Shivam cried profusely when he entered the makeshift shelter and sat in a corner when his corpulent and dark-colored wife, Shobha, dressed in a nightdress inquired of him for the reason behind his sadness. She was rushing out of her shabby and cluttered kitchen when his naked and bruised feet drew her attention. She frantically ran towards him and volleyed a number of questions upon him, “What happened to you today? Has the war again started? Did someone chase you down that dusty road?” Shivam was choking with sadness and was unable to speak. He was unable to bring any scrap for selling today, so they and all their kids had to sleep empty stomach. She started beating her forehead and crying volubly over the tragedy that had struck their family. When Shobha left the shores of her village for Mishuna island, she was a coy 16-year old bovine, whose eyes constantly twinkled in anticipation of happiness awaiting her in her married life and countenance was painted with optimism, but her hopes got dashed when her land, where she had come after her marriage to a shy, but handsome, Shivam, got heavily ravaged by bombs.
Raging with wrath and desperation Shivam roared, “Just gulp that water in the pitcher lying unnoticed in that crowded kitchen and sleep. No one dies due to hunger; as such, we survived that dirty war and managed to live through that rat hole, where we hid with constant fear of death and arrest.” When he eventually calmed down, he narrated the incident that injured his feet, “I had almost tricked those tough military men, decorated with sophisticated guns, from arresting me and entered that restricted area, where loads of scraps were strewn uncared for, discreetly and started picking those metal rods and leftovers of bicycles and weapons with imagination of a grand feast after I sold that huge collection in the city. But how would I know that some landmines were also hidden there and I hit one of them. There was a loud noise and a giant mushroom-like explosion enveloped the area. Those military men started rushing with their guns; my heart was scared to death. With injured feet, hurting my heart and mind, I skidded towards a thicket of bushes and lay like a corpse for some five hours.” Shobha embraced him and kissed his dried lips and dust-smeared face shaking with fear. She laid her head on his folded legs and reassured him, “You are alive, breathing and talking with me. I would have died of shock to see your bullet-ridden body in a coffin. Hold me and kiss me under the shadow of this moonlight, which is so distant yet so near and so ignorant of human tragedies. Let’s go near that least-ventured pond, where mermaids and fairies descend in the silence of the night, and celebrate the music that flows in the pond, which we had failed to notice in the chaos of war.” She also assured by taking his trembling hands, criss-crossed with elevated surfaces of nerves, that she will borrow a cup of rice and lentils from Nilima, another member of that ill-equipped camp.
When Shobha knocked on that recently painted rickety door, Nilima with disheveled hair, but with a magnetic smile that had failed to fade away despite war and scarcity, opened the door. Her kid, who was born in the camp, was dangling across her waist. She made hot coffee and poured in two steel mugs, which were twisted at some corners, said in deep breath, “My husband, Keshab, never appeared after the war, but I will survive. With this kid with a running nose around, my desire to live has strengthened. Maybe I will start doing sweeping and cleaning job to feed the kid. I don’t mind if that elderly pot-bellied Mithas proposes me. Though he is short and has scrubby hair, but he has wealth that none of us has.” Nilima detested ferreting for scraps like others in the camp and frowned upon others superciliously for indulging in such tough and dangerous living activities. Their intimate and effusive conversation ended when birds started skimming in Nilima’s courtyard. While retreating Shobha with a choked voice mentioned, “I want that Shivam should be with me till my death. This war has left us penniless and it ravaged our land. Even if I have to live my entire life in this dilapidated and over-crowded camp, where queues for everything never end, I don’t mind. But I want Shivam’s touch and love. Without his presence, I am like that dried Ivy constantly dependent on others.” Her quailed face was soaked in tears imagining that intruder called death, which is constantly knocking on her door.
It seemed fear was discreetly wandering everywhere – in the camp area and outside the camp area, and no one knew how to escape from this constant fear. After watching death and vandalism from such a close distance, being alive seemed a prayer granted. Like ghosts in search of peace, people at the camp never slept during those exhaustively long nights, rather spent their time in shedding tears over their memory, which failed to forget those gruesome incidents – Meghna was pulled out and raped, Mansoor was shot dead, Unni never returned from war – and echoes of wails were still audible. The sound of pain endured during that ten-day long war reverberated throughout the camp.
Next day, despondent Shivam was walking through the deserted road when he was accosted by a soldier in an unimaginably dilapidated state. Simmering with anger, he had just thrown away his weapons and was smoking profusely to whisk away those gruesome images of war. A thick funnel of smoke circulated around his stressed-out face. He jumped in the middle of the road and halted Shivam from proceeding ahead. With droplets of sweat trickling down his face and some patched on his forehead, he looked sternly at him. He started beating his boots on a patch of grass and questioned him curiously. Shivam pushed himself away from the soldier’s grip and roared loudly, “ I am going to forage for scraps, so that I sell them in the scrap market and manage food for my kids. Don’t show me your fist and those hawk-like eyes; I no more fear you and your fraternity.” The soldier in scuffed dirty green trouser barked at him, “On this unsurfaced road and with those obsessive ideas, which were ingrained in my mind by the system, I was forced to spend my entire youth and just kiss and swallow the granules of the dust and watch those lifeless expanses bereft of beauty.” He casted his eyes towards his boots and said, “They announced that we were undeterred by fear and were men of grit. But I was as shaken as those leaves on that almost ruined tree caught in a whirlpool of storm. That night when I fired unblinkingly at that crowd, huddled in a corner like a pack of sheep, I lost my soul; but as remorse I finished that unused wine bottle and vomited the next day. It was my mind that had stopped living and was inebriated with lust that compelled me to rape that woman of that poor farmer, who wailed profusely when I walked towards her pet like a dog hungry since ages. Did I rape her? Why did I rape her? Such questions keep surging in my mind and my restless mind is exhaustively looking for peace and sleep. My mind slipped into that stagnant stage of ‘unconsciousness’ and I tried slapping my face and splashing water on my face to recover from this stage, but I failed like the way I failed in the battle field.”
