• Friday, March 06, 2015



Anishta Khan

A mahogany door. A large thick solid piece of wood. With a dark brown uneven surface. Decorated with spatters of orange poster paint by my older sister when she first learnt how to hold a brush, paint a sky, a setting sun and a river, on our small courtyard at dusk when she was five. With a dark overused handle dirtied with years of sweat from my father's overworked hands when he came back in the evening after plowing the earth for golden fibres. With a rusted heavy padlock my mother never ever forgot to lock when we went to visit my maternal grandmother during our winter breaks. A hand-sized line of dried-up mud about four feet from the ground left traces even now. Mud from our hands during play time. That door magically shined when the moonlight fell on it. And when there was flood or fire in the village, it kept us safe. I grew up seeing that door. It was almost as old as my grandfather when our four walled house was built some seventy years ago. It held so many secrets, so many stories. It witnessed everything. And then one night, they broke down that door. I never felt safe ever again.
It was a summer's night. The warm air was humid and thick. The dark sky was lit up with a billion constellations. Crickets and frogs could be heard in the distance. Abba came back from the fields and was waiting for dinner and Maa cooked the rice. My sister, Abani, and I were playing with our dolls. They were supposed to get married the next day. It could have been any other summer's night if someone hadn't set the forest on fire, and someone hadn't killed our priest in the Mandir. It happened all too quickly and I remember it like a nightmare – at the back of my head, threatening me that it might come again one night in my sleep.
It was soon after the forest fire had lit our small village that panic spread, people screamed, scrambled and ran to find a safe shelter. Only, they had us surrounded. Destroyed our Gods and Godesses, paddy fields, homes and dreams. Lives lost. They burnt us in the fire, shot us in the head, took off our clothes, they humiliated us. All because we were Bengalis. Or maybe the difference in religion caused a bigger fire in their hearts.
In the mayhem, they broke down our door. Our solid door that was supposed to protect us from all evil. Abba tired to reach for a sharp bothi but they shot him down. First in the head, then in his crotch. And they laughed as the blood was soaked up by his blue and yellow checkered lungi. Shock. Fright. I absorbed the scene. There were three men. Two of them in their 30s, one just recruited. Bonnets, boots, everything. Thick black moustaches and disturbing faces. They looked around our hurricane-lamp lit room. I could see hunger in their eyes. Hungry for what? Blood, tears, flesh. They were so cruel. They simply dragged my wailing mother, who was on the floor. When she resisted, the oldest looking man spit on her shidur, beat her belly. She was conceiving again, and they could see. And in that beating, she seemed to age 10 more years. I could not recognize her anymore. Bloodshot teary eyes, she looked at me as to tell me something. I will never know what. They dragged her frail corpse out of the house. I didn't know where she was going, but I wanted to come with. She was my protector after all.
I thought they had enough. But they came back. Only to haul Abani from the ground, who was hiding under the wooden bed with me. One of the older men clutched her by her braids and took her in his arms, tried to do very dirty things. He bit her cheek so hard, the mark can still be seen today, ten years later. A deep dark cut of sorts, just below her eye, on her right cheek. She'll remember the war, that night in particular, every time she will look in the mirror, or see her own reflection on gleaming metal. They could have taken her away that night, they could have taken me too if it were not for the young soldier, clearly disgusted by what he was seeing, to call the other two on – they had other villages to burn. But I knew that in a few days, he'd become one of them too. Hungry animals. And then there will be no one left to save children from their muscular hands.
And so, they left us in our dimly lit room. Fire ravaging my friends and neighbours outside. We sat under the bed, holding each other's hands, afraid to move. My mind was blank, unable to conjure what happened in the last hour – I lost my parents, my sister lost her dignity, we did not have a home anymore. Flickering leaves, sobbing and screaming blurred together and slowly put me to sleep. I didn't know how I felt anymore. But I did feel a hint of betrayal. We were betrayed by that door, our door, which was supposed to keep us safe. Now, it witnessed another story, tainted with my mother's still-warm blood.

Published: 12:00 am Thursday, March 27, 2014

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