Short Story |
Mahmudul Haque. (Translated by Mahmud Rahman)
Since I took to walking, I now come across quite a few people around town. I bump into people I haven't stayed in touch with or seen in twenty or thirty years.
Upon developing a serious heart ailment, I was ordered by the doctor to walk four miles each day. I walk twice, first at dawn and then again on the way home from the office.
It was while returning from work that I ran into Nazrul. Creating a ruckus, a crew was cutting teak trees next to Ramna Park, and Nazrul stood in one spot watching open-mouthed. Thick branches were roped together, tugged, and brought down on one side of the road. Nazrul stood across from them. Speaking to himself, he said, "Very good," and walked off.
His face looked familiar. Then when I saw how he walked, I realized, why, it's our very own Nazrul.
I said, "Isn't that you, Nazrul?"
"But who might you be?"
"See if you can recognize me."
"Aren't you Moqbul?"
"Amazing. We meet after such a long time!"
"That's right!" Nazrul said, "But it's really hard to recognize you. Seeing your chubby face, it's hard to tell you're the same person the boys nicknamed Skinny Jinnah. And back then you had a short fuse, just like Jinnah."
"I see you remember everything."
"Why not? Throughout the year you suffered from dysentery, and you ate a regular diet of catfish broth with stinky thankuni leaves. Your mother told me often, 'Nazrul you are in such fine shape, while my Moqbul is just skin and bones. Will you boys make sure to run him around some? Mister Lazybones here sleeps with a shawl wrapped tightly around himself.' By the way, is your mother still alive?"
"She died a long time ago."
"She loved me a lot. Even now I can distinctly recall her face."
The conversation stilled for a while. Side by side we walked in silence. Just like the old days, Nazrul moved with a dreadful limp.
I said, "I guess your leg never recovered."
"How's that to be?"
"What a lifelong burden for such a small mistake."
Nazrul interrupted me. "What do you mean, for a mistake?"
Feeling embarrassed, I said, "I mean, you had to pay a huge price for just a little carelessness."
"Well, someone or the other in the world has to pay."
"Is it bothering you to walk with me?
I laughed. "I see you're just as arrogant as you used to be."
He laughed back. "And you, bastard, you're such an excellent actor. You change your tune without skipping a beat. So how many children do you have?"
"Three. Two sons and a daughter."
"What names have you given them?"
"The boys are called Adil and Gaus. The girl's name is Ismat."
Nazrul cackled. "You could have chosen Habil and Kabil. That's terrific, though, two leaves and a bud."
Without letting him get under my skin, I said, "And your children?"
"There isn't even a wife, where will I get children?"
"So you still haven't married?"
"Did once. But even before a month passed, the poor woman moved on."
"How can I say? It wasn't like she said anything when she left."
"And I imagine you never tried again."
"What's the use!"
"Life's slipping away, though."
"Where are you now? I mean, what are you doing these days?"
"I teach at Srinagar College."
"Isn't it difficult being all on your own?"
"You mean, how do I take care of my physical needs?"
"It's no longer much of a problem. The woman who cooks for me her body was scarred from being burned she takes care of me as best as she can. I helped her out with some cash for her daughter's marriage, perhaps that's why she makes the effort. After all, she is human and there's some feeling of gratitude. More or less."
"You aren't bothered by how she looks?"
"I've never thought much about beauty or appearance. Still, it's true that when I got married, I myself went to see the girl. And if I remember right, I even asked one or two pointed questions."
The late afternoon light was turning a bit dreary. We stopped talking for a long time, walking on in silence.
I spoke up. "Nazrul, do you still remember those days?"
"Today's Dhanmondi had not yet been built up. Remember the garden belonging to the kobiraj? In the shadow of the guava tree, you and I used to lie around on the crumbly soil below and read poetry all day. We chewed amloki fruit like goats.
Once or twice you acted the part of Surja Sen. With your hands clasped behind your back and wearing a grave look, you paced and said, 'Motherland….'."
"I suppose something like that did take place."
