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The Flag: A story

  • Published at 10:06 pm December 16th, 2020
The Flag
Jahid Jamil

Short Fiction

(Translated by Arifa Ghani Rahman)

Maidul’s mother was skinny—a strong wind could have blown her away. Her anemic face was framed by thin runaway strands of unoiled hair. This was how she came alive in the photo frame for Maidul. He had never seen his mother laugh aloud; he’d rather seen her cry sometimes, especially when Baba beat her up for no reason, or maybe Baba didn’t even need a reason to hurt her. Ma cried soundlessly. Only when he went near her did he hear the wet sounds, like the breeze flowing through rain clouds. Maidul was afraid to offer his mother solace—his father had once given him a ringing blow to the ear for an attempt like that. Still he would sit by her, one of her hands in his, playing with the enormous silver bangle wrapped unbecomingly around her skeletal wrist. Ma did not pull away, but with her other hand would wipe her tears or run it through his hair that was unoiled and uncombed too. Sometimes, when his father hit his mother, Maidul thought of jumping him, of pushing him, of throwing him out of the house or into the pond. Sometimes, he fumed and muttered in anger, but his mother said nothing. How would she? Ma was mute. Her hearing was okay, though. She listened to everything Maidul said and replied with her eyes. He had no trouble reading her eyes.

One afternoon, as he sat down for lunch, Baba arrived home with a veiled woman. A couple of hours later, Ma, with Maidul’s hand grasped in hers, set off for her father’s home. It was the month of Baishakh. The fields were cracking in the heat and heatwaves emanated from the earth. The sky was like an upturned kadai, burning in the fire of some stove. Ma was ill—one of her hands was injured while carrying home the filled water vessel and it had swollen up. Ma’s feet were to blame though, not the vessel. The muddy edge of the pond was slippery; Ma hadn’t noticed. In fact, Ma took notice only of Maidul and little else. It was with Maidul that she headed out, with all her worldly belongings in a bundle on her shoulder. Maidul was surprised to think that a part of his own seven-year-old life could be accommodated so easily in that bundle.

His Nana’s home was about four miles away. They would have to walk along the bank of the Ratna river and cross a field at the end of the next village to get there. The wind had picked up soon after they started out. The sky had been gloomy since afternoon, like Maidul’s face. Suddenly there was agitation—one end of the sky grew pitch black, like the bottom of Ma’s pot in which she had cooked potatoes with pumpkin and what not. That pot was now standing silently in a corner of the kitchen, where Ma would often sit, clutching her head between her hands. The curry and the rice in another pot had not been eaten today. Did Baba eat? Did the veiled woman serve Baba the food? He didn’t know, nor did he want to think about it.

Maidul’s mother pulled at his hand and he looked at her. Ma’s eyes said, “There’s a storm brewing. We’d better hurry.”

Just as they made it to the shelter of a gigantic ashwattha tree, a terrifying storm hit with strong winds, stinging dust, blinding lightning, and deafening thunder. They sat huddled together under the tree. But was it even possible to sit there? Maidul felt that the wind would blow them away to some distant village where there would be a small hut made of bamboo and tin with a tiny yard and pond; where Ma would light up the stove again, cook potatoes with pumpkin in one pot and rice in another. Then she would smile lightly and open her eyes to say, “Are you very hungry, my love? Come, have some food.”

Maidul was terribly hungry, and sleepy too. But he feared that Ma might be blown away and so he held on to her–sleep was out of the question now. He looked around, eyeing the whirlwind blowing around him. He noticed a flock of iora birds—no, not iora—these were smaller. These were golden orioles, much like the martins. They were trying to take shelter under the tree too. Maidul was amazed to see them alive, let alone flying around in this impossible storm. He saw his mother watching the birds too, but as he stared at them, he noticed the storm had broken the wings of some of them and they had been tossed all over the place. One of the birds fell right in front of him. Ma quickly picked it up and sheltered it with the end of her sari. How beautiful that yellow bird looked, and how its colour contrasted with the green of Ma’s sari. But the bird could not be saved. Ma signalled Maidul to avert his eyes. He obeyed. Ma threw the bird away behind the tree and wiped her eyes. Perhaps some dust had got into them.

