Book House The Lead

“Nameless and Casteless”: In Hasan Azizul Huq’s poignant short story, an unnamed protagonist accidentally witnesses the hidden horrors of war

A picture depicting the Bangladesh Liberation War (Picture Credits: Samia Rahman Lisa)
  • The anthology “The Demoness: The Best Bangladeshi Stories, 1971-2021”, selected and edited by Niaz Zaman, has been published to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bangladesh’s Independence.


  • The twenty-seven stories in this collection feature the finest short fiction from the nation—since before it achieved independence in 1971 to the present day.


  • The book features the greats of Bangladeshi literature, and the short stories in this collection, along with being exceptional in subject, theme, and style, also reveal an extraordinary picture of a land and its people.


  • Read a short story excerpted from the book “The Demoness: The Best Bangladeshi Stories, 1971-2021” below.


Editor’s Note: In Hasan Azizul Huq’s short story ‘Nameless and Casteless’, the unnamed protagonist walks about deserted streets at night. He knows he has to do something, but is not sure what it is. Through his eyes, the reader sees Pakistani troops torturing a young man because they suspect him of being a guerrilla fighter. Finally, the protagonist enters a house with a courtyard and calls out two names. There is no reply. Then he starts digging, throwing up fragments of bones—of a child and a grown woman.

****

The man got off the evening train. For the first time that winter he was wearing a coarse tweed coat. The fox colour of the coat went quite well with the dirty bronze colour of his skin. He was sporting an old but expensive tie, knotted carelessly. His trousers had faded and, near his thigh, a tear had been repaired hastily with a few large stitches. He had not taken the morning train, but the evening one.

The afternoon was fading fast. The man cast a brief glance towards the southern edge of the platform where the shadows were gradually lengthening with the descending evening darkness. The reddish evening light was slowly fading from the rooftops of the big houses and the tall trees of the east.

The man stared straight ahead at the dusty road leading westward from the station. The tar on the road had become worn out in places and its whole length was covered with white dust. On both sides of it stood empty warehouses made of corrugated iron. Dark alleys turned off from the sides of these enormous warehouses. As far as he could see, there were no people on the broad road.

The engines hissed as they moved. Were the engines moving around by themselves in this solitary place? It seemed as if none of them was busy or had any destination. The low-roofed houses on the east side of the railway station were slowly being swallowed up by the darkness—only the brick-coloured chimneys could be seen, vaguely.

He came out past the station gate, carelessly swinging the leather folio bag he held in his hand. He hadn’t seen anyone on the platform or nearby, but when he was coming out he saw some soldiers jammed into a small room by the gate. They were chatting with their rifles resting on their knees, their caps lowered. They looked at him with ice-cold eyes, but said nothing. They kept on talking among themselves in low, harsh voices. A soldier raised his rifle as the man passed the gate with his long strides.

‘No, no, not now,’ said the soldier next to him and reached out and lowered the muzzle of the rifle. The soldier who had raised the rifle laughed like a fool, showing his big teeth.

The man passed through the gate and onto the road encircling a small, empty patch of dust-covered grass. He kept on walking, his shoes sounding loud on the hard road. He followed the road round the circle once. But he didn’t see anyone. He stood still and looked around him. There were several roads going in different directions. Some were made of brick chips, covered with tar, others were gravel roads, filled with dust. A few roads led towards the city, the earthen road went towards the village. There were no houses on either side—yet whitish, dilapidated houses could be seen quite clearly.

After going around the circle outside the station once, his eyes fell on the corrugated iron restaurant on the left. He entered it, realizing he was hungry. The room was very cold inside, and the bulb shone dully in the haze of smoke. The dirty chairs and tables in the room could barely be seen in the dim light. He couldn’t see any people at first. Then he saw the reddish light of the restaurant stove and the manager sitting next to the door with his chin resting on the table.

When the manager lifted his eyes, the man stroked the bristle on his cheeks in an apologetic manner and said, ‘Can I have something to eat?’

‘There’s nothing,’ the manager replied in an irritated tone from behind the table.

‘No food at all?’

‘No, there’s nothing,’ the manager waved his hand in the manner of one brushing away flies.

The man ran his cracked fingertips over the sloppy, different coloured stitching on the left breast of the tweed coat and said, ‘Can I get a cup of tea?’

‘Nothing doing. Go on, then. Hit the road.’ The manager stared at the man’s retreating back as he left.

