An Indian Citizen in Our Town

An Indian citizen has arrived in our town. This isn’t really news. The Indian border is very close to our town and many people cross over every day. They are ours, they belong to this land. Most are smugglers. Though bona fide businessmen and those who are visiting relatives are not small in number either. This coming and going takes place every day. Although not many from that country come to ours, we don’t have the same interest in them that we have for people of other countries. And because West Bengalis do not have white skin or a different language, like Europeans, they don’t seem like foreigners to us. Therefore, nothing about an Indian citizen visiting our town should give rise to curiosity or surprise. Until we found out that the gentleman had come here to die. Never in our lives had we heard of such a thing.

When our friend Tapan Kumar Kha informed us of this astonishing fact, we exclaimed, “Wonderful!” We were excited because not much that is unusual or fun happens in this humdrum township. The people here are quite humorless. If anyone jokes around, they’re deemed frivolous. A person with a sense of humor is neither prized nor respected. This is probably why boys and girls practice seriousness from primary school onward. Those who lack seriousness, whose innate temperaments tend toward jokes and laughter are not valued in this town. Their parents curse their own fates more than they decry the frivolous nature of their offspring.

In such a humorless town, the few of us who have been overtaken by laughter become gleeful when we hear of the madness of Tapan Kha’s seventy-three-year-old uncle, and we think to ourselves, finally a man of humor emerges. We cannot keep still when we hear a person has declared the day and hour of his death, that he will make his death an incident worth attending. We rush to see him. Our curiosity: what’s the story, why this strange oath? But we’re unable to meet him. He leaves while it is barely dawn, and returns late. And because he is weary and listless by then, Tapan’s mother allows no visitors. We hear from the young travel companion of this gentleman, his grandson Avijit, that the old man has become mentally unbalanced. His constant harping on Bangladesh-Bangladesh-Bangladesh drove his children and grandchildren to distraction. Finally, one afternoon, he dreamed of his dear departed mother and decided he was coming to Bangladesh. He took leave of his family and friends and informed them that he would not be returning to India. The ancient cremation ghat on the shores of the Tulshiganga in Bangladesh was where his mother had been cremated; his funeral pyre would burn in the same place.

Avijit informed us that every morning since his arrival, his Dadu would gulp down some flattened or puffed rice, shove a handful of coconut naru in his pocket, and leave Tapan’s house. He walked around looking at fields, ponds, lakes, trees, and searched the villages for this person and that. Those he sought were no longer there; they’ve all died. But this doesn’t dampen his spirits; he must find at least one of his old friends. How can it be that everyone has already died, leaving him behind?

We hear of his doings from Avijit and Tapan, and our desire to see him grows. Such a man, who jokes so about death—to have him here in our town and not meet him, this cannot be. No matter how, we shall capture him today, even if it’s eleven PM, even if Tapan’s mother scolds us.

That very afternoon the gentleman appeared, of his own accord, at our adda. Our adda gathers at the field beside the Shahid Minar, the memorial to the martyrs. The spot is away from the main road where the light from the streetlamps doesn’t reach. In the semidarkness we couldn’t see his face clearly. We only noticed his eyes glinting. He was tall, but his body had not bent with age, and his spine was surprisingly straight. We stood up from the grass to greet him. We touched our foreheads and said, Adaab. One of us, a bit of a clown, said, Salamaleikum. (The poet Nirmalendu Goon once visited here and this clown said Salamaleikum to him, too. His explanation for this, which isn’t really relevant here, is: people’s speech should be in accordance with who they are. For instance, Hindus never say Salamaleikum to Muslims, they greet us with Adaab. But we greet Hindus with Adaab, we don’t say Salamaleikum to them either. Why? He thinks this is because Muslims feel inferior, etc.) In response to our Adaab and Salam, the gentleman nods and sits on the grass. Tapan introduces us. He tells us his name is Nabinchandra Chowdhury, and he announces, as if making a proclamation, that he has returned. We ask him what precisely he means by saying he has returned. He tells us he has returned to the land of his birth and he will never return to India. Displaying no interest in our response, he says that after spending fifty years in a foreign land (it seems to us that he places an undue emphasis on the phrase foreign land) he has finally returned to his homeland at seventy-three, and this is his final return. One of us jokingly says, homeland and land of birth are not the same. No one would deny that Bangladesh was his land of birth, but he could no longer claim Bangladesh as his homeland. We scolded our friend into silence, advising him to give up intellectual pretensions. Another friend asks how many days the government of Bangladesh had allowed him in his visa. He says, fifteen. We notice that his garrulity from minutes ago has disappeared. Perhaps he is hurt by our friend’s words. But what can be done? We ask him the next question, how will he remain in this country once his visa expires. He says that by then his lifespan would also have expired. This time we find it truly funny. But we conceal it and express surprise and ask how he knows. He says that he has acquired divine knowledge on this topic. Someone at the back of our group makes a sudden exclamation, one that is clearly in mockery. Even in the mix of light and darkness, he could probably see our disbelieving smiles. Perhaps he wanted to intensify that disbelief. He said, “I can see the beginning and the end of my life now.” We hide our disbelief and ask him to explain. He states in a quiet but firm voice, he was born on August 15, 1924 and he will die on October 28 of this year (1997). He can clearly see all of this life of seventy-three years, two months, and thirteen days. We think he has crossed into the realm of jokes and humor, and if we joke with him a little bit, surely it won’t be unfair or disrespectful. We challenge his claim to supernatural ability, “Can you tell us what will happen tomorrow?”

