A story on the theme of eternal wait of a martyr's parents
“Have you seen my son? Here is his picture, a fine young man. He promised to come back home. Have you met him on your way here?”
The passerby and his neighbours felt they could not respond to his questions. He had been asking those questions for twenty years plus. Yet Shaker Ali and his wife Maryam Bibi would not let go. Why would they? Their son Fojor had gone off to wage a war against the foreign invaders of his country. On the night he left, clad in threadbare clothes that were nothing but a lungi, a torn genji and a gamchha wrapped around his young head, he promised his parents he would be back the day when freedom came.
Freedom came twenty years, perhaps more, ago. Everyone came home, the young men who like Fojor had gone to the fields of war. They came back with rifles and submachine guns slung across their shoulders, in long hair and longer beards, Fidel Castro-like. The land was free. Shaker Ali and Maryam Bibi celebrated the arrival of liberty with their neighbours, cheered by the knowledge that their child, the only one they had given life to, had had a role in the coming of freedom. The couple made ready to welcome their son home, for in a free land they knew the vicious poverty they had laboured under for years would draw to an end. Fojor would see to that. The light shone brilliantly in the eyes of his parents.
But Fojor did not come home. The days went by, then the weeks, then the months and finally the years. But did that matter at all to the ageing couple? They waited for him, peering into the distance where they knew they would see Fojor rushing toward them in happiness. Everyone in the village knew that Shaker Ali and Maryam Bibi had turned progressively insane, were not amenable to reason. Twenty years was enough to persuade anyone into believing that a missing child would not come home. Fojor was certainly among the hundreds and thousands of freedom fighters whose lives drew to a violent end on an unknown field of paddy or in a marsh somewhere in the silent beauty of the national landscape. But no one had the heart to relate the reality to Shaker Ali and Maryam Bibi.
Fojor’s friends, those who had gone to war with him, slowly passed into early middle age, married and settled down in life. Of course, some of them had found the easy road to happiness by flaunting their war credentials and squeezing as much advantage out of them as they could. Most of them had left the village and were now denizens of a metropolis. They hardly ever returned to the village, but when they did, there was little of the old wartime glow on them. Their hair had begun to turn grey at places; they had a paunch. And they looked happy. They had forgotten Fojor and were only reminded of him when tales flowed to them of Shaker Ali and Maryam Bibi still waiting for Fojor to come home. They shook their heads, as if asking themselves why the old couple had not yet realized that their son was memory, that a dead son could not come back home.
Life went on for Shaker Ali and Maryam Bibi in a pattern of timelessness. They continued to live in wartime. Fojor’s clothes, his books, the rickety chowki that served as his bed and reading table, were meticulously dusted every morning by his mother. Her child would be back home soon, wouldn’t he? All day long, Shaker Ali would be in the fields, not his own, for he had never owned any. He was a farm worker or, more appropriately, a labourer hired periodically by the affluent families in his village to work for them. Age had done its damage to his lean and emaciated body. His scraggly beard was now white and not much hair was left on his head. As he worked, he looked out toward the dusty path between the fields of rice and corn and jute, depending on what the season was, expecting his son to join him again. Fojor, after all, did accompany his father to the fields every day, drawn to them by the enormity of poverty the family lived through. And, yes, Fojor had his books, those he needed to study at the rural nondescript college he had enrolled himself in. “Baba”, he often thought it necessary to tell Shaker Ali, “someday this grief will end. You wait and see.” The father raised his hands to the heavens at these words, loudly pronouncing the word ‘alhamdulillah’ (Allah be praised!). In a curious way, Fojor’s ambitions were his parents’ too.
And then came that rainy dawn – it was the monsoon – when Fojor knew he would be leaving for the war. His parents were already up. They were always up early at dawn. Shaker Ali was gulping down some muri and gur. Maryam Bibi, distraught at the declining pile of firewood, was trying to bring the mud stove to life by blowing into it, the smoke making the tears appear in her eyes. “Maa, Baba, I am going,”, said Fojor with a quite a degree of forceful suddenness. Shaker Ali stopped midway between taking another mouthful of muri and gur. He did not quite get it. “Baba Fojor, where are you going?” Maryam Bibi cast an alarmed glance at her son. “To the war, Baba”, Fojor replied. Taking a handful of muri-gur from his father’s bowl, he gulped it down, even as he told his parents not to worry, for he would be back as soon as the war was over. “It will be a free country soon. My friends have joined the Mukti Bahini and I cannot stay home doing nothing.”
And then he strode off. It was raining. After a moment of stupefaction, Shaker Ali turned to Maryam Bibi, consoling her, “This war will be over soon and Fojor will come back. There is no reason for worry.” Maryam Bibi wiped her tears with the end of her much-worn and much-washed saree.
The war did come to an end. The soldiers of freedom came home. Shaker Ali and Maryam Bibi waited all day and till the crickets began to sing at dusk for the sound of their son’s voice calling out to them, to tell them he was back. There were the times when they thought they heard his voice as he approached the hovel that was home, only to realize that it had been the wind blowing through the date palms by the pond some feet away.
For twenty years the winds have blown through the palms by the pond. Shaker Ali and Maryam Bibi have woken up every day, dusted their son’s niche in a home battered by time and misfortune. At the advent of twilight, they have looked out at the expanse of cropland beyond a small courtyard dripping with sadness, expecting to see Fojor rushing to them, to let them know that the country was free, that he had waged war to cause that blossoming of liberty. As night fell, sleepy and weighed down by misery that spoke not, they tottered back into their hovel. Perhaps Fojor will come tomorrow?
Away from their weather-beaten home and their equally weather-beaten lives, scores of villages away in a hamlet beyond the frontiers of time and space, a few undernourished boys played with a football that had the air gone out of it. At a point, as they kicked and dribbled, the ball rolled away from them, coming to rest on a patch of ground overgrown with wild weeds.
None of the boys would retrieve the ball from there. They had heard from the old men of the hamlet the story of the dark evening when a wounded freedom fighter limped into that patch of ground, a bullet draining the blood out of his heart. Afraid that enemy soldiers would soon be upon them looking for the wounded, limping Mukti Bahini man, they swiftly buried him as soon as the life went out of him in a whisper. The young man, seconds before the end, had been asked by one of the villagers what his name was. A croak came from his dying lips. ‘Fojor’, he could barely finish saying it before the light went out of his eyes.
The ball stayed there. The sun dropped out of sight beyond the horizon. The little boys nervously made their way back to their homes. Varied smells of frugal meals wafted forth from the kitchens of their mothers.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer. His books include From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.