From the abyss of continual recession
Faces come raised in a procession
Walls of selfishness falling in a fight
Falling apart in selflessness to uphold a right.
The voice of the muezzin calling for prayer came penetrating through the morning air. Just as one had begun to fade away, another from a distant mosque took queue, and then yet another until the morning filled with the haunting call for salat.
Rokeya was wide awake but didn't move an inch. Her husband was still fast asleep, always little late in responding to the higher call.
Tell us the story
A million times and again
What your eyes have seen
The witness to the sorrow, the joy and the pain.
Almost a week into Ashaar, the air smelled of rain but there were no signs of it. The unbearable heat she could cope with, but the intolerable anxiety added years to her age. They said, "The army is only a week away. Shiraj mia, how will you explain the case of your son?" Shiraj related his conversation with the local barber to Rokeya.
"Killing people by the dozen. And if they find anyone associated with the trouble makers, death is far better than their fate." Something Shiraj felt no urgency to relay to his wife.
Their son was not Mukti Bahini, far from it. They had nothing to fear. He was a citizen loyal to the government- An accountant in a reputed insurance firm, he had no links with no 'trouble-makers'.
The knock on the door took Rokeya by surprise. Who in God's name would come this early? Instinctively she grabbed sleeping Shiraj's forehand. Another knock and a muffled call, "Chacha, shunchen...Rokeya chachi I am Monju from Shagoda." Shiraj was wide awake. The two exchanged glances; the familiar look that had comforted each other for the last 45 years. But on that day, there was no solace in it, just anxiety. They were not alone, Porna was there. Did they know?
The two decided Rokeya would open the door. An aged lady might buy some sympathy. But Rokeya knew Monju. He used to go to school with Shahjahan. She even recalled Shaju saying one day, "Remember Monju from Shagoda amma? The one who used to steal chicken from mama's farm when we were young? His name comes out in the newspaper regularly. Famous politician now. I met him at Motijheel near their party office. He took me to a tea stall and we chatted for a long time. He asked me to join their party. I said no. I am just an accountant and I was happy with what I do..."
Never have I felt so numb
Receiving the sudden bullet
And the college boy I was
Had found the fury of hate.
Rokeya couldn't fathom what Shahjahan was trying to say. She knew neither to read nor to write. What did she understand of politics? She was just hoping that all this trouble will be over soon and she will be able to marry his dear son to Porna, her brother's lovely girl.
'Chachi I am Monju. Of Shagoda. Don't you recognise me?' The man standing before Rokeya said with a smile on his face. He was tall, above average, not quite what Rokeya had remembered. He touched Rokeya's feet. 'Are you well? How is chacha doing?"
"We are both okay baba. Alhamdulillah. How are you?" said Rokeya, still not sure about the intentions of this familiar stranger.
"Shahjahan is coming tomorrow. He asked me to convey the message."
-He is coming why? People say it is not safe...
"He just said he must come...And here is something for Porna!"
Her name rang like the tolling bells of a Christian funeral. How could he have known of Porna. No one knew she was here...no one! But Shahjahan....
The man handed over a brown packet. 'Chachi I must leave. Assalamu alaikum'. And the man disappeared amidst the darkness of the night.
Porna and her red sari
Phupu woke me up that day. 26 June 1971. The day I got married.
There was no fuss. No one sang the 'lila-bali' song, no one decorated the entrance to the house with pieces of coloured paper. There were no guests either. Except the Moulana, who was called late at night, and two second cousins to act as the witness to the marriage.
Phupu didn't say a word when she woke me up. Her eyes filled with tears, she held me in a hard embrace and sobbed.
"Phupu what happened? What happened phupu?" I was anxious. "Please tell me what has happened phupu."
Rokeya phupu handed over the packet, "Shaju is coming."
I spent the rest of the day sitting on the cot. Jamini served breakfast, jau with molasses. I never knew my life would be so different. I had dreams of an elaborate wedding. Shaju and I dreamed of a life that would be far from average. He was a dreamer. His dreams surpassed the realms of normal life and reached a point which I could not understand.
Everyone saw him as a clerk at the insurance office, and he was satisfied with his work but his "real work", he said, "would bring change."
Shahjahan had sent in a red, sari. My wedding garb. No one had to say it was from him. It bore his signature, the smell of his dreams. And his expectations from me, who he desired to wed.
Jamini and Rokeya phupu insisted they rub turmeric paste on my body. I couldn't object. As they both shed tears and rubbed the paste on my hands, tears rolled down my cheeks as
I was floating on a banana leaf
With the winds I was floating
My children died in a war of freedom
It is the sacrifice now I am weighing.
A mixture of sorrow and happiness. I had no idea how my parents were, or how my younger brother was doing. And here I was, getting married, stepping into a world I knew nothing of. And there was no one to comfort me, be by my side, say, "Its okay to be nervous. It's okay..."
The bearded guerrilla
When he reached home that evening, Shahjahan had changed beyond recognition. No one could trace him after the fateful night of 25 March but somehow or the other he had sent messages to Porna.
He had gone skinnier, grew a beard and his hair was longer than the usual crew cut he preferred. "I need to sleep," his frail voice could only manage before wanting to see Porna. But Rokeya didn't allow it. It was bad omen to see the bride before the marital rites were completed. So Shaju slept, like there was no tomorrow.
The aged moulavi prayed in his long munazat. He seeked blessings for the newly married couple, who were wed on a dower of 101 rupees. The rites were simple, the consents exchanged and the nuptial bond tied. And he prayed for the hard times that lay in front.
Alone for the first time as man and wife, Porna felt warmth and relief in the figure that stood before her. This was not the look of a man she knew, but the soul of a man she has known for a long time.
This man was on a quest, something, which even she could not fathom. 'Promise me you will come back. Promise' she said. Shahjahan held her in an embrace and said '...I promise.'
No one knows what happened to Shaju after 26 June. Rumours flew that he was shot the next morning. Others said he was taken captive and eventually succumbed to inhumane torture.
But no one was told of this wedding. It was a secret that went to the grave along with him. Years later, Porna re-married. The memory of 26 June burned like a blazing flame but like with all things, time took its toll, the flame extinguished and only the emptiness remained.
By Mannan Mashhur Zarif
Water Colour Paintings: “The Red Hot Iron Bar”-Goutam Chakraborty's homage to our Liberation War
Free verses accompanying the paintings are written by Goutam Chakraborty.
All characters portrayed are purely fictional. Any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental.