Revolutionary struggle and counterrevolutionary oppression in Bangladesh.
The boys are processed through my station here on the banks of the Jamuna.
They think they are so smart. They try to rob a bank. To raise money for the struggle, they say. Or they attempt to snatch a policeman’s rifle. To collect weapons for their people’s army, they say. The adaptable ones – those with the rural equivalent of what might be called ‘street smarts’ elsewhere – don’t get caught easily. But I would estimate that as many as eight out of ten of the others do. With few exceptions, they are from what we call ‘good families.’ Children who grew up in privilege in the city. Why they think they can survive in the villages – swimming like fish in the sea, they quote Mao – I will never know. To me, they look like fish out of water.
When I say boys, I do mean boys. I am only responsible for those who are under sixteen. That is my charge from the ministry: to interview the youngest prisoners and choose who qualifies for rehabilitation.
By the time the boys face me, the constables have already knocked some sense into their skulls. But I have made it clear to my superiors that I shall not have my hands dirtied with that job. I have even managed to get them to agree that the prisoners will be given a bath before I see them. I do not want to see any signs of blood.
You will observe that I am a sensitive soul. Before the liberation struggle, I used to be a writer. I even had a collection of stories published the first year after independence. Why, I have managed to acquire a complete collection of Rabindranath’s prose and poetry. I especially enjoy what he wrote while he lived on the houseboat supervising his family’s estates. Sometimes, here in this station on the banks of the river upstream from where he used to live, I feel a spiritual bond with him. It is as if we shared a common destiny. However we are not all as fortunate as Tagore who came from a wealthy family. Other creative souls like me face difficult choices in how to eat and write. Mine was because of this woman I loved. The only way I could get her family to allow her to marry me was if I took the civil service exams and joined the government. They would not give their daughter to a starving writer. So I paid the price. The second price I did not anticipate. My wife, a city girl through and through, won’t set foot in this provincial town. I only see her when I am on vacation.
The ministry considered my qualifications closely before they assigned me to this job. I have been with the party since those harsh years when most of the leadership was in jail. I proved my loyalty during the liberation war. They also understand that I am someone with a heart, not just a bureaucrat. I was honored to accept this posting, but still, did they have to establish this station so far from the capital? I cannot fault their logic. We are located near the heart of the northern region where the troublemakers are active. Now I understand why. What I saw here even shocked me – people eating grass and clothed only in jute sacks. I have been assured that the government is doing its best to develop the region. How will that happen? That’s the domain of other branches of the government, not mine.
I have plenty of headaches doing my own job.
Some of those brought before me are terribly weak. Two out of eight, I think. They start to beg for mercy right away. They tell me who their fathers and uncles are. Frequently these uncles are their families’ influential friends. Within days, we get a signed deposition from them that the boys will now solidly march on the side of the state and our guiding Four Principles. In many of these cases, their parents rush to send the boys abroad. It occurs to me that this reveals an absence of trust. Do they not trust us to keep our promises or do they not trust their sons to keep theirs? I am not sure. But it is outside my specific charge to worry about that.
On the other extreme are the incorrigibles. Nearly half are like this, remaining stern till the very end. Even after our constables have dealt with them, hatred glows in their eyes. These boys have only contempt for our entire society. They do not appreciate that foreigners no longer rule over us. I suppose in Tsarist Russia they would have called them ‘nihilists.’ When they talk, they only spout ideology. I have no stomach for ideology. My conversations with them are brief. I try to coax them into talking about real experiences, but they give me nothing. The least they could do is give me some material that I could use in my writing – you know, I still write stories in the evening – but they only abuse me, calling me a lackey and a running dog. It gets tiring to see them use phrases they have picked up from other countries. But all right, if that’s how they want it, that’s how it shall be. Within a few days, Special Branch sends someone to get them. They take them out of my hair. Where? I don’t sweat my brow thinking about that. It is beyond my area of responsibility.
The rest of the boys fall somewhere in between. Once in a while, though, I get someone I can actually talk to. And that makes this job worthwhile.
One got brought in last week. He had robbed a bank in Shirajganj. He didn’t get very far. Someone tipped us off that he was on a steamer trying to cross the Jamuna. We were waiting for him on the other side of the river. He surrendered without a struggle.
When I first spoke to him, I asked him about his family. He replied that he did not have any. I said, all right, name me the orphanage you grew up in. He was silent. I asked him if he had any relatives. He still remained mute. The constables had to spend a day with him before I saw him again. I had thought it rash to take that step, but we need our charges to be a bit more agreeable about their family origins.
