Translated from the Bengali by Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra
Mir Azim had a few personal Assets. One of them was his enclosed house. He seldom stepped out of it. He loved to stay indoors, all curled up. So far, he had done just that, but now it had become impossible. A feeling of outrage was growing inside. It was getting bigger and bigger till it clamped his entire chest. It was a terrible pain. This pain hid among his personal matters only to come out and claw him time and again.
His outrage was against everyone. He was forced to retire in spite of being perfectly fit to go on doing his work. Before he knew, he was past sixty! He felt awful when he thought of it. If he could, he would strangle his age and lock it up in a secret cupboard. Now he could only repent helplessly. He couldn’t even sleep at night. Sleeping in daytime made his nights sleepless. Alone, at night, Mir Azim would scream out, ‘Give me something to do. Or just kill me!’ His retirement just seemed endless.
Mir Azim did not feel old at sixty. He could not understand. How could a physically and mentally fit person be labelled ‘old’? But that was the rule nowadays. They would force you to feel old even against your own wishes. Mir Azim punched the air, kicked the ground, he went out in the street and stood there watching people coming and going. This was Mir Azim’s favorite pastime. He loved watching people running around or standing idly and chatting. He loved the noises of cars, shouts and curses of the rickshaw drivers. All these filled up his spare time. Sometimes Mir Azim thanked Masood for this. Masood’s house was in a great location. Just a few steps from the main road. Just standing there watching the traffic and the crowd, one could almost forget the daily grind.
Mir Azim’s wife had passed away last year. Losing his wife at this age made him more childish. He felt more helpless. Absence of someone close to him constantly gnawed at him. He could not eat his meals unless someone served it to him, could not sleep unless someone made his bed, could not even bathe unless someone filled the buckets. Mir Azim stumbled along, alone, in a huge, empty house. He could not seal up the cracks and crevices of his mind. The gusts from Padma scattered all his memories and brought tears to his eyes.
Masood had married about four years ago. Rosie was a very sweet girl. She took good care of Mir Azim. But they did not have any children yet. His three daughters had children, but they lived far away. Mir Azim could not reach them whenever he wanted. He felt empty. Time barely passed. How long could a man stand by the road and watch people passing by? But Mir Azim’s personal matters also included his memories. Those memories were his sole companions now. In spite of many years and many disasters, those memories had remained intact. They did not get crumpled, did not fade, did not get worm-eaten. In those sleepless nights, when he felt lonely and, in the blues, Mir Azim grabbed his memories and dived in the split stream of time. He had perhaps forgotten many events, but he remembered clearly about one march in fifty-two. Amongst all his memories that march always jumped out with manhood, like a huge fish just caught in the net. It obscured all other less significant events. In all his sixty-one years of life, that was the only time Mir Azim had joined a march. In year fifty-two, when he was just twenty- one, he was employed at a small job. He had just settled down with his new bride. Nobody had asked him to join the march. Still, he did. He could not stay away. Mir Azim was an ordinary man. He never tried to think deeply about anything. Yet, that day he felt a strange tension. Like an attraction towards an ilish in Padma or balam of Barishal or patali from Jessore. He felt as if he would be ousted from everything if he did not join that march. Gunshots were fired in front of him. Salam fell on the ground. On his face. He clutched his shirt and gaped at the blood pouring out of his chest. That scene affected Mir Azim in a strange way. He never joined another march.
In that march, there was one slogan that he liked very much. When he shouted out that slogan, it felt like the words were coming straight out of the bottom of his heart. It felt as if his heart would just drop off if he could not utter those words. “Bengali must be the National Language.” That slogan created a solid, unbreakable wall around him. It roiled in his brain. That feeling still remained, even at his age of sixty. Mir Azim never shouted any other slogans in his life.
When Masood was very little, just learning to say a few words, Mir Azim taught him that slogan. Masood could not pronounce the words clearly. He used to draw out the word with baby lisps. But even that would fill the father’s heart with pride.
–“Great words! Right, Masood?”
