I will meet you there!
By Naeem Ashraf
Those were the days when I was a Major in the Army and deputed as United Nations Military Observer in Democratic Republic of Congo. The United Nations Mission in this war-torn country of Central Africa had established its Headquarters in its capital city (Kinshasa). It was first time in my life that I travelled to Africa. It was also a unique experience for me to serve with a multinational-organization. It was also a great learning, working with the military observers posted from Asia, Europe, Americas and Africa. Approximately, three hundred military observers were deployed along eastern border of Congo to make peace between rebellious outfits and Congolese Army. I along with dozen UN Military Observers were posted in Kinshasa. I was working in air operation. We were supposed to support the mission logistically.
Congo is located in Central Africa. Except its 550 km coastline in the west that connects the country with Atlantic Ocean, the country is virtually landlocked. It has thick jungles due to six months rainy, hot and humid season. Widely spoken languages are Congolese, Africana and French. 85 percent Congolese population is Christians, five percent Muslims and ten percent have animist beliefs. The eastern region of Congo is rich in minerals and known for strategic metals like uranium, cobalt, copper and raw diamonds. Despite all that, this largest country, equal to the surface area of Western Europe, remains one of the poorest nations of the world. Why?
The rule of ‘might is right’ has always prevailed in the world. Militarily strong and clever nations of the world have always looted, plundered and if needed, invaded the poor and naive nations especially if the naïve nations held natural resources underneath their soil. Congo was no exception. The colonization of DRC commenced in 1876 and completed in 1885. It remained the colony of France and Belgium prior to its independence in 1960.
Now it USA who has shown its presence through United Nations. It covertly strengthened the rival groups in Eastern region through Uganda and Rwanda to create unrest in Congo. The unrest in the country could only justify UN presence in this poor nation of Africa.
Major Zafar had completed his tenure as a military observer in Congo. Before he could go back to his homeland, Bangladesh, he arrived at Kinshasa to complete the pre-departure formalities. Zafar stayed with us for a couple of weeks. We were putting up in the country side by converting a large house into an officer’s mess. Since we two had a flair for literary arts, began to enjoy each other’s company. We would exchange our views on poets and singers of the subcontinent and sometimes he would break out into a song.
“So, Major! Tell me something about your childhood.” I asked him on a cool Sunday afternoon, as we settled in the green patch under the pine trees. The rainy season that commenced in March, was now coming to an end. Falling through the pine leaves, slivers of golden rays illuminated our beer glasses to look like molten gold. “Ah! I cannot recall all my childhood save events and places that left some impressions in my memory lanes.” Major began in a soft tone. “I was born and raised in Rawalpindi. Those were good old days of Sixties. We used to live in Civil Lines. My father was a government servant in Pakistan Secretariat, located at Saddar. Rawalpindi has never been an industrial or agricultural city. It was rather a city of soldiers, civil servants and shopkeepers. The students from various regions came here to study law, medicine and literature. My friendship with few class-mates is a lifelong gift of nature. We did not heed much to race, caste or religion. We were just friends, no matter who we were and from where we belonged to. I am still in communication with Mehdi Hassan of Gilgit, Arshed Butt of Azad Kashmir, Gul Sher of Swabi and Amber Abdullah of Chaman. Everyone was befriended without any prejudice.” Major Zafar explained before taking a mouthful sip of Congolese Lager. “I was in eleventh grade when East Pakistan became Bangladesh. My father, like many Bengali officers, chose to migrate to Bangladesh.”
I opined: “The split of Pakistan had displaced many families. The infighting had killed thousands of innocent citizens in East Pakistan. Homelessness, poverty and violence prevailed everywhere.” I said while lighting a cigarette for myself. Major Zafar continued somberly. “That was the worst tragedy of our history. Young girls were sold and even exported to other countries like livestock. Life was never the same again.”
I further told him: “Around the globe, many ethnically diverse regions live together in harmony. I wonder why we couldn’t work out the differenced through dialogue?’ Despite minor differences, citizens of both East and West Pakistan adored each other. Even today, we still cherish the times we had spent together. I think inept, egoist and greedy political leadership failed to prevent this division.”
Major Zafar held back his tears, looked straight into my eyes and spoke passionately. “Much like in Congo and Pakistan, the people of Bangladesh are living in distressful times. Despite having a fertile land and an abundance of natural resources, our women are exported to Bombay and Karachi like cattle.”