But he doesn’t accept our challenge. Surprising us, smiling gently as if he were throwing in the towel, he says, “No.”

“Then why are you saying you know? Can you see it all?”

Our question sounds abrupt. He withdraws and apologizes in a low voice for his ill-considered comment. Moments later he pronounces in a clear voice, pausing before every word, “I don’t know anything.”

We now agree with Avijit about his Dadu’s mental state. We are no longer well-behaved boys; within us mischief raises its head. We line up questions, one after another, with which we will goad him for our entertainment.

Some of us identified this as incitement. Our Hindu friends, including Tapan, protested—the conversation was taking a communal turn. One of us, a stubborn guy who you can never win an argument with, said, “We’re already living within communalism, we don’t need to be pushed that way.”

When we scold him he erupts, “Why do Hindus on this side die when the Babri Mosque on that side is demolished? Let them do whatever they want in their country, why do we kill each other? Does that mean that we’re still the same country? That’s the question that needs to be resolved.”

Tapan and our other Hindu friends remain quiet. Thinking the silence was support, he felt encouraged. “The Christians in Bosnia are destroying Muslims, why don’t we run to slit Christian throats here? But if anything happens to Muslims in India we run to slaughter Malauns in this country. Why? Because there has been no resolution yet between these communities. Because the Hindus are our brothers, without squabbling with them, there is no happiness for us . . .”

“Will you stop with your jawing, or are you looking to get punched?” An older friend scolded our stubborn Hindu-loving friend into silence. This friend used to be a hardcore communist, at heart he still is. We have so many Hindu friends because of our communist politics. We still believe that India was partitioned because of the Muslims, a belief we probably got from the Communist Party. We grew up clasping the hands of Hindu comrades. Hindu-Muslim wasn’t the real concern, the real issue was the inequality between the rich and the poor—apart from this lesson, our discerning taste in music, literature, art, culture, that too we got from the Party. Although our fathers or grandfathers expressed no disgust about Hindus, they weren’t above saying things like, Hindus were so dominating back in the day. The residents of the red buildings standing skeletal on either side of our only main street had never let our fathers or grandfathers buy the biggest fish in the market. Apparently the fishermen wouldn’t let any Muslim even touch the big fish. If anyone even approached, they hollered, “Don’t touch, don’t touch, that’s for the Babu.” But telling us these stories had been useless. Our fathers and uncles hadn’t succeeded in sowing any Hindu-hatred in our hearts. Although most Hindus had left, we still had a good number of Hindu friends. They even had access to the inner sanctums of our households. Some of them even eat beef with us. We observe the Saraswati Puja with them. Our fathers and uncles all pray, and fast, but they have no influence on us. We don’t go near the mosque unless it’s Friday.

But our numbers can be tallied on the fingers of one hand. And it’s not like we remain the same. Our current political realization is that all Hindus support Awami League. Even those involved in the Communist Party vote for the symbol of the boat. After the fall of the communist movement we can discern change within ourselves. Now the Hindu communists talk like the BJP-wallahs. We notice, within them the ethos of Hindutva* is central. Now when we look back, we can see that the Hindu comrades in the party had demanded atheism only of us. They themselves remained religious to their marrow. But we do not let this bother us. We are moving away from politics; we have moved away. Our politics is now limited to mere talk. Now our focus is cricket. Except now and then we feel that if nothing else, the failure of communist politics left the secular sensibility damaged. The Awami League is turning into the Muslim League, otherwise, it won’t get any votes. The Awami League doesn’t want to undertake the risk of saving the Hindus, although they want the Hindu vote. How fortunate that the Awami League doesn’t have to ask for the Hindu vote, they get it anyway. What they have to ask for is the Muslim vote. To get the Muslims to vote for them, they have to prove that they’re not the Hindu party, they’re not irreligious, they’re not Indian toadies. They have to prove that they’re more religious than BNP, harsher Hindu-haters.

