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The Spy – Mojaffor Hossain

Mar 26, 2021 | Fiction | 1 comment

Translated from the Bengali by Haroonuzzaman

It was Thursday. As it was a half-day, the school ceased to work exactly at 2 P.M. It took me another 30 minutes to reach home. By the time I reached home, a crowd of various ages clustered together in front of our sitting room. As I was comparatively smaller in size, easily, I could slide through the gaps in their legs out into a vantage position at the front. I could see a man sitting flat on the earthen floor. His entire body was covered by a hessian bag. He had a beard like an old Chinese man. His hair was a mass of tangles: possibly, he couldn’t even remember when he had his last haircut; neither could he recall the last time he gave his hair a wash. When his age achieved immortality and his process of growing old stalled at a certain age, that’s what he looked like. Up until that point, I didn’t understand, I was scrutinizing him. A bag was near his legs. The bag was torn at the bottom; therefore, it was taken for granted that there would be nothing in it. As he was tightly holding a corner of the bag, Toton Mama was trying to tug it off from him, despite knowing that it was empty. The man couldn’t hold on to it for long; Toton Mama took a grip of it and threw it away. If it was to be thrown away, what was the point of snatching it away from the man? There was no one there to ask this simple question.
As bystanders would do, all of them were having their share of pleasure, distancing themselves from the incident. Indeed, it had been a long time since they had been entertainment. Earlier, Jatras used to be held in villages on a regular basis; being accused of vulger, they had been suspended. I had heard from my senior brothers about the circus performances on the school playground; even the staging of those had been stopped forever. Whatever stories I had heard about the thrilling adventures the villagers had known, I could see the same happening today with my own eyes.
“He could be a beggar,” Fozu Chacha said.
“I don’t think I have seen him in the neighbouring villages,” I heard Hafi Chacha’s voice floating in from behind.
Wasn’t it Friday today? Had he been a beggar, he would have had a beggar-bag slung. Instead of sitting idle here, he would be going from door to door for handouts. Whatever Mobu Bhai had said, he wasn’t wrong. On Fridays, beggars would come there in good number. They would be fewer in number on other days. Beggars in the area were known to us. But nobody could recognise this particular man. When elderly people like Hafi Chacha announced that he hadn’t seen him either, what else could others say!
“Hey, old man, what’s your name? Where have you come from? Which village is your home? What do you want here? How have you come here?” Poking a cane in his flank, Shoeb Bhai kept on asking him questions one after another.
“I couldn’t get a single word out of his mouth, and you are trying interview like a newspaper reporter!” Bilu Sir, the Maths teacher, said to Shoeb Bhai.
Still he didn’t say anything, not a word. The rattan-jabs left bruises on his hands and back, though. His eyes remained downcast, fixed on the ground. Inattentively, he drew some sketches in the dust: no sooner did the drawings create meaning, they were crossed out the next moment.
“Did anyone see him coming?”
“Who saw him first?”
“Did he come on foot?”
Question after question kept pouring in. Meanwhile, the Asar prayer call was over. Some worshippers returned to the place after they were through with the Namaj. When someone left the place, a new face would appear as a gap-filler. For a single moment, the crowd didn’t seem to be thinning out. Each of them prodded him at least for once, with whatever they found available near their hands, and then they moved away. Nobody dared to go close to him – it was as if we were playing with an unknown dog, keeping a safe distance. When we would perforate the old Sajne tree, situated on the roundabout of the locality, to extract some gum from it, it would not make any movement. Similarly, the unknown old man remained lifeless, despite being in alive. Like the tree, he didn’t voluntarily let others know that he was a living thing. No sooner did a group leave the place frustrated, then another batch took over, with renewed enthusiasm. Anyone would receive the honour of hero if he succeeded in bringing a sentence out of the man’s mouth.
When we were bored to the bone seeing this monotonous scene over and over, someone among us came up with an explosive idea.
Spy!
