Saturday, May 21, 2016

When the Wheels Stopped

As the sun was setting down Monira retrieved her father’s lungi and panjabi from the rope hung across two poles in the yard. She folded the clothes with much affection and kept neatly on the wooden alna. Azan for Magrib prayer resounded the atmosphere. A soothing spring air can be felt earlier in that late winter evening. Monira’s mother Kulsum Ara was performing ablution to say her prayer. For some days she was angry with herself, angry with her husband Rustum Ali, angry with Monira and angry with everyone else. Perhaps it was due to Rustum’s sitting idle for more than a week. In her prayer she seeks some consolation. She nurses the belief that sufferings in this worldly life is temporary, and that real happiness is decided by Allah in the life hereafter.
No sooner had Kulsum Ara finished her prayer than she heard the cry of her little son Musa whom she had sent to a shop. Sobbing and angry, Musa complained, “Why have you sent me to Montu Mia’s shop again? Yesterday he hesitated to give me rice on credit. Today again, you have sent me there without money. He demanded the dues first. He uttered foul words about you and father. Ah, huh, ah huh! uhhh, I’ll never go to his shop, never... huh, ah huh...”
“Ok, Musa, please don’t cry. Your father is coming home soon. He will meet Montu Mia. Come here, look, this kitten has just come to our house. Don’t you like it?” Musa got busy playing with the kitten.
Kulsum Ara turned terribly worried about the meal for the night. She flopped down on the paati and reflected on her life:
I was not so unhappy in my 16 years married life despite my mother’s reservation of marrying a truck driver. Mother said that drivers are bad people and notoriously bad if one is a truck driver who must be a drunkard. Mother’s words proved false. Father liked Rustum for his good behaviour. Rustum had no habit of smoking let alone drinking. He is so devoted to their two children. He gives me whatever he earns to maintain the family. Working as a truck driver he had bought this small piece of land within a radius of three miles from Rosulpur town. Though bamboo-fenced and tin-shaded, now we are sleeping in our own house. No, no I’ve no complain against him. Things were going on well. But who, who, what evil grips our life? Kulsum finds no answer to this? Rustum will return soon having a talk with Taleb Mia, the truck owner. For the past twelve days he has no trip. His owner did not want his trucks to be on the road because trucks have been targeted for petrol bomb attack. The little savings they had are all gone. How foolish she was to give money to her husband for buying books for Monira’s new class when schools are closed for hartals and blockades. The grocer Montu Mia was so kind to them giving supplies on credit, but now he utters harsh words. How can I manage meals for them to night - Monira, Musa and their father? Oh Allah, help me! Help me! Oh! Allah, we’ve done no wrong to anybody. Why do you punish us? Save us, Allah Meherban.”

