Muhammad Zafar Iqbal is the Head of the Department of Electrical and Electronics at Shah Jalal University of Science and Technology and Director of Institute of Information and Communication Technology. He is the author of more than 150 books of fiction and science fiction as well as titles on science and mathematics.
(Muhammad Zafar Iqbal)
(Translated from Bangla by Arunava Sinha)
Red welts had appeared on Rasha’s palm from Razzak Sir’s caning, which meant she had to be very careful for the next few days to keep her grandmother from seeing them. Of course, her grandmother didn’t take anything very seriously, so it’s possible she would not have asked about it even if it had caught her eye. Still, Rasha wasn’t taking any chances. If her grandmother asked, Rasha would have to disclose everything, which she simply did not want to do.
All her classmates began to look at Rasha in a new light after the caning incident, but there was a big change in the behavior of one of the boys in particular. A shy boy named Ratan; he had asked her the very first day whether she would now leave school. Rasha noticed that he now hovered near her all the time, as though he wanted to tell her something. Eventually Rasha asked him, “Is there something you want to say?”
Looking around, Ratan lowered his voice. “Yes.”
“What is it? Tell me.”
“I can’t say it here.”
“Everyone will hear.”
“So what?” asked Rasha in surprise.
Ratan shook his head. “No, they mustn’t.”
“When will you tell me, then?”
‘When you’re on your way home. On the road.”
As Rasha was walking home that evening with Jainab, Jitu, and Moti, Ratan suddenly popped up out of thin air at a particularly secluded spot. Looking furtively around, he whispered, “Listen, Rasha.”
Rasha stopped, as did Jainab, Jitu, and Moti. With a mysterious air Ratan said, “Just you. Tell the others to leave.”
“Why should they leave?” said Rasha. “Let them wait.”
“All right, but far away.”
Rasha told Jainab, “Walk up to the bridge and wait for me, I’ll be there as soon as I’ve spoken to Ratan.”
Giving Ratan a deeply suspicious glare, Jainab looked again at Rasha before walking on ahead.
“All right, tell me now,” Rasha said to Ratan.
“You won’t tell anyone, will you?”
“How can I promise till I know what it is?” Rasha said a little impatiently. “You have to tell me first.”
“An uncle of mine lives in London.”
Rasha looked at Ratan in astonishment. So much secrecy just to tell her his uncle lived in London?
“He’s visiting us. He has three or four cell phones.”
Rasha waited patiently for Ratan to finish the story of the uncle so that he’d get to the point. “I told my uncle, will you give me a cell phone?” said Ratan. “You’re a child,” he said, “what will you do with a mobile phone? I’ll buy you one when you grow up.”
Ratan paused and looked at Rasha with wide-open eyes. Rasha wasn’t sure what to say, she began to suspect Ratan of being a little strange—was he just going to keep telling her the story of his uncle’s cell phone? Which was precisely what happened. Ratan said, “I told him, will you give me the phone that can take pictures? I want to take some pictures. He said, you won’t lose it? It’s an expensive phone. I said, no, I won’t.”
Ratan stopped again, looking at Rasha as though he expected her to say something this time. But she didn’t—she was waiting impatiently for the story to end. Ratan was in no hurry. He said, “It’s a very expensive phone—it can take pictures and videos too. I’ve taken lots of photos and videos with it.”
Unable to contain herself anymore, Rasha said, “Good for you. Take more photos, more videos. I’m going.”
“Just wait till you find out what I did. I took my uncle’s phone to school one day, without telling anyone. They would just grab it if they knew, clamoring to have their pictures taken. It would fall from someone’s hands and break. So I didn’t show it to anyone.”
At the end of her tether by now, Rasha said, “I live a long way from here, Ratan. It takes me hours to get home. Finish your phone story now, and I’ll listen to the rest tomorrow. I have to go.”
Ratan appeared dejected. “You have to go?”
“You don’t want to see the video I shot in school?”
