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Bird thou never were

  • Published at 08:24 pm October 11th, 2018
Rafiqur Rashid

Short story by Rafiqur Rashid

(Translated by Shabnam Nadiya)

Even though Nikhilesh knew it was useless to go to the police, he went because of his wife’s pleading and the forceful bidding of some well-meaning friends. Despite the absence of law and order, at least such a thing as a police force still existed in this country. At least let there be some record of what happened: Arunima had been missing for the past three days.

Arunima had left the house with Lopa early Saturday morning as usual. She dropped Lopa off at the gate of the Ideal Girls School and took the same rickshaw to her college. Did she actually reach her college? None of Arunima’s close friends could say for sure. A girl called Parul reported she had spotted Arunima during the first period, logic class. But Niru disagreed. “Why would she be in logic? Aru doesn’t even take logic!”

“What did you say the name of the girl was?” The police officer with a porcupine-quill mustache stopped writing. He held his pen steady and asked, “What’s the name of the victim?”

“Aru. I mean Arunima Barman. Her father’s name …”

Nikhilesh didn’t finish his sentence when he noticed the officer’s disinterest. He stared ahead, his eyes wide with anxiety. The officer lit a cigarette and, as the smoke twisted and curled around him, he said, “Ah, it’s a religious minority case …”

Nikhilesh leaned forward and asked, “Are you saying something to me?”

The police officer leaned back in his revolving chair. He closed his eyes and took a long drag. “It’s not as if she’s a little girl, you know, she’s not lost. Why don’t you ask around? Maybe she’s gone visiting somewhere.” Nikhilesh’s spine tingled at such an unsympathetic, inane remark. The words reached his brain, but he controlled himself with surprising deftness and informed the police officer in a pleading tone—Aru had no place to visit as she had no other relatives here. In fact, Aru was still new to the city; she had just begun her first-year classes. She didn’t know too many places beyond Lopa’s school and her own college. Where could she go by herself? Still, they had searched all probable and improbable places in the past three days and turned up nothing.

“The real trouble is with the ones that have newly sprouted wings …” The police officer pulled deeply on his cigarette and philosophized. “They beat their wings fast and frequent during this time, because it’s time for them to fly. Didn’t you say, she was in first year? Heh heh … it’s high time for them, you know. How long do you think it takes to get into new relationships?”

Nikhilesh’s patience was about to snap. He held on to his last vestige of self-control and said, “Look, I haven’t come here to discuss all this with you.”

“So tell me what you’ve come here for.” The police officer smirked. “What I can do for you?”

“My niece Arunima Barman is missing. I want to lodge a general diary with the police. Here, I’ve brought all of Aru’s details in writing.”

“Are you sure she’s missing?”

“Oh, really! She never came home from college on Saturday.”

“Granted, she didn’t come home.  But does that mean she’s missing?”

“What are you saying, officer? The last three days have been so distressing! Where have we not looked for Aru!”

“You’re her uncle. Where is her father?”

“Why do you need her father? Aru lives with me. She went missing from my house.”

The officer laughed. “You’re still claiming she’s missing? Go and ask around and you’ll find out she’s shacked up with somebody.” Nikhilesh’s hair stood on end from anger and frustration. No longer able to keep calm, he walked out. He left behind the sheet with Arunima’s details on the officer’s desk.

            

The flames of communal and political oppression scorching the pages of the newspapers all through the month of September made Nikhilesh’s ears burn. When his brother Akhil had written to him earlier from the village, his eyes had grown as big as saucers—people could just steal fully grown rice crops off someone’s fields because of political disagreements? And loot the fish from someone’s ponds? Just because they voted for a different political party? He tried to deconstruct the word “anarchy” and reconstruct it to their context of surviving as a religious minority, attempting to balance the account—all things considered, which path was the country treading? Would even a vestige of their non-communal heritage survive? The closer they came to election day, the louder grew the thumping of his heart. The air was heavy with the sighs of terrified people.

Nikhilesh decided, nope, he wasn’t going to visit his village while all the furor over the election was going on. Surely, the election results wouldn’t be postponed because Nikhilesh and his wife Sunanda hadn’t voted! Anyway, Lopa’s final exams were just around the corner. Going to the village now meant wasting at least a week.

The news of his mother’s illness turned all his plans upside down. He felt angry at Akhil—instead of sending ‘urgent news’ all the time, why not just bring mother here? What medical treatment would she get in Bagerhat? At least take her to Khulna. Their sister Nirupama’s brother-in-law Shubir lived there. It wasn’t as if he was a distant relative. It was during times of crisis that people sought shelter in the homes of relatives. They could have already started their mother’s treatment in Khulna, at the medical college hospital there. Instead, Akhil had written to his brother, “Dada, you better come home.” As if “come” was as easily done as said.

