East Pakistan, 1970
“Left right! Left right! Pajama dheela topi tight! Agey husband peechay wife"'
The last line of this ditty invariably leads both goose-stepping siblings to collapse in heaps of giggles on the grass. Deep in the Dacca cantonment their garden is full of banana trees with glistening elephant ear leaves and fat yellow fingers of fruit plush in the drip of recent rain. Ayah mashes up the bananas and puts salt, pepper and sugar in them. The soft disks sweat until they are swimming in their own spiced up juice. Banana chaat is yet another one of Ayah's delicious creations. There is nothing, however, that she can do to milk to make it palatable to Nubia’s six year old tongue.
"Every morning she throws the milk down the sink when I'm not looking! Begum Sahiba I strained this milk with muslin twice and she didn’t' drink! Ayyo! My bones are too old for this. Look at Anmol Baba. Every day he drinks down two glasses of milk. Gut gut gut. Drinks it down. See how fair he is? You will be as black as coal if you don't drink milk and then no one will marry you!"
Fortunately Nubia is rescued from Ayah's lamenting tirade by Froggy's yell "You coming?" She grabs her school bag and runs into the back seat of the honking Volkswagen. She loves school, " Its not just any school, " she points out proudly to Ayah, Ammi, Abba, Anmol, any one who will listen "its the Farm View Intemational school" As if 'International' made it unquestionably superior to any and all other educational enterprises.
In actuality Mrs. Chaudhri's Farm View International School was one of those rare entities that lived up to every letter in its rather idyllic sounding name. Surrounded by acres of paddy fields and palm and banana groves, it was alma mater to some three hundred and fifty students from twenty three countries. The day began with a thrilling slide off a huge jungle gym followed by a mad race to class. Lessons were transformed into exciting games under the creative vision of Mrs. Chaudhri who had herself hated school as a child and determined that someday she would create a school that was the very antithesis of her awful experience of learning by rote whilst being confined hour after hour in a musty classroom. As a result every lesson involved some type of song, dance or play and unless it was raining all classes were outside. To Nubia it was all so enthralling that she hated the weekends and longed for school every day. Her world would have been near perfect except for Froggy.
Froggy’s real name was Farooq but of course no one called him that. He had long ago transmogrified into Froggy, thanks to his his huge bulging eyes encased in thick coke bottle spectacles. Froggy was the bane of Nubia’s existence. Not only only did he consistently beat her to first place in class, he had an endless supply of foreign chocolates and candies which he noisily, drippily consumed in front of her without so much as parting with a single sliver in spite of her long and tearful pleas. The dimpled and lovely class mistress, Mrs. Alvi, had gently upbraided Froggy on several occasions, urging him to be generous with his bounty to no avail. Nubia’s misery continued unabated. She collected, yes collected Froggy’s disdainfully discarded wrappers; painfully pressing them in her scrapbook, ignoring the humiliation that this constituted. She was determined to have mementoes of “abroad” no matter how small.
Her tormenter was strangely silent today. They had been in the car for several minutes and the neat bungalows of the cantonment had given way to the sun dappled gold-green blur of the paddy fields as they drove towards Farm View; an almost silence interrupted only by throat clearing sounds made by the Foxy as the driver changed gears. Nubia was puzzled. Normally by this time Froggy would have pulled out a whole cornucopia of candies. “Whats the matter Froggy?”, she poked , “run out of chocolate?” though she knew this could not possibly happen. “Na” said Froggy glumly, staring out the window. “then what??” she asked, getting impatient. “We’re leaving!” Froggy finally burst out in a flood of tears. “What?” she cried, taken completely by surprise. “Leaving? When?” “On Friday” “Friday?” Nubia could not believe her ears. “thats only three days away” “I know “ said Froggy sinking back into a gloomy silence. The rest of the way Nubia’s mind was racing faster than the car; on the one hand her daily torture would now be over; on the other hand she was now bereft of even the beloved candy wrappers, her only connection to the wonderful, magical world of “abroad”. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Finally she said “Where will you go?” “To my mummy’s house in Copenhagen” Froggy sniffed as Nubia gave him a blank stare. Normally he would have gloated at her ignorance. Today he just said wearily “Its the capital of Denmark” Denmark. Of course. To add insult to her injuries Froggy was also half Danish. She tried to picture what Copenhagen was like but could could only come up with a vague picture of a gilded opera house in Vienna from a postcard that Ammi had once shown her. The vision did not last long as they had arrived at the noisy traffic jam that formed twice a day at the gates of Farm View. It was time to race to the jungle gym slide and then to class.