“Just watch a bit.” Fishing an expensive cell phone out of his pocket, Ratan began to press its buttons. Suddenly an angry roar was heard from the phone. Rasha looked at it curiously, to discover Razzak Sir rushing forward with a cane, using it on a student till he was flat on the floor. Suddenly Rasha heard herself screaming sharply, “Sir!”
Stunned, Rasha said, “You made a video of the whole thing?”
Ratan replied gravely, “The whole thing. A first-class video. No one even saw me.”
“Show me, show me . . .”
Ratan handed her the phone, which now showed Razzak Sir dancing with a violent expression on his face. After exchanging a couple of words with Rasha, his cane flashed down on her palm. Unable to bear the sight, Rasha closed her eyes in a sort of terror. The teacher’s brutal invectives streamed from the phone. ‘”My uncle is going back to London,” said Ratan.
“Will he take the phone with him?” asked Rasha.
“We have to keep a copy of this video. It’s vital for us.”
“That’s why I wanted to talk to you in private,” said Ratan.
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier,” said Rasha. “The next time you have something important to say, come straight to the point instead of beating about the bush. All right?”
“When did I beat about the bush?” said Ratan, sounding injured. “I came right to the point.”
“You did not.”
“Never mind, there’s no point arguing about this now. Tell me how we can get a copy of this.”
“Should I ask my uncle?”
“No way. Asking grown-ups just leads to trouble. Isn’t there a computer-phone-fax shop in the market?”
“We have to get them to copy this onto a CD for us.”
“What’s a CD?”
“I can’t teach you now. Bring this phone to school tomorrow, all right? In the afternoon we’ll take it to the market and copy the video.”
“Don’t tell anyone.”
“Keep it a secret.”
Making a face, Ratan said, “That’s exactly what I wanted to do, you’re the one who wanted to talk in front of everyone.”
The next afternoon the video was copied from the phone onto two CDs. Rasha put the discs away carefully—they were going to soon prove useful. She would discuss this with Jahanara Madam the next time she saw her. She would be upset when she heard that Rasha had been caned this way, but there was nothing to be done. There had to be a law against beating children in school, under which Razzak Sir could be punished. He needed to be taught a lesson, but who was going to do it?
However, a chance to do this suddenly appeared. Rasha herself hadn’t imagined that such a spectacular opportunity would present itself so soon. This was how it all began:
At the morning assembly, the headmaster announced, “I have some good news for all of you.”
Whenever teachers said there was good news, it almost always turned out to be nothing of the sort. A few days earlier the headmaster had said he had good news for them: their MP would be be visiting. All the children would have to welcome him, lining the road, holding tiny flags. From morning till late into the afternoon, all the students had waited with their flags, with the sun blazing overhead. Everyone had been bathed in sweat. Eventually the MP had indeed turned up, a garland round his neck, surrounded by people. Fat and dark, he had walked past them without casting a single glance at the multitudes of schoolchildren lined up on either side of the road.
So when the headmaster said there was good news, everyone looked at him apprehensively.
“How many of you have heard of computers?” he asked.
Almost everyone raised their hands. “How many of you have seen a computer?” asked the headmaster.
This time all the hands went down, except Rasha’s. Being the only one, she quickly lowered her hand too. The headmaster said, “In the developed world every home has a computer. We are very unfortunate in not even being able to display computers to our students. But your days of deprivation are about to end. You will be delighted to know that the Ministry of Education is giving computers to every school in the country. And under this program our school is about to get a computer too.”
As soon as he stopped, the children emitted shouts of joy. This was genuine good news, not the adulterated kind.
The headmaster continued, “But there’s something everyone must remember. The computer is not like a television set, where all you have to do is press a switch for the program to start and the singing and dancing to begin. The computer is a very delicate machine. You must know how to use it. Experts program computers. They use computers to write emails, to paint, to explore the Internet. Does everyone understand?”
Most of the students had no idea what the headmaster was saying, but they all nodded. The headmaster said, “We want every student at our Ahad Ali High School to use computers some day.”
