The man got off from the afternoon train. It was early winter, yet he had a thick tweed coat on. The foxy colour of his coat went well with his bronze complexion. He sloppily wore an old but fancy tie and his faded trousers showed a few fat stitches near his thigh.
With daylight fading, he looked unmindful; he stared at the platform’s southern corner. Shadows were fast disappearing. As the red glow of the sunlight was dying down over the tall houses and trees, darkness was about to descend.
From the station he looked straight at the dust-filled road, its tarmac rutted in places. He saw the big, tin-shed go-downs along the road were all empty. Dark alleys managed their ways through them. He looked as far as his eyes could see, but not a single soul was in sight.
The rail carriages were moving slowly with hissing sounds. Are they moving all by themselves in this desolate place? He thought to himself. Even the engines were not in a hurry, nor seemed to have any destination. On the eastern side of the station, low-roofed houses were sinking into darkness – only their brick-coloured chimneys were still visible.
He stepped out of the station gate, listlessly swinging his leather folio bag. He could not remember later if he saw anyone at this time except for a few soldiers sitting huddled in a small room next to the station gate. They were conversing, their rifles placed over their knees and caps pulled over their eyebrows. They had fixed him with a cold look but did not say anything; they only exchanged a few loud words among themselves. One of them had aimed a rifle at him when he was walking out the gate. “No, not yet,” said another in Urdu. The soldier lowered his weapon and gave a wide laugh, his big teeth all revealed in a wide grin.
On the outside, there was a circle at the centre of which was a dusty patch of grass. He walked round the circle with a tread and looked all around again, but no living soul could be seen anywhere.
A number of roads led off the circle into different directions. Some of them were tarred and potholed, some strewn with brickbats, some filled with dust. The one which led to the village was a dirt track. Houses along the village road looked empty too, deserted perhaps months ago.
After a little while, he caught hold of a tin-walled restaurant. He walked straight into it as he was starving. It was very cold and hazy inside; the only bulb emitting some light was enveloped in smoke. Only the dirt-smeared chairs and tables were somewhat visible. Everything else inside blurred at first but in the red flame of the stove, he saw a man resting his chin on a counter beside the door. The man lifted his eyes to squint at him and the stranger — as if in response — rubbed his hand lightly over his flaxen stubble.
“Is there any food?” the stranger said.
“No, nothing,” the man behind the counter replied in Urdu with a clear hint of disgust.
“There’s nothing at all?”
“No, nothing,” the restaurant man repeated, his hand moving in impatience as if he was keeping a swarm of flies away.
Unsatisfied, the stranger passed his cracked fingers on the blotchy stitches of his coat over the chest.
“Can I have some tea, at least?”
“I told you already. There’s nothing. Leave us alone!”
Back on the street he found himself swathed in darkness. All street lights were out. His shoes thudded on the dust as he trudged down the wide road. He wondered how this path had become so denuded of trees! He recalled there was a shop here that painted signboards; over there stood a small homeopath chamber which shone luminously in the evening. The shrivelled doctor sat facing the north. His usual companions, a few old men all skin and bone, would read newspapers holding them as close to their nose as possible.
Like bolts of lightning striking across a dark sky, memories flashed across his mind. He used to shave and read newspapers every morning. Tears rolled down his cheeks when he had read the death news of Patrice Lumumba. One afternoon he had read a Ho Chi Minh poem: ‘Bells ring from up the hills/ While youthful lasses/ climb down the valley/ unhurriedly’. Or that day when he, a child of seven or eight, had dug out clumps of earth to discover big, oval potatoes, the main seed at the centre all dried up.
The road was still empty, no one coming or going. He turned left and disappeared through the go-downs into a narrow alley. His feet sunk in dense patches of wet grass. He touched the dew-drenched tin wall of a godown: it felt terribly cold. It was only when he reached the riverbank that this place looked a little familiar to him.
The paved riverbank had gradually become a road. Rows of shops, which were all closed now, stood on both sides. Those along the bank stood on bamboo or log stilts because the soil beneath them had long been eroded by the river. He pricked his ears up to take in the splashing sound of water. It seemed the waves were lashing against the bank right beneath his feet. Gazing to his left through a cluster of shops, he saw a stunned river flowing quietly, hiding all its might in a thick haze. A few streaks of dim light he spotted soon, away into the river. Only then did he register the existence of fishing boats and realise dense fog had swallowed up the whole river.
