Thranslated from the Bengali by Shamita Das Dasgupta
For about a fortnight, a woman is lying in the No Man’s Land at the border of India and Bangladesh. Her attire carries all the proof she needs to claim mental imbalance. Furthermore, her one lame leg unquestionably places her among the masses of beggars crowding the sidewalks of Dhaka or Kolkata. The woman is prostrate on a mound, as high as a hut, in the wet gully that skirts the slopes of the No Man’s Land. No one knows where she came from or how she ended up there.
On the day she was discovered, a swell of excitement ran through the Border Guard Banglades h (BGB) and the Indian Border Security Forces (BSF). On the second night, the BGB snuck in at night to ascertain if she was an Indian spy. Unable to detect any identifying clues, they returned in frustration. The next day, the BSF bomb squad went to her. They believed that an Islamic suicide terrorist was playing a complicated charade to attack their camp. Somewhat convinced, they informed their superiors. Unfortunately, the woman did not possess a bomb; she didn’t even conceal a suspicious nail. Thus, following orders from senior officers, the BSF jawans[i] prepared for battle and situated themselves at a safe distance. They were eager to start shooting but became disheartened when they couldn’t detect the slightest movement that would justify their actions.
On the eighth day, the sector commanders of the two nations sat down for a high-level talk. The meeting did not yield any results; rather, it ended with both parties blaming each other raucously. The Bangladesh Border Guard claimed that the BSF was forcing this mentally disturbed woman into their country. Thus, they have deliberately left her at the same spot. On the other hand, Indian border guards belligerently asserted that the Bangladesh border patrol had pushed her onto this territory.
As a result of this meeting, the woman sprawled in the No Man’s Land, turned even more undesirable. Both parties heightened their vigilance and readiness. On the tenth day, the BSF concluded that the woman was dead. They sent a message to the BGB to take the body back to their country. At that point, the BGB became more resentful. This is how the Rohingyas have been dumped on them. No more! Dead or alive, it didn’t matter. Bangladesh was not going to get involved further. BGB responded in no uncertain terms: ‘This case doesn’t belong to Bangladesh – but to India. India must assume all responsibilities.’
This mild argument between the two border patrols inflamed the neighboring villages a bit. Who’s going to accept this woman? If she were dead, the villagers could take a few measures. But to engage with the living is no joking matter! If the state had turned away, who would take on the duties of feeding and clothing her? Besides, she was lame, perhaps even insane!
In this situation, the only solution the neighboring villagers could think of was to seek divine mercy. But as soon as the issue of ‘divine’ arose, one had to consider religion. Who was this woman? Her age and identity were obscure. The people on this side scratched their heads and pondered, ‘Was she a Muslim?’ The other side questioned, ‘What if she is not Hindu?’ If it were a man, one could lift the clothes and check for circumcision. A decision about praying for ‘divine mercy’ could then be made. But as she was a woman, that was not an option. No one could guess her nationality or religion from what she was wearing.
Perhaps all poor and homeless people in the world share the same religion and nationality. As poor people spiral down into deeper destitution, they lose religion and the honor of citizenship.
And then there was the issue of language. If she would talk, perhaps one could gauge if she was Hindu or Muslim, from Bangladesh or India. But who could make her speak? Both the BGB and BSF had settled at a secure space with their rifles aimed at her. Neither wanted to take on a new role. Then there were the people of the neighboring villages who feared any new entanglement. Everyone agreed that this was none of their business – it was a matter to be settled by the two countries.
‘In 1971, during the freedom struggle of Bangladesh, you left your elder sister at a Pakistani army camp. Don’t you remember?’ In the cover of darkness, a wife in a border community whispered to her husband. ‘Shut your mouth, bitch!’ The husband reprimanded her and turned his back to her in bed. All was settled in the dark.
‘One of your younger sisters was lost in childhood. Isn’t it true that girls were snatched to be sold in India? Why don’t you go check?’ During an afternoon, a mother pleaded as she coated the abandoned wood stove with cow-dung paste. ‘Don’t you dare say that to anyone.’ The son admonished the mother. From then on, the mother’s wistful eyes clung day and night to the border sky.
