[I am sure you may have heard many stories about liberation struggle, but - this one is different; I hope you will enjoy it.]
It was January, 1971; I was a 3rd year honor student at Dhaka University. The entire country was flared up in the spirit of '11-point' demands. Students' demonstrations and workers' strikes were everyday phenomena; government machinery was about to shut-down. Plane loads of cargos were arriving at Tejgaon Airport at the dead of night. I could count down the arrival of the goody-planes every night; sometimes more than one plane would descend back to back. They used to pass over Jagannath Hall (University-dormitory) at around mid-night, just before my bed-time.
I knew what's coming in those special flights every night; what else – other than West Pakistani soldiers and ammunitions. It wasn't hard to envision what's coming next. Pakistani regime was preparing for an all out attacks on the Bangalee agitators in the East. Whenever I heard the roaring noise of those monster cargo planes every night, I would say to himself, "That's it; I would get the hell out of here next morning." Next morning, the first sun-ray would hit my dorm-window, and I would say to myself – "Something will come up, and things will get better." That bright sun-ray in the morning would fill my heart with renewed hope, and I would wait just one more day. It had been like this for a while now. Most students already left from the Jagannath Hall.
Public transportation systems (Train, Bus, etc.) between Dhaka and its outskirts were being shutdown one after another. The train and bus services to North Bengal were cut-off by then. I, therefore, lost my chance to go home by bus or train. I knew my mother would be worried sick for me, but didn't know how to go home. Jagannath Hall was deserted; only a few students were there. They had to meet their private tutoring obligations, which they were not ready to lose.
Cafeteria was closed. So, I used to go to a restaurant at around 12 noon for lunch inside the Dhaka Medical College campus. One day, as I was about to enter through the main gate of the Medical College, suddenly, a convoy of ambulances roared past the main gate. Curious onlookers rushed behind those ambulances. I followed them. Quickly the scene turned into an infirmary of a war zone; one after another gun-shot wound victims were being unloaded from those ambulances. They were the wounded demonstrators from Tongi. Pakistani Army opened fire on them. This was the first incident of such direct brutal attack on demonstrators. As those wounded demonstrators were being hauled into the emergency ward, suddenly it felt like a crack just opened on a dam; this time - it was blood, not water, gushing out of the crack. This crack will only get bigger with time. I could see avalanche of wounded bodies to follow this incident. It won't be wise to wait here any longer. I ran back to the dorm without eating; I got to get out of Dhaka right now.
I packed my bag with whatever I could, and ran out of the front gate of the Jagannath Hall. I grabbed a rickshaw and headed towards the bus terminal at Gulistan-moor. I know most of the roads were blocked by barricades. So, I was not sure where I could go; I just wanted to go somewhere outside Dhaka.
When I arrived at Gulshan, a bus was preparing to leave for Tangail. My maternal uncle's home was there. The problem was that - this bus had to pass through Tongi, from where those wounded people were coming, a few minute back. Pakistani army might have seized Tongi already. I enquired the bus conductor about the road condition there. He wasn't sure. He just wanted to take a chance. This could be my last chance to go to Tangail. After some hesitation, I got onboard. As soon as I sat on my seat, the bus started to move. Everything is uncertain from now on. I started to think about my friends, I left behind, at Jagannath Hall. I did not have a chance to say good-bye to them. What would happen to them if they don't leave now, I wondered?
The bus passed Tejgaon Airport, and it was now heading towards Tongi. We were curiously looking out through windows to gauze the road condition ahead. In fact, we were all looking for army-trucks in the area. We warned the driver not to stop at Tongi. He should pass over anything on his way there, including army barricade. Passengers were all serious; he understood the mood. He did not want to invite anymore trouble than it was already. The bus passed through Tongi without stop. No army-truck anywhere, but fresh blood-stains were quite visible on the street to remind us what happened a few hours earlier there. Awaiting passengers there tried to stop the bus, but, no avail. The bus passed nonstop. I felt sorry for those waiting passengers. They must be desperately trying to get out of Tongi. Suddenly, I realized - how lucky I was.
Next stop was Joydebpur. That's a potential danger point also. Army-barrack was there. We were timidly waiting for the approaching Joydebpur stop. As we were nearing Joydebpur, it appeared to be unusually calm. In fact, it was too quite. I could hardly see anybody by the road. Possibly, nothing happened here. The bus stopped, and picked up a few more passengers at this time. There should be no more trouble ahead. I felt relieved.
