In Memory of Language Martyr Abul Barkat

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By a dusty roadside, a tarpaulin-covered shack was littered with over a hundred stone slabs of varying sizes and shapes.  A man, aged around sixty, lean and tall, spectacled, was engraving a rectangular piece of black granite. From head to toe, he was coated with dust and flecks of the stone. The slab was to be etched in memory of a legendary name, a language martyr, Abul Barkat, who sacrificed his life on 21st February 1952 in Dhaka for the sake of his mother tongue, Bangla.

Madhu, the owner, aged between forty and fifty, short and bald, bulging bellied, blood-shot eyed, paan-stained lips, was smoking on his worn-out stool and thoughtfully surveying his empire of stone slabs.

“Lal, what’re you up to still?” asked Madhu in a racy voice.

“Babu, giving a finishing touch to the name plate ordered by the Headmaster of Hekmat High School. He repeatedly warns that it is to be finished by tonight, and tomorrow morning on his way to school he’ll take it. It’s urgent…”

“Move, move, let me have a look,” ordered the master.

Lal moved and waited owl-like in the dimly lit corner. His face was dry, but he seemed torn between hope and despair. Old days of patting and derision possessed him. 

“It’s good. Happy that you’re enriching your art day by day! Letters are awfully stylized, and people have to wear reading glasses to decipher your letters. Of course you’ll be praised! But leave it there, go to the far end, take that circular slab, and on it now ornately incise ‘Madira Manzil’.”

The master flung the burning butt of the cigarette into the busy road, took a napkin from his stainless cash box, and began to clean two or three finished plates carefully.

“But, babu, Headmaster will come with the sun rise. And he exhorts that he is a man of one word.”

“Who is taller, Headmaster or contractor?”

“How can I tell? My eyes are failing.”

“Think well. I mean apply your common sense,” cheerfully Madhu eyed Lal.

Lal scratched head, blinked eyes, moved lips, and a while later said, “Contractor, babu.”

“You’re so cool, my old hand! Now you know why do I keep you instead of difficult days?”

Lal beamed and went to the far end and took out a fine slab, and began to polish it for etching the magic letters ‘Madira Manzil’.

“Babu, how do I face the Headmaster? He is a man of one word. Some troubles I sense at dawn,” remorsefully Lal said.

“Leave that on me, my old hand. I make him understand the problem. What’s wrong with a day delayed? It is not his daughter’s marriage! He can easily wait a day. Hand me his nameplate meantime,” annoyingly said Madhu.

Lal handed him the piece and argued no further with his master.

“Lal, who is the man? A-b-u-l B-a-r-k-a-t! Is he a politician or a social reformer or a cricketer? This name sounds queer. In my whole life thousands of names crowd and vanish. But such an odd, bizarre name!” Madhu wore a sad face and threw a quizzical look at Lal.  

“Babu, what do we have with the man? Our task is to etch his name on the stone, and count coins. Is he dead or living? Is he a player or a torch bearer? These and like are irrelevant,” flatly argued Lal.

“You claim that you are a primary drop-out, and you lecture like a professor!” Madhu threw a fiery look. He felt uneasy with Lal’s unsought exegesis.

“Sorry, babu,” Lal cut his tongue, and next, he paid double attention to his assigned work.

“Lal, let’s come to the point. Headmaster and his stone can wait. But how can we delay our boss’s task.  He is a big name in construction line.  For ten long years he is building his palace with a swimming pool, a mini gym and an acre of sprawling flower garden. Crore he spends in this and that. Can he be waited? Have we the courage?”

“How can we?” Lal agreed with his master without taking his eyes from the egg-shaped slab.

Evening stealthily descended, darkness thickened, and Lal, under a tiny flickering bulb, was fighting with his newly found friend. Tomorrow was the delivery date. And if he failed, his skin would be peeled out of his body. He knew well….

The following day, the Headmaster, a clean-shaven, glossy gentleman of fifty or so with a broad smile on his oval face, stopped his alto just before the shed and hurriedly asked for the nameplate. A room in his school was to be dedicated to the language martyr Barkat, and a special lecture was to be delivered on his memory. He was in a hurry.  Delegates would come from four corners of the state. Many arrangements had to be made to smooth the hectic day.

“Where is my name-plate?” softly asked the Headmaster, looking around the stacked stones.

“Sir, it is half-done. Tomorrow, you come and take it easy,” nonchalantly, Lal said.

“Why?”

“Another urgent delivery, sir, from a big building contractor who sleeps on stacks of raw notes. A crorepati. Fifty men he keeps for the upkeep of his house.  How can we delay his order? He is our patron, a friend in sun and shower.”

The Headmaster looked vacantly at the brilliant sky and looked for heavenly bodies.

“Where is your master?” the Headmaster asked calmly.

“At home. May be sleeping or taking rest. Yester night my master attended a party. Tired, sir.”

“Could you give his cell number?” the Headmaster asked with a stifled tone.

“I have no mobile, sir,” calmly clarified Lal.

“Would you take tea or coffee, sir?”

“No. Thanks.”

The headmaster’s face exuded a flush of anger, anxiety, remorse, and pity. He kept himself cool by forcibly repressing his strains of fear and inaction. He could not decide if he should wait or move, snatching the unfinished piece of stone. In the end he lost control.

“How irresponsible you are! How do you run a business with such an inert attitude? You have no sense, no way to deal with clean people. It’s terrible! It’s horrific!” The headmaster burst into anger.

Nobody talked. Vehicles honked and speedily passed by the side of the shop.

“How much?” dryly asked the Headmaster.

“Sir, it’s unfinished. How can I deliver it?” indifferently Lal said.

“Stop. Not a word more. You are polluters of people! Have you heard the name? Do you know the significance of the day? Okay, tell me today’s date.” Headmaster smashed. 

“21st February.”

“Good.”

“Why do we celebrate it?”

“How can I tell? I am a primary pass-out. Days come, days go. Orders we have and things we deliver. Beyond it, I know nothing.”

“Good! It’s our fault, man. You have never heard the names of Salam, Barkat, Rafiq, Jabbar. Barkat was born at Babla village, Bharatpur, Murshidabad. In his memory, a room was donated by Sukhtara Bibi, an educationist who is the chief guest of today’s observance of International Mother Language Day at our school. Do you know history? No. Okay. On February 21, 1952, students of the University of Dhaka launched a nationwide protest against accepting Urdu as the nation’s official language. In that peaceful protest, Barkat and many others were killed. In order to recognize and honour this heroic act, the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared in 1999 February 21 as International Mother Language Day. It is a day of worldwide observance aimed at promoting multilingualism and cultural and linguistic diversity awareness.”  The Headmaster gasped, took the nameplate and departed with a light heart.

Lal muttered for a while and sat sheepishly in that far end. How long? Who knows?

(taken from Aaakhir and Other Stories)

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Freevoice

I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, said George Orwell. As a writer, I never kowtow to the whims and dictates of the sacred godmen or godwomen, the political bigots and hypocrites, dealers of laymen, the dishonest and self-serving intellectuals, traders of religions, the betrayers of ‘other’ Indians who eke out a living by their sweat, who are living in fear for being lynched for this and that.

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