Rani dreamt she was back in Jessore* once again. The green fields, the white clouds, the clusters of Kaash* flowers, her school – she saw them vividly. The bell had just rung and the children were streaming out steadily. It was happy hours for her and her friends. They ran in the field plucking flowers, collecting fodder for the cattle and singing in unison, the joyful tunes of Agomoni*. It was autumn – almost time for Maa Durga’s arrival. All of a sudden thick, dark nimbus clouds gathered in the sky, blocking out the sun, plunging them into darkness. The siren sounded and they ran helter-skelter, taking refuge under the bamboo hammocks. She motioned her friends to hide and remain inert. Soon, they heard a pair of boots trudging around heavily. The man in the boot poked and prodded everything around, checking for signs of life. That was when, she felt a sharp nudge. The stick was now poking her. It hurt. She covered her mouth. But, it was in vain. The poking increased in frequency and intensity. She let out a sharp cry. She woke up with a start, drenched in perspiration.
It was Purnima. The moon shone brightly. The boat was swaying gently. More than fifty people were huddled together in that tiny boat. Baba sat on the edge, casting furtive glances around. He looked tired, but he remained alert. Ma had dozed off, leaning against the bamboo partition. She slept hugging Rani with one hand and clutching her bundle in the other. Most of the occupants were asleep. There were men, women and children. While the men maintained a steady guard, keeping a close watch on the water around, the women had a tough time pacifying their hungry and exhausted children. There were babies who were being continuously suckled to prevent them from crying. The older children took turns with their mothers in looking after the younger ones. There was not a single elderly member in their group. They had been left behind, awaiting their tragic fate. The journey was too demanding for the old and the incapacitated.
Glimpses of that night came back to Rani. It was somewhere after midnight, when Rani was woken up. All she could hear were some hushed voices. She was about to shout out to her mother, when someone covered her mouth. She resisted for a while, till she saw the flickering light of the hurricane* advance towards her. There was her mother. Motioning her to be quiet, her dress was changed swiftly. Sweater and a cap were pulled over her. Woollen socks and her brother’s shoes were given to her to put on. She raised her eyes questioningly. But her mother refused to say anything. She put them on, thinking of the last time she had seen her brother and their last fight before he vanished that night.
As they stepped out of their modest little house, she saw her father waiting for them outside. No words were exchanged between them. She looked around for her ailing grandmother. “Ma, where is Nanima?” Her mother did not reply. Rani turned around to her baba. “Nanima?” There was only silence. He patted her head, hugged her tightly, before slinging her across his shoulders. And they began their long, arduous journey. As she sat atop her father’s shoulders, she had a feeling that this would be the last time she would see her village. Baba and Ma took turns in holding her. They must have walked for hours, for they reached the river before dawn. She had heard stories from her Nanima about the mighty river Padma. The river was a three-hour walk from their village. She saw her father strike a deal with a man and hurry back to them. ‘Good news. They will take us. There is still place for us. But, on one condition,’ explained Rani’s father. “What is it, baba,”queried the little girl. “Wwwhhat condition, Rani’s father,” stammered his wife. “No sound. Absolutely no sound. We can’t afford to make a single sound, Radha. In fact, no one on the boat can. And if anyone does, they will be thrown overboard. That is what they told me,” said the visibly sad man.
They waited for their turn to board. The boat was too small for the number of passengers. But, the people were willing to pay a lot of money. The boatman and the broker hated to lose this opportunity. They hurried up the process of boarding. The boat had to leave the shores before daylight. A single bundle was allowed per passenger. Radha had hurriedly packed a set of clothes for themselves, their wedding photograph, the amulet her son had worn, the vermillion holder gifted by her mother-in-law and some jewellery. Her husband had with him a diary, which had names of relatives in India, some cash and their passports. In their mind and in their hearts, they carried memories of a life they had lived on the other side of river Padma.