The bus passed Kaliakoir, and arrived at Mirzapur. Mirzapur was famous for the Kumudini Hospital. This was a privately run famous charitable hospital, founded and managed by Dannobir Ranada Poddar. He used to recruit reputed foreign doctors and nurses to provide first-class medical care to destitute people in the region. It was a world-class Hospital. He also ran a world-class nursing school in the hospital campus. Poor students from around the country used to come to get high quality nursing education here.
Danabir Ranada Poddar was a very successful business man. He used his own fortune to fund these two institutions. He used to live in a very modest house across the river from the hospital. This institution was his dream. Also, he used to sponsor a month long Durga-Puja celebration. He would bring the best parties from around the country to entertain people throughout the month. Thousands of people from far and near would come every night to enjoy free food and entertainment. I had the opportunity to attend some of those functions. Ranada Poddar himself used to distribute free clothing to thousands poor people, irrespective of their religious affiliations, throughout this month. This is how he chose to give back to the people of his locality. That's how he wanted to serve his motherland.
He used to be called Danabir (most benevolent man) for his generocity. I believe - government of East Pakistan gave him the title for his benevolent works. I used to wonder that this man can never have any enemy. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Local collaborators of Pak-army enlisted him as the prime target at Mirjapur. His selfless acts could not save him from the wrath of the Pak-army and its collaborators. When army arrived at Mirzapur, collaborators brought them to his house at dead of night. He was asleep. They called him out of his house, and shot him dead on the spot. His body lay on the ground for others to see next morning.
That was the end of the life-story of such a benevolent man. There was no one like him in the country at that time, and, perhaps, no one will be in the future. It makes me wonder about the good and the bad karmas. Today, Danabir is gone, but those who aided his assassination got rewarded handsomely. What a fallacy of the nature!
Anyway, the bus was moving along. The next stop was Jamurki, where I will get off. My maternal uncle's home (Mama-Bari) was about a mile and a half away from the bus stop. There was no transportation, so I would walk there. It would be almost evening by the time I arrive there.
Everybody was happy to see me safe and sound. They had been wondering about me for a long time. I spent a good part of my childhood in this house. I have so many childhood memories everywhere; it was my second home. My auntie brought me up here; she used to love me, perhaps, more than her own children, at least that's how I thought.
I spent almost a month at my uncle's home, waiting to come back to Dhaka when things get better. But, things never got any better there, it only deteriorated quickly. So, I should now think about going home.
Suddenly, my thought was focused on my mother. She must be worried sick about me; she must be looking at my way all day long. The mail system has been cut off. I couldn't communicate with her. I would not be able to inform my parents that I was safe and sound at my uncle's home, which is, by the way, my mother's parental home also.
In a few days, I became enormously home-sick. My father must be asking everybody about the situation in Dhaka. I could not think anymore. But, how would I come home (at Natore) from Tangail? All transportations already suspended. Only thing I could think of was to start walking towards home. Was that a feasible option? It will be an epic story, no doubt. My grandfather used to tell me his stories of such travel on foot. His travel on foot from Tangail to Natore used to take about 2 weeks. May be, I should venture to take such a challenge.
I have to talk to my uncle about it. I was hoping that if I could pass over the Jamuna River somehow, I might still find some sort of transportation from there. Pak-army did not cross Jamuna River at that time. A strange courage filled my heart. All I could think of is that I have to meet my mother. Nothing seemed to be impossible to me at that moment.
My uncle realized that he cannot keep me there any longer. He devised an itinerary for my journey. They have used this route to go to our house. First, I would walk 3 miles to Elashin and take a steamboat to go to Shirajgonj, Pubna. Then, I would take a train to go to Natore. This itinerary appeared quite feasible. If everything works out, I will go home same day by evening.
I couldn't carry heavy baggage with me, in case I have to walk too long. So, I packed only a few essential things in my shoulder bag. My auntie put some dry foods and breads in my bag. She was weeping all morning. With her teary eyes, she said, "Baba (son), you are going to your mother, but leaving behind another mother here. I will always wonder about your wellbeing along the way. Remember, God will be with you all the way." I could not say a thing, as I was trying to hide my tears from her. I knew – seeing my teary-eyes she would get even more hurt. So, I just bent down to touch her feet to receive her blessings, and left. My uncle followed me. He will be with me up to the steamboat-station.