It is times like this that I wish my wife were here. It would help take my mind away, though I must say that I have become an expert in keeping my personal and work lives separate. When I am off duty, I do what a writer should – I take refuge in the realm of the imagination.
I was right about the boy. On his return visit, he proved to be more cooperative.
“Everyone has always called me Reza,” he offered. He identified his family. I knew of them. Who doesn’t? They are a prominent Dhaka family who own several factories and businesses. Reza said that he had run away from home and joined a terrorist group right when it was founded. Of course he didn’t refer to them as terrorists, he called them by their party name. I looked up the name. I have compiled quite a history of these organizations of the extreme left, you know. Maybe someday, if my superiors agree, I can publish a book with this information. Historians will find it useful.
If what he said was true, he would have joined before independence. He couldn’t possibly be that young. In this job you have to be suspicious. There are some young men who try to sneak into our rehabilitation system by claiming they are younger than they really are. I examined the boy standing on the other side of my desk, his hands tied behind his back and his feet chained together. His mud brown face was smooth, without facial hair. Walking over to get closer to him, I lifted his chin to get a better look at his face. There were lines on his forehead, and his skin was quite leathery. It could be just from the sun.
“You must be older than sixteen. This office does not handle young men of your age,” I announced as I reached for the telephone.
He showed no sign of panic. My hand stayed on the phone. With assurance in his voice, he said, “You may find this hard to believe, but I was twelve when I ran away and joined the party.”
“Twelve? You are right, I don’t believe you.” I picked up the phone.
“Sir, do you remember that time in Dhaka when the peasants poured in, red flags in their hands and red caps on their heads, the day when their leader threatened to encircle the city with an army of militant peasants? That’s the day I left.”
I still did not accept his story. But I remembered that demonstration. We were fighting for our national freedom and these red caps stormed in, shouting that the real issue was class against class, landless against the wealthy. Thankfully we were able to convince the people that this was a disruptive maneuver. We trounced them in the elections. And they never did have the numbers to encircle the city.
Returning the phone back in its cradle, I said, “Talk. You have won yourself a hearing.”
He was staring at the mango sitting on my desk. I ordered the constable standing by the door to untie Reza’s hands. I motioned to him to sit down in the chair, then picked up the mango and offered it to him. He grasped it in his hands and pressed the flesh, testing it for its firmness. It was soft, nearly overripe; I had meant to eat it yesterday. Without thinking, I took out a penknife from my desk drawer. He noticed my hesitation and said it would not be necessary. As he began to talk, he kneaded the fruit with his fingers. I observed that although his hands were callused, his fingernails were clean. He was probably telling me the truth.
“It all started with a mango seller.” The writer in me was charmed. I could perhaps use that line as the opening sentence of a story.
The boy had never seen coins so shiny as the bunch his uncle thrust into his small hands just before he’d left for work. Reza had been almost done with breakfast. He gulped down the rest of his milk. He retreated into a corner of the living room where the morning sunlight poured in through a large window. Sitting down on the floor, he slowly counted through his new treasure. They were all brand new 50 poisha coins. One… two… three…. Ten! That makes Five Rupees, he smiled with glee. His uncle had just given him Five Rupees!
But that wasn’t the end of it. When he’d dropped the change into the boy’s hands, his uncle had also told him that he would take him to the cinema that evening.
Reza was agitated the entire morning. He tried playing with his cousin but she was only two years old, and neither could keep the other occupied for long. The boy went through all the books and magazines in the house, but there wasn’t much to occupy an eleven-year old. He tried hanging around his aunt, but she was busy with chores in the kitchen or trying to keep little Sonia fed, cleaned, or entertained.
This was only his second day here. For his summer vacation Reza had been invited by his mother’s brother to visit them in Shirajganj. His uncle had come to get him, and together they caught the train that took them northwest from Dhaka until they reached the eastern bank of the Jamuna. They crossed the huge river on a paddlewheel steamer and then another short train ride, this time on a broad gauge railcar, brought them to Shirajganj. This small north Bengal town was in the heart of the tobacco-growing region, and Reza’s uncle worked for one of the foreign tobacco companies.
Evening wasn’t coming fast enough to satisfy Reza. Every so often, he would jingle the coins in his pocket and tell himself, I’ve got five rupees. Somehow the money made him feel like he had power over an otherwise alien place.
