The rusty old bus skids to a halt with a screech of brakes. The diesel engine stops with a harsh sound. Exhaust fumes are winding into dark clouds. It is a routine picture with this bus. There is plenty of room for controversy as to whether it can be called a bus. It is little bigger than a minibus and much smaller than an ordinary one. It has a turtle neck. This grotesque shape is made by a local carpenterDilu Mistry. His name is so strikingly inscribed on its body that it must tickle your fancy on sight. But this optical attraction flees through the window when you get on it through the narrow door in huddles. Jampacked with passengers, it moves at a snail's pace and takes the whole day to cover the distance of about fifty miles between Rangpur and Gaibandha, suffering at least a couple of mechanical failures. People call it a buffalo cart, but they are left with no better means.
Haripada makes a toing and froing between Rangpur and Mithapukur once a week. Every Thursday he comes home in the evening, stays one day and two nights and the next Saturday goes back to his workplace. He is a lecturer at a non-government college on the outskirts of Rangpur town. He joined the college immediately after he completed his Master's from Dhaka University. He was capable of getting a much better job in Dhaka. But he did not get it for no fault of his own. Dhaka on and after 25 March is blazing. Operation Searchlight is stalking through the city. Mujib declares the independence of Bangladesh and is taken prisoner. The marauding Pakistani armed forces have overrun the capital and unleashed a reign of terror on the defenceless people. A mighty eagle swoops on innocent chicks.
When the buffalo cart driver with a stubble brakes hard, the passengers dozing fitfully wake up with a start. But Haripada is not one of them. Nor is he wide awake. Seated by a window he is deep in thought. How things have been out of joint over a few days! The son of Kalipada Master and grandson of Bishnupada Master had to be Haripada Master. People call him professor. Lecturers of non-government colleges are professors in the eyes of the common people. But Haripada is not happy with this position. He was not willing to take up his ancestral profession. He had a mind to serve in the civil service. He had the ability too. But a violent storm from the western sky has dashed all his dreams. When one's very existence is threatened with extinction, a career of one's own choice loses meaning.
"Get off the bus. You bloody Bengalis. Get cracking."
A throaty voice booms like a rumble of thunder. Haripada is flabbergasted. But instantly he realizes that it is not a routine stop. His apprehension comes true when he sees a hefty man in military attire standing at the bus door. The driver first follows the command like a docile cat without a mew. Then the passengers start getting off the bus, jumping the queue. By then about fifteen military men surround the bus. All have bowler hats and bristling moustaches. One of them approaches Haripada and pokes him in the ribs with the muzzle of his rifle: 'You bloody bugger, why don't you come down? Do you need kicks on the ass?'
Haripada lets out a distinct groan. The soldier gives vent to a loud toothy laugh and attempts another poke at him. Haripada feels like nothing on earth. He rises from his seat and takes slow paces towards the doorway. A shiver runs down his spine. The sacred thread worn around his body and neck seems a real albatross. He wishes he were a Muslim or at least a low caste Hindu devoid of the sacred thread. He has to get rid of it. His hand slips into his shirt and gives the piece of string a yank. It tears easily but he cannot drop it before the army men at the door. He coils it up and holds it tight in his hand. While jumping down from the bus he pretends to stumble and secretly puts the string in his mouth and swallows. He heaves a sigh of relief.
All passengers are lined up. A tall husky soldier with a hooked nose starts running a check on them.
'What's your name?' He asks the first man in the queue in Urdu. A lanky man wearing a long coat, drainpipe trousers and a Jinnah cap is translating it into Bengali.
'A-A-Abdur Rahman.' The man stammers in his faltering Urdu.
'Are you a Muslim?' The army man observes him from head to toe.
'Yes sir, yes, I'm a Muslim. I swear I am a true Muslim.' Abdur Rahman tries to draw the soldier's attention to the black patch on his forehead which he has developed over the years through constant prostration in prayer.
'Hmm'. The military man seems reassured. He lets him go and moves to the next man in the queue.
'Recite the first kalema.' The army man roars out an order.
'It's very easy sir. I know all the five kalemas with their meanings and explanations.' Shamsul Alam tries to force a smile and makes a humble attempt to recite by clearing his throat.
'All right, all right.' The army man gives him the full benefit of doubt. He runs his eyes through the queue like a camera panned across the faces of the lined up suspects.