Back in the past, people had paved this road with black stones to tame the river. The stones were uneven now, quite a few of them ejected here and there. He was stumbling over the surface but did not bother. He rather found himself obsessed with the fact that nobody came forward to greet him or even to talk to him. There were no lights on, neither on the streets nor in the houses. All front doors were closed. As if everyone was jaw-locked in fear of some horrendous happening!
Then he heard the sound of approaching boots. Sound of a legion of boots. Emanating, as though, from the deepest core of a silent night. “Who’s there?” someone shouted in Urdu. A shot from a rifle shattered the silence. The pit-a-pat of the boots was petering out when another shot was fired. He jumped to his feet, his bag under his arm, and warily trod ahead — like a centipede crawls on with a hundred legs — through rows of closed shops, down empty streets and numerous alleys which uncomfortably crossed one another to form a veritable maze.
After a long while he made it to the main road and walked past many turns to reach a neighbourhood which too was shrouded in darkness. Suddenly he started climbing up a duplex staircase. In the dim glow of a light bulb — whose source he could not locate — he surveyed the wet, peeled-off plaster of the wall. He felt choked by a musty smell. The staircase was suffocating, letting air in only from one side. He touched the rough surface of the wall: a chill passed through his fingers to his whole body. A woman’s face was drawn on the wall, close to which was piled a mound of red bricks. He got all confused and started climbing up and down all over again till he exhausted himself and settled on the third floor. He knocked on the door quite noisily and shouted, “Asit? Are you there? Asit?”
The whole building swayed with his knock while his voice soared. Yet he kept pounding and asking: “Asit! Asit! Are you there? Are you there for heaven’s sake?”
A sound arose from behind the door. In a timid voice a girl responded, “Who’s there? Who’s there?”
He ignored the girl’s query altogether and kept asking the same question. “Asit? Asit? Are you there?” He stopped when one panel of the door opened slightly. A pale face of a woman popped up from behind the closed panel. Gazing at her gaunt face, he felt somewhat embarrassed. Her wide eyes were about to explode. Pressing the closed panel with as much might as her spindly hands could gather, she quivered,
“Who do you want?”
“Where’s Asit? Doesn’t he live here anymore?”
“No. We don’t know anyone by that name. Who are you?”
“Did anyone live here by this name? At all?”
“I don’t know. We are quite new here.”
She closed the door on his face and the dim red light vanished therewith.
Gunshots were audible from far-off places. He waited to feel the wind but not even a light breeze was blowing. He lifted his face up at the sky: there were no stars, nor any cloud. Square houses stood silently along the road. Their low roofs glittered weakly in the dark and the dust-covered alleys snaked through them, leading, as if, into the mysterious recesses of a horror hitherto unrevealed!
He was shivering in cold. He pulled up his coat’s collar to cover his ears and rubbed his palms together to warm himself up a little.
* * * * * * *
The moon had risen above the horizon when he came to a turn on the widest road of the town. In the moonlight he got an eyeful of the road which lay straight without a curve. Big houses on both sides looked like a string of mansions in a desert, like tall buildings from an ancient city, standing sadly after excavation in the dull afternoon light — with narrow streets and a proper drainage system, although the buildings were all run-down and had crooked roofs, as a result of its deep slumber beneath the ground.
The whitewashed houses were shimmering faintly now, casting deep black shadows on the road. A few had high walls and on the other side of the walls there were flower beds, neglected undergrowth, mossed brick chunks. Some had a warning sign hung on the front gate — “Beware of dogs” — although no dogs were barking. Some houses were tall, some low, some new: painted in different hues, and some old with a dark hue and a musty smell. Some had pomelo and patabahaar trees while some were deserted. He strutted through these slender alleys, sometimes in the shade of a house or trees, sometimes in bare moonlight.
When he was halfway through an alley, he heard someone speak in Urdu.
“Are you with the freedom fighters? Tell me, you dirty Bangals.”
“No,” someone replied.