“He must be an Indian spy. Go and find out. Masquerading as a tongue-tied mad man, he will flee, with sensitive information.” Someone from the crowd said this. As an instant reaction, the loose assemblage of various people turned round in excitement. In a flash, all of them became certain that the man could be nothing but a spy. The Bangladesh-India border was around six miles away to the west of the village. We assumed that the man wanted to escape by the way of the border, with some of our secret information.
Stories about spies had gained wider currency in the village for a long time. Immediately, one such story came to my mind. These Spices were so skillful and patriotic that whichever country they would go to, there they would even get married and raise families, only to forsake them at the end of their mission and return home.    They were trained so well that it was next to uncover their disguise.
Meanwhile, some among us started doing experiments. Firstly, someone wrung the man’s hair spirally round the bamboo-stick and gave it a hard pull. If it were false hair, it would tear up at the roots, but only a few strands of hair came out. To make sure his skin colour was original and his face had no make-up, Habu Bhai lifted a bucket of water from a puddle and poured over it his head. His complexion remained as it was before; but the doubt remained among the people.
“It is necessary to take off his clothes to check as to whether or not he has some papers or letters with him.” Hafizul Bhai said. The crowd got keyed up by his words. Actually, his clothing was nothing but an oil-stained coarse gunny sack. The sack covered a small part of his body. Some were looking for an opportunity to disrobe him. And they got public consent. The women took a step back. There was little difficulty in removing his gunny sack. While they twisted his clothing with the end of a stick, it came apart. We circled him and observed him. There was nothing on him, not to speak of any papers. One of us discovered something that convinced us of his identity as a spy–the rumor, once released in the air and engrained in our collective memory, that if someone was a Hindu, then he or she must be an Indian spy.
As there was no doubt, people became certain that there must have been papers or notes. What should have been done in this situation, the man had done the same: he had eaten them up.  Had his stomach been cut open, the papers could have been found. But going that far would just be an impossibility. Even though some people considered the idea, they eventually abandoned the concept of the vivisection of the man’s stomach, just because they were not used to that kind of thing. The people could beat him to death if they wanted. Getting roughed up by the public would be an easy alternative. Then the information he was covering couldn’t be known.
“Let’s hand him over to the police. Once he is in the hands of the law-enforcers, they will maul the man to disclose all the information,” someone expressed his view in subdued anger.
“That’s fine. Once news breaks out, our countrymen will learn how Hindus are spying on us. It won’t be wise to kill him,” another one suggested.
Meanwhile, the daylight rolled by, and the crepuscular backdrop was signalling the arrival of the evening; with the nightfall, it was difficult to ascertain who was talking. When the decision was somewhat finalised, my mother arrived at the scene.
“Whatever you guys want to do, do it in the morning. All of you, go back now! He hasn’t had anything all day; now he will have something.” I didn’t know whether or not the locals would respect or dread my mother, but when she said something, they couldn’t crystallize, although some tried to speak in undertone. On condition that they would collect the man from her in the morning, the crowd melted away into the looming darkness. Two or three people held him tightly to bring him to the sitting room. It was decided that after the meal he would be locked in. Along with my mother, I also brought some rice and vegetable curry for him. Under the well-lit glass lantern, she served him some rice on a platter and vegetable curry, fish and lentil soup in two separate handle-free cups. Showing signs of life, the old man started to move as if a slight breeze ruffled the tree leaves. In the lantern light, he once looked at my mother and kept stirring the rice only. After giving him the fish, when my mother herself wanted to pour the lentil soup onto the cups into his platter, the man gestured in nodding disapproval.
“Where did he come from? Could you ask him?” I asked my mother. I felt he would open up if my mother asked him something at that moment. But she didn’t want to know anything from him. Sitting beside him, she let him have his meal. After he had his meal, my mother and I came out of the room, and she locked him in. A few people, who were keeping a watch on the happenings, went their separate ways as we had done.
