Translated from the original Bangla by Hafiza Nilofar Khan
Ashfaq and Bithi’s marriage had been finalized. Parents on both sides had arranged their marriage—the 21st of February had been chosen as the date for the occasion. There was still about a month to go. At Ashfaq’s request, Bithi had met him once. Over the phone Ashfaq had suggested that they meet at least once before the marriage to fathom how well they would fare together. “What do you say? Will you come?” He pleaded.
Bithi was a modern university girl. She had instantly accepted the proposal. She believed in negotiation before marriage, rather than seeing it turn into a failure afterwards. “I don’t want the ball of marriage to head straight for the goal. I’d rather leave it meandering on the field for a while”.
They met in the Boldha Garden. It was mid-day. The scorching sun of ’52 glared everywhere. They sat on the steps of the pond in the middle of the garden. Lotus flowers of different colors filled the pond. Before settling in front of the pond, they went to see the Amazon Lily in the tank. They both liked the place and decided to meet there on their second meeting. Two days ago the Prime Minister, Nazimuddin declared for the second time that Urdu was going to be the national language of Pakistan. Dhaka was in the midst of a great agitation, popping up everywhere like paddies on hot sand in a wok. Ashfaq had just graduated from the university. He was a meritorious student, and would soon be going abroad with a scholarship for Ph.D. Everything had been finalized. Instead of politics, he was more concerned about making a career of his own. He was not too worried about the parliamentary debate that Bangla should be the national language. Of course he wanted Bangla to be the national language, but nothing more than that. During the perilous days of ’52, he was overwhelmed by his own dreams of a fulfilled conjugal life.
Bithi however, was different. She was determined to make this time a success. She felt that losing at this hour means not only giving up a vital part of her own life, but also that of her children’s. It would be like losing the bones of their rib cage—they would be missing a body part, the missing link.
On the day they met she told Ashfaq how she kept losing things since morning. “At the meeting I lost my black pen; then the handkerchief suddenly fell from my hands during the procession. There was no way I could pick it up. Just watched it getting soiled and trampled under the feet of a bunch of bravely marching youths. And now I am here to lose myself.”
“Oh! So, you haven’t lost yourself yet?”
“And I have been contemplating the idea of getting lost with you. On the top of Mount Mahaboleshwar there is a fabulous lake. I thought we would dip our feet in that water and watch the sunset. Slowly darkness will envelope both of us.”
“Will our feet still be submerged in water?”
“Yes, they will.”
“Or we may both sit under the shed of the betel leaves during the afternoon and watch the sunlight slowly turn green. The wind will seem green too. Then in the green rays and the green wind we will lose ourselves.”
Bithi wondered how this would happen. “The way my voice gets lost in the midst of thousands of voices in a rally? The way my conscience merges with a thousand other consciences and gives rise to a complete consciousness? The way a known face suddenly disappears into oblivion . . . ”
Ashfaq covered her mouth with the palm of his left hand and pleaded, “Please don’t let anything come between us. Only you and I.”
“My protest marches?”
“Am I not your dream?”
“You are on one side of the bridge between my dreams. On the other side I have another dream. I want to build a bridge between my two dreams. Under the bridge would flow a crooked river, with boats with masts and muscular sailors hollering at each other every now and then.”
Ashfaq burst out in disbelief, “Bithi!”
“Why are you surprised?”
“Aren’t you now speaking differently?”
“Of course I am—because I can see the times. I can predict what is going to unfold in a few days. Can’t you see this time?”
“Yes, time. We have an extremely perilous time ahead of us.”
Bithi visualized the heated debate in the Parliament after several students in the protest march had been shot. Moulana Torkobagish had been raging: “Mr. Speaker, we don’t want to assemble here for a meeting when the students, who are our future hopes, are succumbing to police gunshots. We want an inquiry first and only then we can continue with the proceedings of the House.”
As soon as this debater finished his speech, Dhirendronath Dutta stood up and said, in English, “Mr. Speaker, sir, a serious situation has arisen in the country . . . the police rushed into the hospital premises and, sir, to our surprise, to our shame and sorrow, began to assault the peaceful boys. They not only assaulted the students and wounded them, but some of the boys were killed.”
Amidst all this Bithi held the crown of her head with her hands, and a thin scream of anguish escaped her throat.
“What happened, Bithi?”
“I can’t understand what’s got into you. I can’t foresee the future like you."
Bithi broke into a laugh. To Ashfaq’s ears it didn’t quite sound like laughter.
“Let’s go home.”
Hurt, Ashfaq started climbing up the stairs.
When Bithi arrived at the gate of her house, she heard Juthi singing. Juthi was a school girl with a melodious voice. Her music teacher had high hopes for her. One day she might become a great artist. Before Bithi entered the gate her police officer father’s jeep came to a halt behind her. Mr. Towab raised his eyebrows the moment he got off the jeep.