Monira not being aware of her mother’s agony was waiting in the porch for her father’s return. That day, as usual, as soon as Monira saw her father she shouts ‘Abba-ab-ba’ and embraced him crazily. As usual, she has something to say, some in whispers, some aloud. “Uh-oh! Monira! You have grown up, how long will you act like a baby. What if other people see this?” Though Rustum Ali said this, he also took Monira on his bosom as if she was a baby.
“Monirar Ma! Kulsum! Where are you keeping? Come, come! Good news.” Kulsum Ara sprang up and rushed out of the room thinking that Allah has heard her helpless cry instantly.  
“Taleb Mia has decided to take his truck out on the road, and he has already fixed a trip for me on Monday, that is, the day after tomorrow. I’ve also got some money in advance. Look, a 500 taka note! Take it and manage the meals.” Wiping her tears secretly Kulsum Ara took the note.  She managed the family meals for the night and performed two-rakat nafalnamaj to express her gratitude to Allah.
Although Kulsum Ara was under great stress to manage the family finances, Monira and Rustum had been passing their happiest time ever. Rustum had never been so many days together at his home. He had no work, neither Monira had her school. Most of the time they were together. They told stories, gossiped, played pranks, sang songs and what not to make their time enjoyable.
Four days ago Monira and her father went to Rosulpur  town  to buy books for Monira’s new class.  Rosulpur is a mufassal town, a few miles away from their home. They rode a three wheeler van and reached the town. From Boi Bitan they bought books. Then Rustum took Monira to a sweet-shop. Before he ordered Rasogulla for Monira, he was counting the money again and again. Rustum hesitated whether he would have the return van-fare after paying the bill.
Monira noticed her father’s worry and said, “Abba, why do you hide things from me. Why don’t you share everything with me as I do with you? I’m warning you again, don’t hide anything from me. Why do you worry for me? Another time you will relish my palate with Rasogulla, let’s move now.” Monira tells all these things whispering into her father’s ear holding him tight. People around them glared at her odd manner of talking.
Walking out with a sad mind Rustum said, “Monira, next time when I come to the town with you, I’ll take you to Raghat Sweets and you will eat your favourite sweets to your heart’s content.
“Abba, again, again you are worried for my sweets? You have no earning these days. Mother is under a great stress.”
“That’s right. We’ll overcome our trouble soon.”
“But Abba, isn’t hartal fine for us?  we can pass very good time. I’ve no school and you’ve no work. How exciting to keep together at home!.”
“Then how can I earn money, Monira? And how can your mother run this family? Let’s move, shall we?”  “Ok, find a passenger van then.”
They rode a van. On the way Monira witnessed a terrible sight. A mini bus was just struck by a petrol bomb. Although most passengers could come out and save their lives a woman with her baby could not. Their burnt bodies were left aside. Monira shuddered at the sight. Some thoughts flashed in her tender mind, “If Abba and me had been in that bus, we might have been under this attack. During the hartal, man-driven van is safer than engine-driven vehicle. That’s why Abba preferred a three wheeler van to a bus.”
But, that night their time was very enjoyable. When Kulsum Ara and Musa fell asleep, Monira and Rustum had their special stunt. Monira said “Abba, let us see the books we bought today. Let me see some stories in my Bangla book.” Munira felt curious with one. She began to read it at a very low pitch lest the sound should break her mother’s sleep. Rustum listened to it spellbound. The story touched Rustum’s heart so much that his eyes were filled with tears.
“How would you like this stoy, Abba?”
“What is the name of this story?”
“Yes, it’s name  is Denapaona and Rabidranath Thakur has written it. But tell me, how do you like it?”
“Wonderful! Wonderful, Monira, it’s the real picture of our society. Your story made me think that I have also a daughter, and women are badly treated in our society.”
“Who is your daughter?”
“No I’m your Ma (mother), ha,ha,ha!”
“No, Monira, it’s not a joke, so many women are the victims of dowry. Mainly these women are illiterate. I want you to be educated. Monira, I’ll work harder for you. I’ll do everything for your education. I want you to do well in the SSC examination as you did in the JSC.  I will provide everything you need for completing your B.A. degree.”
On Sunday night Rustum was supposed to go to bed early. He said, “Monira, I have to get up early in the morning to go for my trip.” “Abba, I will not let you go. Petrol bomb attacks on trucks have increased these days. From tomorrow again a 48 hrs hartal has been announced on top of blockades.” Again turning to her mother Monira said, “Maa, I will not let Abba go for his trip in this hartal day. The country is burning with the fury of petrol bombs. Trucks are more at a target. We would rather starve than send father out on his trip. O' Ma! A good idea! I have my earthen bank full of coins. It will help you to buy some rice. Bring the bank, break it down!” Suppressing her anger Kulsum Ara said, “Monira, why are you uttering so nonsense? Go to bed, there is Allah above.”  
Earlier, every time Rustum went out on his trip, Monira made his bag ready. She knew it better what to take what not. But that day Monira did not do her job. So, Rustum had the bag ready for himself.
Monira was still on the bed when, at dawn, Rustum left. Before leaving, he stared at her sleeping face again and again. A silent protest of love was still thereon the face! An oval shaped face with a beauty spot on the cheek. On her face Rustum finds a semblance with her dead mother. Just a few days after his mother’s death Monira saw the light of this earth. Rustum softly kissed Monira’s face. Never before had he felt so disturbed leaving her. A drop of tears formed on the corner of his eyes, and it was was rolling down as Rustum came out of the room.
Kulsum Ara uttered some doa when Rustum was leaving the house. As usual, Rustum was walking the distance to reach Taleb Mia’s oil pump from where he would have to take the truck. Along this suburban road his eyes often fell on some wild flowers. He liked the Shet Akanda, Keu, Tit Begun, Kontikari, Chatpati, Dhutura and many other unnamed flowers. His eyes also fell on some Shimul trees whose buds had just begun to evolve the crimson red flowers. But Rustum’s pleasant feeling got badly damaged seeing the smokes coming out from the chimneys of a brickfield and the continuous bhatbhat sounds of the bhatbhatis (engine-driven van) in early hours of the day.