Anyway, we don’t really worry our heads over these things anymore. Our relationship with our Hindu friends is more a function of habit, nothing to with politics-shmolitics. There’s no Party, no politics, but we’re here. We play cricket together, we play cards, smoke weed, and are involved with the Rotary Club. Of course, occasionally we are saddened, when one morning we hear that a friend finished his medical studies at Rajshahi Medical College and left for India. Not too many, just two of our friends have left. We hurt; we curse them in our hearts: they studied medicine on Bangladesh’s dime and then went off to India? Couldn’t they have left earlier? Look, this is also an aspect of our relationship with them: the buggers don’t feel reassured. Why? Who will attack you? Let them. We’ll see how many heads their necks carry. You’ve never truly thought of this country as your own…that’s what we think. Then we also think, why aren’t they thinking of the land of their birth as their own? Is the fault theirs or ours? They fear us. The Awami League that they vote for is the same Awami League whose people grab their lands, pressure them to sell at low prices. Why shouldn’t they leave? This is also what we think. Not always though, only when someone leaves, or someone’s sister suffers the leering gaze of some thug or there’s conflict over someone’s store. Of course that sort of thing doesn’t happen often. We hadn’t even noticed it for many years—in silence, in secret, in the darkness of night, they left quietly.

“Are you going to die with this hurt, that the Muslims exiled you?” Our friends jabbed at the gentleman unabated. Before we could holler at the friend, he says, “Fate! Fate is to blame.”

“Fate! Not your community? It’s because of the Hindus that the country was partitioned. You don’t want to remember that the Hindus split the country because they couldn’t abide the rule of the brute majority?”

“Our fault! Our . . .”

One of us shouted, “You son of a bitch, talking like a Jamaati! Why did you come here? Go crawl up Abbas Ali Khan’s ass!”

“I’m telling you watch your mouth! Does your father own this field . . .?”

We scold the two stubborn fellows, but they pay us no heed and curse each other while rolling up their sleeves. When our older friend threatens to kick them out, they calm down but the hissing inside them continues. An uncomfortable silence reigns. Among us, Abbas Ali Khan has no disciple, and never has. The one against whom this allegation had been leveled had not been talking like a Jamaati. But it seems that by pulling in the sins of history and by harboring erroneous notions of history, we’ve messed it all up. So the Hindu-Muslim relationship in Bangladesh isn’t a stagnant thing. The Hindus are becoming more Hindu, and we are becoming more Muslim. We’ve heard that in India they think Bangladesh is a Muslim state. In West Bengal, Bangladeshi literature means the work of Bangladeshi Muslim writers, apparently our Hindu writers don’t represent us. They think Bangladesh is a Muslim country and India is for Hindus. We wanted to verify these notions with Tapan’s uncle. But then the Hindu-Muslim issue turned tedious and dangerous. We said, “Kakababu will now tell us stories from his childhood.” He said in a broken, hoarse voice, “I left my home, my land, at twenty-four to live in a foreign country and am now returned at seventy-three. That’s my story, one everyone knows. What can I say that is new?” We discover we don’t like him very much anymore. We don’t like such mawkishness. We don’t like talk of sorrow or pain. Our books-plays-cinema are strewn with sorrow. Our everyday family lives have sorrow. We cannot stand talk of sorrow anymore. It annoys us. That this man’s life is filled with the pain of exile we don’t need to be told. We fear him: he’s planning to foist his own sorrow on us, he’s designing such sad sentences in his mind, attempting to bring tears to our eyes. He will tell us his tragic tale of exile, his endless love for his motherland. We do not like this cheap display of loose sentiment.

We don’t give the old man any chances, and as soon as the microphone next door blares the azaan for the Eshaa prayer, we break up our adda.

The episode of the Indian gentleman doesn’t interest us anymore. We organize a teen cricket tournament. That excitement lasts for a week. Then the topic of the Indian gentleman comes up again at adda. We recall that today is October 28, Friday. The day his visa is supposed to expire. We ask Tapan about his Kakababu. We ask whether there are signs of his impending death. Tapan doesn’t mind our cruel curiosity, he’s one of us and he laughs and says his Indian Kakababu has become revitalized from walking around in the pure air of dawn and sleeping well at night. Never mind a natural death, it’ll be hard for three or four young men like us to try and kill him. We remind Tapan of the visa dates for his Kakababu and enquire whether he had it extended. Tapan informs us that he has told Kakababu several times to go and extend the visa, but he said the dates cannot be extended, no one has that power. We tell Tapan he should tell his Kakababu to forget about all that, because if there’s trouble with the police, it will be Tapan and his family who’ll be in trouble. Tapan grew anxious. He proposed that we all go to his house that evening, and ask his Kakababu to extend his visa.

