Translated from the Bengali by: Ahmede Hussain
A butterfly came into the prison yesterday afternoon; fluttering its wings, which had strange spots on them, it moved from one part of this big jail to the other; how free its movements were, how limitless was its freedom, no grief touched it, it had only to fly away. Things like butterflies were not supposed to come into prison, only a group of sinners lived here; had this butterfly, then, lost its way? Asif thought as he slowly walked towards it, blissfully leisured on the wall of the jail. No other prisoner had noticed it, after spending all these years here in prison they had forgotten how to recall the feeling that a blue-winged butterfly would generate in the human soul. The butterfly circled round him before it flew away.
What did the world outside look like now? Had it changed or had it remained as he had left it? He closed his eyes and thought. He heaved a sigh, if he had a pair of blue wings like that butterfly, he would have floated away far beyond the red walls of this prison. Memories clogged his mind, memories of his childhood, his youth; memories of walking on the dew-soaked grass, memories of having tea at Moslem's makeshift tea-shop, tea, specially flavoured, which was scented like the bark of the cassia tree. His past was lost, like the way sometimes at dusk a cloak of dust shadowed the moon. This thick layer of dust, with which his memories were coated, which had happened over these nineteen years, he knew, could not be wiped clean so easily. It was sheer insanity, the stirring of emotions, the craving for life that the sight of this butterfly had made. He had been handed down life imprisonment; his youth was spent inside the four walls of the jail, what hope was left for him to hold? Brushing the daydream of freedom aside, he concentrated on his work: in the jail he made cane stools, today he had to make two stools, one round and the other square. Round stools he made easily, it was the square ones that posed difficulty.
When he was about to start his day's work, Asif was told to call on the jailor. The sahib offered him tea, which surprised him, and while sipping tea the jailor sahib said, “I have a piece of good news for you.”
A flicker of a smile came to his face; he had known no good news since he had been given maximum prison sentence; he was seldom visited by his friends; of them, Robi wanted to know inane details like whether he was regularly given food, or if he had headaches. Another friend, Arman, while visiting Asif, stared vacantly at the wall, as though the visit itself was a kind of punishment, to free them from this burden, Asif said, “I am fine, do not worry about me, you two better leave now.” They had waited no further, Arman's face beamed, and seeing his delight, Asif thought he would know no happiness in his life, this smile of liberty would never visit his face, and if it did, if he was ever allowed to be free, that would be too late; what was life, after all, he told himself, if it did not have any dream, if it was without any hope?
Asif asked Sezan, who would often come to see him, about Prothoma, "Does she ask after me?”
“Not really, do not feel bad about it.”
Bad he did not feel any more, his elder brother, who after their mother's death had reared him up, turned him away after charges of murder were trumped up against him. At her deathbed their mother had made his elder brother promise that he would keep an eye on Asif, a mere toddler at that time. That promise his brother had kept, Asif thought, the bond between them, was, perhaps meant to be broken, perhaps that was what fate had willed. He recalled that night: it was Mobarak with whom he went out, and it was Mobarak who was the killer, before he understood anything, before he could say anything, Asif was arrested. A few days later when Prothoma came to see him, no word came out of him; he stood still, staring vacantly. Standing before the jailer sahib now he knew not what good news could await him.
“Believe it or not, you are going to be freed tomorrow.”
“But I have been sentenced for life…”
He listened with rapt attention to the jailer: Five years ago, a journalist called Sumita Sen filed a report in a national daily about the twin murders in Dhabalpoor. The murderer was arrested within a couple of days, and the arrestee Mobarak Sikdar, a hitman, later confessed to a few more crimes, from which it was known that one Asif Ikbal, who had been languishing in prison for the last nineteen years was actually innocent.
Asif stood still, barely batting an eyelid, as the whole event was narrated to him. The thought of freedom, so close now, came back to him again, a thousand tableaux of light warmed his soul, scores of old faces crowded his mind. The jailer sahib handed him over thirty five thousand takas, which he had earned over the years in the jail; a diary; two books and some old papers that were left unattended in the locker.
The heat beat down his face, yet it gleamed with the touch of freedom; how changed the city looked, how different it was from what he had thought of it, from what he had reconstructed it bit by bit, minute by minute, how crowded its streets were with people and cars. He did not know where to go in this busy city, was his brother still living in the same house, their family home? Would he be able to recognise him after so many years, would he, overwhelmed, take him in his arms, or would he turn him away? And when Asif, closing his eyes, tried to recreate his brother's face, he saw only disappointment and recrimination. He stopped on the pavement, opened his eyes and stared at the sun, so bright it was; he forgot when he last saw lights so dazzling, so shiny, so overwhelming. The heat, he felt, was closer to his heart; he wished he could spend his whole life walking. He sat down beside the footpath. Not afar, two barebacked street urchins were playing, they, unlike him, had a family, had relationships to lean on. He knew if he went to the old family house, they would refuse to let him in, even though it was his house too, even though, like his brother, he had inherited the house from his father. He tried
to shoo away these thoughts, all his rights were lost in the four walls of the red building. Sweating profusely, he started to walk towards the college, on the other side of the field, beside the rose apple tree, the road that used to be muddy was now asphalted. The tree was still there though, beside a car. Here, it had rained in his heart when he first met Prothoma. He could never tell her anything, she did all the talking, “What do two blind ants do when they face each other, tell me?”
He did not know what to say.
She said, “They see each other with the mind's eye.”
“What about us humans?”
“We have it, but not everyone can use it.”
“Yes, I do. But, not always.”