The storm raged and the rain fell in torrents, thunder growling all around. Another noise joined the din—the cracking of a branch. The noise was enough to wake the dead! As the branch made its descent, Ma looked up in the direction of the sound. She stood quickly, pulling at Maidul and, with that skinny hand of hers, she pushed him. The force of the push threw him some distance away.

It was indeed strange that a swollen, twisted hand could shove with such force! Whoever heard of such a thing?

Maidul remembers clearly—a daily habit now—a thick, dark branch under the green leaves, the end of a green sari, a bit of Ma, her face covered by her thin hair, a bit of blood colouring her forehead, half-closed eyes as if she hadn’t quite fallen asleep even though she looked tired. The rest of Ma was hidden underneath the branch and leaves. There were a few orioles stuck within the folds of Ma’s sari—like a depressing carnival of yellow, green, and red.

2

Maidul was in Class Five. He went to school every day, books on his back. There was a variety shop by the school where the owner, Sabdar Miah, sold pencils, exercise copies, chocolates, and so on. One day, much to his irritation, Sabdar Miah said to Maidul, “Don’t talk to that fellow Mohsin again. If you do, I will tell your father.”

Mohsin Ali, a college student, was Nizam Ali’s youngest son from his village. Ali was a member of the Awami League, as was his son. Maidul understood none of this. He just liked Mohsin who sometimes gave him treats. He called him Bhai out of respect. Mohsin had told him one day, “This time, Ehiya Khan is done for. Ehiya Khan drinks. Now that will be the end of it.”

Maidul had no idea what “drinks” meant, but he understood that it was a bad thing. He told Sabdar, “Ehiya Khan is done for. He drinks.”

Sabdar yelled at him angrily. “If you repeat what you said, I will kill you.”

Maidul was surprised. “Ehiya Khan is a bad man. Don’t you know that?” he asked.

Sabdar sprang out of his shop and grabbed Maidul’s collar: “Who said that? Who said Ehiya is bad? Are you an Indian, huh?”

Maidul managed to struggle free and run off while Sabdar stood there, trembling with anger.

Mohsin Bhai summoned Maidul one day. He had a small piece of cloth in his hand: green, with a red centre and some yellow inside it. He tied the cloth to the end of a bamboo pole and handed it to Maidul.

“What is this?” asked Maidul.

Mohsin Ali laughed. “What is this? I won’t tell you. Figure it out.”

Maidul knew that had Mohsin stayed another couple of minutes, he could have found out but Mohsin was busy, always in a hurry. He had many more of these pieces of cloth and bamboo poles in his hand and was handing them out to all passersby.   Okay. So what if Mohsin Bhai was busy, Sabdar Miah was not. He was lounging in his shop. So he went and asked Sabdar, “What is this? Do you know what this is?” 

The cloth hanging from the pole shook Sabdar out of his reverie. The muscles on his face hardened and the hair under his skullcap seemed to stand on end. Eyes fiery, he blurted out, “Are you joking with me, boy?” He leaped out of the shop and grabbed his collar, landing some blows on his back. Mohsin Bhai was nearby and came running at Maidul’s screams. Who knows what would have happened that day had he not come to his rescue. At the sight of Mohsin, Sabdar leaped back into his shop and softened his voice, “He was being insolent, Mohsin Bhai.”

Mohsin pulled Maidul up from the ground where he had fallen. The piece of cloth too had fallen. Mohsin, picking it up and placing it in his hand, said, “This flag of Bangladesh is not meant to be on the ground; it should be flying in the air. Here.”