“Why are you standing here?”
“Just got back from the University, Father.”
“These are bad times. No need to linger out unnecessarily. Let’s go in.”
Mr. Towab stomped in. His police boots left a trail of racket behind. Bithi muttered to herself as she kept staring at the boots: “Should we stay aloof just because the times are bad? No, I am a woman of this time. I will incorporate this time within myself.” Suddenly she realized that Juthi’s song had gained a certain intensity and was emanating in all directions. She entered the house on tiptoe.
Meanwhile, Mr. Towab had finished changing his uniform and washing his face. His wife Jahanara was a simple woman. She waited on her husband with a cup of tea in hand. While taking the cup from her hands, Mr. Towab pricked up his ears towards Juthi’s singing. He nodded his head in approval. Indeed, she has a sweet voice, he declared. He believed that these qualities were handy when it came to marriage. That’s why my daughters are taking lessons in music, he held.
Jahanara voiced a mild objection to her husband’s views.“Why do you think like this? The girl may become a famous singer one day.”
“Ah! Never even think in that line. You don’t have to be this modern, mind you. I don’t have any greater ambitions than to see them married off well.”
Jahanara stared gloomily. She was aggrieved. In a desperate tone she said, “It hurts me to think that you feel this way.”
Mr. Towab screwed up his face and retorted: “What affectation! I hate all this. I warn you, don’t you spoil the girls with such ideas.”
Jahanara left without prolonging the conversation. She knew—this is how she had spent her married life with this man, and this was how the rest of it would go. There was no one who understood her pain.
The next morning Bithi was late for the ten o’clock meeting at Madhu’s canteen. Since morning, for no apparent reason, thoughts of her mother had been tugging at her heart. She could not quite explain it to anyone. “It is one of those impalpable feelings,” she told herself, “in fact, it is from observing her that I have learnt how to break out of the cage.” The boys and girls at the canteen cheered as Bithi walked in. They all carried slight doubts in their hearts about her. They thought that if her father got an inkling, she would be grounded at home. She would not be able to join the protest marches; but so far, Bithi had not missed any.
Their meeting began. Gazi’s voice thundered, “Friends, you all know why we have assembled here today. The present government has betrayed us. Four years have elapsed since the historic language movement of 1948. For so long the demand for our language has been suppressed. In those days when the students had united to voice an indomitable revolution, the inhumane hegemonic policies of the government were imposed upon them. But the students did not bow down at the face of such aggression. Rather, the disloyal Nazimuddin government accepted defeat. That day at the East Bengal Legislation Nazimuddin passed a bill acknowledging the demands for Bangla to be a national language. Not only that, in front of the Assembly he pleaded for making Bangla the main national language. Simultaneously, his government freed those who were imprisoned during that time. The student leaders who had warrants for their arrest were also exempted of all charges. This is how the student’s council was appeased. However, now at the gathering at the Polton grounds the same people are shamelessly lobbying for Urdu to be the only national language of Pakistan.”
As soon as Gazi said this much, the boys roared unanimously, “No way! We will never accept this.” A slogan resonated in the air, “We want Bangla to be the national language. We want a nation for Bangla.”
Suddenly Bithi started feeling dizzy amidst all the commotion. She felt within her as if raindrops were freezing into stone-hard drops as in a crystal cave. An image of an Assembly session forms within her—the speaker is unable to pacify Moulana Torkobagish, a member of the Assembly. He continues in a furiously agitated manner, “We do not understand your order; we will not abide by your order. The Leader of the House will first have to go to the site in person and present his report—only then would we will hold the Assembly.”
Speaker: “Order, order. You have no right to disobey the chair. Please take your seat.”
Torkobagish: "The Leader of the House will have to go first. Then we will continue with the formalities of the House.”
Speaker: “Order, order. Do you mean to say that you will not allow anybody else to speak? You are obstructing the proceedings of the House.”
Torkobagish: “Let the Leader of the House go for a formal Enquiry first and then the House will resume. Not before that.”
Speaker: “Order, order. Mr. Torkobagish , I am very sorry. I may be compelled to take action under rule 16 (2) of the East Bengal Legislative Assembly Procedure Rules, if you do not obey the Chair”.
Torkobagish: “You can take any action you feel like. We demand that the Leader of the House is first sent to study the situation.”
The Speaker keeps saying “Order, order” while beating his hammer. As the scene germinated in Bithi’s imagination, a scream of horror escaped from her, and she stared at everyone terrified. The students registered her blank look, and Mili shook her and asked: “Bithi, what happened?”
“I can see the times.”
The girls started giggling. Gazi said grimly, “Don’t laugh. Bithi’s sixth sense is working.”
“You are right, Gazi Bhai—my sixth sense is on fire.”
