Aadaab: Samaresh Basu

Shaking the silence of the night, the military patrol car completes a circuit around Victoria Park.

A curfew as well as Section 144 has been clamped on the city. Hindus and Muslims are rioting. Frontal battles are raging – with cleavers, spears, daggers, even sticks. And secret assassins are spreading everywhere, striking under the cover of darkness with intent to kill.

Criminals are out on looting expeditions. The scourge of death on this dark night is making their euphoria wilder. Slums are on fire. The dying screams of women and children are making things even more grotesque. Armed vehicles are ploughing into them, the soldiers firing indiscriminately to maintain law and order.

Two lanes converge at this point. The dustbin has upturned at the spot where they meet, parts of it broken. A man crawls out of one of the lanes, positioning himself to use the dustbin as a shield. Lacking the courage to lift his head, he lies inert on the ground for some time, keeping his ears peeled for the indistinct cries floating in from the distance. The sounds aren’t clear. Is it Allahu Akbar or Bande Mataram?

Suddenly the dustbin moves slightly. All his nerves begin to tingle. Clenching his teeth and tensing his limbs, the man waits for something terrible to happen. A few moments pass. There is stillness everywhere.

Probably a dog. The man pushes at the dustbin to drive it away. There is no response for some time. Then the bin moves again. This time there is curiosity mingled with his fear. He lifts his head slowly…and so does another man on the other side of the bin. Two creatures, frozen, a dustbin between them. Their hearts have all but stopped beating. Two pairs of eyes, probing, the look in them a mixture of dread, suspicion, and anxiety. Neither can trust the other, each of them considers the other one a murderer. Their eyes locked on each other’s, both wait for an attack, but even after some time, there is no aggression from either. Now a question arises in both their minds. Hindu or Muslim? Perhaps the answer will lead to a fatal outcome. So neither of them dares ask the other one. Nor can they flee for fear of being attacked with a knife.

After several minutes of discomfort and doubt, both become impatient. Finally one of them blurts out the question. Hindu or Muslim?

You first, says the other man.

Neither is willing to state his identity. Their minds are swayed by suspicion. The first question is buried. It gives way to another. Where are you from, asks one of them.

Across the Buriganga, in Shubaida. You?

Chashara, near Narayanganj. What do you do?

I have a boat. I ferry people. You?

I work at the cotton mill in Narayanganj.

Silence once more. Each of them tries to covertly scan the appearance of the other. They try to gauge how the other one is dressed. The darkness and the shelter of the dustbin makes this easier. Suddenly a commotion breaks out nearby. Manic screams from two groups of people can be heard. Both the millworker and the boatman become alert.

Seems to be nearby. The millworker sounds terrified.

Yes, let’s get away from here. The boatman’s voice holds the same note of fear.

The millworker stops him. Don’t move. You want to die?

The boatman is overcome by suspicion again. What if the man is plotting something? He stares into the millworker’s eyes. The millworker has been looking at him too. As soon as their eyes lock he says, sit down, stay as you are.

The boatman’s heart leaps into his mouth at this. Is this man not going to let him escape? Suspicion gathers in his eyes. Why? he asks.

Why? The millworker’s voice is muffled but sharp. What do you mean why, do you want to get killed?

The boatman doesn’t care for this manner of speaking. He considers the possibilities, even the impossibilities, and comes to a firm decision. What do you think? You expect me to keep hiding here in this dark lane instead of leaving?

His obstinacy makes the millworker suspicious too. I don’t like your intentions, he says. You didn’t say whether you’re a Hindu or a Muslim. What if you fetch a group of your people to kill me?

What do you think you’re saying? Forgetting where he is, the boatman shouts with rage and regret in his voice.

What I said is right. Sit down. Can’t you understand what’s going though my mind?

There’s something in the millworker’s voice that reassures the boatman.

I’ll have to stay here alone if you go.

The uproar dies down in the distance. A deathly silence descends again. Even the moments seem to pass in expectation of death. Two living beings on two sides of a dustbin in a darkened lane reflect on their own predicament, their homes, their wives and children. Will they be able to go back to their families alive? Will their families survive, for that matter? Like a thunderbolt from the sky, without any warning, the riot has erupted in their lives. There they were, strolling around the market, laughing and chatting with others—and in a moment it had turned to murder and violence, rivers of blood. How can people turn so cruel in an instant? What an accursed race we are. The millworker sighs. The boatman echoes him.

Want a bidi? Taking a bidi from his pocket, the millworker offers it to the boatman. Accepting it, the boatman squeezes it gently out of habit, waves it in the air near his ear a few times and then clamps his lips on it. The millworker is trying to light a match. He hadn’t realised that his shirt has become wet, and with it, the matchbox. The sound of the matchstick being scraped against the box is heard repeatedly, but there is barely a spark. Disgusted, the millworker tosses the stick away.

Bloody matchbox is soaked. He takes another stick out of it.

Impatient now, the boatman leaves his position to crouch next to the millworker.

It’ll work, give it to me. He practically snatches the matchbox from the millworker’s hand. And, after a couple of attempts, he actually manages to get a matchstick alight.

Sobhan Allah! Come on now, light up quickly. The millworker jumps out of his skin, as though he’s seen a ghost. The bidi slips out as his jaw slackens.

So you…?

A gust of wind blows out the matchstick. Two pairs of eyes widen in suspicion again in the darkness. The owner of one of them says, yes, I’m a Muslim. So?

Nothing, answers the millworker. But…

Pointing to the bundle under the boatman’s arm, he asks, what’s in there?

