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Bangladesh
(From "Jeebaner Purono Brittanta" - Collection of short stories)

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The ideal face, which Amma has always described as the shape of a betel leaf - that very face is right here. Her name is Labani. Little things like going to class, to the lab, working in the library, become more pleasant because Labani is there. But how do I confess my feelings to her? How does one say these things? Shit! I don't know how! I'm a worthless coward! How can I get closer to her?

Ah, Nature, I'm so grateful! You find ways to make things happen. Labani herself breaks the ice: "I've taken physics but I'm finding it very tough. I guess I won't make the grade if you don't help me." Oh, she is near me at last, but she has this strange accent! I don't like the sound of her dialect. My ears rebel. Okay, these things can be sorted out in time. But how can I give her time? My days are cramped with study schedules. The third year finals are not far off, but I'll have to manage. I forgo library work three days a week and coach Labani in the late afternoons. The campus buzzes with gossip. Rakib has a crush on Labani. Why doesn't Labani know? The campus knows so many other things about Rakib, but Rakib himself is in the dark! The campus knows that Rakib is selling his first year notes to the first year students at a very good price. Almost all the junior students are queuing up to buy them. But Rakib has his pride. So Faisal is selling the notes on his behalf. A friendly ges¬ture. Though Rakib is a pseudo-intellectual, he has a nose for business. Faisal guffaws when he hears this charade about Rakib and counts the cash that he makes from selling the notes. The intellectual fool! You're trapped, man! Who would believe you if you said that I was behind it? Amma, where am I? Faisal had taken my notes for himself! What do I do now? What? Let me go to Labani. I feel sick and dizzy. Today, I want her to know my feelings. I want to make things clear between us. Let her hear me out today... all the words that were left unsaid, the words she must have read in my eyes, in my voice, in my attitude - now, the time has come for her to give a plain response. I tell her, "Labani, I love you."

How can you say such things? I feel terrible!"

"Don't you understand that I love you?"

"Why? You are like an elder brother to me, why are we talking about love?"

Labani sees me as her elder brother. Oh my God! Fine! Two people don't necessarily have to fall in love at the same time. But why didn't she, anyway? Some¬thing wrong with me? I love you, Labani! Oh my beautiful beloved! Be my redeemer, give me your love. "An affair with that black spook? He stammers, too. Labani isn't so cheap that she'd fall for that bloke! We only milk the old dud to get through our exams - he should be grateful for that! I'd have to be crazy to fall for him." I hear her thoughts in the voices of others.

Amma says, Kalo, you have to walk this long, dark tunnel. Yes, Amma, yes, I have to. Don't lose your balance. Even if he is torn apart, Rakib will have to carry this burden himself. How much further?

Afia tells me to go to the big tree behind her house every afternoon. Her eyes don't go dead when she sees this jailbird. She calls out and smiles. One afternoon, I go to meet her near the tree. She talks, laughs, teases and jokes with me. Not bad at all. She asks me to take her to Hero Rubel's cinema. All right, no problem. She goes with me; we sit close together in the rickshaw. We munch peanuts and snacks. I get the feeling that things are happening here - love and all that. Good. Without a bit of romance, teenage life would be dull. For Eid, I buy her a three-piece geor¬gette dress. On another Eid, I give her five hundred rupees. Romance and stuff doesn't work out without these things. We kiss and embrace... the usual stuff. And then one day we hear that Afia has run away with someone else.

If she had to run away, she should have run away with me! I thought I was the lover! But who does she run away with? With Mohsin, the rich guy. Mohsin disappears for a few days and then surfaces again - very normal, as if nothing's wrong, as if he has no idea where Afia is. Mohsin is back, but where is Afia? No one knows. And it's funny, but her parents file a complaint that I had abducted their minor girl. It's crazy! Another farce of this mother-fucking country. The police bring my house down hunting for me. Now, I know nothing about all this. How come I'm convicted? But I'm a bloody criminal. My name's marked permanently in their register. A hard-boiled criminal. But this time, they won't catch me. I'm not a sucker anymore, now I know the ways of the world. A wicked, corrupt country! A land of traitors! Needs a kick in the face. I'd get away from this nightmare.