Outside he saw that deep darkness had descended. There was no light on the road. He moved forward along the broad road, his shoes raising the dust. As far as he could remember, the road had never been this treeless. There used to be a shop which painted signboards on the southern side of the road. A homeopath used to sit there. Bright lights would blaze in the evening—the doctor with the dried-up face would sit facing north. A few old men would sit on the chairs and read the newspapers holding them close to their noses. He tried to remember why he had come here. There was some unfinished business. It seemed to him as if he owed someone money or perhaps he was owed something by someone. Small memories glinted inside his head, like fitful lightning in a stormy sky, such as getting up in the morning and shaving or reading the papers. He had cried when he had read that Patrick Lumumba had been murdered. One afternoon he had read poetry by Ho Chi Minh, ‘The bells ring ding dong at the foot of the mountains/Robust young women come down from the valley with small steps.’ In his childhood he had dug the earth with his long fingers and found large potatoes—the seed potato in the middle had rotted and dried up.

No one came from any direction. He moved along the narrow, dark alley on the left by the storehouse. His feet sometimes sank into the thick grass on both sides of the path. He touched the corrugated iron wall of the storehouse and found it wet with dew and extremely cold. He soon reached the riverbank. He could recognize the place now. The shops were lined up on either side of the road.

He saw that all the shops were closed. The cemented riverbank itself was the road, with shops on both sides. None of the shops on the riverside had earth underneath. The river had eaten through so that all the huts on that side hung in space on thick bamboo or wooden plinths. Twice he pricked up his ears and listened to the slapping of water in the darkness. The river seemed to be genuflecting at his feet. He could see the river still when he looked to the left through the shops—flowing, dark and enormous. Thick fog had settled on the river and only the scattered lights revealed the presence of boats on the water.

Someone had paved this road with black stones for fear of the river. The stones had become uneven now. In some places they had disappeared. He stumbled suddenly. But it didn’t upset him. He was only surprised. No one was coming towards him or speaking to him. There were no lights burning anywhere. The large doors of the houses on both sides were closed tight. Someone somewhere had fainted, their jaws clenched in fear. Some iron should be placed between their jaws to separate them, he thought. Through immense curiosity, he left the road and, climbing onto a low veranda, tried to peek through a closed door. He could see nothing. He couldn’t open the door even a slit, after trying with all his might to pull the door panels apart with his hands. The strong odour of hot spice assailed his nose. He would return. In the darkness he tripped on a black goat and scrambled back to the road. The concrete road made a terrible sound.

Then, for the first time, he heard the tread of heavy boots. They shattered the silent darkness. Then a shout rang out, ‘Who’s there?’ Almost simultaneously, a rifle cracked. He stood awhile and listened. The sound of boots receded. Again a rifle cracked. He tucked his folio bag under his arm and started walking carefully, creeping like a centipede through the lines of closed shops, along the empty, vacant road, past the countless alleys and side streets, which kept on winding through the darkness like a labyrinth, one after another, solitary and silent.

Sometime later he came upon the wide roads of the city. One after another he passed along these avenues. He saw that these roads too were submerged in darkness. Then he was climbing up a circular staircase. Light fell on him from a bare bulb. He stood in the red glow and stared at the damp wall from which the plaster had peeled. A dank and clammy odour made him choke. The circular stairwell was like a tunnel, drawing in cold air, and he started shivering in the intense cold. When he placed his hand on the uneven wall, the cold seemed to crawl up his fingers. A woman’s face was pencilled on the dirty, damp wall; next to it red bricks bared their teeth. He couldn’t tell exactly where the light was coming from. Again he was climbing the stairs—to the first, the second, the third, the fourth floors. He climbed right to the top of the stairs and banged on the closed door.

He shouted, ‘Asit, are you there? Are you there, Asit? Asit, are you home?’

The whole house quivered at the sound of the clanging doorknocker. As in an earthquake, the very foundation of the house shuddered. He kept on banging the door with his fist and shouting, ‘Asit, are you home? Asit, where are you?’

There was a small noise on the other side of the door. The frightened voice of a woman asked, ‘Who is it? Who is it? Who’s there?’

He kept on calling ‘Asit, Asit’ without paying any attention. He stopped shouting when a panel of the door opened. A face peered out from behind the panel. He was ashamed as he looked at the pale, thin face of the woman. He saw that her large eyes were dilated with fear. Holding onto the door for all her life, the woman whispered in a voice filled with terror, ‘Who do you want?’