The dimpled Miss Alvi handed them little envelopes to give to their parents at the end of the day. Nubia took hers without a thought. They were always being handed envelopes containing monthly report cards, school excursions, parent teacher meetings and sundry notifications. The constant missives were all part of Mrs. Chaudhri’s credo of “active communication” as she called it. She got home and handed the sealed envelope to her mother impatiently, anxious to know if she had finally bested Farooq Hamid in the monthly rankings even though such a victory if indeed there was one, would be hollow now. Ammi read the contents and frowned. Nubia looked at her in alarm. Surely it was not a bad report? She had been slipping in her sums lately, but overall Nubia was a precocious child, a fact keenly noticed by her teachers who had rapidly advanced her in the space of six months to “Stage 4 Kindergarten” in Farm View’s finely calibrated grading system.
Shehrbano Ansari folded up the envelope and set it on her dressing table, then motioned Nubia to come and sit on her lap. Nubia admired the noble profile of her mother in the three way mirror. The long aquiline nose, the perfect Cupid’s bow her lips made, how they seemed to be defined even when she did not wear lipstick. All along the dressing table were wooden arms that held glass bangles arranged by color. Yellows, oranges, reds, maroons, pinks, mauve and purples were on the left side while on the right were an array of lime greens, emerald greens, turquoise, peacock blue, sky blue, and finally indigo. Nubia loved to run her fingers on the bottom of the hanging bangles and listen to the soft tinkling they made. Her mother only wore the bangles when she got dressed up in a sari to go to parties, otherwise she wore fresh coils of motia flowers from the garden on her wrists everyday, each night placing the discarded flower bracelets in a bowl of water at her bedside so that they permeated the entire room with their sweet heady fragrance.
“I am sorry to tell you this Noobi but your school will be closing early this term” “No! It can’t be true!” Nubia was in shock. This second blow was too much. She picked up the offending letter and gave it to her mother to read aloud. Her parents names were hand written in Mrs Chaudhri’s elegant cursive above the typed note. It read, “ Dear Maj. and Mrs Ansari, It is with deep regret that I am ending the school year at Farm View early. December 2nd will be the last day of school. My decision as you all know is taken in the light of the increasing risks to the children and the staff by the worsening security situation. I look forward to reopening Farm View once things improve. Let us pray that this is sooner rather than later. Yours Sincerely, Mrs. Amina Chaudhri, Principal, Farm View International School, Dacca ”
“Risks? What risks? Nubia demanded to know, angry, distraught and strangely excited all at once. “ Really Noobi” said Ammi wearily, “ Must you know” Before Nubia could work herself into a temper tantrum her mother abruptly gave in and blurted “ Its the Mukti Bahini. They call themselves freedom fighters. They want East Pakistan to be a separate country.” “But why? Everyone’s so happy here!” Nubia desperately tried to rack her brains for any signs of discontent around her and could find none. Who could possibly be unhappy? “Its not so simple as that beti,”Ammi tried futilely to explain. “ But what about us? I don’t want to leave. Can’t we be in the new country too?” I am afraid not sweetheart, the new country is just for Bengalis. They want to call it Bangladesh. “Oh”Nubia looked at her mother, confounded. She had never thought herself as non-Bengali. In fact she had never thought herself as anything at all except a rather clever girl who longed for unattainable chocolates and a glamorous life visiting “abroad” someday.
“Anyway,” Ammi tried to cheer her up, “ We don’t know for sure that this will happen. it could also be that they just have kutti for a while and they will talk and make up and be friends again, just like you and Froggy” “ Froggy is not my friend!” Nubia retorted angrily. “ I just have to share rides with him to school and besides he’s going to Denmark” “And we will be leaving too, Noobi, no matter what happens. Abba’s two years are almost up. We will be posted out of here soon” But this inevitable circumstance now seemed like a minor detail. Nubia was beyond consolation. The rest of her day went by in a daze of tears.