"Once in a while you knelt on the ground and said, 'Motherland, give me strength.' One day I burst into tears. Do you remember that?"
"I broke down like that one other day. It was 1971, the 26th of March. When I heard on the radio, 'Amar shonar Bangla, tomai bhalobashi', I thought that your poor Motherland was so sad, so wretched, that her heart must be breaking in anguish. That day too I thought of you."
With a smile, Nazrul said, "One day everything becomes a story. It seems to me that some people are born just to suffer."
I sensed that our mood had turned wistful. On Nazrul's eyes and face there was an imprint of a curious peace, as if he was carrying himself with effort. He looked as if his hands and feet were bound yet every moment he had to shoo away life's unbearable disgraces that buzzed around him like flies.
I said, "I can vividly remember that dawn of the 20th of February. The two of us had sneaked around the city putting up posters all night long, and just behind the Azad office, the Lalbagh hoodlums caught you. I ran but for some reason you just stood there. What a beating they gave you. They cracked open your head, twisted and broke your leg, and hiding behind a wall in the distance, I heard your screams."
Nazrul said, "They didn't show a bit of mercy. Think about it. I was barely of age and every one of them was grown-up and enormous."
I said, "But why did you behave that way? If you had wanted, you too could have fled. I still can't figure out why you stood there like that, so stubborn."
Nazrul said, "That's right. It would have been best to flee. It was sheer bullheadedness on my part that the notion of escaping did not occur to me. I thought, why should I run, I haven't done anything wrong. Besides, I was only afraid of the police. I couldn't even imagine that ordinary people would give me such a beating. They could have killed me."
I looked at Nazrul's face. His voice had become harsh and rasping, as if he had been suffering from bronchitis for many years.
He said, "Let it be. I don't like to think about it. It all tastes bitter. Jebu, the woman I had married? Every day she wanted to hear the story of how I broke my leg. I had to repeat the same story by twisting it this way and that. It's quite possible she didn't believe me no matter how I tried to explain things. One day she teased me, are you sure you didn't get caught trying to steal chickens? Even though I knew she meant it as a joke, blood rushed to my head. The stunned look on her face made me realize that I must have looked a scary sight."
"What else? I pulled myself together. Can one really blame the poor woman? My fellow students had long nicknamed me Gimpy Nazrul, and behind her back many people would call her Gimpy Nazrul's Wife."
I said, "That day when I left you and ran, surely you must have...."
"Are you crazy? You did the right thing. Unlike me, you were always shaking with fear. Of course you were going to run. If I had been able to run, I too would have saved myself. My attempt to show courage was downright idiocy. Like a chump, I stood my ground and got flattened. Fear saved your life, while courage has silenced me for good."
"Whenever I remember that day I feel very bad."
"The wrong was entirely mine. I should have run and saved my life. When I realized they had done me in, it was too late."
Even before the daylight faded, the neon signs lit up one by one.
To them, I said, "You decorate the city quite well. It looks like it's wearing jewelry. I like it."
Nazrul said, "It's not a bad scheme. The city gets decorated, and the door is opened to some moneymaking."
Suddenly he stopped walking, and with his pointed finger, he drew my attention to one sign.
"Read the words there. They misspelled Ministry of Education. You know what it makes me want to tell them?"
I looked, and sure enough, the word Ministry was spelled wrong. Nazrul was right.
"Such glamour! And there in the middle of it, a worm! Wait, you bastards, let me show you glamour." With those words, he picked up half a brick from the side of the road, and with all his strength, he hurled it at the lighted sign. It shattered into a thousand pieces.
I said, "What's this, Nazrul, what have you done?"
Panting heavily, he said, "When I see a wrong, blood rushes to my head. It makes me want to get bombs and, just like this, blow up each and every wrong."
Mahmudul Haque is a noted Bengali short story writer and novelist. The original story, "Chera Tar", appears in Mahmudul Haque's collection Protidin Ekti Rumal, February 1994, Shahityo Prokash, Dhaka. Mahmud Rahman is a U.S.-based writer currently on an extended visit to Dhaka.