Fiction: excerpts from Afsan Chowdhury's novel 'The Book of Silence'
The escape from fire
Nobody was sure how many had died that night as the army cracked down. But he knew more death was coming particularly in his part of the town. After the end of afternoon prayers people came out chanting patriotic slogans and looked for houses to torch. Most of them knew which house would be targeted and they found it—a three storied building which showed some signs of wear and tear.
The crowd felt safe as the army was on their side and the enemy had been cowed down. But it didn’t matter really as they sought revenge. It was revenge not for deeds done but anxiety caused by defiance. Soon they were on the bottom floor of the building and found the door to the upstairs locked from the inside.
They pounded on the door but it didn’t yield. It enraged them further and soon rags wet with kerosene were lit and thrown inside, causing a fire. Slowly the smoke, the flame and the heat rose, as if, to fry the people inside. They were mostly women or maybe all of them were, he didn’t know. As the crowd roared and cheered, they stepped back a few yards as their eyes stung from the smoke and their face felt the heat. He climbed up the balcony, unseen, in the haze of the fire.
One young woman and an older one were waiting with their heads in sezda, facing the West as the heat grew around them. They saw him with terror in their eyes but said nothing as he too remained silent, watching them in that strange room, bereft of people except those who were about to die.
He showed the younger woman the roof next door and she obeyed him without a word and jumped. The fingers of the flames were not long enough and she landed like a bird on the safety of the house next to theirs, from which anxious people watched the building burn. Then he picked up the older woman, the mother, who could barely move due to a paralysed leg, and jumped, holding her like a child.
It was after landing there that she saw the knifed body of her husband lying on the pavement, blood mixing with dirt and she screamed and lost her desire to live. Soon she collapsed due to pain and grief while he continued to carry her through the dazed and confused crowd, people not seeing anything except a young man carrying an older woman, both ready to flee as they escaped the blaze along with others. He went on till he had reached the end of the road and dropped to his knees when he was away from the sound of the baying crowd.
A few months later, many hid in their homes for weeks as the war was nearing an end, causing fear and joy to rise the way winter settles on homes immune to change. Another crowd had gathered in front of the area where most were in hiding and wailing as another death stared into their faces silently, drawing haphazard patterns on the sky and the dust.
He would wait and he would wait till the silence of his own death rang in his ears, rocking him to sleep once more with its own music that none can hear.
The man in the dark
Sometimes when autumn was approaching he would walk down to the Gate which had been named after a martyr and watch the evening traffic go by. The city had slowed down since the crackdown and people would rush back home, scared and fearful of the dark and the soldiers, not venturing out unless they had to.
The soldiers were also uneasy as the bunch fighting them was becoming bolder and their people were cheering them, though not openly. But he knew the city had many veils and a few had already come down. It was all a matter of waiting though everyone waited for different salvations.
The women and her family whom he had saved were gone and the house had been taken over by a man from his own community. He felt a bit strange, as if, he was in the vacating business, cleaning one householder so that another could come in. He had stood in front of the house and stared at it looking for signs of children. He wanted to see children, not adults because children were silly and asked strange questions which he could not answer.
The new residents didn’t have a house before so they were very happy with the new home. The rest were happy that the old enemy family was gone and it didn’t matter who lived there, or who owned it as long as the war could be won. They were sure of victory.
But houses were strangers too, no different from people. At night he would walk in the alleys of the neighborhood, watching lights flicker, dim, douse in every signal of pain, fear and merriment. He would hear the silence inside the houses and silence of the roads where mongrels roamed freely.
At night he felt comfortable in the company of dogs, who, like him, knew when to run away, hide, be silent, and bark. But he had forgotten how to bark.
He would often come to a house within a compound where an army jeep would arrive late and leave early. In it a lady and her child lived, living alone as her husband went missing. Not many visited the house during the day and she would sometimes come out and shop for vegetables and groceries, unable to face the shopkeepers as if they, too, knew about the nocturnal visits.
He knew only as much and yet he would worry about her for some strange reason. What was the number of times one turned the key to unlock the door? What were the words that unfolded the dress? What was the switch that triggered lust and then satiety?
He would ask the dogs but they didn’t care much about him when the crumbs he carried would run out. His sleepless eyes burned as he waited for the jeep to depart and a sense of peace would descend on him when it left. He wished the dogs knew the answers. Even better if the dogs knew the questions he wanted to ask.
He had known no other city than this and this neighborhood where he was born, raised and then left alone after his parents had died. His aunt had raised him, whose own children had departed and in that tiny house given to refugees from India he had grown up, knowing the lone guava tree in the front yard, which still blossomed and bore fruits once in a while.
