12:10 AM, August 20, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 08:44 AM, August 20, 2018

Star literature eid special issue, 2018

This Land is My Land

DEDICATED TO SOHAIL AHMED, A MUKTIJODDHA

Aahana took short agitated steps around the back courtyard of her house.  She paused for a few seconds, to clear her head which was spinning, either because of the circles she was taking around the yard or because of the information her husband had given her the that morning.

Her two jhas were in the middle “hall room,” which served as a living room, and their voices floated across to her from the back entrance of the house.

“Do you think Montu's wife will be happy to see us?”

“Didn't we put up with their whole family when they came to Dhaka? How long ago was that?”

“Three? Four years ago?” Her eldest jha pauses, then continued “But there were only five of them.”

“So we're six. What's the big deal?”

“You're forgetting the children.”

“Ok. But they're only babies. Aasha is two and Ayaan is… what?Four?”

“He'll be four in a couple of months.”

Aahana moved away and continued walking. Thank God she didn't have children to worry about. It had not been an easy five years of marriage. Questions had started being targeted at her even before a year had passed: Did she not want children? Was she on the pill? Was their marriage not moving smoothly? Was there another woman? She didn't have a mother-in-law (another blessing given her situation!) but there was no dearth of female relatives and elderly ones did not hesitate, no, felt it was their duty to offer advice and suggestions. The powder of such and such a root, the visit to a holy man they knew of - no one who went to him came away disheartened. Some went so far as to suggest which positions were good for fertility and which days of the month more auspicious.

She bore it all with lowered head as befitted a young Hindu woman but closeted in her bed room, she would give way to her grief. The only thing that sustained her was that Dhiman had never once expressed any concern or unhappiness at the fact that even after five years of marriage they still had no children.

A gentle breeze brought the fragrances of nature to her. She could almost separate the different smells. The subtle whiff of the bokul flower from the main road some 100 meters away, the astringent aroma of the panch phoran bagar that their new neighbors were giving to their pot of lentil soup and best of all, the sweet and sour scent of the mango blossom from her own tree.

One day soon after their wedding Dhiman had brought what looked like a thick twig with a few leaves attached to it, and placed it in her hands. She'd been at a loss for words, as much as she would have been if he'd presented her with a bouquet of flowers. She looked around to see if anyone had witnessed the intimate scene, but it was the middle of the afternoon and most people had either gone back to work or were taking a post meal nap.

“It's a cutting so it'll bear fruit in a few years. And as it grows it'll provide shade …for when you're working in the yard.” Dhiman's eyes shifted from her face. Not prone to showing emotions his voice turned gruff and he mumbled as he strode away, “It's a mango cutting.”

She turned a deeper shade of the dark chocolate complexion that was a butt of jokes among her friends, as she stood cupping the gift from her husband, savoring the moment.

She'd never planted a tree before, but how difficult could it be? Her country was fertile. After the monsoon, young mango saplings could be seen growing in odd places on the sides of the roads and fields. All you had to do after eating the fruit was throw it away where it wouldn't be disturbed. The kernel provided the initial food and soon a young tender shoot would break out of its casing.

It proved as easy as that. Once she'd planted the cutting in one corner of the yard all she had to do was water it every day. She tended the plant like she would a pet animal or a child, saving the fish-washed water and vegetable parings, running the tips of her fingers over the tender purple leaves, making sure no dust gathered on them. She even sang to her plant when no one was around. And it paid off. The purple leaves turned a bright green and nodded and swayed at the slightest breeze as if acknowledging her presence and reveling at the attention she paid them.

One fine April morning she noticed thin tips shooting out of the top of the branches and soon yellowish white florets attached themselves to the long tips. She took every opportunity to come out and look at the miracle enfolding in front of her eyes. Of course she'd seen mango trees flower before this but the flowers were a harbinger of the fruits to appease the palate, nothing else. But this tree was different. Hadn't she held the twig slender and vulnerable in her own two hands? And hadn't she nurtured it, willing each leaf and stem to grow? Hadn't she watched the colors change from a purplish pink, to purple, then a lemony green, then get darker and thicker until they were study and a deep shade of viridian. Just as a mother watches her child turn over, then crawl, then take the first tentative steps, she had watched the cutting take root, the leaves spread and then flower. With a heavy heart she mourned each flower that shriveled and dropped, but she was more than compensated when tiny dark green fruits emerged proud and erect.

