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      Volume 10 |Issue 27 | July 15, 2011 |


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News from Home

Prasanta Mridha
Translated from the Bengali: Ahmede Hussain

After receiving a letter from his father, Ranjeet held it in his hand for a while and tried to figure out how thick it was by holding it up against the sun. There was a reason for it though. His father had written a letter to him after a long while; when he last got such a thick envelope he did not quite remember.

He remembered getting a long letter from him about his sister Ranjeeta's marriage. At that time he used to share a bed in room no 40 of the October Memorial Building of Jagannath Hall with Chinmoy as there were more students than seats in the hall. It so happened that at that time his second year final exams were nearby and he moved to this other hall to study with Shamim Bulbul. As a result, the letter reached him four days after its delivery. Chinmoy got it first, he handed it to Kaiser, a senior in Ranjeet's department, thanks to the fact that both Chinmoy and Kaiser gave private tuition to the same student at the student's house. That day, Chinmoy, after he was done with tutoring, waited for Kaiser, who taught the student a different subject, to arrive. Kaiser gave the letter to Delwar in the varsity cafeteria, known as Madhu's Canteen, where they met. Delwar gave the letter to Shamim through whom it arrived at Ranjeet that night. Because it had changed hands, its carriers' sweat had made the letter a little wet and heavy–Ranjeet could recall it vividly. But he could not remember getting any other such letter, such a long one, before or after it.

There was a reason for that long letter, Ranjeet had not forgotten it. At that time he wondered why his father would think of writing a letter to him now, for his father knew that his exams were nearby and he also got this month's postal order from home on time. Had there been an emergency, his father would have telephoned Krishnendu uncle who lived in this city. That was the easiest way to reach Ranjeet as the hall did not have any phone. Ranjeet did not quite fathom the significance of this letter, what it might contain or what made his father write a long letter. Could it be that his father had wasted time by giving him advice to study hard as he knew that the exams were nearer? The envelope might also have his mother's letter or his grandmother's too, like the letter she wrote in her shaky hands before his first year final exams. When he had opened and started to read it, he found the expected pieces of advice in the beginning; but there was no letter from his mother or his grandmother. When he reached the middle of the letter, written slowly, he realised that this letter was actually about Ranjeeta's marriage. In fact, the letter had claimed him even before he realised it. And because what he had thought what the letter was about had turned out to be something different, while reading the letter, which was about Ranjeeta's would be father-in-law, a wave of sorrow for his sister swelled in him.

Ten days after the demolition of Babri Mosque in India, the phallus of Siva was stolen from the statue of a village temple where Ranjeeta's would-be husband and his family live; the phallus was later found under a tree by a pond. Ranjeet had heard about the incident before, he did not take it seriously. Jagannath Hall, where Hindu students lived, was swarmed with such news at that time–news came in from the village of some student's uncle or someone's aunt's town or some other's father-in-law's house. Among this news of thuggery came the news of Siva's stolen phallus. At that time, he simply brushed it aside–what was he to do with an incident that had happened in his sister's would-be husband's village?

Ranjeet knew that his sister's would-be father-in-law was the president of the committee that arranged the puja at that temple every year. What was new to him, which he came to know from the letter, was that the would-be father-in-law, who was also the head teacher of the local school, had lodged a complaint with the police. The alleged offenders had threatened him to withdraw the complaint, Ranjeet didn't know. After this, some members of the committee tried to persuade him not to proceed further with the case, which he refused to do. They left him or they were forced to leave him. Or they saved their skin by leaving him. Ranjeeta was engaged to his son; there was an ashirbad ceremony in which the elders had blessed their union. The marriage ceremony was scheduled to take place in spring. Even though this was winter, it was not at all cold in Dhaka, where Ranjeet was. But his father said it was chilly in the village, where Ranjeeta's would be father-in-law was arrested for misappropriating the school fund. The prison had big wide windows, most of which did not shut properly, the old man must have been suffering. His father said that the charges against him, trumped up though they were, would be proven right because there were many people who wanted to be the head teacher. Ranjeet's uncles, on the other hand, after all this, did not want their niece to marry the son of such a person. Ranjeet's father agreed with them, and the letter, Ranjeet knew, was meant to know what his son had been thinking, even though he might have guessed that Ranjeet would not give his verdict before consulting his sister.

