Monday, April 21, 2008

The Sun Rises in the East

“Have we reached India Maa?” asked Moyna, who looked really tired after walking for so long. They had not eaten anything today, as it was dangerous to prod out casually near the border, especially with soldiers of the Pakistan Army moving bout.
“Not yet chotomaa, not yet,” said Charu, as she looked at her tired eight year old daughter’s face, even as her six month old son slept on her shoulders. She herself felt exhausted, but the thought of all that had transpired in the last three weeks would re-energize her again. After all, it was what had happened three weeks, rather a month ago, that had led to her hiding in the tall grass bushes today.
The day, and all that had led up to it, was very well etched in Charu’s mind, with the hands of time having slowly etched it into her stone-like mind. There was a lot of panic amongst the Hindus in her village in Mymensingh, as notices had been put up at the behest of the local Maulvi, with the help of the local Muslim League goons, which decreed that the Hindus present should convert to Islam, or else “no one will be spared”. Her husband, or Masterda as he was popularly known in this village in lieu of being the local school’s headmaster, seemed unperturbed with all that was happening.
“But the posters said…” began Charu, really terrified with what was now a common sight in East Pakistan today. Minorities, the politically correct term for the Hindus in this country, were persecuted for being who they were. She often wondered what their fault was -whether they were Hindus, whether they had dared to remain back in Pakistan, or whether they had misunderstood the very people who had grown up with, and mistaking them for being their kin, their very flesh and blood. But that was all too big for the moment; there was a more pressing issue that made them burn midnight oil with worry.
“The posters mean nothing. Nothing will happen. This is 1948, not the twelfth century. You need not worry at all. After all, they do not call me Masterda out of hollow appreciation. I feel it in their tone-nothing can happen to us. After all, no religion teaches violence, and all teach the utmost respect towards teachers.”
But Charu could not find solace in her husband’s words. Just yesterday, she had heard Radhamoni didi, their neighbour, talk at the ghat about the massacre that had occurred in Dhaka just two years ago. She shuddered as didi spelt out the horrors of the Muslim League goons, as they went about looting and raping Hindu women, easily identifiable because of the Shankha in their hands. The police, consisting of the Pathan mullahs, instead of reining in the criminals, instead stood aloof, pretending that nothing was happening. Some even participated in pulling women out of the Ramakrishna Mission building, hacking the men who tried to resist them with swords, knives, machetes, and whatever that came into their hands. The Suhravardy government was absent that day from Dhaka, and all that could be seen that day was the worse than animal behaviour men can so easily exhibit, all in the name of religion. How can such barbarity ensure those animals the pleasures of heaven, thought Charu, as she had walked back, wondering what fate had in store for her and her family.
Charu’s house was located on the outskirts of the village, so news from the village always took time to reach them, like that fateful day last year, when she had heard of the partition for the first time. They had to turn of the radio to listen to the news of the partition, and how a country was split into two parts, and how they now lived in the eastern part of Pakistan, a country made for the Muslims. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, the two felt, even as a pregnant Charu looked at her seven and a half year old playing with her dolls, and got worried about all that could happen and all that happens to people like them, as she had heard at the ghat the other day. And all that it leads to usually are dreadful consequences, nothing less. God save us, prayed Charu, even as she saw a worried Masterda in a pensive mood, lost far, far away on the pretext of reading a book.
Anyways, it was in the midst of a hot afternoon that a servant came running in, announcing that a group of Muslim League men, led by the Maulvi of the local masjid, were roaming around in the village, marking homes of the Hindus with a black mark. Rumours were flying thick and fast about the Muslims planning to attack on the day of Poila Boisakh, the auspicious day that was barely a fortnight away. Slogans were being raised so as to terrorize the Hindus, who were either preparing to flee, or were accepting Islam, so as to escape the stalking that they would have to otherwise face from the death squads of the Muslim League.
Charu had delivered her son just a few weeks ago, but the news managed to dent the armour of happiness that she and Masterda had worn over themselves, so as to escape the harsh realities that had beset their lives ever since Pakistan was formed. Their Muslim servants, who till a few months ago would sit on the floor in obeisance, now even abused her and her husband on several occasions, even threatening them with dire consequences, as one had done a few days ago. Her children were in severe danger-she could feel it deep within her heart. And yet, she was surprised at her husband’s strange calmness, which reminded her of the silence she had once witnessed before a KaalBoisakh rain that had washed away her entire village, save her ancestral property, when she was just a child. Even then, she pondered, the signs were there, but everyone conveniently ignored them. Perhaps, she thought, it was because nobody had an option then, just as she and the other Hindus today had no option but to try and carry on their “usual” lives in their homeland, if they could dare to claim so.
“Suno, we should move to India. I think that is the best option, or else we will be chopped down like the ryot hacks the rice with the sickle,” said a concerned Charu, even as she was breastfeeding her hungry newborn. Moyna was sleeping in the other room, as she recalled the story their servant told of the Dasgupta vaid and his family being hacked off to death. The local Pathan havildar was also involved, it was rumoured, and yet the police pretended that they had no idea who did it. “These people will spare no one. Not even you and me, or even our kids. They’ll rape my daughter and your wife, and then make us their slaves, like they did in Jyotirmoyee’s village in Khulna.”