We were going through the Elashin village. Uncle pointed to a beautiful school building, and said, "This is your father's High School." It was an architectural beauty; it was such a rare sight for me. I starred at the corridor where, perhaps, my father ran through as a child. Suddenly, I was floating in a nostalgic dream. What a remarkable sight! I can't describe in words. I heard so much from my father about this school. Sagar Master was his favorite teacher. This school appeared to be so much familiar to me.
I passed ~3 miles into my journey. We arrived at Elashin-Bazaar. Uncle enquired about the location of the steamboat station. People informed us that steamboat was not coming there for a while; water level in the river was too low. Now, I had to change my itinerary. I would take a horse-carriage ride to go to Tangail town. Then, I would take another horse-carriage ride to go to Purabari station on the bank of the Dhaleswari River. From there, I will catch a steamboat to go to Shirajgonj, Pabna.
Uncle arranged the carriage. I bent down to touch his feet for his blessings. I could not hide my tears at this time. He embraced me, and told me to come back home if things don't work out, as planned. Horse-carriage started to move forward leaving behind my uncle on the way. He kept on starring at my carriage as long as he could see me. My solo journey for home finally began ….
As time passed by, it felt like I was getting closer and closer to my home, and uncle's home was receding further and further away. I soon reached Tangail-town. Another 8/9 miles left to reach Purabari-station. I took a different horse-carriage to go there. It will take another 3 hours on the boat to reach Shirajgonj. Once I reach Shirajgonj, it will take another 2 to 3 hours on the train to reach Natore. I will soon see my family. I started to think about my childhood friends, who I did not see in such a long time. Everybody will be so happy to see me. It was quite a happy thought.
Horse-carriage was moving along. I could see the river bank on the distant horizon. Temporary roadside restaurants were built for passengers. I was kind of hungry. I have to finish eating before I get on the steamboat. They don't serve food on the boat.
I entered into a restaurant, and inquired about the time when steamboat will arrive. Manager told me that boat did not come yesterday; he was not sure if it would come today. Many people were waiting for the steamboat since morning. If it comes, it will be ~1 PM. I had an hour to eat. The Pungaish-fish curry looked so good. I immediately ordered rice with Pungaish-curry.
As I was gossiping with the manager while eating, he told me that water level was too low so the boat might not come at all. The best idea would be to walk another 3 miles upstream along the bank of the river to another station, where water level was still good. The boat leaves there at around 2 PM. So, I had only 40 minutes to go there.
I picked my bag and started to walk towards that station. I had sandal-shoe on. It was quite difficult to walk on the sand wearing such shoe. I started to run wherever I could find hard soil. I saw many people walking along this route; maybe they were all going there to catch the same boat; I am not alone. It gave me hope.
After walking for a while, I looked around me. I could see nobody. I was walking alone. I realized they were not passengers of that boat; they were residents of the neighboring localities. Reality started to creep on me. Soon, I reached that station. It was about 2 PM. Many temporary roadside restaurants were built on the bank of the river here also. First, I went near the water. Alas! I could see the floor beneath the water. I came back to a restaurant. Varieties of foods were on display, but I had no appeal for anything now. Reality hit me hard. What I would do now. I came too far away from my uncle's home. It will make no sense at all to go back to my uncle's home. I ordered for a cup of tea, hoping that it would help me think through. So far, I was charging forward with only positive thought. I never thought of the prospect of failure. But - what's the alternative? If I go back, I won't be going home. It seems like - I have no choice, but to go forward.
There were a few other people in the restaurant. I revealed my plan to them for suggestions. One person told me that there was a long bearded Sufi (religious man) sitting in a neighboring restaurant, waiting for the steamboat also. I left my tea and immediately rushed there to see him. As I entered into that restaurant, I saw a bearded man, wearing round cap and religious-garbs. This was the man I was looking for. He was very well prepared for his long journey. He had everything with him, including, pots and pans, water-jag for bathroom use, etc. He looked like a real Mushhafir (professional traveler).
