The hushed watches of the night were shattered by a military patrol vehicle tearing past Victoria Park.
Section 144 and a curfew were both in force. There were riots between Hindu and Mussulman. Each was at the other's throat with billhooks, pokers, knives, and sticks. Everywhere assassins were at work, striking clandestinely under cloak of darkness. Looters were on the rampage too, and the shades were haunted by their yells of deadly delight. The bustees were burning. Sporadic screams from dying women and children added to the monstrous atmosphere. On top of everything came the panicky soldiers on patrol: they fired blindly in any direction to maintain a semblance of law and order.
* * *
At a particular spot two lanes converged. A dilapidated rubbish bin lay overturned there. Behind it, using it as a shield and crouched on all fours, was a man. He dared not raise his head. For a while he lay as if lifeless, trying to distinguish the cries in an uproar some way off. "Allah Ho Akbar!" or "Bande Mataram!"? He could not be sure which they were.
All of a sudden the rubbish bin seemed to move slightly. Every nerve in the man's body tingled. His teeth were clenched, his limbs stiff with apprehension and dread. Several moments passed…The night remained still.
Maybe it was a dog. To drive it away, the man shifted the rubbish bin slightly. The silence deepened. Then the bin moved again, and this time the man's fear became mixed with curiosity. Extremely slowly, he raised his head—and opposite him there rose another head. A man! From each side of the bin the two creatures stared at each other, stunned. Their hearts had almost stopped; their eyes locked in a violent contagion of fear. Neither could afford to trust the other. Each thought the other was a murderer. Their eyes were narrowed, expecting an attack; but no attack came. In both their minds the same question reared its head: Hindu or Mussulman? Depending on the answer, the outcome might be fatal. Neither creature had the courage to voice the question; nor could he turn and run. The other man might jump him with a knife. [End Page 128]
Minutes passed. Both men fidgeted with doubt and discomfort. Finally one of them shot the question, "Hindu or Mussulman?"
"You say first," came the reply from the other side.
Neither was willing to reveal his identity. Their minds were riddled with suspicion. They let the question lie, each having thought of a new one. "Where's your home?" called one.
"This side of the old Ganges. Shubaida. Where's yours?"
"Chashara, near Narayangunj. What d'you do?"
"I've got a boat. I'm a boatman. You?"
"I work in a cotton mill."
Once more, silence. Peering through the gloom, each tried to see the other, scrutinize the clothes he was wearing. The rubbish bin and the darkness obscured the view. Then the men heard the uproar again—this time much closer. The frenzied shouts were clearly audible. The mill worker and the boatman trembled in terror.
"They're not far now," cried the mill worker in a state of panic.
"Yes, let's go, let's get away from here," called the boatman in a voice that was equally strained.
But the mill worker objected, "No. Don't get up, whatever you do! Want to die?"
The boatman's suspicions were refreshed. What evil designs did this fellow have? The boatman stared hard into the eyes of the mill worker, who stared back and said, "Just stay where you are, just as you are."
The boatman felt pricked by these words. Why was this man trying to stop him? Grave doubts clouded his mind. "Why should I wait?" he called.
"Why? You need to ask?" replied the mill worker in a low, charged voice. "I've just told you. D'you want to die?"
The boatman did not care for the tone of the question. All kinds of unpleasant possibilities jostled in his mind and made him resolute. Why hang about in this dismal alley...