We reached the crematorium on the riverside that takes a mischievous turn near a local market. The hushed night was deep and dark. An utter blackness shrouded everything around. Only the kerosene lamps plying away in the riverboats kept glittering like mysterious inklings amid this meandering midnight. One could only hear the murmur of the water.
The glint from a dimming light came from an aged hut at the end of that road by a now deserted marketplace. We proceeded a little and sneaked a look into the hut. It was a strange sight, I must admit. A gaunt skeletal old fellow wrapped in ragged quilts was asleep on the floor. A young girl was grinding dal sitting by his side. In an earthen pot ahead were sliced onions and green chilies, a kerosene lamp flickering closely.
All of a sudden Monju called from behind, "Hurry up, dada! The boat is here."
Monju, Shafi, Ahad, and I- we all got on the boat as stealthily as we could. The boat had been hired beforehand of course. It was February in 1952. We were on the run. The policemen decided to bring out a warrant against us, for we were actively involved in the Language Movement. They were following us like shadows. This is why we decided to leave Dhaka. But their sense of predation was as sharp as that of hungry wolves. It was impossible to hide even in the middle of nowhere. Our urgent escape plan was to cover up for a few days on the other side of the river at Shafi's village.
Once the tiny vessel hit the ground and we felt safe, our small group proceeded quietly. The earthen narrow walkway was hardly visible in the pitch-black night. A little away in the paddy field we could hear the light thuds of late-night dewdrops.
We crossed the village ahead and reached a small field covered in grass. Right then, we got startled by the sound of the footsteps of some people from far distance.
"The rogues have sensed us here. Be very careful now!" whispered Shafi.
Beside the field was a shabby hut built from palm leaves. Shafi hurried towards that last available beacon of hope and got inside. We followed him immediately one after another. Upon our entry into the hut, an old woman started shouting from one of its dingy corners, "Help! Help! Someone help me! There are robbers here! I am done for!"
Shafi jumped onto the old woman and silenced her with his hands.
"Hush! Hush you mad woman! This is me, Shafi! Shut up right now! The police are chasing us!"
She finally stood still hearing of the police. We understood that they knew each other.
We squinted through the gaps of the cracked wall of the broken house. We could see a few people in white dresses passing the road nearby. They were the village people returning home from the town at these dead hours of the night for some reason. We all sighed in relief.
To our horror, there were footsteps again a little later. The woman started shouting again,
"What have you done, you devils? I will surely tell on you. You bunch of creeps, I will tell on you to the police!"
It was then we could see the woman properly. The first impression came off as a shock. Her hair was greyish — her eyes brown and dangerously sunken — her fragile frame covered with wrinkled skin. She looked like an evil witch with no shred of mercy and kindness left inside. She was known as Hossain's mother in the village. Her only son Hossain worked in a railway factory in the city. He was shot dead by the police during a strike by the factory workers. The woman went mad after that. She collected this and that from here and there and begged from the villagers to carry on with whatever that remained of her life.
We were about to silently ponder over this entire scenario while Ahad made an abrupt move. There was some puffed rice inside a pot in one corner of the old lady's room. Without any delayed inhibition, he started devouring from the pot. We all were famished and the rest of us joined him in no time. The woman got furious at this and started screaming for the third time in a row,
"Alas! Goodness gracious! You are eating away all I have left to eat. You bastards! You devils! I will have you all murdered. Just wait and see!"
In an attempt to get some water, Monju broke the earthen pitcher into pieces. We all were thirsty, but there was not a drop of water left to drink. The lady yet again lost her mind as her shouting got louder and fiercer,
"I will most definitely have you all caught!"
Meanwhile, the footsteps were even closer than before. The fate was inevitable- with the deranged woman ramping about the house and the police not so far out there. We were standing in that dark corner holding our breath, helpless and crushed.
Amid this chaos, suddenly the 'woman stormed outside. We were sure that she would return with the policemen. Every little second ticked us by with great suspense and our team of four was trembling with fear in a ghastly loop of dreadful anticipation.
Nothing could save us now.
A few minutes went by. Nothing happened. No one showed up! "What is the matter?" I thought. I tiptoed to the door and looked outside. To my surprise I found the woman standing on the road, alone! I thought the policemen might be hiding somewhere around.
I left my friends in that room and slowly stepped towards the confused woman. Once I moved closer, I could hear her murmuring something stretching her hands towards the sky, as if embracing the vastness of the universe itself and all that it carries within. The almost inaudible words gradually made sense to me,
"Allah, forget my mistakes. I lied to them. I led them in the wrong direction. My Hossain was shot dead by the police. Allah- I couldn't make them face the same fate that my son did. Forgive me! Forgive this sin I've committed, Allah!"
I stood there, astounded. It was yet to be dawn, you see. Only a soft glow was taking over the realm of petty humans from the eastern horizon in the likeness of a kajla bird and its airy feathers. The grassy field ahead was soaked with morning dews under a once-starlit sky as the much awaited epilogue of that one February night approached us, slowly but surely.
Motiur Rahman is a lecturer of English at Dhaka University of Engineering & Technology.