Image of the first flag of the country, which was widely circulated while the 1971 Liberation War was going on. As he stared at the flag, Maidul suddenly pictured that Baishakhi scene. A pastiche of green, red and yellow flashed through his mind. Could he ever outlive the memory of that day! he wondered. He removed the flag from the pole and folded it up to fit into his chest pocket. He placed his hand on the pocket as if to feel the warmth of its existence. As he returned home, he felt a sense of peace from that spot on his chest touching the flag.

But that peace happened to be short lived. Seeing his soiled clothes, his father slapped him, and as a result, his heart began to ache again. 

Did the caress of the flag ease his pain? 

Who knows! Whoever heard of a small piece of cloth possessing such power?

3

Sabdar Miah had tied Maidul’s hands behind his back. Then he had walked him half a mile off. He had been on the lookout for the boy after his last trip to the army camp. So when he saw Maidul in front of his store, he had leaped out and started roughing the boy up. Maidul had cried, “Why are you doing this?” But Sabdar had threatened, “If you say another word, I will bury you! And before I do that, I will cut the veins of your ankles.” Maidul was too scared to open his mouth after that. There were few people on the street—and those who were, appeared to stiffen at the sight of Sabdar Miah, and made way for him. No one asked why or where he was taking Maidul. 

They first crossed a marketplace on the Ratna river. Sabdar came to a halt in front of a yellow one-story building and pushed Maidul inside. Maidul was dead tired. He wanted some water. The sun was really harsh that day and it was afternoon. But all thoughts of thirst disappeared when he saw before him four or five uniformed men with guns. Maidul recognised them—Pakistani military. He had heard Baba speak of them just this morning. He had even heard Baba say that they had burned down the fishermen’s houses in the eastern side of the village. 

Sabdar was speaking to the military in a strange tongue. He was laughing, rubbing his hands together, and addressing them as “Sir” repeatedly. And yet, these men were not teachers like Gofran Sir or Prodyut Sir! Sabdar suddenly thrust his hand into Maidul’s pocket and, when he removed it, out came the flag of Bangladesh.

One of the soldiers came forward and untied Maidul’s hands, and then, with one swift movement, pulled down his pants. Perhaps the button on his pants was ripped off. The result was a shocked, a terrified, and a naked Maidul. His body shivered, his eyes rolled, and his head spun. One of the military men used a cane to move his penis around. Maidul heard the man say, “Thik hain” or something like that. Maidul was fair-skinned and robust. One of the men, however, dampened the light as he reminded them, “The Subedar Sa’ab has first dibs, understood?”

The man who spoke was a Havildar. He spoke to Sabdar: “Your gift is timely. Now sit. We will have lunch and then leave. It’s about two miles to the camp.”

The Havildar seemed mighty pleased. With a smile on his face and a glint in his eyes, he took Maidul’s flag and stuck it in a tree. Then he took his gun out, aimed it at the flag, and fired.

Maidul didn’t get a chance to see what happened to the flag. He had fainted at the sound of the gun.

4

Maidul was revived, given some water, forced to eat some meat with bread, and then they all headed out, with Sabdar in tow. The day seemed to lengthen, as though now the humans, the animals, the birds, the trees would all boil in the heat. The heat was rising from the depths of the earth in waves and the distant greenery appeared to blacken as it burned. Maidul’s hands were no longer tied. Instead, the rope had been used to prop up his ripped pants. But if he lagged behind, a soldier would hit him with a cane. Maidul felt nothing anymore. His shock, fear, and anger were numbed. He merely stared blankly at the sky, the earth, the trees, the dragonflies, the orioles. How surprising that there were so many yellow birds! Where were the other birds? They must be around but where? He became a little agitated at the thought of the birds. Really, where did the birds go? He saw a wagtail fly off, then three martins. A kite flew high overhead. And then several pigeons. Two crows were also in sight. Maidul felt like laughing when he saw the crows. If there were crows flying overhead when he was about to go out, his mother’s eyes would signal him to return because crows meant misfortune.

