Fiction: Orchard

Mehreen Ahmed
An idyllic spring’s morning, Tina woke up with a yawn. Gibberish talks drifted from uncertain directions. She squinted her eyes to check the time. It was hardly 10 ‘o’clock, a lazy Sunday. But people had already dropped in. She got out of bed, walked up to the window and gazed downstairs. She saw men jostle in the orchard, in the backyard of the house. These were her uncles and their friends, coming over for a Sunday morning tea. She heard their passionate outbursts, but could not understand the reason of clamour.
           Tina’s sixteenth birthday was last month. This tender age rendered her vulnerable. But she grew up feeling privileged at home. The House of Chowdhury, where she lived with a family of at least ten people, were her grandparents, Mr and Mrs. Chowdhury, her aunt Lutfun, her two uncles, Ashik and Sheri her mother Nazmun Banu and father, Ekram. She reckoned, of all her relatives, her grandmother, Mrs. Chowdhury loved her the most.
           As always, her bedroom’s window lent an undeterred picturesque view of the orchard. The wooden, green, shutters of the window splayed wide this morning; she didn’t close them the night before to let some spring breeze seep through. She fell asleep in the wafted air of citrus fruit profusion. Standing by the window, a few words that she overheard from the heated debate eluded her. These were big words, such as revolution, change of government etc, etc. Whatever those words meant, Tina had to run along. But her friends were coming over. They had planned a picnic under an Indian jujube tree in the far end of the orchard.
           Tina saw their black bobbing heads through the window. She got dressed, picked up a matchbox from an ornate dresser-drawer and ran downstairs. Pots and pans lay haphazard on the grassy patch. One friend picked up a rock and hurled it at a bunch of russet jujube, hanging down its stringy bark. A few luscious fruits plopped on the ground. They bent over to pick a small handful each. They giggled without a reason, as they chewed them casually spitting the pits around. 
           Most of them lived locally, particularly one girl. Her name was Shreya. When Shreya saw Tina come through the orchard, she went halfway to meet her. They greeted and hugged. Rabeya smiled at them and sat down by the pots and Lima dug a hole in the ground to make a stove bowered by the tall orchard trees. The blossoming beauties of their early teens, made lovelier in the sunlight shone on them. Wrapped in curvy, silky scarves around their chests, they frolicked in their short, floral frocks worn over long, stripe pants. They planned on making long Khichuri this afternoon. Khichuri, a sumptuous gruel of rice, daal, salt, a pinch of turmeric, and oil, cooked in a pot of water.
           They shoved twigs and dry leaves into the stove-hole. Tina took a stick out of the match-box and struck a flame at a mere friction to the box. She held the flame to the stuffings of dry, leafy twigs in the stove-hole to light a fire. The girls kindled it to make sufficient fire. A pot of Khichuri mixture was hauled and put over the fire. Luminous embers emanated from the fire pit, and flew like fireflies around the orchard.
           While the Khichuri cooked, the girls cut a long plantain leaf, and spread it along next to the jujube to use as a shared plate for all. In about half an hour, the Khichuri was ready. The remaining fire became small in its consuming ashes. Lima walked up to the pot and opened the lid. A vapour lifted the charcoal smell and pervaded the air.
           Shreya and Lima pulled the heavy pot off the stove and used the momentum to bring it over to the leaf, where the girls sat. They staggered as they lowered the hot pot down on a grassy spot by it. Shreya slid the lid off and dropped a wooden ladle into the pot. It sank to the bottom and touched the surface of the gruel. She took her first scoop and plopped a dripping spoon full of gruel onto her space on the leaf. Others followed suit. They scooped and splashed each along the plate. Their laughter said it all. Whether or not it was tasty with a tinge of a smokey bar-b-cue flavour, they couldn’t care less, but they ate it up with gusto. The twigs in stove-hole burnt gradually to a cinder. The picnic was over.
           “Where do we dispose of the banana leaf?” Shreya asked.
           “Hmm, good question, I guess just leave it here under the tree,” Tina answered.
           “Under the tree? Just like that?”
           “Yea, just leave it.”
           “Okay. But it’s hardly a clean leaf.”
