To Abul Ahmed Firdauz, Varun was just a young boy who did not need to know the past. At seventeen, Varun needed to know nothing but his responsibilities as a son. There was a field to plough, an exam to pass and a mother to care for. The last thing he needed was to foster childish obsessions.
But it was tiring these days. Their arguments were longer and louder. It isn’t very easy when you are fifty five years old, poor and suffering from arthritis. The pain is unbearable sometimes. So, he pulled a chair outside to their front yard and sat down to rest after a long day. Smoking his hand rolled cigarette, he looked up to the sky and sighed heavily.
Insha Allah, this will pass soon enough.
He liked sitting outside every evening, blowing out little rings of white smoke into the dusk that turned to airy night. Tonight was more beautiful than other nights. There were a million stars overhead, the bamboo nearby rustled as the wind whispered mysteries and the new crescent moon shone faint silver light.
On dark beautiful nights like these, Reshma Firdauz liked to look out the window of her husband’s tin house and relive the past, walking down a journey from another life. But that was all in her head of course. On nights like this one, she would remember Varun. But, the Varun that Reshma remembers is not her son. It is his father.
Let me tell you the story from the beginning. It might sound a little confusing. But this is how it was and I cannot do a thing about it. So, though Reshma Firdauz is Abul Firdauz’s wife now, a long time ago, she was a different woman. Sanskriti Thakur was her real name. Then, she was but a girl- lost in the happy mirth of youth and love. And back when she was young and happy, she knew a boy named Varun.
She had known Varun Chakraborty since forever, as far she could remember. His family and hers were friends. The Chakraborty family was a prominent one just like her own. So it was only natural for her and Varun to be friends. They were both Hindu Brahmins, fair skinned and not devoid of any opportunities. Perhaps, her family was one of the first to educate its women and at the time of her own education, she learnt under an uncle of Varun’s, with Varun also as a fellow student.
But they were not only playmates, classmates and friends but also each other’s confidants and defenders. When Sanskriti was five and Varun was seven, she remembers spitting on her old Mamu’s face because he slapped Varun for stealing guavas from the Thakur tree. Later, when they were older, it was Varun who protected her from the nasty perverts in the village. He would never allow her to go anywhere alone though she, having been educated in Shakespeare and John Stuart Mill, would argue for empowerment and freedom. She longed to be like Shakespeare’s Rosalind who dressed like a boy and did as she pleased.
Now, when she looks back to the simple ignorance and blinding innocence of her youth, she scolds herself whispering softly, “if only you knew then what you know now”
Varun was meant to become her husband and her protector for life. But then, politics and communalism came in the way of her happily ever after and 1947 became her year of tragedy. 1947 was after all the year of the riots and killings. All the Muslims in the village were against them. Hindu families killed one after another.
She will never forget that one moment when Varun pulled her close and breathed on her neck, kissing her gently as hot tears streamed out of his pale green eyes. The freedom from white superiority that they had themselves asked for was now coming. But with it, also came cruel divide. Her home was no longer her own.
Like all other rich and educated Hindu families of the area, Varun’s had made arrangements for safe passage to the Hindu side of Bengal where they would resettle and rebuild. But Pradipto Roy Thakur, Sanskriti’s father was a man of a different spirit and he would not leave his land or his home. There are days now when Sanskriti hates her father for what he did. His decision to stay in the east became the worst he ever made.
The night before Varun left for Calcutta, he came to say goodbye. It was past midnight so she slowly crept out from the back door and followed him to the jute field at the back of her house. It was around the time of harvesting so the plants were tall enough to hide them well as they went deeper into the plantation. They had done this before and knew exactly where to go.
Often, Varun and Sanskriti would delve deep into the jute field so that they were alone, free to talk of anything, dreaming of the impossible. But that night, they did not talk. They both wept slowly and softly, in coarse sobs, unspoken words and methodical love, under a sky just like the one tonight.
It’s all in her mind now. But it’s enough to make her smile just a little bit. Just the thought of her fingers softly running through the sparse map that his beard looked like. She use to tease him about his lack of manliness, no hair on his chest, an Indian map on his face. Undivided India, of course. The map of India now would look strange on a face. She wondered what he looked like now.
“Reshma” Abul calls from outside. “Has Varun given you your medicines yet?”
“Yes”, she answers.
She knows there are no medicines and no money to buy them.
Varun looks at his mother’s aged face and the smile that she is wearing tonight. You know, she hardly ever smiles. Except on nights like these, of course- when she is left all alone with no one but her own sad self.
Father and he had fought again. But he couldn’t understand why. They didn’t need to argue so much. Father could have just told him. He was old enough, anyway. And he just needed to know…
The truth behind his name.
His very existence
… Then he wouldn’t complain anymore. He wouldn’t argue any longer.
