Memoirs Of The Past
Dhaka, East Bengal
1st January, 1951
With each contraction, there came a pain. A pain that dominated her entire being.
Renukabala Das had become a prisoner to her own mind and body. As she lay in that cell of fear and confusion, the time passed with her screaming and waiting for the agony to wane. But she knew, in the times to come, she would look back on these moments with the love she bore for her child and not with the torment she endured.
There was a moment when the pain faded as her surroundings ebbed to nothingness. The silence caressed her skin, comforting her soul and taking away her jagged edges. The faint voice of the midwife was telling her that it was time. So, she pulled herself from the deepest recess of her own mind and did what she was told.
As minutes passed, she pushed and pushed. Those minutes stretched into infinity and there was nothing else other than her own screams echoing in her head. With her desperate arms flailing to clutch onto something, she sensed a cold hand pressed against her forehead and heard a whisper.
“Boudidi, think of your child. You cannot give up.”
Summoning all the strength that was left in her, she gave everything she could until she felt the hot stretching of flesh and held her breath. Her baby was crowning and, without further labour, her baby slid in the hands of the midwife.
It was a girl, her girl.
As she looked into those nascent eyes, in that instance, she knew she would do anything to protect her child and her love was powerful than anything in the universe.
After all, she was a mother and would always be.
* * *
Dhaka, East Bengal
1st January, 1951
Manindra Chandra Das was pacing up and down outside the delivery room, halting each time he heard the traumatic screams of his wife.
He was a respectable man. But with respect, there came fear and confusion in the minds of those around him. Everyone who hurried past him lowered their voices as they approached him, raising them again only when they were out of his hearing. It did not bother him because they always treated him that way.
After what seemed like an eternity, a soft sound of new-born cries reached his ears. His face lightened up, full of hope. He rushed to the door and pushed it open. As a waft of warm air streamed past, he was approached by the midwife.
“Dada babu, it is a girl. Hold her.”
As he held his girl in his arms, tears of joy and relief raced down his cheeks. That was the first time he had ever shed tears. His teary eyes immediately turned to his wife and, with a voice that was almost broken, he told her they had a beautiful daughter. Through her exhaustion, she smiled and all the pain melted away.
The midwife, who was eagerly observing the exchange, chipped in.
“Dada babu, what are we going to call her?”
Without hesitation, he answered.
“Malina.” He smiled, looking at his wife. “Malina Das.”
Shooting Range, 1965
The bullets came thick like winter hail, the noise reverberating in the ears and ringing out far over the hills.
They hit the target with extreme precision, tearing effortlessly through the soft rubber skin of the dummy. Her aim had always been true, making her a favourite amongst her trainers and a source of inspiration to her companions.
At the age of twelve, Malina Das had decided to join the National Cadet Corps, NCC. By the age of fourteen, she had been fortunate enough to be one of the few singled out for rifle training. With rising tension across the border, it was time for the students to fight in the war if need be. This came at the expense of countless sleepless nights and constant anxiety of her mother. However, her father seemed to be immune to everything that beset her mother. In fact, it was him who encouraged her to begin with.
She was a daughter of a freedom fighter. It was in her blood, a zeal and vigour to serve her nation. In order to do so, there was no better scheme for a student than to be an active member of the NCC.
As years passed, she observed every time her father held meetings at the back room of their house. She waited those nights until she heard the shuffling footsteps outside her room, searching for any opportunity to follow them in silence. However, the flickering of light from the lantern she held onto gave her away each time and her father always called out to her.
Sitting by his side, she listened to their conversations. Their conversations were so much more than just words. There was a sense of wisdom, power and courage in them that she had never witnessed before. She held each of them in high regard. But for the longest time, she took notice of only one man in particular. Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Her father had told her stories about him. There was a glint of pride and respect in his eyes every time he talked of him. As a result, from whatever little of his presence he showed, she took all she could. One of those nights, she heard him say a few words she did not understand at the time.
“I believe the gun is no solution to problems.”
However, years later, she did understand.
M.M.M.C Girls’ H.S. School, 1966
Malina Das massaged her throbbing temples as she glanced at the other side of the exam paper.
It had been a few days, but her temperature barely fell. Her eyelids were weighing down as the words on the paper seemed to blur. Blinking rapidly, she groaned and eyed her wristwatch. She had just another hour to finish the exam. She pressed her forehead against the answer script, wishing to imprint the answers whirling in her memory. However, it did not help and she leaned back in her chair.
Taking a glimpse of her friend, Manju, sitting next to her, she envied the speed and ease with which she wrote. As her eyes bleared even more and her thoughts became groggy, she deduced no better alternative than to take a break. She pushed her chair back and strode out of the hall, but not before taking permission.
The moment she bolted the restroom door, there was a piercing scream somewhere behind the school. It was followed by the sound of smacking and thwacking. She could feel her heart pounding as the beating got louder and louder and her breathing got deeper and deeper. Regardless of the terror building up, she knew she had to investigate the source of it. So, she climbed up to the small window in the rear and then she saw it all.
A man, surrounded by four other men wearing kufis, was whimpering on the dirt as they kept striking him with their feet. She stared in horror as one of those men pulled out a flick knife and slashed the man’s throat. A gasp escaped from her lips and the rioters looked her straight in the eye. Drenched in blood, there was something sinister in their eyes that brought a militia of chills down her spine. She struggled to breathe but she had to getaway because she knew what was coming.
As she burst through the doors of the hall, the examiner gave her a disapproving look. However, it was soon replaced by a reflection of fear once she told what she had seen. This in turn originated a murmur of voices amongst the students. But it turned into screams in no time as the rioters entered the school premises, chanting anti-Hindu slogans.