By the time Abba arrived in the evening the sun was already departing, leaving a long red rimmed eyelid of horizon in its wake. Nubia had been waiting for what seemed like an eternity, walking on the upturned triangles of the brick edged flowerbeds until the arches of her feet ached. Her father gently took Nubia’s hand in his. “Come on betay, lets go for a walk. Nubia loved that he called her betay, son, rather than beti, it was part of their special secret bond and it made her feel important. She knew her father confided things with her that were beyond her years and she knew somehow not to tell these things and especially not that he chain smoked cigarettes on their daily walks as he had told Ammi that he had quit for the umpteenth time.
They strode quickly in the fast dwindling twilight, trying to shake off the clouds of mosquitos that whined and buzzed above their heads. Abba said nothing but he didn’t need to. His grip on Nubia’s hand was firm and reassuring. Eventually the yellow flickering street lamps came on one by one, each acquiring its own following of light crazed insects. “ See betay, thats progress for you” said Abba in a voice not without irony “ In the old days the insects used to die in the living flame; it was sacred to die like that; it was the symbol of junoon “ “what’s junoon” Nubia interrupted “ Junoon is a very special love, a love that doesn’t care what happens, you could say its An All Consuming Love” “Ah” She said, suddenly longing in her heart for An All Consuming Love” “ Now with the invention of the light bulb they all live “ Her father stubbed out his cigarette on the lamp post and unfolded the wrapper of a paan, placing the stuffed leaf triangle that would serve as breath camouflage in the side of his mouth. “But thats terrible!” she said, “ I wish we never had lightbulbs, then we would have had a lot less mosquitos!”“True” gurgled Abba in a paan filled laugh “Lets go see what Mir Hasan’s made for dinner.”
The pungent aromas of Mir Hasan’s cooking wafted invitingly from the kitchen. “Can I go and see Mir Hasan make the phulkas?” Nubia pleaded, Ammi frowned but gave in, afraid to provoke another outburst. Watching Mir Hasan make phulkas was a fascinating spectacle. He had a little mountain of dough balls and with what seemed like incredible speed would flatten them into perfect circles with his rolling pin, then slapslapslap they flew from one hand to the other then quick-as-a-flash on the round skillet. Already rolling the next one, Mir Hasan paused for a split second, flipped the phulka, then catapulted it onto the open flame where the phulka puffed up like the cheeks of a shehnai player or a crazed bullfrog in courtship, puffed up in a pride about to be devoured. She ran back to the dinner table as soon as enough of the puffin breads were done, pulling them open with the still hot steam singeing her fingers as she wrapped them into morsels dripping with gravy from the Hilsa that Kanchon had caught just that morning.
All through dinner Mir Hasan kept shuttling in through the kitchen door to deposit freshly puffed phulkas on their plates until Ammi motioned him to stop. Every time the door opened Nubia had a brief glimpse of Ayah and Kanchon hunched over a large aluminum platter eating little balls of rice and Hilsa. She had never seen them eat Hilsa with phulkas or any other type of bread and was wondering about this when it dawned on her.
“So what are we?” Nubia’s question sounded unnaturally loud, a clattering spoon of a question. Ammi and Abba looked up from their plates at each other then at her with expressions of dismay. “ We’re Pakistanis, of course ” Abba firmly replied. “ No, no I mean what are we? ” Nubia persisted “ if we’re not Bengalis,” she added, making herself irrevocably clear. There was a long uncomfortable silence at the table. “ We are Mohajirs. “ Ammi said finally. Mohajirs. This was a new term for Nubia. “ Mohajirs are people who came to Pakistan from India after Partition” “1947” Nubia said triumphantly “ I knew that” “ Yes, your Abba’s family came over in 1947 and I came later in 1960” “ Later, why later?” Nubia prodded, trying to digest all this new information. “ “thats a lot later” She tried to subtract 1947 from 1960 in her head. Ammi looked at her as if she might say something but thought better of it. “ Yes Noobi, I just went to Karachi to attend a wedding and met your Abba over there and and fell in love and that was it. I left India to marry your father.” “ How romantic,” Nubia mused, “is that junoon? An All Consuming Love?” “ Yes beti, an ALL consuming love” Ammi replied, her voice trailing from resignation to a rueful silence.