“Bogus,” Nahar expressed her vexation. “Actually she is getting married and that is why she is losing her mind,” she concluded.
“Good. Language movement and marriage—both have become one in Bithi’s life.”
Bithi’s blank eyes now became ablaze. She gazed in the eyes before her and said, “You are right. They have become one. Both are my life. One is inseparable from the other. To make my married life beautiful I have to make the language movement a success. I cannot bear to see my alphabets burning in front of my eyes. I cannot bear to see my children being compelled to learn Urdu. I will forget to sing my song. No, I will never let such a day come in my life.”
Gazi added vehemently: “Bithi is right. There is no other alternative in front of us besides rebellion. A students’ revolutionary body has to be formed.”
On her way back home from the meeting that day, Bithi noticed the police vehicle cross her rickshaw. Her father was in the vehicle. He had his wireless set in his hand, and she wondered with whom her father was in conversation. She turned her face away. In her head the innumerable shalik birds of the golden bamboo groves of Boldha Garden struck up a huge cacophony. When she arrived home, she received a call from Ashfaq. Juthi said to her, “Sis, brother-in-law is on the phone”.
“You silly thing! He hasn’t become your brother-in-law yet”.
“So what if he hasn’t. Soon he will though. Everything has been finalized. Go take the call.”
Ashfaq had the same old request, “How about meeting each other, Bithi?”
“But I have already met you.”
“I want more.”
“Where do you want to meet?”
“We will find a beautiful spot.”
“Why, do you have something else to do?”
“Yes. An extremely important work.”
“Extremely important? Do you have something more important than me now?”
“I mean, this is a time for work. One should not miss even a second of this time.”
“When will the work finish?”
“I don’t know.”
“Still give me a time. I will wait for you.”
“Yes, Bithi, wait. I will wait for you. I will keep waiting till you come back.”
Bithi agreed, but by then the bees were buzzing in her head, “Disloyal Nazimuddin be doomed. We want Bangla to be the national language. We want a nation for Bangla.” She felt that she is trying to capture a mirage called marriage. Simultaneously she also aspired to be one of the faces in the protest march. The only way she could attain fulfillment in life was by building a bridge between these two. Without this, a human life was but a broken bridge.
That evening everyone in the Towab family gathered around the table for tea. Mr. Towab seemed to be in a relaxed mood after a long time. While sipping his tea he asked Bithi’s mother, “I hope you are done with your shopping. We don’t have much time left.”
“Don’t you worry about such things. I have taken care of the gold sets by myself. But I want to buy the Benarasee sari with Bithi. She should pick the sari that she is going to wear.”
“You are right. Buy the sari tomorrow. I will be at the office in the evening tomorrow. I will send the car for you. Take Bithi and go.”
“Is that all right Bithi?” Jahanara enquired. Bithi remained quiet, and fiddled with the banana in her hand. Mr. Towab twisted his eyebrows and asked, “Why are you looking all serious, Bithi?”
“I have something to say, father.”
“You have something to say? Like what?”
“Can we postpone the date for marriage?”
Mr. Towab lost his temper, “What did you say?”
Calmly Bithi replied, “That day is National Language Day. A strike has been called on that day.”
Mr. Towab’s voice stiffened. “I know that. But what has that got to do with you? Tell me, what has that got to do with you? That kind of dirty politics has no place in my house.”
Bithi was stunned: “To lay claim to your mother tongue is dirty politics? So you believe in what Mohammad Ali Jinnah had said, that only Urdu will be the national language of Pakistan?”
Now Mr. Towab really became agitated. “Shut up. I hate when you cross the lines,” he screamed as he left the chair.
Stupefied, Jahanara followed her husband. When Juthi came and stood in front of her, Bithi grabbed her and started crying.
The demand for a strike on 21st February—National Language Day—was gaining momentum. Almost every day there was a meeting. The girls and boys wore black badges. The girls were going from door to door collecting donations. The house-wives were also providing money for the revolution. No one had any objection. They were contributing whatever they could because that was what their inner instincts dictated. Amongst all this Bithi had to make another program with Ashfaq.
When Ashfaq looked at Bithi, he didn’t see an ordinary girl. There was something intangible about her that made her different. He couldn't but reveal his fascination, “You are a strange girl, Bithi."
“Yes, and you are feeding dreams in the eyes of this strange girl.”
“Definitely, these are dreams of our nest. Our household, our lives. In our backyard a squirrel is running down the tree. Tell me, what shall I name it?
“A beautiful short Bangla name.”
“My parents will not accept a short name. They will give it a long name.”
“What kind of name?”
“Like, for instance, my name — Asheqe -i- Rasul Ashfaq Mahmood bin Tooufiq Emam.”
