The only train that fared to Bahadurabad from Narayanganj lingered for only two minutes. Nothing was visible in the dark night. The slight hint of light seeping out from the cracks of the station-quarter left me dazzled, and the feeling retreated even before the train came to a complete stop. The black night engulfed all luminosity trying to escape from each of the well illuminated compartments. I didn't notice my hand when I extended it out of the window. It was extremely chilly. Everyone was huddled together like children.
Voices were heard from the adjacent compartment, "Ehane jaga nai, ehane jaga nai; arre deho na?" Hurried shuffling feet along with the clinking of bangles could be heard even before the words were finished. There was a lot of deep breathing while someone was advancing the compartment I was in. The ones standing at the door started yelling, "Ehane jaga nai, ehane jaga nai; arre deho na!"
The horn went off in the station by then signaling the train to leave. Someone, as if very impatiently, got hold of the handle, twisted it shut, and shoved the door inwards with all the strength they could muster. Agonizing screams of a child from below could be heard, "Kakima go!" The sound itself was horrendous enough to have chewed and spat out the daunting darkness and silence. The man barring the door was so taken aback that his hands let go by themselves and he too took two steps back away from it. An old Hindu gentleman shoved in a small sack and a tin suitcase through the gap and dragged himself inside the doorway. He was wearing a simple dhuti and his body was covered with a buttery shawl. Just as he made space enough to stand he started to extend his hand below trying hard each time to get hold of something extremely fragile. But what he brought in was a middle aged woman of nearly 30. Anyone at a first glance could tell her condition was not normal. She fell to the floor and barely sitting up started to gasp, followed by a small girl of nine or ten jumping onto the running train.
The compartment was crammed to a point where we were shoving into each other while invading each other's spaces, while dozing in and out off of our slumber. I was trying hard to keep sleep at bay only because I was berated in foul language for having dozed off onto the person beside me, and in fear of it not being repeated.
I had the urge of chatting to keep myself awake; but the people all around seemed so numb that even if they were attacked with deathly blows, they would not utter a single sound. Falgun's final wave of winter was imminent, besides which the whole atmosphere was engulfed in the silence of exhaustion; it was as if even the small amount of warmth that was being savored in everyone's lungs for all of this time would be expended if one word was uttered. We would then have no other alternative than to freeze all over. That was exactly why the ritual of breathing had become so sacred that there was nothing else for us to do than to feel the whole process individually within ourselves. We were experiencing each other's existence without even knowing it.
It would be wrong to say that the silence rose only through our tiredness — it took birth from terror as well. I was on route from Dhaka, and that's exactly why this feeling is so absolutely clear to me. Just as the stability of society is dependent on the sympathy of one to the other, the most significant of hardships lie within the malice that one has for the other. I came to know of this hardship at the tumultuous Dhaka, from the riot that had started right after Kolkata. I was never tired from feeling this fearful pang; I have never known it in this forty years' life of mine. I went to visit my daughter in Dhaka; I stayed at my son-in-law's – he is a resident of the railway colony. The neighborhood had barred the riot. That had proved to be complicated for me. I feel I would have found some kind of peace only if my whole body would have warmed up from the boiling blood within, only if all my thoughts would have vaporized and risen as smoke from a bursting flame! But the environment I was in offered nothing else that could be done other than to show hatred towards the animalistic instinct. There was no other path to tread other than to feel the aggression in its very essence secretly within myself because of the sane rebellion persisting and surrounding me. Only I know how aggravating it feels to have felt such abhorrence.
The job at hand was extremely important. The wintry days were of end Maagh, but the winds were so chilly that it felt as if I had never experienced such a thing during all my life. The skies were laced with winter while only silence and terror could be seen on the faces of people. And on the other side of things, the peaceful colony displayed such resistance to the movement all over the area that it resulted in exhaustion.
I was returning home at last; who knows what has happened there? I know how crazy people from the banks of the Jamuna are; I can't even reason with my own brother! The weather had however calmed down a lot by then. The environment is never static only because of behavior, innovative thinking, and perception of people. Even though all was not lost because of miscreants and robbers, the heart still hoped for much peace even then. And it was in this scope that this Hindu gentleman fleeing away with two others to a safer-better place was evident to me from the very beginning.
