By Rashed Chowdhury
My brother Shahed, who was younger than me by three years, was a smart, good-looking kid. We had two sisters between us, but they died in infancy, so Shahed was next to me in the family, and we were close. We always teamed up against our older brother Khaled, who was something of a bully.
When I was six, I was sent to my maternal grandfather’s house in the village of Walipur, to start school. Three years later, Shahed went to another relative’s house for the same reason.
In 1955, when I was in fifth grade, I fell ill and was sent home to my parents. I had typhoid, an often deadly fever in those days. Rural areas had few qualified doctors and little in the way of appropriate medicines—and for a middle class family such as ours, affordability was an issue too.
Within a week, we got the news came that Shahed had fallen ill too. Our older brother Khaled went to bring him home. Shahed was weak and his school was about five miles from our home, across rural terrain that included farms, jungles, and river crossings. Khaled could not carry him all that way. Despite his weakened condition, Shahed had to walk a considerable distance, and by the time he got home he was totally broken. It was typhoid for him too.
Shahed and I shared a room. Our sick beds were side by side. An old Hindu doctor from a neighboring village treated us. He was an experienced traditional healer but had limited knowledge of modern medicine. I recovered slowly, but Shahed’s condition continued to deteriorate. Over the course of three weeks, the typhoid reduced him to a skeleton with little hope of recovery. At that point, much against my will, I was sent back to my grandfather’s house to continue my studies. I didn’t want to go. I was still weak, and the typhoid had made me bald (It took nearly a year for my hair to grow back) but I had already missed many classes, and the final exams were near.
Before my departure, I went to Shahed, who had lost his voice by then. I told him I was leaving. He gave me a pained look—a look I will never forget—and managed to raise his thin hands a little in an effort to embrace me. I leaned down, and we remained locked in an embrace for a long time. When I finally eased away, he grabbed my shawl and held it against his chest and would not let go. I saw tears in his sunken eyes. I could not control my tears either. Someone forced him to let go of my shawl, as I was late for my journey to Walipur.
This was one of the most painful moments of my life. Why were they forcing me to separate from my little brother at this critical moment? Nobody seemed to understand my feelings, or Shahed’s. A cruel decision was imposed on us both. I wept all the way to Walipur.
After a week, I received word that Shahed had died. He had passed away only two days after my departure. Although this news was not unexpected, it devastated me. I wanted to rush home at once, without even telling anyone. My departure was delayed, however, because my older maternal uncle wanted to go too.
On the way home, questions kept nagging at me. Why had I been separated from Shahed when everybody knew he had only days to live? Why I was not informed of his death immediately, when I was only a few hours travel away? Why was I deprived of the opportunity to glimpse my dear brother one last time?
At home, I ran to the place where Shahed and I had embraced for the last time. I fell prostrate on the bed, recalling the moment when I took leave of him. To the folks at home, he was forgotten, he was history. For me, his death was fresh, and I could not control myself: I burst into loud wailing.
Nobody came to me, nobody talked to me, nobody consoled me. Ma, my mother, and the others were busy talking to my uncle, giving him a vivid description of Shahed’s sickness and of his last days. It seemed like I did not matter to anybody. My crying became louder, finally drawing Ma’s attention.
“Why is he so hysterical?” she asked, not addressing anyone in particular. Perhaps she was meaning to appease me, but to me her question felt rude and sarcastic, as if I had no right even to express my sorrow for the loss of a dear one.
My mother’s youngest sister lived with us at that time, and it was she and cousin Farida who told me about my brother’s final days. As I listened to them, many sweet, sad memories flashed through my mind.
I remembered that when we were little boys, Shahed, being the youngest child, had the privilege of sleeping next to our mother, which was the coziest place at night. I wanted the same place for myself, so we always tussled at bedtime. As a sporting soul, however, my little brother agreed to share that precious place. We would sleep next to our mother on alternate nights.
The arrangement went fine until one winter night, when he created a big fuss. With his pillow in his hand, he stood on the bed, crying and complaining. I had taken his place that night, even though it was not my turn. For some reason, on that night, I had an especially intense desire to sleep by Ma, and I slipped in quietly before Shahed arrived.
