Brown light fills the room all day. And all night.The windows, covered with brown paper, shut off the view outside. A naked bulb hangs overhead.Often, one can hear the sound of heavy footsteps, of one man or maybe two, in the corridor outside.Sometimes a motorcar is also heard, farther away.
He sits alone on the blanket-covered bed all day.He continues to sit the same way when night comes but sleep eludes him.At some point sleep comes to him naturally, and he drops off before being rudely woken up by a sharp prod. He opens his eyes and at first can only see the khaki uniform, close to his face.As his eyes clear he can see the unfamiliar features of the man in uniform.
He has not seen this soldier before.Must be new on the job.
He gets up and follows the soldier outside in silence. Once outside, the soldier pushes him ahead, following him but also monitoring his movements.
Soon the two of them come to stand before a row of doors, one of which he is pushed through.Unlike the cell he was in, the toilet he is in now is neat and clean, with a washbasin.The floor is spotless and there is no stench in the air.
He blinks and looks at himself in the mirror above the washbasin. For a moment he mistakes his own reflection for that of someone else. He stands transfixed before the mirror, till the illusion passes and he can recognize himself again. He thinks he looks the same as before and for a moment he finds it easy to believe that he is standing in front of the mirror in his own house for a shave. He notices that his face is covered with a dark stubble.
It is now that he discovers a new smell that lingers on his clothes—the smell of gunpowder. For the last two days a one-sided battle had raged across the city with bullets flying, shells exploding, the air turning warm and pungent.The smell of that battle on his clothes now makes him feel nauseated. He still has no idea why he has been imprisoned here.
The soldier guarding him gives him another prod when he comes out and begins to follow him as before, as he walks on till they come before a second door. Another soldier, who stands guard before the door, now takes over and ushers him into a different room. He finds himself face to face with three officers seated across a pair of tables joined side to side. The tables are the color of glue from the gaab tree, empty, bereft of paper, pen or other objects.He cannot remember when he last saw anything as starched and well-ironed as the uniforms the officers wear, though the employees of the mercantile firm he used to work in were always encouraged by the boss to dress smartly.The collars, epaulettes and buttons appear to gleam in the light inside the room, as if they had all been carefully polished with wax.
The soldier who had escorted him nudges him and tells him to give the officers a salute. He hurriedly raises his hand in an exaggerated salute to pay his respects adequately. There is no response from anybody on the other side of the table, which he interprets as a response of sorts.The officers wear a look of quiet efficiency which assures him to some extent that he willnow be released soon and be on his way to Jafarganj once again, just as he had been before he was captured.
Only the day before, like many others, he too had been stopped and searched by soldiers near Mirpur Bridge. But unlike the others, instead of being allowed to proceed after the inspection, he had been arrested and brought to this prison.
Shortly, one of the officers opens a cupboard and brings out a file. A red pencil appears in his hand miraculously without help from anyone else. At the same time another man comes in through a door on the other side, carrying a notebook and pencil and sits down at a small table nearby, the pencil poised in an expectant slant over an open page of the notebook.
Finally one of the officers beams at him sunnily and inquires politely if he has had a good night’s rest.“Yes,” he replies. Even though he has stayed up most of the night he does not find it appropriate to tell them that now. “I slept well,” he tells them. “Good, good,” the officer nods and says.
The second officer now lightens up and smiles at him. “We are not yet able to bring bedbugs and mosquitoes under our control and curtail their activities,” he says. “We apologize for any inconvenience caused on that account. Sincerely.”
He is touched by their concern, indeed overcome by it. The third officer cuts in after the second and asks if he has been served food or not. Though he has not eaten anything, given the easy bonhomie established between him and the officers, it appears unseemly to rat on their subordinates to them. So he remains quiet.
“Do you mean they haven’t given you anything to eat?”
Immediately one of the officers summons a soldier who comes and stands at attention before them while the three pester him with questions. “Go and get food,” one of them finally tells the soldier, “and get a chair too. Why do I have to remind you people that a visitor deserves a place to sit at?”
Miraculously, a chair appears in a moment. He sit down awkwardly, feeling uncomfortable. Even when he tries to change his posture, the discomfiture does not go away. When the interrogation begins he soon loses track of who is asking him what.
“Yes, KaziNazrul Islam.” He notices, from the corner of his eye, the pencil in the hand of the man with the notebook moving rapidly.
“Whose age? My father has passed away.”
