August 25th, 2017
When the Muezzin’s call for prayer tore through the neighbourhood and the underwater world, the spiny-shelled turtle was feasting on its prey. It was as though the prayer call had signalled a blessing for the turtle and a curse for the tiny fish. It used its timeless camouflage technique to blend with the mud and quickly attack its prey when it hovered close. When the little reptile thought it had crossed its daily limit of staying underwater, it smoothly floated up to the surface, quietly settling among the mob of lotuses. Since their leaves could bear its light weight, the task wasn’t very problematic. They made it possible for the 10-year-old turtle to become something of an observer on a static boat. None of its family members survived this long. They had been taken away by hunters. It didn’t know what they had done to them. Its long neck couldn’t stretch as long as the Brachiosaurus it resembled. Had it been as gigantic as a Brachiosaurus, it could have walked over human colonies and searched for its parents, craning its neck down to look inside every tiny settlement.
The sky was dark and starry, the neighbourhood swollen with cricket calls. The little reptile saw men in panjabis and lungis heading to the mosque, their footsteps penetrating the nocturnal silence. For some of them, it was their last prayer. But for all of them, it was definitely their last visit to that specific mosque. After the sun slowly lit up the sky with hues of orange, and morning officially began with the permission of the roosters, driving people out of their homes to the square paddy fields and the riverside, the turtle swam to the comfortably warm golden bank for. It intended to slip back into the water in case someone chased it.
A few adolescents sat squatted on the bank, chatting among themselves, munching on nuts. It was a Friday, they were excused from going to the mosque for religious lessons. Some threw a few nuts at the turtle while it remained stationed at the pond’s lip.
Soon, artillery sounds stirred the air, interrupting their chatting session. They ran away, abandoning the packets of uneaten nuts. The ducks rushed towards the pond, appalled by the cacophony. The turtle slowly camouflaged itself among the lotuses. It kept sitting on its leaf boat, quietly observing the plumes of thick smoke rising from the burning houses with its watchful eyes and listening to the gunfire and terrified human screams.
The little reptile noticed a few people running towards the pond, in hopes of swimming across it and escaping into the bushes, in hopes of hiding temporarily, holding their breath, under the water lilies whose leaves gave the appearance of a solid surface to the pond. Some jumped into the pond, some were shot and then fell into the pond, some were shot while swimming across it as the men in olive uniforms fired indiscriminately into the water. A bullet missed the little reptile by an inch. Many olive men were brandishing wailing toddlers like toy guns and threw them into the pond. They fell circling in the air, like broken fans. One fell on the little reptile’s leaf boat. So it quickly jumped off when it sensed the body’s trajectory, and drifted underwater, among the mob of panicking fish, lotus tentacles, misfired bullets, and corpses.
“Please save us,” the corpses pleaded with the turtle. Its cautious eyes and glassy expression ignored their pleas.
As the houses were being burned to the ground, the people being massacred, and the pond universe being littered with the dead and the living left to die, the little reptile, bored by the commotion of the dead underwater, decided to temporarily settle inside the bushes on the bank. In the bushes, there was one forsaken white slipper reddened with blood. Someone had probably lost it while running. The little reptile stood over it for a while, taking in the warmth of the blood.
In Maungdaw, rectangular blocks of paddy fields littered the countryside, spanning many villages. One rectangle was light green, another was darker, another balanced—they stretched with their variations and monotonies as far as the eyes could see. Sentinel mountains bloomed where they ended and caressed the clouds. As lofty as they were, they always loomed over the landscape. Among the fields, the terrain elevated to form little hills, unpredictably, suddenly, abnormally—but beautifully. Knots of rustic houses, with ponds, tall coconut trees, and diverse vegetation, stood scattered throughout the fields. Each was connected to another by a geometric line-like lane. Narrow concrete roads for vehicles crashed through the lush terrain. So did a river. It danced around the pastoral scene, twisting and twirling.