The man had done one single thing since he got on: he laid the bound mattress — maybe there was something very important in its folds to have made it so bulky — straight on the ground and made the woman sit on it very carefully taking her by the hands. It was as if he was placing something very sacred, something so pure that it held the power to cleanse anything touching it. The small girl sat down embracing her. The old man had then stood very still beside them, without glancing anywhere at all – mechanical and mute.
Fear and terror had gripped and turned him white. His face sported a growing prickly beard, just short of making him look like a Mullah wearing a dhuti: none amongst the three of them had any notion of hiding their origins of the Hindu religion to the least. There was no apparent reason as to why they would think the train to be a safe haven. There have been murders committed and were still being committed in the trains. The danger for a Hindu man is no less in this respect. The man knew of this; I could tell. Just as the ostrich buries its head in the sand to avert danger, the man was trying hard to avert his gaze falling on anyone else with all his strength. I could not help but look around and glance at everyone else's faces. Everyone was asleep, save a very few, all void of emotions. It was proved by the long sighs and breaths expelled by the men of not feeling easy gazing upon the trio's pathetic state.
A sense of exhaustion lingered over the whole atmosphere.
Out of all my travels, I had never come across such a depressing moment ever before. I think it was the result of the ongoing riot. The souls have been stripped and dragged into the ground through the inhumanity persistent all around. The plight has risen from a sense of guilt.
The man was staring blankly with eyes as murky as the deep waters of the Jamuna. I remained perplexed hanging in on a suspended sense of suspense.
Was no one in the compartment going to utter or exchange even one word with the man? Or was it that the need to communicate with him had evaporated from everyone's needs? It was as if he was a different type of human being; as if the urge to make acquaintances with him had to come from a feeling within that was self-sacrifice in one sense – such a feeling that it sends a chill down the spine!
I thought of calling to him and make him sit next to me. But I couldn't even make the slightest hint of a sound. It seemed as if the tiniest of noise would resound as very heavy glass shattering all over the place to break the unrelenting silence resounding till the end of time itself. The trio would, then, keep shivering in terror to their asphyxiating deaths.
It felt as if the full waves of the Jamuna were rising and falling in my heart. I fell absolutely silent from some kind of strange fear welling in me – wild vindictive thoughts of men were chasing after them.
I stared down at the floor for sometime as I turned my head and buried my neck into my shoulders. I was feeling sympathetic towards the three. Turning my head I gazed upon the Hindu man once again. The man had at that moment fixated his stare upon a toilet mug hanging from the rails just opposite to my seat. Somehow his gloomy eyes were glowing with thirst. It looked like he was swallowing a few dry gulps as well. Discarding doubt in my mind, I ended up suddenly calling out to him by gesture of my hand. The man came and stood in front of me slowly as if he was not ready for this. He did not even have the courage to decide upon whether he would heed to the call or not. He said something with quivering lips. I tried to call out to him in a numb voice for quite a while. I then made enough space beside me and said to him, "Please sit". The person beside me also spoke up saying, "Yes, yes. Please sit. At least we all will feel a bit more energized from our bodily heat."
The night was drawing to an end. We had crossed many stations. The man took the seat; maybe because he saw no other options available. But he was strangely very queasy about it. He kept on glancing at the accompanying woman constantly. He was acting like a dying flame flaring up at times then simmering down again. Was the uneasiness a result of him leaving her side? The thought that he could not bring himself at ease amongst us also crossed my mind.
The man was sitting with his neck protruding up and straight. Light was bouncing off in glitters from the bend on his windpipe. I noticed it very suddenly. Maybe if it was tugged at slightly, or the blade of a knife just grazed it, could have easily ended the man right there and then! So fragile the life of a being – so concise. Was the vindictive intention really only to wipe away his existence? Was that the root of all this malice? It was as if I could feel the man within the grasp of my fist. He was totally under my bidding! Such a small, fearful dove like existence of a man!
My heart skipped a beat. Could I have just wrung out the man? Right then?
The waves in my heart very violently took to churn and then subsided. A sense of calm and compassion radiated throughout; serenity and satisfaction. A strong urge of passing away the night in conversation with him rose within me. I wanted to take him home. There was no need for him to search for safety, I would protect him. I exhaled with a long deep sigh looking at him.
Times were different now. It's not possible to live harmoniously together. I did not know as to when such times would come back again. Anxiety flooded my mind just as I pondered upon the thoughts of the village. What happened, how are they, how was everything progressing – we all are entwined within our families. There is no scope other than to drown to the bottom once one starts to think such things.
