It even got published in a weekly. Soon, his one story after the other started appearing in different newspapers and magazines, including Purbasha, of which Sanjay Bhattacharya was the editor, and Humayun Kabir-edited Chaturanga. Chowdhury started earning his name as a story writer. The World War II was over.
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Print The army code referred to it as BF It was not strictly a station at all, having neither a platform nor a ticket counter to call its own. One morning, we just found the railway line fenced in by shiny new barbed wire. That was all. None of the trains stopped there, either up or down, except one. This special train would only arrive on some mornings, not every day. We were the only ones who knew when, and at what time.
The five of us, including the Bihari cook, Bhagwatilal. We used it too: Andaahalt. Andaa, meaning eggs. There was a village of the Mahatos at the feet of two squat hillocks near the Andaahalt, where chickens would wander in and out of homes.
The Mahatos would travel all the way to the Saturday market at distant Bhurkunda to sell chickens and eggs. Sometimes they would tuck their favourite roosters under their arms to take part in cockfights. But this was not the reason for BF being named Andaahalt. As a matter of fact we had no interest in the eggs of Mahatogaon. Our contractor had an arrangement with the railways. He had a trolley that could be pushed along the tracks.
Flying its red flag, it would trundle along the railway lines and deliver our things. Among these were heaps of eggs. Bhagwatilal would boil the lot. But this was not the reason for the name either. The name came from the rising heaps of shells from the boiled eggs beyond the barbed wire. The shells were growing into mounds. We were under the impression that the first two letters of BF did not stand for any kind of code, but for breakfast. Sometimes they would be loaded on the train and despatched somewhere unknown.
We, of course, had no idea where, or why. All we knew was that a train would stop at dawn. In case a few turned out to be rotten. Then, when they had become hard as bricks after being boiled, he would join hands with three of the server porters to shell them. Those were the shells that would pile up beyond the barbed wire.
The train would come to a stop early in the morning, and at once the military police would jump off on both sides to stand guard, their bayonets pointed skywards. The foreign prisoners in their striped garments would disembark one by one, holding large mugs and enamel plates. The three server porters would turn two large drums upside down and use them as tables, standing behind them.
The prisoners would line up for breakfast. One of the servers would pour coffee into their mugs, one of them would put two slices of bread on the plate, and the third, two eggs. After which the prisoners would get back on the train. The guard in his khaki bush-shirt and identity tag on the shoulder would blow his whistle and wave his flag, and the train would leave. None of the Mahatos ever ventured near the train.
Pausing in the sowing of maize seeds in their fields in the distance, they would straighten up and stare uncomprehendingly.
They grew mustard, eggplant and gourd on rocky slopes. Overnight, Andaahalt turned into a full-fledged halt. Gravel was spread next to the tracks to raise the ground and make a platform out of the area enclosed in barbed wire. The military police would get off the train, walk up and down the platform, tossing off a joke or two, while the soldiers would line up the same way for their coffee, bread and eggs. Then they would go back into their compartments, the guard in the khaki bush-shirt would blow his whistle and wave his flag, and I would run to get the supply form approved by the major.
The train would leave, none of us would know to what destination. The three porters were serving coffee, bread and eggs. Bhagwatilal was keeping a watch on whether anyone was tossing away his eggs on account of their being rotten, or his bread because he had got the hard slices from the very end of the loaf.
Suddenly, my gaze fell on a scene on the other side of the barbed wire fence. One of the Mahato children was staring wide-eyed at us from a spot behind the fence. I had seen this little boy once, with a piece of iron tied to his loincloth, sitting on the back of a young bullock. The boy gazed in wonder. Either at the train or at the red-faced American soldiers. Some of the American soldiers were laughing at the top of their voices.
I thought the boy would never come back. That day, none of the Mahatos came. They only paused during their work in the fields to straighten up and stare at the train. But then, the next time the train came to a halt at the station I saw the boy with the iron piece knotted into his loincloth standing near the barbed wire once again. There was another boy with him, this one slightly older. He had a zinc amulet hanging round his neck by a red thread.
The boys were looking with amazement at the American soldiers through the barbed wire. I was walking around with the form, smiling at the Major whenever I had the chance, to keep him happy. The Mahatos worked on their fields happily, hunted civets with their arrows or catapults, listened to their own songs, drank, and sometimes stood up in protest, as taut as highly-strung bows.
Slim bodies in loincloths, dark and rough. I was furious with the two boys. One of the soldiers sang a snatch of a song loudly, one or two soldiers were laughing, another one drained his mug of coffee and winked at the server with a request to refill it.
The guard walked up to find out how much longer it would take. He was a Punjabi, but he added a nasal twang to his voice to sound American when speaking to the Major. Then the whistle blew, the flag waved, everyone piled into the train quickly, including the military policemen with the broad red armbands. After the train had left it was back to the desolate emptiness, and only the barbed wire remained, like cactus in a desert. Another train arrived a few days later. We neither knew where, nor asked.
They were dressed in different striped garments, unsmiling soldiers constantly guarded by military policemen with upraised rifles. We were a little scared. In Bhurkunda we had heard stories about how one of them had tried to dress in a Bengali style dhoti-and-kurta and escape. He had failed. Being a Bengali, I felt a little more afraid. After the train had left I noticed that the two boys across the barbed wire had been joined by a fifteen-year-old girl in a short sari and two men who had abandoned their work in the fields.
One, two, five, and then I found about ten of the people from Mahatogaon running from the fields towards the station as soon as the next train arrived. Maybe they knew from the khaki in the windows. Two passenger trains would flash past like mail trains every day, and two goods trains would trundle along. But no, the people of Mahatogaon never crowded around the station waiting for them to stop.
Earlier I had asked the oldest of the Mahatos to send people to our tent at Andaahalt with vegetables, prawn, and fish for us to buy. Which was why I looked at them now with astonishment. At the dark-skinned men in their loincloths, and the women in their short saris. Only the bare-bodied old Mahato had a pair of shoes on, made for him by Mridha from the village. They lined up along the barbed wire. The train had halted by then. The American soldiers had leapt off and were moving forward in a queue with their mugs and plates.
Two hundred and eighteen breakfasts were ready at BF BF , meaning Andaahalt. There was a nip in the air. The hills in the distance were wrapped in mufflers of fog. The trees were washed green by the dew. One of the soldiers expressed his appreciation in a Yankee accent. Another of them was standing outside the carriage, staring intently at the destitution across the barbed wire.
Suddenly, setting his coffee mug down on the steps leading into the train, he put his hand into his hip pocket, took out a shining eight-anna coin, and tossed it towards the Mahatos. They looked at the soldier in surprise, exchanged glances with one another, and continued to gaze in wonder. Take it. Picking the coin up, I handed it to the old man.
Books by Ramapada Chowdhury
Upanyas Samagra Ed. 1st
Obituary | Ramapada Chowdhury: End of a long literary era