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A s s a m e s e   F i c t i o n



S y e d   A b d u l   M a l i k

As we were neighbours for a long time and because we were the same age, a close friendship had developed between me and Captain Bibekananda. Of course, there were vast differences between us in many respects. For instance, he liked talking and could go on doing so if there was a good listener, forgetting even his meals - while I had always been a man of few words. On the other hand, my opportunities to engage myself in such conversations too were rare. My only chance of talking came during my interactions with my children in the mornings and evenings.

The veterinary hospital compound was big. The cases were few in number. It was natural for such a hospital set up in the middle of the town to have few cases. So, other than treating three or four cows and goats daily, I was otherwise free. Moreover, treatment of animals is one-sided, the doctor’s diagnosis and decision are final. Animals have no way to complain. And unlike unknown, complicated diseases of man, the ailments of animals are of similar types; complex cases are very rare. Hence, in my absence the field assistant could, and did give medicines. In my opinion the job of a veterinary doctor is not a bad one. Of course, there is less extra money in it than in a medical doctor’s profession. But the job is a very peaceful one.

Captain Bibekananda’s house was on the other side of the road opposite my hospital. He was about 60 and 6/7 years older than me. Sabita was 22. He had fought as a soldier in both the World Wars. After that, for some time he was a teacher at a defence college in the regular army. Now, having retired, he had settled here.

Though no longer a soldier, he retained most of the habits of a soldier. He used to get up at 5, have a shave, take his bath and then have some tea. Exactly at 6 he would go out for a walk with Sabita. There was no exception to this routine if there was no big shower.

Captain Bibeka was about six feet tall, stout and handsome. By looking at his face it was not at all difficult to guess his age to be twenty years less than what it really was. He looked like Sabita’s elder brother. His gold-framed light glasses, the costly watch on his left wrist and the clothes pressed daily looked new always. Only his hat was an exception sometimes. He normally wore a khaki hat, but sometimes when the weather was clear he would go for his walk without wearing it. His slightly bald head bore testimony to his peaceful lifestyle.

Compared to the Captain’s disciplined life, mine was a lot chaotic. I didn’t have the habit of going for morning walks, although I too rose early. I had to remain busy with my children till 8 am, sorting out their problems, as their mother couldn’t manage them alone. Moreover, the hospital had to be opened at 8 am. In the evenings too when the Captain went to see movies with his daughter, I used to go to the market.

Whenever he skipped movies, Captain Bibeka either listened to Sabita’s violin recital or visited our home. My elder daughter and Sabita got along very well. So sending Sabita in, he would begin conversing with me.

The Captain had spent one-third of his life away from home. He was a soldier, that too in the regular infantry and in the battlefield, he always had to be in the forefront. His constant companions included the gun, his boots, the trench and the tent. His relation with that particular life lasted more or less for 20 years. Considering the many countries he had been to, the places he had seen, the different types of people he had met and the experiences and acquaintances he had gained, it would be no surprise if he expressed his desire to describe those days at this old age.

Like his disciplined lifestyle, the Captain’s way of talking too was steady and measured. He never got excited even while narrating his experiences of dangerous situations in the battlefield. He never exaggerated. Because of this I enjoyed listening to him. He was like a historian who had seen the history of man’s birth and death, and narrating everything serially like an epic narrator of yore.

Whenever he visited me, Captain Bibeka used to tell me about his experiences as a soldier. One day he said, "I can’t tell exactly how many people were killed in blind firing by me, but I remember well those I killed with the gun and the bayonet."

"How many died in your hands?"

"Two hundred and fifty-one, in both the wars. I have noted down the dates and the names of the places of those deaths in my diary."

"Didn’t you feel sorry at the time of killing a man?"

"As a soldier I never felt sorry. In fact it gave me joy. And there was no other way than killing, because if I didn’t kill him, he would kill me. So a wise soldier never wasted a second on seeing the enemy. Whoever fired first, survived."

"Didn’t you feel bad even when the man dropped to the ground in front of your eyes after being hit by your own bullets?"

"There was no time to observe the enemy fall, one had to keep advancing. Once while near Germany we were surrounded by the enemy and there was no way out. We fired indiscriminately. They were few in number since they were soldiers on patrol. All of them fell. The last one was an 18-year-old German youth. Having been hit in the stomach, he fell flat to the ground. I went near him and saw that he was alive. Seeing me closing in on him, he said to me very sadly in English, ‘Do not kill me, I may live’."

"What did you do then?"

"I pierced his chest hard with my bayonet. He writhed for a while and then died. I still remember his eyes."

The Captain had some peculiarities. He hated dogs. He couldn’t stand the sound of the harmonium and fumed with rage whenever he saw red clothes. The rain was very dear to him, but he would become a bit restless if it rained continuously for two days. Sometimes he would invite my children and make them stand on the backyard of his house. Although it drove them to the point of laughter, they restrained themselves as they were scared of his staid mood.

Sometimes he would invite me too. He would relate to me the episodes of his experiences and show me some photographs. On occasions he would read from his diary, which was full of exciting and thrilling stories. One day he read: "It was very hot, we could not advance as there was this high mountain in front of us. Suddenly a shell burst, zooming past close by my face. We were not surprised. Looking ahead we saw a group of guerrillas in the mountain cave. We were twelve. Three fell and the partisans took the rest of us captive.