Enthralled, he would listen to her. Little did he know, then, how naïve his dreams were. His train of thought came to a sudden halt at the sound of a thunderbolt. He looked up, a cloud of dark black floated in the sky, even though a few minutes ago only the light played in it. Who knew that the sky of this city, like the city itself, would be two-faced? He went into the corridor of the college when it started to drizzle. He had an indomitable urge to stand in the rain, but he knew he could not afford to do that as he had no clothes with him except what he was wearing. Like him, a crowd gathered in the corridor, almost all of them were students, two mynahs, drenched in the rain, roosted on the rose apple tree, a couple ran to a trishaw, and when his eyes fixed on the tree again, he saw Prothoma standing under it; he forgot to blink, she was there in a blue dress, blue bangles on her arms, her long hair floating in the air, her face kissed by the drops of rain. It must be an illusion; he must have been hallucinating. He closed his eyes again, and, like an after image, he saw her, in blue, smile. Absurd, he told himself, she must have changed a lot over the years, perhaps she now wears thick glasses, her hair must have grayed and, who knows, she, too, has hallucinations; the kind that he just had. For her he only had good wishes, he wished she had not been as ill-fated as he, he wished she were happy and content with her family.
In the first two years of his imprisonment, Sezan had come regularly, then he suddenly stopped visiting him, in the following one year, he earnestly waited for his visit, why, he did not know, it might be that whenever Sezan came he had stories of Prothoma, a line or two on the latest details of her life. Besides Prothoma, Asif knew no other woman. He was very fond of Sezan; after passing his entrance exam Sezan decided not to further his studies because his family did not have the financial ability to bear his educational expenses. It was Asif who raised money for Sezan's studies, not out of any sense of pity, but because he thought it his responsibility to help a friend in need. And it was because of him Sezan's life got a meaning, with a job in a multi-national company. Sezan, he thought, had stopped thinking about this, and why would not he? Why would anyone burden himself with the memories of a convicted criminal?
A shiver ran through his body; he was dead sure now that Prothoma was standing underneath the rose apple tree; the last nineteen years had changed her very little; he started to walk towards the tree, coming closer upon which he realised that the girl was not Prothoma, but looked eerily like her.
He said, “What is your name, dear?”
The girl twitched her eyebrows; she found it annoying that a middle-aged man would ask for her name, she said, “Excuse me.”
“Please do not take it amiss, I just thought I would ask.”
“I used to know someone you resemble.”
“Two people cannot look alike.”
“Not absolutely, she studied in this college.”
“And you were her classmate.”
“Yes, but why did you think so?”
“My father does the same, when men reach a certain age, they like picking through their memories.”
“You speak so well…”
“I got it from my mother. Did I upset you?”
“Why would you?”
“I am waiting for someone, he is late coming, I am sorry, I sounded irritated. You asked for my name, I am Upama. My father has named me; it rhymes with my mother's name.”
“Your mother's name is Prothoma?”
“But how do you know?”
“Prothoma's daughter Upama, it's a lovely name.”
He went to the crossway; what a smile the girl had, Prothoma's daughter, how pure, how sublime. Was it the Prothoma he had lost? He should have asked Upama, but what point was there to dig up heaps of woe after so many years, once handsome, spry Asif Iqbal had been lost forever from her life, why would she live on the memories of a man of blood? He looked up, the sky had cleared, it might not rain again: how similar the sky is with the human soul, it only needs a gust of wind to tear everything apart; the only difference is that after a storm nature quickly assumes the blue of its tranquillity, whereas, for humans lay only a flow of pain.
It did not take him long to find Sezan's office in Tejgaon. Asif thought he would be delighted after seeing him, nothing as such happened: Sezan could not recognise him at first, and when he did, he looked scared out of his wits.
Asif said, “How have you been?”
Sezan said, “I am good; how did you get out?”, as though he should not have.
He told him his story, to which Sezan showed little interest; then Asif suddenly asked, “How is Prothoma? Do you know what she is doing now?”
“She is fine, she is fine, she got married, has a daughter, let's not nibble at old things.”
“I am not nibbling at anything; I just wanted to know how she was.”
“The less you want to know now the better.”
“The thing is I need a job, a shelter.”
“You were a prisoner, what job can you have after years in prison. The world has changed… the way of the world has become rugged.”
“The thing is I have to do something to survive…I need to pass the night somewhere.”
Asif thought Sezan would invite him home, from tomorrow he would start afresh, would try to rebuild his life.
“I must go to Chittagong tonight on an urgent business. My wife will not be home either.”
Should he go to Arman to spend the night, or would he, too, like Sezan, turn him away? He walked down the avenue, with its bright orange lights burning over his head, the face of this city, his own city, had grown a stranger to him. He thought of going to his brother's, would he, his own flesh and blood after all, be able to boot him out? Then, on a second thought, it dawned on him that Sezan's apathy he was able to bear, his brother's he would not be able to.
At 11 that night he stood before the entrance to the jail, the red wall stood tall in the dark like a hungry monster. This wall had not only taken away nineteen years from his life, but also the lust for life, his love. He looked at the moon hanging down in the empty sky, the new day would see a bright new morning; there would be dew drops in the grass, but never again would he dream to soak his feet with them, he would never wish that droplets of rain brushed his cheeks. Slowly he walked into the prison; the jailer sahib was surprised to see him, he said, “You still here? Don't you have anywhere to go?”
Like the moon, a tear of pain hung down from his shrivelled eyes; he said, “The world outside is not mine any more.”
Ahmed Faruk is a Bangladeshi short story writer.
Ahmede Hussain has edited 'Brown Writing: An anthology of South Asian writing', which is going to be published by Tranquebar Press, India. He lives and works in Dhaka.
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