After exchanging my greeting, I told him why I was looking for him. I asked him where he was going. Strangely enough he was also from a neighboring village, called Muhammadpur. It's about 10 miles away from my village. There was a long bridge on the river at his village. As a young child, I used to go there with my friends to see the bridge. We used to walk across the bridge looking down at water hopping to spot Seals or Walruses. It used to be so fascinating to us to see the water current swirling under the bridge. Anyway, I was so happy to find him.
We both told our story to the restaurant manager. He said, "Now I can give you some good suggestions." He pointed to the west, and said, "If you look carefully at the distant horizon you will see a locality. That is about the mid-point of the river-bed. Water in this part of the narrow strip is shallow. You can wade through the water to cross it. After this strip of water, you will pass a long desert area to reach that locality. Once you pass that locality - there will be another tributary, which you will cross in a rowboat. After you pass through the river-bed, you will reach Enayetpur, Pabna, on the other side."
He further told us that - we must pass 10 miles of river-bed before the evening. So, we were running against the clock. We better get our thoughts together and start walking toward the west. This part of our journey was not safe.
I asked my companion, "What do you think, Cha-Cha-Mia (Uncle)? Are you ready?" He replied to me, "Yes, I am ready, let's start. Inshallah (God willing), we will cross this river before the sunset."
We picked up our belongings and started to walk across the Jamuna River. We waded crossed the water for a while. Now, we had a long desert area in front of us. It's a huge desert; we could barely see the horizon across the desert. There was nothing, but sand, as far as eye can see. Cha-Cha-Mia asked me to remove my gold-ring from my finger. My father gave me the ring after I graduated from the Secondary School Certificate examination with first class. I took that ring off my finger and put it in my pocket.
I started to think about stories of my grandfather, who used to travel on foot across the land. I wanted to gain courage from those stories. I thought - if he could do it, I should be able to do it also.
It was a sunny day; sand was very hot. My sandal-shoe was not appropriate for such a journey. My feet were burning. We were walking west, so the sun was directly hitting on our face. I was getting more and more nervous as the sun was going down. Suddenly, a human-form appeared at the distant horizon. It was approaching us. Cha-Cha-Mia asked me to pray to God. He started to recite verses from his religious books. I noticed that the approaching person was carrying a stick-like object on his shoulder, which made me even more scared. Nothing we could do to change this situation, so, we were just waiting like a sacrificial-lamb.
The incoming person came near us. He was a milkman, carrying milk. It was like a mountain has been lifted from my shoulder. We both felt a sigh of relief. As he was passing by, he advised us to reach the other side before evening. He told me to change my dress; I was looking like a million-box. He told us that he got mugged here so many times. He, apparently, did not realize that it's not going to boost our morals. Anyway, I could not change my dress, because - I did not have anything but a towel and my certificates in my bag.
Finally, we reached the locality. Cha-Cha-Mia was thirsty. We decided to go to a house to drink water. He went inside a house and asked for some water. A little boy came out and showed us a tube-well in front of the house. Cha-Cha-Mia did not like such treatment toward a guest. In our locality, when a person ask for water we always provide it. Anyway, I started to pump water and Cha-Cha-Mia started to drink water. He then took out some 'Chira (crushed rice)' and 'Gur (molasses)' from his bag and put them into two Tiffin-carrier boxes. He then offered me one. I put some water and mixed them with Gur. We both started to eat. As I looked around, I saw a bunch of curious eyes looking at us from above the jute-stalk fence. Those are the women of the house. We become a source of their amusement, like animals in the zoo. As I said before, we were the victim of the situation; we had to play along.
Suddenly, a man appeared in front of us holding a big 'Da (Machete)' in his hand. We were both looking at one another. Cha-Cha-Mia quickly greeted him "Assalamuallaikum (peace-be-on you)." He came to us, and inquired about our whereabouts. Cha-Cha-Mia told him that - we need to cross the tributary to go to the other side. He said, "Follow me." We had no choice but to comply.
I knew that people in the village treat college students at a higher standard. So, I told him that I was a student of Dhaka University, and I was on my way back home. He appeared to be sympathetic to me. He said, "Don't worry; I will make sure you cross the river safely." He also said that he would tell the boatman to take us to the other side free of cost.
