They had met after a few years. That was three days ago, right here. That’s when Baset made the offer to his elder brother’s friend Nantu. And Nantu had accepted.
“Let me describe the way to our house in some detail, so that you don’t have any trouble finding it. You’ll be coming to visit after dark and if there is a power cut, you would have to feel your way blindly. Sure, you could always ask people on the streets, but there is no guarantee that they will know the way. They could even mislead you, take you into the wrong alley, press a knife to your chest, saying, ‘Let’s see what you’ve got, you jerk!’ I know, of course, that you will only be coming to visit us. You could have a few bucks on you — a hundred takas, at the most. But I am sure you would have a packet of expensive cigarettes and a classy lighter on you.
“The thug could, perhaps, let you go if not for the cigarettes, at least for that lighter. But I am not sure about that either. He might not want to believe that a man with such an expensive lighter is really carrying such a measly sum of cash — he might swiftly give you a couple of stabs just for that. So I think you should know the way, so that there is no such risk. Let me describe it in a way that would allow you to get there even blindfolded, day or night. And if there is a power cut at night, then you would just need to keep your eyes and ears open.
“Why, Nantu Bhai, when I talk of keeping your eyes and ears open, why do you look at me with such narrowed eyes? There could be three reasons. Some time ago, you had got so annoyed with someone that you narrowed your eyes till they looked like fine pencil lines. Another time, you were so kicked by the foolishness of a friend that your amused eyes crinkled into slits. And I also noticed that your eyes reflect your suspicions, like they did when you heard a pointed proposal from a person you hardly knew. You couldn’t figure out whether the man was trying to help you or get you into trouble.
“The way you look at me now seems to say, does Baset really want to take me to his home, or is he cooking up trouble? Chhi, chhi! Nantu Bhai, you are my elder brother’s friend. I have heard my brother say, if there is anyone I could call a bosom friend, that’s Nantu. Do you remember when you visited our village home? I was in school then. The moment we heard that Majed Bhai’s friend was coming, our house burst into celebration. I bunked school and swept the courtyard with a broom, got rid of weeds, cleaned and dusted the front room where you and Majed Bhai would stay, did so much cleaning that by the time I finished I had turned into a dusty little golliwog. I remember when the rickshaw you two were coming in turned towards our house — how we huddled together in awe, as if a king was paying a visit to an insignificant subject.
“Never mind what you say, Nantu Bhai, you will still get a king’s welcome in our house. I sometimes think of what it must have been like for the poor subjects, how terrified they must have been of slip-ups when a king came visiting — just the visit of a zamindar was frantic enough. Well, the king now lives only in the pages of history, in stories, in names, in the ads for family planning.
“Please don’t mind my words, Nantu Bhai, I didn’t mean anything bad when I mentioned family planning. When I talked of a king you had glanced at me swiftly, but I didn’t think you were imagining the picture of a king that we see on certain packets. But when you heard the words ‘family planning’, you looked at me with such stony eyes that I feel you mistook what I meant to say. Believe me, the position you hold at present makes you not just a king in my eyes, but a super sovereign, an emperor par excellence! You smile, I see. But this is not a joke, Nantu Bhai. You are now among the top ten of this country. I am sure everyone knows you by name. So if someone of your stature pays me a visit — imagine what it means to me!
“Pardon? Oh, that thug! You should never expect preferential treatment from thugs. If he recognises the President, then maybe his hand will tremble a bit, but if he doesn’t recognise him, then he gets the same treatment as Rahim, Karim, Ram or Shyam. Don’t worry about that. Just listen carefully to my directions so you can come straight to our house without having to ask the way.”
The phone rings, cutting short Baset’s talk. Nantu Bhai gets up and strolls out. From his chair, Baset can see the phone in the next room. He can’t make out the conversation, but does hear Nantu say ‘no’ a couple of times. Nantu Bhai returns and says, “Well, Baset, I had to opt out of a programme tomorrow because I will be visiting you instead.”
“But why? You could come to our place the day after!”
“No, Baset, that wouldn’t be right. I have been thinking of going over to your home for quite a while now, but haven’t managed to make the time. See, if that phone call had come before you arrived, then I wouldn’t have been able to visit you tomorrow either. You are a smart young man, you would understand that quite often I can’t go places, even if I want to. But people misunderstand that. They think that because I am a leader now, I have become too remote, they think I don’t want to acknowledge my near and dear ones. But believe me, I want to go to people, hear their stories, do something for them. But the fact is that most people are so greedy that you can never satisfy their hunger, you only make a bad name for yourself.