Once again the children cheered. The headmaster was pleased at their exuberance. Smiling, he said, “Our science teacher Razzak Sahib will go to Dhaka next week to be trained to use a computer. Then people from Dhaka will come to install a computer in our school. We will be able to tell everyone that our school does not lag behind when it comes to information technology.”
The headmaster raised a fist in the air and shook it in the manner of an orator. There were cries of joy from the students again. Only Rasha sighed instead of cheering. A single computer for several hundred students, and Razzak Sir in charge! None of the children would even be allowed to touch the computer, let alone use it. The only good news was that Razzak Sir would be in Dhaka for a week. It would be a happy time for the students, for they would not be caned.
There was excitement in the school the next week. Lime was stirred into buckets of water and an attempt made to whitewash the walls. The outcome was horrifying— patches of stark white here and there made the school look unfamiliar. The students were made to weed the fields and clean the classrooms. On the day before the computer was to be installed, the headmaster showered advice on the students. “All of you must dress in clean clothes. I’m warning you, no one must be barefoot, everyone should be in shoes or sandals. Oil your hair and comb it. If the guests from Dhaka ask a question, answer pleasantly, using perfect grammar. No one must talk or cause a disturbance during the event. Pay attention to whatever is said. Remember, if you can create a good impression we might get more computers in the future.”
As Rasha was about to leave for school the next day, on a whim she took the CD with Ratan’s video along with her.
When she arrived in school she discovered a frenzy of activity. All the benches had been taken out of the classrooms and set out in the middle of the courtyard. A table and chairs had been laid out on the veranda. Towels had been draped over the backs of the chairs, while the table was covered with a white cloth. A microphone stood on one side, and two large speakers had been set up. Several CDs were arranged next to the computer. A vase adorned the table, with shiny plastic flowers in it.
At the back of the veranda stood a large white screen, with a video projector on a small table in front of it. The headmaster was rushing about, wearing a tie. Razzak Sir was dressed in a shining safari suit. The other teachers were also dressed well.
With all the benches outside, there was nowhere to sit in the classrooms. The students were sitting on the benches in the yard in silence. Someone turned the microphone on to test it, saying, “Hello testing one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four.”
Rasha spotted a number of bouquets in a corner. The headmaster suddenly remembered something and rushed toward the students. “We forgot to decide who will offer the bouquets. Where are the Class Nine girls?”
It turned out that they were two girls short in Class Nine. So two girls from Class Eight were added. Sanjida and Rasha. Shutting her eyes, Rasha turned her face toward the sky and whispered, “Thank you Allah, thank you very much.”
The guests were very late, and everyone grew impatient, but not Rasha. She waited calmly, so that no one would know her heart was thumping like a moving train.
Eventually the guests arrived—two cars pulling up in the school field, followed by a police vehicle. When the guests emerged from the car, the headmaster led them to the stage, overcome with gratitude at their presence. Despite the heat, one of the guests was in a suit and tie, the very sight of which made Rasha feel warm. One of the others, in a police uniform, was unwilling to sit on the stage, but the headmaster insisted. The guests were in a great hurry, for they would have to visit another school too. The ceremonies began at once.
Razzak Sir was the master of ceremonies. He heaped praises on the guests in a theatrical manner, almost foaming at the mouth in expressing his gratitude at the fact that the Superintendent of Police and the District Collector Sahib had wasted their valuable time in visiting a school as insignificant as this one. Then the girls were called on stage to present the flowers. Rasha took the CD out of the book she had hidden it in, holding her hand behind her back so that no one could see it. Collecting her bouquet, she concealed the CD behind it. One by one, the girls went forward to present the bouquets. When Rasha’s turn came, she quietly put the CD on the top of the pile of CDs as she was passing the table. The gentleman in the suit accepted the bouquet from her, saying something which she could not hear clearly because her heart was beating furiously.
Returning to her seat, Rasha shut her eyes again and turned her face up to the sky, muttering, “I’ve done my bit, Khuda. Please do the rest.”