A couple of shirts for my son and a sari for my wife. You know it’s Eid tomorrow, don’t you?

You aren’t hiding anything else? The millworker cannot shed his suspicion.

You think I’m lying? Check for yourself. The boatman offers his bundle to the millworker.

No, there’s nothing for me to check. But you know the times we live in. You tell me, is it safe to trust anyone?

That’s true. Er…you don’t have anything, do you?

Not even a needle, I swear on god. All I want is to go back home safe and sound. The millworker gives his clothes a shake to demonstrate.

The two of them sit down again side by side. Lighting their bidis, they smoke in concentrated silence for some time.

Can you tell me… The boatman seems to be addressing a close friend now.

Can you tell me what all this killing and maiming is for?

The millworker keeps in touch with the news, he reads the newspapers. Hotly he says, it’s that League of yours that’s to blame. They’re the ones who started all this, calling it a protest.

I don’t understand any of it, the boatman retorts harshly. All I want to know is, what’s the use of this fighting? Your people will die and so will ours. What will the country gain?

That’s exactly my point. What do you suppose the country will gain? A big zero. He makes a circle with his fingers. You will die, I will die, and our wives and children will be out on the streets begging. They chopped my brother-in-law into four pieces in last year’s riots. So my sister became a widow and now I have to look after their children too. The leaders lie on their soft beds in their mansions and issue orders and we poor bastards have to die.

We aren’t humans anymore, we’ve become dogs. Only dogs bite one another. The boatman wraps his arms around his knees in impotant rage.

Exactly.

Who cares for us? Where’s the food going to come from, now that we have a riot going on? You think I’ll get my boat back? Who knows where they’ve sunk it. Rup-babu is our zamindar, his manager used to travel in my boat to the island in the middle of the river once a month on work. The zamindar was as generous as the lord, I’d get five rupees as bakshish and five as the boat fare, ten in all. I could buy food for the entire month. And the man who rode in my boat, he was a Hindu.

About to respond, the millworker stops abruptly. The clomping of heavy boots can be heard. There’s no doubt that the marchers are coming into the lane from the main road. The two of them exchange terrified glances.

What should we do? The boatman grabs his bundle.

Let’s run. But which way? I don’t know my way around the city.

Doesn’t matter which way, says the boatman. We’re not going to sit here and get beaten up by the police. There’s no trusting the swine.

Yes, you’re right. Which way, then? They’re almost here.

This way.

The boatman points towards the southern end of the lane. If we can make it to Badamtali Ghat, he says, we’ll be safe.

Lowering their heads, they race out of the lane, not pausing till they reach Patuatoli Road. The deserted tarmac is glittering under the electric lights. They stop for a moment – there’s no one lying in ambush, is there? But there’s not a moment to lose. A quick glance up and down the road, and they rush off again towards the west. After they have travelled some way, they hear hoofbeats behind them. Turning, they see a solitary horseman approaching. There’s no time to think. They duck into a narrow alleyway on the left used by those who clean toilets. In a moment, an Englishman on horseback, holding a gun, gallops past them. Only when the sound recedes in the distance do they leave the alley for a cautious peep.

Stay close to the houses, the millworker says.

They move forward swiftly and fearfully along the edge of the road.

Stop, the boatman says softly. The millworker halts abruptly.

Come this way. Taking the millworker’s hand, the boatman leads him behind a paan shop.

Look.

Following the boatman’s direction, the millworker’s eyes stop at a lit-up building about a hundred yards away. A dozen policemen with guns are standing like statues in the veranda adjoining the building. And an English officer is speaking continuously through a mouthful of smoke from his pipe. Another policeman is holding the reins of his horse on the road in front of the building. The horse is stamping the ground restlessly with its hoof.

That’s Islampur police station, says the boatman. There’s a lane near it, it leads out of the street and goes to Badamtali Ghat. We can take it.

The millworker looks terrified. But how will we get there?

I suggest you stay here, reaching the Ghat is of no use to you anyway, says the boatman. This is a Hindu stronghold, but Islampur is filled with Muslims. You can spend the night here and go home in the morning.

What about you?

I’d better go. The boatman’s voice cracks in anxiety and apprehension. I can’t stay. It’s been eight days since I left home. Allah alone knows what state they’re in. I’ll just have to sneak into the lane somehow. Even if I don’t get a boat I can swim across the river.

What are you saying, mian? The millworker clutches the boatman’s shirt anxiously. How can you go this way? His voice quavers.

Don’t try to hold me back, bhai, I have to go. Tomorrow’s Eid, don’t you see? My family must have been looking out for the Eid moon tonight. My children are expecting to wear new clothes tomorrow, to climb into my lap. My wife is weeping her heart out. I can’t stay, bhai, I can’t, you cannot imagine how I’m feeling. The boatman’s voice is choked with tears. The millworker feels his heart breaking. He loosens his grip on his companion’s shirt.

What if they catch you? His voice carries a mixture of dread and compassion.

Don’t be afraid, they won’t be able to catch me. But you must stay here, bhai, don’t leave this place. I won’t forget this night. We’ll meet again, if fate decrees it. Aadaab.

I won’t forget either, bhai. Aadaab.

The boatman steals away.

The millworker remains standing, his mind clouded by anxiety. His heart refuses to slow down. He stays vigilant—please god, don’t let the boatman come to any danger.

The moments pass with bated breath. It’s been a long time, the boatman must have got away by now. How eagerly his children must be waiting for him to bring them new clothes, how happy they will be to see him! A father’s heart, after all, poor fellow. The millworker sighs. Miansahib’s wife will throw herself on his breast with love and tears.

