It was a fine morning on Sunday, the first day of the work week, and should be rush hour in Dhaka—loud and boisterous, traffic both on the streets and sidewalks, and different confusing lines of waiting-to-board people, occupying half of the streets. But today, the streets looked quiet and still and deserted. Almost everything was shut down. Sohani wished she’d have skived off work today. She had no idea that today would be the longest day of her life.
While very few buses were running, few street tea-stalls were open, and few people were seen out and about. Rickshaws dominated the empty streets. Something in everyone’s eyes, something in the air, too—smelled different.
Ma called three times this morning; her concerned voice implied why on earth you brave this horrible situation to go to office? It was needed because some papers must be sent to the central bank today, she told. To protest the proceedings at the war crimes tribunal, it was the first day of an unbroken three-day nationwide shutdown hartal, strike. She couldn’t be at home every time there was a strike. This was the final year of the government. Just like other elections in the past things would be like this throughout the year.
Every time Sohani saw hawks flying around in greater numbers, from her eighteenthfloor office, she knew something dreadful was coming. Last week on Wednesday, through plate-glass window of the office dining hall, hawks had caught her eye. She sighed. She wanted it to be wrong. Later, she would have had a dreadful experience that—especially a smell—would follow her many, many years.
While waiting for bus, she did a quick count with her fingers—sixteen weeks and five days. So many years, so many treatments, so many silent cries, and finally, hope at the end—another life inside her. Growing, developing and breathing. Almost instantly, a merely one-third full city bus came to a screeching halt. She boarded and avoided the window seat, fearful of being injured—as hartal picketers commonly smashed bus window glass everywhere. Commuters, mostly office-employees, seemed quite hushed today and their something-will-happen glances kept roving about outside. She felt nervous, started sweating under her breasts and right armpit. Nowadays, the protesters usually emerged on a street, all at once, from different directions, went on the rampage, and missed no chance of engaging in a hit-and-run attack on police. Yesterday, they brutally battered a policeman round the head with brick. No sooner she imagined that vicious assault than she was seized with sickness and whiff—the whiff that made her stomach turn, feel ill at ease. This was different, she knew, and it was not because of her pregnancy.
The last time she had this whiff, a relative died. She couldn’t explain the type of smell to her husband and he made a laugh about it. Still she couldn’t, she just could sense it. A dead smell. She opened her purse right away, grabbed a plum, and took a bite hoping to have the smell gotten rid of. She had a banana in her purse as well. Eating bananas during this time, according to her colleagues, makes the baby fair-skinned. She had stopped eating a number of fruits though, because most of them sold in the capital city were harmful, due to the use of formalin or other chemicals.
Travelers entered the bus at about every stop. Soon a man with grizzled hair and gaps in his teeth took her empty window-seat. She was a little acquainted with this gentleman—often caught him queuing up at the bus stop. She gazed out the window; the cool morning breeze hit her face. She enjoyed the greenery on road dividers; these street trees like many street children somehow would survive in the end. It was a beautiful country, she thought. But her eyes dimmed as she pictured that all women out on the streets had worn veils—from head to toe—only a hole for the eyes, all the sculptures at the road intersections had vanished overnight, no co-education and free mixing between men and women, no singing and dancing, no indecent, un-Islamic entertainment and culture. Lots of NOs around.
‘‘Bus fare please,’’ a nasal voice spoke.
She looked up at the conductor, bowled over, handed two notes for twenty five taka. She felt relieved, couldn’t picture any more that this country would end up like that. She’d been apathetic about the idea of leaving this country on her husband’s sporadic spur. These days she had mixed feelings, might immigrate if she got a female baby.
‘‘Face on the moon, face on the moon,’’ a ten-year newspaper boy jumped on board and chanted. Some hands waved at the boy to grab a copy. The man, sitting next to her, bought one.
‘‘What a fishy novel scheme to brainwash indigent villagers,’’ he said obstinately.
She learnt about it yester night on Facebook. Shortly after the special tribunal awarded a capital punishment to a Mollah for crimes against humanity during the country’s liberation war, the Islamic party activists went violent nationwide. The following day, they spread rumors that Mollah’s face was seen on the moon—circulating a photoshopped image of the moon with his face—through social media and phones.
‘‘Can you imagine announcements were made through loudspeakers of mosques for this?’’ He attempted to enter into conversation. ‘‘They should be charged with blasphemy.’’
