A pregnant promise
June 1975, Sylhet, Bangladesh
The heat of the grisma season subdued everything in the village. The sun was a livid thing that bore down, leaving the earth cracked and the river low. A crow perching under a jackfruit tree waited for the noonday sun to pass as it pecked at the ripe yellow fruit which had fallen and burst open. Bulls bound for the bazaar moved on lazy legs, their flanks barely flinching each time the herdsman’s crop cracked their hides. The trees flanking the roadside were as soundless as mountains; not a branch stirred, or a leaf rustled. Amidst this torpor the farmers were confined indoors, a few hopeful faces staring out of their grill-barred windows, waiting for the monsoon to break and revive their dusty fields.
There was only a faint trace of activity outside the tea stall. Under its grubby awning idle men were shooting chips on a carom board while listening to Runa Laila songs on a battered old tape deck. A man perching on a stool peered over his broadsheet and glanced at the small earthen house in the distance. He nudged his friend sitting on the stool beside him.
‘Is Azad dead yet?’
The friend lowered his newspaper and flicked a glance in the same direction.
‘I don’t know,’ he replied.
‘Isn’t his wife pregnant? Has she had the baby yet?’
‘I don’t think so,’ the man said.
‘Doesn’t bode well for the child when it finally arrives,’ the other added, shaking his head as he looked up to the heavens.
‘Fatherless before birth, it’s tragic.’
And with that brief tête-à-tête the men slid back behind their newspapers and resumed reading about more worldly affairs.
The focus of their fleeting interest lay beyond a stretch of fallow paddy fields where an earthen house stood alone rippling in the heat haze. Its door was closed and its window shutters were drawn. Inside one of the rooms, a light bulb jutting out of a wooden beam wore a dust skullcap. Deprived of fresh air, the room gave off a dank odour – an odour of illness. A hurricane lantern hung from a hook on the wall. The flame burned serenely and attached a shivery shadow to every object in the room.
And in one corner under a mosquito net, a human figure lay curled up in bed. His eyes were three-quarters closed and his chest barely rose with each inward breath. Every time he coughed his body bucked from the effort. A closer look through the muslin gauze and it was clear that Azad was on his deathbed.
Four years earlier he had played his part in the country’s civil war. He had travelled to the capital Dhaka and joined the Mukti Bahini, declaring himself a freedom fighter after being inspired by one of Tagore’s poems. He was trained up by the Indian Army and was then conscripted to serve East Pakistan’s fight against the hegemony of the western wing.
But four years on, after the euphoria and the aspirations that follow a nation’s birth, life for Azad had deteriorated. His youth had been devoured by cancer of the liver and what remained of his his life was now reliant upon regular shots of morphine.
After the war had ended, Azad returned with a spirit that had been slaughtered on the battlefield. Upon seeing his wife his first instinct was to break into a guilty smile.
‘Kemon acho?’ he had asked, tense and timid, the strength battered out of his voice.
His wife had barely recognised him at first. The weight had fallen off his cheeks, his hair was matted to his scalp, his lips were cracked and a jagged chip had halved his front tooth. But, most horrifying of all, he was propped up on crutches, his right leg reduced to a stump below the knee. Saufina’s hand had slammed against her jaw in shock.
‘Don’t worry, it’ll be fine,’ was all he had managed to say at the time.
But that optimism was a mask hiding the hurt beneath the smile. Within a matter of weeks the trauma of his experiences began to haunt him. The shootings, the bombings, the sight of lacerated limbs, the charred skin, the wailing families, the smell of congealed blood and flesh rotting in the streets. There was the harrowing incident when a Pakistani division pulled up in a military vehicle, accosted him and his close friend as they tried to sneak back to their cantonment in the middle of the night. Both were ordered to lift up their lungis above their waists. Seconds later, his friend was shot in the chest for being uncircumcised.
For being a Hindu.