“This menace has spread all over the country,” I added. “Similar circumstances befell on an unfortunate Bengali woman who migrated to my native village in Azad Kashmir…I would tell you her story some other day.” On the sad note we went to our rooms for siesta.
A few days back I had received a letter from my mother who had urged me to contribute to Bengali daughters’ wedding. I had kept a decent amount aside. I also exhorted my colleagues to chip in whatever they could. One evening, when I was counting the donations, Zafar came around humming a Bengali rhyme. He asked as to what I was doing and I explained to him the purpose of the donations. He then began to inquire about the Bengali woman. I could not recall the Bengali woman’s name but told Zafar that I had only met her twice during my vacations. She used to keep her money and valuables with my mother. Despite her age, she had lovely features. Upon seeing her supple skin, silken hair and hazel eyes I had thought how unlucky she had been.
During my vacations, I had been told of her past. She had come from Jessore thirty years ago. Her father had died at the time of East Pakistan mutiny and her mother had remarried a rickshaw driver. Bengai had been only seven then. At the age of fifteen, her step-father had sold her. Her mother had cried after her, but to no avail. Major Zafar asked again if I knew her name.
“I cannot recall,” I answered earnestly. “In my village she has been lovingly nicked, ‘Bengali’. The woman has earned respect and affection. In the village events, Bengali was found immersed in the errands. Whether it was a large scale cooking on a sad or happy occasion or making up a bride, no event commenced without Bengalis presence.”
One evening, as we returned from a prolonged stroll, I tuned an Urdu channel on the television. They showed a program that covered death anniversary of famous poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. His daughter, Muneeza made a brief appearance to deliver a eulogy for her father. In a flash, I recalled the Bengali’s name. It was Muneeza.
“Muneeza? Yes. Muneeza!” I yelled with myself. Major Zafar came out of the wash room quickly with a towel wrapped around his waist. “What are you on about?” he asked in astonishment. I explained that Muneeza was the name of the Bengali woman, I had told him about. He went silent and dropped himself on a nearby chair. After some contemplation, he went to his closet and opened the locker. Zafar handed me a thick wad of bills. This is a contribution. You may call it a marriage-gift for Muneeza’s daughters.
For the next few days, I rarely came across Zafar. I could imagine him to be busy in his pre-departure formalities. He left for Dhaka the next weekend. We honored him with a farewell dinner at a Lebanese restaurant in Kinshasa. I saw him off at Kinshasa Airport. I bid him farewell with a heavy heart and we avowed to keep in touch. During the remainder of my days in Congo, I missed Zafar terribly.
After a few months I too was repatriated to Pakistan. Soon after rejoining my old unit, I was promoted to the next rank and went on a new assignment in the deserts of Sindh. For the next two years, neither of us could connect to another except exchange of few letters. After completing two and half years in Sindh, I was posted to Rawalpindi. On a bright Sunday, as I was reading under a maple tree in my garden at Chaklala Garrison, I received a telephone call from Zafar. I was overjoyed at hearing my friend’s voice after a long time. He, too, sounded jubilant. After exchanging pleasantries, we took a stroll down memory lane, recalling our practical jokes, poetry and singing sessions. We notified each other of current political situation of our respective countries and Zafar invited me to visit his hometown in Bangladesh. I politely excused myself since such a plan was not viable but I assured him that I wished to do so some time in the future. “I knew you won’t come, therefore I have come to you my friend!” Zafar broke the news of his arrival in a matter of fact tone. I jumped on my chair. “I landed in Islamabad yester night,” he continued. “And I hope to see you tomorrow.” Before I could reply, the line went off.
Relentless hospitality is an unspoken custom of my village. When Zafar arrived in a white shirt and gray trousers, he was warmly welcomed. I noticed his greying temples and age lines. My house was swamped from noon to night by relatives and friends who came over to greet him. They invited him over for lunches and dinners but Zafar had to politely decline due to paucity of time.
By the night, Zafar was exhausted. I escorted him to the guest room which was adjacent to my own room, and bid him goodnight.
