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

Translated from Bangla by Mohammad Shafiqul Islam

Serial : 25

At dead of night spills a forest of dreams. Strength of a few people—the young and the old—turns into a step for the great power of tomorrow. Feeling a bit fulfilled, they shout out, “We’ve been able to do, we have to do more.”

Now training of planting mines is going on in Sabiha’s camp. Nayan is also receiving training. It is said in a session—first we’ll talk of the techniques how to set explosives. Out of several explosive items, knowledge about two of them will be enough for us. First, it’s important to know about planting mines on the streets through which vehicles commute; the mines explode under the wheels. The mines are planted in such a way that the commuting vehicles must be destroyed at the explosion.

Sabiha takes notes of Nayan’s directions so that she can check it later by herself. Nayan starts off again—second one is time mine. Fuse is set in it in such a way that the mine is exploded at a certain time. Both vehicles and passersby perish by the time mines.

Sabiha becomes a bit absent-minded listening to Nayan. To her, it’s the afternoon of the seventh of March, no matter who’s speaking before her. She’s absorbed as if she were sitting in the Racecourse ground with Ashraf, fiery voice reverberating close by. Bangabandhu is giving directions about what the nation should do—extraordinary speech, exceptional words, stimulating the wide world. The words are ambling in people’s fists, hearts, and heads, as if they were Bharatnatyam—as beautiful as sonorous. The audience are entranced by the dance-like rhythm of the speech, their unblinking looks stuck in the distant sky. Sitting in the field replete with different kinds of trees at a remote village of the country, Sabiha thinks this is indeed the Ramna Racecourse ground. To her the rows of the trees are people’s heads, millions of them making a huge forest turning into a war field, from where are sprouting the words of the great afternoon—The struggle this time is the struggle for independence—proclaimed by the great man, the sky-high figure.

“Hey, what are you thinking about? Do you recall Ashraf?”

“Indeed, but he’s fighting somewhere; we’re receiving different kinds of information.”

“Do you feel depressed for staying away from him?”

“Sometimes, I feel so.”

“Then what were you thinking about?”

“The afternoon of the seventh of March, Bangabandhu’s call for independence—we two promised to sacrifice our life for the independence of the country, listening to the speech with rapt absorption.”

“That afternoon is the best part of my life.”

“I have the same feeling, so does Ashraf, I know. By the way, Nayan, has Ashraf informed my father that he’ll go to our village?”

“Yes, he sent a chit earlier.”

“I don’t know how my parents and siblings are. I’m not there—how will they treat Ashraf?”

“Do you think Ashraf has gone there to be treated as a son-in-law? He’s there to accomplish an operation, to kill Chairman.”

“Joy to Bengal,” Sabiha shouts out.

Everyone standing close by follows Sabiha “Joy to Bengal.” Lifting his rifle, Nayan poses to open fire, shouting out loud, “Bear in mind since we’ve given blood, we’ll give more. We’ll surely free the people of this country, In Sha Allah, God willing.”

Again the woods reverberate with the slogan, birds flying around and wind stirring leaves, while a few dry leaves fall on the ground and small insects peep out from the grass under feet. Sabiha thinks the afternoon of the seventh of March has come here again, and music of life resounds from it.

The war field teeming in people and their intense agitation transpires to be colourful like a rainbow. Everyone joins Sabiha, “Row forward, Mujib, row the people’s boat…”

With the tune of the song, they feel fresh. Scattering peanuts, Nurul tells them, “Eat and have fun.”

“Now you’re a fighter, not a peanuts vendor.”

“When I heard Bangabandhu’s speech in the Racecourse ground, I used to vend peanuts. Nayan bhai, Ashraf bhai were my customers.”

“I used to buy too,” Sabiha laughs, while others join her, peeling off peanuts. Flinging two peanuts into her mouth, Sabiha gets unmindful; it seems something is happening somewhere. In her village? Why is her mind agitated? She gets absorbed in her deep thoughts.

The afternoon ends, and slowly descends the evening. Behind the wall of Chairman’s house, Ashraf, Asad, Badal, Biplob, and Taslim stand, crouching. Through breaches between trees, they’ve crawled, putting on leaves on the heads and backs so that others can’t easily make out the colour of their dresses.

In a room of the Chairman’s villa, they’ve lighted several hurricane lanterns and candles. Dashing music is running too. The soldiers guarding outside are peeping through the window to enjoy dance and music and have fun.

