We lived in Pirojpur then. Barisal is the land of rivers and nullahs, and Pirojpur is no exception. Unless you have been to this Southern region of the country, you cannot claim to have really seen the country. We were not used to seeing such multitudes of rivers and hence, the first time we did see them, we could not help but be amazed. There were villages on either sides of the river, and for as far as the eyes could see, there were coconut and Areca palm trees. Various kinds of sailboats floating away – what a remarkable scene! The ebb and flow of the tide could be seen twice a day; the residents’ lives here were tied to the ebb and flow.
We had grown up by then.
The siblings either go to school, college or university; some here, some in Dhaka. When we get together for holidays, it feels as if there is no greater joy than to be alive. After dusk, we sit together in the inner veranda, the fireflies swarm in a distant tree; thousands of fireflies in a single tree – synchronously switching on their photic emission and then switching off. We tell stories in low voices while sipping on tea. Abba would sometimes want to hear songs, my sisters would sing “Sokhi Bhabna Kahare Bole” while swinging their heads; we would sit or lie down, look into the night sky and listen to the song. Sometimes, Ira would slowly advance towards us and take a sniff.
Ira is the name of our deer. On one of our holidays, when I arrived home, I saw Ira roaming around inside the house. When brought from the Sunderbans, Ira was apparently only a fawn, but now Ira has grown quite a bit. My elder brother petted the fawn and affectionately named it Ira. Reputedly, deer cannot be completely tamed. After all, a wild animal is meant to live in the wildernesses. So when we would call out Ira’s name, it would sometimes pay heed and come closer, and at other times, it wouldn’t bother – it would only raise its head and look towards the direction of the call. Within the compound of the house, there is a courtyard where there are trees and shrubs; Ira walks amidst them and feeds on the grass and leaves. Ira loves to eat raw rice. If you call our Ira’s name while holding out a fistful of raw rice, it comes to you and licks the rice off your hand. Sometimes, Ira would allow you to caress its body. If in a really good mood, Ira would voluntarily raise its head and come stand close to us, and we would stroke its neck. Deer is a very beautiful creature, so pleasing to the eye.
On the whole, we were spending an excellent time. I have grown up now, hence I sometimes ponder over the joys and sorrows of life. What else could one call happiness, if not for the days of merriment spent together?
Just then, the horrific time of 71 came upon us. The entire nation was afflicted by misery and anguish. Torture, injustice and destruction, deaths after deaths. Three million people had to give up their lives for the sake of love for their motherland. Not a single person was spared from that fatal venom, so how could we? When the country gained independence, our beautiful family was devastated. We were scattered in different places, and with a lot of difficulty, we came under one roof at our remote village home – all except Abba. He lay under the shade of a tree on the riverbank; his bullet-pierced body was retrieved from the river by the village folk who buried him there.
Slowly and gradually, life began once again. A rented house, a few blankets, and Amma surrounded by us siblings. Once commute started again, I took Amma to Pirojpur to see where Abba was and how he was doing. The military personnel had already looted the house quite a while back, but that is not where our concerns lie. When a member of the family is no more, what good will the family property come to?
When I was going through severe personal depression, someone asked me, “Didn’t you have a deer?”
I was suddenly reminded of Ira. Indeed we did have a deer. A beautiful deer from the bygone joyous times. I answered, “Yes, do you know where the deer is?”
The man said he did not know but there was a deer in one of the houses nearby. For some reason, I really wanted to see Ira once more and so I began a search. What was I to do with a deer at this time? Life as it was, seemed difficult for human beings, let alone a deer.
Finally, news arrived that about a mile or two away, there was a deer within the compounds of a certain house and it could have been our deer. One day, I went over to that house and introduced myself. The gentleman received me cordially and welcomed me inside and bade me sit. I told him, “We used to have a deer but there is no trace of it since the end of the war. I heard you’ve found a deer?”
The gentleman said he had indeed found a deer but chances of it being ours was very slim. Apparently, the military troops had ransacked our home abysmally, and they must have shot down the deer for its meat. The gentleman’s words were logical and yet I expressed my desire to see the deer once. It might not be our deer, and even if it would be, I would not take it away, yet I wanted to see it. The gentleman immediately took me inside. The compound was huge; we would have to look for the deer. The gentleman said, “Deer don’t want to come near humans; they stay hidden away and out of sight.”
I was looking for the deer and suddenly caught a glimpse of it from afar – quite a large spotted deer. There was no way to identify it as our Ira. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I cupped my hands together around my mouth and called out, “Iiiiira,” just as I used to call out before. The deer suddenly pricked up its ears, erected its head and stood up. Then it turned around and looked at me. To my surprise, suddenly it took long strides and hopped towards me. When it neared me, it stopped and then stretched its neck outwards and brought its head close to my face. I put my arms around its neck and caressed him. It stood there, silently, with eyed closed, and accepted my affection. This is Ira, our deer, a chimera reminiscent of happiness. For some reason, tears welled up in my eyes.
The gentleman became quite surprised, and I think he felt a little embarrassed too. Deer cannot be domesticated. That’s what he knew. Is there anything more bemusing than a deer recognizing its own pet name after the passage of a year, and darting towards me like that? Right then, the gentleman made arrangements to hand over the deer to me, but what was I to do with a deer?
A man from our village had come with us to help out. I am not even going to mention his name because if I start narrating his tale, it will take up countless pages. He witnessed the entire incident with me and thus at the very moment when the gentleman handed over the deer to me, he announced that he would take the deer, and that he would take its responsibility.
At that time, there was no way to commute to the village. Trains were not running because bridges had been blown up; there were no vehicles since there were no roads. Under such circumstances, I didn’t know how he would take the deer home and to be honest, I didn’t care to know.
I couldn’t believe he would actually manage to take the deer with him but indeed he had accomplished the mission and showed up with the deer at our distant village home. The people of that vicinity hadn’t seen many deer in their lives. So it didn’t come as a surprise when Ira had become a spectacle in the neighboring villages. With absolute freedom, it roamed around in the farmlands of the village. No one had the courage or the power to catch Ira. Despite its name being Ira, it was not a doe; it was a stag. So when he grew bigger, he grew antlers on his head. What an appearance! He would roam around freely in the fields of the village – an unforgettable sight.
The ending of the tale about the deer is not a happy one. Truth be told, this is the problem with the story; even though the ending is not a happy one, it is the ending that must be given to culminate the narration. We were in Dhaka then. A letter had come from our village and it contained news of Ira. I wish it didn’t. Apparently they had slaughtered Ira and eaten him up. Allegedly, deer meat is delicious.
Noora Shamsi Bahar is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English & Modern Languages at North South University.