Morshed Ali Khan
The sturdy blind man in his late thirties walks towards the bazaar in lungi, hawai shirt and dark glasses clasping a child in his right hand. The child looks frightened. But the grip of the man is too hard for the boy to break away. Both the boy and the man, however, are helpless. The child is unable to break free and the man can go nowhere without the help of the boy. For it is not long ago that the man's eyes were gouged out of their sockets. He has yet to get used to blindness.
Brutal and unthinkable, gouging out eyes is unheard of in the pristine village of Kathalia, 280 kilometres south of Dhaka. This cruel practice is common among the operatives of the outlawed groups in the north and north-western border areas of the country. In the infamous underworld, the verdict of gouging out eyes is passed when perpetrators decide to neutralise an adversary without risking a murder case. There are also numerous instances where mobs have gouged out eyes of criminals caught red-handed. Ambiguities in the legal system through which notorious criminals often find their way out trigger such anger among the public. "Do it before the police come", is the usual verdict of a mob, punishing an alleged criminal.
In Kathalia, people depend largely on agriculture. The yearly flood thoroughly washes, silts and nourishes the lands, giving it a touch of rejuvenation every time. Here people are busy with day-to-day chores. The most frequent disputes among villagers arise from errant cattle feeding on the neighbours' garden.
A fantastic network of canals run through every doorstep here. Twice a day, throughout the year, high and low tides distinctly play the most vital role in keeping the village clean and moistened for the trees and plants to flourish. The canals not only provide cheap transportation, they also bring in a variety of fishes from the nearby rivers providing protein for the population. Every household is nested within a thick vegetation of betel-nut, coconut, rain-tree and papaya that make it resemble a green impenetrable wall. In the evenings during the dry season, millions of fireflies illuminate every tree along the canals and roads. Here it is like living inside the mangrove forest.
The blind man is Juboraj. In 1995, a Khulna court had sentenced him to death on a sensational murder case of a shrimp gher owner. Four years later he was acquitted by a higher court and set free.
In Rampal and Bashbaria of Bagerhat district and later in Chittagong, Juboraj, now 38-years-old, was wanted on various charges. Born in Kathalia under Kowkhali police station and orphaned in childhood, he grew up in the outlaw-infested villages of Bagerhat and quickly gained ranks in the shadowy underground world there.
When Juboraj agreed to talk to me, I asked him to see me at 5 am the following day deliberately choosing a time when he could be expected to open up. At exactly 5, I could figure out Juboraj in the distance jostling the sleepy child ahead of him towards where I sat.
As soon as he sat on the staircase in front of me, he unleashed the child, sternly warning him not to run away. "He is my nephew," said Juboraj. Frightened and sleepy, the poor boy sat on the lawn and within minutes started to doze. Then suddenly stretching himself on the lush green lawn, he fell asleep.
Juboraj is muscular and strong. His eyelids could barely keep the hollow sockets entirely covered. His cheekbones slightly bulged towards the hollowness of his lost pair of eyes. With every question I asked he turned his head away to give his hearing a better chance of understanding and relating to his inner eyes.
Juboraj showed no remorse whatsoever and spoke frankly in a hoarse voice about his past.
For years he thrived in his domain in Jessore, Benapole and Bagerhat, even visiting his counterparts across the border more than six times. To the utter astonishment of his native villagers, he successfully slipped through legal loopholes one after the other and escaped justice.
"But I never did anything wrong in my own village," he said, trying to convince me that he had no rivals in his village. The group of men who destroyed his eyes was criminals themselves and had other motives.
"I protested against the corrupt salish (village court) system in which the poor were punished if they failed to bribe the jury," Juboraj claimed.
In tea stalls and bazaars of Kowkhali, Juboraj has become an anecdote, often invoking extraordinary tales about his role in the underground world.
In 2000, he married Laili Begum of his village and went to live in Chittagong. In his new surrounding in Chittagong, Juboraj was soon noticed by the underground world there.
But his mind was in the native village where he saw opportunities. He had to settle a few scores there first. Not everyone was happy that Juboraj was trying to establish his reign in Kathalia areas.
|Juboraj walking with the little boy. "I wish I could see the world again.”
After all, a death sentence could not deter him. He was sharp and fierce. Everyone feared Juboraj in the village.
In the evening of August 15, 2007, Juboraj arrived in Kathalia from Chittagong on a short trip. He took a detour to the back of the village and walked towards his home from the bus station. He was in a hurry. He had to meet some friends in his own house and set a strategy for the new plan in the area. What happened next changed his life altogether.
As soon as he arrived near his house in the pitch-dark night, a group of heavily built men surrounded him. Having secured his identity first, the men wrestled him down to the earthen road. While some pinned him down, others gouged both his eyes out with sharp weapons. They then broke his legs, hands and ribs and left him for dead.
Not a question was asked. The police from Kowkhali arrived at the scene after being informed that villagers had beaten to death a notorious criminal of the area.
"Assuming that I was dead the police placed my body in a jute sack and carried me three kilometres away to the police station. But soon they realised I was not dead. They sent me to Sher-e-Bangla Medical College Hospital in Barisal," he said.
For the next three months Juboraj recovered from the injuries at the hospital. Then he was sent to Barisal district jail. As a blind man he spent another three months behind bars and was released when nobody bothered to press any charges against him. Helpless and lonely he returned to settle down with his brother's family in the same village, where he had lost his sight. By now Laili, his wife left him.
His cheeks hardened. He kept mum for a few seconds then recollecting himself said," When I was away my wife ran away with everything I had in this world, my money, my other possessions, even a precious statue that I had cherished for so long," he said.
Juboraj sought justice but no one would come forward for a man, who, only the other day, was so demonically feared in the area.
"The police station would not even accept a complaint from me against people who gouged my eyes out," he continued, "I have a friend who wants to donate his eye for my sight. I wish I could see this world again. Do you know in India there is a great hospital where they can help regain sight?"
I was sad to see the seven-year-old nephew of Juboraj. I slowly woke the little boy up from his sleep. Juboraj grabbed his left hand and slowly walked away.
By now, elderly pious men had finished their morning prayers. Workers were going to the fields and children emerging from the mosque having learnt their daily religious lessons. But nobody cared for the blind man walking with the little boy. No one but the little boy, it seemed, feared Juboraj anymore anywhere.
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