“Will you shut up for once?” screamed Masterda, even as his screaming made the newborn to cry. “Nothing will happen to us, you understand. And it’s not even Poila Bosakh yet,” he fumed, his anger tinged voice intermingling with the baby’s loud wails to create a strange kind of audio experience.
She remained unconvinced, and began to make arrangements to flee from the place, packing whatever would be needed for a long journey to India. They had no option, she feared, but to run like fugitives from the place, a place she had called home for the last twelve years, ever since she had come here as Masterda’s wife all the way from Murshidabad. Rice, a few rupees, a handful of jewellery, some cloths for them to wear-all of it was packed into bundles, concealed well from her husband’s sight.
Two nights before Boisakh, she had woken up in the middle of the night suddenly, feeling thirsty. She got out of the bed, and noticed that her husband was missing. Strangely bewildered about her husband’s whereabouts, she heard some whispers coming from outside, and decided to investigate what the matter was, as she tiptoed towards the window, hiding herself from view.
“Please make sure nothing happens to us, Maleehuddin. You know our deal,” she heard her husband’s voice say.
“Don’t worry Masterda, we will not force you to do anything. But you must remember your part of the deal as well. You will hand over your daughter to me as my bride,” responded an audibly amused voice, probably Maleehuddin.
Charu was shocked to hear this. She raised her head slightly to see outside, only to find her husband and the local leader of the League standing in the verandah outside. He was draped in a blanket, obviously to conceal his identity. But her husband was clearly visible to her. And his heads were swarming in her head. She tried to calm herself down, but panic had gripped her heart and soul like anything. Se pondered over her life, as it flashed before her eyes, as she wondered about what sins she committed that she would have to see her child, her flesh and blood, being torn apart from her in such a horrible manner, that she would be sold off in such a manner, just so that their family could buy some time for themselves. But what was the guarantee that her husband would not sell her and her son like this as well, just to save his skin? How can he do this to his own kids, thought Charu, as she hid herself back in the bed, pretending to be asleep, as her husband crept back into the bed, and soon dozed off.
Suddenly, an idea came into her head. No, she felt firmly within herself, I will not let this happen. My kids are not for sale, she said to herself in her mind, as she got off the bed, and picked up her son, who was asleep, from the cot. Slowly, she tiptoed to the treasury, where she had hid her ‘emergency supplies’, and picked up the necessary bundles with great difficulty. Soon, she moved towards her daughter’s room, and woke her up, as she motioned towards her daughter to remain silent.
“Where are we going Ma?” Moyna asked, oblivious of what was happening and why it was happening.
“We are going away to India, Chotomaa,” she whispered, as they slowly opened the backdoor, and walked out of the house.
“Is it far away?” Moyna asked innocently, even as they were walking across the rice fields, which looked really strange in the light of the stars and the moon, and yet reminded her of the horror of what she had heard (why she never knew).
They stopped at one point, and Charu turned around to look back at her home. She stared at it for a while, before responding, “Yes Chotomaa, it is a bit far away, but we will cover the distance soon, don’t worry. I’ll buy you a toy when we reach there, okay?”
Moyna nodded in assent, as they walked out into the horizon, and into the darkness.
It was a long and arduous journey. They had to hide their identity from everyone. She had to use Muslim terminology like pani for jal for instance. She even had to stop wearing the Sankha and the sindur, for which she took not one moment of hesitation. With a husband like that, she thought, it would be better if I were a widow, she said to herself, as she wiped the sindur off her head. They had to travel like beggars, and hid around the water bodies to learn the latest news about what was happening. She even saw a massacre in front of her eyes, as she saw the river turning red with the blood flowing from the village, with slogans of “Allah-o-Akbar” echoing all around. Hindu women being raped, men being disfigured beyond recognition, bodies floating in the local ponds-you name it, she saw it.
Finally, the day today arrived, when they were waiting for night to fall. Rangers were roaming all around the place, who disappeared, as she had noticed, at the arrival of dusk for the carnage to continue. Their bodies were tired, but their minds were numb to the pain and terror that they had witnessed all along. Just a few hours more, she thought, as they waited. Soon, dusk arrived, and they got up, and after deciding the east, they walked opposite to it, towards the west. Soon, they would be free, she thought, of all that they could have been victims of. Moyna’s feet were swollen from all the strain they had suffered; she herself felt tired and broken down due to the baby’s weight. But a steely determination made Charu push herself and her daughter to walk forward.
Dawn had broken out from the border side, and a few Indian soldiers were walking along the border, finishing their last round of patrol duty for the night. They were turning back, when one man suddenly shouted, pointing towards something.
The officer in-charge quickly walked into the tent, to see an eight year old girl, a six month old boy, and a middle-aged woman lying on two cots. The girls looked really exhausted, as they had fast fallen asleep.
“Who are these people? And how did they get to the Indian side of the border?” asked the officer from a constable.
“Saab, the woman told her name as Charu Haldar, and her daughter’s name as Moyna. They came from Mymensingh district in East Pakistan. She said they came here to escape from her husband, who had sold off her daughter to save the family from the terror of the Muslim League goondas.”
The officer looked stunned, listening to the accounts that the woman had told of the massacre that was going on in East Pakistan. Even the intelligence reports did not mention all that was actually happening there, and has made a wrong assessment, he said within himself. He asked, “But how did they come here on foot?”
“Saab, she said that all she knew was that India lies towards the west. So she simply saw the sun rise in the east, and followed it when it set to walk the last few miles. After saying that, she had fainted.”

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