Sunday, March 29, 2009

THE CROSSING

FROM THE NOTE BOOK (2)

This name I have not forgotten till today. Mir Hussein. Those were the days of 1948-49. Many a night he rowed me across Surma. From Baithakhali side of the river to Mallikpur. Deep in the night in some one’s boat stolen for a few hours. My crossing over, he would with care and secrecy take the boat to its proper place. He was not that capable to manage the theft of a boat. Of course, he was given to stealing. Small thefts. Driven by poverty and hunger he stole paddy or some such things from the houses of rich peasants. He did not own any land. He worked in other people’s land on daily payment basis. Payment was mostly in kind, paddy. In those days cash transactions were very scarce. So, naturally, ploughing, transplanting, watering (in Buro paddy growing plots), harvesting, winnowing, drying and storing the paddy in mud plastered bamboo storages, these kept him honestly occupied. These over, people like Mir Hussein had no work, therefore, no earning.

Mir Hussein is probably not alive now. Probably, he was a little older than I. Ebony black, wiry and well-muscled man. This was the first living thief in my life, who was telling me stories of small thefts, while rowing across flooded Surma on a dark heavily clouded night.

Later in life I had seen hundreds if not thousands of thieves, dacoits and convicted armed robbers. One rape accused was transferred to district jail along with me under an escort of three armed policemen. Same escort for two means a sort of cost-cutting. This man had been committed to district session’s court for the seriousness of his offence. If the court decided against him he would have to serve a minimum term of five years of rigorous imprisonment. It was an upstream long steamer journey. Any company, a policeman or even some one accused of an offence was welcome. For a long while the rape accused was trying to convince me that he was in a frame-up. Who knew? It could be that he was telling the truth. In an abject rural ambience more than half a century ago such things used to happen. Being in a family of lawyers I heard bits of conspiratorial talks among the clients. If other things did not stand, a rape or a molestation charge could be slapped. We grew up a little precocious naturally. Women were even available to testify. In those days standard they were handsomely paid. No stigma sticks permanently. A few of them, if they had wished, could be rehabilitated, married even, and, could raise a family. Time is the greatest healer. And the people who engaged them were quite powerful, socially and economically.

To the district jail were brought political prisoners from other smaller custodies. There used to be a period of one month’s isolation, jokingly described by us as baptism. I was kept in one of the thirteen cells, which were called hospital cells because these were in the jail hospital compound. Ten of these were occupied by hopeless and dangerous mentally deranged patients, quite a few of them with a history of manslaughter. Only three of us, two dacoits and me were normal people, who were kept in other three cells. Other ten cells were always locked up except when the occupants were given some food and washed. Nights in the cells enclosure were horrible with nonstop yelling, shouting and other noises pouring out from cells containing the insane. As a matter of fact, they were continuously making terrific din. We three were allowed to be out for a few hours, once in the morning, once in the afternoon. We three non-lunatics were otherwise friendly, used to talk among ourselves about our lives and various things.

These dacoits were quite professional people and if occasion demanded they could become fiercely cruel. One from Barisal district was the senior. One day he showed his trick. He took his right palm near his mouth and threw out from an artificially created cavity in his throat a few pieces of gold and precious stones, smiled, and swallowed back again. These jail birds used these to bribe warders and even officials for various advantages, even in procuring help for escape. I do not know whether nowadays these throat cavity treasuries are still prevalent because political and financial connections make quite a few criminals inside jails very powerful. Often a comfortable prison life for a period serves for them the purpose of a perfect refuge.

Another character I perfectly remember -- an extremely cruel and powerfully built convict hailing from the Chakma tribe of Chittagong Hill Tract who had been assigned with the task of washing the deranged occupants with the aid of a high-pressure hose pipe. His favourite pastime was to press the nozzle of the hose into the mouths or noses of those poor insane to the point of suffocating them to death. The popular idea was that a mad man never caught cold; if one could be made to catch a cold, he would be sane once again. This was a revoltingly cruel sight and there happened to be quite a few spectators, a number of warders among them. One day I spontaneously protested and from the look of that Chakma convict I was perfectly convinced that if at any time he could lay his hands on me it would be my bloody end!

The aggregate of these fragments of experiences led me over from usual ordinariness to the vast open meadow of unusual extraordinariness.

4 comments:

fleuve-souterrain said...

this is excellent... such wonderful stories from a time we barely know about. Please continue the notebook!

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