Short Story |
The Story That Got Away
Shahaduzzaman (Abridged and translated by Sonia Amin)
'Honourable One, on which side are you? War or peace?'
'Son, I favour peace - because during peacetime a son digs his father's grave; and during war a father digs his son's.'
I chose the above dialogue between Heraclitus and his disciple as the opening of my story. It fitted well with the plot of tale I wanted to write: a tale about Bangladesh's war of liberation. But I had to put down my pen several times while writing it, torn by doubts. Wasn't it somewhat risky, this attempt to write a story on the liberation war, the subject of so much discourse, after such a long time? But then undaunted, I plunged ahead, fully aware of my limitations as a writer, and of my experience and creative imagination. My plan for writing the story was to base its plot on the real-life experience of a freedom fighter. Once I could fill in the outlines, I felt that it would make for a fine story.
The scene of war was to be a remote, mountainous area of Bangladesh where a small band of Mukti Bahini guerrillas had taken shelter after a furious firefight. They had been forced to abandon operations after running out of ammunition. Having lost their way, they found themselves marooned in a valley at the end of a deep forest. To their utter dismay, they have discovered that the only point of escape from the valley was being guarded by a small camp of Pakistani soldiers.
The hours lengthened into midnight. It began to rain heavily. Their empty stenguns lay by their sides as the listless warriors gazed into the darkness. Slowly they woke up to the danger of their situation, that the first light of dawn would mean capture by the Pakistani soldiers. What was to be done? Each one silently realized that there was only one way out of the predicament. There was a single bomb left-- of a kind that destroyed its target and thrower at the same time (whose particulars I was going to research later). But who among them would volunteer for this suicide attack to save his compatriots?
At this point in the story I had thought of providing a life sketch of each of the freedom fighters. Their thoughts on life and death, inner conflicts, and all that. There would be an attempt to present the ethos, culture and family relations of our rich, complex society. The description would dwell on the night, the dense jungle, the foreboding hills, the unceasing rain. On the approaching dawn and the subdued excitement among the small group.
Of course, interspersed in all these, the focus would be on one particular youth-- an idealistic newcomer who was always in the forefront of every operation. Word had it that he looked forward to a glorious death in battle. But he was worried that such glory was going to elude him. When asked, he claimed to be an inconsequential member of a large family of eight children, and felt that this war was the greatest event that would ever happen to him.
On the night the story unfolds, the youth would be face to face with himself for the last time. The bomb would appear as a means of noble sacrifice to him. Slowly his hand would reach out for it. He would pick it up and run towards the Pakistani army camp. A few unbearable, hushed moments. Then the sound of an explosion in the distance… and the freedom fighters would heave sighs of relief. On their way out they would bear the corpse of their brave comrade on their shoulders.
At the end of the story the relevance of the quotation from Heraclitus would become clear. The youth's father would appear to dig his son's grave. His cries would rend the air: 'He deceived you all. He was my only child.'
I told myself, when filled out, this thin frame would yield a fine story, replete with the grandeur, pathos and romance of the liberation war. It would contain elements of tension between the individual and society, and most important of all, it would depict the sacrifices made by individuals in the War. The presence of the bereaved father on the scene would add the right note of drama. My mind filled with satisfaction at the prospect. I jotted down the main points in a notebook. However, when a few days later I sat down to write it I felt a strange unease. The initial excitement gave way to doubts: the theme seemed childish and naïve; the deception behind the youth's being an only child was unconvincing; besides, the surprise conclusion was, to my mind, an overused literary device. No, this was not a plot worth pursuing. I felt a twinge of embarrassment for having dreamt up such a clichéd plot in the first place! Abandoning this story, I started thinking afresh.
This time, I said to myself, the emphasis would not be on the plot. There would only be a hint of a story line--just enough to give it a form. I would resist the temptation of spinning a good yarn and instead try something new by eschewing conventional narrative forms. The narrative would be fragmented, non-linear, the language different. Lyrical, lazy prose would be avoided. It would have to be more stern, somber and dispassionate, punctuated by symbolism. I focused my thoughts on a different kind of freedom fighter. He would be somebody whose life before, during and after the war, had undergone several evolutions. The theme of the war could be gradually depicted through the experiences of this character. I would take the reader into the character's stream of consciousness, would fashion an anti-narrative. So I jotted down points again with the aim of structuring these into a proper story.
First, a passionate, patriotic, educated young man. He plunges into the war with utmost zeal. But there was to be a major difference between this young man and the brave warrior of the previous story. Unlike the former, he has no desire to die. Indeed he wants to liberate his country and enjoy every drop of freedom. He thinks 'freedom' would transform his county into a magical place.
Second, the country has gained independence. Days pass, but things are not as he had hoped they would be. He sees his dreams die one by one. He is no longer carefree, brave. He starts at the slightest noise, lives in fear.
Third, he creates a commotion one day. Devotees are returning home after prayers from the mosque. They toss coins into the beggars' bowls while passing them by. The young man, who is watching the scene in silence from afar, suddenly lunges forward and hurls the alms bowls into the street. On regaining composure, he tells everyone that the sound of the coins hitting the bowls induced flashbacks of gunfire. After this, driven by an unknown rage, he assaults pedestrians on the road, pelts cars with stones.
At one point the ex-freedom fighter is transformed into a raving lunatic
Four, he is committed to an asylum and kept in chains while being treated. After a variety of painful treatment, his sanity is restored and he returns to the real world.
