Shams Habibullah So we are finally independent! Bangladesh is a free state. It is December 16, 1971. I am a weary soldier returning home to join my family.
Three million people have been killed. More than two hundred thousand women have lost their dignity. Our massive losses broke our heart. Rhodesia had fought for twenty years to become Zimbabwe. The loss of lives was in thousands only - twenty thousand to be exact. Bangalee lives were so cheap! My heart bled in uncontrollable sorrow.
'Like flies to wanton boys/Were we to the Paki soldiers/They killed us for their sport.' One of my trainers' parody of Shakespeare used to hurt me deeply in July. Villages were burnt if there was doubt that Muktis were hiding there. Innocent young men or old people belonging to the minority were picked up and killed in the most heartless manner, at times to create panic only.
It was certainly the worst genocide after the Second World War. The wartime Prime Minister had seen a young girl hanging from a tree, raped and murdered, a bullet piercing her loins. The learned PM was reported telling his cabinet colleagues with tears in his eyes, 'It was my mother hanging like that. I shall seek revenge. Only then I shall return home.'
Revenge we have taken. Now we are returning home. After being released by my company commander from Kishoregonj, I was rushing to meet my family. My mother, father, little brother and two little sisters. I was so excited! They will be so happy to see me! Often I had thought that I would never see them again.
My mother was not yet forty. She didn't want to let me join the war. Why me? My uncles and my older cousins were already there. I was only sixteen, wasn't I? My young heart went through a lot during the war. The landscape looked sad. I whispered, 'Don't cry, motherland! We shall make you smile soon.'
I was only a hundred and ten pounds in April, 1971. Almost six feet tall and of delicate health.My family had arrived from Dhaka in the first week of April and had faced great hardship on the way. People's love and care had eased our suffering. I have seen the March 25 massacre.
Men and women were killed like birds. Iwas dying to join the war, especially after the Mujibnagar government was formed on April 17. Mother would be scared and remind me that I would not be able to lift a gun! I was sad but not disheartened.
I fortunately got a copy of Ironman Nirod Kumar's Book of Physical Exercise in my ancestral home. Twice a day Ihad physical exercise and by the end of June I was a tougher and healthier tenth-grader, beating nine out of ten men I came across in 'panja'. Mother still wept but agreed to let me go and join my cousins in Assam, where we had training.
We came back and operated within Bangladesh, mostly in and around Kishoregonj. In IndiaI had a chance to meet Tajuddin Ahmad in our training camp. He patted my cheeks after learning from elders that I was a very meritorious student. I could die while fighting. Thank God I was alive to meet my parents, siblings and relatives!
My dadi and nani would rush to embrace me with a big smile. My manly uncles and my father, middle class descendants of feudal lords, rarely displayed emotion in public. But I know they will be very excited too.
And very happy. Dadi and Nani, pink and dark respectively but both beautiful ladies, would compete to enter my heart through my stomach. For several months I had missed their polao, chicken curry, khichuri and sholmachbhuna. Peara, Naushad and Rumi, my disciples and all three in their earliest teens, will be ecstatic to get me back. And Fatema? Won't she be happy too?
I trembled in excitement when I remembered her. I tried frantically to remember her beautiful face and elegant frame. My best friend during babyhood and childhood. I missed her so much during the last few months!
I had prayed to God - please keep me alive so that I could see my parents, siblings and Fatema again! Did she remember me too? Wasn't she worried about my safety? Will she come running to see me? Or will she run away on seeing me, as she did every time she saw me in April, May and June?
Oh yes, it was so strange! At five we would go together to our pond to have a bath, hand over each other's shoulders. We would always move around together. Naughty young men would tease us - Bor and Bou, where are you off to? We wouldn't like that! Weren't we brother and sister? She was only eight months younger. None of my cousins were that close in age.
At twelve she was my loyal disciple. We were in the same class but I was the much better student. I was very modest about it. Very soft-hearted and affectionate too. Helped her generously with her studies, especially English and Mathematics, subjects she dreaded.
Helped her to become a lover of fiction.She not only loved me like a very friendly sister but almost respected me! My younger brother was born when I was almost ten. So as a lonely child my best friends were my mother, books and Fatema. Up to fourteen I was her best pal. I was already five feet ten inches at fourteen.
For three years she was in our Dhaka residence to attend school. From thirteen I started to notice the physical changes in her and me. She also cast mysterious glances at me whenever I was looking at a Kobori or Bobitaor Sophia Loren photo in the newspapers or magazines.
