“Moon to Trident, we are under heavy firing. Should we retreat or hold ground?” asked a perplexed young man in his early twenties. He seemed particularly skittish, with a pale aura on his face which went with the dark circles around his eyes. General Syed Ahmed overheard his question as he was sitting right behind him. He hardly had an answer. They were low on ammunition, and the fact that they were flirting with their lives was something they were aware of even before they undertook the mission.
General Ahmed took a close look at his troops. The folded dhotis and mud stained white shirts hanging like rags on the impoverished bodies of the soldiers did not seem to dampen the overall mettle of the group. The guns were poorly constructed; the ones which were not, had been looted from the Khan Army. Loading and reloading them was a major impediment to the soldiers of the Mukti Bahini. Even a month back, they were harvesting their crops without giving a single hoot to the political environment of the country. The situation was volatile and a war seemed inevitable. Just that they were hoping against Hope.
“Retreat” muttered Syed , accepting the inevitable that the person on the other end had fled or was perhaps blown to pieces by a land mine. They had been laying them down everywhere, from the rice fields to the river banks. Rumours of bullock carts getting stranded in the mud and then blowing up to pieces when a rather inquisitive farmer wanted to find out the cause, was making rounds these days. The local fisherman Abdullah had caught mutilated limbs in his fishnet the other day.
The Khan army was advancing steadily. It rained bullets and grenades on an army of highly unskilled soldiers, who were clueless about what to do next, leave aside war strategies. The sound of agony filled the air as bodies fell faster than eyes blinked. At times, the Mukti Bahini was lucky. They succeeded in wounding one or two inattentive soldiers who were swayed a little too much by overconfidence.
It was an hour to sunset. “We need to stall them somehow”, Syed kept mustering to himself like a madman. He had overheard the latest development in this war which was India’s inclusion and that very fact was what was keeping them charged up, when annihilation was certain and death was just a step away.
Syed looked around him; there was hardly any place to look for cover in this barren land. Towering grasses and viscous mud were the only two obstacles in the way for the Khan army, who were unfamiliar with the terrain. After all the earlier wars fought on snow capped peaks and sultry deserts with India hardly demanded this level of exigency. Frankly, the guerrillas had also completely taken them by surprise. Complete annihilation for all forms of life was the order for the day, but the resistance put up by these villagers was stupefying.
Just like doctors do not make the best chefs, History teachers hardly make the best generals. History was obviously against Syed. But was on his side was a determination to beat the odds. To combat such level of orchestrated butchery with enormous audacity was something he had never pondered in his lifetime. But here he was now. Leading a bunch of charged up villagers who had learnt to pull the trigger of guns which were too large for them to carry, let alone operate. “The enemy thrives on the fear present in our mind and nothing else. You have nothing to lose except for your life, and everything to gain including carving a nation for yourself. A nation where our language will not face pillage from barbarians who do not know the richness of Bengali, how sonorous it is to the ears. We will protect this land, our language and the people”, he had roared amidst thirteen hundred villagers who seemed to echo his sentiments. The next few days had been excruciatingly difficult for Syed, teaching them how to aim and pull a trigger. He had read of guerrilla warfare being employed in Cuba and was certain it was the only feasible way to unsettle the Khan army. The discipline required to pull it off was unimaginable and the focus was aimed at demoralising the front with a savagery which would cause them to retreat. However things were not exactly working out that way.
The Mukti Bahini had managed to reach a river bank. The enemy was hardly ten minutes away. The wounded had been left off on the battlefield and the last scream seemed to echo in the ear as bayonets sliced their necks. The Khan treated the enemy like the cattle they would so often pick up from the enemy villages. Psychological devastation was a much needed factor to win this war.
Syed knew this river well enough. It was referred to as “Mawronpaani” colloquially by the dwellers as it was infested with Gharials, creatures which resembled crocodiles but were shorter in size and often even more vicious. Crossing the river was impossibility; submitting and getting decapitated in the hands of the enemy seemed out of the equation.
A little girl was playing by the river. The deafening sound of bullets and grenades hardly seemed to affect her disposition. She smelt of mud, flowers and innocence. She looked at Syed with eyes which spoke a million untold words. It seemed as if magic poured from her eyes. She was snug amidst the mire and corpses.
“We are hiding behind the bushes. When the enemy approaches, tell them we crossed the river. We are doing this for our nation, Bangladesh. Do not be afraid of them please. They will not harm you. Just tell them we went on the other side of the river”, Syed pleaded to the little girl. He had no clue as to whether that girl even understood concepts such as nationalism and killing for territory. But then again, he had no other option. The enemy were a few minutes away. Syed along with Tamim took the onus of leaving footprints near the swampy bank.
The Khan army arrived real soon. Like a pack of bloodthirsty hyenas they scouted the entire river bank. Syed and his troop waited behind the bushes, holding their breath. One little error and everything would be undone. Every second seemed like an eternity. As expected, they went near the little girl. For a moment Syed had his heart in his mouth, the Khan army knew no ethical boundaries and if anything whatsoever happened to her he could never seek for atonement from the Almighty.
A brief conversation happened between the brigadier and the girl, at the end of which he looked back. For a moment, Syed thought it was all over and they had been spotted by the enemy. In an involuntary move he seemed to grab the rifle, set for a last combat. But to his surprise he found the brigadier imparting directions to his troops and they were headed for the river.
The first batch of soldiers had reached the other bank when Syed noticed the first bustling in the middle of the river. The lethal underwater beasts seemed to be waking up from a lazy slumber, pleasantly surprised at the gift bestowed upon them by some pagan overlord perhaps. The second batch which comprised of more than seven-tenth of the army was crossing the river, unaware of the horror which lay ahead of them. In a matter of seconds the underwater bustling seemed to have been multiplied and Syed could clearly see streams of terror swimming towards of soldiers. Soldiers who were stooping probably because of the massive weight of the bags and ammunition they were carrying.
The first shriek which perpetrated the air followed soon after. The river was painted red, the kind of red which the Khan army had been using to paint the river Padma strewing it with carcasses. The first shriek was followed by more screams, as the gharials tore apart the troop with effortless finesse. Little gharials joined in the party as well taking off one limb at a time. The viciousness was of biblical proportions. Guns floated down the river and tattered remains of army bags swam in the bloodstream. Syed could actually hear the gharials tearing apart the flesh from the bones while cries filled the air.
It was a feast by then as more and more gharials kept joining in. Some of the soldiers who tried running away were dragged underwater by these beats of prey, they had probably been starving all this while. Syed could spot a couple of the soldiers pulling themselves out of the water. One had a leg missing while the other guy had his guts and intestines spilling all over the ground. He could barely walk a few steps before collapsing and painting the mud crimson with his blood.
Somewhere along the river bank the little girl walked away, barefooted. It was dusk, time she returned home. Her father was killed by the Khan regiment a few days back and she hated leaving her mother back home. After all, she had a story to tell over dinner tonight.
Rupajyoti Dutta | PGDM 2016-18