We had gathered on Chatujjey’s front porch — Kyabla, Habul Sen, myself, and our ring leader Teni-da from Pataldanga. Minutes ago, Teni-da had hijacked four annas in Kyabla’s pocket. Now we were all relishing kulfi-ices with that money.
Only Kyabla sat with a grumpy face. The melting kulfi in his hand was dripping through the sal leaves of the packet. He was not eating.
“Hey, Kyabla, why aren’t you eating?” roared Teni-da.
Kyabla was on the brink of tears. He just shook his head without replying.
“You don’t want it? Fine. Kulfi is bad for kids’ tummies anyway.”
With this declaration, he snatched the kulfi from Kyabla’s hand and plopped it straight into his mouth.
“Ah… ah… ah… ”
“‘Ah… ah… ah'? What on earth does that mean, eh? Tell me!” Teni-da growled again. Kyabla burst into tears.
“You swiped my four annas. I was supposed to go to the cinema. It was a great movie, about the War …”
“About wars?” Teni-da made a face, “What’s there to see in a war movie? Just bang, bang, bang, fistfights, and bravados. You want to hear real stories about the War? Ask me instead.”
“What do you know of wars?” I ask cautiously.
“What did you say Pyala?” Teni-da’s roar sent shivers down to my malarial spleen, “I don’t know? Then who does, you?”
“No, no! How would I know?” I quickly replied, “I have malaria and take herbal juice for cure. What do I know of wars and such? I was merely asking— ” I took one look at Teni-da and quickly zipped my lips.
“You were not asking anything, and neither would you ever say anything!” Teni-da’s glare was like a punch in the guts.
“If I hear you talk again about wars, I’ll rearrange the geometry of your face!”
I was terrified and stayed still like a rigid lamp post.
Teni-da cleared his throat and started, “When I went to the War — I mean, on the Burma front —”
Habul Sen tried to suppress a giggle.
“Are you laughing at me, Habla?” Teni-da turned his attention to Habul.
Habul immediately turned pale. He stammered, “N-no-no… that is … I-I was wondering w-when you went to the W-w-war…”
Exasperated, Teni-da punched the paved bench and immediately yelped in pain.
“You dare talk back to an elder?” he said, finally composing himself, “This is why our country is still under the Brits. I say, how is it your problem whether I went to the War or not? If you don’t want to listen to the story, get the hell out of here. It’s a pain trying to tell anything to you idiots.”
“No, no. Please carry on with your story. We will not say a word.” Habul hurriedly surrendered.
Teni-da licked off the last drop on the sal leaves, and throwing the crumpled packet at Kyabla’s face, began “OK, listen.”
“During the war, we battled our way to a remote mountainous place in Arakan. Wherever we met the Japanese, we gave them such a beating that they ran for their lives screaming ‘fujiyama’ and what not. I was the commander of Division 13. Won three Victoria Crosses for that.”
“Where are those crosses?” interrupted Kyabla.
“Why are you so nosy? Want to hear the story or not?”
“Let him be, let him be. Amritam Kyabla Bhashitam. You continue your story, Teni-da.” Habul appeased.
“So then we battled ahead and reached that place — you know, the one you read about in the papers. I’m forgetting the name. It was something to do with ‘dim’ (egg).
“Goose egg?” I suggested.
“Nonsense,” replied Teni-da.
“Is it chicken egg?” asked Kyabla.
“Horse-egg?” I tried again, “Crow-egg, frog-egg …”
“Exactly!” Teni-da slapped Kyabla’s back, making him yelp, “Now I remember — the place was called Tiddim! Tiddim had become a bloody war zone. We were killing the Japanese right and left. Killing them while sipping tea, killing them while dozing off, killing a couple even while I was snoring.”
“Killing while snoring? How did you do that?” I couldn’t suppress my curiosity.
“Hahaha!” Teni-da laughed out loud. “Now that’s an interesting story. You guys have merely seen this nose of mine with its Qutab-Minaresque stature. But you haven’t heard the noise it makes. It is like the war drum. That’s why my uncle got an engineer to soundproof my bedroom, so nobody else in the house would be disturbed. The neighbors constantly complained to the corporation. There had even been a police raid, because apparently, someone had reported about hearing machine gun firings. Imagine the scandal! But that’s a story for another day.
“Anyway, to continue our story, my snoring was so loud in our trench that we never needed a sentry. The Japs thought we were firing machine guns all night. They never dared to even peep in. Our Supreme Commander — I think his name was Mr. Bogus — had this brilliant idea. He appointed a man to sit by me all night and place small pebbles over my nostrils. These would fly out like bullets from a double-barreled rifle. Countless Japanese were taken out that way.”
“Such baloney,” I muttered. In a flash, Teni-da turned towards me. “What did you say?”
“Nothing, important,” I quickly managed, “I just said, how funny!”
“Indeed! It was hilarious. That’s how I earned one of the Victoria Crosses,” said Teni-da, proudly raising his rhino-horn-like nose to the sky.
“So, what happened in the end? You won the war just with your nose?” Habul asked.