           “Doesn’t matter. It would eventually go into the soil. Where do you think all the fallen leaves go?”
           “Into the soil, but …”
           “Well?” Rabeya asked eagerly.
           “You know, how the leaf is all dirty and all. Besides, it would take some time for this to mix with the soil. It’s still so green.”
           “Don’t worry, just leave it. It will all be okay, trust me,” Tina said.
           “Okay, if you say so.”
           Shreya felt something was awry. The soiled plantation leaf shouldn’t be exposed to the elements like this.
           “Why do you care so much about being tidy?” Tina asked suddenly.
           “Why not? What a crazy question is that? Why? You don’t care about it at all?”
           “No need, because nature takes care of it for us.”
           “Still, you just don’t keep things lying around, because it is going to biodegrade ‘eventually.’
           Tina kept quiet. A dark, new dimension of her character was discernible. She had a point though, however, sloth seemed more like a reason to Shreya. Picnic was over. Tina went up to the main entrance with her friends, and saw them out. As she walked back into the house, she saw Mrs. Chowdhury’s retinue of maids cleaning up the orchard. Dirt was shovelled into the stove pit to level it up, and the soiled leaf was rolled away and stashed into the trash bin along with all the other litters. The orchard was back to its pristine, most magical state in no time.
           Tina and Shreya had an especial bonding. Mrs. Chowdhury knew that. While back, she had discovered a secret hideout, a cubby house in the orchard under an old jackfruit tree. Inside the little cubby house, there were copies of English romance books, Mills and Boons and a carrom board, biscuit crumbs, and pieces of torn chapati. She had also found a few cigarette butts on the floor next to an old blanket, which Tina had taken from a rusty, antique trunk in the attic. But how did these cigarette butts get here? Surely, it must be Shreya’s idea. Her own grand-daughter wouldn’t dare.
           Perhaps, it was Shreya who coughed the first smoke, Mrs. Chowdhury imagined. It had to be her, that Shreya, who planted this in her grand-daughter’s head to pinch a cigarette packet from her uncles, which Tina did surreptitiously one afternoon, when everyone had gone for a siesta. At least, they were careful not to burn this blanket. But a maid knew. She was nearby, doing laundry by the pond. She overheard Tina propose that they smoked and that she would snitch a packet of cigarette from her uncles. Shreya had opposed it. But the idea was Tina’s all along. Grand-mother was mistaken.
           When her friends left, Tina ambled through the orchard into the cubby house. She sat on the old blanket and looked for the hidden, cigarette pack under it. She pulled it out; it had dented by then. She drew a cigarette and ignited it with a match stick leftover from the picnic. She took a couple of easy puffs; just then, she heard a sound. It distracted her. It was a sound of slogan - it came from a passing rally through the alley of the neighbourhood. She stood up on her toes and looked through the cubby window. Over the short, orchard fence, she saw a massive demonstration. Her cigarette burnt out, the heat touched the tip on her index. She dropped it and crushed the smoking butt with her heels. Her red bike was parked leaning by the cubby house. She quickly came out, and grabbed her bicycle. She sat astride it and shot out of the house. She rode it up to get closer to the rally. She read slogans written large in black on white placards. They demanded equality. Equal pay; freedom from oppression and exploitation. The rally went as far as the mosque at the end of the alley, and stopped nearby a slum. 
           Tina turned her bike around to get home. Revolution sounded all very romantic, but notional to her. The likelihood of her participating in the protests was a distant reality. She sat in the orchard a few evenings by herself. The enchantment of the orchard inspired her to think big. She thought of the words she had eavesdropped on her uncles’ conversation with friends. She could even get Shreya dragged into it. She was going to hide it from her relatives. Every evening when this rally passed through, it aroused her revolutionary curiosity. She rode out to the meetings at the mosque square. It had become a hotbed for free speeches. Tina listened to them mesmerised. She began to attend them regularly. Her mother and Mrs. Chowdhury noted her absence; they thought she was with friends.
           However, one spring night of 1971, the alley was quiet, like a calm before the storm. None of the demands had been met. Exploitation was at its peak. Leaders of this movement had declared war against the government, and proposed that every household became a fortress. The government was given an ultimatum to resign, to make way for new leadership. 
