The year was 1945. The air was abuzz with news from abroad. The War had just ended. The All India Radio came alive with crackling voices of luminaries discussing the heroics of soldiers during the invasion of Normandy. Newspapers demonstrated smiling faces of Stalin, Truman, Churchill. The world was celebrating the end of a violent phase. Indians were talking over the repercussions the War would have on India. The leaders, the middle class, the poor and the wretched were all looking forward to the end of the colonial rule. Meanwhile, in a rich luxurious mansion in an inconspicuous village of Rajshahi District of the Bengal province, zamindaar Neelratan Datta peacefully smoked his hookah as Chopin’s Nocturnes played on the gramophone seated on the intricately carved desk beside his armchair. The news of the streets didn’t affect the elite and the rich as long as there was status quo.
Chitra was Neelratan’s only daughter and the light of his life. She was eleven years old, mirthful and frivolous. Neelratan’s only son, Supratik was in his early twenties, a nationalist and a person of lofty idealism. His heretic nature often kept him away from home and got him into troubles. He had been arrested on account of secessionist activities against the British Government more than thrice and that had made him a shady character in the books of the police. He would often get into heated arguments with his father. “You have been brainwashed. You’re being made a pawn in this game and someday you’ll lie dead in the gutters,” Neelratan would often say. “Dying for the nation is better than feeding off your ancestors’ wealth,” the young nationalist would reply in a rage and storm out of his room. Neelratan would try and stop him but he knew his son well. No amount of fatherly love, however strong, would rein him to his home. Neelratan would look on, not knowing whether to be proud or sorry.
Neelratan’s wife passed away two years after Chitra was born. He didn’t remarry. Rahmat was the caretaker of the household. Rahmat had his own son Ali, two years older than Chitra. Ali’s education
was taken care of by Neelratan. He had been staying in this house since he was a year old and he was almost like the son Neelratan never had. Chitra and Ali were inseparable friends. More like siblings. Sometimes a bond so strong is forged between persons of similar ages that you almost disregard the fact that you’re not blood-relations. Such were Chitra and Ali.
Chitra was used to Supratik’s absence from home for long hours. When he was at home, Supratik would tell her incidents of exemplary patriotism. Somehow, she was influenced by her brother’s involvement in revolutionary activities. She would look up to him as somebody of the same stature as that of Subhash Bose or The Mahatma. She would often paint pictures of liberation in her mind. She would dream of the day her brother and herself would proudly look up at the fluttering fla g of independent India. And Ali would accompany them, smiling.
Supratik’s absence made Ali a constant company for Chitra. Together they would study, have dinner and play games. There was a jackfruit tree in the tiny orchard adjoining the house. Ali would pluck the fresh ripe fruits from the trees and Chitra would gather them in a cloth and carry them to the house and Sabitri Mashi would cook them for dinner. Arun Master would drop by the house to teach them Mathematics. While Chitra was busy solving sums, Ali would ask the tutor for permission and instead of going to the toilet he would tiptoe to Arun Master’s bicycle and stealthily loosen the valve caps of the tyres. He would return with a sly smile and when the tutorial session was over both Chitra and Ali would look out of the window and giggle at Arun Master’s vehemently heated abuses at the local children on seeing his deflated cycle tyres. During lazy summer afternoons Chitra would catch dragonflies in the garden while Ali would be busy reading Tagore’s poems. They had planted mango seeds a long time back. It was almost half-grown by now and added to the beauty of the orchard. During the evenings Chitra would sit by Neelratan and enjoy the Jalshaghar while Ali’s curious eyes would scan the musical ambience from one corner of the room. Such were their happy uninterrupted lives.
A year went by. Another arrived. The independence of India was imminent. However, rumours began to take roots. The air was wild with speculations. The liberation would come at a great cost – the nation was to be divided. Chitra would look out of the window and in the distance she could see a procession moving by the pond chanting slogans she couldn’t distinguish from far away. Sometimes a few people would meet under the peepal tree in the dead of the night. She knew not why but she began to grow apprehensive of such happenings. “Who are those people, Baba?” she’d ask. Neelratan couldn’t reply. He could sense an evil portent.