Nikhilesh had been forced to leave Lopa and her mother and rush to Bagerhat. Just three more days before the election took place. The streets were plastered with the opposing electoral symbols of boats and sheaves of rice. Numerous loudspeakers microphones sounded in last minute broadcasts. None of the words could be made out clearly, but the loudspeaker announcements continued unabated. Nikhilesh ran into Uncle Anil as he was about to cross the dock to the Rupsha ferry. Uncle Anil was headed for Khulna on urgent business. He shaded his forehead with his palm, covering the westering sun, and said, “Who’s that, that you, Nikhil? Have you come to cast your vote from here?”

“No, uncle, my mother’s sick. That’s why I came.”

“Oh. Go on home then. I’ll come and see you in the evening.”

Nikhilesh did not want to spend even a single night in the village. If possible, he wanted to take the night coach back that very same evening and take his mother with him. If that seemed unlikely, he might have to rent a microbus or an ambulance. But he said none of this to Anil Uncle. He raised his hands in namaskar, and the two of them continued on their separate ways. But he had to stop several times, as he ran into acquaintances who were avidly curious about the upcoming national elections. Nikhilesh barely spoke to them; he was so worried about his mother. When he finally reached home and saw her, he breathed a sigh of relief.

Ananta Bala suffered from respiratory trouble, and her condition grew critical a few days ago. Her constricted breath made her eyes bulge and forced her tongue to hang out of her mouth. It had seemed that it was time to recite the names of the gods to her as a final rite. The local doctor, Nagen, had taken care of that episode. This is what asthmatics went through—right as rain one moment, a goner the next. She seemed fine now, but Nikhilesh stuck to his decision: he was taking his mother away on the night coach. He was going to take her to a good respiratory specialist. This had not happened so far due to the disinterest of his mother herself, but this time he was adamant.

It was then that his niece Aru began pleading to be taken along with her grandmother. Nirupama, his sister, had rushed over with her daughter when she heard Ananta Bala’s condition was worsening. Niru lived nearby with her in-laws. Sonaidugi was just west of this village, on the other side of the dry creek. Her husband Nityananda Barman had apparently forgotten all about his responsibilities as a schoolteacher, and was completely caught up in this election madness. How long could Niru ignore her in-laws’ household and stay by the side of her sick mother? She had left before he arrived but Arunima had stayed on with her grandmother. Still, would it be okay to just take Aru with them? Nikhilesh couldn’t refuse his niece directly to her face. And then Ananta Bala herself grew stubborn. She was not leaving her home at this inauspicious hour. If she had to go, she would leave in the morning. Unable to ignore his mother’s wishes, Nikhilesh decided to visit Sonaidugi. Nirupama was the sister closest to him in age, and once upon a time they had shared in the joys and trials of childhood. This would give him a chance to see her as well as ask her permission to take Aru back to Dhaka with him.

When she saw her brother after such a long time, Nirupama began sobbing, her sorrow like milk boiling over. Tears were surely one of the eternal virtues of Bengali womanhood, but Nikhilesh was unsure about the cause. Was this sorrow because he had not visited his younger sister in a long while or was it a complaint about not arranging better medical treatment for their mother? Nikhilesh had no clue as to the source of this particular river of tears. Fearfully, he placed his hand on her back and asked, “What’s wrong, Niru?”

When her insides had been soothed by some more crying, Nirupama wiped her eyes with her sari and blew her nose. The information she vouchsafed in between renewed snippets of sobbing was alarming. She was scared for Aru’s father, Nityananda. He had been too young to fight in the Liberation War. So he seemed to have taken on this national election as his very own Liberation War. Why would the opposition let that pass? Again, the unquenchable fires would burn; again, blood would run.

Nirupama’s mother-in-law sat near Nikhilesh with her head covered. She told him Qader Molla’s people had threatened them—this time Nityananda had gone too far. He would be taught a lesson; their home would be razed to the ground. The old woman asked him desperately, “Son, tell me, what is more important? The ground beneath your feet or that election?”

Nikhilesh had no answer. Nirupama and her mother-in-law begged him to talk some sense into Nityananda. Perhaps that would pull his reins in a bit. But they couldn’t tell him what he should say to Nityananda. Nikhilesh himself could not figure it out. Still, he waited. Whether he said anything to Nityananda or not, at least he would get to see him. But Nityananda would not be back before midnight. There was nothing he could do. Nikhilesh finished dinner with them and got ready to leave.

The streets were busy with the buzz of election right through midnight, but Akhil had sent two men with five-cell flashlights to escort him back. When he reached home, there were several people waiting to see him, including Uncle Anil. They had many questions for Nikhilesh as he was educated and a man of the city now. Would the murder-rape-looting going on everywhere just continue? Would people have nowhere to go to seek justice? The police and law enforcement forces were partisan already; what would they be like in the future? Aside from all that, they raised questions about the impartiality of the Caretaker Government. One man asked whether fair elections under this government was even possible. Nikhilesh didn’t say much, and he listened impassively. He didn’t feel like talking.