You’re back from the dead?

A smile appears on the millworker’s lips. And what will the boatman do then? The boatman will…

Halt!

The millworker’s heart leaps into this mouth. Some people in boots are running about. They’re shouting.

He’s escaping!

The millworker leans out to see the police officer leap into the street from the veranda with his gun. Shattering the silence, his firearm roars. Once, twice.

Two bangs. Two streaks of blue. The millworker bites his fingertips in anxiety. The policeman vaults on to his horse and gallops into the lane down which the boatman tried to escape. He can hear the death rattle of the man he has shot.

An image floats up in front of the stupefied millworker’s eyes. The blood flowing from the boatman’s body is soaking his children’s and wife’s clothes. The boatman is saying, I couldn’t do it, bhai. My wife and children will be swept away by tears on the day of the festival. The enemy did not let me go to them.

The Seventh Heaven: Samim Ahmed – Chapter One

Nana, Grandfather, had a dream the night before Runa’s mother was born. He was prone to changing the story of the dream at different times. Sometimes he said that a dervish wrapped from head to toe in a black smock bisected by a milk-white beard had told him, today’s the day your family gets an heir. Nana also claimed that it wasn’t a dervish at all; the voice did not reveal whether the speaker was a man or a woman. The garments were unusual too, for it appeared that the person wearing them had arrived from the deserts of Arabia to this unknown village in Bengal. In a genderless voice the figure had told Nana, the boy who will be born in your house today will enable sheikhs to hold their heads up higher. Nana had another version too, in which a boy child addressed him as Abbu. The dream had several variations, each of which changed as Nana grew older. But Runa had heard from her Nani, Grandmother, about the different kinds of dreams that Nana would have about the birth of Runa’s maternal uncle, her Maamu, before her mother was born. Nana had had to wait for a male child. By that time the stories of his dreams would change repeatedly. But what never changed was the presence of a male child at the centre of his dreams. Nani’s labour pain came on the eve of the dawn on which Runa’s mother was born. She was taken to the permanent labour room in the house. When Runa and her brothers and sisters grew up, they named this room the German Hussain Private Nursing Home. It was named after their Nana. When Nani’s pains worsened, Nana felt a violent pressure on his bowels. The toilet for men was some distance from the house. As he was on his way there with a pot of water, he encountered a young man standing by the tank next to the toilet. In the half-light of dawn, Nana recognised him as Robin. But strangely, Robin’s elbows, knees and ankles were all pointing in the wrong direction. Or, it would be better to say that Robin’s head seemed to be set front to back. When Nana saw this he could not control his bowels any longer. But Runa’s courageous Nana, who was said to go for a shit on horseback, noticed as he began to scream Robin’s name that Robin had started walking with his face towards him. But the distance between Robin and Nana kept growing. Nana was brought back home unconscious. The house was full of women from the neighbourhood, along with the midwife. The midwife was the only Hindu woman present. Only the women from the tribal Hadi families worked as midwifes hereabouts. She had been by Nani’s side, sleepless, since last evening. Nani had given birth to a child. She was lying unconscious in a corner of the labour-room. Then Nana was brought in, his body frozen with fear.

As soon as word spread of Nana’s falling unconscious, the kaviraj arrived from the nearby market town. After all, Nana was the local president of the Congress party.

The doctor prescribed medicines for Nana, and suggested all kinds of nutritious food to revive him. Meanwhile no one could be found to read the Azaan after the birth of Nani’s child. Neither the newborn baby nor the mother could eat until the Azaan was read. Eventually a solution was found. Tentuli, the permanent farmhand for the family, arrived to tend to the cattle. He bathed and offered the Azaan. Then an old woman from the neighbourhood poured a drop of honey into the baby’s mouth. When Nana came to, she was given tea with jaggery. Runa’s mother was born on a Thursday. The day of Lakshmi in the month of Shravan. The Bengali year 1348.

It wasn’t long before the formidable Maulana sahib from the next village arrived. Nana had been made to lie down on a mattress covered with sheets in the veranda. Maulana sahib was given a chair next to him. He asked in detail about the events that had taken place. Nana told him everything slowly – what he had dreamt, his glimpse of the creature named Robin with the reversed ankles and knees in the half-light of the monsoon morning, and his resultant defecation in his cherished Ismail lungi. Having heard him out, Maulana sahib said, you dreamt all of this, German Mian. These events took place at dawn on Thursday, which means the nymph has set her sights on German Mian. This creature attacks while her victims are passing passing urine and stool. You have to be very careful the next ten days. But the influence of this jinn-nymph will persist even after that. The evil eye of the nymph will keep troubling you in the form of all kinds of illnesses. Sometimes your back will feel as though it is breaking. At other times it will be an excruciating headache. A thousand nightmares await you because of your ill fortune.

The matriarch of the family, Runa’s great aunt, her Mejo Nani, opened the door a crack and said, tell us how to cure this illness. We will spend as much as required. Just make the arrangements. The Maulana said, all right Bhabijaan, a black cock, even yellow will do, mid-sized, five chhataak ghee, some mehndi leaves and half a bhari of silver – you have to make these four offerings to the poor. After the afternoon Namaz I will send an amulet. Chant Bismillah and read three verses, and then fasten the amulet to Bhaisahib’s right arm above the elbow with black thread.

Very well, said Mejo Nani and went off to make the arrangements.