Gradually, the fact that a disabled and unidentified woman was laid out in the No Man’s Land lost its surprise for the local people. The phenomenon turned into a habit. Somedays, when crows and vultures flew toward the field, people presumed she had died. Even though the woman was nameless and sans nation, and even though she had never troubled anyone, some carelessly exclaimed, “Good riddance!” But now crows and vultures routinely hovered over the field; so, even that guessing game was over. The two patrolling forces of the two nations zoomed in through their binoculars and observed that the crows, vultures, and the woman were fighting over their share of food. No one questioned who had transported the food to avoid unwelcome responsibilities.
There are still some people in this world who come forward to seek individuals like the woman. They deal with entities like her. Hence, such persons and their related miseries are manufactured by a tiny sleight of hand. The villagers had no awareness of such people. They couldn’t figure out if indeed there was an ethereal signal that had instigated the woman’s deprivation.
On the twenty-fifth day, a leading media organization broadcast a human-interest story on the woman. Worldwide media caught onto it within a few days. Once the news became global, the Bangladesh Government received a strongly worded communiqué from the UN Headquarters. In the missive, the United Nations stated that it reviled the situation thoroughly and requested the Government to provide the woman with holistic care. A similar letter was dispatched to the Government of India. Subsequent to receipt of the letter, both BGB and BSF called a second flagship meeting. It was decided that representatives of both parties would jointly approach the woman. First, they will search for citizenship papers or other documents that could establish her nationality. Then, they would try to find out if she possessed any money. With the help of these clues, they should be able to confirm her country membership. Whatever it might be, both teams agreed to abide by the outcome.
The meeting ended at 3 p.m. and the joint force arrived at the women around five. After a few days of scorching sunshine, it had rained and stormed mildly the night before. The woman was welled in mud. The area was horrendously filthy as she had urinated and defecated right there. One of the representatives vomited at the sight of her. The woman was looking at them with eyes that saw far beyond. No sound emanated from her. No one could fathom from her body whether she was forty or seventy. The party of representatives from both sides included a couple of women soldiers. They covered their noses and began their search. No papers. She should have had some money, but none was found. There might have been a paper, but it would have dissolved in the rain and urine. The team came back disappointed.
On the tenth day of the publication of the international news, one local and two foreign NGOs arrived and established their temporary agencies in the town. Since the woman was homeless and an asylum seeker, the United Nations Office for Refugee Resettlement, UNHCR, had sent their representatives. As she was characterized as disabled and deaf, the World Health Organization had shipped two Autism Specialists to the area. Because the victim’s gender was female, international women’s rights organizations loudly voiced their protestations. Human rights workers also showed up.
In the beginning, the villagers did not cooperate with these workers. In his Friday sermon, the imam had clearly professed that their activities emerged from a conspiracy by the Jews and the Christians. The woman was their spy. The infidels were setting traps to destroy the integrity and creed of Muslims. The Hindus of India were also linked to it. If this was allowed to go on, soon there would be white women in shorts walking about the village. Alcohol shops and night clubs would appear. The youth would face ruination. Women would go astray.
We can’t let that happen on God’s green earth. Currently, they are globally oppressing our Muslim brethren. The Jews are collectively bombing Palestinians. We must proclaim Jihad against these malicious forces. Only then we will effortlessly cross the slippery bridge that all mortals must pass through on Judgment Day. God willing!
After heeding this oration by the leader, the galvanized villagers set fire to the first tent that was pitched in the field near the border. They broke, destroyed the camera of a local journalist working for a foreign channel. Then, who could tell how, the workers curried favor with two foreign nationals and the local chairman. The Chairman called for the imam. The villagers were not aware of their discussions through the night; but after the midday prayers, the leader changed his tune. He announced that the last prophet of Allah, Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH) had materialized in his dreams. The Prophet had remonstrated that Muslims must attract infidels by their conduct. ‘Muslims must present themselves in a way that non-Muslims are mesmerized and compelled to inquire about the fundamentals of the religion.’ The Prophet had elaborated the rights of nonbelievers. ‘If a Muslim is unjust to an infidel, He would side with the latter on Judgment Day.’ No one could debate this statement.
If non-believers are still unable to accept our guidance, we could oppose them. But remember, Allah is the only one to bestow rules. Thus, as humans, we may not impose them on fellow humans. Come, let’s accommodate our non-Muslim brothers. Let’s show them our higher moral standing.