Salma always felt like a tiny tree branch compared to the enormity of the mountains. Her eyes longed to explore the secrets the mountain world stored. But her father wasn’t adventurous enough; her friends and she, not fit, free, and old enough. She had been planning with Arpita,with her best friend, who held a special place in her heart, that they both would one day secretly venture into the mountains. Only the night crickets would be witnesses to their adventure.
Her day would begin with waking up at dawn to pray for Fazr. It was a ritual her family of three practised. Afterwards, Salma and her younger brother would accompany their father Mohsin to the mosque. There, they would recite lines from the Koran with other kids from the villages, humming in rising and falling tones, their voices merging into one, for one purpose only — to please God…and their religious parents. When her father would be monitoring their recitals, Salma wouldn’t dare skip the session. But when he would be harvesting or sowing seeds, she would slip away with Arpita. They would hold hands and walk together, blurring out their surroundings, diving into the sea of each other’s existence, never coming up for air. And in a secluded location, where no one could see them, they would make love. Although God would be watching them indulging in what was forbidden, no one else would. The fact that they practised different religions would be enough to consider their feelings blasphemous. The fact that they both belonged to the same gender and loved each other immensely, because the heart wanted what it wanted would cause a wildfire, swallowing their lives up in flames, disrupting the harmony of their Hindu-Muslim coexistence.
August 24th, 2017
The sun hid itself behind the mountains, tossing temporary rays of flames through the cotton candy sky. Sitting on a thick bed of hay, Salma and Arpita watched the crows dart around like arrows. Palms locked, their faces appeared golden in one moment, brown in another. It was a call from home that brought the crows to their nests. A magnetic pull. The children playing football and rolling tires were driven home when they heard the call for Maghrib prayer. They both recognised Salma’s father’s voice, carried by the wind, from the mosque’s speakers.
In Salma’s household, three bluebottles buzzed in unison, glued to the metal rim of the bulb that dangled over their dining table. If they hovered close to the ground, Rahim would carefully smash them under his slipper and be feel a sense of pride. Mohsin’s eyes were settled on Rahim, keeping him under surveillance, in case he slowly hid the fried slice of Rui (a type of freshwater fish) under the dining table. Mohsin knew he hated it. But nutrition was more important in his eyes than unnecessary disgust. They ate in silence, carefully picking the bones of the fish, squishing their fingers through the lentil flooded rice. Salma and Mohsin enjoyed it, but Rahim didn’t. It was Thursday and Rahim’s favourite, chicken curry, wasn’t allowed. Although he tried cajoling Salma into cooking it secretly, she prioritised her father’s order, mostly because of a very practised discipline (and fear). After dinner, Mohsin asked his children if they would accompany him to the Naf river to fish the next day. It was as though he was doing them a favour by putting forward a kind, ‘fatherly’ proposal in an effort to not remind them of their motherless existence. They needed love. He needed to be the supplier. They agreed joyfully.
The same night
Her little joint family was stationed at the dining room for dinner. In her room, Arpita turned the TV on and muted the sound so that no one could hear. Her mother, Sushmita, called her for dinner. “Just a minute,” she responded. Her cousin, Subhash, his parents, Rupa and Abhinesh called her repeatedly. She gave them all the same response. She was watching one of Priyanka Chopra’s old music videos in grainy pixels. It seemed as though the sounds of the crickets that penetrated the house’s ambience were the music. Her hips swayed, the crickets called. Her lily-laden hair swirled, the crickets called. A brawny hero lifted her in his arms, the crickets called.
Everyone thought she was busy tidying her room. But she wasn’t. She was immersed in her own fantasy about her and Salma, in the world of the muted TV set with its grainy pixels, in her own private space where no one was allowed except for the miniature Goddess Durga who kept an eye on her from the top of the cupboard. She was the hero, and Salma was Piryanka Chopra. The fantasy disintegrated, pixel by pixel, satellite signal by satellite signal, as Subhash came into the room and interfered, “Hello? The dinner is getting cold. Want to starve?”
