little too late
15th of December,
2004. The place: one of the many identical footpaths all over the
capital of Bangladesh. It could be outside the station, outside some
park, or some big mosque. It could be any place where one did not
need links to get into. It could be any one of those many places where
the homeless spend their nights, in cold enough to freeze people to
death, or in rain that soaked them like plastic bags floating around
in the busy streets of the city.
old, frail woman lay in one corner of this footpath, trying to cover
herself as much as possible in a torn and tattered shawl not remotely
sufficient to keep off the cold. She was looking up at the sky. It
seemed to her that rain was imminent this night, or the next morning.
She recalled of the times when they always welcomed heavy rain. Heavy
rain meant puddles of water and mud and wet swamps all over the countryside
things that terribly slowed down the killer Pakistani Army. Even violent
tides were welcome. While the brave sons of this land somehow managed
to toil in their dinghy boats, the Pakistanis had a lot of trouble
coping with the wild rivers. She recalled how one of her brother's
friends had once boasted, "we will never drown no matter how
wild the river. We are fighting for the motherland, and the mother
shall never fail to take care of the son."
What had changed
in the years from then on? Why was not the mother extending her caring
arms to her helpless children anymore? Rain today was a nightmare.
It meant a major part of the city drowned in flood waters. It meant
a halt in the daily lives of people, for many of whom a day without
work was synonymous to a day without food. God knows what the condition
was like in the countryside, in the dear village where she had spent
the longer part of her life until she had to leave in search of a
better, or at least less painful, life.
Thirty three years
ago, and yet she remembered each and every detail as if it were yesterday.
Her father had been a farmer in their village, with no interest whatsoever
in the political conditions of the country. He held the view that
no matter who the ruler was, not much changed in the life of the country
peasant, and thus it was just better to keep their head down and go
on with their daily lives. However, when the stream of people from
the big cities began taking refuge in their small village, horrible
stories began to spread around about what the Pakistanis were doing
all over the country. They had met many people who had drifted away
from their family, unaware whether they were even alive. They had
met several more who had witnessed the murder of their nearest and
dearest in front of their very eyes, somehow escaping the same fate
One day, rumours
spread of the military approaching their village. Within days, the
non-Muslims had evacuated their home of decades, leaving behind jobs,
businesses, property and above all memories all for the basic need
of survival. Her father had changed his opinion of the politics in
the country by that time. He wanted his only son, her younger brother
Khaleq to go into the war. He did not hesitate for once to send off
his only son to join the freedom fighters. The condition of the country
did not permit the old farmer to look after his own ends. The man
had nothing else in life, but he had enough honor to know what was
needed of him. He blessed Khaleq, praying that he return as a valiant
winner on a free land. His prayers had apparently not been heard.
Her brother had never returned. His body had never been found. A teenager
brave enough to join a war would never have the good fortune of having
someone stand by his grave. No one would ever visit his grave on special
occasions. No floral wreaths for him, either. His dead body had simply
provided a day's meal to who knows what animal.
Before the auspicious
day of victory came, they all had to deal with terrible losses. One
dull afternoon, two young men boys really came to their abode with
the news of her brother's demise. Khaleq had been badly injured during
an attack on the military camp in the next village. But he had not
asked for help, nor shown any signs of weakness. Hurt and dying, he
had kept shooting back at the enemy, delaying their advance so that
his fellow soldiers could retreat to safety. They were not sure what
had happened to him eventually. He could have been captured alive,
or may have perished while fighting back.
The death of her
brother had brought forth other misfortunes. One of Khaleq's classmates
in school had opted to join the peace committee. He had never been
fond of Khaleq and his friends, and his demise finally gave the coward
enough courage to direct the army to their home. It was a dark night
when the army marched towards their quaint little home. Minutes later,
their house had been burnt down to ashes. Her parents were shot as
she looked on in horror from behind a nearby bush. Since then it had
been months of running from one village to another, hiding herself
and yet helping the freedom fighters every now and then in any way
she could. On the glorious morning of 16th December, she had been
down with terrible fever, but had never known such euphoria as she
had felt when given the news of victory.
Thinking of those
days tired her. It made her heart ache. Something must have gone terribly
wrong. This was not the country her little brother had died for. This
was not the dream her poor father had always had. This was not the
reason why she spent months in fear and agony. In those months of
running and hiding, she had always seen compassion in people's attitudes.
People had always given her shelter and food, treating her like a
kin despite knowing the dangers of being caught harboring a stranger.
Today, on a free land, she often went without food for days on end.
How was this freedom better than those nine months of hellfire and
But tomorrow morning
would hopefully be different. That very evening, a group of people
had approached her. They said they were from some national daily,
and were eager to tell her story to the people. Not just that, for
the first time since the liberation, someone seemed eager to help
her in some way. One member of the group, a lanky young teenager,
almost had tears in his eyes as he said, "your brother died to
give us a land of our own. Your parents died so that our generation
could live with honor. The least we can do to repay such heavy debts
is to ensure that you get to live with some dignity. We heard about
you from a young lad who sleeps here at times, and we have been looking
for you ever since. We will come back tomorrow morning, and take you
some place more comfortable. Just spend one more night here, and we
promise we will be here as early tomorrow morning as possible, as
soon as we have made all the arrangements that need to be made."
And thus they
had left. Would they really come back? She thought so. There was something
in that lad's eyes that reassured her of the basic good of human nature.
They would come back. They would give her food, clothes and a place
to call home. For the first time in thirty-three years, a place to
call home. Engaged in these pleasant thoughts, she went off to sleep,
a smile of the corner of her lips.
The next morning,
the teenage kid with dreamy eyes did come back to find the old lady.
He found her right where they had left her last evening. The cold
was excruciating. He kneeled down beside her, gratified that he was
finally about to have the opportunity to do something for this lady.
the kid was back up on his feet. His eyes looked glassy, his mouth
wide-open. It looked as if he was about to cry, but did not know how
to go about it. This lady, who had lost all she had known and loved
in the war, was about to know comfort and security after so long…
and yet fate had taken her away on the very day her life was about
to change. A symbol of the sacrifice some people made for our freedom,
lying dead here in the footpath. The date? 16th December 2004.