On a sidewalk of a dusty busy city street, a tarpaulin covered shack was littered with over hundred stone slabs of varying sizes and shapes. A bespectacled man, lean and tall, was engraving a rectangular piece of black granite under a tiny flickering lamp. He was around the age of sixty. All over his body, he was coated with dust and flecks of the stone. The slab was to be etched in memory of a legend, a language martyr, Abul Barkat who sacrificed his life on 21st February 1952 in Dhaka for the sake of his mother tongue Bangla.
Madhu, the owner, aged between forty and fifty, short and bald, bulging bellied, blood-shot eyed, paan stained lips, was smoking on his worn out stool and thoughtfully surveying his empire of stone slabs.
“Lal, what’re you up to still?” asked Madhu in a racy voice.
“Babu, giving a finishing touch to the name plate ordered by the Headmaster of Hekmat High School. He repeatedly warns that it is to be finished by tonight, and tomorrow morning on his way to school he’ll take it. It’s urgent…”
“Move, move, let me have a look,” ordered the master with a sneer.
Lal moved and waited owl like in the dimly lit corner. His face was dry but he seemed to be torn between hope and despair. Old days of patting and derision possessed him.
“It’s good. Happy that you’re enriching your art day by day! Letters are awfully stylized, and people have to wear reading glasses to decipher it. Of course you’ll be praised! But leave it there, go to the far end, take that circular slab, and on it now ornately incise ‘Madira Manzil’.”
The master flung the burning butt of the cigarette into the busy street, took a napkin from his stainless cash box, and began to carefully clean two or three finished name plates.
“But, babu, Headmaster will come with the sun rise. And he exhorts that he is a man of one word.”
“Who is taller, Headmaster or contractor?”
“How can I tell? I’m old and my eyes are failing.”
“It’s easy! Apply common sense,” cheerfully Madhu eyed Lal.
Lal scratched head, blinked eyes, moved lips, and a while later said, “Contractor, babu.”
“You’re so cool, old hand! Now you know why do I keep you instead of my difficult days?”
Lal beamed and went to the far end and took out a fine slab and began to polish it for etching the magic letters ‘M-A-D-I-R-A M-A-N-Z-I-L’.
“Babu, how do I face the Headmaster? Sir is taut. Some troubles I sense at dawn,” remorsefully Lal said.
“Leave that on me, my old hand. I make him read the problem. What’s wrong with a day delayed? It is not his daughter’s marriage! He can easily wait a day. Hand over me his nameplate meantime,” annoyingly said Madhu.
Lal handed him the piece and argued no further.
“Who is this man, Lal? A-b-u-l B-a-r-k-a-t! Is he a politician or a social reformer or a cricketer? This name sounds queer. In my life thousands of names crowd and vanish…but such a bizarre name!” Madhu wore a sad face and threw a quizzical look at Lal.
“Babu, what do we have with the man? Our task is to etch his name and count coins. Is he dead or living? Is he a player or a torch bearer? These and like are out of our reach,” flatly argued Lal.
“You claim that you are a primary drop-out, and you lecture like a pro-f-e-s-s-or!” Madhu threw a fiery look. He felt uneasy with Lal’s unsought exegesis.
“Sorry, babu,” Lal cut his tongue, and next he paid double attention to his stone.
“Lal, let’s come to the point. Headmaster and his stone can wait. But how can we delay our boss’s task. He is a big name in construction line. For ten years he is building his palace. It has a swimming pool, a mini gym and an acre of sprawling flower garden. Crore he spends in marbles, tiles, and interiors. Can he be waited? Have we the courage?”
“How can we?” Lal agreed without taking his eyes from the egg-shaped slab.
Darkness thickened, and Lal was fighting with his friend. Tomorrow was the delivery date. And if he failed, his skin would be peeled out of his sack.
Next morning Headmaster, a clean shaven, glossy gentleman of fifty or so with a broad smile on his oval face stopped his alto just before the shed, and hurriedly asked for the nameplate. A room in his school was to be dedicated to the language martyr, Barkat, and a special lecture was to be delivered in his memory today. He was in a hurry. Delegates would come from four corners of the state. A lot of arrangements had to be taken care of for the smooth passage of the hectic day.
“Where is my name-plate?” softly asked the Headmaster looking around the grubby stacked stones.
“Sir, finishing touch…. Tomorrow you come and take it easy,” nonchalantly Lal said.
“An urgent delivery, sir, from a big building contractor. A crorepati! Fifty men he keeps for the upkeep of his house. How can we make him wait? He is our patron, a friend in sun and shower.”
The Headmaster looked vacantly at the brilliant sky and looked for heavenly bodies.
“Where is your master?” calmly the Headmaster asked a while later.
“At home. Sleeping. Yester night my master attended a party. Tired perhaps,” dryly Lal said.
“Could you give his cell number?” the Headmaster asked with a stifled voice.
“I have no mobile, sir.”
“Would you take tea or coffee, sir?”
Headmaster’s face elongated. It was a warehouse of flush of anger, anxiety, remorse, and pity. He, however, kept himself cool by forcibly repressing his strains of fear and inaction. He could not decide if he should wait or move snatching the unfinished piece of stone. In the end he lost his control.
“How irresponsible you are! How do you run business with such an inert art? You have no sense, no ways to deal with clean people. It’s terrible! It’s horrific!” Headmaster burst in anger.
Nobody talked. Vehicles as usual snarled, honked and speedily passed by the side of the shop.
“How much?” dryly asked the Headmaster.
“Sir, it’s unfinished. We can’t deliver it.” politely Lal said.
“Stop. Not a word more. You are polluters of people! Illiterate fool! Have you heard the name? Do you know the importance of the day? Okay, tell me today’s date.” Headmaster smashed.
“Why do we celebrate it?”
“How can I tell? Me, a primary drop-out. Days come, days go. Orders we have, and signs we deliver. Beyond it I have no interest.”
“That’s fine! It’s our fault, man. You have never heard the names of Salam, Barkat, Rafiq, Jabbar. Barkat was born at Babla village, Bharatpur, Murshidabad. And in his memory a room was donated by Sukhtara Bibi, an educationist, who is the chief guest of today’s observance of International Mother Language Day at our school. Do you know history?”
“No,” Lal blinked and looked empty.
“Okay. Let me tell you,” the Headmaster snubbed his nose, collected his thoughts, and began, “On February 21, 1952, students of the University of Dhaka launched a nationwide protest against accepting Urdu as the nation’s official language. In that peaceful protest Barkat and many others were killed. And in order to recognize and honour this heroic act, the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared in 1999 February 21 as International Mother Language Day. It is a day of worldwide observance aimed at promoting multilingualism and awareness of both cultural and linguistic diversity.” He gasped, gave Lal a note of five hundred, tenderly took the name-plate and with a light heart he departed.
Lal looked vacant, muttered for a while and sat sheepishly in that shack. How long? Who knows?