‘Isn’t Asit here? Doesn’t Asit live in this house?’

‘No, we don’t know anyone called Asit. Who are you?’

‘Did anyone called Asit ever live in this house?’

‘I don’t know. We’re new here.’ Saying this, the woman quickly closed the door.

Suddenly, the red light seemed to have disappeared as well. He stood at the top of the stairs in the cold. Leaning on the railing, he glanced at the well-like, dark hole of the stairwell. Then he prepared to jump. Just as a cat jumps on cotton wool, he tried to jump and drown in the empty darkness. But then he started descending the stairs, which echoed with the heavy tread of his feet. He climbed down for a long time like an enraged phantom, circling around, holding onto the wall, rubbing his nose lightly on the moss. Outside, on the road, he sat down on a low culvert, his chin on his knees.

He heard the sound of a rifle far away—but couldn’t hear the sound of the wind even if he pricked up his ears. He raised his face and looked up at the sky once. There were no stars and no clouds. He seemed to be awaiting some terrible sound. But, irritated when nothing happened, he started walking again. The squarish houses were distributed on either side of the road, the low roofs shining in the indistinct darkness. Small dusty paths and black-tarred roads wound off from the houses and snaked their way towards the inner rooms of terror.

Now he could hear the sound of a heavy vehicle from some road behind him. Within a short while the solemn grumbling of the engine rang in his ears. The sound grew, but, as the car twisted round the innumerable bends, the sound sometimes grew and diminished, but did not disappear. Then it returned and entered his chest. The sound couldn’t be forced out in any way. It seemed to be spiralling its way down to the nether earth like a screw and then coming up again in the same way.

He was feeling cold. He pulled up the collar of his coat as much as he could to try and cover his ears. Then he rubbed his hands together very hard. The houses on either side were silent. Not a chink of light could be seen, no one was calling out to anyone else, no one had spoken, no one had pushed at the door. All the doors were shut tight.

A jeep screeched to a stop in the middle of the main road. He turned into the road on the right and hid in the dark shadows of a big house. He heard the moaning of a woman from where he stood and felt a strong ache inside his chest. Once he had been buried under an earthen wall that had fallen down; bits of earth had entered his nostrils, and he hadn’t been able to breathe. It was like that now. He stepped forward to go to the jeep. But then he grew confused. Where was he? Was this a dream within a dream or reality? Someone struck a match. In the brief light he saw a fair, sharp-featured man and the silhouette of a gagged woman. He started moving forward. At that moment somebody leaped on to the jeep and it sped away.

The man turned his face and saw with surprise that the moon had arisen. He was standing at the turn of the widest road in the city. The moon climbed quickly. He could see far down the straight and broad road. The houses on both sides of the road looked like ancient, solitary edifices in the middle of a desert. Broken down old houses and buildings dug up in the dead light of the afternoon, with the roofs not all at the same height, broad avenues and a superb sewage system, narrow pathways—it had it all, this city. The bright white houses cast deep, dark shadows on the other houses, on the road. There were long walls fronting some of the houses. There were flowering plants on the other side of the walls, untended thorny plants, moss-covered bricks. Notices hung on some of the gates: “Beware of Dog.” But no dog barked. Some of the houses were high, some low, some new, recently painted. Some were old and mouldy, damp and dark with grapefruit trees, thick patabahar plants. A piece of land lay fallow, unbuilt. Through the streets, past the alleys, sometimes through the shadows, sometimes with head held high in the moonlight, he walked on, very tall, straight, clad in a thick coat, dragging his dusty boots. He moved like a machine, his speed neither fast nor slow, but continuous and relentless like the hands of a watch. He felt bad and, sitting down on the ground, he took off his boots. Yanking his socks off, he freed his feet and heaved a sigh of relief, ‘Ahh.’ He shook out his socks with a crackly noise and banged his boots on the tarred road. Then, holding his shoes and socks in his hand, he walked into a dark alley.

When he was halfway through the alley, he heard the sound of feet and voices from the main road. ‘Speak, you bugger. Are you Joy Bangla?’

‘No,’ someone answered.

‘Of course you’re Joy Bangla.’ A blunt thud followed. With a strange feeling, with his shoes in his hand, his folio bag tucked under his arm, he crawled towards the street. He saw some people in the moonlight.

‘Are you Hindu?’

‘No,’ someone said again.

‘Of course you’re Hindu.’

In the moonlight he saw eight to ten people surrounding one man. The man in the middle was bare-chested, clad only in a pair of black shorts.

