Thursday, February 28, 2013

Mr. Jalil's petition

Original Bengali version by Humayun Ahmed
More about 1971 war atrocities


He said, with a smile, "I am the father of two martyrs. In 1971, both of my sons were killed."
I looked at him in surprise.
The guy was ordinary looking. Almost 60 years old.
He seemed strong enough compared to his age.
He was sitting straight, with a sharp gaze in his eyes.
He didn't have any glasses, which means his sight was good.
I asked, "How can I help you?"

He kept sitting, like before.
"I found a dead body," he said in a simple tone, "..buried it in Malibagh.
My youngest daughter lives in Malibagh."

"O, really?"

"Yes, in Malibagh Chawdhury county."

"So, why did you come to me?"

"Just to chat. You are new in the area. Wanted to know you better. After all, you are my neighbor."

He kept sitting with a smiling face.
I was skeptical whether or not he was really smiling. May be he just had a smiling face.
The guy said calmly, "I live next street."

"O, really?"

"Yes, 13/2, there's a coconut tree in front of the house, did you notice?"

I didn't. But I nodded affirmatively. The guy's character started to become clear.
May be he was retired. Had nothing else to do. May be spending time was his biggest problem.
Which was why he had to find a neighbor to talk to on weekends.

"My name is Abdul Jalil."

I was about to tell my name, he didn't let me! He said loudly, "I know you, I know you very well."

"Would you like tea?"

"No, I don't drink tea. I don't smoke or drink tea. My only habit is eating betel leaves."

"I don't have betel leaf. Nobody eats betel leaf here."

"I always carry some with me." He brought out a betel leaf container. Very decorative container. Like tiffin carriers, it had 3/4 separate bowls. I suppressed a long sigh. He was planning to spend a long time here. May be the whole morning. People love to tell stories of their own misery.

He bent a little toward me and asked, "Professor, would you like to try a betel leaf?"

"No, thanks."

"Betel leaf is good for health. It cools the liver. People who eat betel leaves never have liver problems."

"O, really?"

"Yes, betel leaf juice and honey are the best for back pain."

I looked at the watch. 10:30 am. My university was closed today. I wished it were open. Then I could have said, "Please don't mind, I have a class at eleven. Come another day." I couldn't say that on weekends.

The guy brought out many spices from his container. He smelled each of them separately, prepared a betel leaf with a lot of care. I was almost certain that a person who spends this much time preparing betel leaves, was not going to leave before noon.

But surprisingly, he stood up after putting the betel leaf in him mouth. "I should go, wasted a lot of time today," he said with a smile. Suppressing my surprise I said, "Sit for some time, what's the hurry!"

"No," said he calmly.

I walked with him till the stairs. When I was coming back, I saw my landlord looking at me.
He asked, "You caught the professor too? Did he sign?"

"Sign what?"

"You didn't sign his petition?"

"Petition for what?"

"I don't have to warn you. You'll realize. He will be a pain in the ass. Don't indulge him."

I came home with a vague uneasiness. Coming to a new area is always annoying  You have to meet new neighbors, which is not a happy thing most of the time. But Mr. Jalil seemed harmless. I met him a couple of times after that, very easy-going person. Once I met him in front of the Green pharmacy. He came to talk with a smiling face-"Hi professor! How are you doing?"

"Yeah, I'm going well. How are you? You didn't come after that day."

"I got so busy, about the petition."

I didn't talk much after that. I gave an excuse of a class and left quickly. The second time I met him in the New Market, in front of a news stand. He was squatting down on the street and sifting through newspapers very quickly one after another. The news-stand owner was eyeing him angrily.

"Mr. Jalil, what are you reading so attentively?"

Mr. Jalil looked at me. It felt like he couldn't recognize me. He had glasses.

"Oh you have glasses now!"

"Yes, otherwise I get headache after evening. I'm myopic. How are you doing, professor?"

"I'm doing well."

"I will go to your house one day. To show you the petition. I gathered fourteen thousand signatures."

