Dipen Bhattacharya is a bit of an anomaly in the Bangladeshi writing sphere: he writes science fiction, a genre that ‘serious’ writers and readers still do not take seriously; the language of his fiction is literary and lyrical, standing out from the often pedestrian prose of most other science fiction writers; and he has an innate facility of making the science-y bits poetic.
These are all qualities which drew me as a reader and translator. While Bhattacharya has written more traditional science fiction set in a futuristic earth or space or an alien planet, his strongest stories are set in the contemporary Bangladesh (or on occasion, the Bangladeshi diaspora), where a quirk in the natural order of things allows the strange, the whimsical, the arcane into our mundane world. ‘Run, Boy, Run’ is a prime example of such storytelling; time travel is positioned in everyday yet traditional experiences of Dhaka’s Old Town, such as kite flying. Yet the true nature of the story is only revealed at the very end; what I had initially thought would be an intriguing story about time travel and coming-of-age takes a turn which leaves the reader in an emotional churn—achieved with a simple, single paragraph that takes an individual story and connects it to our history.
Run, Boy, Run!
The black kite suddenly tilted itself and twirled, as if it was a perchlet fish panicking on seeing a shark, unable to decide where to flee. It was natural to flee because the line from Amol’s red koyra kite had entangled itself with the black kite’s line. He kept faith in his line; there was no doubt that the black kite would be his. He reeled his spool back, but the faith of the world didn’t always work in the playing fields of the skies. The black kite whirled again and rose higher, taking his red kite with it.
The black kite had ripped Amol’s string. The red kite kept flying away. He had bought it for four annas about a month ago from Bangla Bazar. His friend Dulal had given him a kite line treated with manja, made abrasive with ghritkomol gum and ground glass. But the manja line hadn’t helped at all. More than the line, the kite itself had been part of Amol’s heart. There was no space in his room, but at bedtime he wouldn’t go to sleep if the kite wasn’t positioned right behind his head. His mother scolded him, but he couldn’t fall asleep if his kite was too far away. With his kite nearby, at night he dreamed that he was standing at the top of a mountain peak flying a kite, easily cutting through all the other kites that tried to fly as high as his, and the sundered kites were drifting away beyond the red clouds on the horizon where the sun was setting.
But today it was his kite that flew beyond the King’s Gate, beyond Karkun Bari Lane, Pani Tola Road, Kotwali, beyond Noboray Lane, towards the river. The vessel that held his dreams drifted away. Amol raised his hand to his forehead to protect his eyes from the glare of the sun and follow which direction his kite took. Southwards, above the mossy black rooftops of the Old Town, above the rusty water tanks straight to the south, Amol’s red kite drifted, dispassionate and relaxed, across the ruthless Chaitra sky. The kite’s impassive betrayal brought tears to his eyes; teardrops rolled down his cheeks. But he recovered from his momentary bewilderment and, from the roof of his three-storied house, he rushed down a dark, narrow stairwell. He stumbled on a broken step as he descended, but kept his balance. As he exited the house, he heard his mother’s voice, ‘Where are you going in the middle of the afternoon?’ But Amol didn’t have the time to stop and respond.
When he was on the street and looked up, he couldn’t locate the kite. Above the narrow alley, a sliver of cloudless sky spread from east to west. It was three o’clock; there weren’t many people around; the shops were shuttered. He ran out of the alley into an open space. Jagannath College, across from which stood Bahadur Shah Park, which used to be called Victoria Park. The streets were empty here as well; he spotted his kite after a brief walk, as if the red rectangle was waiting just for him in the sky above Patuatuli. When it saw him, the kite turned west. It flew along Islampur Road, but swaying this way and that, it began to descend. Amol ran along the right side of the street and entered Islampur Road. It was Thursday, but even on a weekday, Islampur Road was empty. The kite, quite suddenly, vanished behind several houses on the right side of the street.
At first, he couldn’t figure out how to get behind the buildings. He walked ahead and saw that Kabiraj Lane was on the right. Farther ahead there was another narrow alley that broke off to the right. He thought that the kite might descend somewhere around this alleyway.
