My body was in Dhaka, but mind was roaming around Matlab and Bishnupur, my childhood villages. Finding a route to go there was like finding a safe route to cross the border to India in 1971. In 1971, it was the fear of being shot to death by the bullets of the barbaric Pakistan army. In 2015, it was the fear of being burnt to death by petrol bombs of a few misguided Bengalis. The initial plan of taking the ICDDR'B van had to be scrapped, because of multiple incidents on the Dhaka-Chittagong highway. A motor launch through the rivers was recommended as being less risky. And that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
In the motor launch, I was always outside my cabin on the upper deck, enjoying the views of the Buriganga banks and the expanse of the mighty Meghna, dotted with fishing boats amidst cargo ships. I watched the setting sun, enjoying its own reflection on the dancing Meghna water below. From time to time, I compared what was in front of me with what was in my mind, from the nineteen-sixties and seventies. The noticeably higher density of brick-plant chimneys along the river banks and that of the cargo ships in the river were signs of growth in the economy. Pollution by the former and capsizing of motor launches by collision with the latter were unhealthy and fatal side-effects of the unregulated growth.
'Where to?' asked a person, holding a ticket book and a pen, with a stern voice. 'Matlab,' I said. That should have been enough for him to issue the ticket. But he pressed on, like a detective, making me curious. 'Which house in Bishnupur?' After hearing my answer, he proclaimed with beaming confidence, 'Oh, Swapan, Tapan!' Swapan was my elder brother and Shafiq was the ticket-collector. 'How do you know us?' I asked, also in jubilation. 'You placed high in the board exams,' was his response. A spontaneous hug followed. Not entirely because of what he just said, but also because I found a friendly Matlab face in Shafiq --- in the uncertainty of the launch. He said he still lived in Bordia, mid-way between Matlab and Bishnupur, on the west side of a bridge that I used to cross to go to Bishnupur when I was young. Shafiq was two years senior to me. He said he did not go to Matlab High. He went to Chandpur D.N. School, where he did well enough to get govt. scholarship. And then he said something happened to him. Without saying what, he left abruptly. I was not offended by his apparent uncivil action. I understood. I could have been Shafiq!
That night at ICDDR'B, Matlab, a little fear crept in, on my way from the dining room on the first floor to Room 203 on the second floor, the same room I had in 2010. I was the lone guest in a huge complex. The cook and the server, who came only for me, had gone home. 'But there are guards outside at three check points,' I tried to assure myself.
I opened the door to the balcony of my room. A Matlab winter wind caressed my face. Music was in the air. It was coming from the north, from the direction of my childhood community. Swarasati Puja (SP) was being celebrated by Hindu students and parents to please the Goddess of Education. She, as always, dressed in white, looking like what movie actresses should look like, holding a bina --- a musical instrument placed upright on the ground, reaching her chin --- standing in a graceful pose, wearing a body-contour-tight sari, next to a white swan proudly showing off two fully spread-out feathered wings.
It was past 10 pm. 'Bed or Bina?' I was in a
Five or six people were standing and talking to a Ghosh gentleman, the lead of the festival committee and the current owner of our former house. I was in the temple ground of Matlab Ghoshpara. Adjacent to the north of the ground, was my former corrugated tin-roofed house, dwarfed by a jungle of unplanned buildings. The yard pulled me away from the temple and the bina. I walked into a yard of darkness. I looked to my right. The same continuous darkness extended there too. But it should not have. There should have been a discontinuity. 'Am I in the right house?' I asked with doubts creeping in. 'They were there in 2010.' I looked again. By then, my eyes got adjusted to the darkness. Some light from the temple ground ran away to the yard through the gate to help me out. A feeling of emptiness hit my lower left abdomen. 'The twin mango trees!' I screamed. 'The trees since childhood days!' Their gray twin trunks, I touched in 2010 last, were no more, replaced with cold darkness.
(This is the third instalment of the article. The fourth instalment will appear next week.)
Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher and an inventor, writes from Calgary, Canada