That year the tree had blessed her with two precious fruits. She had wondered at that time how Dhiman had known langras were her favorite mangoes.

She watched the two mangoes grow and swell with eagle eyesand would have let them turn overripe. But one day her younger jha who had also been following the progress of the mangoes, said, encasing one ripe mango in her hand, “This is just ripe for the picking. If you delay it'll fall to the ground and be ruined.”

Dhiman who'd been close by had given Aahana a fleeting glance and turning to his brother's wife said, “I'll get you a dozen langras from the market Boudi, Shanti will probably let them rot before she picks one of her babies.”

She knew he was joking, but still wondered if she was being mean. That day she cut the two mangoes and served them for dessert. The heady fragrance filled the whole house. She saved both the seeds and planted them beneath the tree both as a thank you for its bounty as well as a vague form of retribution.

Things might have continued thus but lately she had felt a change in the air. She would often see her husband in deep conversation with his brothers. They would become silent when she came within earshot. She had asked her jhas but all they could tell her was that their husbands were in communication with their relatives in Kolkata.

Then one day Dhiman said to her, “Come here. Sit down. I have something to tell you.”

His grave demeanor made her stop paring the vegetables and come sit beside him on the bed.

“I'm afraid we have to move,” he said.

“Move? Why?”

“You know what the political situation is like here.”

“So where are we going?”  Dhiman looked out the window, said nothing.

“But…but…will it be better wherever we go? If Joydebpur is not safe…” Aahana stammered.

“Where are we going?” she asked when Dhiman remained silent.

He took a searching look at her face and looked down.

“And your brothers?”

“We'll be going together. Actually they've already sold their houses and will move in with us when the new owners come in next week.

“You still haven't told me. Where are we moving to?”

“Kolkata.” The words came out in a whisper

Aahana stood up, took a turn around the room, then sat down.

“Kolkata?” she repeated.

Dhiman nodded, avoiding her eyes.

“And you didn't bother to discuss with me?”

“We don't have a choice. Dada decided.”

“But neither of my Boudis said a word!”

I told them not to until it was all finalized.” He pondered then said in a soft voice. “I know how attached you are to this place. I knew you wouldn't want to go.'

“But you still made the choice for both of us.”

“I told you. I didn't have a say in the matter. Dada decided. I didn't have a choice.”

She wanted to shout out, “But there's always a choice.” But the time for discussions had passed. She would have to make her own decision.

“I'm not going,” she stated in a calm voice. Then unable to control herself, said in a tight voice, “I was born here. My body came from the earth that covers my land. My blood is full of the oxygen in the air of my land.  I grew up here. All the memories I have are of this place.”

“I understand but…  you will get new memories. And the people around you will be the same.”

“What about my friends?”

“You'll make new friends. And they'll all be Hindus. Religion will bind you to that place.”

Aahana looked at Dhiman as if seeing him for the first time. How could he? How could he? was all she could think. She got up and left the room.

In the days that followed, she swallowed her pride and entreated, no, begged him to stay behind. But Dhiman was adamant. Dada's word was law.

Just as happy times pass quickly, so do bad times. Aahana's days passed as if in a mist. By the end of the week, the two houses where her jhas lived were handed over to the new owners and Dhiman's elder brothers and their families moved in with Dhiman and Aahana. She had no time to wallow in her misery and continued with her everyday chores. Sometimes her jhas would see her contemplating under the mango tree and they moved away quietly, helpless to console her. They hadn't wanted to move either, but the men had made the decision and how could their wanting or not wanting change anything.

The morning azan had hardly finished when the stillness was once again broken by the keening of women. The people who had bought the eldest brother's house, the one next door to Aahana's were alerted to the wails and lamentations and came rushing out. They had meant to gather outside to wish goodbye to the three brothers and their families who would be leaving in the morning.

They didn't have to knock; the door was open and the house empty. The sounds came from the backyard and as if drawn by a magnet they rushed there.

The first thing that struck them was an upturned tool lying under the mango tree, then they saw two dark feet dangling above that. And further up, the early morning glow caught the color of the red sari encircled by the green tree which was in flames.

 

Razia Sultana Khan is a fiction writer. She is Professor of English at Independent University Bangladesh (IUB).

Author's note:

This is a fictionalized account of a suicide that took place in Joydebpur some 30 years ago. The kernel of the story was told to me by Sohel Ahmed, a Muktijoddha who still lives in Joydebpur.