Masood would nod without understanding anything. Sometimes Mir Azim’s wife would be annoyed, “Don’t you have any other words to teach him?”
–“Of course, I do dear. I say so many things to you, I open my heart to you. People at the office. Neighbors, relatives, I talk to all of them all the time. Don’t I?” Mir Azim looked at his wife teasingly.
–“I know. But this one slogan you say all the time. I don’t understand what pleasure you get from it.”
–“Dear wife! That is the root of all other words. It is set in my brain forever.” Mir Azim would stretch his chest. His face would glow with pride. He did not understand much about the slogan but once accepted in his heart, it stayed there forever. His wife would stare at him, not knowing what to say. In typical feminine way she would blurt out, “You are getting senile” and stomp off to the kitchen.
Mir Azim would laugh out loud. He knew that that was all his wife could say. But she was a nice woman. She cooked well, served him with care. If he caught a cold, she would massage hot mustard oil with garlic on his chest and back. That was all he needed to feel gratified. Besides, she also stitched their quilts while humming some songs, she looked after the children. What more could Mir Azim ask from one person? No, he never had any bigger hopes or expectations.
When his wife, his lifelong companion, died, Mir Azim cried so much that he got the hiccups. All his desires and joys emptied out of his heart. As an ordinary man, Mir Azim could not think any more. That day, after dressing his wife in the white sari when they carried her out in a procession, he felt as if his beloved wife had become like Salam. Somehow, even her appearance had blended with that of his long dead friend. After lowering the body in the grave, Mir Azam did lose his mind. He kept muttering “Bengali must be the National Language.” Everybody yelled at him that day. The Maulvi almost came to blows with him. His older brother pacified the Maulvi by saying that his brother had gone crazy with grief. Mir Azim could not explain why only that slogan brought him relief at such times of terrible grief. He did not understand it himself. That procession and the slogan were Mir Azim’s pain and joy.
Now, after his retirement, Mir Azim at times got nostalgic and savored the nostalgia. He used to travel to many places during his employment. Small towns, districts, even remote areas. He enjoyed it. But his wife did not. After the girls grew up, she refused traveling. “I’m not going to those backward villages with my daughters.” She would rebuff.
–“But I have to. Matter of my job…”
–“Not just your job. You actually enjoy going to those places. Otherwise, you could have easily stayed in the cities.”
–“No dear, you don’t understand…”
–“Oh, but I do. I understand you very well.”
Mir Azim kept quiet. He did not want to anger his wife anymore.
–“Let me go for six months only, then I will try for a transfer.”
–“Sure. You always say that. Even after marriage, I have to stay in my parent’s house.”
–“Just six months, dear.”
Mir Azim smiled sweetly. The wife softened somewhat.
–“How will you manage your meals?”
–“Don’t worry about that. Didn’t I learn cooking from you? I can easily manage my own. I like cooking.”
His wife could not help smiling. There was nothing she could say after that. Mir Azim often had to stay without his family in far away places. That was why his wife taught him cooking. Now Mir Azim was an expert chef. He could tell which fish tasted best with which vegetable. If the piles fish from Kartoa river was cooked with the greens of the sweet potato grown along the river, Mir Azim would eat more than his usual amount. There was nothing Mir Azim would love more than Ilish fish from Padma with spinach green or bony batasi fish curry. In winter if he ate boaal fish with dry, cold rice in the morning, he would never feel hungry before noon. These food preferences were very personal for Mir Azim. Sometimes he would complain to his daughter in-law Rosie, “Why do you make mutton every other day, Bou-ma? Tomorrow get some kholse fish and pumpkin greens.”
Rosie would nod yes, but Masood would object.
–“With all these good foods around, why do you pine for veggie greens, Baba?”
Mir Azim would get irritated, “Don’t stick your nose in my business. I know you care about your own preferences than anybody else’s.”
Masood stayed quiet. He knew these were his father’s habits. He would never try to be rid of them. Not just for his job, Mir Azim just loved traveling to different places. He would get antsy if he stayed long in one place. Many evenings he spent walking along the riverbanks muttering, “Hey river, Bengali must be our National Language.”