After we reached the boat station, he said to the boatman, "These are my guests; they need to go to the other side." We thanked him for his kind help before boarding the boat. I asked the boatman if he knew a place, on the other side, where we could spend the night. He said that Enayetpur has a very famous Dorgah of a famous Pir (Religious Guru), where travelers, like us, can spend the night. Also, there is a huge Moktob (Islamic school) campus, where we can spend the night. We reached the other side. I gave him some tips; he did not want to accept it.
It was about dark. Cha-Cha-Mia wanted to go to the Dargah. He was also a Murid (Disciple) of a Pir. As a result, Cha-Cha-Mia felt comfortable to spend the night there. We went straight to the Dargah; it was already dark by then.
It's a huge compound, like a palace. It had a huge hall with wall-to-wall carpet. It must have been built for Mushafirs and disciples of the Pir. I was impressed with the tidiness of that place. It was all empty that day; only a few people were working inside. One of those people came to us and asked why we came to the Dargah. Cha-Cha-Mia exchanged his religious greeting, and told him that we were two Mushafirs, and we wanted to spend the night there. The guy asked us to follow him. He took us to the Pir. Cha-Cha-Mia went near the Pir; I stayed back. Pir was lying on his bed; two women were messaging his body with some sort of oil, another guy was pulling the chain of a huge fan over his head. Only a king could expect such a lifestyle. Cha-Cha-Mia said, "Hujur (Your Highness), I am also a Murid of a Pir. Tonight we are Mushafirs. We need to spend the night here." I was impressed with his presentation.
Pir-shaheb signaled someone to come close to him. A guy went to the Pir. He whispered something to him. He probably told him - where to take us – I thought. I was feeling comfortable here already. I would go to sleep right away. The guy took us outside, and told us, "You have to be Murid of our Pir to stay there."
This message felt like a jolt of electricity through my body. Literally, thousands of square feet of carpeted floor were empty, and we were not allowed to use a few feet of it to sleep on for one night. Cha-Cha-Mia was furious, he started to shout at him, "You come to my Pir's Dargah; I will find you a place to spend a night without becoming a Murid." He started to curse the Pir.
Our hopes were so high that we were not prepared for this blow. Now, we have to go the Moktob compound. We had no trouble to find it. High-pitch noise of children, reciting something out loud, guided us there. It was a big building. Again, I asked Cha-Cha-Mia to approach the teacher. He started to climb up the steps to go to the front door of the school. I was waiting at the bottom. A teacher came to the door. Cha-Cha talked to him for a while, and started to head back down the steps. His grim face told everything. I did not ask him anything about his exchange with the teacher. He told me he was very hungry, and he wanted to go to a nearby store to buy some bread. I sat down on the step with my head resting on my knees. I was completely disappointed. I could not understand why this was happening to us after all we had been through all day.
Suddenly, I hear someone asking me, "Why are you sitting here like this?" As I raise my head up, I saw a young man in front of me. I told him that I was a student of Dhaka University; now, on my way back home. I needed to spend the night somewhere. After hearing everything, he asked me to follow him. I told him that I have another companion, who went to buy bread. I had to wait for him. The young fellow pointed to a brightly lit factory across a canal. He was a worker in that factory. He asked me to meet him there after my companion came back. He would be waiting there for me. He told me that he will take me to the owner of that factory.
Cha-Cha came back with two Rasagollas (sweets) and some bread. He also brought a jug of water from the tube-well. He gave me one sweet and a half-of his bread. As we were eating, I told him the story of the young man, I met while he was away. He was not so hopeful, neither did I. But, we both wanted to give it a try.
We started to proceed towards that factory. We had to cross a long bamboo-bridge. It had only one bamboo to hold on and another to step on. It's quite difficult to balance on a single bamboo. If you misstep, you are bound to fall into the canal. I did not know how people do it. I had to be extra careful, as I am not used to it. Cha-Cha-Mia, on the other hand, was better accustomed to it than me. He passed the bridge at ease, while I was lagging behind.
I crossed the bridge without any incident. It was a huge Textile-factory. There was a big house behind the factory; it was like a mansion. The factory owner lived there. The young man was waiting for us. He asked Cha-Cha-Mia to wait right there, and asked me to follow him. He took me to the owner. I exchanged my greeting with him by saying, "Adab." He asked me – "How are things at Dhaka?" I told him that it's not good, and started to tell him the story of the shooting at Tongi on the day I left. He stopped me in the middle, and asked his manager to show me my room. I told him that I had another companion. He said, "Don't worry; he will be taken care of." The whole thing was bizarre. I could not believe my eyes and ears about what just happened here.