As the village people went on about their regular lives in their regular village homes and the night did its duty to stand still until the sun chased it away, a little farther away from the peaceful hum of the village insects, some insurgents attacked around 30 police stations, killing many. The insurgent group called it an attack in response to the mistreatment the Rohingyas had been subjected to for generations. They called it a befitting reply—the one that was like a huge “fuck you” to the oppressing police officers and the government. They had middle fingers, and they needed to be shown. But that only invited worse things, which would soon attract the world’s eyes, and the Rohingyas would say, “Hello, we are being persecuted. We need media attention. Can the world please save us?”
The next day
It was 10 am. The sun was properly settled in its invisible aerial throne and scattered its rays all over the sky, the homes, the cowsheds, the cows, the goats, the paddy fields, the mountains, and of course, the rifles, the machetes, and the speeding olive jeeps, exhibiting everything in a shade of gold.
On Mohsin’s little ‘river voyage’, they talked as though they were catching up with things they had missed out on. Mohsin showed his kids some of the difficult fishing techniques he knew like the back of his hand. Although they had seen them many times, this time everything seemed very new. Salma and Rahim melodiously recited some surahs from the Koran. Mohsin was impressed. They caught 15 fish between them. Their catch twitched and jumped in unison, thudding against the floor of the wooden boat, their scales glittering like golden treasures from the river.
As they rowed the boat, they saw mobs of people crying out, rushing towards the river. After a while, heavy gunshots muffled the sounds of the cries, river waves, and bird songs.
The retreating crowd made their way to the boat, despite the dimming hope of accommodation for everyone. The boat could only hold ten people before it drifted away from their village, their ancestral land, the looming mountains, their houses, paddy fields, and domestic animals, the guns, the machetes, the fires, into the heart of the river to reach Bangladesh, where many of their people had escaped to in the past. As the boat lurched and Mohsin struggled rowing against the rising currents, the landscape behind him was shrouded in smoke, billowing ceremoniously from the houses, forming one thick body, reaching the sky.
The burning incense stick released its fragrant smoke around the miniature Durga, holding the air inside the house in its clutch. Arpita, her mother, and aunt were praying with their hands clasped together and eyes closed. The smoke hovered over Durga and wafted into their nostrils. Her cousin, Subhash was out in the paddy field with his father. While they were deep in their prayers, swimming closer to the Goddess’ throne, diving into the sea of Sanskrit alphabets with fins and gills, a terrific thud broke the main door open and seven men in olive uniforms with machetes and guns rushed inside. Hearing the commotion, they ran into a closet, curled up in fear—their hearts in their throats, and silently prayed for Durga to protect them. The men ransacked the whole house and found them. One man shot Arpita’s aunt in the head, while two men hacked her mother to death with machetes. She couldn’t scream even when the remaining men gagged her and dragged her to another room—the one with the TV that had presented Priyanka Chopra and had once fuelled her fantasy. The TV stood on the wardrobe silently, watching the violence unfold as the men took turns raping her. Although she screamed at the top of her lungs in the beginning. Eventually her voice died down. She went quiet as the man on top pushed himself inside her. Her eyes pointed glassily to the TV screen—her pain clearly reflected on it. After they were done, she received a smack on the head with a machete and blacked out. Meanwhile, in the paddy field, Subhash’s father died as stray bullets hit him. The reaped stacks of paddy saved Subhash.
The house wasn’t set alight, but its insides were filled with smoke coming from the burning coconut trees. Outside, on a cart, Subhash sprinkled water on Arpita’s bloody face. She awoke with blurry vision, pain in her abdomen and heavy vaginal bleeding. The landscape and its destruction were blurry too. While the army ravaged village after village, Subhash ran, pushing the cart with Arpita on it, towards the river. People were leaving in packed and over-packed boats. When all the boats left, there was only a group of 20 left abandoned.