He was fifty-two at that time. Now it was twelve years later. But Mir Azim just could not forget that slogan. When he returned home from far away villages biking through the bamboo groves at night, trying to keep down the rising tide of dread inside him, he had always been a coward, he would recite the slogan loudly and bike faster. The dread would subside like receding shadows of the bamboo groves. When Mir Azim recited that slogan, everything else was erased from his mind. Now, in his retiring years, he had no jobs, no transfers and no joys of seeing a new place. It had been really hard for Mir Azim. He had his job till last year. For one last time he spent a rainy night in a small village along the Kartoa river. He was too restless at the sound of the rain to fall sleep that night. That was when he woke up the peon Kafil. Kafil yawned, rubbed his eyes and slapped at the mosquitoes.
–“Do you know Kafil, there was a huge march around the time when I joined this job. You probably were not even born then.”
–“There was gunfire in that march.”
–“Gunfire? That’s not a big deal. I was a freedom-fighter during the independence. I fired guns so many times.”
–“Ah Kafil, just listen. We shouted a slogan in the march.”
–“Bengali must be our National Language.”
–“ Nice slogan.”
–“I still feel like shouting it.”
–“Me too. I will join you.”
–“You are right. You, me and many others should shout and march. These days are not good for us Kafil.”
As he was speaking, loud thunderclaps sounded outside. The chorus of the frogs was deafening. Kafil started dozing again. But Mir Kazim still could not sleep. His sleep fled when he thought too much. His brain felt stuck. He kept wondering, was there another rain-filled night of Sraban like this anywhere in the world? No. Nowhere. That was why this land always gave him joy.
He had visited so many places in his country. Mostly he had seen nothing but poverty. Human beings consisted of naked bodies and hunger only. The rivers, bamboo groves, paddy fields, the nights lit up with fireflies, all transported him to another world. Yet, he was very fond of this land. He could not imagine leaving this for any other world. Masood sometimes talked about high paid jobs in some far away desert country. Mir Azim’s heart shrank. Masood was stupid. He did not want to understand. For his own interest, he could easily give up on his motherland. He would not hesitate at all. Mir Azim worried at the look in his son’s eyes. They glowed with the dream of running away to something bigger.
Mir Azim often tried talking to him. But Masood did not care about his father’s opinions. Did not want to listen to his advice. That’s why Mir Azim could never talk to him convincingly. Sometimes, not knowing what else to say, he would ask, “You remember a slogan I taught you when you were small?”
–“Oh, Baba! You always bring out those old stories. Can’t you be a bit modern? How many times I’ve told you, turn your eyes to the front, not back. But no, you insist on dreaming about bamboo groves, paddy fields and other nonsense garbage.”
Masood would move away in annoyance. He hated talking about those same old things with his father. Mir Azim still insisted, “You used to move your head and say that slogan, so cutely.”
–“Baba, quit it. Those days are gone. I’m thirty-two now. You’ll never change.”
Masood walked away. Mir Azim stayed in silence and tried counting the years. It was nineteen eighty, past mid-January. Last year, at this time, he had a job. Now he didn’t. This was a bad time for Mir Azim. He couldn’t keep track of his mornings and afternoons anymore. Rosie sometimes complained, “Baba, you will fall ill if you go around roaming aimlessly like this.”
–“ So? How long was I going to live anyway?”
–“Don’t say that Baba. You are still in very good health. Come, you sit here. I’ll bring you a glass of milk.”
Rosie would bring the milk and some cookies. Mir Azim sipped with contentment. Masood was mostly away from home, roaming around God knew where. He was addicted to money. Mi Azim muttered, “My son is forgetting his own country. He wants to go away somewhere else. Says he needs more money. Ah! Why do I feel so heavy in my heart? He is my own son after all. I know that for a fact. He is not a bastard or a whore’s son. Then why is he so different?”
Mir Azim choked and clutched at his chest in a fit of cough. His eyes watered.
–“What happened Baba?”
–“Where is Masood, Bou-ma?”
