Some wounds only death can heal
I remember it very vividly; I had driven down in my 99 Honda Civic which was a hand-me-down from my dad. The weather was surprisingly brisk considering fall had shot shades of winter in its early days.
I walked up to my uncle’s door and found it unlocked, as always, and announced my entrance to the house. Silence was scattered around the house. All I could hear was the dishwasher running in the kitchen. I followed my usual trail up to the top level and towards my grandfather’s room. After three knocks and a slight nudge at the door, I was in his room.
Dada jaan was taking a nap and I could hear his heavy, muffled breathing from the quilt he lay under. I sat on a chair nearby and just soaked up his presence in the room. Dada jaan had a sixth sense that allowed him to sense people in his midst, but it seemed to have worn off, considering I had been there for minutes and he still seemed to be unaware of my presence. After a brief moment, that seemed to have stretched on for hours. He coughed and searched for the water bottle on his bedside table, I obliged and greeted him.
“Anwar!” he exclaimed and reached for a hug. I embraced him in my arms. He felt weak and frail and if I had hugged him too tightly, I might have broken him.
“Dada jaan, how are you?” He tried to sit upright and I helped.
“I am good son. I am just waiting for the inevitable now.”
“Oh don’t talk like that. If I give you a can of Red bull right now, you could beat me in an arm-wrestling match.” He chuckled and coughed simultaneously.
His eyes had deep dark circles beneath them and his skin lay droopy, barely sticking to his face. His hair was covered under a skull cap that he never took off and his neck was engulfed in multiple layers of scarves.
“Should I make you some soup?”
He shook his head. “Just sit with me son,” he said. I sat upright on the wooden chair.
The sun was peeking through the window but it barely illuminated the dark room. All that could be heard in our spaces was my grandfather’s heavy will to breathe another breath.
There comes a time when you feel like all you want to do is trade all the expandable moments that you’ve lived for the time you could have spent with the people you love. In that moment, I had a strong sense of urgency; I yearned to find a time machine. That way, I could salvage lost time and spend it with the man that battled every second for another breath, on that cold and wooden bed.
“Tell me a story,” I said, almost subconsciously. He looked at me, his eyes heavy and gave me a weak smile.
“What would you like to hear son?” His voice was still filled with that warm compassion that I was used to.
“Anything Dada jaan.”
I just wanted to hear him speak, no matter what it was that he spoke of; the dense cloud of silence kept weighing me down in that room. He took a deep sigh.
“Have I told you how I met your Dadi jaan?” he asked.
Once I thought hard about it, I could recall him telling us how he had met her; it was before India had partitioned into two sovereign states. My grandfather used to work as a conductor in the railways, and my grandmother was his neighbour back in his village. When the country split, he had the task of moving his village safely across the border into East Pakistan. During that train ride, he had fallen in love with her, and asked her father for her hand.
“Yes,” I replied. “I love that story.”
He gave a soft chuckle as he replayed that train ride in his head.
“She was the best woman I’ve ever met.” He said, the smile still glued to his face.
He rarely talked about her. Apart from that story, we had never really spoken about Dadi jaan.
“I’ll tell you another story then, one I don’t like to retell. But I feel like you should know. As a young man your age, you will be faced with daunting tasks. Tasks that wouldn’t necessarily be of the same ferocious nature that my tasks have been, but they might bring you down, just the same. Take it as a life lesson, if you will.”
I sat up right and Dada jaan cleared his throat.
“In the December of 1971, Dhaka fell. East Pakistan separated itself from the West and became its own country, Bangladesh. Then, a nationwide massacre ensued. Townships fell and people were slaughtered on whim. Injustice and lawlessness became rampant. If you didn’t speak their language, your head would be instilled atop a spear, lined against the rest of the people who are just like you. There was no mercy. There was no pity.
Your grandmother and I lay hostage to the chaos surrounding us. Where could we go? What could we do? With two little boys at our retention, we were handicapped. We were safe as long as the mob did not invite itself in our village. But we knew it was all a matter of time before they did. We slept, not knowing if we would see the light of day again. Every night could have been our last one.
We started looking for an escape. Your grandmother was a strong woman – a very rare breed of her kind. She began talking to the other women of the village, and started gathering information. It was the boys she was worried about the most. They were young, your father and uncle. They had barely seen any life outside the village. Living in that fear-struck parish was the last place she would want to raise our children.
Her days and efforts finally paid off when she learnt of a bus that drove just at the outskirts of Dhaka, over the border into India and then a train would take the passengers straight to Karachi. The sound of that plan delighted her, and I myself was relieved to hear of a way out. We started packing for our journey. We kept only the important supplies: some food, water, dry clothes and a pouch full of money – things that would not burden us. In the dead of night, we found ourselves afoot on the dusty trails to Dhaka.”