She made no response, yet without having had a look around she was pretty sure, few pairs of eyes had fallen upon him. A blogger was stabbed to death two weeks ago for allegedly being an atheist and posting blogs against the Islamist party. People, at this time, were carefully avoiding making any comments whether in public or online, whereas the violence and unrest seemed never ending due to continuing trials of alleged war criminals.
She, physically, had never seen pro-hartal activists torching a bus, though it was happening quite a lot lately; the closest she had come was on a regular day six months back, when the engine of an unfit bus suddenly caught fire. She was passing the bus, on a rickshaw, suddenly heard loud noises and cries, especially a deep screeching voice of a woman, repeatedly, ‘‘I’ve a little daughter, please brother help me get out.’’ A benign man reached out to the overweight woman to climb down through window. But after coming out, the first thing the woman said, ‘‘Oh Allah, I forgot my American handbag in there.’’
Swelling police presence was pervasive—everywhere on street corners—many of them were relaxing on chairs. Rolling her eyes from outside, she glanced at her fellow-traveler’s newspaper. The headline read: Deadly clashes over war crimes left 60 people dead. The city still lived in the face of death. Still smiled. She sighed.
Traveling in a hartal day, whatever risk involved, was incredible, she thought. So did find the rickshaw riders—allowed to move freely on every street, and ended up making good money than normal days. On a typical day, it took more or less two hours to get to office, but in a hartal day—maximum twenty five minutes—no wait for buses and no traffic at all. In early days of marriage, she and her husband, once in a while, hanged about by rickshaw during hartals. ‘‘It’s risky,’’ her husband said one day, in his teacherly professional manner.
‘‘Dhaka is a wild and crazy place and we’ve to get a kick out of living in this raucous and sprawling old city,’’ she said, throwing his fears away.
The bus ran swiftly. The gentleman beside her, during the rest of the journey, spoke no more. Suddenly she wrinkled her nose, pressed her lips together, firmly, and then turned her face to the other side. The gentleman kept reading the paper attentively while his index finger’s got engaged in picking his nose. Shortly after the bus having drawn near Press Club, he gave a shout to halt, and descended hurriedly. Feeling relaxed she got a breath of fresh air. Three other passengers slowly reached the door to leave the next stop. The bus halted behind another one to drop the departees. A policeman was seen enjoying having tea with a cigarette right across the street from a tea-stall that had huge garbage piled up next to it.
‘‘Fire! Fire!’’ a shrilling voice calls from the bus.
Instinctively, all the heads turned back and jumped up on to their feet simultaneously. The back-seat passenger, a twenty-something-guy, pointed to the front, ‘‘that one, not ours.’’ By then the bus was in motion, took flight in a high speed.
‘‘Let me get off,’’ someone cried.
‘‘Oh shut up,’’ the driver barked.
Forgetting to breathe, with one arm resting on her belly, she went cold all over. Her hands were trembling. Out there was a space full of scream, smoke, fire, agitations, police whistle. Momentarily the scene broke the stillness of the morning. Panicked passengers, pushing one another blindly, battled to spring out of the bus door and jumped out of every safe window to escape the flame. Everything happened so fast and turned out an inferno. Through the back window of her bus, she watched in disbelieve the bus ablaze, just past. There, inside that bus, the flames grew larger like big strong waves as the fire spread. The smell of burning intruded her nostrils. Some passengers stuck their heads out of the bus windows to get a better view. ‘‘How evil,’’ one of them exclaimed.
‘‘I saw a little boy run away,’’ the young guy added.
‘‘They use little street boys for setting fire, throwing cocktails—pretty cheap to buy them,’’ he stated back.
The driver stopped the bus finally—keeping enough safe distance from a probable arson attack. All travelers hastily got off and, then, almost everyone looked behind. The spot was full of people then, the whole bus was in large flames, and a plume of heavy black smoke was visible into the morning sky. Amid the burning air, out of the blue, she got a whiff—a whiff of burning flesh—the sickening smell made her queasy. She turned and dashed towards her office. She almost didn’t hear one passerby say to a street tobacco vendor that two caught fire, and one woman was being burnt inside the bus.
Sohani glanced up at the sky. A group of hawks was flying around right over the water lily roundabout.
Published in The Penmen Review