‘Where is your home?’

There was no response.

‘Where is Joy Bangla?’

The man said not a word.

One of the captors threw a tremendous punch at the man in the black shorts who fell on his face.

‘You bugger, we’ll shoot you.’

‘Go ahead. Do it,’ the man on the ground said, sitting up and wiping his face.

‘You Bengali dog, you’re not the Mukti Fouj? You bugger, you Mujib worshipper.’

‘No.’

‘You’re not a Hindu?’

‘No.’ ‘Come, brother, shoot him.’

‘No, no, I won’t shoot him—just see what I do.’

Some minutes later, from his hiding place in the alley, he saw the man in the black shorts sailing feet foremost towards the roof of the single-storeyed house in front. His head was pointed down towards the earth. Some soldiers pulled on a rope like a pulley. The man’s feet were tied to an iron rod. When the head of the man in the black shorts had gone about five feet up in the air, a voice said, ‘That’s it, stop. What, you’re not Joy Bangla?’

‘No.’

The voice said, ‘Go ahead, brothers, let go of the rope.’

The head of the man in the black shorts banged the tarred road with the whole weight of his body from five feet up. From deep within his chest he said, ‘Ahh.’

His head left the earth again.

‘Are you or aren’t you Joy Bangla?’

A rumbling sound came from the throat of the man in the black shorts. He turned the rumble into words, ‘The Bangalis are going to finish you off. You’d better get out of Bangladesh….’ Before he had finished speaking, the sound of raw flesh slapped the earth.

Standing up in the alley, the pedestrian swayed. Weaving like a drunkard, he pushed on through the darkness and along the side street, by the roads, past the alleys, till he came and stood in the compound of a single-storeyed house. The compound was surrounded by a low wall, with a hibiscus plant in one corner. He quietly climbed onto the red broad veranda and, standing in front of the closed door, called in a tender voice, ‘Mamata, are you there? Mamata?’

No one responded. He called many times. Finally, as he placed his hand on the door, the door swung open. It was dark inside the room. He went inside the room and called, ‘Mamata, are you there? Mamata?’ Once or twice he called, ‘Shobhon!’ He left the room and went to the inner veranda—there was no one there. He went into the rooms on that side, went to the kitchen, the toilet. He called Mamata with such concentration that he stumbled on the mattress. ‘Where is Mamata?’ he kept on asking himself as he walked to the closet, brushing his hand against a tabletop.

Then he came and stood in the inner courtyard and looked at the house. With the high buildings all around, the house looked like a well. The black shadows of the surrounding houses fell on the low house. Almost three-quarters of the yard, covered with dead leaves, was shrouded in darkness. He walked about, his feet crushing the leaves. He went to the dead tree, his legs covered in dead leaves up to his ankles. He peeked into the filled-up well once. He hurt his knee badly on an old rusty spade.

The man took his shoes off and tossed them to one side. Then he flung away his folio bag. He took off his coat, tie and shirt one by one. His hairy chest swelled through his undershirt. His slightly mad eyes grew more confused. He picked the spade up with his veined, muscled arm. Twice or thrice he made a kind of hacking noise through his nose and mouth as he dug the yard. Then he stooped down and picked up a rib bone, curved like a scimitar. He held it to his nose and smelled it. Then he caressed it. He again commenced digging the yard. One by one emerged arm bones, the long bones of a leg, the arid white bones of a foot.

He dug forcefully. Sometimes he put the spade down and scratched at the earth with his nails like an animal. Sweat poured down his body. He licked the salt drops off his lips. He finally found a small hand. Picking it up, he said, as if to himself, ‘Shobhon, good job.’ Then he threw up a swathe of long hair, the soft bone of the throat, small rib bones, broad hip bones and, finally, a skull. Holding the skull in his hand, he stared at the empty eye sockets. He placed his own eyes close to the empty eyes of the skull and gazed steadily at the rows of teeth. The skull laughed a terrible laugh from within the hollow cavity of its mouth. ‘Mamata,’ the man said. He placed the skull beside him on the earth and started digging again with renewed ardour. He will dig out the very innards of the earth.

The short story “Nameless and Casteless” by Hasan Azizul Huq, translated from the Bangla by Niaz Zaman and Shabnam Nadiya, excerpted with permission from The Demoness: The Best Bangladeshi Stories, 1971-2021, selected and edited by Niaz Zaman, Aleph Book Company. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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