Indira Road

by Shah Tazrian Ashrafi

You leave for Dhaka from Kushtia because Hasib, your roommate at the Madrasa whose family lives on Indira Road like yours used to, tells you that the apartment building of your childhood will be torn down soon and a hospital will spring up in its stead. You owe the place a last visit. Not for your Baba, not for your Dadi, but for your Ammu. You don’t know if any of them are alive. It’s Ammu’s memory that wrests your legs towards the past. It has been five years since you last saw the building. Then, Bangladesh was still East Pakistan.

The rusty and croaking bus enters the city just before dusk. At the crowded bus stand, the Maghrib azan shrouds your body like fog. Before taking a rickshaw, you buy a roasted corn from one of the many vendors. Buses unload passengers and they lurch towards those men in waves. Roasted corn was Ammu’s favourite. She bought four daily from the man who, every afternoon, rattled the neighbourhood in a singsong voice accompanied by mild drum beats. She kept three for herself and one for you because you couldn’t handle that many roasted corns. As the rickshaw hurtles inside the city, you observe how so much has changed. Olive tanks don’t stand guard on the roads. There are no remnants of Urdu-speaking soldiers in Khaki uniforms and frequent checkpoints fortified with guns, jeeps, and sandbags. No piles of corpses. No vultures hovering above them. There are buildings under construction. Your neck hurts as you count how many storeys each has. Sleepy employees ride home on tin-like buses that thrum with limbs. People dangle from the doorways. Some men are in relative comfort as they swoosh down the roads on their Vespas and Lambrettas.

The park on Khamar Bari Road has walls around the boundaries now. The darkness prohibits you from making out the trees. Their sibilant whispers in the breeze hurl you back to the night you left home. You heard the same whispers then. The rickshaw turns left, staggers in a puddle, and enters Indira Road. Your breath grows thin when the grove of coconut trees welcomes you. Your neighbourhood is the same as before. The lighting still sparse. A few dots of orange spilling from lamp posts here and there. It remains pregnant with inactivity. Some houses are unpopulated, their windows broken. Some bear bullet holes. Some have had their upper floors reconstructed for people to move back after the Indian air raids. 

You pay the fare, dismount the rickshaw, and sense flints of cold in your legs. “All residents: Evacuate by 16th June,” the poster hanging above the collapsible gate reads. It seems everyone has evacuated already because the lights are out except the land-lady’s on the ground floor. You press the buzzer to her apartment. Ms. Nawaz looks smaller than before. Her hair has turned white. Her steps are light and slow. She adjusts her glasses and squints. “Oh my goodness! Is this you, Kashem? Oh, look, how old you have grown!” She covers her mouth with her hands, the keys dangling from one. “Here, my son. Hold the torch,” she says. She fumbles with the lock for nearly two minutes. She hugs you and rubs your back. Her tears dot your white thobe. “You are completely unrecognizable!” She touches the sharp edge of your incipient beard.

You nod and smile. You barely have the patience to entertain her at the moment.  “I will meet you very soon. But for now, I want to go check on our apartment. Could I have the keys please?” You don’t ask about where Dadi and Baba went after your departure.

“Oh, sure, my son. Here. I am sorry for keeping you blocked. Do have dinner at my place, okay?”

“Sure, aunty.”

Ms. Nawaz holds her torch over your bag as you struggle to find yours from the jumble of clothes inside. She wipes tears off her face and smiles. You hear her door shut when you make it to the first landing upstairs. Your house is on the left side of the third floor. Each floor has two apartments. The stillness and the emptiness don’t make you think of hideous djinns. You feel that it’s just another night from the past when the building would be populated, but frequent load shedding made it seem empty like a graveyard.

You open the door, and a stench suffused with the smell of urine, leaves, and gas strikes your face. The house is devoid of furniture. A cat howls upon seeing you and jumps out the living room window. The creeper plant Ammu had placed around the grilles is gone. She bought it from a nursery beside your school the day before strikes raged across East Pakistan and schools and offices had to be shut down indefinitely. 

“Doesn’t it look just perfect?” she said. You had no interest in plants. You smiled for courtesy while your stomach grumbled loud enough for her to hear. “Come, come. I’ll give you lunch. I’ve cooked mutton today.” 

You didn’t sleep after lunch. The Bangla ma’am had said that there would be a class test whenever school reopened. You had a habit of being restless until finishing a syllabus once, no matter how desultorily. 

