Shahnaz Munni, a renowned journalist and writer was born in Dhaka in 1969. She graduated from the University of Dhaka in Social Sciences. Though she is a television journalist, Shahnaz Munni has reflected her passion for writing poems, stories, juvenile literature and essays in the seventeen books that she has authored.
It was a stifling summer's day. An old, derelict bus was travelling slowly on smouldering roads. It was crammed with people – people whose bodies were drenched with droplets of salty sweat. Women, some clad in sarees, some in salwar-kameez, occupied the ladies' seats. A stony silence prevailed over them, staring blankly ahead, as calm as the ruins of bygone days. They might have been looking out the windshield at the white and yellow marks that would regularly interrupt the blackness of the road.
The bus driver was as old as the bus itself. His white beard was clinging to his wrinkled cheeks like old vines, embracing old ruins. With the sharp eyes of a veteran sleuth he was carefully examining the surrounding traffic to avoid accidents, going about his way slowly but steadily. The young commuters of the bus were irritated at the pace of the bus; they strived for the excitement of speed. The elderly, on the other hand, were content, as the slow speed of the bus ensured safer travel. The mid aged commuters were indifferent: some of them were thinking about their families, some their future, the destination, the boss, job, utility bills and so on. Despite all the people on the bus, there was only silence – weariness etched on every single face.
The gloomy calm of the bus was suddenly broken by a commotion. The ones dozing at the back sat up straight; the ladies were eager to find out what was going on. They asked the men standing in front of them, who in turn asked the men next to them, and they asked the men next to them. After such sequences of questions, it was learnt that a young man, identifying himself as a student tried to pay a discounted fare. However, he could not produce his student ID card when asked. But soon it all quietened down again, silence engulfing the slow-moving bus.
This time however, the silence did not last long. The cry of a man, who had fallen victim to a pickpocket, pierced through the icy silence inside the bus. The cry soon turned into a wail, and the man through his wailing mumbled that the pickpocket had gotten away with his entire month's salary. However, no one in the bus demanded punishment for the culprit, nor did they show the man any sympathy. The wailing of the helpless man slowly turned into a low moan. Silent drops of salty tears ran down his cheeks.
Until then, the front rows of the bus had been silent. Suddenly, a woman in a reprimanding tone, asked the man standing in front of her to stand at a distance. “Hey you! Please move away. Why are you leaning on me?”
The man in question, without a word, moved to a distance. However, that could not satisfy the lady. She went on to raise questions about the man's character. “Every man considers a woman either a mouth-watering piece of cake or a new pair of shoes.”
This time, the man cleared his throat and in a sarcastic tone said, “See madam, I still have black hair, while half of yours are white. I don't eat stale cake, nor do I wear worn out shoes.” Hearing this, some laughed, while others found it insulting.
What is the point of making such indecent remarks? Do women not deserve a least bit of respect? Is there nothing called courtesy? Nothing called manners? Does no social code prevail in our society?
The lady might have been preparing to retort, but the old bus driver interrupted. His body might have been frail, but his voice was strong. “Please stop shouting; don't you remember where we are headed?”
The passengers quietened down. The journey resumed, at the end of which might lie a destination that offers balmy serenity, a peaceful life, a long rest.
The bus suddenly came to a halt, its engine stuttering, in an idle, desolate marketplace flooded in the light of the full moon. “The bus's heart demands water,” came the bus driver's excuse. The conductor scampered to collect water.
“Where is this bus headed, friend?” asked some curious folks from the market.
The men looked around in confusion, uncertain stares at the distant horizon, their voices steeped with surprise.
“Shorgochera? We have never heard of a such a place. Would you be kind enough to tell us about it. A little description, may be?”
This time a woman spoke, hews of the rainbow playing on the lenses of her spectacles. In a low voice she whispered, “Have you not heard of paradise? Have you never heard of heaven?”
“We have, we have.”
