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Rolling stones -The Asian Age


If you choose to look from a roof top, you find the city snakes away into the horizon. In day time your unobstructed view will be stretching into cloudy oblivion. At the far end you will see the outlines of a few scattered houses of some poor inhabitants who work in the city day in and day out. Keeping pace with morning sun they get out in quest of work.

They work all day. Inevitably at some point the dusk starts to settle onto silhouette of tree tops and then to city walls, dirty drains and finally to soil. Time seems to follow the dusk with intangible slowness and then calmness and serenity will set in.

Soon after twilight period streets, park, buildings even small tea stalls will be lighted. Birds would return to their nests and so would the city dwellers, the commuters, the day laborers. But those of the struggling class who are fighting to keep their heads barely above water will allow themselves some extra toil for earning some extra money. 

As night sets in, the passerby will gradually be sparse in number.  As night becomes older, city lights will be switched off one by one. Houses would be darker and sounds of human bustling fainter. You can hear the gentle murmur of wind which gently moves around, sometimes from one end to other.

At the far end you can still find a house where a low power electric bulb is struggling to illuminate a small room. Small insects are flying like a Merry go round. Just below the dimly lit light two tender hands are visible.

A young woman is patiently waiting for someone. She is standing by the window. You can hear the tinkle of her armlets. Sometime she impatiently shuffles but does not leave the window. She has stretched her vision towards the street. She is waiting, waiting for one of those wretched strugglers who work late for some extra money.

At some point the waiting comes to an end and a tired figure becomes visible in the street. Feroza, the young woman quickly leaves the window to activate the stove. She ensures whether the tub kept beside the tube well is full. Meanwhile sound of footsteps come closer and closer. Tinkles of armlets moves towards the gate and here comes the young man of thirty three with a dirty half sleeved stripe shirt and black pant.

"A little too late?" Says Feroza. "That same old problem. Mohiuddin has made a mess in the attendance book…otherwise I could have come much earlier with my wage tonight." Said the young man.

"Did he deliberately do it against you?"

No, no, no, Mr Sobhan and Mr. Keramot were also in the list."
With these words Shirajul enters inside the room and looks for his lungi which Feroza quickly handed him. While changing dress he continues the unfinished conversation. "Many of them had to wait for the wages… and things were settled eventually. All went home with their wages in the pocket and only Mr. Sobhan, you remember him, the man from Mymensingh patiently waited for me."

"Is it? Why he stayed for you?" asked Feroza on her way to the kitchen.
"As you know, some are like that… good people, you may say. Once he confided to me about his loss of lands due to some misfortune and that is why he was working here for a living. He often looses temper for this type of irregularities during payment." After a pause Shirajul adds "He keeps on grumbling like that but I keep shut."

"Why do you keep shut, are you not man enough?" she asks from the kitchen. With good care Shirajul keeps his pant and shirt on the hanger and comes out. Without responding to her query he moves towards the tube well. Sound of gurgling and of use of tin mug is heard from a distance. Silence is interrupted also by noise coming from kitchen where Feroza is preparing food. No one says anything for a while.

"When Apu went to bed"? He asked while drying his hands with the towel that was hanging at the corridor.
"Not sure when, he was awake a while ago. He was playing with the little one." The little one is one and a half year old girl. As her name was not yet fixed they call her 'the little one'.

She is in deep slumber. Otherwise the house would have been noisy. Shirajul peeps at his children through the door. He then sits on the mat on the kitchen floor. Bowels of curries are arranged around the rice plate. He starts eating. So does Feroza. At some time she asks, "You have not answered to my query…"
"What query?"

"They can afford to grumble when they feel like…but why do you remain mum?"
Shirajul does not say anything for a while. He keeps on munching. Finally he grumbles, "… some sort of hesitation, perhaps…".

"It is your hard toiled money,… why to hesitate?"
"well, actually… that Mominuddin… he keeps on telling people about me that we the refugees are simply looters and we are eating up their properties".

Feroza stops eating. She stares at him for a long time. Then she stares beyond him and sees her early childhood, her home, their small passage beneath the custard apple tree, their muddy walled small hut, the tin shed on the yard and the kitchen on the right side of the entrance door. Her elder uncle used to live with his family in front.

