The Wait is and is Not
- Nitasha Kaul
You Don't Mess with Viru - Jayant Kripalani
The Last Journey Home - Siddhartha Gigoo
Family Trip - Mihir Vatsa
For the Longest Time - Mridula Koshy
The Tree's Passport - Sumana Roy
I Try to be so Buddhist - Robert Sugg
Oh God, My God - GB Prabhat
Stroke at Noon - KL Chowdhury
Unbroken Awareness - Tendair Mwanaka
Island of a Thousand Mirrors - Nayomi Munaweera
My Hungry Workers - Sourabh Gupta
The Stone - Anupam Choudhary
The Return - Shirani Rajapakse
The Unsent Email - Shyama Laxman
Poetry: Naseer Ahmed Nasir
(Translated by Bina Biswas)
Dr Bhikbab Changes His World - Sheela Jaywant
The Pillar of Society - Manju Kak
- Attia Hosain
London Company - Farrukh Dhondy
The Cripple and His Talismans - Anosh Irani
Their Language of Love - Bapsi Sidhwa
(Arjun Raj Gaind)
Silk Fish Opium - Jaina Sanga
The Blind Man's Garden - Nadeem Aslam
The Almond Tree - Michelle Corasanti
Nobody Can Love You More - Mayank Austen Soofi
Along the Red River - Sabita Goswami
Tales of a Journalist, Bureaucrat, Spy - Som Nath Dhar
Che in Paona Bazaar - Kishalay Bhattacharjee
The Tree's Passport
- Sumana Roy
'Let the tree decide.'
Even at that young age – I would have been no more than seven – I knew that it was impossible for the tree to decide. That was a time when everyone in the world seemed older than me, and so I was too scared to ask these men what it was that a tree could decide.
We were in Hili, a village-town on the Indo-Bangladesh border, home to my grandparents, where they had settled after abandoning Bangladesh in 1947. This must have been my first visit to the place for I can remember uncles and strangers tempting and promising me the ultimate 'view' that this town could offer: a trip to the Indo-Bangladesh border was their return gift for what we offered them when they visited us in Siliguri – a view of the sleepy Kanchenjunga.
So one morning, a man, who'd later become my favourite uncle, took my brother and me to the promised location on his newly bought second hand Enfield Bullet. On the way, he'd bought mishti doi, the best there could be, from an unremarkable looking shop. It was meant to be a picnic, a version of arcadia that my uncle felt his nephew and niece were being deprived of in their utterly urban upbringing. I can tease him about it now – did he expect us to behave like Krishna and his friends? For children, every trip outside the house is an outing, and this childhood was still new to us.
The journey was short, and that was a relief because it had not rained for months and the dust made my brother sneeze incessantly. I noticed his sneeze droplets form patterns on the back of my uncle's shirt. If I hadn't been holding my brother on the pillion, my fingers would be inside my ears. The noise of the second-hand motorcycle was deafening. It made me nauseous.
Suvo-kaku, my uncle, rolled out sheets of an old newspaper under a tree. We soon followed him there. Everything was new for us. If there was a working definition for peace, it was under that tree: there was no one to scold us. The cold mishti doi would be what ice cream was to our summer holidays in the city.
We heard a train whistle far away. Addresses were unimportant to us as they are to most children: the present is the only residential address. There were bird cries, the barking of dogs far away, the stench of cow dung. The heat of the midday sun grazed our skin. But to make up for everything was the pot of mishti doi. And the matronly shade of the mango tree.
Suvo-kaku scooped out the curd from the pot, stuffing our mouths with it. He ate a lot of it himself, looking at us guiltily, as if he was stealing from our share. I was so happy that I wanted to push my brother from behind, but I was unsure whether he was as happy as I was. He did not speak at all, asking my uncle only once how much India had scored against the West Indies cricket team.
Suddenly we saw shadows in front of us, and turning back, faces of strangers. For a moment I wondered whether Suvo-kaku had changed into a different-looking man. Everything was possible, it seemed, in proximity to a country that we'd repeatedly been told, had more ghosts than people.
'What are you doing here?' one of the men asked. I still remember the colour of his lungi: broad black stripes on blue. It was pulled up to his knees.
