The Wrenching Divide

aneeta_chakrabartyThe Wrenching Divide
Aneeta Chakrabarty

The twitter world of Indian teens went into a buzz about the “cute” guy working in the Indian restaurant.  The word on the street was that he was morose, unfriendly, and “burning with a quiet rage.”  Girls flocked to the Indian restaurant on Riga Avenue.   They ordered, they waited, they giggled, they tipped generously but the quiet, fierce-looking “dude” was just that, “angry, mad and in a world of his own.”

The girls sighed, the men snorted, the parents scolded and the owner was pleased and grinning like a cheshire cat all the way to the bank.  Rama preferred to wash dishes at the back of the kitchen instead of ringing the cash register or serving the girls.  Today, the girls came again, seven of them.  Rama was almost ready to leave when the owner, Mr. Biswas, told him to wait a little longer as his replacement had not yet come.  He reluctantly agreed and got to his post.  He started working on one of the girl’s orders but scrupulously avoided looking at them.   Coming from a repressed, oppressed environment in rural Bangladesh, he felt lost in a sea of perfumes, iPhones, and shrill laughter.   A sudden siren made him look out of the window and he saw a girl walk up to the restaurant.  He was so stunned that he dropped the order pad he was carrying and ran out to meet her.  “Ratna?” he said, “Remember me?  Ratna, it’s me Rama.  How did you get out of Dalucheri?  I’m so glad you’re alive,” he burst out in shrill exuberance.  “Excuse me, sir.  There’s some mistake.  I’m not Ratna and I have never lived in Daloo-chaa-ii.”  “Dalucheri,” he said excitedly.  “Whatever!” she said and left him with his mouth wide open.

“How could she forget?” He thought sadly. “It cannot be.  She almost died in my arms.”  He ran after her following her to the end of the block turning around the corner.  But as soon as he followed her there, he felt a blow land on his nose.  Before he could recover, another landed on his skull and another on his chest.  “Keep away from my sister, you lousy, %#@,” cursed a very elegant looking gentleman about 22-23 years old, the same age as he was.  He spat with contempt, “This is just a sample.  You come near my sister again, you will be sorry you were born.  You get it?-  you idiot FOB,” and he went on and on till his sister saw the blood on Rama’s face and persuaded him to leave.  Rama picked himself up slowly.  A crowd gathered.  Mr. Biswas, came running, his portly self huffing and puffing, “Rama, chede dau, let it go” he said in Bengali and with some soothing words assisted him to get back to the restaurant to nurse his wounds.  Rama looked flabbergasted and all shook up.

“Listen,” said Mr. Biswas.  “Remember, you are here on a student visa.  Don’t get into any lafda, you will not be able to work here and also lose your visa.  Tell me what your problem is.  I know some people here and maybe we can help.  But tell me, please.”  Rama was quiet.  He felt numb at the way the girl’s brother treated him.   Mr. Biswas waited, concern showing all over his jovial face.  After a long time and with a lot of hesitation Rama spoke.  “I was the only son of well-to-do parents.  My parents owned 100 acres of fertile land near a river.  All over Bangladesh, Hindus were losing their lands due to the Enemy property act.  My mother pleaded with my father many times to sell all the land and leave.  He was the old fashioned type who believed in the tolerance and equality of all religions.  But Ma had her ears to the ground and knew that the rumblings would one day overcome us.  At the bottom of my heart I agreed with Ma.  When Hindus have lost 26000 acres of land, how can you hold yours?  These things affected me and my studies.  I was more interested in defending myself and my family and so I learnt how to use the khukri from a tribal friend, Sanku.  I became quite an adept at it.  The Hindu community kept away from me because I was a trouble maker and a goonda.  But I did what I felt I had to do.  Even Tibetans who are under so much repression have the guts to put up a strong resistance.  Their plight is heard round the world.  Yet Hindus in Bangladesh have lost their land, lost their women to rape or conversion to Islam, their population dwindles in thousands every day and nobody does anything.  I decided to hang out with Sanku, and we became close friends.