The crows alighted on the ground a short distance away. Perhaps they had found some worms. As he followed them with his eyes, Maidul was startled. That tree! That ashwattha tree, where the memory of a Baishakhi day lay scattered. Maidul had not seen the tree since that fateful day, and neither had he wanted to. Even today, Maidul could not bear to look at it. He looked upwards, towards the sky, as he walked. But as they drew closer to the tree, one of the men barked to the others, “Stop!” Maidul was hurt. He had blisters on his feet, blood dripped from his hands, and from his nose. Still, he hadn’t wanted to stop under this tree. But the soldiers had halted.

Sabdar had not spoken to Maidul, as if he didn’t know Maidul’s language and the boy would not understand the language he spoke. He was speaking to the soldier who had, not too long ago, slapped him across the face. The men sat in a circle under the tree and drank water from cloth-wrapped tin bottles they called “canteen”, wiping their faces with their handkerchiefs. Some swore. Maidul only heard the sounds—he saw none of this. He had shut his eyes tight. The men were sitting exactly at the place where ….

There is no point going over Maidul’s old story—over what had happened on that Baishakh day. Instead, let us hear what made the soldiers change their plans. Sabdar had just told them there was a better gift for the Subedar if they could wait for a day. At his suggestion the glint in the Havilder’s eyes had returned. So he told his men they would go back to their chouki after resting under the tree for a bit.

5

Suddenly Maidul heard the distant rumble of thunder. His eyes were closed but he felt it. He had no idea why this was happening. There was no sign of a storm or the possibility of one, but the lids of his closed eyes shook again with the sound. This time, the noise was like the one he had heard on that Baishakh day. Crack, crack, crack. The sound descended, and its impact was intense. The soldiers sat up with a jerk when they heard the noise and tried to rise. Maidul, of course, could see nothing—he could only hear. Crack, crack. Crack, crack. Now he heard the thunder of the leaves, the birds’ cries. Maidul had to open his eyes but they were forced shut again by the batting of the shadowy thick green leaves. He seemed to be thrown aside. Why? He had been sitting down, like that rock by the pond. Who had thrown him aside like that? The leaves from the ashwattha? Now he heard the moaning death cries and the thin, terrified voice of Sabdar, “Help! Help!” Maidul tried to stand up, but one of his legs was caught under a branch. He could have kicked away the branch to release his leg, but suddenly he felt as if his rope-tied pants, his sweaty shirt had been blown away, and he was naked. He felt dead tired and all he wanted was to sleep a little. But he could feel a sudden blast of wind forcing his eyes open and lifting his head up from the ground. He saw that a gigantic dark branch had fallen over the military men, squashing them. He noticed that one end of the branch had fallen diagonally across Sabdar’s body. Maidul blinked his eyes and breathed heavily. There was another branch to his right, its leaves a thick, dark green. A number of iora birds fluttered around the greenery there. He tried to catch one but it flew off to land amidst some leaves a little further away. He saw that his hand, stretched out to catch the bird, was covered in blood.

Maidul’s fatigue suddenly vanished. He seemed to be at peace again. Or maybe the iora had given it back to him. The bird appeared to be laughing and saying, “You may sleep now.” He saw, hidden behind the greenery, the end of a green sari, two half-closed eyes, an anemic face framed by strands of thin hair. And a wrist encircled by an enormous silver bangle. He would hold that hand and go to sleep now. But who could have known that when he reached out to touch it, the twisted, swollen hand could push him with such force that he’d be thrown some distance away? And that when he stood up, he would be surprised to see under a strange branch some strange leaves lying on top of an anemic face, making it the centre of a flaming carnival of yellow, green, and red?

Tell me who could have known?

And whoever heard of a mighty branch of an ashwattha tree falling just like that when there was no sign of a storm or hurricane or wind?


Syed Manzoorul Islam is one of Bangladesh’s preeminent fiction writers and art critics. 

Arifa Ghani Rahman is Associate Professor of the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).

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