Dada jaan sat with his eyes closed, trying to reimagine the chaos that he once sat amidst.
Moments passed. His heavy breathing appeared to have calmed down. He sat in a state of serenity. He opened his eyes and began again.
“I held your father in my arms, your uncle and grandmother walked alongside. We had started our journey at dusk, and walked nonstop till we were a few miles away from the supposed bus stop. We were tired and our rations had run out. Your father was still too little, and constantly complained on that trip. We decided to rest at a nearby hut that ran for the truckers and bus drivers.
The clouds above us rumbled loudly and a downpour began unexpectedly.
It rained heavily for hours. It was quite dark, with some light peeking through thick grey clouds along the horizon. The bus was supposed to leave by dawn and we still had at least an hour of travel left. Your father had napped on my shoulders and your uncle swayed along, sleep deprived. It was a rash decision I had to make, which your grandmother was not in favour of. We began walking towards the bus stop again, drenched in the hopes of a better life for our sons.
Had I known then what I know, I would have turned back. But I didn’t.
We reached the bus stop at the crack of dawn. Almost half a dozen other families stood waiting for this transport and we stood along in the queue. I held your uncle’s hand as your father lay asleep on my shoulders and your grandmother stood close behind keeping your uncle in check.
I started talking to a man that led his family to safety at the brink of being slaughtered. He said that the mob had heard of this station and might come for it later. That worried us, as it should have, and waiting for the vehicle became that much more unpleasant.
Almost half an hour had passed, and the light behind the darkened clouds had illuminated the day. Most people thought that the bus would most likely not come, and that we were up for bait, helpless and open. Your grandmother was of the few that remained hopeful, bringing a sense of peace to my soul.
It was a short time that felt like an eternity when the bus came to our rescue. Like a dot in the distance, the bus grew into its size and was before us in minutes. We stood at the end of the line, relaxed and joyous that finally the torments of the world, as we knew it, would end. The first two families had just boarded the bus when he heard it.
We heard the gunshots before we saw them trail. They came in jeeps and cars, carrying military sized weapons and drunk on their own insanity. Similar to the bus, they appeared as dots that slowly came into their own as the miles between us lessened. The two families before us panicked and started delaying their own boarding on the bus. I ordered the kids to not let go of our hands while I pushed for us and made way for the gate. I could hear the roar of their reckless engines and I shoved the bystanders out of the way. When I pushed my way to the front I had your uncle’s hand in mine and I urged him inside the vehicle.
Your father had woken up from the gunfire and he had his arms wrapped around my neck like a snake. I tried to let go of it but he would not budge. All along the way, the sounds of the engines grew louder. I screamed at him to let go but he wouldn’t listen. The cars were now at a stone-throwing distance. The sharp shooters on board, their deadly caravan started taking aim. The sounds of deafening gunfire dulled my loud scold to your father. Among the chaos of the assault, I had no idea I had let go of your grandmother’s hand.”
He squinted his eyes to hold back his tears. I sat at the edge of my seat because I knew where the story was about to lead. Somehow, someway, I wanted it to stop there.
“Your father screamed first before I turned to see the horrors myself. Bodies dropped like dead flies, one on top of the other. Amongst them lay your grandmother; bloody and half alive. Before I could register what had happened, the bus moved and in the rush of the moment, I jumped in with your father still in my arms.”
Dada jaan remained quiet for a long time, sinking into the silence of the room. I felt a tear trickling from the corner of my eye and I wiped it off before he could see it.
“I think your father has never forgiven me for that,” he said. “What it must be like to see your own mother like that for the last time.”
He shook his head. I sat there silently, unable to express anything. My grandfather was a hero. My grandmother was a hero. They had raised gladiators and I was unaware. I was born in a family of surviving warriors and it took me a minute to take that all in.
“You know, this world is cruel and unfair as I learned, but somehow, there is solace in our pains. I am here before you, not even half the man I was in 1971, but I am stronger. My will to live and to catch that last, extra breath has stayed stagnant in me. But even I know my time is near,” he smiled at me, “I will meet her once again won’t I?”
He did not wait for me to respond. Looking down, he grabbed my hand and held it in his. His skin was pale and his veins were so prominent, I could count them all if he let me.
Dada jaan died on a Friday morning, soundless and in his sleep. There is something to be said about a man with a will to survive. For I knew after that dreadful morning, in all walks of his life, whenever he turned around he saw his wife, my grandmother. She did not lie defenceless, owing to her untimely death, but smiling brightly through her teeth, patiently waiting for them to be reunited.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.