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