One of those Nights: Ninety One
Anisul Haque was born in Rangpur in 1965, to father Late Mofazzal Hoque and mother Mrs. Anwara Begum. He studied at Rangpur PTI primary school, Rangpur Zilla School, and Rangpur Carmichael College. Haque graduated from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, trained as a civil engineer. His inspiration in journalism and writing started during his student life. After his graduation he joined to serve as a government employee but resigned after only 15 days. Later, He started working as a journalist. He attended the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2010. Currently, Haque is working as a Deputy Editor of the Daily Prothom Alo, the leading Bangla newspaper in Bangladesh.
I am standing in Sheba Clinic's veranda; he will be here to visit Shotto Da at half past nine. The month of Bhadra has just started off; the evening now seems more like one in autumn - the skies are clear. A rickshaw stops in front of the clinic at 29 past nine. I come down from the balcony and stand by the human hauler. Dada Bhai has never in his lifetime reached an appointment even one second late, rather he has always been one minute- early this habit of his was proven true once more today.
Dada Bhai asks me, “How is Shotto Babu?”
Fulltime party member Sadek accompanied Dada Bhai. Sadek and I helped Dada Bhai off of the rickshaw, and supported him holding his hands while he climbed the steps of the clinic. As if all of the insects in the world are circling around the light hanging from the veranda ceiling; even the by-now-familiar smell of fenile is attacking the sense of smell, as if piercing through. I leaned into Dada Bhai's ear and said, “But Dada Bhai, I am not doing well at all; you might even call my state deplorable.”
Silver-haired Dada Bhai, adorned by a long Arab-robe like attire, asks me with eyes full of apprehension, “What has happened to you?”
I had kept the answer ready for him - I rambled into his ears like reciting a memorized script, “I can't sleep at night; my ears are ringing from the banter Shotto Da recites every night. He calls me every night and keeps me awake with his stories. He asks me things like: “why is Perestroika such an existent Marxist?” I have to listen to many other stories besides not only that. I have to respond with a 'Hu' after every statement he makes. On top of which I have to ask him “and then?” after every three statements as he falls silent, due to which I can't even slack and pretend to have listened as there are no other options other than to be diligently listening to his lectures. I haven't slept in three days and three nights in a row till date. I listen to his gibberish all the time and reply with 'Hu' and 'Ha'.
Dada Bhai looks at me. It has been three whole days today serving in duty at the clinic looking after Shotto Da that is Shottendronath Dutta and his wellbeing. It has now become my duty as the junior member of the party to become the veteran revolutionary unwell Shottendronath Dutta's companion during his time at the clinic. I truly have not slept a wink in the past three days: the reason why my hair is unkempt. Dada Bhai is the party president; everyone in the party calls him 'Dada Bhai', thus I call him the same. His experienced and ancient eyes saw the truth behind the young party-worker's words. With concern in his voice he asks, “You must be then replaced by someone else for the duty, but it is not possible tonight.”
Dada Bhai has returned from the party-office. He has come to pay a small visit, to his revolutionary comrade and friend in war from long, on his way back. We both knew that it is not possible to change duty so late in the night. A new idea sparks up into my head, I say, “Dada Bhai, Shotto Da is not supposed to talk at all- doctor's orders - but he does not listen. The old man is not in his senses; you could tell him that the party has decided for him to speak as little as possible.”
Dada Bhai looked at me scornfully it was clear from his gaze that such child's play with the party's decision making was not settling in well with him at all. It was granted that he would not be fond of such ideas - he is the party's president after all. Even though the position is more of a trophy than anything else as old age has crept up on him long back rendering him nearly disabled, his contribution to the party-politics and to the nation is so great that inducting any one else to the post besides him is unthinkable. It is obvious that such childish suggestions will seem stupid to him, being in the top position in the party that he holds.
We enter cabin 23 pushing in the door after crossing the balcony. Shotto Da is lying in one of the two beds in the small cabin; I pull the singular chair present in the room towards his bed. Dada Bhai takes the seat, and extends his hand to clasp onto Shotto Babu's hand and utters, “Comrade”, in a very soft tone.
Shotto Da opens his eyes to see, and lifting his head to be half lying and half sitting says, “Comrade, why did you take the trouble to come so late at night?”
Dada Bhai reaches into his bag made from khaddar and pulls out around a dozen bananas. I place them on the table by the bed.
Shotto Da finds a new reason to start his lectures - why did you have to buy so many bananas at once, when purchasing the fruit you always do it in pairs, buying so many together means they all will ripen all together and most of them will go to waste, I do not see a reason as to why more than one banana should be consumed daily, who will now eat all of these 12 bananas, communists must never waste, etc. He keeps on asking, “Did you understand?” after each statement. Dada Bhai keeps on saying 'yes yes' in affirmation. The lecture does not seem to end.