“Ammu, please hurry up!” You craned your neck towards the kitchen as you panicked before the book. 

“Coming coming!” 

She wiped the sweat off her forehead and pulled out a chair beside you. 

“Shameless boy! You are 15 and still you need me to teach you Bangla? Your friends will laugh when they hear this!” She softly pinched your cheek. 

“Let them! I don’t care. I think you should teach them also. Our teacher isn’t very good.” 

For as long as you could remember, it was Ammu who taught you Bangla at home. You did well in other subjects by attending the classes. But Bangla was a tough language for you. Perhaps because you read The Jungle Book, Peter Pan, Treasure Island, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz more than you brushed up your Bangla grammar.  You could not remember the rules and tricks of memorizing the grammatical methods if Ammu did not devise ways for you to retain all the information. Nearly an hour went by. Dadi came into your room. 

“Aye, Ridhi,” she said. 

“Yes, Ma.” Ammu got up from her chair. 

You fumed at Dadi’s interruption.

“Did you bring the brinjals and cabbages?” Ammu stood silent. Your concentration floated out of the book and fell into the air between them. 

“No, Ma. I…forgot.” Her voice was faint. 

At night, after Baba returned, he locked her inside the bedroom and beat her. 

Dadi, settled like a fat crow on the couch, said to you, “Your Ammu is so foolish. Why can’t she be careful? Why does she always make me mad?” It was not an isolated incident. Yet, whenever he beat her up, you trembled with fury. On those days and nights, your prayer mat turned wet with tears of grief and anger.

The wall boasts islands of moulds. Some patches of concrete remain exposed. Leaves and twigs crack under your shoes. You wonder where all the furniture has gone. Where Dadi and Baba are. Are they even alive? As for Ammu, you have stopped wondering whether she’s alive or dead. To you, she is dead. She is in a better world, you like to think. You pray for her after every salah so she enjoys all the happiness this world couldn’t give her. You walk into your room. Crow feathers lie where your desk used to stand. The atlas on the wall beside the verandah door is obscured by fur-like dust. Baba bought it when you got promoted to the ninth grade and stood second in the class. He showered you with kisses. He brought home five boxes of roshgollas and laddoos. For a week or so, Ammu did not have to endure his violence despite her mistakes that usually triggered him and Dadi—salty dal, chewy chicken, overcooked rice, undercooked rice, oversized rutis, undersized rutis, rotten fruits and vegetables, and the list never really ended.

You enter the verandah. Shaliks chirp from the ceiling above. You can’t recall a time they did not build nests up there. Every morning, especially in winter, Ammu would place a steel bowl full of wet rice and another bowl of seeds and vegetable leaves on the floor. If you were elsewhere in the house, she would drag you into the room and together, you would peep from behind your desk as they ate. You proceed towards Baba and Ammu’s room. A puddle and streaks of excrement where their bed once stood. A brown-and-white cat stares at you from the open window. You believe the room must be its lavatory now. Ammu always prayed beside the bed. You never saw Baba and Dadi pray. They never mentioned God even. When Baba had to stay outside Dhaka for the field-trips his bank organized, you slept with Ammu in this room. She would ask you about everything you did at school, everything that happened at the playground just outside the neighbourhood in the afternoon. You would want to ask her questions as well. Loaded ones. Why did Baba and Dadi misbehave with her? But you never completed building up the courage. Often, you would find her prostrated on the prayer mat as you woke up in the middle of the night to use the washroom. You saw her sob softly into her raised hands when it took you time to fall asleep following the washroom trip. How naïve of her, you thought, to think you were asleep. Now the strongest reminder of her lies in the midnight prayers. You perform them regularly. This life becomes liveable when you raise your hands and pray for her wellbeing. You have a special reputation for this act at the Madrasa. The Imam serves you as an example to other students. “Some of you cannot even wake up for Fajr. Look at Kashem. How wonderful he is! This young man performs the Tahajjud every night. Subhanallah,” he says.

More than half of Dadi’s bedroom door has been eaten by termites. They emerged in March 1971, around the same time when your school was shut down. One afternoon, you slipped home to pick up your cricket bat because Saif’s had broken after flying off his hands and landing on a pile of bricks. You saw Dadi shouting at Ammu. “I only got my son married to a dark girl like you so that your father could bring us all the nice things he promised. Look at my door! How long have I told you to ask him for a new one?” Dadi made a slapping motion. Ammu flinched. You wanted to smash Dadi’s skull with your bat. 