So, Ranjeeta's would-be father-in-law was no longer her would be father-in-law? Be it as it may, his exams were knocking on the door and he would not be able to write a reply now. Did his father not know this? Brushing his thoughts of home aside, he read Shamim Bulbul's notes, trying to memorise them, he read them aloud to Shamim from his memory at night. He knew how helpless his father was, if his youngest uncle were in the country he would have been able to help him out.
As he held the letter that had just arrived and noticed its thickness, a flurry of guilt for not writing any letter to his father for such a long time came to Ranjeet's mind. Ever since he got the letter from the postman he had been trying to muster enough courage to open the potbellied envelope. Meanwhile Smriti walked to the gap between the door and the bedroom, Ranjeet gave the letter to her and said, 'See what your father-in-law has sent.'
'You read it first. Open it!'
'You do. The envelope is bloated!'

Smriti looked at Ranjeet; she took the envelope but did not open it. Ranjeet, before going into the room to get his glasses said, 'See if he has given any special charm inside for us to have children.'

She laughed and said, 'You are too much!'

Smriti did not laugh at the thought that Ranjeet's father might have sent a sacred mantra so that Smriti bore Ranjeet's child. She laughed at the way Ranjeet put it, and he had said this to make Smriti laugh. When he came back, after putting on his glasses, he said, 'I know what the letter is about.'

Smriti, still holding the letter said, 'Ok. Tell me'
'I think Ranjeeta has given birth to another child.'
'No way! I would have known, she would have written.'
'You tell me, then, what is in the letter.'
'It's your father's letter, news from home. What else would there be?'

Ranjeet was trying to trivialise the occasion, getting a long letter after so many years from his father that is. Smriti was fond of her father-in-law and Ranjeet was sure that Smriti would reprimand him for not regularly writing to his father. Another reason why he was trying to be unusually cheerful was because he had a feeling that unpleasant family matters were discussed at length in the letter and before opening it he wanted to make himself think that what it contained was unimportant and trivial.

When Smriti tore the envelope open, the pressure cooker began to hiss. She thrust the letter to Ranjeet's hand saying, 'The dahl!' and ran to the kitchen; he held the letter and watched her go. Then, putting his thumb and forefinger inside, he tenderly pinched the letter out and unfolded its six loose pages.

The first sentence of his father's letters had always been the same: Hope this letter finds you well. Then–'It has been a while that you have not written to us, neither has your wife. Are you angry at us for some reason?' Till now it was what he had expected his father to write, there was no clue as to what had prompted him to write such a long letter. But from the next line the tone and texture of his sentences suddenly took a turn. His prose became slow and sombre: 'For the last two days I have toyed with the idea of writing to you. I have talked to your mother, your younger brother Bishwajeet and your eldest uncle about it, as they have given their consent I have sat to inform you about what has happened. I don't know how you are going to take it.'

To find out what had really happened Ranjeet turned the first page without finishing it. At the begging of the second page his eyes fixed on a line: 'Around 20-25 people came with machetes. There were no men at our home save for Satyan and your two uncles, who were beaten up by the men; they spared the women and children. More men came at night to loot. Similar kind of atrocities on Hindu families has also taken place in the nearby villages like Matabari, Dhalibari and Majhibari.'

Ranjeet turned to the first page and started to read where he had left it: 'I don't know how things are in Dhaka. But it is pretty bad around the cities. Papers are full of such news, but the newspaper you subscribe to does not highlight such incidents. What has happened in our village has been reported in The Shangbad.'

Ranjeet could figure out what had happened; their home in the village had been looted, his uncles had been assaulted. It was a few days ago, while reading some news of riots and vandalisms on Hindus in the countryside that he told Smriti that no such incident would happen in his village for the local Member of Parliament was a Muktijodda, a freedom fighter who had fought for the country's independence; a liberal person that he was, he would not let such monkey business happen in his area. He thought about it for a few minutes, heard the sound of spatulas from the kitchen and, lest Smriti came now, he went to the third page.

'I was in our house in the town, when the following day, Satyan's son informed me about the looting. I had no idea as to what to do or whom to seek help. I thought of you, you would have been able to bail me out. Sadai has gone to Khulna. Bishwajeet brought in one of his friends, who had assured me of all help. But what can he do? Bishwajeet is in his teens, so are his friends. Sadai returned home the following night and I went to the village with him in the morning.

As he was reading, Ranjeet thought that his father would describe the scene now, would write what he had come across upon entering the village. He was proven right in the next line: he skimmed through the paragraph.