He thought of Nityananda. Thirty years since 1971, and here was an educated, aware man searching for his own war! What was this if not insanity? His guests yawned and got up, rubbing their eyes. They were disappointed that he wasn’t responding to their questions. Eighty-year-old Nibaron Karmokar stood in front of Nikhilesh. He tightened the thread wound around his ears to keep the glasses with the round lenses upon his nose and asked, “Nikhil, are you leaving tomorrow morning?”

Nikhilesh quickly presented a frightening description of his mother’s illness. Then, in a dispassionate manner, he said he would leave for Dhaka the very next morning.

“Why can’t you stay and vote here, son?” As if the demands of an uncomprehending child. Of course, if you bribed a child, he often forgot what he was asking for. Now how was he to make this eighty-year-old child forget? No matter how many times Nikhilesh shook his head to say no, Uncle Nibaron continued to rub his hands together and present reasons for him to stay on. “Who knows when the election will be held again? Will your mother live to see that election?”

No, Nikhilesh had paid no attention to his reasons. He would not allow the thoughts of an uncertain future enter his head. Instead, he started for Dhaka the next morning with his mother and niece in tow. Dawn, despite it being the early spring month of Ashwin, arrived armed with the sword-sharp sun of summer. As soon as they exited through the main gate of the house, they saw a puja mandap, the pavilion for Hindu worship. Binapani, younger daughter of Uncle Sharat, was standing under the sheuli tree with a flower basket in hand, screaming at the top of her lungs. Now and then she sobbed in a broken voice. But there was no way to tell what it was she actually wanted to say. Ananta Bala laid a soothing, gentle hand on her head and asked, “What’s wrong?” Through the incomprehensible moaning she could only point her finger toward the puja pavilion. One glance that way was enough to make Nikhilesh break out in goosebumps. But he recovered from his confusion quickly and made his decision. He pulled at his mother’s hand while rushing Aru, “Come on, we’re late. We’re going to miss the bus.”

His jaw was clenched shut the whole way. He spoke to no one. He sat by the window in the breeze, but it brought no comfort. Arunima asked once, “What’s wrong, uncle?” His stomach began churning and he vomited. His mother and niece both became alarmed. He leaned silently against the window with his eyes shut. The decapitated figure of the goddess floated in his mind’s eye. How appalling a sight! He had not been able to look at the puja pavilion a second time. But he could not erase the scene from the veil of his eyes. Neither could he say anything to anyone.

Who would have guessed that the fate of a clay idol could befall a flesh and blood person? Or that it could happen to someone in Nikhilesh’s family? The news coming from the southern territory of Bagerhat topped all previous headlines. It became impossible to watch the ETV broadcasts. The newspaper columns were furrowed through with fear and dread. One morning he discovered that this new Liberation War had made the remote, southern village of Sonaidugi famous enough to show up on the front page of the newspapers. Nityananda’s war was over. He had gone missing. The raped Nirupama had hanged herself.

Suicide? Nirupama had had a happy household with her son and daughter. She had wanted for nothing—a mother-in-law’s affection, a husband’s love. Why would she kill herself? Nikhilesh knew it was murder. It made no difference whether the murderers’ hands were bloodstained or not; it was a brutal, merciless murder. Anyway, whether suicide or murder, was Nirupama’s head still on her shoulders? Or had her fate been like that of the raped goddess in the puja mandap? The newspapers didn’t say, so Nikhilesh never knew.

He kept thinking Niru was like an idol herself. Her face was pleasantly rounded, like Mother Durga’s, as if she were the Goddess of Joy herself. Nikhilesh could not bear it. He pulled his hair out, he spat on his own shadow—he had failed to stand by his sister in her misery, had failed to keep her safe within the embrace of his arms, what kind of a brother was he?

Then one morning the police visited and wanted to know, “Is this Nikhilesh Babu’s house?”

Lopa had answered the door. She nodded and said, “Yes. But father isn’t home.”

“Isn’t home? Where is he?”

“He’s gone to our village home, in Bagerhat.”

“Oh. Who else is home?”

“My mother is here. Shall I get her?”

There was no need to call her. Sunanda, storm-ravaged and devastated, came and stood in front of them. She gazed at them impassively and asked, “What do you want?”

“Are you Nikhilesh Babu’s wife?”

“Yes, go on.”

“Since Mr Nikhilesh isn’t here, you’ll have to come down to the station.”

“The police station? Why?”

“To identify a dead body.”

Sunanda was shocked. “A dead body? Whose body?”