By the time, the boat was in the middle of the river, it was noon. It was hard keeping the children quiet. The youngest of the group was an eighteen-month baby, whose constant wailing disturbed the otherwise peaceful journey. Nothing worked. The baby wailed. The boatman warned them not once, but twice and threatened to take action. The wailing continued and with it, the rest of the children joined in a chorus. All of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, the tall, burly man -the one who had been guiding the boat, snatched the child from its mother and threw it into the river. The baby sank without a trace. The water bubbled for a while and then became still. The boat was ominously quiet. The mother of the baby sat still. The father held her, mourning their loss. The children had quietened down. They now knew what awaited them, if they complained. The journey continued.
The sun shone brightly. The last bread was gone. The last bottle of water had also disappeared. The hungry, exhausted passengers looked for some sight of land. Radha smoothened her child’s hair and caressed her, uttering words of comfort. She realised that her reserve of energy was dissipating fast. The last few days of anxiety and hunger was taking a toll on her. Her thoughts went back to that fateful day.
Ramen, their fourteen-year old son had not returned home. It was already dark and there was no sign of him. Her husband, Ram had organised a search party. They went around with lamps looking for him. The night passed away in dread and fear. As dawn broke, screams of the woman next door woke them up. Ramen had been found floating in the river Padma. Bloated and badly bruised, it was not hard to identify the cause of death. He had been bludgeoned to death. A note tied to his wrist had said, “go back to your land. Leave ours.” The discovery of the note sparked widespread tension and riots. Houses were set fire. Women were raped. Men were butchered. Babies were taken away. Theft and robbery became the norm. Ram knew that it was no longer safe for them to stay back. It was time to move. But Nanima! What would happen to her? How can she travel? They were saved from the dilemma when Nanima refused to budge from her village. She chose to stay back and await her fate, no matter what it had for her. Their plans of escape materialised when Ram came home with the news of a boat leaving for India that night. Radha thought about their modest house, which they had built painstakingly. Her thoughts raced back to her mother-in-law. She wondered how long the octogenarian would be able to pull through this.
The afternoon gave way to evening. The weather became cooler and bearable. But there was no sight of land. Irate passengers badgered the boatman for information.
“You told us two nights. But it’s almost two days. Where are we headed to?” The passengers demanded to know.
“The wind has turned in the opposite direction. I think there is a storm coming our way. We will take a minimum of three nights to reach our destination,” explained the tall man. Crestfallen, the passengers went back to counting hours and reminiscing about the life they had lost. By night, they were all quiet watching the sky and awaiting the premonition of a violent storm.
It began with a steady drizzle. There was no shelter they could turn to. The helpless souls sat cramped waiting for nature to unleash her fury. By then, Rani had discovered that her mother was senseless. Burning in fever, Radha was delirious. As the drizzle turned into heavy rain, Rani’s father tried in vain, protecting his wife from the downpour. The tremors increased. She spoke of her son. She cried out at the murderers, promising to take revenge some day. Sometimes, her voice would lose all the harshness and take on a pleading tone. She would cry and beg for her son’s life. Radha lay oblivious to the impending storm. She was fighting her own battle. The father and daughter sat through the night, comforting and caressing Radha, murmuring soft words into her ears. She calmed down finally. The storm had abated by then. Breathing a sigh of relief, Rani and her father fell asleep. They woke up with the sun. Rani’s father turned around to smoothen the covers on his wife only to find her cold. Startled, he shook her limp body. But nothing woke up the woman from her deep slumber. A dazed Rani sat looking at the two figures. In a span of two nights, she had lost her home and now, her mother. A water burial, was what the boatman suggested. “There is no point carrying a dead body around,” he explained. “Look at the space the body is occupying. Rather, throw her into the River Padma and make space for everyone on the boat.” There was no other way out. Rani planted a kiss on her mother’s cold cheeks, hugged her one last time before they threw her off the boat. A passenger on the boat, who claimed to be a Brahmin, volunteered to chant some verses praying for Radha.
