A TALL bald Pathan man used to roam the streets of our neighbourhood — the ‘moholla’.Our moholla included Kaptan Bazar, Thatari Bazar and BCC Road. In case you are wondering what the letters BCC stand for, it is Bama Charan Chokroborty. Of course, no one cared to call the street by the whole name. That’s why everyone called it BCC Road starting with the Daabwallah from Noakhali who sold fresh coconut juice in front of our house to the Ghoriwallah from Bihar who fixed broken watches in his tiny cavity of a shop with almost no vertical space to stand up. As the tall Pathan traversed the streets of our moholla, he socialised with shopkeepers, pedestrians, neighbours and anyone who cared to spare him some time and attention.
He stood out in the busy streets because he literally stood head and shoulders above the milieu. Moreover, the rest of his physique obviously displayed what remained of an athletic built, from a virile youth, that was rather rare among his neighbours. He was Aziz Master of our moholla. Bengalis characteristically added a ‘sh’ to the ‘s’ sound in master in addition to conflating the ‘z’ with ‘j’ and ended up calling him Ajij Mashtar. Non-Bengalis in the neighbourhood, on the other hand, did not impose any phonetical twist to mutilate neither his title nor his name.
Speaking of the title, Ajij Mashtar was not a school teacher. His full name was Abdul Aziz Durrani! The last name maybe recognisable to cricket a fiction and also because of his famous son — Salim Durrani who was the first Indian cricketer to win the Arjuna award for his heroics with both the bat and ball against England and the West Indies. Actually, Ajij Mashtar himself was an accomplished cricketer who had played for the undivided India in two unofficial tests against England. He also played in Ranji trophy with Indian greats of the game like Vinoo Mankad as his teammate. As a player, he earned kudos as a wicket keeper-batsman of highest calibre. Born in Kabul, young Aziz came through the Khyber Pass to undivided Punjab to play cricket in the 1930s. After the Partition, he moved to Pakistan but his wife and young son Salim stayed back in India. Of course, we did not know all these details about Ajij Mashtar then, because there was no Google to look up everything and everyone in those days. Anyhow, after moving to Pakistan, Aziz Durrani eventually became a cricket coach. Although, I am not sure if he was a national or provincial coach, he had for sure coached my elder brother who was in his late teens with cricketing skills that were in demand in neighbourhood and school cricket competitions. Ajij Mashtar would always greet my brother and enquire about his cricketing status. I think his disciples, like my brother, are the ones who bestowed him the title of the Master, and it stuck.
During the cricket season, in addition to our moholla, Aziz was a regular presence in the fields of what used to be called Dhaka Stadium (Bangabandhu National Stadium). Several simultaneous cricket games used to be played in the fields of the outer stadium. Sauntering from one game to another, he used to talk to anyone who would give him some time and attention as he did in the neighbourhood.
As I mentioned before, we had a sizeable non Bengali population in our neighbourhood then. Some were shop keepers, some owned restaurants, some were restaurant workers, some were butchers, while some worked in the railway or even in Motijheel offices or other places in the city. We called them Muhajirs — Muslims who moved from India to Pakistan, a secular homeland of the Muslims of India as envisioned by Muhhamd Ali Jinnah. Although most of the Muhajirs were from Bihar, some were from other parts of India. While the Muhajirs were all Muslims, the Bangalis included Muslims as well as Hindus adding to the diversity of the moholla.
My father, a physician, was the neighbourhood doctor with his ‘chamber’ in the ground floor of our house. I remember AjijMashtar visiting my dad’s chamber now and then like anyone else in the neighbourhood. He was polite and very respectful, not only to my father but with everyone in the chamber.
As the political situations heated up in the country and Dhaka in those days of 1971, an unmistakable sense of unease and hostility was gradually creeping into the Bangali and non-Bengali interactions. It was very clear that an invisible but palpable divide had emerged between the two groups so that the discussion of politics was to be shirked. However, it seemed Ajij Mashtar had transcended that unease. He continued his joyful interactions with everyone, Muhajirs and Bangalis alike. In retrospect, I think Ajij Mashtar was in denial about the gathering of ominous political clouds in the horizon. Why would a Pathan come all the way from Kabul to Dhaka or East Pakistan and then stay on even during political turmoil?
One plausible explanation was his commitment to the vision of a united homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent! Maybe he was the dreamer who sincerely thought there would be a compromise between the political leaders of East Pakistan and the military junta of West Pakistan. Maybe, he hoped that the junta will see through the situation and recognise the futility of a military crackdown like Operation Searchlight.
But then the Operation Searchlight exploded with a vociferous boom shattering the night of 25th March. As gunfires continuously rattled through the night, we all lay on the floor of our house to avoid being hit by stray or directed bullets. There was some respite in the morning of March 26. Then it all picked up once again as tanks and armoured cars rolled into the streets of Old Dhaka reverberating every wall and sending shivers down every spine. Pakistani soldiers darted through the street shouting threateningly pointing at our houses, ‘Yiye sab Hindu ka kothi hai! Yiye tor do!’ (These houses belong to the Hindus! Destroy these).
Flames were blazing outside our houses. The mayhem continued unabated till the morning of the 27th. When we finally could came out of the house, the row of shops in front of our house was in rubbles. The army left a couple of dead bodies on the streets for us to remind of the terror that was unleashed in the previous two nights. At the intersection where Kaptan Bazar met BCC road lay the body of Aziz Khan Durrani — his chest ravaged by a volley of bullets.
‘AjijMashtar re mairafalaise! Khub valo lok silo’ (They have killed Ajij Mashtar! He was a very nice man). The daabwallah from Noakhali whispered with disbelief and genuine regret.
Nobody knows for sure but some say Aziz came out of his flat on 26th March to stop the army. People in the neighbourhood heard him speak to the soldiers but could not tell what he was saying in Pashto. Maybe he was saying, ‘These are my neighbours, my friends. This is my moholla. Please don’t destroy it.’
Maybe he was beseeching a group of marauding soldiers to renounce violence and embrace peace. Maybe he really thought that he could stop the massacre. Maybe that’s why he was silenced and left for display to strike terror among his friends. His large lifeless body lay on the street not far from the effluvium emanating gutters of Kaptan Bazar announcing the unceremonious killing of a benevolent Pakistani by the malevolent counterpart.
Aziz’s lifeless body signalled the death of East Pakistan. In our moholla, his killing was the obliteration of that dream of a united homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent.
Lutfus Sayeed is an academic working at the San Francisco State University. He is also a published novelist in Bangla and is a regular writer of both fiction and non-fiction.
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