“Well, almost. We had nearly polished off the Japs, when something messy happened. And that is the real story.”
“Oh, do tell us!” We chimed in a chorus. Teni-da resumed. “I used to have a dog. Not a bag of bones like your Indies. This one was a huge greyhound. His looks were as ferocious as his roars, and was he well trained! He could walk on his hind legs for hours on end. He died in an accident, poor thing. I still miss him, but he sacrificed his life for a brahmin, so he must have gone straight to heaven.”
“How did he die?” asked Habul.
“Oho! Hold your horses. All these busybodies, yakking from the start and spoiling the story …
“Anyway. One afternoon, I was walking the dog in one of the hilly forests. The Japs had only recently retreated from there, so there was nothing to fear. The dog was walking ahead, and I was following him.
“But those little devils were full of mischief — they even managed to stump yours truly, can you believe! We came by a nice mango tree on our way — loaded with fruit. There were more mangoes up there than foliage. And they looked exactly like the Langra variety from Kashi. Just the sight of it would make your mouth water.”
“Langras of Kashi in the Arakan mountains?” I couldn’t help blurting out.
“Look, Pyala, if you interrupt me again, I swear I’ll slap you so hard — ”
“Oh, let him be, let him be,” Habul intercepted, adding in his Dhaka dialect, “he’s only a polapaan, a child!”
“Polapaan?” Teni-da roared again, “Anymore yammering and I will hammer your mouth forever! Anyway, back to the story. They were real Langras from Kashi. The dog eyed me and signalled, ‘please get me a few mangoes.’
“The dog wanted to eat mangoes?” Kyabla was incredulous.
“You bet he did. This was no ordinary mongrel. This was a pure-bred, blue-blooded greyhound talking. Forget mangoes, it would happily eat bananas, radishes, carrots, bitter gourds, drumsticks, and even spinach. Anyway, no sooner did I climb up that tree …” Teni-da paused.
“A horror-show! The tree suddenly grabbed me with all its branches, yelling something along the lines of ‘Fujiyama-Shujiama!’ and started walking. A few other trees standing nearby also started marching, crying out ‘Nippon Banjai!’”
“What!” we gasped, nearly speechless, “you mean the trees kidnapped you?”
“Exactly. Don’t you get it? They weren’t trees at all. It was a camouflage.”
“What in heaven’s name is ‘Camouflage’?”
“You don’t know what ‘camouflage’ means? Which rock do you live under?” Teni-da made a face In disgust, “‘camouflage’ means putting on a disguise. The Japanese are world-renowned for being master disguisers. They used to often dress up as trees or hillocks to jump on the enemy.”
“Good God! What happened then?”
“What happened?” said Teni-da, flashing an elite smile, “the inevitable happened.”
“What? What?” we held our breaths.
“They carried me inside the forest. Then they took off their camouflage and laughed diabolically, baring sixteen pairs of shovel-like teeth. One of them pulled a sharp sword from his waistband and said, ‘Mister, we will cut you.’”
“O my God!” Kyabla howled, “How did you escape?”
“What do you mean, ‘escape’? With a cry of ‘Nippon Banjai’ — which means ‘Glory to Japan’, by the way — and he raised his sword.”
“Raised the sword?” Habul said hoarsely.
“In one fell swoop, my head was rolling on the ground. There was blood everywhere —”
“Hang on a minute!” all three of us jumped up at the same time, “does that mean you’re a —”
“A ghost? Of course not, you idiots! How could I be a ghost? Do ghosts cast shadows? Can’t you see mine, right there? I’m perfectly alive.”
We were dizzy with fear and confusion. Finally, with great difficulty, Habul managed to speak, “But–but — how could you be alive if your head went off?”
Teni-da eyed our faces with a mysterious smile.
“Hehe! Guess how?”
“I can’t,” I croaked. I was chanting God’s name in my mind. Had I been friends with a demon all this time?
“You are all dunderheads!” Teni-da victoriously declared, “don’t you realize that the dog escaped?”
“So, it was all a camouflage, for heaven’s sake!”
“What do you mean?”
“Christ Almighty! You clearly have cow dung for brains — not an ounce of grey matter in there. Yours truly, the Great Teni, can eat five hundred of those cunning Japs for breakfast. I was well-aware of what those little devils might strategize. That’s why, I had dressed up as the dog and the dog had dressed up as me. While they were busy decapitating the dog camouflaged as me, I had fled the scene with the tail between my legs!
“And that’s how I got my third Victoria Cross.”
Looking over our bamboozled faces, Teni-da smiled with great satisfaction. And then he let out a diabolical roar: “Better cough up two annas, Pyala! There comes a vendor with hot chanachur!”
Published in Parabaas: March 30, 2022
The original story 'Camouflage' (ক্যামোফ্লেজ) has been taken from Tehida Samagro (টেনিদা সমগ্র) edited by Pranabkumar Mukhopadhyay and published by Ananda, Kolkata (1996). It is not clear when the story was originally written (likely late 1950s to early 1960s).
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