Space For Rent

Space For Rent
Sunday, July 5, 2015, Ashar 21, 1422 BS, Ramadan 17, 1436 Hijr

Fear in February fog
Tapan Chakrabarty
Published : Sunday, 5 July, 2015,  Time : 12:00 AM,  View Count : 470
I was invited to an elementary cadet school to speak to the students. Its founder, Bablu Bhai (Mukshedul Haque), was two years my senior at Matlab High. The uniformed kids were in an assembly singing the Bangladeshi National Anthem in Bengali, a Tagore song, and taking cadet oaths. I gave a short speech. Some of them were listening and some were yawning. I remember standing like them, singing Pakistani National Anthem in Urdu, in the early nineteen-sixties, and listening attentively to Headmaster, preaching the value of sports to do well in studies. Bablu was applying in his school some of the principles he had learnt from our Headmaster. He claimed its academic performance was the best among all elementary schools at Matlab. He and I talked about setting up a scholarship to help needy students at the school. We were supposed to meet in Dhaka to finalize, but hartals kept us separated.
"What happened to the large house and all the lands around it?" I asked her sitting on the bed of a house standing precariously between two walls that were not more than 15-feet apart. She was the wife of Sohodeb, our neighbour Sadhu Ghosh's youngest son. Sadhu Ghosh, belonging to a Zaminder (a land lord to collect revenues during British rule) family, had the largest house on the largest lot in Ghoshpara. The tin-roofed house was taken away by looters during the Liberation War in 1971. The Zaminder family, ironically, also lost the documents of ownership of the land. Her mother-in-law had sold some of the land on the periphery, she said. And the remaining land was grabbed by their two neighbours, one of them a distant relative. I was there to see her sister-in-law, who was the widow of Madhav, Sohodev's elder brother. I figured that she was out, probably, working as a maid from house to house. When she came, I gave her saris, women's dresses, men's shirts and a sweater from my carry-on, and some cash, asking her jokingly: "Whose face did you see first this morning?" Her sister-in-law understood the Matlab superstition and claimed it was hers, with a smile.
I was in Matlab School on a day it was closed to students and staff, allowing me to relive a few moments. I entered a room adjacent to the west side of the school office. It was recently converted to teachers' room from a classroom, where I was writing a quarterly school test in 1961. In the middle of the test, Headmaster came to the class and called me out, "Tapan, let's go Baba," I knew what that call meant. Father was seriously sick in the morning.
I entered another classroom adjacent to the east of the school office. In it, the benches, the blackboard were arranged the same way as I had seen them in the early nineteen-sixties. "Take a picture of me, please!" I asked the school assistant, while standing on a sitting bench around the same spot in an empty class, in 2015, as I did in a full class, in 1963. I was serving then a penalty for the duration of the class, a penalty ordered by the class teacher. My offense was for tearing a class test paper he returned. I tore it not because the score was low; in fact, it was the highest in the class. I tore because a classmate was penalized for tearing his test paper. His score was low. I tore mine in protest, thinking his penalty of standing on a bench was too humiliating and did not fit his infraction. For me to protest a teacher's tyranny at such a young age, without any political exposure, suggests that fighting for fairness is a basic human instinct.
We then walked across the playground to the south-west corner to be inside the assembly hall by the school pond. There, I stood in front of the stage, where our annual prize-giving ceremony used to be held. I could visualize where the chief guest, the Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) from Chandpur, was seated in 1961. A Ghoshpara kid and I were approaching the stage, each holding a garland, while singing a song praising the guest --- his appearance, his demeanour, his power, his kindness --- timing our walk such that the critical moment of placing the garlands around his neck coincided with some specific words in the lyrics and the crescendo in the music, amidst a thunderous applause from a packed assembly. The lyricist, the composer and the coach were all one person --- my father, a school Sanskrit teacher. Father was gone, Headmaster was gone, the palash tree by the pond was also gone, but the assembly, a lifeless cavern, was still there to awaken my memories.
The current headmaster of Matlab High dropped by to get the assistant to run some errands for the school. He and I had already met near the office for a minute or two. The reception was polite, but unlike the one I had received at Amirabad School in Bishnupur, where I was never a student. If my Headmaster were there on that occasion, he would be showing me around, arranging a reception, the latter not so much for me as for his students, seizing the opportunity of motivating them by one of their own. The school's current state was described by an elderly villager aptly: "That Ram (a ruler) is gone; that Aujodhya (his land) is gone."
"You live abroad. Can I ask you a question?" a young man asked while pulling a chair to my left. "Sure," I said thinking that he might be interested in going there. Earlier he made an email request of links to my published works and YouTube postings. "Won't we get more respect (from other countries), if we were still part of Pakistan?" asked he. "Not really!" I said. "Did Sheikh Mujib really want independence?" he asked. He then turned to the current situation in the country. He tried to justify the cruel means --- hurling petrol bombs on innocents --- to achieve an end. "Indiscriminate killing of innocents can't be condoned," I said. He then transferred the blame of hurling bombs to the other side. Sensing the discussion was reaching a dead end, I said, "Humanity must override politics!" and left. I saw a ray of light in having the dialogue. He might not have accepted what I said then for the sake of winning a debate, but it might factor in a dialogue with himself later. For that to happen, he needed to be open-minded and flexible, though.
That night after dinner, I was lying inside the mosquito net in Room 203 at ICDDR'B Matlab. The wall-mounted TV was announcing more bombing, showing more gory photos from hospital rooms, and yet another deferment of the SSC exam by the exasperated Education Minister. The blades from the ceiling fan were swirling at full speed, blowing away the desperate mosquitoes, still trying to get in through a hole in the net or a gap between the net bottom and the bed. A dialogue within me was already taking place. "The party loyalists are too invested and too rigid," I reasoned. "For a democracy to work, more clear-thinking independents are needed," I concluded, while turning the lights off, leaving the fan on. (Later, I checked, out of curiosity, that 43 per cent of US voters in 2014 were independents, according to Gallup.)(The next instalment of this article will appear next week.)

Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher and an inventor, writes from Calgary, Canada

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