Her another uncle stayed adjacent to the kitchen. Oh, how she used to enjoy the harvesting period! How her female kin used to gather together for processing of raw paddy. They were too engrossed to count time. Male members used to gather together in the yard just outside the wall. Feroza used to climb on the custard apple tree with her brothers. With his long stick the head cowman would poke on the belly of the pair of bullocks who were engaged in pulling the wheel.

Then she was married to this man Shirajul, a meager cloth merchant of a small town not far away from their home. Their house was just behind the shop with a small orchard separating the two. They also had some land properties too. She could vividly remember those days.

Two days before marriage she was going through the age old rituals, near and dear ones were gathering around and smearing turmeric on her face! Just one day before marriage, she vividly remembers, how she left the full house gathering to meet Lakshmi pishi, one of her favorite neighborhood auntie. Pishi became wide eyed as she saw Feroza at the door, "My goodness god, tomorrow you are going to be married and now you are roaming around like a fool?" Feroza casually moved forward and demanded, "Am I not supposed to get your promised pickle? If not today then, when?"

"See, what a foolish child you are Will your Pishi vanish into thin air?" Then bringing a handful of pickle she told her "Take this, my girl. Later on I will send a full jar to your husband's shop. The way you are behaving as if it is our last meeting!"

Last meeting indeed! Where is her Laksmi pishi now! Will they meet again? The day arson took place in the market and Shirajul's shop was burnt to ashes, their whole family took shelter in Feroza's house. Nishikanto, Prashad and other friends helped Shirajul escape. "Stay a few days here Shirajul, we will look after your belongings, don't you worry," they assured.

Meanwhile, uncle Ramakanto a veteran neighbor assured Shirajul's mother, " Don't worry, your husband wished me to look after you at his death bed. I have not forgotten that. We will do our best to protect you."

People thought things would revert back to tranquility. But that was not to be. Agitation was increasing day by day. Feroza was at lost. Who against whom? Hindus against Muslims? Unbelievable! Did she ever feel her Shonaton uncle or Shirajul's friend Nishikanto were anyone other than kin? Has Laskmi pishi ever regarded Feroza's dad as anyone than her own brother! Then, what type of quarrel is this, and why such animosity?

Feroza is unable grasp the politics behind such upheaval. She is even unaware of similar situation faced by some Durga or Parboti on the other side of the map. Though quite safe in her own village, she experienced a chilling sensation as she heard horrifying stories of human sufferings. People were leaving their home land and moving en mass towards the border. At some point this turbulent whirlpool embraced them too and they left home.

Things started among some of the family members. One day Shirajul's uncle told a terrible story about arson, looting and massacre of Muslim community. "It's not safe here anymore... We should move… they have created Pakistan the Promised Land for us."

Handing the properties to uncle Ramakanto they started off.  Feroza's father also exchanged the properties with a Hindu family of Jessore, a border district of Pakistan and settled there. Sanatan uncle and Hori Mondol had tried to persuade them to stay but it did not work. Old Mohim, a village grand dad asked Feroza's father, "Hamid, why are you leaving your ancestor's land! Why fear, are we not able to protect you? Can any one harm you? They will have to reach you over my dead body…"

Hamid avoids his gaze with reverence and stammers, "…it's fear, only pure fear that strikes me even in my dream…". On her last day Feroza went to meet her Laksmi pishi. They remained speechless to each other. On her way to the unknown Promised Land Feroza remained mum. No word was good enough! Shirajul tried to console her, "Soon this nightmare will come to an end, dear."

…Feroza finished her meal.  She was scribbling something imaginary on her empty plate. At long last Shirajul uttered with a sigh, "They forced us to leave as if we did not belong to that land… and here they are calling us suckers and hinting us to go back to where we once belonged" Feroza looked up, "Then, where shall we go?"

For a moment their eyes met and then his face dropped down. He was staring at his unfinished plate. Slowly he finished the meal and got up. She got up too. Silence crept in and remained suspended in the air. Lights were switched off one by one. Still there was no reply. Crickets started screaming with all their might outside. Nothing could be heard because their deafening noise.



The author is a fiction writer.
The story is translated from Bengali by
Prof. Zahidul Hassan