“That’s the question. It was found by a pond this morning. There was a bloodied orna stuffed in its mouth. The body is wounded and bruised.”

“How old was it do you think?”

“Oh, about sixteen or seventeen. Good looking.”

When she heard a description of the complexion, the mole below the lower lip, the clothes, Sunanda began sobbing. The policeman consoled her. “No, no, please don’t break down like this. It might not be who you think. Come down to the station; take a look at the body. Then you can weep.”

After the policeman left, Sunanda fell on the bed and wept some more. Who knew where a young girl like Lopa, a teenager, found her strength? She held her mother and said, “We will go and check it out but I’m telling you that is not Aru di’s body.”

“We?”

“Father isn’t here. I can’t let you go by yourself.”

Again, a wave of tears turned her inside out. Despair spread through her. “Your father couldn’t save Niru so he tried to save Niru’s daughter … ”

“I know, Ma. Come on, get up. Let’s go and see the dead body.”

After that the name “Aru” emerged from Sunanda’s broken voice wrapped in a sigh.   Lopa pulled up her mother and neatened her clothes. With Nikhilesh gone for the moment, the complicated business of identifying the body would have to be carried out by his wife and daughter.

Whether the corpse recovered from the pond was Arunima or not, Sunanda seemed unable to gather the mental strength needed to visit the police station. As they sat in the rickshaw, Lopa talked to her mother the whole way. “Things like this happen all the time. Again and again. Why are you breaking down like this, Ma? This is what we’re all surviving within. You’ll see, Aru di’ is still alive.” Sunanda wiped her eyes with her sari end and looked at her daughter. Was this the girl she had borne in her womb? When had the rag-wrapped, mewling infant grown up so? She slipped her arm around Lopa’s back and held onto her. Like a child she said, “Your father might find Aru in the village, right, Lopa?”

“You think Aru di went back to the village all by herself?” It seemed unbelievable to Lopa.

“Well, she might.”

Lopa gave in without arguing further—who knows, she might have. However, Lopa changed drastically once they reached the police station and descended from the rickshaw. She clasped her mother and said, “I’m really scared, Ma. What if it is Aru di’s body after all?”

“What are you saying, Lopa?” Sunanda was startled.

“So many things like this happen every day; our Aru di’ could easily be one of those cases.” She held her mother’s hand tightly and continued, “Even I might become one of these cases one day.”

“Lopa!” Sunanda shouted. Just then, the police officer who they had met earlier came over. He welcomed them rather cheerfully. “You’re here? Very good. Come this way, the dead body is over here.”

Lopa suddenly stood stock still and refused to budge. She pushed her mother ahead. “You go and see, Ma. I’ll wait here.”

“But you were so sure just now that the dead body wasn’t Aru’s. Why are you scared now?”

“It might be Aru di’.”

In the end, the policeman’s persuasion and pressure forced both mother and daughter to view the dead body. A young girl, barely the other side of adolescence, lay motionless in the veranda, her head tilted to the left. Her face bore a gentle beauty like cream lightly floating atop fresh milk.

Lopa had shuddered when she had seen the pattern printed on the salwar-kameez the girl was wearing. However, when they got closer, despite the similarity of the brown mole just below the lower lip, Lopa declared with certainty, “Look, Ma, this isn’t our Aru di’.”

Lopa felt very light, as if a mountain had been lifted from her chest. She shook Sunanda’s hands in happiness. “I told you, Ma, this dead body isn’t Aru di’.”

Although Lopa sounded sure that it wasn’t Arunima’s dead body, Sunanda gazed unblinkingly at the lifeless girl. She couldn’t look away. Lopa tried to pull her away, but she flopped down beside the girl’s head. Lovingly, she caressed the expressionless, unfamiliar face. Her fingers closed the staring eyes of the lifeless girl.

None of the events so far had seemed unnatural. But now Sunanda was taken aback at the strange changes within her body. After so many years, the river of her body flooded. Her breasts hung heavy with milk. It felt as if her bra and even her cotton blouse were becoming soaked with the uncontrolled deluge of milk. She felt a strong desire to place her nipple between the cold lips of this nameless girl. What if she regained life through the warmth of a mother’s milk? Couldn’t it happen? So many impossibilities took place beyond what humans knew; did everything need an explanation?

Lopa felt annoyed by her mother’s behavior. She grabbed her by the hands and tried to pull her up. She scolded her mother. “What are you doing, Ma? Get up, let’s go home.”

Sunanda stared without comprehension. As if she could no longer recognize the daughter she had borne for nine months, could not separate her, could not identify her— which one was Lopa, which was Arunima, and which was Purnima…


Rafiqur Rashid is an award-winning writer, researcher, and lyricist. 

Shabnam Nadiya is a writer and translator. Her work can be found at: https://shabnamnadiya.com/