Series Novel : The Afternoon of the Seventh of March : Selina Hossain

Translated from Bangla by Mohammad Shafiqul Islam

Serial : 24

In his camp, Ashraf is talking to his co-fighters, showing them a map drawn in his hand. He says, “You’ll start off along this path. You’ll find two ferry-ghats within two miles of the path, where two boatmen will wait for you, and if you show them this sign, they’ll have you cross the river. After meeting with Polashdanga Youth Forum, I’ll come back by tonight. It’s a small operation that Badal will lead.”

Taking a look at Badal, Ashraf says, “Badal, even though it’s a small operation, its significance isn’t less, so don’t take it as an easy one.”

With an assured voice, Badal says, “Commander, I’ve learnt from you—either die or earn freedom.”

Lifting weapons together at a time, everyone in the camp shouts out, “Joy to Bengal, Joy to Bangabandhu.”

“We’re all under the shade of the afternoon of the seventh of March; the afternoon is equal to our dream and independence.”

After a while, Ashraf says, “Now you’ll have a few hours to rest. And Jahir will signal you to start off again.”

A bit downhearted, Nayan says, “Ashraf, why ain’t I getting part of this operation?”

“I’ll send you somewhere else for something important. Now leave, all of you except Nayan.”

When everyone leaves, Nayan expresses his sadness yet again, “Have I broken discipline?”

“Why are you asking this?

“Then why haven’t you sent me to this operation?”

“I said you’d be assigned with a more important mission. How far is Sabiha’s camp from here, Nayan?”

“About one hundred miles.”

Ashraf gives Nayan an envelope, “There are some urgent directions inside this envelope; reach it to their commander, but keep careful—the enemies have started watching over our camp.”

“Why don’t you go yourself, Ashraf? You can also meet Sabiha there.”

“No, I won’t—our seniors don’t allow me to do this, as I have to launch another operation in Sabiha’s village; Chairman of Peace Committee is killing innocent people there. We have to kill him.”

“You haven’t seen each other for a long time.”

“Personal emotion isn’t important in the war—we all are above emotions here.”

“I get it, Ashraf,” Nayan nods.

“Don’t talk about this anymore; bear in mind you have to get there in disguise. I have a list. They have sought a few mines and arms that are ready, and you’ll reach those in their camp. Your code number is Alpha 2.”

“It’s clear, but I’m wondering what kind of clothes I’ll put on.”

“Putting on the lungi, panjabi, a cap on the head, and ordinary sandals, you’ll go there, just like a very ordinary villager.”

“Okay, I’ll manage a bit sooty and torn clothes—a gamcha too.

“Carry a wireless phone too.”

“Sure, I won’t forget this. Without a wireless, how can we communicate?”

“Ajay and Binay will accompany you.”

“Okay. I’m going to prepare myself.”

For a while Ashraf remains unmindful as Nayan leaves, draws Sabiha’s image—as if she were training—in his imagination.

In Sabiha’s camp training is going on.

Extending a weapon to Sabiha, the commander says, “This is called SLR, a rifle or semi-Raquel rifle.”

As Sabiha takes the SLR in her hand, all others come forward to her and touch the weapon.

“As you can see,” Commander says, “this is an automatic firearm, and you can load ten to twelve bullets in a single magazine.”

Curious to learn, everyone listens to their commander with rapt attention. It’s a new experience for all of them. They think they can destroy the enemies targeting them with the weapon.

Sabiha cuts in, “You’ve taught us to use this firearm. Now my question—can ordinary soldiers use this or it’s just for the commanders?”

“You’ve asked an important question. Usually there are a commander, two deputy commanders, and eight soldiers in a troop. If the commander is provided an SMG or a short machine carbine, the deputy commanders are given at least two SLRs. The rest eight soldiers are offered three-not-three rifles, and the total eleven fighters carry hand grenades.”

Chandana asks, “Commander, from how far can we successfully shoot the enemies with the SLR?”

“For a range of 175 to 200 squares, the SLR is a reliable firearm. Any other question?”

“No,” everyone replies in unison.

“We’re talking about the same thing over and over again so all of you learn it perfectly.”

“Everyone in the camp is very helpful.”

“Now tea-break for fifteen minutes, and then practical training will start.”