Five, he now is a completely different person -- confident and composed. No longer a dreamer, but a successful businessman. Years later, one night he is seen getting into a red Skoda in front of a five-star hotel in a drunken state.
I thought this would be my window to the days of the liberation war and its aftermath. The trajectory of the young man's life was sure to evoke sympathy, and even sorrow. Indeed, I would invest this character with tragic stature. And there would be new linguistic and stylistic touches in the narrative, experiments with modern psychological forms in literature. I was quite pleased with myself for a few days.
However this rosy mood began to fade as I began to feel the stirring of the dark panther of negation within me. It started to maul at all my well-thought 'positives'. I began to feel that the self-conscious and erudite style contemplated would look contrived, lack spontaneity and honesty. I also had second thoughts about the protagonist himself. Would not his transformations appear melodramatic, to say the least? Could the simple truths of the liberation war be illuminated through him? Moreover, wouldn't my representations by constrained by my own class character? And would I be able to reach the height of tragedy envisaged? Was sorrow a necessary function of the death of some thoughtless dreams? No, there was no tragic grandeur here. I felt quite helpless, but did not abandon the project. I began to contemplate the matter night and day, till one day I had a dream.
I dreamt that a house, where I (now transformed into a young man) had taken shelter during the war, was surrounded by Pakistani soldiers. The air was rend by horrible screams. We were being marched out of the house by gun-wielding Pakistani soldiers. Before we could gather our thoughts, they began to shoot us and we fell onto the ground one by one. I lost consciousness. Regaining my senses after a long while, I saw that I was buried under a heap of corpses. There was blood everywhere. By a quirk of fate, I had been spared, I was alive. I stood up from the pile of corpses and began to run for my life. The Pakistani soldiers, standing at a little distance, saw me. One of them shouted 'Murda bhag jata hai!' They started shooting at me, but I was running as fast as the wind. Soon the sound of the firing ceased, and after running a great distance I reached a lonely spot. My throat was parched. I kept on running. And then came upon a man.
'Please, can you give me some water to drink?' I panted. 'My family has been killed by Pak soldiers. They surrounded the village. A tremendous bloodbath.'
The man looked at me blankly. He kept on walking in the direction he was going. Then he turned towards me, 'Why shouldn't there be bloodshed? Can’t you see the foetus of freedom?' I started running again. I came upon another stranger. Cupping my palms in supplication I entreated, 'Please sir, give me some water to drink. I have been on the run for a long time. A fearful war is taking place on the other side.'
But strangely enough, he too uttered a few words as he kept on walking: 'War? What war? This is a fight between two dogs.'
By now I was beside myself with thirst. My ribs were heaving with pain. After going a bit further I came upon a young girl in a lonely village. She was naked except for a fishing net, her eyes vacant with hunger. I begged her for some water. 'Where will I find water? Can you trap water in a fishing net?' she replied. And then the girl froze into a still life picture.
I kept running, my thirst now unbearable, till I spotted a lovely lake beside a double-storied house. I rushed to the inviting water, but on reaching it saw that it was really blood. A stream of blood came from the house, crimson drops trickling down into the lake. Who was in that house, from whence came the blood?
Water! Where could I find water? Looking around I saw in the distance a group of men digging a canal. Surely there was water there. I ran towards it, but stopped with a shudder when I saw that the river was full of huge crocodiles gaping at me with open jaws. I fled from there.
By this time I was beginning to feel very tired in the dream, trying in vain to seek shelter and a way to quench my raging thirst. But I realized that I would not wake till the thirst had been quenched. But where would I find water? That was the question plaguing my thoughts.
Then I saw a group of men coming towards me, this time with a banner in their hands. A banner bearing a crescent and star. As I tried to get a better view, suddenly everything began to grow dark. Black spilled on to the canvas of the dream. After a long while the sound of soldiers marching past reached my ears. Whose footsteps were these? Pakistanis? Bangalis? Were they still looking for me?
And then the images dissolved into a procession of people shouting slogans in a protest march. I whispered hoarsely 'Brothers, sisters, I want water.'
They echoed back, 'We want the downfall of the tyrant.'
A truck appeared from nowhere and ran over the people in the procession, crushing them under its wheels. The procession broke up and men started to flee in all directions. I climbed on top of a wall and found myself in a splendid room where a beautiful woman reclined on the carpet watching the erotic gyrations of a foreign-looking dancer on the small screen. I went up to her and humbly drew her attention to my bleeding body. 'Madam, there is a terrible war raging outside, and I have been running for hours. Can you give me some water to drink?'
She clapped her hands and cried out with joy :'War? O what fun! Where?' And she rushed to the window. From behind her I saw that the procession outside had re-formed. Some were shouting joyously 'Downfall,' while others were burning an effigy of the head of state. But the effigy was that of a Bangali! I looked around the room. What country was this? I looked outside. Which time period was this?
I walked out on to the street. The procession had now dissolved and individuals were walking away toward the horizon, which was lit by a faint glow. I could not tell whether the light was heralding night or morning.
Finally, I woke up and felt my throat was dry. I drank my fill from a cool pitcher. I felt exhausted, as though I had travelled many decades through time, through history. But in my dream the liberation war had receded from timelessness to present-day events, had ended in unresolved questions and doubts, in twilight. It had not been able to transcend the vagaries of history. I thought, what kind of story could an uncertain dreamer write?
So I decided that my story on the liberation war would have to wait a while.
Shahaduzzaman is a Bangladeshi writer. The above has been translated from his collection of short stories, Koyekti Bihobol Golpo. Sonia Amin teaches history at Dhaka University.