I breached our agreement. It was a selfish move on my part. The ruling went in Shahed’s favor, but I was a winner too, as our mother re-arranged the beds in such a way that I could sleep on her other side (Our father had a separate room exclusively for himself.)
One dark evening, Shahed and I went to a pond, not far from our house, to bathe. In villages, one got dusty working or playing, and it was necessary to wash before nightfall.
“See that Shaheed washes up properly,” Ma instructed me before we headed for the pond. I was six years old then, and Shahed was three.
Our village home was full of big trees and thick jungles inhabited by wild animals such as leopards, jungle cats, jackals, large lizards, and snakes. We could see them even in the daytime, roaming in search of goats, poultry, and other prey. What’s more, we’d heard countless stories about ghosts. In the evening, every drooping tree, every dark silhouette looked like a big ghost waiting to attack. In the quiet of the night, every slight noise sounded like it might be some fearful creature coming to grab us!
In the pond, there were two wooden platforms. The nearer one was shaky and slippery. The distant one was firm, but I was unwilling to go to that one, because it was dark and there might be ghosts out there.
I called to Shahed. “Come here with me.”
But he wouldn’t come to the closer platform. “That one’s slippery. I can’t stand up there. Let’s go to the other one. Please,” he begged.
But I refused to budge, and grudgingly, he made his way to the far platform by himself—which angered me. I thought he should have obeyed me. In my wrath, I abandoned him. I left him out there on that dark, distant platform alone. I did not even bother to make sure he washed himself properly.
That night, I regretted my selfish behavior towards Shahed. The thought of how I had treated him kept me awake. Shahed was so young: he deserved my compassion. I had a responsibility towards him. He had begged me repeatedly to accompany him to the distant platform and I had ignored his pleas. I should have understood his feelings. I was so afraid of dangerous animals, reptiles and ghosts on my own account. How could I leave Shahed to their mercies? He could have been in danger. He could have slipped and drowned out there!
As I tossed and turned, stewing in my guilty thoughts, I found myself in front of a compound beautifully decorated with balloons. Children wearing colorful clothes were inside playing. In the middle of the yard was a table laden with mouthwatering food and delicious fruits. A short, bearded, ever-smiling man in a white outfit stood guarding the gate. More children kept arriving. They presented papers to the gatekeeper, and he let them in. They went into a room and came out through another door, into the compound, dressed beautifully, to join the other children at play.
I wanted to enter, but I had no ticket nor any papers to show the gatekeeper. He shoved me away with a wooden stick shaped like a snake. I started crying. At that moment, I saw Shahed inside the compound, looking very smart in a red and blue jacket over a white shirt, with blue shorts and white sneakers.
“Shahed…” I called to him. “Shahed…Help me. I want to come in.”
He came to the gate, said something to the gatekeeper, and went away. I kept calling to him but he was nowhere to be seen. The gatekeeper took out a signboard from a nearby basket and held it up for me to see. It read: “No Selfish People”. He locked the gate and went away.
I stood outside the compound, crying. Then I heard strange howling and wailing sounds behind me. I turned. I was standing in a swamp full of roaming reptiles. From the jungles, howling animals and shapeless weeping spirits walked towards me. I screamed in fright and woke myself up. It was only a terrible dream! But my eyes were wet.
When the day finally dawned, Shahed was still sleeping next to me. I saw patches of mud and dusts on his legs and toes, where he had failed to wash himself adequately. Yet he looked so beautiful, so serene, so much at peace with himself. I wanted to cuddle and kiss him, wanted to make up for the selfish way I had treated him the night before.
So I woke him slowly, lifted him onto my back, and took him to the washroom to brush him and clean him up. Then I took him to breakfast. He must have wondered why I was showing him such affection, but he accepted my attentions without resistance that morning.
And now he was gone. Shahed was gone from me forever.
I long to meet my little brother again. God permit that I meet him again, in the next world.
Rashed Chowdhury is a former Bangladeshi military officer and diplomat. He writes articles on political and current issues related to Bangladesh. His memoir A Soldier’s Debt recounts how he escaped from Pakistan in 1971 to join the fight for the independence of Bangladesh. It was published in 2015.
Copyright 2016 Rashad Chowdhury. All rights reserved.