by Maskwaith Ahsan
It was another sleepless night. She was wide awake when morning spread its wings and a familiar dove sang its song full of the rhythm of crops and soil. A knock at the door took her there, where stood a child and his father.
“I sell fruits on the local passenger train, but Corona has taken away our trains and now I can’t even provide food for my family. ‘So ashamed to beg for help,” appealed the young downcast father.
“Asking for help is not begging,” she stopped him from further embarrassment, “This pandemic has left us all stranded in problems, you are not alone.”
Breakfast wasn’t ready; it was too early for the household, so she prepared two plates of food with the rice and curry leftover from last night. Her brother was surprisingly up and served the food to the father and son waiting on their veranda. The shine in the child’s eyes as he saw the plates brought tears to hers.
Whenever she missed her sons, her husband would say that longing for the presence of one’s children was normal yet a luxury. “They are accomplishing their lives just as we did ours. Instead of thinking about your grownup kids, think about those whose young children sleep hungry. Try to help them and acquire happiness.”
He could be quite convincing but in this matter she always had a quip about his philosophical statements. “Who do you think looks after the people around us, you? Have you ever had the time? Even after retirement from teaching, you remain busy like you were running the White House.”
And he would often answer with a twinkle in his eyes and a slight smile on his lips, “You are quite capable of looking after the people around us. Why do you think I am still with you?”
Mrs. Nandi, the neighbor, called out to her from her window. She couldn’t visit due to physical distancing but was socially always around. “Mr. Nandi went to Kolkata to meet his relatives. He was absolutely fine, but quietly passed away in his sleep. You never know when God will call back his children. Look at your friend Ranu; working hard all those years and just when her children got settled and they built a good house in Pabna, her husband passed away. Man proposes, God disposes. There are some things we’re not meant to understand, I guess.”
They were fourth-generation neighbors, sharing joys and sorrows like a family. That’s the way their town worked, Muslims and Hindus were more than friends or neighbors. Maya for each other always outsmarted the shenanigans of the middlemen of religion and politics who over and again tried to sneak in like snake-charmers. And Arani had stood firm through the acid tests of 1947 and 1971 without fear, without doubts.
Arani is a timeless land, a place of endless stories; social distancing is a novel concept for the town’s folks. Even in 1971, Arani tried to continue life as it always had been. One day, her uncle and his friends, all Awami League supporters and cultural activists, got surrounded by Pakistan army as they were gathered to listen to clandestine radio station, Shwadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, at Arani Bazar. They were all made to stand in a row of death and asked to identify themselves. One of her Uncle’s Hindu friends, a doctor, whispered into his ears, “Don’t give them your real name. Tell them you are Khair Khan.”
Next, they were asked about party affiliation. The new Khan of the group said, “We are doctors and businessman, ordinary people really. I’ll be the one to treat you if you fall ill. And with the fees I will buy food for my children. That’s what this country is to us, a place where we work hard to live and let others live.”
One army officer looked convinced but asked nevertheless, “What was the radio station you were all listening to?”
Another Muslim doctor replied without fear, “We are Khan Ka Bacha Khan. We listen to only Radio Pakistan.”
“Do know the Kalima?”
“Of course we do,” they exclaimed in unison and recited the first Kalima.
“Go run. If you want to live, Run,” ordered the officer in charge.
They ran like champions. Several yards behind them they heard a few obligatory blank shots, and since then everything’s been quiet at the Arani front.
Forty-nine years later, a sense of déjà vu brought back all those memories and stories. Tired of the Corona lockdown several young men clandestinely met up at the market place. They were suddenly surrounded by the police and army, “Go back home or else you will be arrested.”
One of them decided to name-drop, “We are Awami League supporters. We are careful about Corona.”
“Corona doesn’t recognize Awami League. This Covid-19 is the father of all dictatorships in the world. So please go back and stay home. Let us do our job,” advised the senior officer.
They reluctantly started for their homes, gloomy faces dreading the days of house-arrest ahead. She saw them heading back; the police following them to make sure they did as told. With a smile, she thought of her brothers who were somehow content at home. Maybe it was because they had recently lost their brother-in-law and the entire family was gathered at home. Her younger son was also here after a long time, there was a lot of catching up to do and colorful memories to reminisce about.
Corona was an issue that too needed to be figured out. “Arani is one of those places where the population is not dense and nature is affectionately nurtured. There’s free space, open air, trees all around and you can breathe like a king. The air is naturally cool, you don’t need air conditioners,” her younger son went on, “Imagine a stuffy air conditioned train full of passengers versus a local train with open windows, the wind sweeping away all germs and virus. For this reason alone, we must rethink the concept of development.”
Her brothers proudly listened to their nephew, “Why do you think I refused to go to Dhaka and look for a job after my Masters? I opted for tech entrepreneurship and now also teach at a college. Don’t know if I am successful but I can happily say that I lead a healthy life. I can’t even breathe comfortably in Dhaka. That’s why Cox’s Bazar and Kuakata are my choices of holiday destinations.
“And why do you think my dad also refused to live in Dhaka. There was always a lot of pressure on him from family and friends to relocate, they even found a good piece of land at a fair price for him in Dhaka but Abba chose Ishwardi so he could live the way he wanted, in harmony with nature and for an unlimited supply of fresh air. Can you imagine, oxygen was a definition of success for him? So I have decided to settle in Ishwardi too once I retire.”
(to be continued…)