A man named Hashim, who had contacts in Bangladesh, instructed the escapees to sneak through the country’s border, where he would collect them on a boat and smuggle them into Bangladesh, for a price. Until the boat came, they remained hiding in the vegetation close to the riverside. They were lucky not to be found. The perpetrators probably didn’t linger around the remains of destruction but went on to destroy the villages nearby. The boat finally showed up after four hours and took them away. The heavy bleeding, with only Subhash’s shirt to stop the flow, rendered Arpita unconscious. She didn’t have any memory of her journey out of the forest, on the boat, to Bangladesh. All she could remember was the milky-white languor tossing itself from one tree to another, the blinding forest canopy in the backdrop. Then her eyelids slowly fell, blacking everything out…again.
November 4th 2017
“Welcome to Bangladesh, Sir. How are you?” Shubhom said enthusiastically, even though he felt a bit shy.
Toby, the awaiting UNHCR journalist, replied with a grin plastered on his face, “I am fine. How about you?”
They shook hands and immediately headed to the domestic terminal for the Cox’s Bazar bound plane, scheduled to leave in fifteen minutes.
When the plane neared Cox’s Bazar, hovering like a mechanical bird, Toby asked Shubhom, “So are you originally from Chittagong?” Although Shubhom tried to initiate a proper conversation, Toby’s initial demeanour didn’t quite help get things started.
“Yes. But my posting used to change often and so I had to live in various districts, and ever since the refugee crisis, UNHCR keeps me tied to this region. I think they just love me as a translator!” Shubhom replied a laugh.
Toby reciprocated and said, “I’ve been in this country thrice, but this is my first time in Chittagong division.”
“Glad you’re finally here. You’ll love the cuisine. The weather is very refreshing. Everyone in Dhaka envies the food and the beach in Cox’s Bazar district,” Shubhom went on.
Their conversation now took a positive turn and they chatted as though they were childhood buddies.
“How is life after Trump took the office?” …
“How are things after the Holey Artisan attack and the Rohingya influx”…
Away from the touristy hum of Cox’s Bazar airport, a Prado with a UNICEF logo and a horn on its bonnet was waiting for them. Making their way through the throng of people and the combined smell of metal and earth, they got inside the car. The shoving was done by Shubhom. Toby only had to push the trolley while being stared at by the locals. The rain crashing down on the car windows obscured the view of the town outside.
The white UNHCR Prado whooshed through the empty and bumpy roads, honking incessantly, and entered Sayeman Beach Resort, where many celebrities and journalists went after they were done interviewing the Rohingyas. It was where the poverty-stricken neighbourhood rushed to, for a comparatively “stylish” profession, but not the accomodation. Toby was there for the same reason. To unwind in luxury after he was done interviewing the Rohingyas in their camps, imagining their horrors and sorrows, and patting them on their shoulders.
At nine in the morning, the sun shone on the luxurious hotel glass, bathing the building in its golden glow. The window in Toby’s room presented him with a clear view of the ocean, the waves forming and crashing, local workers displaying their horses and jet-skis, some selling bead necklaces; youngsters having fun, and families holding their babies’ hands tightly as they went for a dip in the sea. It shocked him how the beach was this alive in the morning.
The Cox’s Bazar sun and the endless winds that were gifted by the ocean waves formed a perfect ensemble. It was neither too hot nor too cold. After breakfast, while he still had time before heading to the refugee camp and interviews he had scheduled, Toby relaxed on the beach and took a dip in its salty waters. The seaside never emptied. It bustled with people yearning for strong waves. He felt as if he had achieved a milestone in his visit to Bangladesh.
It was one in the afternoon. Shubhom was there with the cameraman.
“Sir, this is Rafiq.”
They shook hands cordially, “Nice to meet you, Rafiq,”
“Was everything fine? Did you face any sort of inconvenience? Did you eat well?” Shubhom bombarded him with questions as they headed towards the Prado.