“It’s high time to plant explosives,” Ashraf whispers. “The guards are also enjoying the orgy.”

“You’re right.”

All others nod and they begin to plant explosives, while Taslim keeps watch over, looking out around. Then as they burst it with the detonator, fire erupts out and flares up. And when the soldiers on guard run forward, Ashraf brushfires and they fall down on the ground. Coming out from the house, the army officers begin to open fire, but retreats within a short time as they run out of bullets—they can’t stand before the freedom fighters. With Major and the dancing girls, Chairman ride the car behind the house.

Ashraf and his team leave and quickly riding the boat on the ghat, they move forward faster, reaching the mid-river before Chairman’s people can understand anything. Taslim sits by the river awestruck as he has never witnessed a war scene like this before. With a sense of delight for the successful operation and in an anticipation of the victory in the war, he washes his hands and face with river water, bows his head down on the ground, saying, “I’m proud of my life, Mother.” He rubs some soil on the forehead and carries a fistful to home for other family members. He wishes to utter ‘mother and motherland.’

In the deep dark, Taslim sneakily gets home, sometimes hiding behind a tree, sometimes behind a house. At last when he arrives, Sahana and Arif run forward and hug him, saying, “Abba, we’ve heard the sound of war, of fires and bullets, without any fear.”

“Today we’ve won the battle, so I’ll rub the country soil on your foreheads. Bou, you also stand here.”

Taslim rubs soil on their foreheads, one by one. Excited, Sahana and Arif run hither and yon. Standing close to her husband, Amena says, “I feel very happy about my life; you’re a fighter, my husband.”

In an intense emotion, Taslim’s body trembles. It’s deep in the night, so they’ll go to bed having some food. It’ll be a night of great union for Taslim and Amena, and at sunrise, they’ll celebrate the joy of victory. Together they get into the kitchen, eat rice, and then come back to their room. After putting off the lantern, both of them think there’s no darkness anywhere; light has won out. The Bishkhali River has also been full to the brim with light. As Taslim embraces Amena, the bed appears a war field today.

9

Putting on the khaki, tan brown, uniform, Sabiha, Chandana, Bula, and Arifa have prepared themselves to perform an operation, mines on their hands, explosives too. Showing a map, Commander continues to make them understand the overall situation of the operation.

“Look, see with deep attention. Here’s the cropland—if you walk along a narrow embankment by the field towards the south about half a mile, you’ll reach the wide road. It takes only fifteen minutes. On the north of the road, there’s a bridge within 150 yards. Plant mines on both southern and northern sides of the bridge in a distance of twenty yards. The army convoy makes a trip from Madaripur to Barisal around 8 or 8:15 in the morning. Your target would be to attack and destroy the convoy of the occupying forces. In that case at least twenty five to thirty Pakistani soldiers and officers will also perish along with the whole convoy.”

Everyone listens to Commander with rapt attention. So long they have listened to Commander to receive training only, but today it’s an exceptional journey for them—very few people have this opportunity. Stretching her hand out to the ground and rubbing some soil on the forehead, Sabiha thinks I’m a lucky girl. Since childhood, I’ve grown up in comfort and happiness. My youth has been fulfilling with the love and affection of my parents. I’ve also got an opportunity to study at the university in Dhaka. With the flowers of love, Ashraf has dispensed fragrance in my life too. My friends have been the fountain of my joy. Now it’s time for war—dream of independence before us. We’ve dipped in the sea to earn a victory in the war. It’s time only to move forward, from clay paths to highways. With a cheerful mood, Sabiha strains her eyes to see the distant field, the green paddy field—the sheaves yet to turn golden.

With Commander’s words, Sabiha’s trance breaks off, “Pay attention to one thing more—within ten to fifteen minutes of planting the mines, you have to leave the spot. Before the flames float up, you have to get to a safe distance. Alright?”

“Yes,” everyone nods.

“Commander, should we target only the Pakistani army convoy, or at the same time we’ll destroy the bridge too ?”

“We can destroy the bridge later, but now your main target should be to perish the Pakistani soldiers along with the convoy.”

Everyone shouts out in unison, “Joy to Bengal.”

“Joy to Bengal,” Commander joins them too.

A few boys follow the team of the girls; they’ll come back after moving to a certain distance.