Haripada is in terror. His yacht is foundering in heavy seas. He has a horrible sinking feeling. He tries to catch at a straw. He murmurs the words of kalema he has recently learnt from his Muslim friends. He had a premonition of this kind of bizarre situation. If he can recite the kalemas properly, he may be mistaken for a Muslim and may stay safe from the mindless Pakistani butchers. They have an ostentatious concern for religion. But freedom fighters are their pet aversion. They are more hostile to them than to unbelievers even if the freedom fighters are devout Muslims.
Haripada is not a freedom fighter. But he wishes he could be one. He wants the freedom fighters to kick the last member of the occupation army out of Bangladesh. He believes the days of occupation will come to an end. Vietnam is a shining example. He wants to see the Pakistani oppression fast crumbling and from the ruins an independent Bangladesh emerging. A free Bangladesh. No more chains, no more shackles! Haripada will join the civil service in the newly independent country. He feels called on to serve his country. He will help protect the good people and punish the bad ones. This is precisely the way to carry out his father's ideal and to pass it on to posterity through his baby boy. Krishnapada is still in swaddling clothes. His toothless smile floats through Haripada's mind. Life is so beautiful, so meaningful! But the point is to stay alive, to survive at the present moment. Haripada must survive. Is it the lure of life? Maybe. He is desperate.
Haripada tries to recall the kalemas. Wonderful! Perfectly all right! Even with the accents and intonations! Now they cannot catch him out with kalema. Haripada feels a little guilty at the bottom of his heart for his Brahmin father but soon he comes down to earth with a bump.
'No matter, it's a part of life. Self-defense is the first law of nature.' Haripada justifies his defence mechanism and resolves not to give up. He tries to hang on there although he has a lurking fear in the back of his mind.
The Jinnah cap is keeping his eyes peeled for Haripada. There is no mistaking. He can bet his bottom dollar that Haripada is a Hindu. He whispers something in the ear of the hooked nose. The hooked nose gets electrified and pounces on Haripada like a hungry wolf on a sitting duck.
'What's your name?' The wolf howls.
'Jainul Abedin.' Haripada has butterflies in his stomach.
'Father?' The wolf tries to play with his prey.
'Shamsul Abedin.' Haripada improvises the family name so easily that he cannot believe his ears.
The wolf looks a little astonished. But in a second he picks up the thread of questioning.
'Grandfather?' He is climbing the family tree.
'Fazlul Abedin.' Haripada breaks out in a cold sweat. He knows he is dicing with death. But he cannot help it. The moment he fails to move his pieces, he would be finished off.
The wolf is getting impatient. He looks at the Jinnah cap, raising his eyebrows questioningly. Jinnah cap gives him a meaningful wink.
'Recite the first kalema.' The wolf resumes with renewed interest.
Haripada is skating on very thin ice. He screws up all courage and recites the kalema quite uninterrupted.
The wolf does not want the game to end in a stalemate. He wants to shoot his last bolt.
'Take off your pants.' He plays a sure card.
Haripada cannot quite catch the meaning. All of a sudden, he feels a twitch at his belt and finds himself with his pants down. In the twinkling of an eye, Haripada can make out what they want. This is for the first time that he smells real danger. His sixth sense is telling him that something terrible is going to happen. He is about to meet his Waterloo. He sees shadow of death in the dusky blue sky over his head. There are no earthly means to prove he is circumcised. This makes his blood run cold. He can no longer stay the course. He feels utterly helpless.
'Eureka, eureka, I have got it.' The wolf bellows as if he has discovered the eighth wonder of the ancient world. All the army men rush to Haripada. He is a weird creature who has foreskin. The wolf is overwhelmingly pointing to it with a nasty grin on his face. The Jinnah cap gives the panicky passengers a signal to leave. The turtle head hares down the street at the double with all but one.
Haripada is left behind, rooted to the spot completely numbed. The single thread which he was hanging by has been torn. He knows his hours, minutes and even seconds are numbered. But he has no sense of fear. He was in fear and trembling when he had his chances to live. He keeps staring vacantly at the back of the bus until it becomes a speck on the horizon.
A military jeep emerges as it were from the ground and screeches to a stop by Haripada. The door opens. Two soldiers dismount. They hold Haripada by the hands and take him away in the jeep. The olive green jeep fades into the dark of night. The sun rises tomorrow in the fresh green of the country.
Dr.Rashid Askari is a writer, columnist and professor of English, Islamic University, Kushtia. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.