Everyone was supposed to give a speech but the man in the suit did not want to get into all this. He signaled to a younger person sitting in front, who jumped to his feet and began to speak into the microphone. He seemed jovial and spoke well, so everyone listened to him with interest. “Most of the people gathered here are children,” he said. “Children cannot stand speeches, so there will be no speeches today. We will go straight to the best part of the day. Does anyone know what the best thing today is?”
“The computer,” screamed everyone in unison.
“Very good,” the young speaker said, smiling. “Now tell me what you can do on a computer.”
The students were silent. One of them said hesitantly, “We can watch Hindi movies.”
The speaker laughed. “At least if you’d just said we can watch films. But Hindi films! Not that I blame you—you must have seen them running Hindi films on the computer at some shop or the other. All right, what else?”
“We can write letters,” said another student.
“Very good. Letters. What else?”
“Paint,” said another.
Rasha wanted to list dozens of things that could be done on a computer, but she kept quiet.
Having heard out the students and their suggestions, the speaker finally said, “All the things you have mentioned can be done on a computer—but that’s not all. There’s a lot more you can do. Instead of lecturing, let me show you. All right?”
“All right!” the students shouted.
The young man picked up the CDs lying next to the computer, and Rasha’s heart jumped into her mouth. The man said, “I’ve brought several CDs for you, some of these are games, some encyclopedias, some are guides to scientific experiments, some are music, some are painting programs. I’ll show them to you one by one. Which one do you want to see first.”
“The games, the games,” shouted most of the students.
Running his eyes over the CDs, the speaker stopped suddenly. Holding up the CD Rasha had slipped into the pile, he said, “How interesting, a new CD. Someone has left it here, it says, ‘Our School.” Which means someone has made a CD about your school. Let’s start with this one. Let’s find out what your school is like.”
The headmaster looked bewildered. He asked Razzak Sir a question in a low voice. Razzak Sir said he knew nothing about it. Both of them looked worried.
Inserting the CD in the computer, the man with the mic said, “Computer monitors are small, visible to only one person at a time. Today we have a projector and a large screen here so that all of us can see what’s on the computer. Together.”
Rasha stopped breathing, her eyes closed in anticipation. And at once Razzak Sir’s distorted scream emerged from the speakers, “Swine, pig!”
The guests on the stage, the sirs and madams seated in front, and the hundreds of children on the benches all jumped in unison. Everyone looked at the screen in astonishment, where Razzak Sir was seen with a cane in his hand, snarling at a student. “I will kill you. I will take your skin off with this cane, I will beat you to a pulp.”
Everyone watched as Razzak Sir bore down on a boy with his cane, thrashing him mercilessly. No one would have believed it if they hadn’t seen it with their own eyes. The guests, the teachers, and the students all stared in disbelief at this inhuman scene.
Rasha was looking at Razzak Sir, who jumped to his feet and tried to shut the computer down. “What’s going on here?” he screamed.
No one listened. The young man, who was standing near the computer, shoved him aside and kept looking at the screen. Everyone saw Razzak Sir beating up the boy, who tried to protect himself by raising his arm, at which the teacher grew even more furious, grabbed him by his hair and forced him to practically lie down on a bench while he continued to beat him. The student’s stricken cries matched the whistling of the cane.
Suddenly Rasha’s sharp cry was heard on the speakers. “Sir!”
The audience was startled once again. On the screen Razzak Sir was seen turning around. He looked like a wild beast. “Who was that?” he asked violently.
Rasha was not visible, but her voice was heard. “Me, Sir.”
“What is it?”
“You cannot beat him like this.”
The audience tried to identify the girl who had been so bold, who had dared to speak up this way. She could not be seen on the screen, only Razzak Sir was visible. It was only when he went up to Rasha that she was seen for the first time. From the back, but clearly.
Razzak Sir again rushed up to the stage and tried to shut the computer down, but to no avail. The speaker pushed him away so hard that he barely managed to save himself from falling off the stage.