"Petition for what?"

"You'll understand. You are a wise man, it'd be easy for you to understand."

I thought may be it was a petition to the government for donation. But couldn't understand the fourteen thousand signatures part. I didn't show any interest. World is full with mad men. If collecting signatures is someones addiction, I shouldn't be worry about that.

But I had to worry. Mr. Jalil came to my apartment one evening with his files of fourteen thousand signatures. He said smilingly, "Read carefully, professor." I read. The petition was about-- one million jews were killed during the 2nd world war **. But all the culprits got sentences for that crime and it is still going on. But how can the pakistanis get away even after killing three million people of this country? Why isn't anybody talking about that today. Mr. Jalil, in his long petition, requested to the government for justice.

I looked at him. He said calmly, "Two of my sons were killed. I'm not doing it for that. My sons died in war. I don't want justice for their death. I want justice for the people who were taken from their house and killed. Do you understand me?"


"I knew you would understand. You are a wise man. Many don't understand. You know, many people give the excuse of humanity. They say, forgive them. Is forgiveness that cheap? tell me, is it this cheap?"

I couldn't say anything. Mr. Jalil opened his betel leaf container and started preparing one. "What did you think, I'd let it go? No, I won't. Both of my sons fought. I'll fight too. I'll fight till death. I'll make everybody in Bangladesh sign the petition. Three million people died, and nobody said a thing? Are we human or not?"

I started to look at the signature files. Very organized work. There were both present and permanent addresses beside every signatures, with names of their relatives died in the war.

"Many people think, I am insane. I went to a newspaper office, the editor didn't even meet me. A young guy said--why are you making big fuss about old stuff, brother? Let it go-- I am as old as his grandfather and he calls me 'brother'."

"How did you respond?"

"I said, don't you want justice? The guy didn't say anything. He didn't even have the courage to say something directly. But guys like these fought in the war with so much courage. Didn't they?"

"Yes, they did."

"Think about your landlord. They killed one of his brother-in-laws. But this guy didn't sign. Three million people died. Nothing happened. My heart aches even thinking about it."

I was feeling uneasy. The guy put another betel leaf in his mouth and said, "I met with people from the government. They don't even want to hear what I am saying. One told me, apply for an abandoned house. Two of your sons died. You have the right to get a house."

"What did you say?"

"What can I say? Did I petition for a house? What am I going to do with a house? Are two of my sons' lives this cheap? That they can pay with a house? How dare they, can you imagine! I want a trial. A trial  nothing else. A trial with proper civil rules. Do you get it?"

"Yes, I get it."

"You are a wise man. It's not hard for you to understand. Others don't understand. I have to go three times for one signature. I don't mind it. I'm not the person who backs off."

 He left with my signature. After that, I haven't met him for a long time.
I was always curious though. Whenever I met him on streets I asked, "How's the progress?"

"I am still trying, professor. Pray for me."

"Are people signing?"

"Not everybody, they are afraid."

"Afraid of what?"

"Is there any reason for fear? People who are naturally afraid, they fear everything. I am on it. I will bring them to the court. What do you think, professor?"

"Yes, of course."

"I divided the project into districts. Now I will go to every district. It will be hard, but there's nothing to do about it. What do you say?"


"And only signatures are not enough. We need evidence for the trial. They killed people for no reason, we have to prove that. They will bring expert lawyers. Won't they?

"Of course!"

"Do you know any good lawyer?"

"I will search for one."

"Of course you will. You are not blind. You understand the crime. Most people can't. It's a country of ignorant people."

I hadn't met Mr. Jalil for a long time after that. May be he really started traveling from one district to another, with heavy files in his arms. May be the number of signatures are increasing. Twelve thousands to fifteen thousands. Fifteen to twenty. May be he will really collect 4/5 million signatures.
Five million people's demand is a strong demand.

In the beginning of the rainy season I heard Mr. Jalil was sick. Asthma, with rheumatic fever. The landlord said, "He is insane, doesn't take care of his health. He might not last for long."