“I’ve told you, Ma. I’ve asked him. His bakery is not doing well these days,” she said. 

“His bakery hasn’t been doing well for the past few years, don’t you think?” Dadi swirled towards her room. 

That night, Baba beat Ammu with a cooking spud. As her screams climbed into your ears, you jammed your teeth together and thought how it was God’s plan to reveal the truth behind Ammu’s bad marriage without your having to ask anyone about it. Ever since, you began toying with the idea that you must hurt Baba first and then Dadi for ruining Ammu’s life.

After Operation Searchlight swept through Dhaka and most of your friends in the neighbourhood began leaving the city for their villages, you noticed in Ammu a boldness you had never seen before. 

“Let’s move, please. Mehnaz Bhabi and her family have left for Jessore. We should go there as well. That place is the safest,” she said, pressing Baba’s arms. 

“We are not leaving this apartment. Nothing will happen. The military will raid the villages more to flush out the Mukti Bahini. It’s common sense!” he replied. 

Gunfire sounds became common, particularly at night. Ammu shook whenever they slid into the apartment. At the end of April, there was a military raid inside the building opposite yours. Around five or six Mukti Bahini soldiers and scores of their accomplices were forced into jeeps, blindfolded. The four of you watched from the verandah in the living room. 

“See? This is how unsafe the city is. Please let’s leave,” Ammu said once the jeeps’ rear lights faded out of view. 

“Hey. Stop acting foolish,” Dadi said.

You woke up in the morning to Ammu’s screams. This time Baba was beating her with a rolling pin. 

Dadi touched your shoulder. “Come, have breakfast. It will turn cold,” she said, moving towards the dining table. Your gaze was plastered to the closed bedroom door. 

“Come quick, child. Don’t bother about her. Your mother was saying she would leave the city with you. What else could my son do? Hasn’t she turned too daring to even think of going against his decision?”

You don’t enter Dadi’s room. You peer into the kitchen on the right. The cabinets are half-open, empty. You proceed down the corridor towards the living room and slip. You don’t know what it is. Cat urine or another type of puddle. You grab leaves from the floor and wipe your back. Your rub your wet, sticky hands against the walls. Your eyes grow hot because another memory engulfs you. Memory of the day when everything changed.

You poured a healthy amount of coconut oil on the floor upon noticing that Baba was showering and he would soon come out of his room. Ammu was in the living room, massaging Dadi’s feet with warm oil. You didn’t have to worry about her safety. As Baba came out and fell on his buttocks, shattering the apartment with his wolf-like howling, you felt the universe align to the perfect order. Just a little more perfection was needed, you believed. And that would be achieved after Dadi was hurt. She rushed towards Baba. She held his back. “Oh, no, my son! Nothing will happen, my son! Don’t worry.” 

Her face was red. She blinked her crystal-like tears away. When Ammu tried lifting him up by placing his arms around her neck, Dadi swatted her hands. “Moron! Go to the pharmacy right now and bring an ointment!” 

Ammu took her purse, slipped inside her burkha, and ran. You did not offer to go because you did not want to play any role towards his healing.

Dadi sat on the floor with a wincing and moaning Baba. You were in the living room, your head buried in the newspaper. “Hey. Come. Help me get him to the room,” Dadi said. 

“I can’t. Sorry, Baba. My arms have been sore since last night,” you replied. 

“What an excuse!” Dadi fumed. 

Gunfire rang out. Screams floated from the street below. A weight formed around your waist. You sprinted towards the verandah. A West Pakistani soldier was pulling a young girl by her hair. He kicked her midriff. Then he lifted her and threw her inside the truck. Another group of soldiers tied a few men to the poles and bayoneted their faces. Another group brought out a woman from the pharmacy. She was wearing a burkha. She was struck on the back with a bayonet. She was thrown inside the truck. She was Ammu.

In three days, you left home unannounced by joining some of your remaining neighbourhood friends who had decided to join the Mukti Bahini. You did not sign up for the fighting. Because you had friendly ties with the elders who were in their late teens on account of regularly playing cricket and football with them, they allowed to accommodate you as a non-combatant. Your goal was to search for Ammu even though you knew well that would be impossible. Even if she were alive, there were too many concentration camps bloated with captive women throughout the country to search.

You looked forward to the probable chances of getting killed in the days ahead. Many times, you fingered the cold barrel of a machine gun as the others snored into the night and thought of meeting a swift end. When they hid behind bushes as the military showered bullets from their camps, you imagined leaping out. If it weren’t for Amir, you would surrender before the army and let yourself be flayed to death for what you had done to Ammu. 