That night I went to bed with excitement. The local police station had got the news already. The police would arrive here in the morning. Since it was Friday, there was no question of going to school. Even if it were, I wouldn’t have gone. The opportunity to become a witness to such an incident would not come twice in a lifetime. I was absolutely certain that none of the villagers that night could sleep well due to suppressed eagerness. It was almost at pre-dawn that I fell asleep after staying up late at night. Therefore, I couldn’t wake up in the morning on time. If there was no hullabaloo outside, possibly, I would sleep for some more time. Almost jumping out of my bed, I quickly came out of my room only to find the people resentfully animated. The man was not around. Although the room was found to be firmly locked from the outside, he was not inside. Straightforwardly, my mother said: “Due to the hoo-ha of the villagers, I went to bed after locking him in. Now what do I know about how it happened?”
By that time, people started to look around in neighbouring villages for him; some also went toward the border to hunt him. Even someone made a pointed reference to a paranormal notion: “He is not a human being; he is a jinn
Inquisitively, another villager questioned: “Can the jinn be a Hindu? Nobody felt interested to come up with an answer to the question. Besides, nobody was left with any hint of doubt that there was a mystery in it.
Until afternoon, the search was on, but it was to no avail – nobody could find the source. As per the description, nobody received any information from the people of the neighbouring villages that they had seen a person like that man. Together with others, I also joined in a search mission to track him down – actually, we combed through the sugarcane field, hitting the plants right and left in quest of the man.
Surprisingly, nobody could tell how a person like him came in and went out–without leaving any trace. Having an eerie sensation and being frustrated, I went to bed that night. I could listen to the low-spirited arguments of my parents floating in from the next room.
“You didn’t do the right thing.” My father put forth his opinion.
“Do you think you guys were doing the right thing? Didn’t you guys feel hesitant in your efforts to hand him over to the police, calling him as a spy?” My mother queried.
“The police should have found out whether or not he was a spy.” My father was confident in his belief.
“Despite knowing it fully well, why then?”
“Why did he come after such a long time?”
“This is his country. This is where his home is. This is where he is born. He may come here anytime if he wishes.”
“Just saying these don’t matter at all. Does he have any land and property here?”
“The Pakistani occupation forces burned his wife and daughter to death after locking them in a room. After the country was liberated, you guys forced him out of the country by driving him mad. Now, you guys want to hand him over to the police giving him the label of ‘spy’. How much will you guys torture him? My mother raised her voice to vent her genuine anxiety.
“Tone your voice down. The boys are sleeping.” In an attempt to stop her from speaking further, my father ignored her. The entire house got blanketed in ponderously indispensable silence.

Mojaffor Hossain

Mojaffor Hossain

Mojaffor Hossain is a notable fiction writer of contemporary Bangla literature. Starting his career as a journalist and now working as translator in the Bangla Academy, Dhaka, he has published six books packed with awe-inspiring short-stories, which, in the recent years, have attracted much acclaim from both general readers and literary critics. His signature style is using native realities as his settings, and giving them magic-realistic or surrealistic colours. He has been awarded four times for his short stories. His debut novel Timiryatra has gained popularity in very recent time. He is also known as a translator and literary critic and published 14 books so far.

Haroonuzzaman

Haroonuzzaman

Haroonuzzaman (b. 13 January 1951) is a translator, novelist, poet, researcher and essayist. He has had around 32 years of teaching experience at home and abroad. Besides teaching English in Libya and Qatar for about 12 years, he has had 20 years of teaching experience in English Language and Literature at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB). In addition, he had been into print and broadcast journalism in Bangladesh and Qatar. Since 2005, he has to his credit several researches and a book on The Preservation of Endangered Languages of Bangladesh and a five-book Bangla Baul Series. These books have received rave reviews and wide acclaim.

1 Comment

  1. Neelam Sharma Anshu

    Excellent! Congratulations to both of you! 😊

    Reply

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