I didn't have a passport. I left the country with only the shirt on my back. I traveled across India and near Punjab, I was caught. After six months in jail I reached Iran by way of Pakistan. From Iran to Turkey. From Turkey to Romania and on to Hungary. I ran like a storm wind with my life in my hands. The agents stole the jewellery I'd taken from my mother. I had a thick wad of my brother's Phensidyl banknotes; they took that too. For months, they made us toil in gardens, fields, wherever they could. We would move ahead a mile and then cool our heels for three months. I stayed the course. I worked hard. And I decided that there was no going back.

In Romania, our agent told us that we would have to be packed in a sealed van. There was no other way. It was a container of beef or something. It was locked and sealed on all sides; there was only this lit¬tle hole in a corner which let in a bit of air. I had no choice. I had to go.

How dark it is in the van, pitch dark! Darker than the grave. There is hardly any air inside so we don't hear the sound of the motor. This grave on wheels speeds on and on and on. Who knows how many days and nights go by? The black grave doesn't stop. No food, no toilet. Sleep and wakefulness have become meaningless... everything clusters into a dead darkness. One moment I have sense, the next moment I've lost it. Oh, if I only had a drop of water. The grave doesn't stop anywhere. My chest bursts for a drop of water. I want water. Give me a drop, some¬one. Is there any water? Where can I get a little water? Finally, we work out a way. We piss in our palms. Who says you can't drink urine? Oh yes, you can. You sure can. Tastes like water. Doesn't smell like piss - its water. And then one day they open the door of the grave. Before us, we see vast, open fields.

Faisal was selling my notes year after year in my name. Why did it take me so long to figure out? I was being sold out in the open, and I was totally in the dark. I don't deserve to survive. I don't even deserve to be loved! What am I, then? Why am I alive? Where... where am I? I heard some people were looking for me and for a few days, we narrowly missed meeting each other. They'd come to the lab looking for me just when I'd left. Or they'd be asking my classmates where I was. Who were they? They were from the party. One day, they caught up with me. I am in a hurry, five minutes late for class. As I run up the stairs, they converge on me. And they all shake my hand. "Let's have some tea together," the leader says. "I'm sorry, I have a class."

"But it's important. You know us, don't you? We're party workers and leaders." One of them comes directly to the point: "You'll have to join our party now. If a brilliant student like you joins us, we'll gain some prestige." "Let me tell you the benefits of joining up. You'll have a room all to yourself in the hall, from today. The party will take care of all your needs." "This isn't for just a day or two, either. The party will make arrangements to get you through the Master's." "The party will manage the finances; we only need your face value. A Honda will be parked outside your door twenty-four hours a day; the fuel is on us. If you turn us down and join the other party instead, things could get sticky. We've come to you first." "Either you come with us or stay away from both." So they have offered me a choice. By mistake? Or are they being kind to me? I... I want to complete my education. Right now, I have a class to attend. They take off after giving me a final lecture. And then the other group comes. They assure me of the same benefits and Securities. My face has such value for them! How do I get out of this hole? "Kalo, don't talk back to them," Amma says, trembling with fear. "'Fell them that you don't understand politics, that you want to complete your education and nothing more." I don't need anything else. What else can I ask for? My seniors in the department were all three-year course graduates. The university had just introduced a four-year honors course. We were the first batch; at last we were catching up with the rest of the world. Most of the professors called me to their rooms. Why? God knows. Zulfikar Haider talks straight: "Look here, Rakib, you will take up laser physics in the fourth year. My subject." "I... I shall take modern field theory, sir." "Look, this is a prestige issue. How dare they put up field theory as an alternative to my subject! There's a market for lasers. With field theory, you'd starve." "But, sir..." "You want a high first class, right? I'll see to that. Besides, you need to secure your future. My party will definitely come to power." "Sir..." "Modern field theory is not for us. It's for students in developed countries. A lot of research work has been done in my subject. It's just right for our students. This field theory has no future." "Sir, I shall study theoretical high energy physics. For that, I need to study theory. That's why I took physics in the first place." "How dare you shoot your mouth off in my face? What do you understand of physics? So you've decid¬ed to reject my subject! Go to hell! Let's see how you join the department." I am desperately eager to work in this new field of physics. But how shall I manage here, surrounded by so much anger? Dr Kabir Hussain tells me, "This is a brand new subject and it has been introduced for the first time for your fourth year. I suggest you start reading up on it. And Rakib, you'd better start preparing notes according to the syllabus. And submit them to me soon. I shall draw up my lecture schedules after that." Let him worry about his lectures. I enjoy myself exploring this new area. While preparing notes, I develop a special liking for the subject. When I hand in the notes to Dr Hussain, he says decisively: "I shall keep them." He kept them for good. Oh, I wish I had made photocopies. Rakib weeps in his room alone. Where does he go from here? The class lectures that follow are literal echoes of Rakib's notes. They come in handy for subsequent batches of students as well. How long will it take me to walk this tunnel? Can I hold my head up that long? Shall I ever see the other end? Rakib sees a pale horizon before his eyes as they fill with tears.