Shivam kicked him in his stomach and wanted an explanation for the war. He was raging with anger and wanted back his land and all lost near ones, whom he endeared and still yearned for. As he calmed down, he nostalgically remembered his tall and broad-shouldered uncle, who loved food and was over-affectionate towards that widow living next door. He stared questioningly towards the soldier, “He was always full of life and never harmed anyone. But when war started and bombs rained at our place, he tried desperately to save his heart lusting for life by taking shelter in a grocery shop that sold dried fish and curry leaves. He had touched my hands and had assured me about our union. After that incident I never found him, but I am still looking for him, or maybe I am looking for life that disappeared along with him that day.”
By the time they had finished their conversation, it was getting dark and birds, which were also scared to venture out in the air, were seen flapping their wings in joy after a long time. They watched those birds, the sun and those trees waltzing on the music of the air. It seemed after ages they were observing the changes of the nature that had remained like ever punctual and full of life. They smiled and at each other and rested their exhausted heads against that tree, which had new leaves and a nest with four tender eggs resting against each other. While whispering to each other they soon slipped into a deep slumber because of that mellifluous sound of air and rustling leaves floating around them.
And, when they woke up they were taken aback to see a man with wooden elbow crutches between his both arm pits grinning at their faces. The short, but sound, siesta had rejuvenated their vanquished souls, but they looked in a confused manner at the crippled man, who after a short struggle sat along with them and introduced himself, “I am Shrikant and I am a debt-ridden poet, who lives on the other side of Nakshatra river, where women used to often huddle around and whisper their personal secrets in each other’s ears, but after the war they merely peep from their small windows and wonder where other women are. I, too, had a diligent father and an overprotective mother, who were gunned down in front of my eyes. Though I escaped, but while running frantically for my life, I had hit a landmine hidden in a steel pot and lost my robust legs. For days I writhed in pain and tried to commit suicide, but those spirits of the people, who had wished to live, haunted me and halted me from killing myself. Since then I am a poet and a writer, and I observe life and smile at the number of tragedies that will never stop from haunting us.” He then nudged them with his elbows to remind them that he won’t harm a single hair on their heads. This spontaneous congregation of three strangers, but still related to each other due to war, was slowly transforming into an overwhelming moment. They looked into each other’s eyes and saw the similar streaks of apathy for war; tears welled up in their eyes and they clamped their hands on their eyes to veil the flow of tears. Those metal scraps, rifle and crutches were lying on that unsurfaced road like memorabilia decorated in a museum.
Shrikant reflected for some time and then said poetically, “This war has created new landmarks – vandalised buses, almost ruined houses, houses perforated with bullets, but one landmark continues to be the most-frequented, but almost invisible, space. It’s a haven for people like us running short of luck and heals the invisible wounds of all passersby. Commoners being chased by the police, policemen being chased by the politicians and politicians chasing money all come to this place, where they unmask their real faces, hidden till now from the people. Interestingly, this place is also one of the most egalitarian places, where one and all indulge in just drinking to forget, to remember, to dream and to sleep.”
When they entered the toddy shop, it was swarming with people, who had come from all over the places to tranquilise the madness of their restless memories. There were farmers, plumbers, shopkeepers, soldiers, students and whores all around. Tumblers of toddy were being circulated, and the place seemed absolutely different from the outside world. Those women with revealing cleavages and twinkling eyes kissed those exhausted soldiers, who buried their unclean faces in their long hair. One of the drunken farmer, who became penniless after losing his crops in the war, looked at Shrikant and announces, “Better to die in the arms of a whore than due to those bombs.” Shrikant nodded back in agreement and smiled at his wisdom.
Meanwhile, a soldier with a wry smile yanked Shivam, who along with others stood in a corner with an overhead light, away from the group and ordered in his drunken state to accompany him in finishing that bottle of wine. War had rendered him despondent and it seemed he drank to expunge those haunting memories stalking his present. He smiled at Shivam and revealed,” They hanged those youngsters in front of my naked eyes. Some of them didn’t even have the traces of those whiskers. They repeatedly said that they were innocent, but those policemen with unbuttoned shirts and smell of alcohol dancing on their lips ruled out their contention. Since then I am being chased by their spirits, trying to shake my soul and seek remorse or implore for forgiveness. Almost innumerable times they woke me up in the middle of those unimaginably longer nights and sought answers for those almost impossibly unanswerable questions. Initially I got scared of their almost ruined faces, but now I believe I can’t survive with those stalking spirits. It’s my fate and fate of all people around here, who have come here to feel the transitory phase of happiness, which has eluded all of us.”
Shivam can related himself with the soldier overwhelmed with guilt and remorse. He immediately took one of the tumblers of wine and gulped the entire content in one go and announced, “To all those spirits who squat invisibly along with us in this room, and who were forced to kiss death when they had almost wedded life.” People around tried to hide their tears, but none succeeded; almost everybody was seen wiping their face, clouded with the memories of their loved ones, whom they lost in the din of war.
That intoxicating no one slept; they kept singing, dancing and celebrating this new lease of life that they all were awarded with and then slept to forget those unforgettable memories.