Maulana Sahib asked Nana, how do you feel now? Nana told him:

So Maulana, I’ll be cured with those offerings? Ramlochan Kaviraj has prescribed medicines. I should be eating those things you mentioned, to gain strength. And you say they should be given to the poor? Do you know how much half a bhari of silver costs? I believe in amulets, I know that jinns and nymphs cannot come anywhere near me if I wear the lord’s discourse on my body. What is this that you Muslim League people are doing! Is this the faith of my ancestors, if this the Deen, the path, that they brought from Arabia! You’re not an ignorant village Maulvi, you’re a Maulana with a degree. How can you say such things! You claim you want Pakistan, but your Hindu customs refuse to go away. Not that it’s your fault, each of your leaders has crossed the line, they’re worse than infidels.

Maulana smiled. A strange smile. Whose significance was soon revealed in his own words:

Whatever you may say, German Mian, the Muslim League will definitely win. You people can keep saying whatever you like. The Tabligh is inevitable. All the common people will follow the learned leaders. We have plenty of leaders who are learned.

Nana said:

Yes! You have Maulana Thanvi and Shabbir Usmani, with Jinnah as your head. Naturally you will be uncompromising. This doesn’t surprise us. But if the country is split, where will you and I go, abandoning our paternal homes and farmland? That leader of yours, Jinnah, do you know what he said, that he will go through martyrdom for a majority Muslim state. It doesn’t matter to him if we’re murdered. He will let twenty million of us be martyred on the streets and build Pakistan on our corpses.

– Have you heard of Kamal Pasha? The one about whom they said Kamal tune kamal kiya bhai – what a wonder you have wrought, Kamal. If Mustafa Kamal could create a Turkey, why can’t we? The leaders of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind have only been badmouthing Jinnah. They refuse to understand that an Islamic state can easily be created out with the Muslim-majority provinces, built with the fundamental faith, laws, jurisprudence and rules of Islam. The Jamiat is now under the control of the Congress. They will go whichever way the Congress directs them to. What you refuse to accept, Mian, is that the Congress is the party of the Hindus.

– You know what Madani sahib has said, it’s the leaders who don’t accept Islam that want to have Pakistan. Hmmph! Ladke lenge Pakistan. We’ll wrest Pakistan by force. Madani has written that if Pakistan is indeed formed, its people will starve. How will its economy be created? Can you tell me that, Maulana? The Jamiat believes that if Pakistan is created it will become the factory of politics for England and Russia one day. I think so too. Can a man like Thanvi understand all that vexes us? The Muslim League does not have a single Alim, a single learned leader, who can divert you from the path that leads away from the Sharia and think of the welfare of our nation, our Qaum.

– Whom do you consider a learned man, German Mian? Madani – you think Madani is learned? What does he know besides enmity with the British? He has no concern for Muslims. He will only continue his holy war against the British. And the Congress’s Abul Kalam Azad! He is neither a politician nor learned. Put all your wise men on one pan of the scales, we’ll put our Thanvi sahib on the other. Check for yourself which way the scales are tipped. The formation of Pakistan is inevitable.

Now the second eldest of Runa’s great uncles, her Mejo Nana, entered. He was the head of the family. The eldest one lived in Dhaka, where he worked at the post office. In his absence, it was the second brother, Mejo Nana, who took care of the estate. Calling out to the Maulana, he said:

Now what, Maulvi? Has Jinnah sahib come up with anything new? Have you managed to draft German to your cause? I don’t think he will join your League or anything. Can your people finance his three horses and Ismail lungis? We do that. Ha ha ha. While the Mian was seeing a ghost on his way to shit, he had a daughter. Now that you’re here, give us a suitable name for her and find out her star sign. We’ll look after your needs.

Runa’s Nana’s face turned pale. He seemed to have set eyes on Robin again, and appeared ready to repeat his earlier act after that vision.

The Maulana said:

This means the girl was born between five and six in the morning. On a Thursday. This girl’s astrological sign is Zehal, what you refer to as Shani in Bengali. Call her Zahra. She will be quite dark-skinned. But her life will be wrapped around God, her lifespan is long. She will have a lovely voice. Your niece will have a clear heart.

Mejo Nana took a two-rupee note out of his pocket and gave it to the Maulana. Keep this, he said. Meanwhile the permanent farmhand Tentuli appeared and asked Maulana sahib:

Huzoor, rice was two annas a kilo last rains, how could it have become three annas this time? If this is what coarse rice is going to cost, what about fine rice? Tell them to lower the price. Can’t afford it. We have children at home, what will we feed them?

Tentuli had five children. The eldest was eight. He looked after the cows at Mirad’s house. Swept and cleaned the cowshed. For which he got two meals of stale rice a day. Tentuli couldn’t possibly ask his wife to abandon the baby in her arms to work as a maid in other people’s house. His second son hadn’t been home all morning. The six-year-old boy had been to the fields and hadn’t returned. He hadn’t gone alone, though. Many of the other boys in the village were there as well. The fields were full of kochu, edible taro roots. They had sprung up some time ago. Now the earth had been softened by the monsoon rains. His second son was in the fields, digging for slugs. If he was lucky, he might get some taro too. But these things were not available every day. Many of the children in the village gathered them. Worried about food, Tentuli went to his wife. He told her, Chhoto Mian had a daughter at dawn today. I read the Azaan. I was thinking, will you go over?

Tentuli’s wife protested furiously, I’m dying with this six-month-old baby here, and you want me to work as a maid there?

Tentuli grew nervous. Then he said, did I ask you to work as a maid? Just pay them a visit, don’t people visit one another? He added with a chuckle, Mejo Mian was talking about you.