–“Busy getting Visa, passport, for going abroad”
–“Stop!” Mir Azim shouted.
–“Do you need something Baba?”
Rosie left. Mir Azim sat and stared at the white sky. While his wife was alive, there was at least a person he could talk to. Now he had nobody left. Nobody had the time to talk to him. So, he roamed alone all around, leaving his house whenever he pleased.
Soon the winter month of Maagh was over. With Falgun, Mir Azim felt the old attraction. He could smell the maddening scent in the air. The mild breeze early in the morning made him forgetful. Masood got irritated at his father. As a result, the two did not talk much. Still, Mir Azim would stand in the verandah early in the morning and ask his son, “Is it Falgun yet?”
–“What is that to you?”
–“A march took place in Falgun.”
–“Not again! You’ll never be cured of that.”
–“You’ve grown up so much Masood.”
–“Coming 27th is my flight Baba. Everything is arranged.”
–“You came home very late last night.”
–“Yes. It took a long time to get everything ready.”
–“I was still awake. I heard your knocks on the door and then your footsteps. I loved the sound. Bou-ma is a very nice girl.”
–“A few days later I would take her to her parent’s place. She will go to my place after six months. You will stay with Maya and I will sell this house.”
–“What’s the date today, Masood?”
–“Three more days, then twenty-first. In ‘fifty-two, Dhaka was roaring in those days. Something was happening every day. People of Dhaka carried fire in their hearts. You, today’s young generation would obey any command, without deciding the good or the bad. We understood the issues. We knew how to rebel.”
Mir Azim did not realize when Masood left him. He was now running after more and more money. With that money he would buy happiness, comfort, peace. Everything.
–“Listen Masood, a funny thing happened on that day.” Mir Azim laughed out loud and realized Masood was not there next to him. He didn’t get to tell him the funny story. But he remembered it and laughed by himself for a long time.
On twenty-first, Mir Azim stood by the road very early in the morning. The sun was not up yet. There was a hazy darkness in the air. Masood and Rosie were both asleep. They never joined the crowd to celebrate the twenty-first. They did not care for such stuff. Mir Azim blew away the depressive thoughts from his mind. He was expert in clawing off pieces of depression. Young folks were walking bare feet in the procession. Mir Azim too joined them and walked towards Shaheed Minar. That day in past, when the gun fire started, one bullet whizzed right past his ear. It could have easily struck him. But it didn’t. And that is the reason he was still alive at the ‘eighties. That searing memory was still fresh in his mind. He felt something turning over inside, as he walked.
It felt like he was walking on the wide road of the ‘fifty-two. All around him were countless people. Their voices were flying in all directions just like the fiery bullets in the air. Mir Azim could almost smell the aroma of fried ilish fish from Padma river. In his breath was the moist smell of balam rice lightening his heart. In the midst of all this was the slogan. His blood rushed fast. He could see thousand years old houses around him. Mir Azim forgot his surroundings. He forgot that the young marchers around him were born long after fifty-two. He forgot that it was eighty, not fifty-two. He did not realize that the breeze of Falgun was not the angry wind of his past. He only felt a deep conspiracy around him. It would surely grab him too unless he stood against it. Mir Azim was in his full youth in Dhaka of fifty-two.
The young folks were screaming some slogans around him. But Mir Azim did not join them. He did not like any other slogan. None seemed good enough to stand against the suppressors. Why didn’t the kids have any spunk in their voice? Couldn’t they realize the strength of the conspirators? Mir Azim was annoyed at them. Even after all these years he felt his old slogan was still the truest and the strongest. He walked on in silence and tried to gather all his strength within himself.
When they reached Shaheed Minar, he could not hold himself back anymore. As soon as the people stopped around him, he roared in a thundering voice, “Bengali must be the National Language.”
Suddenly everybody fell silent. The young marchers gaped at him standing on the flower bedecked steps of the Minar. It was quiet all around him. Everyone saw how he carried the slogan of fifty-two still in his heart and stood firm and defiant.
Mir Azim raised his arms above and sobbed openly as he loudly proclaimed his slogan.