Weak and fatigued, the passengers awaited the sight of land. Out of the fifty odd passengers, there were very few who still sat strong. The children were almost on the verge of collapse. The women sat transfixed. While some looked up at the sky, their hands joined in a prayer, there were some who were in a daze. The men tried to put up a brave front, but failed miserably.
It was late in the night, when the oarman shouted, “land, land, I can see land”. There was a brief spark as the passengers shouted in joy. But, the supervisor barked his orders. “No sound. We don’t want anyone to know that we are dropping our oars here.”
‘Slop, slop’ was the only sound that the oars made as they hit against the water making way for the cramped boat. They had almost reached the shore when a steady barrage of fire disrupted the silence. The supervisor rushed out crying, “We don’t mean any harm. We are here to seek refuge…we..” He was cut short as a bullet pierced him on his chest. More and more passengers fell prey to the bullets. Not even children were spared that night. Some fell into the water. Some lay injured, writhing in agony. The gunmen aimed their guns and silenced the moans forever.
That night Padma claimed many lives as her own. But no, not Rani and Ram. Had it not been for her father, she would have been killed that night. Her father had pulled her down underneath the wooden bunk, spread their bodies out and laid prostrate for hours. They did not remember how long they had lain that way.
As the first rays of the sun hit them, they gathered their senses. There were dead bodies strewn around. The sight was gory. They were about to step out of the boat when they heard voices. Sick with worry, they went back to their hiding place. The voices drew closer. They heard men talking amongst themselves, expressing shock and sadness over the carnage that had happened last night. Rani looked at her father. Yes, she was right. These men did not sound enemies. They might help them out. Ignoring her father’s silent pleas, Rani stepped out.
There were soldiers everywhere. Dead bodies were being lifted out of the water and arranged on the funeral pyre. A living form shocked them and momentarily stalled all activities. A young soldier let out a whoop of joy and rushed in to scoop up the little girl. Ram was also brought out of the boat. A senior official checked their documents and gave them permission to enter the nearest refugee camp. They would be allowed to recuperate there for a couple of days till the Government came up with a plan. Fresh, dry clothes were handed out. Food was offered to them. It was time to move them to the camp. But Rani had a request.
“Sir, kindly allow me to go back to Padma for the last time.”
“Padma? Who’s she? Why didn’t you tell us that you have another member with you. That’s okay. You don’t need to go to her. I will send my men to fetch her. Don’t worry, khuki*,” assured the officer.
“No, no, Sir. We don’t have anyone else with us. We left our Nanima behind. She is too old to travel. Dada was killed by our enemies. Ma died on her way here. Before we start a new chapter on the Indian soil, I have to go back to Padma one last time, Sir. I have to tell her how grateful I am to her.”
The man looked surprised. “You mean Padma, the river?”
“Yes sir. I have to bid a proper farewell to her.”
As the men stood dumbfounded, Rani ran her way back. She carried with her a little bottle. Filling the bottle from the river, she held her hands under the cool water for sometime, feeling it flow past her. She kept mumbling and shaking her head.
“Oh Padma, I grew up listening to stories about you from my grandmother. I dreamt of you every night – the mighty, beautiful Padma. I learnt much later about my brother’s gruesome murder. He was left on your lap battling for his last breath. I know you must have held him with great care and taken his pains away. My mother had immense faith in you. She knew you would transport us to a better future. And now she rests in peace in your loving arms. We are embarking on a new chapter. I cannot leave behind my legacy here. I carry in this bottle, the last remnants of my home. I don’t know when I will return. But I carry with me, a part of you, dear Padma. Farewell, Padma. Till we meet again.”
Jessore: A City in Bangladesh
Kaash: long-stemmed white flowers, which bloom in autumn heralding Durga Puja
Agomoni: Songs, which signify Devi Durga’s arrival
Hurricane: A lamp with an oil wick
Khuki: An young girl
Author’s note: The cover picture is contributed by the author’s friend Mr Chiroranjan Bose and shall not be used in any form without prior permission of the author.
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