“Place of birth?”
“What is your place of birth?”
“Yes, in West Bengal, India. We migrated to Dacca in 1948.”
“And when did you start writing poetry?”
“Poetry?” Nazrul fails to comprehend the question and stares at each of them by turn. All three stare back at him, waiting for a reply.
Finally one of them shuffles in his seat, blinks once or twice and asks him for his address.
“Yes, where do you live in Dacca?”
“No 1, GobindoDatta Lane, Laxmibazar. Very close to Sadarghat.”
“Isn’t GobindoDatta a Hindu name?”
“Ji, it is a Hindu name.”
“You are Hindu.”
“No, I am not.”
“Yes, I am Muslim.”
“Was your father Muslim?”
“I have told you, his name was KaziSaiful Islam. He was Muslim.”
“Shia or Sunni?”
“Sunni, not Shia.”
“How many books of poetry have you published?”
“Books of poetry? My poetry? I don’t understand.”
“Never mind. Where were you going when you were apprehended in Mirpur?”
“Where is that?”
“About five miles west of Aricha.”
“Is it a village?”
“A small one. It has a weekly market though. Saturdays and Tuesdays.”
“What’s your interest?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“What were you going there for? You are from India.”
“No, I am not from India.”
“But you told us that you were born in Burdwan, India.”
“We used live there earlier. But we came to Dacca after the Partition in 1948.”
“Oh yes. My mistake. Why Jafarganj?”
“My in-laws live there.”
“You are married?”
“How long have you been married?”
“Why are they in Jafarganj while you are in Dacca?”
“I sent them there.”
“On the eighth of this month.”
“On the eighth?”
“Yes, I sent them off by bus.”
“Did you go to the meeting held on the seventh?”
“The meeting at the Race Course Maidan?”
“Oh, yes, the meeting held by Sheikh Mujib.”
“Did you attend it?”
“What is your profession? What work do you do?”
“I work for a firm.”
“What else do you do?”
“What about poetry?”
“Poetry? Whose poetry…”
“Don’t you write poetry?”
At this point a soldier comes in through the door behind him, carrying a tray. As indicated by one of the officers, he places the tray in front of Nazrul.Nazrul extends his hand for the cup of tea on the tray, but stops when one of the officers raises his hand, as if to deny permission.
“D’you mean to say that you don’t write poetry?”
“No, I don’t.”
“You’ve never written a poem?”
“Never wanted to write one?”
Nazrul feels embarrassed, all of a sudden and hangs his head. “The truth is, I don’t much understand poetry,” he says.
“Ok, have your tea first.”
Before raising the cup to his lips, Nazrul asks them, “will I be allowed to go home?”
“Of course you will.”
Nazrul feels reassured and sips his tea. He even breaks off a piece of biscuit andputs it in his mouth. The piece breaks and crumbs roll down his lap. Nazrul sees the crumbs scattered on the floor and steals a guilty look around him. What will they think of him? But he finds all of them lookingat him with gentle indulgence. He forgets about the biscuit and concentrates on the tea. Having emptiedthe cup he puts it gently back on the saucer, careful not to make a sound.
“What about the biscuit?”
Nazrul gives a guilty smile.
“Do you want another cup of tea?”
“No, no, this is enough.”
“So you are KaziNazrul Islam.”
“And you have been in Dacca all this time, since 1948?”
“You sent your wife and children off to your in-laws’ place?”
“On the eighth of March?”
“Who is cooking for you now?”
“Nobody. I am managing with food from a nearby restaurant. I can’t cook and this is the arrangement when the family is away.”
“So you’ve been spending your time mainly outside the house?”
“You can say that.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Do you smoke?”
A packet of expensive, imported cigarettes is proffered, along with a matchbox.
“Have a cigarette.”
As he opens the packet, Nazrul feels his hand trembling and thinks that the others in the room have noticed it too. Somehow he manages to light a cigarette, but is unable to draw properly on it. Something is choking his throat, something extending all the way to the pit of his stomach. The cigarette burns and begins to turn to ash between his fingers.
The flurry of questions resumes.
Syed Shamsul Haque is one of Bangladesh’s very few versatile authors. His oeuvre includes poetry, novels, short stories and plays. Translated by Saugata Ghosh.
Reprinted with permission from Bengal Lights Books. This book is published by BLB as part of its Libraries of Bangladesh series seeking to bring out quality translations of contemporary Bangladeshi authors.