"It was then midnight and we were taken to a fort. An old fort, where a family lived. They locked up me and Harisingh inside a small room. Maybe their jail was a bit far off. As dawn was approaching a young woman went past our cell. I called out to her. She turned and looked. I said, ‘I am feeling very thirsty.’ She paused for a moment and then went back and brought a jug of water. The jug was big and did not pass through the bars. I requested her to open the door bolted from outside. She thought something for a while and then opened the door. I came out. Taking the jug from her I drank the water."

Lighting one more cigarette the Captain read on: "After that, even as I returned the jug to the woman, I squeezed her throat. She could not scream. Trembling all over, she slumped and then died. I escaped. I didn’t know what happened to Harisingh."

Hearing him go on reading without expression made me horripilate. "Why did you kill the girl who gave you water?"

"Otherwise I wouldn’t have lived to read this diary to you today. A captured soldier’s sole job is to escape by any means."

We spent our days quite well, with the Captain living in his colourful past, while I lived in my problem-filled present. I liked that man. One day I asked him, "You have seen many countries and witnessed many people die. What type of death do you think is most terrible?"

With the same plain grave expression he said, "Most of the deaths I had seen were similar. Like birth, death too is a normal biological affair. There is nothing colourful about it. Still, to me, the most dreadful death is that which comes slowly when men sit at home doing nothing."

I was taken aback a bit by his reply. Everyone wishes to die in peace in presence of family members, and the Captain said that type of death was most dreadful. I thought of remaining quiet, but then asked, "Why do you think so?"

The Captain became more serious and said, "While dying in the midst of one’s children, there is the possibility of man’s natural weakness making one sad to leave behind one’s kin. But there is nothing to feel sorry about when death comes at any other place. You simply die. Nothing more."

In September, Captain Bibeka and Sabita went to Shimla for a change, which they did every year. He came to my mind occasionally. In the meantime, I got busy with the arrangements for the marriage of my elder daughter. Our children often remembered Sabita and her father. They returned after spending the Christmas at Bombay.

A bitch had given birth to two plump puppies at the house of the hospital watchman. One day while sitting on our verandah, Captain Bibeka saw the puppies. I don’t know what got into his head; giving a one-rupee coin to the watchman he took away the puppies. The watchman had offered to deliver them at his house, but, not waiting for him the Captain himself took the puppies away. We were surprised.

For the next ten days the Captain got totally absorbed in tending the puppies. He fed and bathed them, took them out for strolls, lulled them to sleep, woke them up. One day Sabita came and said, "These few days Deuta has got so busy with the puppies that he has given up enquiring about my well-being." We laughed. In old age man becomes young.

Mid-January. It was shivering cold outside. The time was around 11:30 pm. We went to bed around 9 pm, but I didn’t fall asleep. Suddenly Captain Bibeka called from the door, "Doctor."

I sprang out of bed and opened the drawing room door, and said, "Come in."

A solemn Captain Bibeka, still in his evening dress came in. I got a bit anxious. Slowly he said, "Please get dressed and come with me." Putting on the ulster, I accompanied him. I was scared, lest something was wrong with Sabita. But then, I was a veterinarian, not a medical doctor!

Following the Captain, I reached the backyard of his house. He opened the small room adjacent to his bedroom and switched on the light. I saw the puppies on a clean mattress. As the light was switched on both looked in our direction. One of them sat up, the other slept on. The Captain sat down and pointing to the sleeping puppy, said, "Something is wrong with him, he has eaten nothing since morning. Please check what is the matter with him."

I was sort of stupefied. Did the Captain wake me up at 12 in the night just for the puppy’s sake? I checked it. It was running fever as it might have caught severe cold the previous night. I said, "He has taken ill due to sudden cold."

"But I had covered him with warm clothes."

"It is small. The warmth from its mother’s body is essential for it now."

"But now what can you do," Captain Bibeka asked.

"I’ll give a medicine. Along with it some heat will not be a bad idea."

"Then come, give me the medicine. Don’t delay. After my return I’ll light a fire to warm up the puppy."

I gave Captain Bibeka the medicine and, listening to his bidding, did not accompany him, but went back to sleep. Next day as I prepared to go to the hospital, I remembered the puppy and went to Bibeka’s house. I was told that the puppy died late in the night. But the Captain’s condition was terrible. Lighting a fire he tended the little dog the whole night, without sleeping a wink. Cold and fog had turned his face rough and dry and his eyes turned red. As usual Sabita called him from the dining table, but he was least bothered. Like a small boy he sat sadly in front of the dead puppy. I expressed my condolences to him. From his sitting position he looked at my face. He was crying. Two big teardrops had flowed from his eyes.

I said, "Don’t be sad, it is natural for puppies to die."

The Captain rose slowly and, looking at me said, "Doctor, I have seen so many people die, but never ever had the chance to see what dying is. Oh, it is so pathetic, so distressful. The puppy died looking at me with such hope, such fondness. Today I saw what dying is. We fail to realise what death is till our own dear ones die. I was so fond of the puppy, Doctor."

I saw tears in Captain Bibeka’s eyes, but was not prepared for them. I came to the hospital and had the peon fetch the dead puppy. The Captain who accompanied it, sat in the room used by me. I didn’t know what to say. Bibeka said, "Doctor, at the time of dying the puppy’s eyes had become terribly tragic. Its eyes and those of the German boy I had killed with my bayonet during the war were very similar, amazingly similar."

Later Sabita came and said her father, grieving over the puppy’s death, did not eat anything for three days. I still don’t understand why the death of a puppy evoked such emotions in the heart of the Captain who had killed 251 people. Maybe that is called love.

Translated from Assamese by Biman Arandhara
Courtesy: The Assam Tribune

Read a profile of Syed Abdul Malik. Read another story by Malik.

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