A Life On The Run

They dragged her from her burning home amidst shrieking winds on a cold, moonlit night.  She was sobbing, kicking, shouting, screaming and resisting her tormentors, five of them, many still in their army uniforms.  She cowered desperately looking for a way out from the leering, sneering men, found a jagged stone and held on to it, hoping to aim it at the first coward’s eyes.  One of the men sprayed pepper.  It stung her eyes.  As she tried desperately to see, rough hands groped her.  A man hit her, another slapped her.  She fought back with the stone, but there were too many and one by one they almost overwhelmed her.  

Suddenly, she heard shots.  The men tried to peer into the darkness.  The ghostly moonlight playing upon moving shadows chilled their spines and for a moment they froze.  Another shot rang out scattering the deadly darkness and the men did not wait any more.  They scampered like rats leaving the girl on the rough ground. 

“Run,” said a voice inside her.  She ran to the thick jungle swirling with bamboo trees and leach infested marshes.  “Run,” urged the voice again.  She ran through the rough terrain and plunged into the dense forest.   Panting hard and shivering with cold, she rested on a grassy knoll hoping to catch her breath.   The blue beckoning horizon glowed with a rising sun.  And in the new light of dawn, she saw something.  On a white stone slab was an inscription.  All it said was Indian border 1 Km.  Someone had wiped the name of the town.   She sighed with relief as warm thoughts of hospitality soothed her mind and gave spurs to her feet.  She walked the seemingly longest kilometer and was about to jump over the fence when disaster struck.  A shot was fired, her feet slipped and she felt the sky seeming to rotate a million times as her eyes closed.

When she woke up, her mother was hovering anxiously, “Must have been a bad dream, Aarti” she said, “this is the second time you fell out of your bed, what were you dreaming?”  Aarti was so shook up that her face registered a total blank.  It took a while for her to gather her wits.  Then the full impact of the tragic scene she had seen a couple of days ago, hit her.  

On that day, Naren had insisted that he would accompany Aarti to her tutoring class. Naren, her brother, was only 3 years older than her, yet he was very protective.  Recently, it had become an obsession.  “Why is he so worried?  What is eating him?  Almost 21 years old, he is still struggling in his junior year of college.  Yet, he wants to accompany me and mother everywhere.”   Her parents were worried.  “Such a brilliant boy, topped his school, won so many prizes and now he is, he is  —,”  her father paused before uttering the word “goonda.”   Her mother moaned in a resigned way, “My Naren is not the same.”  

Aarti agreed to go with Naren.  “At least it will give me an opportunity to know what he is up to,” she thought. On the way, they talked about many things, their life at college, about the 1971 war that made their lives worse instead of better.  The paranoia of Abdul and Malik who thought they were Indian agents and the sad fact that so many Hindus were leaving Dacca and going back to India, penniless.  The sun looked like a golden apple in the gathering dusk.  People were rushing home from their daily tasks.     Suddenly, they heard a piercing scream like an animal in severe pain.  Startled, they looked in the direction of the scream, and saw a girl barely 13 or 14, being dragged away by 4 men, one of them was dressed in army uniform. The girl was screaming piteously, hysterically and struggling very hard and the man had to exert all he could to keep her from biting him. Aarti and Naren looked anxiously, hoping the girl could break away.  Naren clenched his fists.  He felt he had to do something.  He quickly pulled Aarti behind a boulder and told her to stay there.  She protested but he wouldn’t listen.  “Somebody should do this, what if it happened to you.  Wouldn’t you want some help?”  That shut her up and she let him go.  Naren walked slowly, deliberately as if he had a plan.  As soon as he reached the gang, he pretended to stumble and fell right in front of the man who was dragging the girl.  The un-expected intrusion jolted the man and he let go of the girl’s hand and hit Naren hard. Naren fell down and the struggling girl, quick as lightning, freed herself and ran as if the very devil was after her.  Before, Naren could get up, the uniformed man pulled his gun and aimed at the fleeing girl. 3 shots rang out, and the girl raised her hand as if in mute prayer and fell down.  Within a minute, the street was deserted. So drenched in fear was the little community of Hindus, that they didn’t even bother to check if the girl was dead or alive.

Naren crawled towards her keeping his body close to the ground.  He found her writhing in pain.  He told her to be still and quiet and tried to lift her. She stopped him and told him amidst gasps of air,  “My ti-me-- is over, ---brother, anyway Tha-nk you.”  He replied wistfully, “I wish I could have saved your life, what’s your name, where do you live? Why are these people after you”   She waved her hand, “-- Ratna,  parents-- don’t-- tell -- it’s a-- shame, p lease-- let me-- die in dig-nity, It-is too la-te for me.  Th-ey wan-ted to mar-ry me to the 60 y-ear o-ld Imam.  My pa-rents we-re help-less.  Pl-ease T-ell the wor-ld abou-t our suf-ferin-g ’’ and with a last effort, she said, “if yo-u ha-ve a sis-ter, ta-ke her awa-y, fa-r far aw-ay.”  Her breathing was very slow and her life reluctantly loosened its hold as her twitching hands became still and her eyes looked straight at the sky.  Naren’s heart swelled with pain and anger.  He did not know what to do.  This was the first time he saw death so closely and it rattled him to no end.  Then he remembered Aarti was waiting for him.  But he also could not leave the dead girl all alone.  Finally, he saw an old sweeper who was sweeping the streets. He gave him some money and told him to watch the dead girl till he came back.  He rushed to where Aarti was and told her to forget the tutoring class and to go home.  She looked at her face and asked anxiously, “What happened to you, you look as if you are going to kill someone.”    Naren did not reply, only urged her to walk fast. They walked quietly, stunned and subdued with the violence and the heartlessness they witnessed.  When they reached home, Naren looked wild with the fierce madness of an escaped convict. 