“Oh no, I don’t for a moment think that you want something from me. You are like my little brother. It’s impossible to explain what a dear friend Majed was to me. I have such fond memories of your village home. Your mother served me with her own hands with such love — even my own mother hadn’t fed me with such affection. So how is Khalamma now?”
“Ma died in January, 1976.”
“What? Really? She has been gone for so long, and you didn’t even let me know? No, no, Baset, that was very wrong of you. You should have let me know.”
“Well, it didn’t happen for some reason or the other.”
“Really, Baset, ever thought of how soft the mother’s heart is in Bangladesh? When I think of it, I am amazed. Who am I to your family? Just your elder brother’s friend, that’s all. But your mother had given me the affection that one doesn’t even give oneown son. What are you thinking, Baset?”
“No, nothing really, Nantu Bhai. Just got a bit distracted since you mentioned Ma. You know, Ma remembered you very often. Nantu Bhai, you are looking at me with narrowed eyes again. You shouldn’t doubt me anymore. Just because I mentioned that Ma talked of you, you think I want to remind you about the incident with Majed Bhai. I have no such intention. We make decisions based on our own reason and sensitivities, and you made the right decision according to your own judgement. Let me explain, since you look at me again with those slitted eyes. If you had saved Majed Bhai just for the sake of your friendship, then you would have spent an eternity trying to justify it to your conscience.”
“Exactly! You are absolutely right, Baset. I have thought about it a lot. Whenever I think of saving Majed, a shiver runs down my spine at the prospect of betraying my country. And while I stand up for my country, I am confused — Majed, such a dear old friend, his mother loved me like her own son. You know, Baset, let me tell you something frankly. All those boys of the Muktibahini or Muktijoddha, whatever you call them, they really did go way over the top. Okay, I understand your reasons — but we may have reasons too! You want us to listen to your logic, but you won’t listen to ours — that’s not done. I say, come, sit down, let’s talk it over, we’ll certainly figure out a solution. But no, you want to rush in and kill people! That’s no way to do things. So we had to take a stand as well.”
“Nobody wants to recognise this, Nantu Bhai. I don’t dwell on what happened with Majed Bhai, which is why I invited you to our home. I am so glad you accepted. I offered to take you home with me, but you didn’t agree. Of course I know you like a challenge in everything you take up, so I didn’t insist. It’s not that difficult to find our village home, but finding your way to our home in the city at night might be tough. But I know you will find it, of course you will.”
“Baset, you speak as if I don’t know this city. Why, not just this city, but I know all of Bangladesh very well. We need to know, how else can we be among the top ten of Bangladesh, or whatever you said we were? Tell me, I will certainly find my way to your home.”
Right then, the lights went off. The confidence in Nantu Bhai’s voice seemed to vanish with the lights. Baset called out: “Nantu Bhai?”
“Tell me. I was taken aback by the power cut. I feel quite stifled in the dark. I feel like someone might pounce on me.”
“Why did you laugh, Baset?”
“Such fears don’t suit you.”
“No, it’s nothing, really. But people have become so strange these days. I look people in the eye when I talk to them, you know, and I often see in them a desire… like they want to eat me alive.”
Baset laughed softly. “Did you see anything in my eyes?”
“I asked if you saw anything in my eyes.”
There was no answer. Baset wondered if he was suddenly alone in the room. He couldn’t even hear Nantu Bhai breathing. Baset waited. Maybe he should light a match, he thought. That’s when Nantu Bhai replied: “No, to be honest I haven’t seen that in your eyes. But you seem to be looking for something. What do you seek, Baset?”
“Let’s not talk about that, Nantu Bhai. Sometimes, I myself can’t make out what I seek. Suddenly, I seem to see Majed Bhai walking in the crowd, I know it’s impossible, it cannot be, but I still go crazy trying to find that man in the crowd. I look at every old woman on the street and think: Ma! Isn’t it strange? Neither Majed Bhai nor Ma is alive. You wouldn’t believe it, Nantu Bhai, but whenever I see a dark boy in kurta-pajamas, I think, isn’t that our Lokman?”
“Who is Lokman?”
“You wouldn’t know him, he was my classmate. The army guys killed him by tossing him into the lion’s cage.”
“In Thakurgaon. He had crossed the border there, back from his training.”
Nantu Bhai made an irritated sound. “Tell me the directions to your home, instead.”
Baset drew a deep breath. He would like a glass of water. He would like to clear his voice and give perfect directions to his house. But as he began, the voice that emerged from his throat was not his. Nantu Bhai had heard it too.
“Who was that, Baset?”