In the afternoon we go to the central mosque for the Jumma prayer. (Yes, these days we go to the mosque on Fridays, because Friday afternoons, when every man of age in the town prostrates themselves at the mosque, we can find nowhere to hide. After all, we live in a society and we don’t want people to loathe us.) We leave as soon as we’ve completed the farz part of the prayers; we’re not greedy for the extra sunnat blessings. Outside, in the near-empty streets, we see two cycle-vans pulling firewood, and behind them is Tapan’s Kakababu. He is clad in a blinding white Panjabi and dhuti, he’s walking behind the cycle-vans with his spine ramrod straight. Soon we see Avijit and our friend Tapan trailing behind him. Their faces appear so annoyed that they look as if they’re about to cry. Tapan gestures to us, and we immediately follow them. A little later we notice that there are many who are following us. As they exit the mosque, instead of going their different ways, they fall in behind us. Not a word on their lips, as if in a silent rally. We take the main street and walk westward: ahead two cycle-vans carrying firewood, then Nabinchandra Chowdhury, silent and firm of will with his head held high, behind him Tapan, Avijit, and a few of us, and behind us an enormous silent rally. We cannot tell when the streets become a sea of people. We are surprised to see that the townspeople are just as prone as we are to passing fancies, and they have no questions about our childish curiosity. The farther we walk, the longer and denser the rally grows. In the windows and balconies, on the rooftops on either side, women, children, and the elderly watch us with curious eyes. We swarm behind the Indian gentleman as if in a trance.

The thin stream of the Tulshiganga river divides its wide, sandy shores. On the other side, a Shaal forest begins at the shore’s end. On this side we stand. Our numbers are uncountable. There is not a word on our lips. Meanwhile the news has spread; an Indian citizen is killing himself on the shore of the Tulshiganga. The District Administrator arrives with the police. He stands in an open jeep and shouts into a megaphone, “What a nuisance! What a nuisance! You want to kill yourself, go to your own country, why here? Arrest him. Take him to the station!” 

The police rush over to surround the man. He is oblivious, his spine ramrod straight. His head raised, he turns to the people. The people shout in one voice, “No!”

“Arrest him!”

We protest, “For what crime? His visa has not expired yet.”

“If it’s a spectacle you want, go back to your own country and do it there. Hey, what’s going on? Get him!” The District Administrator’s hands tremble .

“No!” The people shout in one voice.

The van-drivers finish laying out the pyre.

“Why are you just standing there? Get him!”

“No!”

“All right, then. Search him. See if he’s carrying matches or a lighter. Search closely, you idiots!”

Four policemen surround Nabinchandra Chowdhury, as if tickling him. He pushes off the policemen like pieces of straw in the wind with his long, hard, twisted, bony arms. He takes off the Panjabi he’s wearing and tosses it in the wind. Then he undoes the knot holding his dhoti together. The white fabric falls to the sand. Then the thin, naked body steps over the fallen clothing to the prepared pyre. He holds his arms aloft, his fingers stretched out, and gestures strangely toward the people. He stalks up to the pyre and lies down straight. We gawk with bated breath.

We hadn’t noticed the thick black clouds piling up in the autumnal afternoon sky . We hadn’t noticed there was no sun, that all the world had darkened. We look to the sky and see flocks of white geese flying away—hundreds and thousands of dragonflies, butterflies, and other insects whose names we didn’t know were covering the sky. We are stunned; the pounding of our hearts stops our breaths. Our eyes want to explode outward; we are speechless, we stare unblinkingly at the Indian gentleman atop the funeral pyre.

Suddenly, a flash sparks from the northeast horizon, a noise rips asunder the sky, and the funeral pyre bursts into flame. In the fire, the long, stretched-out body of the Indian gentleman glitters like a lump of gold. Then the golden figure transforms into a subtle, thin spear of flame, and gradually disappears into the sky.

The pyre is doused when the cold autumn rain starts to pour down. At the order of the District Administrator, the police rush over and search for the body of the Indian citizen amid the heaps of damp ash, coal, and half-burned planks of wood. We are annoyed at their idiocy and start for our homes.

But the return journey toward our town never ends. We grow weary as we walk. The afternoon fades into the darkness of evening, and yet we cannot reach our town; nowhere do we see a single sign of our houses. The shores of the Tulshinganga have surrounded us. In the stretched-out barren wild, we keep searching for home. 

* Hindutva is a nationalist ideology which espouses Hindu supremacy. It is promoted by the umbrella organization of the Sangh Parivar (the Sangh Family), with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being the most visible parliamentary front, granting the ideology space within the mainstream political discourse in India.

© Mashiul Alam. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Shabnam Nadiya. All rights reserved.