Dedicated to the 50th Independence Day of Bangladesh on March 26, 2021
The phone rings; it’s a call from my sister. I pick it up and hear her excited voice.
I gasp and respond, “What did you say? Tappu is potty-trained? Wow! She is potty-trained at two and a half? That is such a big milestone. You should get tickets for Disney! I’d heard that parents must take their kids to Disney to see ‘Tinkerbell’ as soon they become potty-trained.”
I can hear my sister’s laughter over the line. I smile but then continue,
“My Gappu’s condition is terrible, though. She is four-years-old, but I am still changing her diapers.
“Oh, don’t worry so much, Anando!” my neighbor Heidi said. “She is not going to go to Harvard like that!”
“Just tell me what I should do,” I plead. “I should let Gappu out with my two dogs in the yard this Summer. At least then, she might learn something from them. Snow will start falling any day now. Summer is short in Wisconsin! It would be great if somehow, she could get trained before that.”
I sigh and continue, “I am going totally crazy, you know. Gappu and her older sister were born so close together. One is hanging from the front, and another is dangling from my back. And I am making organic apples and carrot puree all day long!”
Asru asks me a question.
“What are you saying now?” I reply. “No, I have not mixed water in anything till now. I am pumping and using breast milk in everything. They have lots of good recipes in ‘Cooking for Babies and Toddlers.’”
“Peek A Boo!” I hear the excited cry of a mischievous four-year-old, though I don’t know where it came from.
“Oof, where is she hiding now? Hey, I will talk to you later, ok? I have to find her now. You all take care, Ok? Bye for now.”
Asru, Mom, and I are all cramped into our small bathroom. My dad grips a crowbar in his hand. He is hiding next door, under the living room bed. The bed presses against the bathroom doors, forcing them closed.
If the Pakistani military wants to enter the house, they’ll have to deal with Dad before even thinking about touching Mom, Anando, or me.
During the whole night, rustling sounds, and the thudding of heavy footsteps keep us on edge. Is it the sound of a peaceful night? Or is it the sound of death?
My little sister starts crying, and her quiet sobs harmonize with the sounds of the night.
“Kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hands.” These words, uttered by the Pakistani President, Yahya Khan, are the words that drove the Pakistani military into action. These words led to the night of March 25th, 1971: the darkest night in the history of Bangladesh.
The silence of that quiet night was broken by tanks on the streets of Dhaka. Millions of people in Bangladesh woke up to the thudding of bombs and bullets, not the chirping of birds. This kicked off one of the largest genocides in world history.
But we survived that dark night. We woke up the next morning and found the marks of heavy boots on our front veranda. We couldn’t understand why they had not broken down the door and killed us all.
Well, life can escape from death’s doors just once. So, we knew we couldn’t turn back. All our friends and family had fled, the way a deer skitters away after surviving a run-in with a Hyena. When life hands you a miracle, you take it and run.
We didn’t have any idea what direction to go. We just ran towards the horizon, keeping one foot in front of the other. With peace and order breaking down into chaos, the only law that remained was that of the Jungle.
I was four-years-old, and my sister was only one when we were forced to leave the country. The Pakistani Army chased us with their rifles, with the Razakars showing them the way.
The year was 1971, and we were caught amidst the Independence Movement of Bangladesh and the resulting bloody backlash from Pakistani troops.
I didn’t get to celebrate the typical milestones a child reaches. I could only celebrate the miles we passed on foot, with the constant knowledge that we had hundreds of miles left before we could rest.
My sister, Asru, visibly suffered from the harsh measures we took to survive. I remember my mother, weeping, “This kid is looking exactly like a Biafra baby. I brought back such a beautiful baby while returning from London! She was like a Persian rose. Mosquitos and flies even mistook her as a flower, circling her all day long. We had to hang mosquito nets above her, even during the day. And look at our situation now! I can only give her boiled barley- my baby has become malnourished!”
My mom’s sorrow increased with every passing day.
“Oh, do not think so much, Ranu! Right now, just keep the two kids alive. Once the country becomes independent, we will get food.” My dad could always reassure my mom, providing a bit of comfort in the middle of constant chaos.