On 3rd June, 1947 the radio came alive with burning news. The Mountbatten Plan was announced and Sir Cyril Radcliffe’s well-defined borders partitioning India came to light. A suppressed tension going on for years finally erupted. India would be independent but how many more lives were to be sacrificed for that? Communal tensions began to grow. Neelratan stood on the terrace staring, in stark horror, at the fires burning all over the village. That night was a night of terror as rioters burned down every house with wild animalistic passion. Unstoppable, inexorable, irrational forces were tearing the country apart. Chitra ran to Neelratan screaming. Neelratan covered her streaming eyes with his hands. This was not a sight for a child to see. What about Ali? How would he save him? What about Supratik? His heart wrenched at the thought of Supratik. Where was his son?
Neelratan and Chitra climbed down the stairs as fast as they could. They found an appalled Rahmat hiding Ali in a corner of the room. In the spur of the moment Neelratan devised a plan for their escape through the backdoor of the basement. When they reached the door, Neelratan stopped. Rahmat stared in disbelief, “Babu aren’t you coming?”
“No Rahmat, not without Supratik.” “But Babu ……….”
Neeratan exhorted him towards the back alley. Chitra stopped Ali. How could two inseparable souls stay away? How could she stand the detachment? When would she see him again? She untied her
ribbon and tied it on Ali’s wrist as a Rakhi. Two fathers watched in silence. Two fathers saw how they had failed their children. Two fathers witnessed the union of two innocent minds when the entire society was being torn apart. For a minute or two, silence prevailed except for the sobbing of Ali and Chitra. Then Neelratan shut the door. Hurried footsteps were heard on the other side.
Where is Supratik? A thousand evil thoughts began to haunt Neelratan. “What’s happened to my boy?”
“Chitra, stay in the basement. Do not open the door until you hear three taps, then two and then one,
all distinctly. Do you understand me?” Neelratan said in a shaky voice. “Baba, don’t leave me alone in this house … I beg you,” Chitra exclaimed.
“Hush ….. We’re not leaving without Supratik.” Ignoring Chitra’s relentless yells Neelratan stormed
out of the house.
Chitra sat in a corner thinking over why grown-ups were fighting and killing. Why was a nation being divided? What is religion? She thought of countless questions. Every passing minute seemed like a year. Would Baba be okay? Would Dada return?
After almost two hours, she heard the taps as her father had mentioned. She rushed to the door, opened it and then stood horrified. Her father was panting, his clothes soaked in blood. Crying out in a choked voice he said, “We have to leave. This is no longer a safe place for us.”
“But Baba … what about Dada?”
Neelratan gazed at his daughter’s innocent eyes and broke down. Chitra understood. But she didn’t
cry. Her brother was no more. But she was. She was there for her dad.
Violence outside was increasing in leaps and bounds. They couldn’t escape. Neelratan stayed up late with great vigil, watching over his little daughter. The rioters hadn’t been able to break int o the zamindaar’s territory yet. Not yet. The huge wall had still not fallen… the gates hadn’t given way yet. Chitra’s tired eyes slowly and unwillingly closed and she fell asleep.
After about three hours Chitra opened her eyes. She was in the bedroom. She sat up and looked at the skull cap that Ali had left behind. It was a strange feeling. Her hollow heart tried to reach out to him and she attempted, with all her will power, to suppress her emotions. She went downstairs and found her father packing all the necessities in a cloth bag. The violence had subsided for a while. This was the time to get away.
Neelratan had called up a few of his friends and they had promised to provide him a safe passage to Dhaka. Dressed as commoners, Neelratan and Chitra began the journey of a destitute. From the riches to the tatters: they would board the first train carrying them to Calcutta in a third class compartment, leaving everything behind, along with countless others hanging onto the train from everywhere. There was no space to be found, people were pressing against each other. For the first time Neelratan realised how lonely he was. He looked at his little daughter and smiled. Chitra smiled back. Two souls, unbeknownst of their future, began their journey as the train carrying a massive Hindu exodus slowly began to move out of the station. They would leave their past forever in East Bengal and slowly make their way towards the western segment.