He ended up standing near the front gate, looking out into the street. It was only a narrow lane coming off the main road that crossed the heart of Shirajganj. There were a few other brick and cement houses nearby, but most were wooden or bamboo thatch structures with roofs of corrugated iron. Most of the houses had trees in their front yard. Reza recognized mango, tamarind and grapefruit. The trees provided plenty of shade over the lane. But unlike his home in Dhaka, everything felt deserted. Once in a while a lone rickshaw passed by. A few servants came back carrying the day’s shopping.
A faint chant made its way into Reza’s ears. He looked in the direction of the voice and spotted, near where the lane met the main road, a man selling mangoes, the fruit basket perched on his head. Reza wasn’t supposed to leave the compound, but his boredom, the saliva that started to flood his mouth, and the coins in his pocket made up his mind for him. Taking a quick look behind to make sure that his aunt wasn’t looking, Reza made a dash for the mango seller.
When the man saw the boy rush toward him, he stopped and placed the basket on the ground. His dark face, with several days stubble on it, flashed a warm smile at Reza.
“Ekta aam koto?” The boy asked the price of one mango.
“Tumi pochish poisha niba?” Reza had no idea what a fair price was for a single mango. But he’d always seen grownups offer half of what any peddler asked, so he just thought he would do the same.
The man’s smile disappeared. His shoulders sagged as he gravely shook his head. He put the ripe mango he’d picked out back in the basket. The knife was tucked into a corner. And he rolled the small towel back into a ring shape and put it back on his head. After he lifted the basket back on his head, he looked at Reza and said, “Why do you call me tumi? I am an old man, your father’s age. Maybe even older. Should you not call me apni? Do you call me tumi just because I am a poor man?”
Reza’s heart sank. He had no answer. The man’s rebuke hit him harder than any slap he’d ever received at the hands of his mother or father. As he felt tears rushing into his eyes, Reza turned around and fled back to the house.
He sat down on the red steps of the verandah. He would have preferred the security of his bed where he could weep on his pillow, but his aunt might notice. He wasn’t up for an interrogation. He knew he had done something wrong, but he wasn’t sure what it was. He wondered if the mango seller was right. Did he use tumi because the man was poor? In Bangla there were three ways of addressing “you”: apni, tumi, and tui. He always used what others around him used, he’d never thought about any of this. Wouldn’t it be simpler, he wondered, if we could just use one word, tumi, to address everyone?
Reza had placed his head between his knees and crossed his arms over his forehead. He sensed a shadow nearby. When he looked up, the mango seller was standing above him. With one hand balancing the basket on his head, he offered a mango to the boy.
“Here, take this. It is for you. You don’t have to pay me anything. All I ask is that you remember what you called me and what I said back to you.” The man then turned and walked away.
Reza jumped up and caught up with him. He reached into his pocket, and offered up all his coins.
The man stopped, looked at the shiny coins in the boy’s hand, then frowned and shook his head. Again he looked weary.
“No, I don’t want money. You can’t right all things with money. Yes, I am a poor man, but I am not a beggar. I just want you to learn how to respect someone, no matter if they are rich or poor.”
Once again, Reza felt as if he’d been slapped. But it didn’t sting as much this time. He nodded to the man and walked back to the verandah steps.
He felt the mango in his hand. It was not a big one, but it was ripe and he could smell its sweetness. The boy delicately kneaded the fruit so that the flesh inside broke down. The trick, his cousin Selim had once taught him, was to knead the pulp without breaking the skin. The first few times he had never managed that. But by now he was an expert at improvising mango juice right inside the fruit. Once the pulp was all broken down, Reza used his incisors to puncture a small hole on one side, and then he sucked up the mango juice.
When his holidays were over and Reza returned home to Dhaka, he found that his mother had hired a new boy to work around the house. The boy was perhaps a year or two older. Reza was happy to have Ali as a sometimes playmate, but the first time when the boy had addressed him with apni, Reza squirmed in discomfort. He decided that he would not address Ali with tui, as the rest of the family did, but with tumi. He wasn’t always consistent and would often fall back into whatever the others were using. Troubled by guilt for backsliding, he would make a new effort. If Ali noticed any of this, he didn’t show it.
One day Ali and Reza were on the roof of the house. They’d gone there to watch the kites being flown by older boys in the neighborhood. Ali asked Reza for an old schoolbook. He said he’d started school and begun to learn how to read, but when his father lost his land to the moneylender, he had to drop out. Work proved impossible to find the village, so he came to the city.
“I would still like to go to school,” he said.
Reza agreed to give the boy a reader. He said, “I’ll ask Ma. Maybe she will let you go to school.”
Later that afternoon, when his mother was helping him with his homework, Reza asked her, “Can Ali go to school?”