One day, Sanku and I were walking towards our college, when we heard a piercing scream like an animal in severe pain.  Startled, I looked in the direction of the scream, and saw a girl barely 16 or 17, being dragged away by 4 men, one of them was dressed in army uniform. The girl was screaming piteously, hysterically and struggling very hard and the man had to exert all he could to keep her from biting him.  We looked anxiously, hoping the girl could break away.  I felt I had to do something.   I walked slowly, deliberately and as soon as I reached the gang, I pretended to stumble and fell right in front of the man who was dragging the girl.  The un-expected intrusion jolted the man and he let go of the girl’s hand and hit me hard. I fell down and the struggling girl, quick as lightning, freed herself and ran as if the very devil was after her.  Sanku was fighting the other two men.  Before I could get up the uniformed man pulled his gun and aimed at the fleeing girl. 3 shots rang out, and the girl raised her hand as if in mute prayer and fell down.  Within a minute, the street was deserted. I ran to the girl and was about to lift her up.  She protested, and told him amidst gasps of air,  “My ti-me– is over, —brother, anyway Tha-nk you.”  He replied wistfully, “I wish I could have saved your life, what’s your name, where do you live? Why are these people after you”   She waved her hand, “– Ratna,  parents– don’t– tell — it’s a– shame, p lease– let me– die in dig-nity, It-is too la-te for me.  Th-ey wan-ted to mar-ry me to the 60 y-ear o-ld Imam.  My pa-rents we-re help-less.  Pl-ease T-ell the wor-ld abou-t our suf-ferin-g.’’ and with a last effort, she said, “tell th-e wor-ld, Pl-ease.”   Her breathing was very slow and her life reluctantly loosened its hold as her twitching hands became still and her eyes looked straight at the sky.  My heart swelled with pain and anger.  Sanku came running.  He told me to leave as the police were coming and he would take care of the body.  So I ran.   I heard the funeral rites were performed by Sanku and a few Hindus and that later Sanku escaped to Mizoram through his tribal connections.  My father arranged for me to come to America.  I was so sure that the girl I saw was Ratna.  She looks so much like her.”  Biswas listened with rapt attention, then mumbled a long “Hmmmmmm, Rama, did you know that I’m from Bangladesh.  I left in ’47 and ate kichri as a refugee in Shealdah station.  So I know the trauma of the Hindus who remained.  I know Naren’s father and will talk to him about Naren’s behavior.”

At the Durga mandir, Rama met the girl Uma and her brother Naren along with Naren’s father Dr. Das who escaped with Biswas during the partition of 1947.  In spite of all Mr. Das’s efforts, Naren and his sister Uma grew up like American kids and didn’t want anything to do with their mother country.  They rarely attended Indian functions.  Like many Indian parents, they were in total denial and made excuses for them.  But this time, Mr. Das was adamant and gave a long lecture on duty to community and the result was Naren came reluctantly with a stony face to give a stiff apology.    Rama said humbly, “I do not want your apology, brother, just your support, and if possible your friendship.”  He said, “When you feel like talking to me, you know where to find me.  In the meantime, read all the painful stories of your brethren.  Think of your Bengali sisters dying of shame and misery.  And finally I am very sorry I mistook your sister Uma for Ratna.  The girl who died looked just like Uma and was captured by 4 men and eventually shot by one of them.    I have an interest to tell her story to all the world as that was her dying wish.  And for that I live and breathe.  Please give me a hand if you can.  If not, I understand,” and with that Rama left.

Naren felt bad that he acted in haste.   He had never come across such stark misery and oppression as was described by Naren’s literature.  His life was luxurious with trips to the mall, iPods, iPhones, sports car, fast girls and endless parties.   The reality check with Rama brought him crashing to the emotional ground level with an unexpected thud.  As the days went by, another thought surfaced.  The girl who died was like his sister Uma, even looked like Uma, but an accident of birth gave Uma a chance to escape a doomed life.  His father also escaped the doom.  Shouldn’t he help someone to do the same?   The little small voice in his being started rattling more and more and soon became a loud crescendo.  He had to do something. He must do something.

On Sunday, he went to Mr. Biswas’s restaurant and sought Rama.  He was in the kitchen, washing dishes.  He was perspiring.  His gaunt hands were working the suds and he was cleaning the first rack of dishes.  Naren was watching him, his face twisted with a sheepish apology.  When Rama stopped to wipe the sweat from his brow, Naren stepped forward with a humble demeanor and picked up the next plate.  He scrubbed it and washed it and put it in the rack.  Rama looked surprised.  His puzzled expression slowly relaxed into a grin, Naren smiled warmly in response, and the two of them finished washing all the 3 racks of dishes as if they were the best of friends.

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