Naren did not come home for a week.  Her father wanted to call his friend Rahim.  “No,” said Aarti, no please, not Rahim da.”  She knew her father trusted Rahim dada.  On several occasions, her father had said, “Look, so many things have happened to the Hindus in our mohalla.   We were over 500 families here, but now there are hardly 100 and everyday people are leaving because of insecurity over their lives and property but have you noticed that nobody troubles us because of Rahim da.”  Her father believed in the equality of all religions.  He even wrote an article against the Babri Masjid demolition. Rahim da liked all this but she was not sure that he would like Naren as Naren’s views about religion was very different. 

Every day, they waited for Naren to come back home.   Her mother would pray and even her father admitted there was something troubling in the land.  On Friday night, ten days after the tragic death of Ratna, Aarti went to bed early.  She was again having the same nightmare and she was tossing and turning.  Something in her sleep woke her up and she looked puzzled as she smelt chloroform.  It was too late, for before she could scream, she went blank.  She did not even struggle that night as the two masked men stole her out of the house in the moonless night and dumped her in the trunk of a beat up van.

The next day, her parents woke up to a morning of shocking tragedy and loss, a loss that is the nightmare of every parent, the missing daughter.  They were about to call the police, but restrained themselves.  What if the corrupt police were behind this for money or ransom?  They could do nothing drastic.  They would inquire discretely and wait.

Meanwhile, Aarti woke up in a small, clean room.  “Thank goodness, you’re Ok,” said Naren and he embraced her.  He was crying in relief.  Bewildered by her new surroundings and surprised at seeing Naren she couldn’t believe her good fortune.  “Sorry, for the kidnapping,” explained Naren.  It was my friend Sanku’s idea.  He said that there would be a lot of hangamma if there was planning and packing and leaving from a neighborhood which was crawling with spies.  On the other hand, nobody cared about the kidnapping or raping of Bengali Hindu girls.  So we dressed up as Muslims and smothered you with chloroform and brought you here to Mizoram.  As we expected, there was no reaction.”    “Why Mizoram,” she asked.  “West Bengal is not the right place,” he replied, “the very intellectual Bengalis are busy saving the world, they are fighting for the rights of Palestinians and driving the Tatas out of Singur, but they don’t have time to think about the Hindus of Bangladesh even during Durga Puja, a festival that is all about justice,” he replied.  Naren was bitter and angry.  “Sanku knew all about it.  His ears were glued to the ground and heard its rumblings.  He told me about how West Bengal would not host Hindus or Buddhists but would go ga-ga over the Muslims entering in large numbers.  Being a tribal, he is taught to fight for every inch of land.  We had to rely on his tribal contacts to get you here.  The Mizo tribe is very friendly and will look after you.”  “What about ma, and baba,” asked Aarti.  I, I can’t live without them.”  “That’s my next project, kidnap ma and bring her here and then baba, disguised as muslims you can get away with even murder as you and I have seen.  Now take some rest, while we plan our next move.”

“What about your life, Naren?”  “My life, Aarti, this is my life, saving my people.  I don’t care for anything else.” “The community doesn’t care, Naren, please think.  Quit all this after bringing baba and ma here, then study, get your degree and go abroad.  Become something in society.  Only then people will listen to you.”  “Aarti, you forget, people in high places have not prevented 26000 acres of land lost by Hindus in Bangladesh due to the draconian Enemy property act, or prevented the decimation of the population of Hindus from 33% to less than 11%.  The politically correct people in their shaking thrones are too busy keeping it straight to be of any use.  Besides, every day girls are getting raped, murdered, our temples are vandalized, we are running out of time, and you want me to quit?”  Aarti felt ashamed of her selfishness and wished him success.  “Naren, I am with you 100%.  You are all alone, who will listen to you.  How will you convince our people who are in deep denial?”  

Naren then replied.  “Aarti, I am not alone.  Sanku is here.  You would not believe what he can do.  You should see him, Aarti, with his khukri.  He could hold his own with 12 men at a time.  He can deftly throw the khukri in such a way that even having a revolver will be of no use.  I am going to learn it from him and also get a revolver.  Aarti, I cannot create miracles.  I know that.  But I have to do something, otherwise I will go mad.  I feel miserable that I could not save Ratna.  Her death haunts me and I will never rest till I honor her dying wish to let the world know about the suffering of our people.  At least, the pujari from every temple can hold a moment of silence to empathize with the sufferings of the Hindus in Bangladesh.  This will create awareness and involvement. Ratna’s death will not go in vain. Every street theater will bring to life the pain and sadness of Ratna’s life all over the world.  Whether the articulate, young Hindus living in America and Europe will assist us, or pretend the problem does not exist, does not matter.  I am just a “goonda” but I am determined and you will see that slowly things will happen. Even the media’s conscience will stir the dying embers of truth and denial, pick up the strident calls for help and start voicing the plight of the Hindus in Bangladesh. Hopefully, one day, the consistent roar of the media will reach the high echelons of power and bring justice to our destitute, hounded brethren in Bangladesh.  Till then, my life is on the run.”


More by :  Aneeta Chakrabarty

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