But, nothing seemed more important than to be concerned about the man beside me at that moment! I sat back after shifting about a little while taking off my shoes. My feet were in blisters for the shoes being smaller. They were smarting, so I lifted my feet up and my body gave way to ease a bit. Instantly the man shifted, trying to give me some space by becoming absolutely stiff. I was taken aback with shame. Did he still fear me? Fear?
I took down my feet swiftly. Remembering how he was swallowing dry gulps every now-and-then, I suddenly ended up asking him, "Do you want some water?"
He nodded his head in the negative. His whole body quaked up in shivers even before he could finish uttering a single syllable. Turning his head, he kept staring upon the woman with a blank steady gaze. I was really surprised. I was observing his anxiety surrounding her, but why was he shivering? Why so much? I was even more surprised at what I saw lying within his gaze. Every time the train hit a bump, the woman convulsed inwards in writhing pain. She seemed to snatch her life back from the jaws of death every time.
I wanted to ask what was wrong. The man turned his head and in a very timid and suppressed voice whispered, "Labor"!
The statement at first seemed to have had boiled over and then had started to grind away at the fearful silence. It then kept ringing. Finally the silence fell still as if engulfed within what he had said; as if etched in stone, the word seemed to resound off and fill the whole compartment. I should have noticed that the woman was pregnant right from the start. The whole incident was so impossible, that I couldn't even imagine it being so. It was absolutely not normal to see someone making a pregnant woman walk a great distance and travel by a jerking train. I could not even imagine that it could have been possible for them to have done such a thing. What type of people! I thought of shaming the man, thought of cursing him. I turned my face away from him. But, then again, they might have had no other choice. Death had surrounded them from all sides. The same face, on which I had wanted to spread the venom of curses, was now borne with remorse, his eyes were calm and watery – just the way when someone tries to hold back tears of great sorrow with their lives depending on it.
The little girl was sleeping. The woman on the other hand was trying hard to abstain from the sorrowful pain by constraining her whole body such that a silent roar was materializing from her limbs, her organs, her whole existence. She was trembling, moaning, wanting to drive her head in between her knees. It was unexplainably depressing observing the mother! It was overwhelming to all the senses.
I had broken into sweat by then. For how long would she be writhing in silence! The woman could not stay there any longer. The pain had spread all throughout and was making each and every muscle in her body scream out in agony. She finally started to crawl and went into the toilet, dragging herself in battle against death.
I thought that the man would have definitely screamed out by then; yelled his lungs out, or would have leapt out of the seat and embraced her with his two hands like a madman! But he did nothing. He remained seated in his place even more rigidly.
I could not think of doing anything in that situation. I could not even imagine how to help. Had the man lost all his senses? He seemed to have been struck by lightning – absolutely stiff, and would come tumbling down with the slightest touch; would he have really shattered if I had put my hand on him? I thought of commiserating him, but I fell silent. I thought of randomly start talking with him – not one sound escaped my lips. I felt the pangs of extreme thirst!
The night was coming to an end. The quay was after the next station – Bahadurabad adjacent to the Jamuna. I had to disembark onto the dock. Most passengers in the compartment had already gotten off. It was most likely for me to be amongst the handful remaining to cross over to the other side of the river. Some of them yawned lazily, and the remaining very openly. Some even spoke illegible words in very incoherent voices. Were the moans of the exhausted-writhing-mother audible as well? Everyone was sluggishly waking up by then. But what had become of her in the toilet? The closed windows were brought down. It seemed as if maybe the dimness of the light was being complimented by the lackluster hue growing outside.
Fighting and overcoming an inborn urge, like a gushing gale, I asked, "Can we not see what has happened to her… shouldn't we…"
But as soon as the man heard it, he turned red so fast with embarrassment and was so shocked that it seemed his whole body had turned into the burning coals of a spit; as if each and every vein in his body was coursing molten rock. I could very distinctly notice his lips quivering violently. I had never seen the lips of any other man tremble like that. I knew that men at that age would never show their inner weaknesses in such manner. But the man had lost all control and composure. But I could not comprehend as to why and where all the shame was coming from. I did not think that I would get any answers if I asked him anything then, for he seemed not to be in any state to say anything at all.