I get out of that grave on wheels to see a huge field crossed by wire fences. The agent tells us that we must cross over to the other side. We are standing in Slovenia and beyond the fences is Italy, my final des¬tination. "They are electric fences. No one would dream of cutting the wires. There is no way to climb over them either. The wires from both sides converge in the mouth of a pipe. We couldn't even guess where the end of that huge pipe lay. Maybe it went all the way to the horizon. The agent says, the pipe is three kilometers long. I know miles, what are kilometers? It's pretty wide inside the pipe but he says five thousand volts run through the wires in there. Oh, my God! He says that we'll have to crawl three kilometers through that pipe to reach the other end, which is in Italy. We stagger in fear. We shake from head to foot. How shall we get through this pipe stacked with high-energy wires?

Like the others, I wrap myself in a plastic sheet. The agent swirls it round and shrouds me. The body has to be completely covered, not an inch of flesh must show. You can't lie on your back and crawl. You have to sit up and creep forward. No other movement allowed, and you mustn't let the shroud slip. Five thousand volts, careful! Mother! Look at your Riazul! He sits on his ass and creeps along. Riazul, the plastic mustn't budge an inch! Dear Allah, how many millions of years will I take to get to the other side? Oh Allah! Has the plastic worked loose over my head? No, don't cry, Riazul! Oh my wretched, hopeless country! You threw me out of your land!

Back in my country, I had pretended to be stand¬ing upright, though I had fallen flat on my face. I was crawling, creeping along. I had aspired to study theoretical high energy physics in a place where the only thing that mattered was to secure two square meals a day. Wasn't I crazy? A four-legged animal. As soon as the last bunch of papers arrived from ICTP, Amma put me on the aircraft. Amma, will you cry, Amma? You'll be so lonely! Utterly lonely!

Ah, now my child will live. Now he will hold his head high, he will be a scholar. I've managed to get him across. Finally, he has crossed the dark, dreadful tunnel. I've been able to set him free into the big, wide world out there. He will live, he will survive, I'm sure he will... Oh, Bangladesh! Oh, my country! Is this how I live? No Rakib, no. Swallow those tears. This is alien soil, you mustn't shed tears here. Come on, Rakib!

***Translated from the Bangali story ‘Bangladesh’ by TLM and Joy deep Bhattacharya on behalf of “The Little Magazine”(Vol. 5: Issue 4 & 5, 2004), A – 708, Anand Lok, Mayur Vihar, Delhi-110091, India, e-mail: writenas@littlemag.com