“You certainly are!”
There was a heavy thud followed by an agonised groan. A weird feeling of fear and curiosity took over his senses. He hunkered down and crawled towards the place.
“Are you a Hindu?”
“You certainly are!”
About eight to ten people encircled a man in black shorts.
“Where’s your house?”
The man did not answer.
“Where are the freedom fighters?”
The man still did not answer. One interrogator gave him a cruel blow on the face and he fell flat on the ground.
“I will put a bullet in your head, bastard!”
“Please go ahead,” the man in shorts said wryly, sitting up.
“You are not a freedom fighter, you Bangal dog? You are a worshipper of Sheikh Mujib, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Come on. Shoot him right now!”
“No. I’ll not shoot him. I have a better idea.”
The stranger followed them from a safe distance. He saw a few soldiers alight on the edge of a roof of what appeared like a low building. They were holding a rope and the man in shorts was hanging from its opposite end, his head pointing towards the ground and his body hanging in the air, hitting the wall at times. He was lifted about five feet off the ground. Then a soldier repeated the question.
“You are not a freedom fighter?”
“Release the rope.”
They did. The hapless man fell headlong onto the paved floor with a thump. He could only let out a small cry. He was lifted again and asked the same question.
“You are not a freedom fighter?”
He tried to speak but ended up with a rattle in his throat. After a lot of muffled attempts, he blurted out:
“You bastards! Rest assured that the Bangals will kill you all! Flee while there’s still time, you …” The rope loosened cutting him short, and the sound, though not loud, clearly hinted of raw flesh being smashed against a floor.
The stranger leapt to his feet. He felt his head was spinning like a fan. In spite of himself, he staggered down the streets like a drunkard.
Weaving his way through many turns and uncertainties, he discovered himself in the yard of a one-storey house. The yard was demarcated with a low wall on all sides. He crept up to the broad veranda and called tenderly.
“Momota, are you home? Momota?”
Momota was his wife. He called again and again but no one responded. He gave a gentle push on the door and it creaked open. He stepped inside: it was pitch-dark all around. He called out, “Momota? Where are you? Momota?”
He sneaked into the inner veranda calling his youngest son Shobhon. It was empty. He searched the other rooms, the kitchen, the bathroom: everything was empty.
He came down to the inner yard for an inspection. Circled all around by tall houses, this one was looking like a wide well. Almost three-quarter of the yard was swallowed by darkness, and the whole of it was filled with dry leaves. He began to pace up and down, crushing the leaves beneath his feet. Closer to the dead tree in a corner, he paused and stared into a dry well. His heart sank in its dark depths.
But when he turned around to trudge back to the other side, his knee hit an old, rusted spade!
At first he stood still looking away into the dark. Then he got all worked up and started taking off his clothes like a crazy man. He pulled off his shoes first, then threw away his folio bag and removed his coat, shirt and tie — one by one. His hairy chest surged from under his vest. He held up the spade with his veined, muscular hand and brought it down with force. With every strike, his shoulders heaved and an involuntary sound came out of his throat. After four or five strikes, he saw a rib bone sticking out from under the clumps of earth. He picked it up — it was curved like a sword. He smelled it intently and gently ran his hands over it before he put it aside. As he got back to digging, bones from knees, limbs and feet kept showing up by turns.
With every new piece, his digging sped up. At one point the heavy spade failed to put up with his inner excitement, so he sat down on his knees to scratch tussocks of earth like a wild animal. Drops of sweat ran down his back and chest and he kept scratching through the loosened soil. It was not long before his hand touched a small arm bone. He held it up in the air. ”Shobhon! Bravo!”, he cried spontaneously. Then there were a long mass of hair, a tender windpipe, small rib bones, broad hip bones and a skull. Holding the skull in his hand, he fixed his gaze on its hollow sockets. He drew it closer to his own eyes and stared at the white rows of teeth. The skull, as if in return, mutely worked up an uproarious laughter in the cavity of its mouth!
“Momota!” — he cried.
He put the skull aside very carefully and resumed digging in renewed energy. He would dig out the whole earth tonight, together with its entrails and all!
Translated by Rifat Munim
Originally Published in the Daily Star