This worked almost instantly. Promising to visit them in the afternoon, Tentuli’s wife went back into the house. Tentuli shouted after her, ask Mian sahib for some rice. Just make sure he gives his word, that will be enough.

Meanwhile, prices began to rise in a frenzy. Not just poor people, even the small farmers found themselves with their back to the wall. Kerosene was unavailable. No sugar anywhere, and it was difficult to get any even at ten times the price of jaggery. Salt, oil and flour were becoming more expensive by the day. Even an entire goat did not fetch the price of a lungi.

The paddy harvest had been indifferent last year. Burma was in very bad shape. Wars were raging all over the world, which meant trouble for everyone. Some people in the village had maunds of rice stashed away at home. This was despatched to the city in bullock-carts late at night, where it was sold at twice or thrice the normal price. All this would apparently go to Madras, Ceylon, Travancore. The English government couldn’t be bothered. The leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League were silent too. They were busy ushering in freedom to the country. That was far more important than rice. German Mian’s elder brother Anwar Mian pondered over all this, assuring himself that once azaadi had been achieved, not just rice, but all items of daily use would become much cheaper. They might even be available free of cost. The new government would be run by the people of the country.

Anwar Mian spent his afternoons grooming the horses, which were a favourite of his younger brother’s. The farmhands were not to be trusted. The rascals ate up all the jaggery meant for the horses. He fed the horses their chick-pea personally, though. Never mind the oil-cakes and bran, even the grass and the hay could not be accounted for. The scoundrels pilfered everything. Someone hovering the front room caught his eye. Who was it? Tentuli’s wife, wasn’t it? Couldn’t the hussy have found a better time to turn up?

– What do you want now? Is this any time to visit?

– I’ll come whenever you want me to. There was something I had to say, but you can’t turn me down, I’ll say it if you promise not to.

– You want money, right? Come at night, I’ll give you some. The sun hasn’t even gone down and the bitch wants money. If you’re asking for money by daylight does that mean you plan to return it?

– No Mian, I didn’t come for money. I was just saying, if you’ll give me some rice tonight, I’ll come over to collect it.

Anwar Mian’s face brightened. Laughing, he said, go away. No rice or money for you. Go now.

Tentuli’s wife knew that this ‘no’ actually meant ‘yes’. She set off homewards happily. Anwar Mian said, addressing her:

Have you heard, Chhoto Bo-Bibi has been released from the labour room. Come every evening starting tomorrow and massage her legs with oil. And listen, the chhoti ceremony is three days from now, bring your children for the feast.

Tentul’s wife said ‘ji’ and resumed walking. No one from Nani’s family would come to the lavish chhoti that was being arranged on the occasion of the birth of her child. Normally the first child was born in the mother’s parents’ home. The exception in this case was because when Runa’s Nana went to his wife’s home for the ashtamangala ceremony after the wedding, he swore for some unknown reason never to set foot there again. Nor would he allow his wife to go home. Oddly enough, there had never been any pressure from Nani’s family. And no one from either family had ever pleaded with Nana to go there. Nani had accepted this without protest. Some had even heard her say that she was far happier here than she had been at home. Although the neighbours had discussed this threadbare, none of them had dared bring it up in Anwar Mian’s house. The reason for which could be either Anwar Mian’s loud voice or his bloodshot eyes.

The arrangements for the six-day ceremony had been flawless. Not even the exorbitant prices in the market could prune expenses. Several sets of clothes had been bought for the newborn, with Nani also getting a number of saris. Relatives and neighbours had feasted. None of them had come without gifts. They had arrived with presents ranging from homemade ghee to a cock and fruit for a glimpse of the child. Only one of them had brought nothing. She was neither a relation nor an in-law of Nani’s. She was from Nani’s village – her childhood friend, apparently. How could an unmarried woman travel on her own? And the less said of her family the better – imagine allowing a woman of marriageable age to travel on her own! Her house was an hour and a half’s walk through the fields.

Later it turned out that she was there to meet not Nani but Mejo Nana. After visiting the newborn she told Nani:

Please arrange for me to meet your brother-in-law. Do you remember my telling you about Asgari Begum? The Englishmen arrested Asgari a few days ago. They have burnt him alive. They’ve also put Hosenara Begum from 24 Parganas in jail. None of the people who went on the civil disobedience movement has come back. Jamila Khatun has been hanged. But never mind all that, there’s no end to it. I’m not here to tell Mejo Mian these stories. He knows everything anyway. I’ve come to him with a request.

Tell me, said Nani, I’ll send him a message. Where do you live these days? Your family has thrown you out, I know. Thank goodness I got married, or my fate would have been the same. Not that I’m particularly happy about it. It’s all destiny.

Nani’s friend smiled. You’ve heard of Majera Khatun, haven’t you, she said. She has formed a force, which I’ve joined. You recognised me easily because of the way I’m dressed now. But usually I wear thick pants, strong shoes, a thick coat and a turban to cover my hair. Nobody can tell whether we’re men or women. Our financial situation isn’t good. It would be of great help if your brother-in-law could arrange for some money for us.

Nani seemed to have guessed as much already. Don’t worry, she said, I’m sure we can get you some money. Send someone to me a week from now. I promise you that we will give as much as we can – we’ll even sell a few things if we have to. The young woman left after lunch.