Years went by. Little Chitra grew up to become a beautiful intelligent woman. In the late 1960s she was a professor of History at The Presidency College, Calcutta. She had always wanted to take up History not because she was interested in it. She wanted to know why a great nation had been divided, why she had had to leave her home behind and why her late father had had to give up his lavish ways to take up a job in the railway with a meagre salary. She hadn’t found the answer yet. Maybe she was too foolish to understand humans’ irrational thoughts. Or maybe it was all for the better. Maybe she had found her way as a successful, independent, and respectable woman because all this had taken place.
However so, not a day passed when she did not think of Ali. Not a day passed when she did not make an effort to find her long lost friend. Since the 50s, when she was able to understand the ways of the world, she had been writing to all the concerned people, the embassies, the newspapers but everything went in vain. There was no convincing reply. Ali was still lost to her. But not in her heart. She often wondered. Was Ali trying to contact her as well? Was he still alive?
The late 60s were a time India would never forget. Stories of atrocities in East Pakistan appalled the world: the country was in turmoil and slowly and steadily the two-decade-old division between the two Bengals began to fade. As the atrocities began to grow, refugee influx into West Bengal began from the East. Chitra’s search for Ali grew even more arduous. The Bangladeshi insurgents went underground and began to transmit messages to India. Akashvani played their stories and their songs. Calcutta grew furious.
1971. Pakistan launched a pre-emptive air strike on India and declared war. Thus began the massive battle. Chitra searched the newspapers. The valiant stories of Indian soldiers reminded her of Supratik. India retaliated fiercely, joining forces with the soon-to-be Bangladesh. After thirteen days, India won the war. Bangladesh won its independence. The newspapers would daily print the name of the deceased along with their photos. And then she spotted him.
Three days after the war ended, the newspapers reported the death of a brave young insurgent – Bhaskar Rahman. No the name wasn’t the same. The face was unrecognisable. But those eyes! The smile! No they would never lie to her. The same blue eyes Ali had. Would she pay a visit to the address? What if she was wrong? What if it was just an illusion?
It’s said that when you want something from the bottom of your heart, even reason escapes making way for persistent determination. She left for Dhaka that very night. She strode several miles until she reached the address mentioned in the newspaper.
A very humble temporary settlement housed Bhaskar Rahman’s family – his wife, rendered homeless by the unforgiving war that had snatched away the man of the house. When Chitra entered the
threshold, Preetilata was a little taken aback. She wasn’t used to strangers especially because nobody
was to be trusted during the days of the war. That had grown into a habit.
“Ke apni?” Preetilata asked Chitra.
Chitra smiled, “Nomoshkar. I’m Chitra ……………………………….”
The next few words that she said fell on deaf ears. Preetilata stood amazed. After all these years? Was she really there? Then hurriedly she welcomed her inside and offered her a seat.
“I’m Preetilata, Bhaskar’s wife. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
An eerie silence prevailed. Chitra looked up at Preetilata, waiting for an explanation.
It was a moment of welcome surprises. It was a moment of reaching out to lost souls through their nearest and dearest ones. Chitra had started on her journey, half-heartedly believing that she would regain contact with Bhaskar. Now the moment was upon her.
“Bhaskar is Ali,” Preetilata continued. “After his escape, Ali changed his name. He used to tell me a lot about you and your home in Rajshahi.” Preetilata called up her memories of a jubilant Ali and in the end, she burst into tears. Chitra consoled her; she too had lost her closest people during times of turmoil. “I’ve something to give you,” Preetilata said.
She went inside and brought out a rakhi. The Rakhi that represented the undying friendship of Chitra and Ali. The Rakhi that Ali had preserved all through heaven and hell.
Before returning to India, Chitra decided to stop by Rajshahi and check if her childhood home still existed. It did. The architecture was in shambles and looked ghostly but it had stood the test of time. The mango tree was now fully grown. Chitra tied the Rakhi to one of its branches. She went to the
terrace. She stared into the moonlit distance and slowly closed her eyes. Tears rolled down her cheeks as distant memories flooded her mind. The year was 1945. The air was abuzz with
Aveek Dutta graduated from NIT Durgapur in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. Aveek currently works as a scientist at the Bureau of Indian Standards. An avid reader who loves to watch movies and listen to Pink Floyd songs or scores composed by Chopin, Mozart, Schubert.