I knew it was Tipu, without even looking at the blanket-wrapped body they were carrying on their shoulders. I knew it was Tipu, because as always, he had filled up every space with his presence. He was my only child, and I often acted like a mother would, over-protective, over-anxious; I never liked it when he was out of my sight. When Tipu returned from school, or from the playground as soon as the first bird returned to its nest in the evening, I could hear his eager footsteps all the way down. I could even smell him then; his hair would emit a sweaty but sweet scent when he had been a half hour in the sun.
On that particular day, when his father's men carried Tipu home, I could smell him from the moment they had set their feet in my direction. But from his hair then came not the usual scent of sweat, but something else. I was wracking my brain to locate that smell. In spite of myself, I was getting worried, and a sick feeling gripped me. I knew the pulse of anxiety, the panic that seizes one when the ground starts sinking. I've felt the dread of someone dangling over a precipice. Yet this anxiety, this fear, this panic, was nothing like anything I had known before. Tipu had been walking in the sun all morning, the smell of his hair should have overpowered the scent from the champa trees lining the road. The fields must have been dazed, too. But I could not smell the scent that I knew like my own breath.
I prayed to God to tell me what was wrong. Then, and as suddenly as an April storm rises and whirls away, the realization came to me. My mind flashed back to an Ashwin afternoon many years ago when Tipu had been walking around the courtyard in his uncertain, two year footsteps, investigating everything, touching and feeling everything, when he fell on that fish cutter a maid servant had so carelessly placed near a pile of freshly captured fish. I smelled the blood from the kitchen as it flowed from his hand. No big injury, that; but blood was everywhere.
Blood! When they showed me Tipu's face and allowed me to plant one last kiss on his cheeks, I put my hands around his head, and felt the blood. It was still warm and sticky.
I must have fallen across Tipu's body, for a pair of strong hands pulled me back. I knew I was slipping into unconsciousness – I was fighting against it, and knew it was a losing battle. But I was afraid they would take him away while I lay there, unconscious, and the thought terrified me. So I held on, gritting my teeth, concentrating every bit of my energy on one last effort to keep myself awake. I had to see – I had to see what had played foul with my son's sweet smelling hair. As I held his head, and felt the blood, I had the sudden urge to bury my face in his hair. His face looked happy; he seemed to have died peacefully.
One of his father's men had accidentally shot him as he cleaned his gun. Tipu must've faced his death unafraid. And I was really puzzled. Tipu was never the child to stand up to pain or fear; his rage was great, but it came and went. He lacked the courage to face things calmly. He would break down, weep, or tear his hair –but he never ever threw a punch even at a shadow. Someone lifted the blanket and his face lighted up: it looked so contented!
All my fears went. I knew I could now rest without any worries, Tipu had taken care of himself, and I could now take care of myself too. I felt grateful to God. I thanked him for that beautiful light in his face, that beautiful half-smile that made me so peaceful even as my world fell apart. He was my savior – as he liked to believe – my champion! He knew how unprotected he would leave me, so he wanted to fill every inch of my space with his presence, and so he let that half-smile play on his face for me! I wanted to kiss his hair, and had only put my lips into the tousled locks that no comb could control, when someone started to pull me back. And then the fit came, the moment when no amount of concentration could keep one's eyes open.
I fell on Tipu's limp body – the smell of his hair and the maddening smell of his blood in my whole being.
I couldn't cry because I was thinking of many things, and crying would only scatter those thoughts away. Tipu never wanted to leave the house, but I was afraid that the Muktis coming in search of his father would kill him too. Our home was no easy target for the Joy Bangla boys though, as Tipu's father had his men guard it day and night; but I had heard of the power of those boys. They were young; but they had a single-mindedness that I sometimes saw in Tipu, when, after his father had beaten me up, he would turn my defender, and go in search of him –to finish him up!
Tipu was otherwise a quiet boy, lost mostly in his own world of dreams and fantasies. His anger was his own to consume; it never spilled over into other people's lives. But his father, or anyone for that matter, shouting at me or treating me with unkindness, would feel the quickness of his rage. I often asked him, 'Tipu, why do you feel that you have to defend me? Do I need defending?' He answered with just a smile. That was in his last year in school.
Well, the Muktis felt the same way towards their country which they called “mother”. I tuned in to the Swadhin Bangla Betar which played patriotic songs that fired up the Muktis. My eyes became foggy when a man with a lilting voice sang about the Motherland.
I was not afraid of the boys though; I thought they were sweet. Many of them were of Tipu's age. I was only apprehensive: when two young boys meet, both high-strung on their mothers, anything could happen! Translating metaphors into plain language was no easy task for the boys. If one of them pointed a gun at me, even accidentally, I knew what Tipu would do. I wouldn't have blamed the boys if they did that, for our household was the enemy household, and all those living within it were enemies, and enemies couldn't expect any mercy when a war was going on.
And so I had decided to send Tipu to my father's house. My brothers had not joined the war, but everyone knew which way their sympathies lay. Boys coming from across India had received money from them and food. My brothers' prominence protected them, I guess. My father was dead, however; my mother, too; but my elder sister, a widow, lived there. I was sending Tipu to her; she liked him, her children liked him as well. He would not be lonely and depressed and unhappy as he was here.
Tipu was not sure about joining the war; he was concerned that it would destroy me. I always felt that the Motherland had greater claims on her children; but I protected Tipu from the Motherland. I was selfish. After all, she had millions of sons; but I had only one. I was wrong. In the end, the Motherland claimed him.
Sometimes Tipu would fantasize about the war. He told me we would both go; maybe I could help the boys like a Florence Nightingale while he fought. His idea of war was simple: he thought going to battle was like going to school, or the playground. He would leave early for the front, and come back to his mother in the evening, as soon as the first bird returned to nest.
I remember how tortured Tipu was by the decision to go to his uncles' home. He liked the idea of spending some time with his cousins and my sister: but he loathed the idea of leaving me behind. He asked me to go with him. I would like to do so, but how could I?
My household was my prison: after my father had placed me in the hands of Tipu's father – in those days of expectation, happiness and excitement– and told him to look after me kindly and well, he had lowered his voice and told me, 'Daughter, this is where your life is now. This is your address. Your home. Your world.' I almost heard him say, your prison, your grave!
And I knew I couldn't get out of the house alive. Tipu's father would not mind too much if I wanted to go, but something in me rebelled against the very idea of leaving my house, my grave. I remember, for a while the image of my fathers' house with three ponds became so overpowering that I almost gave in, but the green fields of home were not mine to tread anymore. I was a creature of the four walls. Without my walls, I'd be exposed! I'd feel naked.
I couldn't leave.