There was no way for sunlight to enter the alley. It was just a few feet wide; two people could barely walk side by side. At the end of the alleyway, about two hundred feet down, there was sunlight, like light at the end of a tunnel. There were high walls here and there on either side, doorways now and then, garbage heaped in some places and an open sewer on one side. Amol stepped fearfully along the empty alley, but soon he saw that the red kite lay right in the middle of the path. He couldn’t believe his luck. His friend had not betrayed him after all. He ran over and picked it up gently with both hands. He stood there, examining it carefully to see if the paper had ripped at any spot.
Farther away, at the other end of the alley, he heard a commotion. He couldn’t see that side very well—it seemed as if a shadow was running towards him. Then he realized it was a man running this way; he had seemed like a black shadow because the sun was behind him. But there were others behind him; it took a few seconds, but he understood that the man was being chased by the ones behind him. Amol was terrified. At the speed they were running, he wouldn’t be able to reach the alley’s opening, through which he had entered, before them. He backed himself against the wall and waited, barely breathing.
The man being chased came within ten feet of Amol before registering his presence. A colourful glow emanated from something he held in his hand, falling on Amol’s face. He was quite an old man, he thought, forty, maybe even fifty; it wouldn’t surprise him if he was even sixty.
Children of Amol’s age had no sense of how old adults were. The older man seemed to lose his momentum when he saw the protective way Amol held his kite in his arms. It seemed to Amol that he stalled for a moment, and then, in a strange, shaky voice, he shouted, ‘Run, boy, run!’ The side of his head was bleeding. It seemed from his crazed eyes that he had more to say, but by then the men behind him had drawn close. It was only then that Amol saw that the pursuers were not men; they were four or five boys of fifteen or sixteen. But it was as if they didn’t even see Amol. The man being pursued and the boys chasing him exited through this opening of the alley.
That night, as he sat on a low stool eating koy fish with rice, Amol asked his mother, ‘Ma, today a man said to me, run, boy, run! He told me to run in English. But why did he speak English when he saw me, Ma?’
After that Thursday, 2,313 Thursdays came and went. 16,191 days passed; the second hand of the clock marked almost 1,400 million seconds. The rainy season had begun in Bangladesh, slightly tempering the scorching summer. Around two in the afternoon, middle-aged Amol stood in front of Jagannath College. He had returned home after many, many years. Jagannath College was now Jagannath University; new buildings had sprung up; old places were now unfamiliar. His eyes moved beyond the street to a gathering on the footpath beside Bahadur Shah Park.
Expatriate Amol was curious about everything; he crossed the street, weaving carefully through the flow of rickshaws, and pushed through to the heart of the crowd. On the ground lay a bird, askew, surrounded by four or five teenage boys. The bird’s wings like red lotuses, its white head and neck and curved beak identified it immediately to Amol: a Brahmini kite. Brahmini kites weren’t a breed spotted easily in the skies of Dhaka. The bird’s legs were bound in black thread. It took a few moments for Amol to understand but then he did: a kite line had captured the bird from the heart of the sky down to this muddied earth. The bird was weary, but it still beat its wings periodically. He thought the boys were trying to free the bird, that they were trying to undo the string around its legs. But in no time his error was corrected. A little boy picked up a pebble and threw it at the bird. The stone hit the bird’s wing and it cried out, like a child. The Brahmini kite’s call sounded like a crying child; Amol’s heart wrenched. He shouted, ‘What are you doing; you’re going to kill the bird!’
Amol had thought that the people gathered there would side with him. But the crowd kept quiet. Four teenagers threw him a peculiar look. Suddenly, a fifth boy showed up behind them. Where had this fifth boy been all this time, he thought. The fifth boy was wearing jeans and a tee shirt with English writing on it. The cruelty in his eyes brought back the summer’s heat. ‘What, where did this thing come from?’ The boy shouted out; in this festival, he was the boss. Amol stepped back. The five boys moved towards him. Suddenly, a rock struck him on the forehead. Amol cried out in pain; he touched his forehead and found himself bleeding. As he raised his hand to his head, he saw that the boss boy was pulling out a small knife. Run, I have to run; he recovered from his momentary helplessness.
