I am now seventy, yet I remember vividly an incident from my childhood that left a deep impression on my soul.
It is the year 1960. I am in Grade 4 attending the Kurmitola Cantonment Primary School at Ayub Line, Dacca (now Dhaka).
My father is in the army and we live at the military compound. There is a parade ground sandwiched between the army barracks and the family quarters. As the name implies, the area is primarily meant for military parades, but it also has other useful purposes: sports and entertainment – variety shows and open-air movies for the ‘jawans’ (an Urdu/Persian word for the non-commissioned infantry soldiers).
The movies they run at the parade ground are mostly in Urdu. That’s when I first learn about Mirza Ghalib. The violent footage of action from real wars still sticks in my mind. It is the dark-age equivalent of a nine-year-old today watching Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
Although East Pakistanis are Bengalis and speak Bangla, it is Urdu, which is the main language spoken in West Pakistan, that is the military language. This is because about 95% of the armed forces are comprised of West Pakistanis, mostly Punjabis.
We mingle, play and even go to school with the Urdu-speaking boys and girls. We grow up learning two languages. Even the school we attend is bilingual. In the long run, learning Urdu would help my family greatly because we would later spend eight long years (1966–73) in West Pakistan.
Our family accommodation is next to the parade ground. I love the location. Not only can we run and play there, but the open field offers an unrestricted view of the army barracks. We watch the military parades and the marching band. Occasionally, we see a long row of military vehicles packed with soldiers in combat gear, heading for military drills at some remote location.
Even with all of this, the parade ground is only half the fun of living on the military compound. Even more exciting to a small boy is that the Dacca–Chittagong railway line runs past the cantonment and borders a no-man’s land – bushland full of fruit trees and lakes for fishing, an exciting place for adventure!So, beyond home and school, our happy, exciting days revolve around the parade ground and the no-man’s-land.
Unfortunately, every light has a shadow. This story is the story of the dark side – the day my life’s brightness suffered a total eclipse.
It is Friday and we are enjoying the weekend. There is no such thing as TV and our family does not even have a radio. On a day like this, we brothers normally play ludo or a snakes and ladders board game. But today, somehow, turns out to be an exception.
I am bored and at some point I go to the bedroom overlooking the parade ground to look through the window. It is an instinctive gesture such as an inmate confined in a cell might make.
Curiously, I see some unusual activity. There are three soldiers in uniform, which is uncommon for a Friday. Two of the soldiers are holding bayoneted rifles (probably live) and standing about a cricket-pitch length apart, guarding the third man. The third soldier, who is wearing combat gear – rifle, backpack, helmet and heavy boots – is running back and forth between the two guards. The posture of the soldier on the drill tells me that his backpack is unusually heavy, probably loaded with rocks and bricks.
I have never seen such an unusual drill. Despite my youth, I have no problem figuring out that it is a corporal punishment. We kids sometimes walk around the periphery of the barracks and once spotted a heavily fortified, guarded cell where several jawans were being held captive, probably for misconduct, so I am not unfamiliar with the idea of punishment.
As I stand at the window holding the grille and watching the soldier’s ordeal, my heart first becomes heavy and then begins to ache. It is about ten in the morning and the day is getting hotter as the sun glides up the sky. From his slow, tired movements – as if he might collapse at any moment – I get a sense that the soldier must have been on the drill for a while. Unable to cope with my inner distress, I walk away from the window, but after a while cannot resist returning to check if it is all over.
An hour or so later, I find that several other jawans in their plain Punjabi clothes – salwar and kurta – are now being made to line up and watch the punishment. I understand that it is meant to humiliate the soldier further, as if the corporal punishment is not enough.
My troubled mind becomes increasingly anxious for the punishment to end. At about noon, I hear the azan for the Jumu’ah prayer. The visitors are now gone, probably headed for the mosque. A flickering thought crosses my mind and offers some hope: after the prayer, the namajees would return to the barracks and their homes. One of them might be the officer who ordered this punishment. Perhaps he might sympathise with the man’s ordeal under this hot sun and give the order to call it a day.
I keep my eyes focused on the mosque, waiting for the prayer to be over. The Friday prayers with their sermon always run long. Today it seems endless. Finally, I see the namajees leaving the mosque and I hold my breath in anticipation.
I think I must be hallucinating – it’s all a mirage in this hot, desert environment – for I see the namajees walking past, noticing nothing, let alone stopping for a moment to sympathise with the victim’s ordeal. I feel so incapable, as if watching through my cell’s grilled window as a fellow inmate is flogged in the prison yard.
My tormented soul yells, “Hey men, don’t you see?” before it drowns in despair and hopelessness. My welled-up eyes blur my vision. I walk away from the window. And do not return.
Tohon is a short-story writer. He contributes regularly to the Daily Star Saturday Literature page.