Everyone watched Razzak Sir bringing his cane down repeatedly on Rasha’s palm. Everyone watched the students in the class rise to their feet, watched Razzak Sir stop abruptly and race out of the classroom, watched Rasha break down in tears and the other students rush up to her. This was where the video ended and the screen turned black.
No one spoke. They sat in their places like blocks of stone. Rasha saw the man in the suit surreptitiously wiping his eye. The headmaster remained sitting, his eyes on the floor. Only Razzak Sir was seen trying to say something but not succeeding, his face robbed of color, looking like an ugly, giant insect.
The man in the suit said something, but without a mic no one could hear him. The young man took the microphone off its stand and handed it to him. The man in the suit said, “We are giving computers to schools, making big speeches—but what’s the use? We’re handing over our children to demons. These demons are killing our children, and we don’t even know it. What’s the use, then? What’s the use?”
Turning to the headmaster, the man in the suit said, “Headmaster Sahib. Don’t you know that your students are caned this way? What sort of headmaster are you? How can we entrust you with the responsibility for our children? How?”
The headmaster muttered something, his eyes still on the floor. The man in the suit told the man in the police uniform, “Arrest this demon, SP Sahib, book him. If he gets out of jail in less than fourteen years . . .”
Rushing up to the man in the suit like a madman, Razzak Sir tried to grab his legs and broke down in tears. The man in the suit shouted at Razzak Sir so loudly that the entire school trembled. “Don’t you dare! I’ll kill you if you touch me.”
Looking behind him, he said, “Take him away. Remove him. I don’t want any more drama.”
Several people led Razzak Sir away. The man in the suit had been seated all this while. Now he took the microphone and stood up, then walked to the front of the gathering. After a pause, he said, “Do you know who the most respected people in the world are? Teachers. A teacher must never be dishonored. But if a teacher dishonors himself, there’s nothing we can do. We are saddened, but there’s nothing we can do. Boys and girls, I am deeply saddened today. If there is one incident like this here, there must be many others at the other eighty thousand schools in our country. Perhaps a teacher is beating up a boy or a girl somewhere in one of these schools at this very moment. Can you imagine? We have taken the responsibility for managing education in our country. Will the lord forgive us? I doubt it. Khuda will not forgive us.”
Drawing a deep breath, he said, “It is true that I am saddened, but my heart is also full because of what I have observed. Such a young girl, but how courageous, how she stood up for her friend, how she did not back down although she was beaten. I don’t know if you are here, my girl, but if you are, I salute you.” He raised his hand in a salute.
The students applauded, some of them trying to get Rasha to stand up, but she refused, remaining seated with her eyes on the ground.
The man in the suit said, “When you grow up and take responsibility for our nation, no child will suffer in a classroom. All right?”
“All right,” the students nodded.
Everyone promised. Now the young man by the computer came up to the man in the suit and said something, making some calculations, then nodded and said something more, and nodded again, after which the two of them appeared to come to an agreement. Taking the mic from the man in the suit, the younger man said, “I was given the responsibility of demonstrating the computer to you, of explaining the use of information technology. What did I see? I saw that you understand computers much better than I do. You used information technology to expose a serious wrongdoing to us. So I have nothing to teach you. On the contrary, I have learned a great deal from you today.”
The students clapped happily. The person said, “I spoke to Sir. I told him, seeing how well the children here can use the computer, what’s the use of giving them just one? They must get more computers. How many do you want?”
“Ten!” shouted one of the students from the front row.
“Only ten? We will give you thirty computers. Thirty!”
His voice was drowned in cheers. The students rose to their feet, jumping up and down. When they had quieted down, the person said, “We can see you have no space here for so many computers, so Sir has said he will have a room constructed in that corner. That will be your computer laboratory.”
Now even the teachers began to jump up and down with joy. Rasha alone sat quietly. She felt as though she wasn’t a little girl any more. It did not suit her to jump up and down.
Only a smile appeared on her face, widening slowly.