which he looked forward. With wonder, he saw Bangabandhu smiling—the wave of the all-conquering smile was diffusing throughout the world.
Mohit Kamal : 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 : Satabdi Zahid