Shotto Da's ability to tell stories is infamous. He had led one of the training camps back in 1971. The food was rationed in a very calculative manner in that camp. Shotto Da had specifically instructed the person who used to hand the food down, 'Always fill the spoon to its capacity while giving out the first spoon of rice. Give them one quarter of the spoon the second time, but make it look like as if you are bringing out the rice from the depths of the pot - as if it's still a full spoon of rice. Half the hunger of a human being comes from within his stomach while the other half is his imagination. Notice how if you follow this method, no one will have gone hungry and you will have saved a lot of food at the same time'. The method really worked. There was never a shortage of food in that camp throughout the whole war, on top of which he had brought back ample supply of self inventoried rice, pulse and fire-wood in truckloads back to the country.
Dada Bhai is now listening to Shotto Da's stories. He is talking nonstop, not giving Dada Bhai a single chance. It's now getting late into the night; DadaBhai has to return home, but Shotto Da is not letting go of him - he is clasping on with both his hands blabbering on about the true communist's roles, “Tell me comrade, how many items of clothing do you posses? We are revolutionists! Tell me, does it suit us to own two different sets of clothes, does it? We have all our lives taken the clothes off our backs, washed them ourselves, dried them out in the wind under the sun, and then put them back on; have I said anything untrue here?”
Sadek and I have come into the cabin's balcony. There has been much agitation going around in the Soviet Union for the past two days. There is only the same news in the papers - the communist bigots had abdicated Gorbachev. I ask Sadek, “If the bigots are to take power, then why are they saying: the vice-president will take over since Gorbachev is ill?”
Meanwhile, Shotto Da was rambling on non stop whereas, the doctors have strictly said that he should not speak at all. He has developed an infection in is throat - his vocal chords need absolute rest. Dada Bhai understood the importance of my suggestion by now and said, “Comrade, I have come here to deliver important orders from the party today.”
Maybe Shotto Da felt obligated to stop talking for a while, for he has gone absolutely quiet on receiving the news. We are intently hanging on to the conversation that is unfolding now. We enter the cabin, and Sadek speaks up, “Let us go now Dada Bhai, it's very late.”
I come back into the cabin with a guilt ridden demeanor after seeing Sadek and Dada Bhai off from downstairs. But there is no reason to be feeling guilty, the white lie was in need and was told to protect Shotto Da's life. Calling me over, he started to complain, “Hah! The party has decided that I can't speak anymore. Hah! We are communists no more, only they are communists! Our party finds it important to pry into the private lives of their members as well.”
Truth be told, the party members really do not have any private lives of their own as they are all dedicated towards the wellbeing of the party; for the country; for the people. I had attended a party meeting once, while stationed in Natore where there was an agenda - 'Is revolutionist Kamruddin an asset for the party or a liability'. The revolutionist was 75 years old then, nearly blind, did not have an income of his own, and barely lived on the pension given to him from the party besides which the party had to provide a fulltime member to look after his wellbeing on a daily basis. Kamruddin was present at the meeting, being one of the Zila committee members, that day. It was decided at the meeting that he no longer was an asset to the party, but a liability. Even back then we all had known that Kamruddin's father Shamsuddin Choudhury was a Zaminder from the area. Even after the Zaminder rule had been culled, commoners from the area were not allowed to walk through the thresholds or in front of their house with shoes on or with umbrellas over their heads. The young Kamruddin had thrown away his status, properties, and ties with such elitist behavior to have entwined himself into the revolutions against the British first and then for equal rights. His relatives are alive and are mostly well off. One of his nephews had even wanted to take him and care for him from his own residence. Kamruddin would not hear off it and did not accept.
The veteran revolutionaries that we had are of such strength, they are made of steel - not soft iron. On the side we have our present leaders who are all very intelligent. The working leaders have it all in their homes - color television, fridge, sofa, carpet everything. None of the party workers want to return back to these leaders' houses a second day because of their demeaning mindset. Various questions do rise in our minds because of these reasons. A rebellion rises up within me every now and then. I can not stand to keep lying through my teeth continuously explaining to other party members how we need communism to work towards to give them the same things that the leaders are enjoying.
“Jashim, come here”, calls Shotto Da, “sit beside me”. I take the seat beside him. the burden of guilt from telling the lie somehow hypnotized me to take the seat. “Tell me Jashim, are we not communists, tell me, are we not?”
“Yes Dada, we are communists.”
“Then why does the party want to shut me up?”
I am very sleepy, my whole body is giving in to tiredness; I lean into Shott Da's ear and tell him, “Dada, you are transgressing the party discipline; you are speaking even when you were asked not to.”
Shotto Da falls silent, and quietly takes his hand away from mine.