It was nearly an hour the woman had entered the toilet; what could have happened to her? What else could I have done other than to have remained silent just like the man beside me! Maybe because the whole matter was not under my command; maybe because feeling so helpless was not acceptable, and so some kind of indescribable rage was spreading throughout inside of me. Whatever was happening was not tolerable; something had to be done.
But I could not decide whether to push the man forward, or to go to her aid myself, and why was it feeling weird to have even considered those scenarios – should I have asked him about that too, or should I have just cursed the old man to his face? My veins started pulsating. Finally, I felt even more shocked and tried to calm myself down and take away my queasiness.
I kept my ears open in alertness with much anticipation - maybe the paralyzing fossil like silence would be broken and crushed by the soft cries of a newborn accompanied by the uprising piercing screams of the woman. The deathly gloominess would be wiped away by the weeping of the child. I was praying for it to be so. But nothing happened.
I looked back at the man with grinding teeth. Sweat beads had formed on my forehead despite the cold. The artery in my neck was trembling with hatred and agitation. I glared at him with that stern stare; but the thin pale face of the old man was wet from tears from red-sad sunken eyes. I had then wanted very badly to have just emptied my chest by exhaling a long deep sigh.
The train had reached the quay by then. It stopped finally between two rows of coolies waiting for its arrival. All the remaining passengers started to haphazardly rush out. All the motionless people had somehow found some new energy to have started randomly shooting out in every direction without any patience. This too was a roar of vulnerability of some sort. This stupefaction has a sound of its own; something more terrifying.
There was no one left in the compartment. I thought the man would get up then. But he did not move. I didn't know why, but I could not run away.
The little girl was awake from all the running around and noise made by the leaving passengers. She rubbed her eyes, yawned, and then looked around searching for her aunt and became perplexed on not finding her. Terrified, she started to scream, "Kakima go!" she kept screaming looking at the old man with questions in her eyes. But she could not ask him anything. The cursed old man remained as he was, paralyzed like a stone, without life.
Knowing that there would be no reply from him, I yelled out as if my life had depended on it. But I realized instantly that there was absolutely no sound coming out from my throat – I was just rapidly gesturing at the girl while flaying my arms. At last when some sound did come out, it sounded very out of tune even to me, "Look in that toilet… open it… hurry… there, right there…"
The girl looked at me with a dumb expression on her face. She ran to the toilet, opened the door, and stood there astounded in shock as if struck by lightning for quite a while. She then had leapt in while screamingly violently, "Kakima go!" She couldn't stop screaming, "Jethamoshai go… ashona go… ki holo go… kaki…"
I was standing with fear gripping at my throat. All the hair on my body was standing. I was shivering. I looked at the man. He was stiffer than before. Even the sound of him inhaling air had stopped by then. I started to shake him insanely with both my hands.
I understood then, the father figure uncle would in no way look upon his younger brother's wife's dead body. I also understood that I had nothing to say to the sobbing little girl. Who would actually understand to what degree of anxiety the three of us were going through? On what different levels!
I thought of looking into the matter once. But the same unborn-hallowing-unrelenting burden that had paralyzed the old man had started to act upon me as well rendering me motionless. My eyes helplessly closed. I realized that men became captives in their own minds, in moments as such when they are inflicted and bombarded with such maiming senses.
My eyes closed down; there was nothing but darkness. Darkness, in which the body of a woman was floating away; a blood soaked body, with her mouth gaping wide open; her belly abnormally swollen; her eyes rolled inwards, from the inhuman-unimaginable pain that she had to suffer – a mother; a woman thirsty to know what motherhood meant; a mother who understood its true meaning with each of her dying breaths! There is a child in her swollen womb; a child which was alive. If only the child could have been born, the child then would have maybe achieved a lot in life; the child could have at least taken a breath in a happy world of the future. Who had barred this child from taking birth?
The whole of my being shivered in agitation. Oh the hatred that I had felt then for destruction! Unbearable!
I cannot remember the old man's face; but his silence, his stupefaction, is still entwined within my heart.
Hasan Hafizur Rahman (1932-1983) was a Poet, Journalist and Critic. He actively took part in the Language Movement of 1952.In 1953 the first compilation work on the Language Movement, Ekushe February, was published under his editorship.
Hasan Hafizur Rahman. He teaches Physics and Mathematics at Sir John Wilson School. He is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Journalism from Independent University, Bangladesh, and also Coordinates Brine Pickles, the first Performance Literature and Creative Writing group in the English Language in Bangladesh.