Commander keeps his eyes on their journey, can see them merging with the darkness within a short while. The night creates an image of a war field. The heroic fighters walk on, sometimes making soft sounds, sometimes humming songs quietly, as if courage is the only talisman for them, having no other tension of falling back. Stretching her hands up, Sabiha says, “Ma, I’ve learned the song that I couldn’t sing in front of the House 32 of Dhanmondi from Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. If I could have made you hear the song, our mission against the Pakistani forces would be sanctified. Pray for us, Ma.” Then a song rings out in her voice, “O Mother, why do you worry/ We’re your peace-loving quiet boys/ Still we can hold arms and fight enemies.” Everyone joins, reverberating the surrounding, “Don’t fear, Ma, we know how to protest.”

After they reach the main road at the right time, they begin to plant mines. The darkness of the night has started fading away, so after planting the mines, they get down on the ground, hiding themselves in the paddy field, some of them behind bushes. By this time, the sun has risen, scattering the dawn light around—a beautiful morning. In her first operation, Sabiha recalls Ashraf, and then her parents and Sahana and Arif. Holding Ashraf’s hand, she promised to join war, and stepped to the war field with the blessings of her parents. Now before her exists the land of war upon which the sun focuses its light.

News of the arrival of the convoy spreads. It feels pressure on the ground. Before the arrival of the military to the bridge, mines blast out, making a thunderous sound, the jeeps in the convoy get destroyed. Figuring out that there’s no one alive in the debris, they come out of the paddy field and bushes and run towards the camp. Everyone in the camp gathers to greet them, lifting arms.

“The struggle this time is the struggle for independence.”

Storming to the camp, the fighters report, “Commander, we’re successful; no one is alive; the jeeps have also perished.”

“Bravo! We’ll celebrate the success of the girls. May the freedom fighters be victorious! Kudos to Sabiha and her team!”

“Commander, we want to accomplish more operations,” Chandana, Bula and others shout out. “We want to destroy the enemies.”

“You’ll certainly execute more operations,” Commander assures. “The way you’ve earned success in the first mission is commendable; we have to make a bigger plan for you. We’ll call a meeting at night; now go take rest.”

“We don’t want to rest until the country is liberated from enemies.”

“Our aim is to earn independence.”

“We all are absorbed in adoring the red-green flag. Let’s go have tea first and then take decisions for next steps.”

Following Commander’s directions, everyone goes to their rooms. The peanuts vendor Nurul builds a mausoleum of dream within his heart, hums Since we’ve learnt to give blood, we’ll give more. We’ll surely free the people of this country, In Sha Allah, God willing. At some point, Sabiha notices that Nurul has given tune to some lines of Bangabandhu’s speech and is singing it in his own style. In tune with the song is sprinkling the radiance of the sun with the spirit in the camp. Sabiha herself begins to hum the lines in her own way. All of a sudden, as she stops and looks far off, the afternoon of the seventh of March floats up before her eyes. That afternoon, many women went to the Racecourse ground, sticks in their hands. While returning, a woman lifted the stick up and sang, “Oh we die/ For endless sorrows/ The golden Bengal turns into a crematorium/ Our hearts rend.” People noticed her closely, but she continued singing, now more loudly, and dancing, with her stick lifted up. When she stopped, Sabiha asked her name. “Bibi Sakhina,” she replied, putting the stick down on the ground.

Then they hugged each other. Where’s Bibi Sakhina now? She has no way to know her whereabouts, thinks she doesn’t need to know this too. Wherever she lives, she exists around us, either in the front or back—the fighters don’t keep even a small space vacuum in the war field. During war, fighters with arms in hands are important, so are the people working from behind—those who wash blood-smudged clothes and tell the fighters to go to war again; those who say: home isn’t for you, we’ll manage the family and will wait with platefuls of rice for you; when you eat, we’ll protect you, so the enemies can’t figure out you’re with us. You’ve come to the village to accomplish an operation; you don’t know anything else; you have to perish the enemies. Bibi Sakhina, do you then exist as a freedom fighter at every door? Or you have received training? Have you planted mines to destroy the convoy of the enemies? Or in a mission you’re moving forward crawling? I’d be very happy if I could meet you somewhere, Bibi Sakhina. In our history there’s also one named Sakhina, who fought riding a horse. Oh, war again—we all are Sakhina; we don’t have horses but arms.

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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