Anyway, the manager took me to my room. My room was inside the mansion. How could he invite a stranger inside the mansion? Didn't he worry about his safety? I am sure he had many other rooms in the factory, where he could put me. Why didn't he do that? I also started to wonder about Cha-Cha-Mia. Where did they put him? It would be better if we could sleep in the same room. I did not dare to ask for this favor.
I was surprised to see my room. It looked like a room of a student. There was a desk and a chair in the room. Manager showed me a tube-well, and asked me to freshen up; he will bring food soon. I washed my hands and feet. He brought my food. It was rice, chicken curry, fish curry, and a bowl of Dal.
I was eating with my heart's content. The owner dashed into my room, and said, "I am sorry, we all ate already, and we don't have anything else left other than this chicken curry."
I said, "It's the best chicken curry, I have ever had." I said this not out of courtesy, but, actually, felt like so at that night. He told me that he will come to see me again after my meal. The whole thing did not make sense at all. Why was he treating me with such honor? I don't deserve any of it. In fact, I was kind of apprehensive about the whole thing. Why would he come back to see me again? What did he want from me? Why did he separate us? Many questions started to haunt me.
I just finished my dinner. I was preparing to go to bed. The owner came back again to see me. He said, "I came to say good night. I know you will perhaps leave pretty early in the morning; I may not see you before you leave." Then, he called the night guard and introduced him to me. He said, "Don't hesitate to call him if you need anything."
I said, "Please accept my heart-felt thanks for all you have done for us. It's beyond my wildest dreams. I will never forget my experiences here."
He said, "Don't worry; pleasure is all mine. I have a son, like you, who is still at Dhaka. He is a student of Dhaka College. I have no idea how he is. This is his room."
His eyes became watery and his voice trembled. He rushed out of the room; I could not give him solace; I just uttered, "Good-Bye." Suddenly, everything started to make sense and become clear, just like the morning sun lifts the darkness of the night.
The night-guard came to my room to give me a search-light, in case I need it at night. I went to bed, but - could not sleep. All I was thinking were my experiences along the way. I did not know when I fell asleep.
Cha-Cha-Mia woke me up very early in the morning. He told me to get ready quickly. He wanted to start before the sunrise. We have to walk 3 miles to go to the train-station. The night guard told us how to get there.
We reached the station. The train did not arrive yet. I was so happy to see so many people waiting for the same train. Cha-Cha would get off the train right after 2 stops from here. He will take a bus from there to go home. Bus-line runs through his village. I had a choice. I could go all the way by train, or I could go along with Cha-Cha-Mia. The bus will also go through Natore. I decided to take the bus with Cha-Cha-Mia.
The bus started. It will take about an hour to reach Muhammadpur. The bus was full. We had standing room only. We were almost there. Finally, the bus was heading towards Muhammadpur. Cha-Cha-Mia embraced me and said, "Good-bye, Cha-Cha. Inshallah (God willing), we will meet again someday." He got off. Bus started to move ahead. Natore is two stops away only. Soon, I will go home. What a relief!
I got off at Natore, and slowly started to walk towards home; it's another 3 miles walk. As I was walking along the path, I suddenly realized - I did not know Cha-Cha-Mia's real name. I won't be able to find him or ask about his whereabouts to others in his village. He did not ask my name also; I did not want to tell my name voluntarily. I was afraid that it might negatively impact our mutual interests. Probably, he thought so also. Anyway, we became so close during the journey. I still think about him. Could it be any different if we had revealed our religious identities at the beginning of this journey, I still wonder?
Author's Note: On the dreadful night of 25th March (1971), just after I reached home, Pak-army initiated first full-scale attack on innocent civilians at Jagannath Hall. Pak-Army cordoned the perimeter of the Hall, and sealed off the campus completely. They went door-to-door, looking for Hindu students, still residing there; gathered them in the middle of the playground, ordered them to dig their own graves, and executed them point-blank. Two of my ex-roommates, one from Narshingdi, and the other from Rajbari, were among those unfortunate victims there. Another classmate was in the bunch also, but - miraculously escaped the bullet. I hope to include his heroic survival story in the successive parts.
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