'Before I reached home, I heard that the Member of Parliament, the MP, was visiting the area. I went to his office and met him. He knew about the incident. He told me to go home and not to worry. He had also told me that your uncle Krishnendu had been his teacher.'

Ranjeet would have been scared stiff if after the tense narrative of the assaults, by now, he had not come across this part of the letter. That his father had met the MP had offered a crumb of comfort. He thought it did not really matter now if he had finished reading the letter or not. Perhaps leaving the letter at it would be more comforting, would be less painful. The helplessness that he had had, the impotent fury within himself, which had exposed itself so violently, was felt a little soothed. He was the eldest son of his father, and the news of his village home being broken into had reached him three days later! The sense of relief lingered on as he read the part where his father had gone into the village to witness the mayhem. In the small dining room he looked for the jug to have some water. While his eyes remained glued to the letter, he poured some water into the glass; then two unread pages of the letter were blown away by a sudden gush of air from the ceiling fan, which had been trying in vain to give cool air in this October afternoon. He saw them float, casting a quick glance at the fourth page.

While reading the fourth page–the MP went to the scene in the evening–he stood on his knees and reached out for the sixth page, which was stuck under the refrigerator. When he grabbed at it, he saw that it was actually the first page: 'Hope this letter finds you well.' Because he had just come back from shopping and had not changed, he was wearing jeans, which made it awkward for him to bend. On all fours now, he peeped under the refrigerator and realised that the page he had been looking for was stuck in a spider's web on the wall behind the fridge. He pulled it up and read the page with a patch of cobweb still stuck to one of its corners: 'Even though the situation is normal now, Sadai and your mother would not let me go to the village again.' He realised he was on the fifth page. His nerves remained raw as he tried to find the fifth page, which read: 'He summoned the felons. They said that seven years ago your uncle Shudhir's cow had gone missing and he had told the police that these people were the possible stealers. They confessed now that they had orchestrated the robbery to avenge that incident. The MP sahib was furious; he told them that it was true that they had stolen the cow. He asked why they had to do such an incident while riots were taking place all over the country. He told two of the men that he would not allow them to live in the village. One of them was told to leave that night; the MP had said that if that person was seen in the village tomorrow his head would be shaved as punishment. The MP then gave me a ride home.'

Ranjeet felt betrayed. He did not feel like reading the sixth page. How easily the MP had appeased his father! If the assaults were for such a trivial reason, why had these people made his uncles sign on the property papers? Why didn't his father write anything about it? Or he forgot to tell? If it was out of vengeance for filing a complaint for a stolen cow why did the goons ask for 10,000 takas from each of cousins, threatening them that otherwise they would not be allowed to attend classes in the college? Should he ask his father about this? The sixth page might have an answer.

He had read the first sentence of this page before. In the second or third line there was no mention of the village or his mother or his brothers. Everyone at Ranjeeta's father-in-law's place was doing well. Her daughter was fine; her son had grown teeth. The father-in-law had paid Ranjeet's father a visit yesterday.

Then he asked after Smriti–how she was doing; whether she was enjoying her new job. Ranjeet thought now his father would tell him to have children. His father wrote: 'Tell your wife…I know you two now want to build your professional life. But keep this in mind that throughout one's life one must make sacrifices for one's children.'

Ranjeet thought he should give the letter to Smriti for her to read. He was dazed; he did not want to read further. Memories, events, faces clogged his mind: his childhood…home…the pond…that cowshed…the stolen cows…his uncles…the holiday that today was…his helplessness…His father wrote: 'Never mind, as a father I know how difficult a time it is now to tell one's own son to father a child. The situation is so bad. I didn't feel so helpless when you were born in 1971, when the Pakistani army was killing innocent people in the name of religion.'

Tears came to Ranjeet's eyes.

He folded the letter, looked at the dining table and felt for the left pocket of his shirt, where he had put the envelope. He folded the letter; before he could put it back into the envelope, Smriti came out of the kitchen. She said, 'What is in it? Give it to me!'

'Read.' Ranjeet's voice was low.
Smriti took the letter from him and said, 'What's in it?'
'Why? Is anything the matter?'
'Why are you saying it like this, then?'
'Like what?'
'You are not as sprightly as before.'
'They have looted our home.'
'Those who are plundering the whole country.'
'Have they done much harm?'
'No. Less than what has happened to the others.'
'Less meaning?'
'Read the letter…my father's letter…news from home…'

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