We found refuge at some point in a small village, far from my home of Dhaka. I had never stayed in a village before, and I was in awe of the beautiful, orange flowers of the Burflower-tree and the soulful gaze of the cow. It seemed so strange in that little pocket of peace, where all one could do to pass the time was appreciate the beauty of nature. It was a stark contrast to the cruel nature of mankind that I had been running from for the past few weeks.
However, that pocket was just that: a small moment in a much larger timeline. Soon enough, I had to leave the Burflower-tree and cowherds behind. We continued running to our next destination.
“Sit down. Sit down. Sit on the grass. The fireworks are going to start any minute now. Cinderella Castle has already turned from blue to violet. Symphonies are playing in the background.”
“Quiet. Quiet. Right there, Jiminy Cricket has started speaking. Listen. The blue fairy is speaking.
“When stars are born, they possess a gift or two. They have the power to make a wish come true.”
There goes a shooting star from this side of the sky to the other side. Little girls have started singing,
‘Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight,
I wish I may I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight…’
On the top of the Cinderella castle, a five-cornered star crumbles into little specks of light rain.
“Oh, how do they do these?”
Claps, there are claps everywhere. Black child, yellow child, brown child, golden child – everybody giggles out loud.
Jiminy Cricket continued, “Wishes can come true. And the best part is, you’ll never run out. They’re shining deep down inside of you.”
The whole sky is full of blue, red, and golden lights.
“What is that? What is that on that side, the one flying like a comet? Oh, I can’t understand which way to look. Left, right, it is all so mesmerizing!”
“Look, look, look up. Look above your head. A true human Tinkerbell. Look how she is hanging and sliding from the wire and going to Tomorrowland from Cinderella castle.”
Tappu squealed in glee and pressed her mom’s hands.
Titli, who was five years older, said, “Oh, Mom, you are crying! If you like this one so much, you must see Gandalf’s Fireworks. He makes the best kind. He makes moving and spiral fireworks. Real ones, you know. There will be rockets of birds singing…green trees with trunks of dark smoke…fountains of butterflies flying into the trees…pillars of colored fire that would be turning into eagles…sailing ships…swans…red thunderstorm…a shower of yellow rain…a forest of silver spears….a life-like dragon*…Oh you just name it, Mom, just name it!”
(* J.R.R.Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Rings)
Somebody nearby just says, “Ah, shh!”
The whole sky is filled with Cinderella, Ariel, Pinocchio…They are floating there…
By then, the choir has started singing too-
‘Fate is kind… Fate is kind…
When you wish upon a star…
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you
If your heart is in your dreams
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do
Fate is kind…
Like a boat out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through…
Your dreams come true…
When you wished upon a star
Your dreams come true…’
(Lyrics: When You Wish Upon A Star – (From “Pinocchio”) / Louis Armstrong)
So much light! So much light all around!
A truck stops in front of the house.
“Take them, take them away. Take Anando and Asru from here. Go to the neighbor’s house, somehow keep them over there.”
Hahaha…yes, these are the fancy names given by my dad. Anandomayee and Asrumayee. Shortened as Anando and Asru. Together, Anandasru – meaning tears of joy. When we started going to school, we both sisters broke a few pencils to write our names. However, whenever my grandmother used to call us each afternoon for a snack in a hurry, it was,
“Anandasru, come along now. Have some milk and rice. Quick, quick. Come quick! The milk is becoming cold!” – the whole house used to giggle in laughter.
But now, let’s not talk about warm milk and rice.
They are bringing down a dead body from the truck.
I peeked and saw a strange blue mark on his throat.
Yes, we found the dead body in his room.
Many years later, when I was forty-two years old, I told my mother about the blue mark on my dad’s throat.
“You could not have seen the dead body. We sent you and Asru to the neighbor’s house. But there was indeed a blue mark. How did you know?”
“Well, four-year-olds are the most inquisitive animals!”
It is becoming dark. I am sitting on Rangpur’s Pakhibabu’s veranda, and my legs are all spread out. It seems that the Pakistanis have killed a person like Pakhibabu also! Mosquitoes are hovering over me, the size of sparrows! I slap the mosquito and look at the blood of the mosquito on my hand.