"Yeah, the doctor from the Green pharmacy said. I also went to see him."

"Is he too sick?"

"He might not last till the end of the rainy season.."


"Yeah, he is very sick."

He did last that rainy season though, started roaming around with files in his arms. I met him one noon. I couldn't recognize him, he changed so much. He came forward, "Hey professor..."

"Hey how are you? What happened to you!"

"I'm not gonna live for long."

"How can you die so quickly! You started such a big project."

"I'm alive only for that."

"How many signatures did you collect?"

"Fifteen thousand... can't get more than 3-4 hundreds a month. I am old now, but I'm not the kind who backs off."

"No, why would you back off?"

"I'll put them in trial. Jews did it, why can't we? What do you say?"

"Yes, of course."

"They killed three million people, not one or two. They thought people in Bangladesh are cheap, didn't they? I'll teach them a lesson."

I lived in that street in Azimpur for almost two years. In this two years, I became quite close with Mr. Jalil. I used to visit him often. He owned a house. The 2nd floor was rented. His family runs with that rent. His wife died. His eldest daughter-in-law lives with him. She had two beautiful daughters, twins probably. Very lively. I liked visiting them. The daughter-in-law used to take good care.

Both of the children understood the petition very clearly. One of girls told me in serious tone, "After grandpa finishes the book, people who killed my dad will be on trial." A girl of her age shouldn't undertand all that. Mr. Jalil must explained these to them throughly.

I used to visit them even after leaving that street. Then the communication reduced slowing. Then I went out of the country for a long time.

I went to visit them before leaving the country. I heard that he went to Faridpur to collect more signatures. Nobody knew when he would come back. His daughter-in-law grieved a lot. She had reason to grief. If the only male in the family leaves the house, life becomes harder.

When people live out of their country, they feel a different attachment for their own country. May be that's why I used to remember him. I felt, he was right, they shouldn't get away after killing three million people. What Mr. Jalil was doing, was right. It's not medieval time. We can't accept this injustice.

Other Bengalis used to gather in my apartment over the weekends. Some were undergraduate students, Morehead state university's math professor Mr. Afsar. Everybody agreed, we should help in Mr. Jalil's project. We will sue them in international court on behalf of the people of Bangladesh if necessary. Articles will be posted in the foreign newspapers for international support. One evening we started "Abdul Jalil Protest Committee" in Fargo city, USA. I was the organizer. Mr. Afsar Uddin was the chairman. It felt good thinking about the country while living in a foreign country. It always feels like we should do SOMETHING.

I returned to the country after six years.

Dhaka city changed a lot. But Mr. Jalil's house hadn't changed at all. That same old broken house with torn plasters. That same coconut tree. A very pretty 14/15 year old girl opened the door as soon as I knocked. She kept staring at me in surprise.

"Are you Mr. Jalil's granddaughter?"


"Is he home?"

"No, grandpa died two years ago."

"Oh. I was your grandpa's friend."

"Please come inside."

I went inside. I wanted to talk to her mother. She wasn't home. The girl couldn't tell when she'd return.
When I was leaving, I asked, "Your grandfather was collecting signatures, are those still there?"

"Yes, why?"

"We should finish the work he started, what do you think?"

She was very surprised. I said with a smile, "I'll come again, okay?"


She walked with me till the gate, then said in a soft voice, "Grandpa told me, someday someone will come to take the files."

I didn't go after that.

My enthusiasm died. There are so many other problems in the country. Bombs blast here and there almost everyday. No one can say a thing. I don't feel like bringing up old problems.

I'm not Mr. Jalil. I have to think about my future. I have to talk with a lot of people to buy an abandoned house in Mirpur. Where's time to roam around in streets with files of signatures in arms?

May be, Mr. Jalil's granddaughter is still waiting for me. She may have dusted the old petition files, ready for me to take.
Girls at that age trust everybody.

** Over 6 million people were killed in the Holocaust, the author mistakenly wrote 1 million.  

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