But all this thinking is too exhausting and he knows that his father is partly right. Overthinking doesn’t do anyone much good. But he can’t just get rid of all the voices in his mind or the dreams that plagued him every night. He can’t get rid of the ridicule and humiliation from the boys in the village.
Hey bastard! Where’s your Hindu father?
The old ladies’ giggles were the worst. All the women in the village knew something he didn’t, but father said it was nothing. Varun… though… he knew. He knew something was wrong and he needed to know what it is.
Gosh all this thinking is exasperating! Damn it!
Varun takes out that little bit of gamja he got from the forest. It’s almost destiny that he found that gamja patch. It was like someone was growing it in the middle of the forest. Probably to sell and make a killing. Maybe he’d take to that career too. Easy enough, anyway.
The room suddenly turns beautiful blue like the sky was when he worked on the field. And suddenly all he heard were soft beautiful voices, smooth voices. This feeling is nice…. if only it lasted a lifetime… Oh we’re in a jute field now. Oh, so this is where I was made. Funny how these things work right? The eggs and the sperms and all the funny things in life… the voices disappear into thin air. The blackness is nice too. Sometimes blackness is all you need.
Sometimes when Abul would sit in the front yard so that he could taste wet air and windy memories, he’d go back to the morning he found Reshma. House burnt, family murdered, he had always wondered how she had survived. There was blood all over the earth beneath her and he knew what might have transpired the previous night. She should’ve died. No one really lived after gang rapes. Especially, pregnant women. After brutal torture, no one should live. Not Reshma and especially, not her child. They should have both died.
But then, maybe she wasn’t already pregnant (though she always she insisted she was). Maybe, Varun was the spawn of her tragedy.
But Reshma would never accept it. She always insisted he was the son of that rich ungodly brat who left her. She named her son after him.
When Abul was a young man, he believed that Allah had called him to a greater purpose. After all, he will never forget that one dark night when he lay on his straw mat, his insomnia taking the best of him and he heard a clear audible voice, saying, “Know that I am here and I have chosen you.”
Only God knows why he saw Reshma as the higher purpose he was called to. But somehow, in that moment, seeing her almost dead battered body, he felt a divine desire to heal her. It was like Allah himself was saying to him, “This is what I have chosen you for.”
Now, under a sky full of stars, Abul wonders if it was his own head and not Allah at all.
He had named her Reshma which meant ‘golden silk’ because her hair was smooth as silk. He wonders if he ever loved her. One thing that was for sure though, he had somehow grown to love her bastard son.
Varun calls him father and does not know that he actually is not. Varun does not know anything despite his five feet eleven inches. He is just a boy after all.
Last year though, a man in the village recognised Reshma and since then, it’s been a nightmare life. Well, not as bad as 1947, but bad enough to make Reshma go almost mad.
Nowadays, she does not move from her bed. She just stays there and dreams of what could have been her life. Varun, on the other hand, has started asking questions Abul does not want to answer. It’s a tough life in a tough world.
He rolls another cigarette and burns his lungs some more.
Is this what you really chose me for?
1. Insha Allah – If it is the will of God / God willing
2. Brahmins – The highest order in the Hindu Caste system / highest in Hindu socio-religious hierarchy
3. Mamu – Uncle
4. Gamja – Marijuana
The story is set in a village that is now part of Bangladesh and is based on the modern history of the Indian subcontinent. In 1947, India achieved independence from British colonial rule and while it was a joyous accomplishment after years of struggle, it was one of the saddest years in the history of the nation. In 1947, a nation that was for thousands of years both for Muslims and Hindus was suddenly divided on the basis of communal lines. In 1947, India witnessed mass murders, killings, rapes and all kinds of atrocities during what is now often popularly referred to as the “division of hearts”. Thousands of people fled their homes because they were on the “wrong” side of the border. Muslims to East and West Pakistan and Hindus to India (just like Varun Chakraborty did in the story). During this time, on both sides, many women were abducted, raped or forced into marriage with people of the other community. They were stripped of their identities and everything they had. Some committed suicide to escape the horror and shame. Others bore the oppression that they could not escape. While some others, made new lives in their surroundings as they tried to forget the trauma of their recent past. In this story, I wanted to focus the life of a woman named Sanskriti who later became Reshma. Though she tries to live with and love her benefactor, Abul who had saved her life, the past never really leaves her. She continues to relive happier times with her long lost lover. In this story, we see that the trauma of the partition come alive in the lives of three ordinary people, one a “has been” rich Hindu girl, her poor religious Muslim husband and a son born out of the tragedy itself, a child of division. The story moves in two timelines, one that is the present for the characters (some fifteen years after the partition of undivided India) while the other starts from the pre-independence period in undivided India and moves into 1947, the year of the partition.