As soon as they attempt to leave, the commander’s wireless rings, so the girls stop. Turning it on, the commander responds, “Shapla 1 speaking—over.”

Standing by a place near a jungle, Nayan is talking over the wireless.

“Alpha 2 – Alpha 2 speaking – over.”

“We seek your permission to hand over some donations to you – over.”

“You’re supposed to bring some apples, combs, brushes, and walking sticks.”

“We’ve brought them. Shall we start off now to get at your place? Over.”

“No,” Commander forbids, “wait for some time. Our people will escort you here; let me know where you’re staying. Over.”

“Kalibari jungle,” Nayan replies, “over.”

“Over and out,” Commander ends.

Closing the wireless, Commander looks at the girls and informs them, “Three guests, now at Kalibari jungle, are coming to our camp. Chandana and Bula, take steps to bring them here.”

Saluting the commander with arms in hand, Chandana and Bula begin to move forward, while others go to a different direction. Sabiha looks around, standing alone nearby, can see several crows perching on tree branches. She says to herself, “Guests! It means co-fighters are coming from another camp, carrying bullets and other things. We can’t use these words directly, so we opt for different words. I wish if Ashraf came as a guest!”

For a while, Sabiha feels sad, as she hasn’t met Ashraf for at least once in these extraordinary days of the war. If she could meet, she could feel that the flowers of love have turned into the flowers of bullets that don’t bloom in the life of millions of people. Bearing the tension of the war, those who are capable of blossoming the flowers of love have the miraculous spirit of living. Now Sabiha looks at the sky through the top of trees and feels good. She recalls her mother, can visualize her father by the river and Sahana and Arif running in the field. Before them are the sidekicks of Razzak Chairman, lifting sticks over them.

Can’t the picture be different than this? Sabiha thinks. It can and it happens. Like, sitting on the veranda at Sabiha’s house, Madhab, Manik, and Shamim are talking to Taslim and Amena.

Drinking the last sip of the tea, Madhab says, “It’s after a long time I have the real taste of tea.”

With her anchal, Amena wipes tears and says, “Talking to you, I feel like Sabiha is sitting beside me.”

Now Amena cries a bit loud. Taslim tries to stop her, “Don’t cry, stop. We’re talking to freedom fighters, having tea with them—isn’t it a matter of great pleasure?”

“I’m crying with that sense of happiness,” Amena says wiping her tears. “I’m recalling my daughter too.”

“Go see how if the cooking is done.”

“Auntie, only pulses and rice, nothing else.”

“Leave it to me.”

Amena goes to the kitchen where Sahana is working, helping her mother cook for freedom fighters. Now Monir looks at Taslim.

“Uncle, have you received our chit?”

“Yes, that’s why I’ve prepared everything.”

“From our secret sources, we’ve come to know Chairman of Peace Committee will have his hooligans loot and torch the bazaar.”

“We’ve decided to kill Chairman before their attempt, so we’ll stay at your house tonight.”

Listening to them, Taslim says, “I’ll also join you to kill Razzak Chairman to make him realize independence—they’re enemies of our independence.”

“No, Uncle, you needn’t go. The freedom fighters have taken position in different places of the village. Now we feel if Sabiha were here, we could listen to a song from her before the operation. We could start off listening to a war song.”

“Sabiha isn’t home, but she certainly sing songs with her co-fighters in her camp. I can hear her songs when I sleep.”

Shamim, Madhab, and Manik silently keep their eyes on one another. At this point, they can have the smell of cooking from the kitchen—chicken is being cooked for them. Three of them can indeed feel that they are so hungry that they’ll gulp down rice instantly if it’s served, but they know they have to wait. They look at Taslim’s face together—he looks as if he were listening to Sabiha’s song.

A father, deeply absorbed, whose daughter has left home to join the war is sitting before them.

In Sabiha’s camp, they along with their Commander are standing before the guests. Nayan—accompanied by two others—hands over the two bags.

Sabiha and Chandana exchange glances, can understand too they have recognized Nayan although he’s in disguise. Looking at him, Sabiha says, “May I ask you a question?”

Instantly Commander cuts in, “No, no question. They’re important for us.”

Nayan says, “You wanted mines to implant in the street, so we’ve brought them. The mines can destroy army convoys, medium bridges and culverts.”