“Yes everything was fine,” Toby assured him, grinning.
The Prado sped through Marine Drive, which unrolled like a carpet, ocean on one side, lush hills on the other. Toby’s neck was sore from trying to look at both sides. Though he had been to places that were even more scenic, this place exuded a special charm. Shubhom knew well that Toby’s mind was buried in the beauty and he shouldn’t interrupt him. That excused him and validated his shyness.
Although the road that led them to Kutupalong refugee camp was beautiful, the camp and its surroundings were anything but. The sun beat down on the defeated, amputated hills and the rickety shelters. Most had roofs with UNHCR, UNICEF and WHO logos. Stairways for safe movement within the camp were being built along the hill slopes. Toby saw many cars, bulldozers and construction trucks crowding the entrance. Relief items were being brought in. Foreign aid workers were in a constant rush. That place was never quiet. A bandaged colony had sprung up where silent hills—heavenly and green—had once stood. The homes of the elephants and other local fauna was destroyed as the refugees’ new homes were built. Both species had been driven out of their old homes, one by persecution, and the other by its aftermath. Whenever the camp lights disturbed the elephants’ nocturnal movements and the yellow excavators ate up a portion of the forests, they turned away to another path helplessly.
Toby was led inside a tent next to a soap store. Inside the tent, the struggle the bamboo poles and tarpaulins had to put up with was clearly visible. It seemed like a mere breeze would make them snap
“Sir, here’s the woman you will be interviewing,” Shubhom told Toby, pointing at a burkha-clad figure inside. They went in. Rafiq positioned his camera. Toby listened as she began on cue:
“I am Salma…”
From the neat line-up of miseries in his life, one could easily deduce that he was born into misfortune. It was a fact that he grew up in lush, scenic hills. It was a fact that he was fair-skinned and had small eyes. It was a fact that he belonged to a different culture. It was a fact that he was a member of a minority group.
A total of seventy other families, along with the Kantis, had been driven out of their ancestral lands by the wave of arson and machete attacks executed by powerful group of settlers. They were relocated in response to these attacks, but what was supposed to bring relief made their lives even more miserable. They were taken to areas prone to elephant attacks. The people and their vegetation there needed to survive. So they engaged in conflicts with Asian elephants. The rates of cremation went up. The numbers of souls—both elephants and humans—floating in the sky did too. But they never fought mid-air. The aerial existence was harmonious.
Although fences were erected to prevent the elephants from attacking their homesteads, one night, they broke through the fences, trampling humans under their feet, twisting banana trees in their trunks, and calling out wildly. Either their hunger was insatiable or it was just an unpredictable, lofty rush of the herds’ will to invade a space that had once been theirs. In any case, Aung and Raja were orphaned after the attack. Both their parents’ bodies were crushed, bones protruding from their limbs.
Finding comfortable jobs without a decent educational background in Chittagong division wasn’t easy. So Raja joined a construction workers’ circle, and Aung took a desludging job, both in a coastal region of Cox’s Bazar.
August 25th, 2017
The boat rode the Naf river currents and reached Sabrang. The smuggler, Abdul, unloaded everyone, his eyes inspecting them. His men counted the money given by the refugees and made sure it was the right amount. Subhash, carrying an unconscious Arpita on his shoulder, was penniless. Though their clothes were blood-tinged, Abdul showed no mercy and demanded the money. Due to his failure to pay, Subhash and Arpita were forced into a minivan that flaunted a UNHCR sticker on its windshield. Arpita was still unconscious. The vehicle drove away, avoiding the border guards’ eyes who Abdul’s well established ring had bribed.
Arpita received proper medical assistance at a local hospital. In her days there as a patient, Subhash visited her regularly. After the doctors deemed her healthy, Abdul sent her where Subhash worked to toil under the sun, among men and women, boys and girls, Bangladeshis and Rohingyas. The deal was that both of them would have to keep working at the site until they earned enough to pay Abdul back for smuggling them into this country. For her, the tragedy and its aftermath were too much to deal with.