“Why do you ask?”
“When we were playing on the roof, he said that he had started to go to school but had to drop out. But he still wants to go.”
“Did he say that?”
“Yes. And he said that if he went to school in the morning, he could do extra work in the afternoon and evening.”
She didn’t respond.
He knew she was a generous person. When beggars came to the door, no one was turned away without a cup of rice or some food or coins. He had no doubt she would agree.
The next day when Reza returned from school, Ali was nowhere to be seen. He felt a knot in his stomach. He went to the kitchen and asked the woman who cooked, “Where is Ali?”
She replied, with sadness in her voice, that Reza’s mother had let him go.
“But why?” Reza squeaked out.
“She said he had begun to demand too much.”
The mango seller’s tired face came back to Reza. He rushed out into the streets. None of the nearby storekeepers knew where Ali had gone. At that moment Reza did not think about what he would do if he did manage to find Ali.
I felt for this boy sitting in front of me. I could see he was a sensitive soul. I suspect that both of us at young ages were gifted with a keenness of observation, me about the good and evil inherent in the human personality and him about the inequities embedded in our society. I could turn my knowledge into stories, but this poor boy, what could he do with the kind of knowledge he was given? He tried to do right. But the servant boy ended up paying the price for some rich child’s inability to handle the truth. I don’t worry about Ali. He and his family had already paid at the hands of rich people all their lives. He knew this was life. He would survive better than this boy’s guilt-ridden soul.
“So did you find him?” I asked out of curiosity.
“No. But a year later when the red caps came into the city and their march went by our house, I thought I saw a boy who resembled Ali. I went up to him. It wasn’t Ali, but we ended up talking and he was someone who I instantly felt comfortable with. Later that day I left home.”
“Why did you think that joining the Party of Those Who Have Nothing would help?”
“I’d exhausted myself trying to make things right in my own house. None of it worked. I had no say. The boy in the march convinced me that there were others who felt like me, that it was possible to find a place where I could be at ease. They have become my family now. And we share a common goal: to end the oppression in this society and create a new world.”
My eyes began to glaze over. I could see that after a very human story, he was about to start into the ideology thing. I was not wrong. He proved to be even more incorrigible than those who shout phrases from the Big Men of revolutions in other countries.
What choice did I have? After he was returned to his cell, I picked up the phone and dialed Special Branch. Then another thought sneaked into my head. I hung up and dialed a different number. I needed to know something for certain. I needed some information from the Missing Persons files. Later that day I asked for the boy to be returned to me. I ordered the constable on an errand to the market, assuring him that boy, shackled and cuffed, was harmless.
Reza’s story had left me thinking. We say we are creating a democratic society. But can we make any progress when at the very core of our language, in the way each of us relates to another, we make distinctions of rank and class? True, it’s not my job to worry about such questions, but sometimes you just can’t help it.
I asked Reza, “Would you be opposed to me contacting your family? I am sure they have missed you a lot.”
“Sir, you know I cannot live with them. I do not belong in that old life.” He looked down at his feet. “It would be like living with a chain around my neck. They have not changed.”
“At least you would be alive. You are, I am sure, aware of the alternative.”
A grim little smile crossed his face. “There must be a price for what you are offering.”
“Well, I am sure we could come to an agreement reasonable to all of us. Your family has money and connections. I am a writer, did you know that? My wife lives in Dhaka, totally opposed to moving here. Perhaps your family could find me a suitable job.” There, I had said it. Still, the words coming out of my mouth tasted bitter. Had I become so tired of this God-forsaken job in this shithole of a town?
He stood there, mute again. He couldn’t be shocked; by now he must know how things really work in the world.
“But, sir, I cannot sign any pledges of loyalty.”
“You are underage anyway. They can sign for you.” Maybe they could find me a job in one of their businesses.
“At the first chance, I would return to the movement.”
“Perhaps.” I was willing to bet that his family would quickly find a way to ship him out of the country. Meanwhile I wondered what business position would suit me best.
“You know I will.”
“Maybe.” I never did care for those who took up business as a career, but I could visualize its advantages today. No, not a manager in a factory. Never again do I want anything with authority over other human beings. Perhaps something in sales. Or accounts. In this job I’ve become pretty good with facts and figures.
“You don’t believe me.”
Yes, an accounts position would be ideal. I got the highest grades in mathematics when I was in college. I am sure I could handle all the work in a few hours and spend the rest of my time writing. It would be nice to afford a house. Nothing fancy, just something agreeable to my wife. We could finally consider having children. And I could see about publishing a second collection of stories.