The men at the market were talking among themselves, “The doors of heaven are made of gold and engraved with precious gems. The soil is of pure saffron. The houses in heaven are made of bricks of gold and silver. There are gems instead of pebbles in heaven, and the “Abe Rahmat” river flows serenely through the length and breath of paradise – its water whiter than milk, cooler than ice and sweeter than honey. There are trees of gold and silver in heaven and perpetual breeze flows, soothing all. If you desire food, a variety of delicacies, including the most exotic food will be served on gold platters, along with glasses full of heavenly drinks. And there are houris in paradise, who are created from light – extremely beautiful, chaste, soft spoken and docile. The smile of the houris light up the entire atmosphere. There is a new life – a new beginning, eternal happiness…”
“Yes, yes fellows! Luckily, a piece of heaven has fallen on earth, there, on the east-south, the great south, and that place is called “Shorgochera”. That is where we are headed – the land of eternal peace.
The bystanders were exhilarated, and automatically start to drone, “We want to go there too. Please take us along with you.”
“No, no, no more seats are available in the bus. Not even a tiny bit of space!”
“Then at least show us the direction, draw us a map, we will find the place ourselves.”
Suddenly the passengers realised that they were in the dark themselves. Confused they said, “We don't know where the place is. Only our old bus driver does.”
As soon as it was said, the driver was surrounded by a chaotic crowd on all sides.
“Mister, just once, tell us where this place is. Take us to this land of dreams.”
“The road is long, and it is difficult.”
“We'll still go.”
“Well then, have patience. These people have boarded a long time ago. Let me take them first, and on the next trip I will take you there too. Please do not hang by the doors or hop on the bumper, or else the bus won't go. Just have some patience.”
They spasmed like a cut fish before becoming still and quiet, their eyes taken on the haze of the eyes of dead fish; it was as if the life of the market had been drowned out by the darkness of new moon. The bus started moving again. The old driver, keenly measuring the distance, steered of the bus towards its destination.
The road never ended, and soon the contagious idleness of the passengers turned into extreme annoyance.
As if unaware of the fellow passengers, a man, pulled up his torn, worn-out lungi to his knees and started scratching, producing a gashing sound, as if trying to exact revenge on the affected skin and the unbearable silence.
A well dressed man sitting next to him, with a look of disgust on his face spoke out, “Hey you, pull down your lungi. Do you have no manners or courtesy? Uncivilised, scoundrel…”
Bemused, the man instantly pulled down his skirt, but he did not let the words go: why has been called uncivilised and a scoundrel. Is it because he is poor? Argument, counterarguments faired up among the passengers, and its ire was finally directed at the old driver.
“Hey you driver, how long is it going to take? Where is this “Shorgochera?”
The old man's face was covered with droplets of sweat, a pale look on his face.
“Calm down, everyone. Please calm down. We have lost the way, most likely.”
A dead silence suddenly filled the bus. Then, as if speaking from the netherworld, they demanded, “What? What did you say?”
“Didn't you understand what I said? We have lost our way,” the old driver spoke clearly.
With their all their hopes, dreams, aspirations dashed, a sudden animal like rage grasped the helpless passengers, and they fell on the old driver, like a pack of wolves. And within moments, things change. Blood was trickling down his forehead, his limbs powerless.
The whimpers of the old driver were drowned out by shouts of the passengers, “Fraud, cheat, scoundrel.” In the midst of all these, a woman shouted,
“Stop fighting. If you beat up the old man, who will take us back home? We will all be struck here forever. Please stop. Please.”
Gradually, the passengers regained their composure. The woman went to the driver to tend to him, but then they all realise that he had left long ago, in silence, without a word.” The air was filled with gloom. The ladies wailed and the men beat their chest in despair.
“This is the twilight zone. Here, night does not fall, and the sun does not shine,” said one of the conductors.
With the passengers stuck in the bus, time flew away. No one would know how much time had gone by already. The salt of the tears and sweat combined together, making the air saline and humid. Soon the sky became dark and a thunderstorm ensued, and the heaven-seekers ran in every direction searching for shelter. Only the old bus remained in its place – soaking in rainwater.
Listless days went by. The bystanders at the marketplace turned into lifeless stone, waiting for the bus to take them to Shorgochera. Then on a spring day, an old, rundown bus reached the centre of the town. Two young conductors shouted fine tails about Shorgochera. Soon the bus will be packed with hordes of heaven-seekers. Around noon an old driver would start driving the bus, headed for Shorgochera.
Translated by Tasneem Tayeb Kabir