At fourteen I would get sudden, furtive glances from her which were not exactly sisterly. But we remained good friends till her parents came to live in Dhaka and she shifted to their residence. I guess both of us then missed each other a lot. I didn't see much of her in my fifteenth her.
Suddenly in April, 1971 I met her again in our ancestral home. And I was very shocked to find that she started to run away or walk away briskly whenever I tried to greet her or talk to her. What was that? Weren't we first cousins and the best of friends? Wasn't I very polite and a great favorite of elders? Wasn't she very well-behaved and nice too? The only change was that we have grown big.
At fifteen she had the build of an elegant, beautiful and tall eighteen-year-old. Quite pretty and of very good health. I was also almost six feet and with my specs on looked like eighteen. Her fleeing away on seeing me hurt me and I murmured - I am a lover, not a rapist. Yes, I was now in love with the fifteen-year-old, tall and graceful Fatema.
She would flee in mock fear but kept in touch with me in other ways. She was very friendly with my younger brother, very fond of my sisters and would hover around my mother. Was she worried that I would grab her and try to get physically close to her? I really didn't understand. We were so respectful to our elders. How could we do that? One day she sent me her khata to write an essay on it.
I wrote a splendid essay for her, wanted to write 'I love you' somewhere but didn't have the courage to do so. May be she was disappointed too. She was sacred to me, wasn't she? A beautiful flower!
Fatema Nasreen Karim I have our Prophet's daughter's name. And he is Habib. He has our dear Prophet's own name. He is returning home. The shy teenager is a muktijoddha! I am so happy!
His mother had wept a lot for him. My son, so young, still loves to sleep with me! He can handle only books and khatas. How could he fight in a war? What did he eat?
Were his uncles and cousins looking after him properly? His dadi and nani would shed tears. Our eldest grandson! Gentlemanly, morally strong and so nice to elders! Such a meritorious student! As if I was of secondary importance because I was a girl!
Did I weep for him too? Yes, once or twice, on lonely afternoons. I didn't want him to die, not at all. He was so shy, modest and soft-hearted! I knew that. As a child, as a boy he would be sad whenever he saw me sad. He would be happy at my success or whenever people praised me.
I sadly thought of him on many occasions during the last six months. Come back safe, please! I miss you so much! I have always loved you more than my own siblings. I am sure that has been the case with you too.
I have turned sixteen in October. Sweeter and prettier, a big lady now! We are of the same age, Professor Habibullah! You can no longer behave like a guru, a big brother! If you call me 'tui' even once, I am going to get angry. Call me 'tumi' for the rest of your life.
Thank God you have stopped pulling my ears, even playfully, at twelve. I want only admiring glances from you! Nothing else.Do you know how popular I am with older male cousins? They are dying to impress me. Thank God I am shy and they don't matter to me much.
You have your admirers too. Every uncle of ours, your dad's brother or first cousin, wants you as his son-in-law. The fourteen-year-olds and twelve-year-olds look wistfully at you.
And Ferdousi, my friend? They live in the NotunBarhi but she would always come and try to get friendly with you. Remember she is three months older than you. She is fake, I am real. Her younger sister is also naughty. Please stay away from them.
Today I won't get a chance to go near you. Dadi and your Nani, your parents, uncles and aunts, all our cousins - they will encircle you. They will listen to your stories. Hugs and kisses from the elders. I shall feel proud. Proud of you! BorhoChachi, Dadi and Nani will feed you to their heart's content. My chance will come tomorrow morning.
Auntie Jubaida, our selfless widowed aunt, loves you and me like her own children. I guess she even understands our feeling for each other. We two will prepare your breakfast tomorrow.
Just see what a grand breakfast we prepare for you. Chitoipitha, chicken bhuna, khichuri, egg curry, begun bhaja- everythingthat you love to eat! I shall be wearing my first saree - a blue saree with a blue blouse.
That will be in your honour. I am sure you won't be able to take your eyes off me! You will understand that it will be an expression of my deep love for you. I will hang around you. I won't run away from you. I won't flee if you try to talk to me. I shall overcome my shyness.
Because you are now a freedom fighter! You will be seventeen two months later but to me you are a complete young man now. Rich in experience, mature, a little less innocent but ruggedly handsome. Right? I am so proud that you fought in the war! I feel like telling the whole world that I love you. Only because we are so young I shall keep quiet.
Why are you only eight months older? Why not eight years? I want to marry you right now! Grow up fast, please! How can I wait six or seven years more for you?
Junaidul Haque is a bilingual writer of fiction and essays. He loves to write on 1971