Rustum reached Taleb Mia’s oil pump where helper Kuddus was waiting. He greeted Rustum heartily and was happy to see his ustad almost two weeks later.“Let’s start, ustad. I have made the truck ready.”
They soon reached the spot from where they loaded bananas and started for Dhaka before 9 am. The road was free, buses and trucks were hardly visible.
Kuddus said, “Ustad, if the roads were so free all the time! How fine if there is no traffic jam! Despite some risk I like such road very much. Today we will not need to wait in the ferry ghat for hours. Today we will not need to wait until 8 pm to enter Dhaka.”
“Kuddus, you know, ours is a risky journey. Our truck might be hit by petrol bomb. Yesterday in Magura a truck was hit and both the driver and the helper died. What was their fault? Why are we, the working people, targeted! Ugh! Is our life cheaper than that of a dog? So many drivers and helpers have been burnt to death and so many are in the burn units. Who cares for our life?”
“Ustad, Stop, stop now. I’m afraid of your talk. My wife and kids are starving. I must have some money to buy food for them.”
Their truck ran with an aeroplane’s speed. About 12 o clock they reached the ferry ghat which really had a different look. There was no bus, only a few trucks on board. Rustum placed his truck so easily and felt greatly relaxed. He let his body relax more, leaning against his seat and began to enjoy watching the vast sheet of water rippling and the inky horizon afar.
All on a sudden Rustum began to see strange things. His eyes fell on a group of people drenched with water. He recognized one in the group. It was Rokon, his cousin, who died in launch capsize a week ago at Dauladia-Paturia ferry ghat. Rustum’s hair stood erect in fear. “Is it a dream? Or am I among the dead?” he thought. The next sight was more terrifying. He saw a group of people who had no clothes on their body and their skins are roasted like grilled chickens. Further, Rustum caught sight of a group of people whose clothes are soaked with blood. Again another group of people whose faces are covered with black clothes.
Rustum’s heart was beating fast. He was trying hard to move his limbs to become sure that he is alive. Just then his dead cousin appeared before him and said, “Rustum, what caused your death? Don’t you belong to any of these groups of people?”Again Rustum was quite confused about his status. He wanted to give a loud cry but was unable to produce any sound. At that moment it occurred to him that these dead people were revolting against the ferryman who was carrying them across across the river. Just then Rustum noticed three female figures coming down in a parachute. They seemed to be the messengers of God. One of them shouted at the passengers and said:
‘Hey guys, you can never go back to the world once you are on board this ferry. You are already caught and you will be thrown to eternal torture if you revolt. Your life on earth expired, understand! But, you have nothing to worry. You should know that you have already become well-known among your people on earth. Mind, your name couldn’t have been so familiar if you had led your doggish life. This is a great gain for you, isn’t it?  Now listen, on the other side of this river there is a lake called Lethe. All of you will drink its sweet water, and you will forget everything of your worldly life. Then you will enjoy complete peace. Hope, for the best.”
Rustum was quite confused about his death. First, he remembered Monira to whom he could not say good bye. He also thought about his five-year-old son Musa and lastly about his beloved wife Kulsum Ara. His heart was filled with an unknown resentment. He was panting and sweating fast. All on a sudden a shrill sound entered his ears and he felt a big jerking. He also felt a push on his body, and to his great relief he saw Kuddus on his side.
Rustum soon drove his truck off the ferry, and the truck again gained an aeroplane’s speed. They reached Dhaka before evening. Rustum felt like talking to Monira, but there is no mobile set in his house. He took his own set out of his pocket, and saw 55 missed calls. Rustum reflected, “Monira must have tried to talk to me from someone else’s phone. Why couldn’t he hear the call? The set must be in silent mode.”Rustum phoned one of his neighbours to help him talk to Monira over his phone.
“Hello, Abba why didn’t you receive the phone. We’re so worried about you. When are you returning?”
“Ma, don’t worry. Tomorrow early in the morning we’ll start from Dhaka. Do you need anything?”
“No, Abba at the moment I don’t need anything. Come home safe. I have many stories to tell you. And from now, don’t keep your mobile set silent.”
“Ok, Ma. You know, this is my habit to keep the set silent when I am on the road. It is not safe to talk while driving.  Don’t worry, Ma. The roads are clear. Tomorrow by noon I’ll reach home. Tell your mother that we’ll eat our mid-day meals together.”

Early next morning Rustum and Kuddus had their return journey. This time they had no goods in their truck. The roads were clear and their truck reached Rosulpur town before the sun reclined on the west.

Within a few minutes Rustum placed the truck at Taleb Mia’s premise. A gust of wind soothed his body and mind. With a happy feeling Rustum was walking along the footpath and looking for a van. All the pleasant thoughts were racing through his mind, “After all, the danger is gone. Sometime later Monira will jump on my bosom to tell him her stories. Surely, by now she is standing in the backyard, with her eyes fixed across my path. Surely, both Monira and Musa will be glad to get tilekhaza that I’ve bought from the ferry ghat. Surely, Minara’s mother is waiting eagerly for serving meals.’ At that moment Rustum was startled with a ring in his mobile set. “Hello!” It was Monira’s voice,“Abba, where are you now? Mother and Musa are waiting for you to take meals together. Tell me where …” Scarcely had Rustum uttered a word of reply, he found himself caught into the fire of a bomb that missed the target of a covered van waiting there.

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