“Look. I can’t stop you from killing yourself no matter how hard I try. If you do it, it’s their win. Always remember that,” he had said when he spotted you standing by the river with a pistol on your temple. His words replayed in your head whenever you wanted to end things. A few days earlier, he had seen you scream and run north towards the army camp and nabbed you. He slapped you thrice to make you stop screaming. A confused deer chewed neem leaves behind the tussock of long grass. On the way to the Mukti Bahini camp, your chest lightened as you told him about the thoughts that stalked you.  

After the war ended, you returned to Dhaka from Mymensingh with two other lucky fellows from the group who survived and inquired about Ammu at every police station and hospital. You visited the apartment in your neighbourhood several times. You always found the building empty. The other buildings around were starting to see their previous owners return, armed with sacks, trunks, and beaming faces. 

Foreigners took your photos as you cried while describing to police officers and relief workers how your Ammu looked. They also wrote whatever you said on their pads as they asked you about what you saw of the abduction and your following experiences in the war. You spent nearly two weeks inquiring. Then you walked towards the lake outside Farmgate flanked by paddy and corn fields. Asr azan had just finished. Its echoes bobbed in the wind. You jumped into the water.

You woke up at a makeshift hospital on a playground. You were wearing a white smock that ran up to the knees. It was made using sand-coloured tents. The smell of disinfectant and alcohol paddings pinched your nose. Stand fans whirred and stirred mosquitoes and flies away from the patients. Some of the staff members looked European. Or American. 

“Do you speak English?” a woman, her hair pulled up in a loose bun, asked after a while.

“Yes.”

“Name, please?” Her face displayed concern. It made you feel as though she were Ammu.

“Kashem.”

“Please fill this out. I will see you soon. Press this buzzer if you need anything.” She crinkled her lips, lightly rapped on your shin, and moved to the patient beside you who was covered in bandages with red and brown splotches, head to toe, except the face.

Within a month, you were placed at a Madrasa in Kushtia for orphans. You no longer wanted to kill yourself. You accepted the fact that your heart was now a throbbing lump of regret. It was your destiny, a lifetime of punishment, for harming Ammu.  

In the afternoons, you played football with the other kids. Upon hearing their stories, you realised they had suffered much worse. Some had seen their parents and siblings burn in front of them. Some had lived in the concentration camps, forced to clean the captured women’s chambers every once in a while. But you still found your suffering to be the heaviest in human history. You were able to ease into the spiritual setting because of an Imam named Latif. A sturdy, long-haired man, he taught maths and led the Maghrib and Isha prayers. You rapped on his door when you wanted to talk about Ammu. He hugged you. At times, his eyes spilled as you spoke at length about the scene of her abduction. He recited verses about God testing those He loves the most with the hardest trials, verses about endless happiness in paradise. You sat on the bank behind the green dormitory building and threw your eyes on the pink and white water lilies.  Butterflies and dragonflies with translucent wings settled on them, took flight. Small leaves waltzed towards the lake from the drooping tree above. A batch of three white swans swam farther from the bank, leaving a trail of ripples in which the sun wobbled. Egrets dipped their beaks into the lake and thronged the mahogany trees. These offered you a small glimpse of what Paradise might look like. Soon, you decided that Ammu was dead. And happy.

You stumble out of the apartment. You fiddle with the torch switch. Your vision is a blur as though you are under water. You press the buzzer on Ms. Nawaz’s door. 

“Oh, my son!” she says and pulls you into a hug. “Everything will be alright, my son. Everything will be alright.” She strokes your hair. 

You break into gasps. You hold on to her like something would tear you out of this world if you let her go. Outside, the wind breathes in cool waves. The trees’ whispers swallow you into the nights when you hid with the group in the forests. When they would attack one Pakistani camp after another. When they would unlock the school doors, the bunker doors. When all the women would come out and not a single one of them would turn out to be Ammu.

* Excerpted from Shah Tazrian Ashrafi’s debut book of short stories forthcoming from Hachette India in summer 2024

Author’s Bio:

Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a writer from Bangladesh. His debut book, The Hippo Girl, is forthcoming from Hachette India in February 2024. His works have appeared and are forthcoming in Shenandoah Magazine, Mekong Review, Himal Southasian, The Caravan, TRT World, The Diplomat, and The Daily Star, among other places. He is currently at work on his debut novel.

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