           Dark clouds gathered in the evening sky. Sallow street lamps illuminated the alley. On such a night, Tina was returning from the mosque square. In the passing, she heard a terrible wail, from Shreya’s house. Then she saw Shreya, running amuck into the open street, followed by soldiers in Khaki uniforms. These were soldiers cracking down, not only on protestors but civilians as well. Tina hid behind a street lamp, and saw those hyenas chasing her. 
           An army truck stood at the entrance of the alley, and Tina heard girls and women crying. A truck load of women were picked up. Tina was appalled. She saw the truck drive away. Shreya disappeared in the darkness too. Tina couldn’t ride back home fast enough. When she reached home, she entered the room of her grand-parents sitting grimly at the dining table listening to radio news. Mrs. Chowdhury looked up and said, “From now on, you’re not allowed to go anywhere, except school. Do you understand?” 
           Tina nodded with a frown. Grimness smeared all over her face. She looked at them and told, what she just saw on the road. Women taken and shoved into a truck. And then Shreya, where was Shreya, anyway? She thought aloud. Mrs. Chowdhury sat her down on a chair. She explained to her that they were at war. The government had declared war on its own citizens. Military ruthlessly tried to squash this rebellion.
           “Kill?” Tina screamed. “Why on earth … What the heck? Then Shreya …?” These were absurdities, shameful and merciless crimes against humanity. Mr and Mrs. Chowdhury sat contemplating. Suddenly, Shreya burst into the room. Her long hair untied and dishevelled, a mass of netted bird’s nest. She flopped down on the floor in complete disarray.
           “Shreya! Oh dear God! Shreya! What happened?” screamed Tina.
           “They took boro didi!” Tina ran to her, lifted her, embraced and kissed her sodden cheeks. Her elder sister, Krishna was on that truck. Oh! Where though and why? Tina was young, but her tell tale heart whispered ominous signs of why the military took young girls and women. This was how they were going to squash the movement, by taking the women away, and making them pay for it. Mrs. Chowdhury asked her to sit down on a chair at the table. She tried to calm her down.
           “If your mother is still at home, perhaps you should go home now and help her find out where the army may have taken your sister,” Mrs. Chowdhury suggested.
           “But that’s nearly impossible, Baba, could never find out.”
           “Just go home for the time being. I’ll think of something,” Mrs. Chowdhury said.
           “Could she stay the night here?” asked Tina.
           “Yes, she could, but you must ask her mother.”
           Shreya rose to leave. Her jaw fell and her face was grim. She walked toward the door. She had a sense of foreboding that perhaps, she would never see Tina again. She walked under the pale lamps; desultory darkness ponding the lane. Just two houses away from Tina’s house. But she reached home. She walked through the open door of gloom, and saw her father and her twin brother, Shuvo, sit glumly in the drawing room. Her mother performing pujo at the altar of Vishnu, the great god of preserver, in a corner carved out for prayers. Shreya stood at the door, feeling restive. She saw her mother in deep meditation. This unparalleled devotion — could this change the course of history? What was it? She tried to understand. What gave her this strength to be so calm at a moment like this? To be able to give Lord Vishnu her undivided attention. Even Vishnu himself would be perturbed. Or perhaps not, or else, he would have descended from heaven to rescue the drowning world. But he remained cold like this marble statue at the altar, as someone who only watched moving cinemas of human dramas played out on earth on its axis of destruction and preservation. It was hard to know his hand in this. Shuvo came and stood beside her. She looked at his pale, tear stained eyes.
           “I need to tell you something,” he said.
           “What?” Sheya asked.
           “I am leaving home.”
           “Leaving home? At a time like this? What do you mean?”
           “Yes, leaving. Now or never. Just tell them. Tell Maa and Baba that I have joined the revolution.”
           “Are you crazy? At sixteen, you want to be a revolutionary? You have not even seen a gun yet, let alone use one.”
           “Don’t be silly, Shreya. It has been going on for a while. Most young boys, my friends, have already joined. I have even seen Tina at the mosque square. Why do you think the military was here? Why do you think they came to our house?”