“I am Majed’s brother, Baset. Where should I begin? Let me start from the three-headed junction. You must have seen it — with one road going north, one west, one east. You will take the one that goes east. As you go down that road, after about fifty yards, you’ll find a small field to your left. But you mustn’t look too closely at the field. If you do, you will see four or five people lying there. People are not supposed to be lying at a place like that, but if you go up close, you will see that their chests are riddled with holes, their faces smashed in. Nantu Bhai, among them are Altaf, Mizan, Sabu, Dulu and Nausher. You must have gone beyond the river? They were hiding in the kaash fields beyond the river, waiting to attack the camp. You didn’t do anything, of course. But Osman Ghani tipped off the military camp. You must have known Osman Ghani?”
“I did. He was Secretary of the Peace Committee.”
“As a warning to the public, they made an example of the boys, dumped them in that field in the middle of the city, didn’t let anyone bury them. Nantu Bhai, on moonlit nights I have seen the five boys holding hands and walking about. The branches of the trees bow low, the grass not touched by their feet cry out for that touch, a fragrant breeze drifts in, somewhere nearby fairies play the veena and sing softly. You know, Nantu Bhai, I had once got very close to them, but they didn’t let me in. And Nausher said, ‘It’s only because you are Majed Bhai’s brother that you even got this close.’ Suddenly, they stopped walking. I turned my ear to the wind and heard the sobs of Enam’s mother. I hadn’t recognised it at first, which angered Altaf’s gang: ‘Of course you wouldn’t know what that is anymore!’ The moment I heard that, I could see Enam’s house as clear as daylight.
“Nantu Bhai, you needn’t look at the house too carefully. It’s a very ordinary house with a tin roof. It doesn’t sparkle in the sunlight, doesn’t glow in the moonlight, in fact the black roof patched together out of kerosene tins looks positively depressed on cloudy days. Yet, in the deep of the moonless night, when the stars shine brighter than ever, when there is no one on the streets, right then, Nantu Bhai, right then angels alight from the heavens and make a ring around the house, pay their respects, then go in and say to Enam’s mother, ‘Ma, why do you weep? Your Sufia may not be around, but we are.’ Enam’s mother looks up through her tears. The youngest and prettiest of the angels clings to Enam’s mother’s bosom like a baby. So weird, all this, isn’t it, Nantu Bhai? Enam’s mother too cuddles and kisses the teenage angel, fussing over her dear little Sufia, singing nursery rhymes. The angel giggles happily. Enam’s mother forgets Farukh, the son of Secretary Osman Ghani. Forgets how he snatched her daughter away from her in broad daylight and gifted her to the army men.
“Nantu Bhai, this is what Majed Bhai had gone to protest against. He didn’t come back. We waited and waited, our eyes grew hazy looking for him. That’s when I ran to you.”
Baset could feel that Nantu Bhai was getting fidgety. “Are you annoyed, Nantu Bhai?”
“Baset, trust me, I took three steps forward to protect Majed, and two steps back. I knew that one memo from me to the Major would get Majed released. But every time I picked up the pen and paper, I thought, is my friend more important than Pakistan? Anyway, tell me your address, Baset, I promise I will come. Yes, most certainly. Let’s not talk about all that. I may have lost my friend for the sake of my country, but I haven’t lost the friendship. And you are Majed’s brother! Of course I will come to your house!”
“Yes, Nantu Bhai, I can claim that right, which is precisely why I invited you. I offered to take you home with me, but you didn’t agree. You don’t want to come by daylight. So I need to give you very precise directions — how else would you find it? You see, so often we lose our way on well-trodden paths, fail to recognise the most familiar. It’s very important to make sure that you know your way thoroughly, that you understand the path to take. Forget about Enam’s mother and her sobbing for Sufia. Just keep your nose perked up once you cross that house.”
“Why? Is there a garden of fragrant flowers nearby?”
“No, Nantu Bhai, nothing of the kind. About fifty feet after Enam’s house, you see bhat flowers, shrubs, thorn-trees, a betel nut tree, a small madar tree, even an arjun tree. You will see all that. None of these have a scent. Yet, right there I have encountered the fragrance of the heavens. Even without a whiff of breeze, my senses fill with that scent, almost choking my breath. I hold a handkerchief to my nose to ward off that heady smell, and hear my cousin Babul cry out, ‘Baset Bhai, you too?’
‘Babul, believe me, Babul, I don’t deserve to experience such an intensely pure scent. I am told the virtuous experience the fragrances of the heavens in their lifetime, but I haven’t done anything to deserve it, Babul!’
p. 1 p. 2
Rashid Haider, a leading fiction writer of Bangladesh and chronicler of the liberation war of 1971, is former Director of the Bangla Academy, Bangladesh’s national academy of arts and letters. He lives in Dhaka