Wasting no more time, she rushed to the doors and, asking more students to lend their hands, they shut the doors by supporting them with benches. It was not enough to keep a mob of men away for a long time and they had to find an escape route. Calming herself down, she commanded the rest of the room to listen to her.
“These men are full of rage and they will stop at nothing. That does not mean we have to be afraid of them because that is what they want. They want to see the fear in our eyes. But we will not let that happen because we will not give up. We are stronger than they think we are and we are going to save ourselves today.”
That day, they did save themselves. All of them. With their teacher too scared to move, she led them through the windows and helped each of them run away through the forest beyond.
Soon after, when the curfew had been lifted, the school reopened and there was a new form of admiration towards her amongst her peers. She did not understand it at the time. But she did understand it when, during an early morning assembly, the school recognized her for her bravery in front of the entire student population and the faculty. She could not wait to tell her father about it.
That day, after many weeks, she went home smiling as her heart swelled with pride.
Bazar Area, 1966
Malina Das tried to keep up with her mother as she followed her in the sea of people.
Despite the bazar being too crowded, she always enjoyed to accompany her mother whenever she needed new sewing supplies. The crowd seemed to have a life of its own, with unseeing hands dragging them in the same direction. The place was buzzing with the chatter between sellers and buyers, old friends catching up and new friends being made.
Several weeks had passed since the riot and the attack on the school. But still there was a feeling of unrest in the air. Particularly for her, she would make sure to move away whenever a momedian man passed by. She could not erase that day from her mind, the blood and the look of vengeance in their eyes. Shaking away those thoughts, she focused on the street ahead and her eyes searched for her mother. But her mother was nowhere to be seen. She felt the panic rise within her as she called out for her.
Suddenly, there came a bloodcurdling scream from somewhere in the crowd beyond. It was followed by more such screams until it appeared to be coming closer to her. As she frantically searched for her mother in the middle of the chaos, she bumped into someone and jolted back.
Salim was the butcher’s son, around her age. Under usual circumstances, she would have asked for his help in search of her mother. However, after looking at his face, she was not too sure about that. With the colour drained from his face and his tearful eyes, he shook in fear as he clutched her hands. Upon enquiring, he only repeated one thing.
“They killed him…they killed him.”
Before she had time to find her voice again, they were pushed towards the other direction as the crowd rampaged. It took them a while until they could divert themselves into an empty alley. He was still shocked but, after catching their breathes, he finally opened up about what he had said earlier.
“They killed Abba Jaan and I could not do anything. Now, they are going to kill me too.”
She did not know how to console him. But she did know how to save him. Looking around, the area seemed familiar and she realized they were in Manju’s neighbourhood. Turning towards him, she assured him that he will be safe there. Walking up to her friend’s house, she knocked on the door. Receiving no answer, she knocked again and again. Still, no one answered the door. Hopelessly, she began calling out for her friend. As a result, a man from the opposite house approached them. After hearing them out, he extended his help.
She was relieved. After all, she believed the man to be nothing like those men wearing kufis. She watched Salim follow the man and disappear behind the doors.
Hours passed as she waited on her friend’s doorsteps until she heard a shriek. It was Manju, followed by Manju’s mother and her own mother. Jumping to her feet, she engulfed her mother in a hug. At that moment, the same man, who had helped Salim, opened the doors as he tried to rub a huge stain off his shirt. It was blood.
Days passed and the word spread. Salim’s body was never found. There were rumours, too many to be enumerated. Eventually, everyone forgot about him but she could never. How could she? It was her fault. Or maybe it was just inevitable. But she did realize one thing.
Hindu and Muslim were just faces. No religion is greater than humanity and, either Hindu or Muslim, these cruel and cold-blooded people did not have an ounce of humanity in them.
Bazar Area, 1971
The heat of the day had been replaced by a cool breeze. Malina Das and one of her younger sisters, Minati Das, moved between thepools of streetlight, feet almost silent of the street still wet from the spring rain.
Market stalls lined the route and her sister paused for a moment at one of them. She paused too, taking in the flamboyant scene before her eyes. After a long day in college, she relished the scent of the powdered spices lingering in the air as her eyelids fluttered close. But a deafening bang in a distance startled her. Through experiences in her life, she knew what kind of a sound it was. Turning towards her sister, she grabbed her hand as a man came running to the stall and yelled at everyone.
“Pathan soldiers are attacking!”
Along with everyone else, they too run away. But home was far and the soldiers were far too many to outrun. So, they had to search a hideout for the night.
Wandering in the dark, they felt lost in those silent streets when they heard heavy footsteps drawing closer. Hurriedly, they hid by the shadow of a building nearby. With their hearts racing, they heard those footsteps pass by and gave sighs of relief. At that moment, a door behind them opened. Alarmingly, they squinted their eyes to make out who stood at the door.
Two elderly men towered above them, asking them to show themselves in the light. When they did, one of them gasped.
“They are the counsellor’s daughters!”
Malina detailed them about what had happened, asking if they could help them. After a considered thought, the other man offered to let them stay the night and help them reach their home in the morning.
“But what place is this?” Minati asked, with uncertainty.
After hearing that it was a mosque, the colour drained from her face as she turned towards her elder sister. But Malina was thankful and entered through the doors.
Later that night, Minati asked her elder sister what made her stay the night in a mosque. Malina thought for a while and then answered.
“Minati, is there really any difference between a mosque and a temple? I cannot see one. Both are places of worship and nothing is more safer for us. Just because society tells us to separate each other based on religion, it does not mean we have to do so. There is one thing that binds us all and that is humanity.”
She processed every word of Malina, realizing that each of them was true. Looking at her elder sister again, she felt a new-born respect for her. Although, she knew they could not change everyone, at least they could change themselves for a start.
After all, the longest journeys start with a single step.