Thursday, December 16, 1999

The Samaritan

Those were the days of reckoning. On the 25th March 1971 the Bengalees had been dealt their deathblow - and everywhere the symbols of revolt so forcefully erected since the month of January, were crumbling down. The nationalist forces were in total disarray - its leaders killed, captured or had gone underground.

Because they spoke the Urdu Language, it was time now for the progeny of the Pakistanis, the Biharis, to unleash their frenzy on the Bengalees as they had demanded the right to self determination in an independent homeland, they had decided would be called Bangladesh. Unsubstantiated rumors such as 'the news from Sydpore is bad'- meaning Biharis had been butchered by Bengalees in Sydpore - or whatever pretext they could conjure - was enough to set about orgies of violence of unimaginable magnitude. Ironic, that a minority of less than one percent of the total population of the then East Pakistan - were targeting an overwhelming majority, as they had full support of what was supposedly, according to their commander ' the best army in the world' i.e. the Pakistan Army.

Being a Bengalee was good enough reason, they knifed, chopped off heads or disemboweled in nonchalance - rarely have they spared anybody that they have decided to kill. Looting and rape was the order of the day.

Our family of four - my father, mother, sister and myself and our two domestic helps, Kader Bhai and Khurshid's mother - were targeted for 'elimination' on the fateful day of 29th March, 1971. We lived in Pallabi (where I live till this day) - a predominantly Bihari area. Our crime - we were Bengalees, and on our rooftop was proudly displayed the flag of Independent Bangladesh - in defiance of Pakistan, since the beginning of March 1971.

The bare truth though was, my parents were Assamese immigrants who moved to this part of the world in 1949, and were sympathetic to Bangladesh. For our family, my sister, and me who were born here, this was our homeland, and we identified with the aspirations of the people, and more so the rebels. My father was vocal to the point of fault. He believed the time has come to choose sides - we are Bengalees and that was it.

It was round 11:30 in the early afternoon, when terror struck !

Our house has been encircled by a mob of over 400 Biharis. They were screaming expletives, the filthiest being detailed description, of what they would do to my sister, then a petite sixteen years old, in our presence, before they 'finished us'. Shiver ran down our spines and through the din and commotion that was going on outside, we also heard clanking in our locked grill main gate. 'Come out you bastards' kept being repeated - together were taunts from voices we were familiar with - our Bihari neighbours.

Incredibly there were no tears in our eyes, when we embraced each other for one last time - and father solemnly said 'our time is up - we have to go.' My mind was only playing overtime of what it would feel like being disemboweled or slaughtered - I pinched myself, and realized that fear had number my senses.

My intensely religious mother insisted that we all perform ablution, as it was obligatory on all Muslims to meet his/her maker in purity of mind and body. It was willing suspension of disbelief, and as I washed - I kept telling myself 'this cant be true- it cannot be real'.

Everything moved in slow motion. It was decided that mother will exit the door first with a Koran tightly embraced around her chest, my father, our domestic helps and my sister and myslef will be the last to face the executioner. Mother's idea was that I should be able to make a run for it and SURVIVE. Why she thought this way is still a mytery to me?

Father, who had fought in the Second World War - was on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown, so overcome he was with fear. It was mother who appeared to be our leader and was completely in control of the inevitable - DEATH.

A deafening cheer went up as our doors opened and the mob caught sight of us. It was as if a favorite football team, had just entered the stadium - the difference we were not a team but human beings preparing to be 'butchered and the spectators here were assembled to see us die!

A hot summer breeze hit us, but the sight of our 'Krishnachurra' tree, which cast a sad cool shadow, was overwhelming and the only thought in my mind was - 'what a wonderful day it is to die'. The 'executioner' was standing in front of the main gate. He had a more than three feet long machete - its blade, and his shirt was drenched in fresh blood. My father held my hand tight - an between the six of us - not a word was spoken.

As mother opened the mosquito-netting door - I caught sight of a total stranger, asking us very brusquely to get back inside. We had never seen him before. He spoke to us in Urdu! We stood there in amazement - and I still cannot recollect what transpired in those few seconds as we stood there to be slaughtered. He approached my mother - and whispered something to her ears. Mother turned right around, and following her exact queue, we followed her back indoors?

Once inside the house, we were perplexed as what was going on. Curiously we all peered through our window. The man was in a heated argument with the executioner and the rest of the mob. At one stage we heard his voice rise to a blood curdling shout - and the sentence will still remain clear in my memory for as long as I live. In Urdu it was 'Hamara lash ka upar Haque Sahib Kay khandan Kay katal hoga - is say bar ker nahi'.

My father who understood Urdu translated this to mean 'over my dead body shall you slaughter the family of Mr. Haque - not before that.'

Silence of a most harrowing nature descended - and in around ten minutes which seemed to us a lifetime - the mob, our renegade neighbors and the executioner, to our dazed relief, dispersed.

The gentleman knocked very gently on our door, and we asked him to come in. He spoke very little and refused to let us know his name. He was in his mid-thirties - slim, fair and handsome. We insisted that he have his lunch with us - which he reluctantly agreed. In the meantime with utmost humility he asked my father for a cigarette, which he lit and stretched out on our sofa. Soon he was fast asleep.

He rose when lunch was served - he ate fast, and we could see tears rolling down his cheeks, which he wiped with the edge of his shirtsleeve. When father made an effort to thank him - he promptly put his finger to his lip and motioned him to shut up. After lunch - he only said 'get out of Pallabi tomorrow morning'- and as suddenly as he appeared, he slammed the door in our face and vanished.

To this day we do not know who this man was - neither could any of our compassionate Bihari neighbors who assembled to bid us good-bye, when we eventually decided to flee to Kalabagan on 30th March 1971.

On reflection my mother always use to refer to him as 'firishta'- in Arabic - Samaritan or the succourer of the distressed.

First Published December 16th 1988