Bithi started giggling. Ashfaq also started laughing. “And if the squirrel is a she, then they will name her Mosammat Afroza Jahan binte Umme Qulsum.”
“No—this cannot be. Just the way I am fighting to keep the time on my side, similarly, I will resolve such small issues in my favor.”
Ashfaq said in a hurt tone, “Bithi, is there going to be a feud even before we are wed?”
“No. Of course not. I intend to build the bridge beautifully. I want it to be in favor of our lives.”
“Can you do that?”
“Of course I can do it. But not without you. Promise me that you will not oppose anything that is essential for us living beautifully.”
Ashfaq took Bithi’s hand in his own.
Two days later, Mr. Towab entered his house in a state of agitation. “We have a problem,” he declared.
Bithi quickly figured out what was wrong, but Jahanara was eager and asked, “What happened?”
“What else? As if there were no other dates in the calendar for the university students! On 21st it is the Budget Session of the East Bengal government. And on that very day the students have called for strike. The government has banned all strikes, meetings and processions in Dhaka district for one month starting the 20th night, and would also enforce Section 144.”
Jahanara broke down, “Now what will happen to Bithi’s marriage?”
“What do you mean? The marriage will definitely take place.”
Mr. Towab threw a side glance at Bithi’s hardened face and left for the bathroom.
Two days later Gazi called Bithi in the dead of night. In a clear voice he said, “Bithi, we have decided to disobey Section 144. In groups of ten our procession will leave the University gate at short intervals. There will be a procession of girls too. I know that tomorrow morning is your wedding shower. Still I would say, be there.”
Bithi could not sleep well that night. The moment she hit the bed, she heard her father’s police car leave the house. She pulled out the watch from under the pillow—it was 6:30 in the morning.
The day proceeded. Shower arrangements were going on in full swing. Women were sitting in a circle on the front yard grinding henna and turmeric. A huge Rui fish was being cut to pieces. Bunches of vegetable had been piled up in one corner. A big stove had been installed in the yard. Dry wood was burning in a frenzy. Bithi came to the verandah and took a glance. To her it seemed as if the alphabets were burning. Under the stone slab it was not henna leaves but a “Maw” or an “Awe” that was getting mashed. A “Kaw” was being chopped in a bowl. The alphabets were being shattered into pieces.
Meanwhile, in front of the University gate students had begun to congregate. The girls were all anxiously checking their watches. Perhaps their procession would have to leave without Bithi?
Bithi ran back to her room. She pulled out a sari with a thin border from the almirah. Then she opened her plait and combed her hair. Finally she put the sari on and left with a bag on her shoulder.
Cut - To:
Bithi walking briskly, and, coming from the opposite direction, Ashfaq confronted her:
“Bithi why are you here?”
“This is where I am supposed to be.”
“Today is your wedding shower, and you are getting married in the evening. But I suspected you would do something like this.”
Bithi said with a smile, ”You wait here. I’ll be back.”
The University girls hail, “Here comes Bithi.” Bithi walked up to the girls and stood beside them. They chanted a slogan together. The procession was ready to go.
Cut - To:
The police car stopped at a distance. Mr. Towab got out of the car. The girls’ procession continued shouting more slogans as it approached him. Mr. Towab was flabbergasted to see Bithi at the head of the rally. Bithi also saw her father, but turned her face away and kept marching on.
Cut - To:
The police raised their guns and took up positions.
Cut - To:
The students’ procession was moving ahead. The moment Bithi opened her mouth for the next slogan, she felt as if the Assembly Speaker’s gavel hit her tongue. Her mouth filled up with saliva. And the speaker’s voice with his “Order, order” became enmeshed with her saliva.
From behind the procession leading towards the police with their raised guns the thundering voice of Moulana Torkobagish reverberated: “When the students of the country, who are our hope for the future, are succumbing in front of police bullets, we do not want to sit here and hold meetings. First an enquiry will be held—only then the House will continue.”
Cut - To:
Right after she heard the voice from the invisible source, she felt that someone was crying somewhere.
The spit filling up inside her mouth felt like blood. Instantly she felt dizzy. She quickly grabbed Mili’s hand and said, “My shoe straps have broken.”
Mili replied calmly, “So what? If the sandals are creating problems, walk barefoot. Throw the sandals away.”
Cut - To:
The next moment it seemed as if it was not someone’s voice. Time was speaking to her.
Cut - To:
She looked toward her right. Just last night a big poster had been pasted on the trunk of the mango tree, “We want a state for Bangla language.”
No other scene existed for her anymore. All she visualized was the poster as a work of abstract art against the huge canvas of time. Nothing but blood could color it.
Published in Parabaas, June 20, 2007
The original story "Phirey dekha" by Selina Hossain
is included in the collection Galpo-Samagro.
Hafiza Nilofar Khan. She holds an MA in English from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and is....
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