I ask my aunt, “Monima, tell me. Where is my dad? When is he coming back?”
Though there were lots of mosquitoes all around, it was not all depressing out there in the suburb of Rangpur. There were still lots of bamboo groves out there behind Pakhibabu’s house. And there was still a beautiful full moon above the bamboo grove with breathtaking beauty.
My aunt searched for but couldn’t find any good answer to give to a four-year-old. So, pointing at the first star that jumped up in the sky above the bamboo grove, she told me,
“You know when people die, they become a star in the sky. From now on, you will be able to see your dad at dusk every day.”
“Oh, really? That is so wonderful! I heard that my dad was very smart. But such intelligence? Has he become a real star in the sky now? Wow! That is amazing!”
The Rangpur house had a red color cement floor. I remember how I used to love that red color. Through the window grill, I used to see a mother holding one hand of a girl. Dad is holding the other hand. The kid’s feet are not touching the ground. She is holding her mom and dad’s hands and swaying in the air forward, backward, and moving. Till today, I love the glimpse of that picture much more than Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflower’ painting.
My grandmother is calling me. I go and park myself up on her bed. Now it is letter-writing time. It is two o’clock in the afternoon. Every day at this time, I learn to read and write from my grandmother. I was a very early learner. I had learned all the 11 vowels and 40 consonants of the Bengali alphabet when I was just three-years-old. I do practical experiments now. I learn to write letters. I have filled up a big red-white empty powder milk jar named ‘Dano’ with all the letters I have written to my dad. Why should I feel sad? Why should I worry? The moment we get my dad’s address, we are going to post all my letters.
“Oof, look at that. Look at that. How did they make it? The ‘Tinkerbell’ costume looks so real! Buy it. Please buy it for her quickly. It would have been a great miss if we did not use the timeshare to come to Disney this year. I did not see it last year. I want to fly right now.”
“Show me, show me your ‘pixie dust’. Wow! So beautiful! It is so sparkly! Scatter it. Scatter it in the air. Let me see whether you can truly fly or not!”
I start flying.
Flying is not that difficult, you know. Whenever you do not like anything around you anymore, you just bend forward a little, and then place a bit of pressure on your big toes. Spread both your hands like wings. Yes, close your eyes. For any good deed, you need to always close your eyes. That’s it. See, it is so easy!
I am flying. I am flying in fear. I see a small room. In that room, they have piled up people like rice sacks. Their hands are tied behind. There is a big fire in the middle of the room. The Pakistanis will come and then throw these people in the fire, one by one like rice sacks.”
A human being’s dreams do end. But their nightmares never end…
The night becomes dark. From the other room, grandfather’s voice can be heard.
“Moni, why are you teaching the little one to dance at three in the morning?” That to ‘Oh beautiful, you came in my sleep. I bow to you. I bow to you!’
“What can I do, Dad, she is not sleeping! After she lost her dad, this has started. A four-year-old girl. The whole night long, she just stares at the ceiling with her big, doe eyes!”
Anando looks at the floor. There is this big, round-bellied, black bug crawling across…
I feel so scared whenever I see a black bug like that! Still, I tell myself, if I could gulp down that black bug somehow, I am sure my dad will come back.
I take one or two steps forward. But then I come back.
Fear never makes a human being out of a man!
My dad also never comes back!
After that, it becomes so important to take care of a four-year-old and a one-year-old little girl in that household that nobody ever discusses death. In that house, nobody ever sheds a single drop of tear.
And at last, a four-year-old girl named Anando also learns to fly. She learns how to wait for all kinds of fruitless love of this world effortlessly. She learns it very naturally – just the way she breathes air. Nothing makes her breathless, ever.
Kalyani Rama is a Bangladesh-born Bilingual author. She has seven published books in Bengali. Kalyani has written for the newspaper ‘The Wisconsin State Journal’, and other literary magazines. Kalyani has received her Bachelor of Technology degree from IIT, Kharagpur, India in Electronics and Electrical Communication Engineering. She is an Application Development Senior Engineer by profession and works in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. Kalyani was four years old during the Bangladesh War of Independence. She lost her dad in the war. Kalyani loves listening to people, animals, and trees.