           “Because, they want to arrest boys and men. They think they’re ones fanning the movement. And they are. Do you understand now? Young boys, men are leaving in droves to join this fight.
           “That is so foolish.”
           “Foolish? What’s foolish is your naivety? The army is targeting every young person they can lay their hands on. They think other countries may be behind this too. This army will find us and kill us one by one. Today, they couldn’t. But they will come back looking for me, since I am one of the eligible “young boys.” Also to take you and didi to their pleasure house. You were lucky, you got away. I was at the corner shop lighting a cigarette. By the time I came home, it was too late. They had already taken didi. They kept maa and baba alive because of me. The military is using them as bait to catch me. Someone must have tipped them off.”
           “Oh no! Even if all this were true, how were we going to win this? Our boys are no match for them.”
           “That maybe. But our enemy is clueless. They have no idea, and neither do you. Anyway, I’ve got to go. Tell maa to pray for me.”
           “Wait, Shuvo.”
           But Shuvo walked away, Shreya went after him to the door. He opened and closed it shut behind him to brave a revolution. All this was so quick. What could have happened overnight to bring this on? It happened, all too a bitter revelation, at least for Shreya. Tina knew for a while now, sneaking out to attend those rallies at the mosque square. But Shreya had no idea. She was not political, nor an activist. She returned to the pujo corner. It smelled of burned incense. At the altar, Vishnu stood with a conch shell amongst all its fruit offerings, and sweets in return to the third eye that he bestowed to its devotees. The room was semi-dark. Except for the flicker of candles in the wind, there were no other lights. 
           Lord Vishu’s imposing presence in the room created a strange aura. Shreya almost had the feeling that the Lord would keep his promise, and save the world for his devotees who prayed in such elaborate pujos. He would blow into the conch shell any time now to summon his demi-gods to carry out the commands. While her mother continued, Shreya felt she actually heard the conch shell of ancient callings of preservation.
           A desperate knock on the front door broke her spell. She dragged herself to the door, and opened it. It was Tina. They looked at each other. Tina pushed herself in through the door.
           “What’s up?”
           “We need to go.”
           “What do you mean?”
           “I said we need to go. Where’s aunty?” Tina asked
           “She’s in pujo.”
           “Pack a suitcase and come to our house with your baba, and maa as soon as you can.”
           “Seriously? Don’t you listen to the BBC?”
           Shreya kept quiet. She could be irritating sometimes.
           “Tell me, do you or do you not know that there’s a war going on?”
           “I didn’t, until Shuvo left and didi taken.”
           “Just as well, I heard that our place was going to be attacked soon. They’re coming after us. They’ll soon start a door-to-door search for every young boy and man in the vicinity, without fail. Our house is next. They will kill, plunder and rape anyway they can. We are planning to flee to our ancestral home in the village. Grandma said to get you, so you could escape with us.”
           “Okay, okay. Enough said. I’ll see you at your place soon. Go already. It’s not safe for you either.”
           Shreya saw Tina to the door, as she mounted her bike and paddled it away into the night. The suddenness of it all made her dizzy, she felt she was in a nightmare. The revolution was brewing for a while yet. It just didn’t descend on her until now.
           It was decided then. That the two families would leave town and move to the village. Maids whispered something in the orchard earlier, which had alerted Mrs.Chowdhury, “What is it?” she had asked them. A maid looked at her. She was so pale, that Mrs. Chowdhury thought she had seen a ghost. “Well, when I took Shreya didi to the gate this evening, I saw things and overheard something.”
           “What did you hear and what did you see?” Mrs. Chowdhury demanded to know.
           “That two men, street dwellers whispering in the alley; they were talking about the Imam of the mosque.”
           “What were they saying?” Mrs. Chowdhury demanded.
           “That the Imam is a military spy. He often dobs into the military about our neighbourhood kids, about how many young people live on this block. Which homes have young girls, boys and revolutionaries? He also informs them which house belongs to whom.”
           “The Imam is a collaborator?” Mrs. Chowdhury thought aloud. “Quickly pack your bags and tell other maids to do the same. We’re leaving town.” 