Next morning saw Zafar fresh and energetic. He enjoyed walking under the pine trees and breathing in the fresh morning air. He praised the green pastures and mountains surrounding our beautiful vale. After breakfast, we went for fishing in the only stream flowed through our village. We also bathed in the fresh cool water. He was pleased to see peacocks, rabbits and partridges sauntering in the lush green and open plains. By afternoon we were able to successfully hunt a rabbit and two partridges for the evening feast. Zafar took an immediate liking to the simple meal.
As we were having tea after our humble but fulfilling lunch, Zafar inquired about Muneeza, the Bengali woman. My mother informed him that Bengali had died almost a month ago. The cup toppled from Zafar’s hand and I saw gloom settle on his face. I couldn’t understand his reaction other than that he was saddened by the demise of a country fellow. To distract him, I began talking about Muneeza’s virtues that the village still cherished. I tried consoling him by reminding him of the inevitability of death but he did not reply. After a while he expressed his desire to visit her grave.
The local graveyard was located on an elevated hill nearby. We found Muneeza’s grave and recited prayers for her soul. Then Zafar buried his face in his hands and started to sob uncontrollably. I was saddened but remained perplexed at my friend’s sentiments. It was natural to grieve for a displaced country-woman who had expired on a foreign land. But the agony on Zafar’s face indicated an unusual regret and an unbearable loss. I consoled, embraced, and took him to a vantage point on the hill from where our entire village, including Bengali’s home, was visible. We sat on a flat rock. I offered him some water. I waited silently for an explanation. He lit a cigarette and narrated a story like this.
“My mother had expired a year before we left for Bangladesh. She was buried in a graveyard behind Combined Military Hospital in Rawalpindi. After moving to Bangladesh, we settled in our ancestral home in Jessore. I was enrolled in Government College. My life had taken a new turn. I found myself in a newly liberated country, but my heart could not escape the memories of my childhood and my mother. Both had been buried in Pakistan. Our residence was huge, with spacious servant quarters. An officer like my father could easily afford to keep a full time servant and provide them with food, accommodation and a nominal compensation. He hired a maid who came to work for us with her family. Her husband was a rickshaw driver and her teenage daughter often helped her with household chores.” Here Zafar paused and sipped from bottle. Then he resumed.
“At that time, Muneeza must have been fifteen or sixteen. She had medium height, tanned skin and wore sharp features. I can still vividly recall her hazel eyes, her broad forehead and long, jet-black hair. She was incredibly attractive than beautiful. She had a habit of humming songs and reciting poetry whilst doing chores. Sometimes she would cram her school lessons too. She bought life to our home. She had caught my attention the very first time I had laid my eyes on her. I would sometimes catch her looking at me longingly. I would ask her to do petty tasks for me which she obliged with a smiling face. Gradually, we started to converse whenever her mother was out of sight. My father had gotten her enrolled in a local school. She used to look incredibly pretty in her uniform.” Zafar paused again and gazed at the mountain line which stretched over miles before us.
“One day, I found a letter under my pillow. Muneeza had spoken her heart out. She had inscribed a passionate love poem and had implored me to have my breakfast in the verandah so she could look at me before leaving for school. I did as she wished. From that day on, we would spend our afternoons together on the bank of a nearby stream. We would eat and talk for hours. The last time we met beside the brook, Muneeza had expressed concern over her step-father’s attitude towards her. She had looked deeply into my eyes and told me how strict her father was and how much he disapproved of her talking to me.
“I had then recited to her a couplet of Rumi, the famous mystic poet of Turkey:
‘Out beyond the ideas of wrong and right,
There is a field.
I will meet you there.’
“She asked me innocently, “What does it mean? Where should we meet?” I told her I had just recited a couplet from one of the greatest mystic poets ever to have lived. When you grow up you would know the meanings.” Here Zafar broke off again and stared on to the horizon where Sun s color had gone pale. His eyes seemed to be focusing on some distant point. I couldn’t comprehend the emotions resting on his face. “We had a rose garden in our court yard,” Zafar continued. “I had always wanted to offer her the most beautiful flower from our garden but she always left early for school. One morning I woke up earlier than usual only to give her the flower before she left. I still remember her smile when I presented her with a bright red flower. Her cheeks glowed and her eyes twinkled with longing. She gently caressed her cheeks with the rose flower and then asked me to fix the flower in her hair. I still remember how perfectly she parted her hair without using a comb. As I was untying her hair, Muneeza’s father appeared out of nowhere. He took Muneeza by her arm and shepherded her to their quarters. That was the last I saw of Muneeza. Her desire to have a red rose fixed in her black tresses remained unquenched. A few days later, her mother told me that Muneeza had been married off to son of her step-father’s friend.”
The sun sunk, leaving an orange sprawl over the horizon. The evening star winked at us from over the skyline. Despite the dusky gloom, I could see a twinkle in Zafar’s eyes. When we reached home, a few of my friends were already awaiting Zafar’s return and we immediately started conversing about Bengali. My mother joined us and told us that Bengali was an honest and simple soul. Two months prior to her death, Bengali had entrusted my mother with a notebook. My mother thought the scrawls on the notebook were Greek. “I think it’s in Bangla,” I informed her and handed the notebook over to Zafar.
That night before sleeping, I caught a glimpse of Zafar leafing through the notebook. Early next morning, Zafar woke me up and asked me to accompany him to the stream once again. On the stream bank we settled on rocks facing the rising sun. Its reflection was slowly brightening the crystal-clear water of the stream. Ambience was silent all over except the soothing sound of water that snaked through shining stones. Zafar’s passionate voice echoed with rocks. It was then mixed with music of pebbles. It felt as if Zafar spoke from a far flung distance. It was like the gloomy tone of a flute played by a desert dweller who had lost his love.
“A poor girl must never love a rich man,” began Zafar, reading from the notebook. “I write this after a forty years’ struggle for my survival. I loved a boy in Bangladesh. At that time, he was three years older than I. He was a rich man’s son. We were poor folks, who merely worked in their house to earn our bread. Back then, my heart was not aware. My mother used to tell me to avoid indulging in such fallacies, that it was a grave sin to even think of such things. Every night I reminded myself of my mother’s advice but by each morning, I had forgotten. If I didn’t see him, I wouldn’t eat – such was my passion. Was my infatuation a crime? Did it hurt anyone? But I was punished for such an innocent longing. My step-father thrashed me and sold me. I was resold and reached Karachi. I peddled again and again till the honorable Allah Ditta rid me of my bad fate by marrying me.” Over here, Zafar flipped to another page and continued reading aloud.
“I miss Zafar. I am not unfaithful to my husband. But Zafar was my first and only love. He was my true passion. All other men who came into my life were mere compulsions. I remained faithful to all but could never forget my first love.” Zafar’s voice trembled and I expected him to shut the notebook right away. By now, the sun had risen comfortably overhead. I saw beads of sweat trailing across his face. Perhaps he was sweating, or crying – I couldn’t surmise. We splashed our faces with fresh water. I did not want to see tears in his eyes.
Zafar continued reading the diary: “This is my home now. Everyone in this village knows of my past, but they have never questioned it. They gave me a brand new slate of memory from which I am to make myself anew. They have never insinuated me. I am their sister, their daughter and their honor. People of this remote area of Kashmir opened their houses to me, embraced me as one of their own. I wish Kashmiri blood ran through my veins. They have helped me live a dignified life – a life I could never have fathomed. They gave me land, a house and cattle. They gave my husband a refreshment hotel to win the bread from and aided me in marrying off my daughters. When I embark upon my final journey, it is my heartfelt wish to be buried here, among my own people. I want to be buried among these benevolent beings, whose hearts are as wide as this beautiful valley, whose love runs as deep as the stream that flows in the middle of the valley.”
Zafar let go off the notebook in the flowing waters. Our eyes followed its steady drowning, as the notebook bobbed up and down and finally went out of sight. When we returned home, Zafar and I had a hearty meal after which he started preparing for departure. He asked my mother’s permission to leave and bid farewell to everyone. My mother handed him some gifts she had packed for his family. He then went to our garden and plucked a red flower. I immediately understood and accompanied him. We scaled the small hill for one last time and reached Muneeza’s grave once again. After reciting the prayers, Zafar bent over and placed the flower on her grave, on the side where her head was laid to rest. He then placed a passionate kiss on the tomb – stone of Muneeza. I could see abundant love in his eyes as he spoke after a deep sigh: “A forty-year-old wish has been fulfilled today,” Zafar murmured softly as we walked away from Muneeza’s grave.