Nurul and his notebook
Original : Muhammed Zafar Iqbal
English translation: Haroonuzzaman
On my return to Dhaka, I became utterly dim-witted. Hardly were there any signs of military presence; shops and bazaars were open, and as usual the businesses continued unabated, with cars and buses creating heavy traffic on roads and people crowding the streets. Like normal days, children were on their way to their schools. Considering the state of affairs, could anyone imagine that a war was under way in the country? On the other hand, the situation was way different outside Dhaka; rather it was more or less the opposite.
I arrived in Dhaka by a train today; it took me around eleven hours to come from Mymensingh, and at Gouripur, it had stopped for about four hours. On top of that, two military personnel had suddenly halted the train at an unknown place and tugged two people down to take them behind a bamboo cluster. The rattling of bullets came floating in after some moments, and a short while after, the uniform people returned smoking. Frankly speaking, I had felt a deep sense of gratitude for them as they did not open fire in front of all the people!
It was not true that I did not get frightened. Usually, I am in need of rushing to the toilet if I am gripped by any such terrified anguish. The prevailing condition of the toilets in the train, however, forced me to change my mind; it was just next to impossible to go in there. I had to suppress it somehow. Beset with the portentous signs of looming predicament, I thought it would have been better had I stayed back home.
But how could I stay at home? Initially, for one or two days, it would give one a feeling that one had been having a picnic, and then one would start suffering from all sorts of problems - no good cigarettes, no tea, even if some of those items could be made available, one would have to drink it with molasses. Furthermore, for pooping, one would find it quite bothersome to carry the water-filled brass bodna (a kind of small pitcher with a slender sprout) all the way to the serially lined-up latrines. With gawping gawk, people, living in the neighborhood, would keep following the person, going to the latrine.
There had been trouble upon trouble; news trickling in confirmed that the military had set up camps near their village. Whatever happened since then had been beyond description - I developed some sort of a close-cropped beard as I had left shaving for some days. Thank God, the good relationship between my father and the Hajji shaheb had paid off, and I was saved. Otherwise, my condition would be like Gopal whose body, with a bullet hole at the back of his head, had been found floating in the blue river. Meanwhile, like Gopal, Shoal fish would rip my body open and eat up. Hajji shaheb was the first person who told my father to send me off to Dhaka.
By then, the university had reopened, and staying in the village was not the ideal thing to do. Hajji shaheb was the Shanti Committee chairman, and under any circumstances, it would be was to listen to his advice. Apparently, there was no end to the suffering - a group of Muktibahini people had launched an attack on the military camp. Thereafter, I was left with no other choice but to stay back at my village home.
To avenge, the Pakistani army had also embarked on a killing mission - with fanatical fury, the marauding hordes had started butchering people and burning down their houses, creating a total mess. In view of the situation, once I thought I should muster enough strength to join the Muktibahini. Harping on the issues of where I would stay and what I would eat and do impacted me, and I was overpowered by a sense of paralytic despair which left me indecisive. And finally, I had to abandon the idea. Also, the potential danger associated with the war kept me in limbo -whether the country would be liberated was not the thing that was bothering me; the quintessential question was whether I would be benefitted at all if I did get killed in the war?
Meanwhile, my father made the necessary arrangements for me to go to Dhaka. It was decided that a Quari (one who faultlessly and accurately recite from the holy Quran) from the neighboring village would accompany me. Quari shaheb came to this country after partition in 1947. Originally a bihari, he had been domiciled in this country, and he became a complete bangali after marrying two bangali women. However, he did not forget his mother tongue, Urdu. In the backdrop of the present scenario, it was of considerable use, though. Readily responding to my father's request, he provided the necessary comfort my father was looking for: "Koi dor nehi, ham le jaaenga." Earlier, he would certainly speak in bangla, but these days, he was speaking Urdu with sufficient ease and spontaneity.
It was quite a journey, indeed! A lot of suffering! Roads were blocked. I had to walk miles to reach the railway station to catch the train. Village after village were burnt to ashes. People were being killed. At their will, trains were made to halt at unscheduled stoppages. Once, we all were made to unload a box of bullets. I thought it was the end of everything! I thought I would not reach Dhaka. But finally, I could make it! Reaching Dhaka, I felt it was not a bad idea to come here.
To stay in comfort, there was no such place like this in the whole country. Despite repeated requests of Mr. Idris to stay over at his place for a few days more, I didn't comply. Having seen me at his place, he was a bit woebegone as if I committed a sin by not joining the Muktibahini, being such an able-bodied young man. Who would they liberate the country for if everyone had joined the war? I shoved it down my throat even though this pertinent query was about to gush out!
On the first day of my return to the university, I came across many of my friends - Rashed, Ataur, Jalal and Tipu besides some girls who were also present the same day at the campus. Although the teachers were present at the campus, they were not sure as to whether they would take classes. As their dilly-dallying continued, we all went to the canteen and had tea followed by a great adda! Nobody, however, was giving a full vent to his or her feelings or opinions. I was extra careful, too. How could I say something when I did not know where I would end up as a consequence; I could be in a big stew!