           The maids left. Meanwhile, she shouted out to Tina to gather Shreya and her family. Mrs. Chowdhury knew better. The Imam must have collaborated. He was the one to tip off the military about Shovo, Krishna and Shreya. How else would they know about these young people living in that house? This house was next. The military had found out about The House of Chowdhury, by now, she was certain of it. This time grand-mother did not make a mistake.
           She had two sons of her own and lots of young girls in the house. The Imam knew this neighbourhood like the back of his hand. They must leave at once. The Chowdhury family began packing. They packed little suitcases with clothes, hard molasses, and dried rice. It took them until midnight to finish. Tina’s uncles, and aunties were ready. They waited for Shreya and her family. As soon as they appeared in the doorway, they rose to leave. There would be at least twenty of them including the maids. The one car in the garage would not be nearly enough. Shreya’s father brought his own car. 
           The two cars set off in cover of darkness. They headed toward the river. At the river, they planned to take boats across to their village. On the road, Tina smelled a stale air reeking of decomposed flesh. Mangled distorted bodies, dumped callously in the drains. The killers, the army called themselves humans, but beguiled humanity. Even the dead manifested better humanlike qualities. Expressions of horrors and confusions frozen on their cold faces. The soldiers had nothing. They were robotic, expressionless creatures of the night.                                                
           As the car sped through the graveyard shift, Tina saw abandoned rickshaws lined up on the lane, where rickshaw pullers’ carcasses laid like fallen filberts on the vehicles; whose inert arms and legs flung outside of the rickshaws. The mosque square was ground zero. Desolated spirits, vultures and crows flew in the shadow. Their heavy wings flapped in the burning brightness of a full moon, a gold coin over a darkened shadow of burnt crematorium. A wasteland of stark trees, whose tall and short pointy branches stood out like the uneven five fingers, posed for a ritual dance of deadly doom. She rolled up the glass and covered up her ears and her eyes. Shreya, who sat beside her, put her arms around her and held her close.
           The thoughtless army looted every house, and ransacked the fruit-laden orchard of The House of Chowdhury. The season of spring, steeped in the death bath of national despair of anxiety gripping lifeline. The army went after almost every citizen. They either murdered them, or took them away at gunpoint; relentlessly, not sparing any young boys or girls. Children witnessed horrendous murders of parents before their own eyes. Their sharp cries rang through caged ribs within the small bodies. Shuvo and his friends had already fled and joined the movement. The long walks on the streets, people with their belongings on their heads; men, women, children, and babies in their mothers’ laps; babies, never stopped crying. Hunger pains were greatest at a time like this, but they must all make it to the river.
           Tina and Shreya’s family cars were full. One of Tina’s uncles had to even sit in a half-opened boot. Closer to the river, Tina peered through the darkness. She could see boats in the offing. They would be needing a few of them at least. Mrs. Chowdhury did not leave anyone behind. Everyone in the house came with them, including the orphan twins that her adopted daughter, Lutfun had picked up from the dustbin two years ago. 
           They queued up to step into the boats. Tina stood last, just behind Shreya. The cars were left behind. An uncertain journey of refugee life began. A new day would begin surely, but slowly, when the revolution ended. The vast river before them had answers to the beginnings and the endings of time; the boats sailed unhindered in the soft, night breeze. The river spoke to them, it gurgled a tale of mystery. That life, floated aimlessly from one impermanent destination to another. Wisdom came only when people learnt to communicate with the river.

           The boat moved quietly. The distant gunshots reminded them of the orchard. Only birds pecked at the fruits in its emptiness. Shreya mused, no one knew, where her sister was, and Shuvo? Would he come home any time soon? However, when Mrs. Chowdhury and Shreya looked for Tina on the boat. She was gone. She had heard too much, and she had seen far too much. She felt an incandescent love for the revolution. The breathing orchard awaited, as did the hummingbirds.

Bio: Mehreen Ahmed is an award-winning, internationally published and critically acclaimed author. She has written Novels, Novella, Short Stories, Creative Nonfiction, Flash Fiction, Academic, Prose Poetry, Memoirs, Essays and Journalistic Write-Ups. Her works have been podcast, anthologised and translated in German, Greek and Bengali. She was born and raised in Bangladesh. At the moment, she lives in Australia.

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