Meanwhile, rice became more expensive. The price of coarse rice had risen from five rupees per maund to fifteen over the past three or four months. Some people were even selling their babies for a kilo of rice. Men and women were said to be dying of starvation in some places. Amidst all this, some strange news arrived one day. Traders were transporting rice and lentils on the narrow-gauge railway between Katwa and Ahmedpur. A group of people tried to loot them at Kurmadanga Station. Apparently they had pleaded with the traders for alms before looting them. The traders called the police. The three or four armed policemen who were on the train chased away a crowd of about a thousand people, beating them up with their sticks. Some had split skulls, and others, broken arms and legs. But still they didn’t let go of their booty. Even the most merciless beating couldn’t separate them from what they had looted. It was being said that some of them had actually died of the beating. The fingers of the dead gripped the sacks like pincers.

The government wasn’t taking any steps despite the crisis. Everyone was busy with the war. The newspapers said that the government had fixed the price of rice at five rupees and seventy-five paise. But no one was interested in following the government’s orders. The Congress stormed a rice mill in Midnapore with two or three thousand demonstrators. A large quantity of rice was stashed away in the mill. The people raised slogans – no hoarding, no exporting. Five armed guards were posted at the mill. Without panicking, they opened fire, killing three people and injuring many. About ten protestors were arrested. Leave alone reining in prices, the government paid no attention to any of this. It had lost control over the pricing of everyday items. The people from the Rice Mills’ Association were openly saying that they would not sell their produce at the level fixed by the government. They had bought the stuff at high prices, and would therefore sell even higher. This government had been in place for a long time. Fazlul Haq had become the Prime Minister of Bengal four years ago. People called him Sher-e-Bangla, the Tiger of Bengal. German Mian felt that Haq was a paper tiger, who was behaving more like a snake in the grass. Muslim leaders said that Haq sahib’s Krishak Praja Party represented peasants only by name, for actually it was the party of Ashraf Muslims, who claimed foreign ancestry. How would he look after the interests of Muslim farmers? Haq was a puppet controlled by wealthy Hindus. He couldn’t sleep at night without bowing and scraping to them. And the Hindus not only had a great deal of money, but also plenty of people to invest in them. From Burrabazar traders to the Tatas and Birlas, everyone was funding the Hindu parties. Had Haq sahib remained on the side of the Muslims, the Ispahanis would have given the Prime Minister money for the community in these times of famine and despair. But Haq sahib had fallen under Shyama Prasad Mukherjee’s spell and forgotten the Muslims. And Shyama-babu was the finance minister of Bengal. Which clearly showed how easy it was to hoodwink Haq sahib. That was precisely what Mukherjee had done. Keeping the finance portfolio to himself, he made Haq the Prime Minister. Khwaja Nizamuddin would have been a far better Prime Minister. And besides, Shyamaprasad was not only a member of the Hindu Mahasabha, but he also said nasty things about Muslims everywhere. Haq sahib pretended not to hear. His own case was complicated. At one time he had appeared to be a representative of the Muslim League, and it had seemed that his Krishak Praja Party might merge with the League. But it was different now. His activities in cahoots with the Hindu Mahasabha had marked him out as nothing but a pimp seeking power. He had done nothing for the Qaum barring friends and relatives. He had begun consorting with the Hindus at a time when all of Bengal’s Muslims were starving, and had handed over the larder keys to Shyamaprasad, who was a sworn enemy of Muslims. While Muslims lay in their beds trying to quieten their growling stomachs, Shyamababu was holding Hindu Mahasabha processions badmouthing Muslims to his heart’s content. Just a few months ago he had announced at the top of his voice at a public gathering: let Muslims pack their bags and leave India.

Why should they? Was India his ancestral property? German Mian felt a writhing anger.

Runa’s Nani emerged from the labour-room after forty days. She used to write all that was on her mind in a notebook. For two or three months now, she had written nothing. Kamrunnesa began writing all over again, although she misspelt her words, in the manner of a diary. But there was no continuity. For the most part, the things she had heard found their place, scattered and unconnected, in a notebook covered with green paper. On the first day Kamrunnesa wrote:

‘I have had a beautiful daughter. I had meant to call her Lakshmi. But he didn’t agree. Maulana sahib has named her Zahra. It is a wonderful name. Lakshmi would not have been a bad nickname for her. He said, there is great poverty everywhere, to name her after the goddess of wealth in these times would be unjust to people. There is strife all over the world.

When I was at my parents’, I heard stories about how Lakshmi turned into rice grains to save people. When a poor cowherd was sobbing out of hunger, Lakshmi gave her rice seeds. The colour of that rice was like gold, and it was fragrant. I am reminded of this story when I get the aroma of Bhimshal rice. The old woman who worked at my parents’ house used to say that Lakshmi gave just a small quantity of rice seeds – but that was enough to have the grains growing everywhere. The hills, the ponds, the canals, the fields all overflowed with the crop.

I have been eating Bhootmuri rice these past forty days. It boosts the flow of breast milk. Before my sister left our parents’ house, she used to eat Kabirajshal rice. These people have no Kabirajshal rice. It was available at my parents’ house.

Dozens of people come to this house for their meals every day. I am not inclined to turn so many people down. Mejo Bhaijan measures out the rice these days. I don’t know how all these people will manage. Rice, potato and sugar are hard to get. We have enough rice for a year at home, but how can you eat rice alone. Mejo Bhaijan has bought a maund of potatoes. I do not know how long it will last in this huge family. But then, it is not supposed to be my concern. Mejo Bhabi will worry about it. Still, if you are part of a household you have to think of these things. You have to think of the villagers too. For a fistful of rice they’re selling the animals they use to plough their fields. People are dying every day. The price of rice has risen to thirty rupees a maund. Babies in arms are being sold in Burdwan and Nadia districts. When I look at my Lakshmi, these things make me tremble. They’re selling children for five to twenty rupees. But then who will buy them, who has the money to support a child?

It seems a girl was sold in exchange for a maund and a half of rice in Birbhum. Unable to feed his wife and child, a Muslim weaver jumped into the Kansai river and drowned. His wife threw their younger child into the river. She had buried the elder child, but a lower caste Hindu rescued the him.

My friend had come. She stayed three days. He objected, but Mejo Bhaijan said she could stay as long as she liked. A couple of stories she told me didn’t let me eat at night. A woman and her mother from Agartala village under Nandigram police station in Midnapur have been widowed in a tornado. The rest of the family have drowned. The starving mother and daughter began to beg, and went all the way to Kakdwip. An accountant there offered them shelter. Giving them a room to stay in, he assaulted the daughter repeatedly. Not content with being the only one, he got others to assault her too. The evil accountant has set up a factory for her. The devil and his friends assaulted a Muslim woman the same way when she went to Kakdwip from Khulna. They gave her father a small plot of land and ordered him to remain silent. They even threatened to kill the family if they revealed they were Muslim. My friend and her group visited them in secret. The woman said, I have no family, what do I need honour for. My belly is empty, what should I keep it hidden for.

Meanwhile Netaji has left India. From his voice on the radio we know he’s alive. City people are moving to the villages because vegetables are cheaper here. So vegetables are no longer available. The Quit India movement started a few days later. He says he will join the movement. But he’s abandoned his plans for now after Mejo Bhaijan scolded him. Maulana Azad is in jail. My friend came again. This time too she was here for money. She needs the money because Maulana’s wife is in trouble. She needs help. Maulana cannot provide much money to his family. On top of which he has been jailed for a year. Maulana’s wife Zulekha Begum has no regrets about this. She has sent a letter to Bauji, saying that she had not expected her man to be jailed for a year. His exploits should have fetched him a longer term in jail. She would take charge of the Khilafat Committee in Bengal in her husband’s absence. Zulekha Begum needed money, which was why my friend was taking contributions from different people.

He says Shyama-babu has parted ways with Haq sahib. Because the government is not despatching food to Midnapore. Haq sahib’s throne is tottering too. The League doesn’t approve of him. The lieutenant governor cannot stand him. A few days later I heard Nawab Nazimuddin had got the throne. Suhrawardy was the food minister now. People thought they would get food at last. But their suffering increased. People kept dropping like flies. Tentuli the farmhand said corpses could be seen in the bushes. Neither jackals and dogs, nor vultures and hawks lacked for food now. There is no water in the ponds. No water to be had at the mosque either. Water has to be fetched from distant places. The League is feeding people free of cost at many places. They have plenty of money. The Ispahanis give them both food and cash. Ramlochan the kaviraj said the Ispahanis have apparently bought up all the rice at a high price and are hoarding it. People aren’t even strong enough to walk to free food camps. Even the leaves on the trees are wilting. There is no hope of eating them. Fuel is available but what will people cook! They’re being poisoned to death by the hyacinth from dead ponds. Mejo Bhaijan told a story about an old man from Ujjalpur who was returning home after failing to get any food. Tripping on the ledge between two fields, he fell down by the canal. Three jackals ate him alive.’

Lakshmi, meaning Zahra, was four already. Kamrunnesa, that is to say, Runa’s Nani, was pregnant again. Runa’s Nana began to dream once more. But he had changed a great deal during these years. He no longer had bitter arguments with the Maulana. On the contrary, their viewpoints had converged in many respects. Nana kept dreaming and weaving different versions of his dreams. Zahra had reached the age when her Bismillahkhani, the day she would start learning to write, was fast approaching. It had to be done at the age of four years, four months and four days. But given the state of the nation, elaborate ceremonies had all but vanished from people’s lives. German Mia had a dream on the night of the Bismillakhani. Maulana sahib had performed the ceremonies. He had spent the entire day at their house. They had long conversations. He left late in the afternoon. In the evening German Mian surmised that dreams would not spare him tonight. So he ate his dinner quickly and went to sleep on his own. In his dream he saw an elderly man approaching him, holding a sword in one hand and a rosary in the other. He was riding a four-legged creature. Was this the apocalypse, wondered German Mian. Terrified, he began to flee in his dream, but his feet moved painfully slowly. The elderly man followed him. Suddenly German Mian saw a mosque looming ahead of him. He ran inside for shelter. It was teeming with people. He couldn’t get even a toehold. Most of those present were like skeletons, dressd in tattered clothes. German Mian had not performed his wuzu, his ablutions. There was no water to be found anywhere. He was dying of thirst. He throat was parched. The water from the taps was toxic. Suddenly he saw a mound of earth behind the mosque. Running his hands over it, he attempted Tayammum, or dry ablutions. But the instant he touched the mound, three birds flew out of it. They were alien birds. Were these the Ababil birds who had stoned the soldiers on elephant-back to death? The three birds began conversing among themselves. German Mian was certain they did not belong to this world. They were shaped like distorted maps. Taking off their clothes, they began to bathe in blood, transforming gradually into humans. Humans, women. blood overflowed everywhere. German Mian had learnt outside the dream that the clothes held the beating hearts of the three bewitching women. He escaped unobserved with their clothes. After bathing, when they couldn’t find their clothes anywhere, German Mian came into view again. He said he would return their clothes on one condition. He wanted one of them to fly him to his destination. The smallest of the three birds agreed, asking, where do you want to go, huzoor? German Mian could not decide – Persia or the deserts of Arabia? He would go to Pakistan, East Pakistan. The bird chuckled. An airborne German Mian decided to join the League that very day, never mind the Maulana! He wanted to live in his dream. Considering that his dreams were being shattered every day, if he were to retain his sense of reality during this dreamlike or semi-wakeful state, the dreams would not yield to him easily. They would escape him despite being within touching distance. That night he clearly saw a beautiful, unmarried woman. She was wandering about on an uncultivated plot of land where crops had never grown. German Mian walked across this plot of land and stopped at the end of the road. Numerous other roads met at this point – these roads were so winding that they could be mistaken for snakes. He realised that dreadful battles had broken out on every street at this gigantic junction. Most of the land and people of the world were being destroyed. Only a few had survived. He was one of them. In his dream he had no idea whether his wife and child or any of his relations were alive. Night had descended on the planet. A few scattered stars were twinkling. Suddenly he discovered an elderly man approaching him, dressed in a white pirhan. His senses were alerted. He would also become a participant in this partition, a process of endless partition, which just could not be stopped. His throat was parched. He rose from his bed for a drink of water. The water hereabouts had a very bad taste. He decided to move to Pakistan.