“I wanted just right this. The highway is one and a half kilometres away from here, and the convoys of Pakistani army move to Barisal Headquarters through this. If we can destroy a convoy along with the bridge close by, the movement of the army from Barisal to Madaripur and Barisal to Faridpur route will be stopped.”

“But who’ll implant mines?” Nayan asks.

“Sabiha. She’s a courageous fighter. If you train her, she’ll learn anything easily.”

Nayan looks at Sabiha, “This is a very risky job; one can lose life anytime.”

“As we’re fighting for the country, we shouldn’t fear death.”

Shoring up Sabiha’s assertion, Commander adds, “Koruna, Bula, Afia, and Chandana will be with Sabiha—they’re also valourous.”

“I know all of them, Commander. Following Ashraf’s suggestions, we the university friends decided to bring them together here. I had a doubt if the girls would be able to fight, but Ashraf was confident about all of them. He told us—our girls would also fight courageously. Now we see Ashraf was right; he’s indeed farsighted.”

“How is Ashraf?”

“He’s well. I told him to come here, but he’s in another operation.

“Where?” asks Sabiha.

“In your village. Chairman of Peace Committee and his gang are killing innocent people there; Ashraf along with his team has gone there to finish the gang.”

Sabiha’s eyes glitter, “Ashraf will get support of my parents there.”

“I also think so—the operation will be a success.”

At midnight, as Ashraf, Badal, and Biplob knock at Sabiha’s house, Taslim wakes up and calls Amena, “Wake up; probably freedom fighters have come. Or who else at these hours of the night?”

Getting up quickly, Amena lights up the lantern. Opening the door, Taslim gets to the veranda, Amena following him with the lantern in her hand.

As Taslim opens the gate, he can see three young boys covering themselves with wrappers. Quickly they enter the house and the gate is closed right away. “I’m Ashraf,” Ashraf says, “and they’re Badal and Biplob. We’re Sabiha’s university friends. Have you received our chit?”

“Yes, I have. Come, come inside.”

Turning his head, Taslim looks at Amena, “Bou, they’re Sabiha’s university friends.”

“Come inside, sit here. I’m bringing a hurricane lantern.”

“No need of the hurricane, Auntie, we’re good in the dark.”

“How come? Let me bring it here.”

Taslim sits by Ashraf and asks, “What will you do, Bajan?”

“Uncle, we’ve come to know Chairman will arrange a party for Pakistani army in his villa today.”

“We’ve also heard this.”

“You’ll guide us to get to Chairman’s villa that we’ll put fire on tonight. In fear when they’ll come out, we’ll brushfire them.”

“Give me a gun so I can shoot Chairman, the sonofabitch.

“We don’t have any gun, Uncle—only rifles and Sten guns, and you can’t shoot with them.”

Before Taslim says anything, Amena brings tea and biscuits and tells them, “Take, dear all, have tea and biscuits.”

“What have you done?” Taslim says in an angry voice. “Only tea and biscuits at these wee hours of the night?”

“I’ve started cooking rice; for now let them have some tea and biscuits.”

“Auntie, please don’t cook anything at this time; we have chirha-gurh, puffed rice and molasses.

Taslim smiles and says, “Eat puffed rice and molasses later. You’re Sabiha’s friends; we should offer you polao and meat.”

“Uncle, we’ll have polao and meat only when we’ll free the country destroying the Pakistani army.”

Taking a look at Ashraf, Amena asks in a sobbing voice, “How’s Sabiha, Baba.”

“Yes, Auntie, she’s well. She has indeed become a very good fighter after training.”

“I also wish to go to war,” Sahana says from behind. Instantly Arif adds, “I’ll join the war too.”

Extending his hands, Ashraf pulls them close and says, “You’re indeed participating in the war. Look, you’re helping us, the freedom fighters—this is a participation in the war too.”

Taslim raises his voice, changing the mood, “Who’ll look after the freedom fighters if everyone joins the war? War doesn’t mean the warfield only.”

“You’re right, Uncle.”

“Sabiha is in the warfield, and you’re fighting from the village.”

“We’ll also go with Abba to help you get to Chairman’s villa.”

“Yes, you’ll go too,” Taslim insists.

“Joy to Bengal,” cry out Sahana and Arif.

Ashraf adds Struggle this time is the struggle for independence…

(To be continued)

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

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