Lying down in the other bed, I notice that Shotto Da is completely silent, and it's very late at night as well yet I am not being able to sleep with very many thoughts circling in my head. The many self-sacrifices; so much effort; the amount of sacrifices behind this sole member; behind this party; behind the principles of the party; behind one dream. Can anyone deny the amount of sweat, and effort Shotto Da has expended behind this party; behind its principles?
It has been such a long time since his birth, sometime towards the beginning of the 20th century. He had heeded to the calls of the slogan as an adolescent boy, joined into the revolution burning in the country as he had witnessed its processions standing from the doorway of his primary school, and had ever since been completely immersed in each and every one of them; the young boy Shottendro never stopped treading that path. As soon as he had enrolled into high-school, he came across very many types of parties and had swiftly joined a rebel group becoming a very active member. He was put behind bars for nearly four years. Leaving the group he ended up being verse in Marxism and the ways of Lenin. It is uncountable the number of times Shottendronath Dutta has been in and out of jail; thirty years of his life he had spent in self confinement; he had always been migrating from one area to another - lived in a fisherman's hut in Shwandip then in a tea garden in Sylhet, joining in any and every revolt he saw taking place; and even through all of that, he never flinched from the weight of all the tyranny, all the intolerable harassments, the insurmountable mental pressure, even when all of his family and relatives left and crossed the borders finding uncertainty to life if they stayed back. Only he remained on this land, filled with dreams of independence of the people - unfaltering from his stance taken in his cause.
He is now bedridden in this clinic, without family, or anyone to look after him. The revolutionists used to think of marriage as a luxury. Even today when members are taken in as full-timers in our party, they have to attain enough votes from the seniors as permission for marriage. The marriage goes through much scrutiny before it is sanctioned to ensure that the party member who is getting married does not fall out of duty or make his marriage the priority over the party.
It seems as if Shotto Da is already asleep; not one word is being uttered by him; I raise my head to observe if he is truly sleeping. The light in the room is turned off; the strict accountant Shotto Da does not let the light left turned on unless absolutely necessary. Even then, the light from the balcony seeps and falls on his eyes through the open window. He is awake, but speechless; the party's orders hold that much value to him.
These veterans have all sacrificed their happiness and wants in name of the party. But what is happening in the motherland Russia from where all their principles had taken birth from? They are announcing new agendas through Perestroika and Glasnost, saying the communist way of Stalin were inhuman - they are saying that behind the scenes the Soviet Union is actually empty and void. The word 'communism' was dropped from the Soviet name last year. They started by saying Perestroika and Glasnost are the actual existent Marxists, and now they have discarded the very 'Marxism-Leninism'.
And I cannot even start to explain all that has been going around in my party in the recent past. The love for the party has turned into chronic disease for some of the members. There was a professor in the University of Chittagong, not long back, who used to scout for meritorious boys eligible for the party. He had devised methods by which these good students would fail to appear for their exams, and hence would have to be within the party forever, by not passing out of the university and to make a living for their own. Success comes not from self prosperity, but from redemption of the oppressed! But the professor has been exiled from the party folds by now.
I don't know when I had dosed off to sleep, but I am awake from Shotto Da's summon. He is calling out, “Jashim, Jashim, get up! We have to go rob the police station! We have to join the rebels! We need arms!”
I startled awake and say, “What are you saying Dada?”
I wonder if he was having a dream, but he ends up saying, “No, Jashim, The party secretary has told me of the funds crisis. Let's go! We need arms!”
“Dada, maybe you were just dreaming,” I start to say, “Please calm down.”
“Calm down? Why will I calm down?”
“It's the central party's decision. Dada, you are breaking the party's discipline once again.”
Shotto Da falls silent. I am off to sleep once more.
It's pretty late in the day as I have woken up from my slumber. I am embarrassed; it is very sunny outside. It can simply be said that Shotta Da does not sleep at night. He always wakes up early in the morning. His motto for life: less sleep, more work.
I walk straight to the door. The day's news paper is lying there neatly and unopened yet, with sporting headlines: 'Gorbachev brought down', 'Yelthsin the real hero', 'Yelthsin addresses millions standing atop a tank', etc.
I am taken aback after reading: 'Citizens have vandalized Lenin's effigy'. Shotto Da will now instantly want to know what has happened. It is one of my duties to read the news to him. I walk towards him contemplating on whether or not to keep the news secret to him.
Shotto Da's eyes are close; his lips carbon black. Surprisingly he was not saying one word - he has remembered party orders till now.
I put my hand on his forehead and find it cold.
I understand now revolutionary Shottendronath Dutta has accepted the party's decision for eternity; he will speak never again.
Translated by Hasan Ameen Salahuddin
Illustration by Uzzal Ghose
(R) thedailystar.net 2011