Aung and his team of desludgers were habituated to the smelly conditions they worked in at the Kutupalong refugee camp. Carrying human excretion and taking measures to fix the leakage in the toilets were some of the unpleasant things they had to do, but at least he earned ten dollars per day.
Salma’s interview was done. She hadn’t encoutered as much violence as the others had, but Toby was asked to interview every individual within the area range he had been given. The takeaway from Salma’s interview was the fact that her missing best friend’s name matched with that of an alleged Rohingya victim of trafficking. While leaving the camp, as Toby pieced it together, he visited Salma’s shelter again, and informed her about Arpita and her cousin’s fates.
“Who told you about them?” she asked frantically.
“His name is Hashim.”
She was assured by his reply. Hashim was one of their neighbours back in the village. She was glad to find out that they could make it alive. Now, the desire to reunite with Arpita, the desire to make love secretly, the desire to identify and heal her scars, burned vigorously within her.
At night, away from the crowded hum of the displaced and the mechanical lights, on a solitary patch of land uphill, Salma kept staring at the starry sky glassily. A tired Aung came hauling a bucket to station it where Salma stood. In the cramped camp below, solitude was non-existent. The patch uphill was where the buckets containing the desludged waste was to be kept.
“So…when did you come?” Aung asked her purposelessly, taking advantage of the quiet around them.
Reluctantly, she replied, “August.”
“I’ve never seen you here.”
“But I see you every day working around the toilets.”
Embarrassed, he changed the topic.
“Do you have friends here?”
“Don’t know about others, but my best friend has been smuggled in the city along with her cousin. Mr Toby told me that his team will rescue them.”
An awkward silence and then:
“Oh..my brother told me that a few weeks ago, a group of Rohingya people were brought in at a hotel construction site. He works there. She and her cousin could be there,” Aung asserted after gathering whatever he knew as he stuttered, breaking the silence.
Aung felt very important and wise as the words spilled out of his lips. He had never felt more important in his life.
“Do you have a phone? Shubhom asked me to call him if I find out anything,” Salma requested, her hands shaking.
“Yes, dial his number.”
She told Shubhom about whatever Aung had said, urging him to take action immediately, her heart racing in anticipation of locating Arpita. But he said it wasn’t possible at that moment since Toby and he had a briefing to attend. Shubhom fixed the next night for the investigation.
“Why do we have to do this at night?” she asked impatiently, rudeness palpable in her tone.
“We have to prepare a team, set up informants throughout the area, and take security measures, etc. You won’t understand,” he said.
A day later, when Toby, Shubhom, Rafiq, and five detectives reached the camp, Salma and Aung, joined them in search of Subhash and Arpita. Aung was included because he often visited his brother at the site, and knew the workers there, and where they lived. The team could really use his closeness to them. No one else from their previous neighbourhood had volunteered to join the search. They were just too afraid. That’s how Salma was included. She was ready to take risks for Arpita. Mohsin and Rahim were reluctant to let her go alone. They almost burst into tears. Both were afraid of losing their kin in this foreign land. But Toby reassured them. It was ironic how in Mohsin’s eyes, Salma was just looking for her best-friend, not her lover. Shubhom translated the reassurance. They found relief in Toby’s charm and Shubhom’s translation of it. Though the chances of finding Subhash and Arpita were slim, it was something the group couldn’t miss. Toby was equipped with all the information he needed about Abdul from Hashim. His eyes shone with the glimmer of an important purpose. Aung’s heart was inundated with a sense of being important. And Salma’s hopes swirled and calmed in a turbulent manner.
Abruptly, readily, and purposefully, in a dark van, they sped into the night, the stars existing like a triangular guardian eye over them, the coastal region, the distressed, the displaced, and the route-less elephants.