People’s minds reeled at the leader’s words. The next day, when the imam’s son became the coordinator of the local NGO, everyone praised his leadership. A few other jobless young men also found employment. More and more visitors were coming to the border. A few teastalls and small restaurants, where one could get rice and fish, popped up. A political leader financed a lovely coffeeshop and named it Las Vegas Resort. Young couples from cities traveled there often. A large hoarding went up in front of the resort. The display featured a beautiful young woman with a mobile phone in her hand. The legend in large letters announced: “4G Network – It’s in every corner of our country – No place to hide!” To transmit ‘live’ news 24/7, three TV cameras were installed in the location and the central station posted news crews.
In nearby villages, several had turned lucky. In the beginning, many had insisted that the anonymous woman should be sent back to India. Those people went silent. The numerous organizations that had come there to observe, no longer quibbled about returning the woman to India or Bangladesh. The United Nations representatives called a press conference and declared that the first item on their agenda was to protect this woman’s human rights, to make sure she receives needed food, potable water, and healthcare. If necessary, they would construct a small house in the No Man’s Land and take care of her. After that, in accordance with UNHCR policies, they would garner support for her and help her return to her own country or persuade the Governments of India and Bangladesh to rehabilitate her properly.
One foreign official and a local one from Amnesty International assured everyone that they were scrutinizing the situation critically. Undeniably, human rights had been violated.
We will work our utmost so that the woman can enjoy her human rights to the fullest. We have noticed that the woman has been deprived of her basic rights. She is struggling from a dearth of lodging, drinking water, sanitation, healthcare, and food. She is suffering under complete lack of safety. We hold the Governments of the two countries answerable for why she has not been provided with a roof over her head to shelter her from rain, sun, and wind. They have badly violated her human rights. This is unacceptable. The woman is homeless and without suitable protection. We will ensure her human dignity and rights as an asylee.
Due to the enthusiasm of the Rights advocates, the remote locale was humming with energy. The BGB as well as the provincial administration became anxious about the situation. One couldn’t really trust the Rights Workers, and the international media were breathing down their neck. Any slip of the tongue could embarrass the Government and land it in a heap of trouble. BGB came to a final decision. If within three days no family came forward to claim the woman, they would hand her over to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
As soon as the decision became public, the neighboring community broke out in an uproar. The Chairman and his party workers ran to the MP.[ii] Because of this incident, the local economy was shifting. If they removed the woman, many a person would be bankrupted overnight. Some had paid exorbitant amounts to buy land or had leased at a high price to set up their shops. So many had serious financial investments and obligations! After the petitioners promised to donate a particular sum to the party funds on a regular basis, the MP agreed. He cautioned that the matter had gone to higher ups, but he was certainly going to give it a good try. The people got a glimmer of hope at this reassurance. They believed that the MP could accomplish anything if he so wished.
It was the month of June and monsoon had broken. It rained relentlessly for four days. Following the new diktat, the BGB kept sending food to the woman. Now the foremost problem was that the No Man’s Land was sinking in water. A tiny knoll was still visible which might not be there after another night of rain. The woman should be moved. But if she were relocated inside the country, they would have to stop pressuring India. Also, if she was from India, why should Bangladesh accede? After many such reflections, they resolved to build her a scaffold with the help of nearby residents.
The rural people zealously chopped down bamboo and clamored to build a platform for her but returned in a couple of hours looking glum. The foreign and national workers also reverted, seemingly downcast. The media people and talk-show intellectuals were crestfallen. The woman’s body was still visible in the water. Everything that goes down must float up.
The fourth momentous meeting between the borderguards of both countries on whether she should be cremated or buried was about to commence.
[i] In Hindi ‘Jawan’ means a ‘[strong] young man.’ Recruits of Indian army are called ‘Jawan/s.’
[ii] Member of Parliament.
Within the constrictions of a short story, ‘No Man’s Land’ critically explores the artificiality of national boundaries and the human consequences of abiding by such inanity. As I translated the narrative, I repeatedly confronted a question: Who is insane here – the woman or the institutions that are determined to manage her life? The author subtly points to the bestiality of policies and procedures that render human lives disposable. ‘No Man’s Land’ reminded me of another powerful short story, ‘Toba Tek Singh’ by Saadat Hasan Manto, that deals with the madness of displacement and opposing governments’ inhumane attempts to control human destiny.