The next morning German Mian felt rather ill. He could no longer suppress the story of his dream of the previous night. No sooner did the saga of the dream become known than there was mayhem at home. German Mian’s elder brother decided to take him to Shah Rustam’s shrine in Salar. Mejo Mian had heard his Burra Abba, his father’s grandfather, say that Khwaja Muhammad Sharif was the thirteenth descendant of Hazrat Abu Bakr, the first Caliph of Islam – his son Shah Rustam came to India from Khorasan several years ago. This extremely erudite man finally settled in Salar in Murshidabad. King Shah Alam gave him ownership of much of the land in this area. His grave was in Salar. However, instead of following in his footsteps, his son Serajuddin took the post of principal Qazi at Gaur. Sultan Ghiasuddin was very fond of him. His son Shah Azizullah busied himself with religious matters, returning to the same Salar. Mufti Muhammad Moyez was a member of this family, the bosom friend and tutor of prince Humayun Zah. Moyez sahib eventually had to serve the English. Although Khondkar Obaidul Akbar and his son Fazle Rabbi worked for the Nawab, they were learned men. But as the saying goes, Allahtaala takes away family glory after a few generations. Their progeny were now in that situation. Everyone was exploiting Shah Rustam to survive. But Rustam’s shrine was exceptionally potent. Unless German Mian was taken there, fate would always hold nightmares for him. Accordingly an awning was strung up on an ox-cart. A thick bedding was laid out on it. German Mian being a man of luxury, it was decided to take a radio along. If they left very early, they would reach Salar in four hours. A lantern was hung beneath the cart to dispel the darkness of the night. Tentuli drove the ox-cart.

As they were passing Palsha on their way to Daskamalgram, they saw a strange sight. A body lay in front of a primary school made of earth, with a thatched roof. The face wasn’t clear in the half darkness, but German Mian had no doubt it was a woman’s body. Tentuli was asked to turn the cart around. ‘No, we cannot go back,’ declared Mejo Mian. ‘Drive straight to Salar, Tentuli.’ German Mian was not accustomed to defying his elder brother. Half-sitting, half-lying under the awning, he busied himself reconstructing the face of the corpse. In his head he recited the Ayatul Kursi, the throne verse of the Quran which emphasised Allah’s power over the universe. This would make the devil flee from his presence. He also knew that, with the agony of leaving the safe haven of his home, his Al Makam Al Amin, tearing his heart apart, there was no alternative to the Ayatul Kursi to rid himself of the pain. Alongside his reconstruction of the face, he recited softly:

Allah is the immortal eternal entity who holds the entire world firmly in his grip, there is no god but him, he does not sleep, slumber cannot touch him. Everything on earth and in the sky belongs to him. No one can make a recommendation in his court without his permission. He knows all that is known to man, and all that is unknown to man is not unknown to him. What he knows lies beyond the limits of human knowledge. It is a different matter if he wishes to teach any of this to mankind. His kingdom encompasses the earth and the sky. Looking after all this does not exhaust him. In truth he is a noble entity, the finest.

Reciting the Ayatul Kursi and reconstructing the face of the dead woman, German Mian fell asleep. When you go to sleep after reading this verse, Allah sends an angel to you. The angel would guard German Mian until he woke up. Therefore there were six creatures on or near the cart now – Anwar Mian, German Mian, Tentuli, the angel, and two black oxen. Anwar Mian wondered about the woman. Who had killed her and left her here? How would she be buried? Inna Lillahe Wa Inna Elaihe Rajeoon. Surely we belong to Allah and to him we shall return.

Only the angel put all thoughts aside and accompanied the cart like a guard, sometimes perched on the awning, sometimes whirling around the lantern beneath the cart. Not even daybreak brought him relief – he would be done only when German Mian awoke. But the young angel knew that German Mian’s wakefulness was actually another kind of sleep. Just as fate never did hold dreamless sleep for him, he never left the world of sleep entirely to descend to the real world. Would the angel then have to stay with German Mian till he sank into eternal sleep? He didn’t know. He had no task other than following orders. But he quite liked the man. He visited the tall man frequently. Although his visits were professional, he had his likes and dislikes, even if he wasn’t allowed to express them. The young angel decided to sneak into German Mian’s sleep for a glimpse of the world of his dreams. The house of this man’s soul was like the Dar Ul Makama, home. Offering a mental sajdah to Allahtaala, prostrating himself in his head, he said: I proffer my sajdah to the one who has made room for us to dwell in his infinite compassion, where there is neither suffering nor fatigue.