But many had left and many more were leaving and he, without friends, without enemies, had no sense of either wanting to escape or stay. He just wanted to go on as long as he could and be in the neighborhood, waiting for the noise of footfalls on asphalt to awaken him in the evening and put him to sleep at dawn.
In between lay a bed made of silent dreams and nightmares and he would choose them like cinemas in theatre halls, watching the red garish posters on the wall, unable to distinguish between blood and beetle nut juice.
He waited till he heard only silence pure and fierce, unforgiving and endless.
Sadness of poets
By the time they came out of the house the screams of the woman who had just learnt her husband had been killed was loud and the shrieks followed them to the street. They hated being bearer of such bad news and yet couldn’t shirk off responsibility because they were hidden in the house when the war was on. The dead man shuttled back and forth between his workplace outside Dhaka and his home in Dhaka where his wife and two kids lived. One day the man had awakened him late at night with a finger on his lips. He was terrified that the army had surrounded the house but the man motioned him to follow and led him to a small space near the staircase and softly read out his love poems in the dark. He didn’t want to wake his family. It’s for the first time that he understood the sadness of poets and their poetry.
The poet and the unknown
All night he wrote poetry knowing victory was near. In the early hours, several men came to their house and asked for him. He didn’t know them but they knew him. Perhaps they knew he wrote poetry or that he had converted to Islam to marry his wife. He didn’t know which was more treacherous.
He was surprised that he was not afraid and kept calm. He didn’t want his family to be scared either. They stood close to him, as if this proximity was going to prevent what they didn’t know.
But the men had no time for small talks. He was holding his son when they asked him to hand him over to his wife and follow them. He caressed his hand over his head and left. His wife saw him climb into the jeep. His eyes were already blindfolded and his lips were moving in silent prayers. What did his silent prayer sound like? That was her last memory of her husband.
A week later when the city was free, the young warriors came back and asked her who she suspected.
The family, already trying to leave, was caught and all of them were killed, including young adults and children. Nobody could say if they were guilty or innocent as their bodies lay in silence.
Case studies from a diary
“the army came and encircled my home and then came in. They saw the plates and pots and kicked them and said, ‘So you feed them, do you? Let us teach you a listen.’ She lost her senses and collapsed and was raped. Her husband fled away and returned after the army had left.
After the war, many curious people would come to see the village so the rape victims feared exposure. The villagers gave this landless woman some land, built a home and set her up for life. She discusses her rape with all visitors. The rest were safe from prying souls as she lived a well-fed life with her husband. She had become the wall behind which women shamed by soldiers lived in complicity with the silence that secrets bring.
No longer your own kind ...
As they walked into a newly free city, they saw a long row of enemy soldiers who were being escorted into waiting trucks to be taken to jail. They had held on for long but in the end, they surrendered with their arms raised.
He watched with curiosity the long procession behind which walked several women who were desperately trying to hide their faces with whatever clothes they were wearing. He stopped and wondered what would happen to these women who had been provided as comfort givers to the enemy, locked up in the bunk in the final days of the war.
They had no home to return to, no family to return to, no land to return to, no safety to return to, nothing to return to ... they were no longer his own kind, they were no longer enemies ... They had no name, no identity, no future except the silence that wrapped itself around their tear-stained faces.
Of death and silence
She stood on the road and watched the river flow by, carrying debris of the dead on its body. Blood had dried on her hands after she had killed the man who had killed her son and his last scream was so faint that she had to bend down to hear his final moans of pain. Others stood in a circle to watch her perform the ritual of purification of the soil for nothing would grow in the field otherwise.
They had pleaded with her to kill the man who had killed her son and she had complied. She had no sorrow, no pain, no love, no hate but only bore the duty that called her to commit acts that, they say, would fertilize the soil.
For farmers were prisoners of the soil and could neither let it go nor get rid of their hunger. And then brazen wind would blow and carry the tumescent seeds across the soil so that it would bear the rice.
And the rains would come and it would mingle with the blood staining the soil and recognize it as the stain of purification and the rains would pelt down its mercy and the earth would drink deep the holy water as it seeped into the bowels of the mud as the earth would grow large with its belly full of food and provide meals anointed by the sinless fingers of the mother who had taken revenge of son’s death.
Afsan Chowdhury is a Bangladeshi liberation war researcher, fiction writer, columnist and journalist. He received the Bangla Academy Award in 2018 for Literature on Liberation War. He has edited and co-authored Gram er Ekattor and a four-volume history of 1971, Bangladesh 1971.