Even Nurul showed up one day. He is a straight forward kind of a person who lives in Dhaka, His words and manners are similar to the students of the rural areas. I asked him: "Why didn't you join the Muktibahini?" He could easily retort and ask me why I didn't go; instead, he looked around and expressed his genuine interest: "Really, I would like to go; but tell me how? If we don't go during such a situation of the country…"
""Then why and who are you waiting for?"
"How can I go?"
"Cross the border and go."
"How to cross the border? Which way?"
In fact, I did not have the right answer with me. Grinning from ear to ear, I said jokingly: "Go and enquire about it at the Porjoton office." Usually I would laze away my time sitting the whole day at the university, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. Returning to the dormitory at sundown, I would spend time, talking big at addas. With absolute leisure in hand and no compulsion for academic pursuits, I used to procure some light magazines from makeshift bookstalls on promenades and read them voraciously.
Whenever some friends were around, I would exhale deep breath and resentfully grumble over my vacillating stand on joining the Muktibahini: "We can't afford to sit idle like this anymore. We should join the Muktibahini." Immediately, all of them would support my volition, giving their nodding approvals, but barely would someone take any step in that direction. Dithering over where we would go and stay and what we would eat were the basic concerns that made inroads into our inaction and fear!
Amid such an indeterminate state of my mind, Nurul came up to me one day, with a notebook.
'Have a look at this." He told me.
"Jokes about the military people."
"About the military?"
"Yes. I have decided I'll bring out a collection of jokes that are there already. The title will be 'Military Jokes'. Maybe 'Pakistani Jokes'. What do you say?"
I just moved by head, giving him a positive consent.
"Isn't that a good idea?"
"Good. How many have you collected so far?
"Thirty-seven. Have a look!"
I looked at them and found hand-written 37 jokes, exactly. Each of the jokes came with a heading - the first was 'Military and the Tailor.' While reading, I stumbled over many times as they were written in classical Bangla language. I thought the days of writing in such a chaste language had long gone; however, Nurul's write-up did not give me such a feeling. He wrote: "One day a tailor was cutting a piece of cloth. A Panjabi military asked him, tailor, what are you doing? The tailor said, I am cutting a Panjabi. Then the Panjabi military beat him up.
The stupid Panjabi military totally misunderstood the use of the word Panjabi which the tailor referred to as wearable clothing." Most of the jokes were similar. Not only were they written in classical bangla, each joke was provided with examples for clarity and better understandability. Instead of making them into quips and pranks, the jokes turned into a big prose, eventually.
The jokes, centering round the foolhardiness of the characters like Gopal Var, Birbol, Nasiruddin Hojja and the Shikhs, were decomposed and then recomposed, putting the Pakistani military characters in their shoes to expose their inanity. With curiosity, Nurul was looking at my face till I finished reading them. As soon as I was through, he enquired: "How were they?"
"Then why didn't you laugh?"
"Because I know them already."
"That's why, Oh!" His enthusiasm fizzled out, and he carefully tucked the notebook in the trousers under his shirt.
"After the country is liberated, don't you think this sort of book will be a hit?" He asked.
"If you come across any new jokes, please let me know."
"Certainly, I will."
Within a few days, everybody could know that Nurul was collecting jokes on Pakistani military. Since we were idling away our time, we devoted ourselves to this work. With a lot of interest and seriousness, I embarked on Nurul's project. Meanwhile, Tipu came up with a good joke one day. The joke read like the following: "One day a military man went to a chicken market. He asked the murgiwallah (the chicken seller), 'what do you feed your chickens?'
In reply, he said, 'Chaul.'
Listening to it, the uniform man got insanely infuriated, struck him with the butt of a rifle and said, 'Shala gaddar (you traitor), you know our East Pakistani brothers eat Chaul (rice) - how come you are giving their food to your chickens?' After some days, another group of army men came to the same spot and asked the same question to the same murgiwallah, 'what do you feed your chickens?' The fleeting images of the cruelty meted out to him earlier made him change his strategy, and totally ignoring the word chaul this time, he said, 'I feed them wheat.'
What a fuming fury again! The military man hit the murgiwallah a couple of times, with the rifle butt once again and said: "Shala behenchot, hamalog ka khabar tum murgi ko deta haii (darn it! You sister fucker, you are giving our food to the chickens)? My food you are giving to the chickens! How dare you do like this!"
Some more days passed by, again some military men came to the chicken market. They asked the murgiwallah the same question: "What do you feed your chickens?"
Rendered perilously vulnerable by the bristling rebukes and punishments on the earlier two occasions, the petulantly apprehensive murgiwallah became extra careful this time. Naively, he replied: "I don't know sir. In the morning, I give each of them a quarter of a rupee, and they eat whenever and whatever they feel like eating."
Thoroughly satisfied by the answer, one of the army men patted the back of the murgiwallah, saying: "Bohut acchha! Tum saccha Pakistani (Really good! You are a true Pakistani)." (To be continue, 2nd part of the story will appear in the next issue)
The writer is a translator, poet , novelist, researcher, essayist and teaching English at the Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB).