Nigahein mila ker baddal jaanay waalay
Mujhay tujh se koee shikait naheen hai
(Casting a loving stare, you changed the ways
I have no complaints, as I cherish the love-rays)
Major Zafaruddin Ahmad hummed these lines as I made an omelet for our breakfast.
“How can you sing so well in Urdu?” I inquired.
“I can also tell that Noor Jehan had sung this song for the film; ‘Mehboob.’ Aaah good old days.” Zafar replied in nostalgic tone. “I first saw that movie when I was in grade four,” he explained. “We used to live in Rawalpindi and my father was the Deputy Secretary in Pakistan Secretariat. I was enrolled in a Government School in the Cantonment.” Bangladeshi officer could very conveniently switch from English to Urdu. I was impressed by his command over the two languages.
He had recently arrived at Kinshasa from Kindu, an eastern town of DRC-Democratic Republic of Congo. The UN Mission in Congo had established its Headquarters in Kinshasa, the capital city of the embattled country. It was a unique experience for me to be part of a mission in Africa. The military observers coming from Asia, Europe, Americas and Africa, comprising of a thousand personnel, were spread across North and Eastern borders of Congo.
I, along with six other officers, had converted an ordinary house into an Officers Mess. The Mission had deployed military observers on Congo’s borders. Most of the eastern region was under the control of rebels. These rebels were supported by Uganda and Rwanda-Congo’s rivals. The eastern region of Congo is rich in minerals. Metals like Uranium, Plutonium and raw Diamonds are found in abundance. But the infighting of tribes had caused a vacuum in power, giving way to intruders. The unrest caused by rebel groups and the Ugandan invasion had made Congo volatile. It was now one of the poorest nations of Africa.
I have a bad habit of comparing situations, and I often compared Congo with Pakistan. It might just have been a sad coincidence that the history of Congo was no different than Pakistan. Nature had bestowed everything upon us, yet we were burdened by crippling debts due to mismanagement and corruption by the people on the helm of affairs. My country’s precarious situation always made me recall a line from Shakespeare’s famous play ‘Macbeth’: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Major Zafar had completed his tenure as a military observer in Congo. Before he could revert back to his country, he had to do certain pre-departure formalities in the headquarters. He therefore requested a short stay in our make-shift Officers Mess in Kinshasa. Since we both had a flair for music and poetry, we began to enjoy each other’s company. We would exchange our views on poets and singers of the subcontinent and sometimes he would break out into a song.
“So, Major! Tell me something about your childhood in Pakistan.” I asked him one Sunday afternoon, as we settled in the courtyard under pine trees. The rainy season that had commenced in March was now coming to an end. Through the pine leaves, slivers of golden rays illuminated our beer glasses to look like molten gold. “Well, I cannot recall all of my childhood friends,” the Major began. “Rawalpindi was a city of soldiers, civil servants and shopkeepers. It was neither industrial, nor agricultural and the students came and went like seasons.”
Here the Major gave a slight pause and then continued. “But I can never forget Gulsher Khan of Malakand, Mehdi Ali of Gilgit, and Muhammad Azeem of Azad Kashmir and Amber Abdullah of Quetta. We never cared for religion, caste or creed. Everyone was befriended without any prejudice.” Major Zafar gulped a mouthful of his beer and went on. “I was in eleventh grade when East Pakistan became Bangladesh. My father, like many Bengali officers, chose to migrate to Bangladesh.”
I explained how the split of Pakistan had displaced many families. The infighting had killed thousands of innocent citizens in East Pakistan. Homelessness, poverty and violence prevaled everywhere. I then lit a cigarette for myself and Zafar. Major Zafar continued somberly. “That is the tragedy. Young girls were sold and even exported to other countries like livestock. Life was never the same again.” Around the globe, many ethnically diverse regions live together in harmony. I wondered why we couldn’t have worked our differences out. Despite minor differences, inhabitants of both East and West Pakistan adored each other, and we still cherished the times we had spent together. Then what had went wrong? Which forces had deigned to separate us? And why?
Major Zafar held back his tears, looked straight into my eyes and spoke passionately. “Much like in Congo and Pakistan, the people of Bangladesh are living in distressful times. Despite having a fertile land and an abundance of natural resources, our women are sold in Karachi like cattle.”
“This menace has spread all over the country,” I added. “Similar circumstances befell on an unfortunate Bengali woman who migrated to my native village in Azad Kashmir.”
As Mess Secretary, I was assigned to collect contributions made by members of the Mess. This time the officers had also donated money for a Bengali woman who lived in my village. Her two daughters were getting married at once. A few days back I had received a letter from my mother who had urged me to contribute to the wedding. I had donated five hundred dollars and had also exhorted my colleagues to chip in whatever they could. One evening when I was counting the donations, Zafar came around humming a Bengali rhyme. He asked as to what I was doing and I explained to him the purpose of the donations. He then began to inquire about the Bengali woman.
I could not recall the Bengali woman’s name but told Zafar that I had only met her twice during my vacations. She used to keep her money and valuables with my mother. Despite her age, she had lovely features. Upon seeing her supple skin, silken hair and hazel eyes I had thought how unlucky she had been. During my vacations, I had been informed of her past. She had come from Jassore thirty years ago. Her father had died at the time of East Pakistan mutiny and her mother had remarried a rickshaw driver. She had been only seven then. At the age of fifteen, her step-father had sold her. Her mother had cried after her, but to no avail. Major Zafar asked again if I knew her name.
“I cannot recall,” I answered earnestly. “In my village she is called ‘Bengali’ out of love. She has earned repute and affection from everywhere. Whether it is bathing of a dead-female or preparing a bride for her wedding, Bengali is present to perform all kind of errands. Her husband is bed-ridden and the entire village comes together to help her out.”
One fine evening after we returned from one of our long walks, I happened to tune into an Urdu channel. It was the death anniversary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of the subcontinent’s most famous poets. His daughter, Muneeza made a brief appearance to deliver a eulogy for her father. In a flash, I recalled the Bengali’s name.
“Muneeza! Muneeza!” I shouted out. Major Zafar came out of the shower quickly with a towel wrapped around his waist. “What are you on about?” he asked me and I explained that Muneeza was the name of the Bengali woman I had told him about. He became silent and took a seat on a nearby chair. After some contemplation, he went to his closet and opened the locker. He handed me a thick wad of bills, which I surmised, was more than the sum total I had received in donations. For the next few days, I rarely came across Zafar. I could imagine him to be busy in his pre-departure formalities. He left for Dhaka the next weekend. We had thrown him a farewell dinner at a local Lebanese restaurant. I saw him off at Kinsasha Airport. I bid him farewell with a heavy heart and we avowed to keep in touch. During the remainder of my days in Congo, I missed my old friend terribly.
After a few months I too was repatriated to Pakistan. Soon after rejoining my old unit, I was promoted and given with a new assignment. For the next one year neither of us could make contact with each other. We had gotten lost in our military lives. But one winter afternoon, I received a telephone call from Zafar. I was overjoyed at hearing my friend’s voice after a long time. He, too, sounded jubilant. After exchanging pleasantries, we took a stroll down memory lane, recalling our practical jokes and singing sessions. We notified each other of current political situation of our respective countries and Zafar invited me to visit his hometown in Bangladesh. I politely excused myself since such a plan was not viable but I assured him that I wished to do so some time in the future. “I knew you won’t come,” said Zafar “so I have come to you my friend!”
I was stunned into silence. “I landed in Islamabad yester night,” he told me in a matter-of-factly tone. “And I hope to see you tomorrow.” I almost jumped from my chair at the news. But before I could reply, the line went off.
The news of the arrival of my Bangladeshi friend was received cordially in my village. To my parents, I had already introduced Zafar. Everyone eagerly awaited him. Relentless hospitality is an unspoken custom of my village. When Zafar arrived in a white shirt and gray trousers, he was warmly welcomed. I noticed his greying temples and age lines. My house was swamped from noon to night by relatives and friends who came over to greet him. They invited him over for lunches and dinners but Zafar had to politely decline since he was in the country for a short time. By night time, Zafar was exhausted. I escorted him to the guest room which was adjacent to my own room, and bid him goodnight.
By the next morning, Zafar was refreshed. He enjoyed walking under the pine trees and breathing in the fresh morning air. He praised the green pastures and mountains surrounding our village. After breakfast, we went for fishing in a stream that flowed through our village. We also bathed in the fresh cool water. He was pleased to see peacocks, rabbits and partridges sauntering in the lush green and open plains. By afternoon we were able to successfully hunt a rabbit and two partridges for the evening feast. Zafar took an immediate liking to the simple meal.
As we were having tea after our humble but fulfilling lunch, Zafar inquired about Bengali. My mother informed him that Bengali had died almost a month ago. The cup toppled from Zafar’s hand and I saw gloom settle on his face. I couldn’t understand his reaction other than that he was saddened by the demise of a country fellow. To distract him, I began talking about Muneeza’s virtues that the village still cherished. I tried consoling him by reminding him of the inevitability of death but he did not reply. After a while he expressed his desire to visit her grave.
The local graveyard was located on an elevated hill nearby. We found Muneeza’s grave and recited prayers for her soul. Then Zafar buried his face in his hands and started to sob uncontrollably. I was saddened but remained perplexed at my friend’s emotions. It was natural to grieve for a displaced country-woman who had expired on a foreign land. But the agony on Zafar’s face indicated an unusual regret and an unbearable loss. I consoled and embraced him and took him to a vantage point on the hill from where our entire village, including Bengali’s home, was visible. We sat on a flat rock and I offered him some water. I waited silently for an explanation. He lit a cigarette and narrated his story.
“My mother had expired a year before we left for Bangladesh. She was buried in a graveyard near Military Hospital in Rawalpindi. After moving to Bangladesh, we settled in our ancestral home in Jassore. I was enrolled in Government College. My life had taken a new turn. I found myself in a newly liberated country, but my heart could not escape the memories of my childhood and my mother. Both had been buried in Pakistan. Our residence was huge, with spacious servant quarters. An officer like my father could easily afford to keep a full time servant and provide them with food, accommodation and a nominal compensation. He hired a maid who came to work for us with her family. Her husband was a rickshaw driver and her teenage daughter often helped her with household chores.” Here Zafar paused and gulped down the water. Then he resumed his story.
“At that time, Muneeza must have been fifteen or sixteen. She had medium height, tanned skin and wore sharp features. I can still vividly recall her hazel eyes, her broad forehead and long, jet-black hair. She was incredibly attractive though not beautiful. She had a habit of humming songs and reciting poetry whilst doing chores. Sometimes she would cram her school lessons too. She bought life to our home. She had caught my attention the very first time I had laid my eyes on her. I would sometimes catch her looking at me longingly. I would ask her to do petty tasks for me which she obliged with a smiling face. Gradually we started to converse whenever her mother was out of sight. My father had gotten her enrolled in a local school. She used to look incredibly pretty in her uniform.” Zafar paused again and gazed at the mountain line which stretched over miles before us.
“One day, I found a letter under my pillow. Muneeza had spoken her heart out. She had inscribed a passionate love poem and had implored me to have my breakfast in the verandah so she could look at me before leaving for school. I did as she had asked. From that day onwards, we would spend our afternoons together on the bank of a nearby stream. We would eat and talk for hours. The last time we met beside the brook, Muneeza had expressed concern over her step-father’s attitude towards her. She had looked deeply into my eyes and told me how strict her father was and how much he disapproved of her talking to me.
“I had then recited Rumi’s couplet,
‘Out beyond the ideas of wrong and right,
There is a field.
I will meet you there.’
“She asked me innocently, “What does it mean? Where should we meet?” I told her I had just recited a couplet from one of the greatest mystic poets ever to have lived and only time knows the meanings.” Here Zafar broke off again and stared into the space with vacant eyes. His eyes seemed to be focusing on some distant point. I couldn’t comprehend the emotions which registered on his face. “We had a rose garden in our court yard,” Zafar continued. “I had always wanted to offer her the most beautiful flower from our garden but she always left early for school. One morning I woke up earlier than usual only to give her the flowed before she left. I still remember her smile when I presented her with a bright red flower. Her cheeks glowed and her eyes twinkled with longing. She gently caressed her cheeks with the rose flower and then asked me to fix the flower in her hair. I still remember how perfectly she parted her hair without using a comb. As I was untying her hair, Muneeza’s father appeared out of nowhere. He took Muneeza by her arm and shepherded her to their quarters. That was the last I saw of Muneeza. Her desire to have a red rose fixed in her black tresses remained unquenched. A few days later, her mother told me that Muneeza had been married off to her step-father’s friend.”
The sun sunk, leaving an orange sprawl over the horizon. The evening star winked at us from over the skyline. Despite the dusky gloom, I could see a twinkle in Zafar’s eyes. When we reached home, a few of my friends were already awaiting Zafar’s return and we immediately started conversing about Bengali. My mother joined us and told us that Bengali was an honest and simple soul. Two months prior to her death, Bengali had entrusted my mother with a notebook. My mother thought the scrawls on the notebook were Greek. “I think it’s in Bangla,” I informed her and handed the notebook over to Zafar.
That night before sleeping, I caught Zafar leafing through the pages. I did not deem it right to intrude upon him then since he was so engrossed in its contents. But early next morning, Zafar woke me up and asked me to accompany him to the stream once again. He wanted to tell me all about the notebook.
“A poor girl must never love a rich man,” began Zafar, reading from the pages. “I write this after a forty years’ struggle for my survival. I loved a boy in Bangladesh. He was three years older than me. He was a rich man’s son. We were poor folks, who merely worked in their house to earn our bread. Back then, my heart was not aware. My mother used to tell me to avoid indulging in such fallacies, that it was a grave sin to even think of such things. Every night I reminded myself of my mother’s advice but by each morning, I had forgotten it. If I didn’t see him, I wouldn’t eat – such was my passion. Was my infatuation a crime? Did it hurt anyone but me? But I was punished for such an innocent longing. My step-father thrashed me and sold me. I was peddled again and again till the honorable Allah Ditta rid me of my bad fate by marrying me.” Over here, Zafar flipped to another page and continued reading aloud.
“I miss Zafar. I am not unfaithful to my husband. But Zafar was my first and only love. He was my true passion. All other men who came into my life were mere compulsions. I remained faithful to all but could never forget my first love.” Zafar’s voice trembled and I expected him to shut the notebook right away. By now, the sun had risen comfortably overhead. I saw beads of sweat trailing across his face. Perhaps he was sweating, or crying – I couldn’t surmise.
Zafar continued reading the diary: “This is my home now. Everyone in this village knows of my past, but they have never questioned it. They gave me a brand new slate of memory from which I am to make myself anew. They have never insinuated or insulted me. I am their sister, their daughter and their honor. People of this remote area of Kashmir opened their houses to me, embraced me as one of their own. I wish Kashmiri blood ran through my veins. They have helped me live a dignified life – a life I could never have fathomed. They gave me land, a house and cattle. They gave my husband a refreshment hotel to win the bread from and aided me in marrying off my daughters. When I embark upon my final journey, it is my heartfelt wish to be buried here, among my own people. I want to be buried among these benevolent beings, whose hearts are as wide as Samhani Valley, whose kindness runs as deep as the stream that flows in the middle of the valley.”
Zafar let go off the notebook in the flowing waters. Our eyes followed its steady drowning, as the notebook bobbed up and down and finally went out of sight. When we returned home, Zafar and I had a hearty meal after which he started preparing for departure. He asked my mother’s permission to leave and bid farewell to everyone. My mother handed him some gifts she had packed for his family. He then went to our garden and plucked a red flower. I immediately understood and accompanied him. We scaled the small hill for one last time and located Muneeza’s grave. After recitation of prayers, Zafar bent over and placed the flower on her grave, on the side where her head was laid to rest. He gave a big smile through his wet eyes and took a deep sigh.