Revisiting the Past

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
We all have a past... some unforgettable incidents, blurry memories, a hint of joy, unfounded angst... weave our lives. But often, in times of solitude, we are haunted by our not-so-comfortable memories. Have you ever wondered why? Is it guilt that we harbour and have not the strength to admit? The fear of reproach? The heart's desire to repent? Whatever it is, peace can only emerge once we have confronted them head on. Irfan's story is one such journey.

Submitted: November 14, 2019

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Submitted: November 13, 2019

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Revisiting the Past

The familiar moist smell of the earth pervaded the air. The trees, swaying and drenching in mirth, appeared greener. The first shower of summer was here. People were beginning to breathe a sigh of relief from the intermittent heat spell that had enveloped the city for the past forty five days. Chirping birds had started their first melodies and the poets? Perhaps their first verses. But Irfan, he was contemplative. Something had stirred his memory. Something very discerning, poignant, something he could never forget (or did not want to forget) and yet, he couldn’t remember well. Standing close to the window of the living room, he saw the palash tree as it lay uprooted, blocking part of the open parking lot. It had been a strong shower.

“Are you ready?” Mihira’s voice drifted from the bedroom as she did her final swift touches of makeup. “Ahm... yes,” replied Irfan, and pre-empting the next question, lied, “was looking for the keys”. “C’mon quickly, if we reach after 6, all fresh veggies would be sold, and the fish vendors would be off.” Irfan put on his sandals, picked up the car keys, and absent-mindedly walked towards the front door. Mihira kept chattering about various things on the way and Irfan tried to keep up the conversation by frequently smiling, nodding or answering in monosyllables so as to avert Mihira’s suspicion. He was in no mood to answer any question directed at him. “Can we visit the Sarkars tomorrow at Lake Road?” asked Mihira just as they turned the bend at the market. “Can we? Srirupa has been telling me about the evening prayers at the monastery near her house. She has promised to take me there.” The mention of the monastery sparked a strange thought in Irfan’s mind, and his first reaction was “Why? What is there at the monastery?” “The prayers, the evening chanting... it’s soulful, an elevating experience... that’s what so many people go there for.” “We’ll see,” said Irfan, managing to control his rising temper, “let’s get today’s work done first!” Rarely did he snub at Mihira for anything at all, and today he himself was surprised why he felt like it at such an ordinary question. Mihira had no idea, however, of the effort it had taken Irfan to compose himself.

Irfan had married Mihira four years back, against all odds, even though no one in the girl’s family had agreed to the inter-caste inter-community alliance. “It wouldn’t last,” Mihira’s father had predicted; “the boy is going to convert you the first thing after marriage” and similar remarks were thrown at the two when Mihira decided to leave her family and move in with Irfan. It was a quiet wedding at the mosque, presided over by Irfan’s parents, close relatives and common friends of Irfan and Mihira. Irfan had never forced Mihira to convert, nor had he ever stopped her from observing rituals of her choice. Rather, he would often accompany her to these places and wait patiently for long hours. Theirs had been a perfectly blissful alliance, an example that was quoted by many who knew them.

So what was it about Mihira’s request that enraged him today? What had kindled at the very mention of the monastery? Fortunately, Mihira had missed his caustic tone in her excitement of buying weekly ration – a necessity that to most people meant a dreary routine. It’s this character of Mihira that had attracted him towards her – her plain simplicity, her childlike joy at common everyday activities. She had a zest for life and everything she did seemed to give her immense pleasure. And, she hardly complained.

A few droplets of rain fell on Irfan’s neatly combed hair, slithering off the leaves of the giant jamun tree under which he stood, and wetting part of the left shoulder of his shirt. Yet again a wave of consciousness rose in his heart and again he tried to address it. Then slowly, like the fizz from a chilled carbonated drink in a tall glass, memories of a distant past started shaping up. There were too many similarities between this day and the one of his early youth, when he was with his friends who had vowed to live and die together. Strange how the human mind can conjure memories from the past, no matter how hard one tries to bury them in the darkest recesses of the heart!

Mihira’s high-pitched voice broke his trance as he saw her excitedly waving at him from one of the vegetable stalls. As he ambled towards her, Irfan caught sight of Srirupa and her little girl standing close to Mihira, smiling at him. So, that is why she had called... to meet Srirupa. After the first few exchanges of pleasantry, Srirupa suddenly proposed, “Why don’t you and Mihira come over to our place tomorrow evening? It’s Sunday and Mihira has been wanting to visit the neighbourhood monastery.” Irfan looked at Mihira, who was beaming at the proposition. Irfan tried to smile too, though it was tougher this time as his entire being wanted to refuse, to scream out “Noooooo, we won’t! I can’t!” With an effort he managed to say, “Tomorrow I’ve booked my car for servicing. If it is delivered before evening, then we can make it.” They took leave of each other and stuffed the week’s supplies into the car. Irfan hardly spoke on the way back. He remained engrossed and in a hurry as if to reach the safety of his home.