He pushed through the crowd on the sidewalk and stepped onto the road. A small rock hit him on the back of the head. This time his eyes darkened for a moment, but if he wanted to live, he had to run. He managed to slide his body through the moving rickshaws and reach the other side of the road; then he ran towards Patuatuli. But the boys didn’t abandon the chase. Even at this age, Amol was a good runner; on weekends he participated in long-distance runs in the country where he now lived. He gripped his cell phone in his right hand and ran.
He ran along Islampur Road, leaving rickshaws by the side. People in the streets gawked at him. Jewellery stores, hardware and fittings stores, fabric shops—everything was open, but he couldn’t stop to ask for help. They might think he was a mugger and beat him to death; the boys behind him were yelling, ‘Get him! Get him!’ Who helps who in this city? Amol imagined he was running along the shore of a blue lake surrounded by tall mountains. Rocks were visible under the clear water of the lake and fish swam by. He felt the movement of pine trees in the mountains. His speed increased; he shoved past the rickshaws, pull-vans and people and sped away like a Brahmini kite. The boys behind him didn’t let up, but they were surprised at his speed. They grew angrier and angrier that they couldn’t catch this old man, and their wrathful swearing reached his ears.
He spotted a narrow street to the right. Once upon a time, all these alleys had been so familiar to him. Today, he had to scrabble through his memory to recall their names. Amol entered the alley and then turned into another one, which was very narrow. It was a dark, solitary alleyway; he could see sunlight at the far end like a tunnel. Midway, he saw a young boy clasping a red kite backed up against the wall. The coloured light from Amol’s cell phone reflected on the boy’s face. He recognized the boy. He took a moment, a moment that continued to expand in his mind through infinite time. There was much that he wanted to tell that boy, but he felt that the boss thug with the knife in hand was catching up with him. 16,191 days could not be expressed in a second, but he didn’t need all those days; he just needed to speak briefly about a single day, a single warning. But all that came out of his mouth were three words: ‘Run, boy, run!’
The footsteps behind him exploded in his ears. He couldn’t stand there, or else his death in this alleyway was certain. He left the boy clasping the kite behind and emerged through the other end of the alleyway. By the time he reached Islampur Road again, the boys had grown tired and given up. Still he didn’t stop running. He returned to Bahadur Shah Park. The sweat from his forehead had trickled into his eyes, making them burn; his shirt was drenched. Passers–by were staring at him in surprise.
But the crowd on the sidewalk by the park was no longer there, nor was the Brahmini kite. Had anyone helped the bird? Had the bird flown off into the blue sky? Amol searched, looking around and then upwards. He saw a crow sitting on the fence surrounding the park, its legs bound with kite string, just like the Brahmini kite’s. The crow cocked its head at him, as if it recognized him. It cawed twice and then took off eastwards, flying above the large shelter inside the park; the black string hung from its feet.
Two days later, Amol took off towards the west in an airplane. He leaned his head against the window, wanting to see the city one last time; his breath fogged up the glass. The plane tilted like a kite, tilting the city as well. The theory of relativity says that time decelerates when traveling at high speed—one can travel to the future, but never to the past. The boy Amol had travelled to the future, had heard the warning, ‘Run, boy, run!’ But he hadn’t understood the warning back then. It was only now, 16,191 days later, that middle-aged Amol understood what message he had wanted to give himself, but he did not have the power to return to the past. Perhaps, considering infinite probability, there was a slight chance of the doors of time cracking open just a little, but the probability of that happening more than once was almost nil.
Very early on a Friday, before the sun had risen, 16,190 days ago, foreign soldiers had set fire to their house. It was a night filled with horror in March 1971. Amol’s father and mother had managed to vault him over the wall into the alleyway behind their house. That was the last time he saw them. Many years later he heard that a profusion of old skulls and bones had been discovered in the Jagannath College field. And it was only today, so many years later, that he understood that the ‘Run, boy, run!’ should have applied to everyone in their household. He wondered what he could have said to make sure that the warning had reached his parents. He wondered, but he could find no answer in the endless sky. Far below, rectangular green fields began to disappear from view. Before the airplane rose above the clouds, he searched for the Brahmini kite one last time. He wondered how the Brahmini kite had transformed into a crow; he wondered at how he still hadn’t stopped running. He wondered about his red kite, which had, so many years ago, burned with his home.
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