We looked at our uncle. My brother later said that he compared the size of their biceps, Suvo-kaku's and the two men's, as they spoke to each other.
'We are eating doi,' answered my usually quiet brother.
'You can eat your Indian doi in India. Why do you have to sit under a Bangladeshi tree?' My uncle, then yet to join the judiciary where he has made a happy career, asked like only a twenty-three-year-old can, 'Does the tree have a Bangladeshi passport?'
My brother and I got up, he guarding the prized pot of doi behind himself.
'So you want to see the passport of this tree?' said the other man. I still remember how he took a small comb out of his pocket every time he spoke, parting his hair on the left and pulling the rest to the right with the fierce energy of a map-maker.
'Didn't you go to school? Don't you know the map of India?'
I knew the map of India and I made that clear to the two men. 'Of course I go to school. I know the map of India. I can draw it with tracing paper.'
'What's your problem?' said Suvo-kaku, pulling me by my hand protectively. He had begun to behave like a man who'd taken a loan from his brother – in this case, the loan was the older brother's two children.
'You are in Bangladesh. Where's your passport?' said the man in the blue lungi.
'This isn't Bangladesh. I took a road that runs parallel to the barbed wire border,' Suvo-kaku explained.
'Do you see the Bangladeshi police there? Should we call them? You can explain the rest of your story to them.'
Three of us, suddenly 'Indians', looked towards two men on the horizon. In the daze of the summer heat, all we could make out from their profiles was the nozzle of their guns, their second nose as it were. They did not look fierce; only that all their emotions seemed to be concentrated in those gun-noses waiting to sneeze.
'What's your name?' my uncle asked the man with the plastic comb.
'Dhiren. This is Ahmed,' he replied, pointing to his friend.
'What do you want?' my uncle asked in the tone of one who is willing to pay a ransom.
'Did you come to Bangladesh to eat doi? Will that increase its taste?' Ahmed retorted.
'Where's Bangladesh?' asked my uncle, exactly like my maths teacher had asked me where the zero on my examination script was.
For the next one hour – it must have been more though my uncle now denies it – three men, two Bangladeshis and an Indian, drew straight lines in all possible directions. I regret being so young, not old enough to ask them why they thought only straight lines could be borders. My brother, two years younger, asked my grandfather the question over dinner that night. The old man whispered his answer into my brother's ear. It remains a secret.
My brother and I looked on with the anxiousness of hydrophobic spectators on a sea beach until the moment of truth – or so each party thought – arrived. Twigs had become makeshift pencils in the hands of these temporary cartographers, and they had filled the earth's skin with scribbles and doodles, parallel lines in a lifelong quarrel. From whichever direction they drew, the tree's citizenship could not be confirmed. Half of it fell in Bangladeshi territory, the remaining in India's.
All of us grew hungry, we, the accused infiltrators, and perhaps the two Bangladeshi men too. (On the way back home, my brother would ask Suvo-kaku whether those who did not have passports and visas were allowed to feel hungry.) Suddenly one of them spoke, pointing to the clay pot, 'Why do they say that the doi in your town is better than anything we get in Bangladesh? Do you know where the milk for the doi comes from? Our Bangladeshi cows!'
'I fed some to the children. You can have the rest if you want to,' my uncle offered the olive branch.
The men ate the doi greedily, without guilt or fear of criticism. When I looked to my right, I saw that the noses of the policemen's guns had grown sharper. My brother whispered into my ear: 'Lobhi Bangladeshi', 'Greedy Bangladesis.' I stamped on his foot to discipline his wayward thoughts about our neighbours.
When Suvo-kaku made way to start his motorbike, he teased them as if they were his in-laws, 'Don't forget, you just ate Indian food.'
After all that we'd heard – 'let the tree decide'; 'I'm going to chop your head the way I'd chop this tree' – I was scared again.
Ahmed licked his fingers and then said, 'This is a Bangladeshi tree. But its shade is Indian.'
And the conflict was resolved though my five-year-old brother thought it an unfair bargain, the exchange of mishti doi for the shade of a Bangladeshi tree.
Sumana Roy is a Bengal-based writer and reviewer, who writes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Her works have been published by several newspapers, magazines, journals, and anthologies.