“ Lets go for a picnic “ Abba’s voice came booming into her reverie. Really janum, do you think thats wise?” “ Perfectly wise. Nothing is going to happen on Eid and its just round the corner. A little trip down the Sunderbans is going to do us a world of good”“ The Sunderbans!” Nubia exclaimed, trembling with excitement, the jungle. Abba had done it again. Resurrected her day. She went to bed filled with dreams about Tarzan; the object of his All Consuming Love; flying gracefully at his side from limb to limb with a chorus of adoring chimpanzees swinging close behind them.
The Sunderbans was far wider than she had imagined, its vast water a muddy potato brown under a translucent veneer of blue edged with impenetrable jungle on both banks. Every so often they would pass khoro kishti, long flat bottomed boats carrying straw from the Sundarbans to Dacca propelled by both sail and oar. The wiry boatmen sang rhythmically as they steered their craft up and down the river. “Awain varsha e leeray, awain doopa e leeray, O kul val velir nouko par nai ray”...” No matter if the rain comes, no matter if the storm comes, take my boat across, O Guide.
Its Baqr Eid and the jawans on the ship were clamoring for a sacrifice. Major Ansari did did not want to shoot a deer. “Its not the same as slaughtering a goat” he protested, “ Sir, Sir,” the soldiers crowded around him, humbling themselves until he finally agreed. They cut the ship’s engine and waited. Eventually a mother and calf came to drink water on the bank. Her father aimed for the doe but shot the calf instead. It bawled piteously, staining the riverbank red with its blood. Nubia watched the whole thing with a transfixed gaze, unable to look yet even more unable to tear her eyes away.
Two soldiers rowed ashore for what seemed like an eternity to fetch the murdered deer back to their vessel. They had just disembarked and were about to truss the calf when out of nowhere a huge Bengal tiger appeared. No one moved for a split second. Then, like skinned bananas jumping back into their shells the jawans began screaming in sheer terror as they jumped back into the boat frantically pushing it out into the water as the tiger dragged the dead calf back into the dense veil of the mangroves.
Nubia’s world had been altered forever. Her beloved Abba had killed actually killed an innocent animal because he had been expected to. He was not brutal but he had done something brutal. She could never look at her father the same way as before, with the unadulterated adulation of innocence.
School was closed. She spent her days listening in numbed indifference to the rumors of killing, burning and looting flying from the mouths of Ayah, Kanchon, Mir Hasan and Bagh Ali. Months passed, the situation got steadily worse and there was still no sign of Abba’s posting. “Whats going on janum?” said an anxious Ammi over breakfast three months later. “ When are we getting out of here?” “ I have arranged for you and the children to get on the next military transport to Karachi” Abba replied “ It leaves day after tomorrow” “ What do you mean?” Shehrbano cried wildly “ What about you? What about your posting?” “ They have canceled my posting” said Abba, his voice like stone. “ Its war. I cannot leave my men, it would be desertion”
Her mother begged and pleaded but there was no getting around Abba’s grim determination. So Shehrbano spent the next forty eight hours shouting out panicked instructions to Mir Hasan, Bagh Ali, Kanchon and Ayah to pack-this-leave-that hurry hurry hurry until the next thing they knew they were on a rattling C-130 military transport plane to Karachi. Nubia never saw Froggy or Farm View again. Sometime in December 1971 the Pakistani army surrendered to the Mukti Bahini and the Indian Armed Forces. East Pakistan was no more.
The 14th Division of Dacca along with its commander Major Akbar Ansari were taken prisoner of war. It would be three years before Nubia would see her father again. By that time the chasm between her parents had grown so huge that it was hard to find the broken threads of An All Consuming Love anywhere in their hearts.