The silent flame

--Brig. Gen. Razia Khanam (Retd)

There was no running water in the wash-basin, bucketful of water was arranged. Dr. Newaz was washing his right hand holding mugful water in left hand, when he heard a soft voice.

‘Can I help you? May I pour water’?’

Dr. Newaz looked up. He knew that it is not a graceful work to be performed by a lady. He said.

‘Thanks Ma’am. It’s very nice of you. I have almost finished the washing of my hand.’

‘At least allow me to do this much for you. Won’t you?’ in a trembling tone she asked.

It was a dinner party hosted by Mr. Toufiq Ameer Khan in honour to bid farewell to the officers who would be taken to the concentration camp following the option for repatriation. Mr. Khan, though a Bangali by birth, opted to stay in West Pakistan. He used to think that he belongs to Pakistan by birth, it is his homeland and those fighting for liberation would never be successful in obtaining independence. But his wife Fatima Jahan Khan, used to think differently. When the liberation war started she has supported it whole heartedly and when the war was in full swing she became very happy, but could not share her enjoyment with her husband.

Fatima was born and brought up in the hilly district of Chittagong. Her father Mohammad Saifuddin Khan, was a Central Superior Service officer. When Fatima did her Matriculation her father was posted to Karachi. Fatima continued her study there. At that time Toufiq Ameer Khan was a young officer serving in a bank. One weekend he was holidaying in the Clifton beach, he saw Fatima walking in the beach with her friends. The waves of Arabian sea seemed to him less wilder than Fatima’s wavy hair. He managed to conquer her heart and married her after four years of romance. By then Fatima had done her graduation.

After marriage Fatima was accompanying her husband in various places of his posting. When Liberation war broke up Fatima was mother of two children. The elder Amira Khan was in standard VII and the younger Wahab Khan was in standard IV. Fatima tried to persuade her husband to their return to their homeland. One day she said,

‘Ameer, let’s go back to our own land. Here we will be in trouble, the people won’t accept us as their own.

‘Don’t talk rubbish! I know better what is good for me and for my family.’ Mr. Khan snubbed her.

‘What good should we get out of our enemy country?’ Fatima argued, ‘they will treat us as outsider though you opted for this country. Do you think the people who opted to go back are wrong in their decision?’

Mr. Khan got annoyed and said angrily, ‘Well, if you wish you can go with them. But remember I am not leaving this country and the children will be staying with me.’

Fatima never thought of separation from her children and husband. She controlled her emotion and calmed down thinking that sometimes circumstances make one to bow down. From that day onward she neither discussed this subject with her husband, nor she made any comment upon liberation war which was an all time topic of conversation amongst the officers whenever they get together. Mr. Khan was a generous person and used to invite the officers in his house for tea, lunch or dinner frequently. He was the only family man to reside there. Other Bengali officers, six in number used to stay singly. Two of them were married. Doctor Newaz was one of them. He was staying with his wife and two kids but when the turmoil began he sent them back home.

In the dinner Mr. Khan, as usual, was commenting about the newly born country. Junior officers were listening to him impatiently. All of them were uncertain about their fate in conentration camp, still they were conversing in a happy mood as if they would sail for homeland in the next morning. Mrs. Khan was serving food herself though waiters were there. The dinner table laid on the front lawn, a ‘shamiana’ was stretched overhead and lightings were arranged. As the water-pump was out of order bucket-full water kept ready nearby.

It looked like a grand feast to doctor Newaz. This is the last party they are attending attend before leaving this country. Mrs. Khan cooked Bengali dishes: bhuna khichuri, fried hilsha with white mustard paste. All officers used their hand to relish the food. When dinner is over all lined up to wash their hand. Doctor Newaz was standing at the end of the line. He noticed that Mrs. Khan said something to the bearer attending the guest. The bearer left the place. Doctor Newaz could not catch properly what she was telling. When turn came he hold the mug of water in his left hand to clear his right hand. He heard her soft voice,

‘At least allow me to do this much for you all.’

While uttering the word ‘this much’ and ‘for you’, something stirred in her voice.

In fact doctor Newaz was a psychiatrist. Instantaneously his eyes went over her face. Mrs. Khan seemed to be aware, she cast her eyes down. Doctor Newaz could hardly believe his eyes, he had never thought of seeing such an expression. Why she looked worried? What’s troubling her? Why she seemed so restless? Doctor Newaz became absorbed in a rapid thinking. He looked at his right hand which is now surfed with soap. Then his look fall straight at Mrs. Khan’s face. Her creased brow, saddened face, tearful eyes said much more than her voice. He understood what is burning in her mind, what made her doing this endeavour. Doctor Newaz made up his mind. Quickly spreading his hand he said,

‘Please, Ma’am, if you like, please pour water over my hand.’ Then he said to himself, ‘this is a greatest moment which shall remain imprinted in my heart. I would carry in my memory her desirability and her burning love for homeland. I would always remember her silent fight for freedom.

Again he said, ‘Ma’am, please let your desire be melted over the water to touch my hand. I would feel this touch of yours as long as I live. And whenever I touch the soil of my homeland you will feel it by heart.

Now there is smile in her face. She took the mug in hand. Doctor Newaz, with great pleasure, observed that Fatima Jahan alias Mrs. Toufiq Ahmeed Khan, wife of a very senior officer, forbidding all her decorum, is pouring water over his hand with great satisfaction as if she is communicating her desire to a person who would one day set foot to touch the soil of his free Homeland.

After finishing handwash doctor Newaz hurried to his collegues who were busy in sipping coffee. Mr. Khan was puffing a tobacco-pipe, the exhaled smoke formed chain of rings and blew away by the gentle breeze. He seemed to be absorbed in thinking

Mrs. Khan’s saddened eyes followed. Doctor Newaz bowed his head. The guests were now bidding farewell. Doctor Newaz joined them and said goodbye to Mr. and Mrs. Khan.

Dr. Newaz came out of the house with a heavy heart. On the street he looked at overhead sky. Perhaps that was the first day of lunar month. May be the moon appeared for a while and had disappeared. The sky was dark but clear; the stars were twinkling. He found that nothing has changed, everything is moving on its own way. With a sigh he walked down the road.

 

Doctor Newaz had carried those sad words of Mrs. Khan along with him. He carried it in the concentration camp, and to his free homeland after repatriation. He is carrying it in his inner heart till now though so many years had passed away.

‘How should I term the silent flame of patriotism of this lady? Isn’t she a freedom fighter in her own way?’ He asked me.

So long I was absorbed in hearing doctor Newaz. I was simply bewildered how to answer his question. I did not know how to define the feelings of a wretched woman who was shackled by her destiny, whose burnt soul counted every beat of her life to touch the free soil of her homeland; who had not fought the war in person but survived her misfortune to remain satisfied with the memoir of pouring water over the hand of those persons who would touch the soil of that independent land which belonged to her, but of which she could not belong.

I looked up at the sky. Surprisingly it was the first day of lunar cycle, the night is dark, clear and starry; after showing its face for a while the moon has disappeared.

I repeated the question of Doctor Newaz to the infinite sky, ‘Was not she a freedom fighter in her own way carrying the flame of patriotism silently?

There was no reply.