Around dinner, Mihira seemed to notice his silence. “Everything okay at work?”

Ya.”

Are you tensed about something?”

“No... nothing.”

It was odd of Irfan to sit with his laptop on a Saturday night, so Mihira raised a question but Irfan convinced her that he had to complete a report so he can relax the whole of Sunday. Mihira left him alone. Few moments of absolute quiet. The breeze had gathered strength and it seemed heavy showers were due that night. Some drops of rain spattered across the window pane next to his writing desk.

Looking up through the glass pane, Irfan seemed to see the outline of a monastery in the distance. He shuddered... that wasn’t possible! Lake Road was at least 20 kilometres from his house. No other monastery was closer. Besides, how could he see it so clearly despite the opaque shroud of the calamitous night? Oh, the flames, of course! Rollicking flames were engulfing the whole monastery and muffled screams of confused, sleepy people could be heard as it seemed very close to him. He was breaking into a sweat and breathing heavily. He could see the desperate monks running helter skelter, trying in vain to douse the flames by splashing mugs of water. Trembling, he lifted his heavy body from the chair and staggered towards the window. He could see himself cursing the monks for sacrilege, blaming them for bringing about the fate on themselves. Suddenly the chief monk’s face flashed in front of him... Ananda – a gentle, wisdom-lined face. How many times had he crossed his neighbourhood. How many times had he blessed them all! Now, lying on a white sheet, he was being carried out of his quarter by two men... his breathing was shallow. With 80% burns, he was fighting for his life.

A pang of remorse gripped Irfan. It was as if he had come to senses after a long time, or for the first time at all! Who had initiated the madness? Rehman, the Awami league leader? Hazrat, the village chief? He couldn’t remember... What had been the reason for the massacre? It came to him in a flash of lightning – a Facebook post of one of their neighbours who happened to be a Buddhist. Bhatt, yes, that was his name, and his Timeline showed cryptic messages and a pic desecrating the holy Quran. But... but had it really been him? Could a sociable man like Bhatt want to disgrace a religion? Couldn’t his account have been err... hacked? A novice hacker testing his skills, maybe? Some political gimmick staged for the purpose of severing brotherhood from the village for personal gains? Had anyone ever tried to find out the truth, even later on? And how many monasteries had they planned to attack that night? Five? No... seven? And how many had they, successfully? Images of people screaming in agony, dropping dead, the acrid smell of charred flesh came rushing to him. He couldn’t think anymore... his mind was a blur. Tears were streaming down his face; his pulse raced and his head throbbed, but he could hardly take account. His shirt wet with sweat, his heart struck with guilt and remorse he held onto the grill and pushed the window open. He needed fresh air.

A strong gust of wind whipped across his face, toppling the pen stand and upsetting a few odd nick nacks on the table. Slowly, gradually, he could make sense of it all. That last day of September 2012 had been exactly the same as this day... although that was far away. He had been a young lad in a small district in Bangladesh, his birth place. On that fateful day, an afternoon breeze had led to an evening drizzle that got stronger at night... raging winds lashing at the doors and windows, threatening to create a history of damage and destruction. Amidst all this were Irfan and his group of seven staunch enthusiasts who had sworn revenge against all the Buddhists in town. How dare they desecrate the Quran! Good sense leaves a man once he sets his heart on destruction. But little did he realise it then, when their planned carnage took several lives, destroyed religious property worth millions and hurt countless sentiments. Irfan was among the few who were caught by the police the following day and he even spent some time in custody until things settled down and his crime was proven less serious than the others’. Years had passed, he had moved to India and settled down, but never had he gone near a monastery ever since the incident. Was it guilt? Shame and self realisation of foolish vanity? Perhaps a combination of all these.

Irfan made up his mind. He would take Mihira to Srirupa’s house the following day and allow her to visit the monastery from there. No, he would accompany her to the monastery and make an offering there that was worthwhile. Yes, that would be his penance. One little wrong of his past that had to be mended. He thought... “All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to undo the wrongs of the past. I think I do..... Tomorrow, I turn a new leaf.”

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