Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Siege


Maybe, she thought, crouching by the screen, it will be different today.

The view through the stone filigree promised nothing, though. Below the fort’s wall, the hillside fell away down to the brown plateau, only to rise again in a further series of stony prominences like broken teeth. She had never learnt to like this landscape, so different from the green plains of her home to the north, even when there was peace. But now there was no peace.

Far below, on the plateau, she could see the lines of tents that belonged to the besieging army. The tents were dull brown on the brown plain, and difficult to see at this distance, so she could almost will herself into believing that they were not there. Almost – but not quite.

To the right she could just see the road that led from the fort down to the plain. At this time of day, that road should have been crowded with traffic – horses, camels and oxen with wickedly sharp back-swept horns, drawing laden carts up the twisting way. But it was war, and there was nothing.

Despite the heat of the summer, she shivered suddenly. It was wartime, her husband was out with the Rana’s army somewhere, fighting – and she was in the fort, isolated from him, for all purposes alone.

Each day, since the siege had started, she’d spent hours here, behind this screen, staring down at the road that led down to the plain. She’d known it was stupid, but she still couldn’t stop herself. If hoping could bring the army back again, to raise the siege and join her to her husband, then it would have happened already. The entire population of the fort – the remaining soldiers, the residents, and the refugees who had crowded in from the surrounding villages – hoped and prayed every day for the army to come. Even now, the fort’s priests were sacrificing in the temples, and the astrologers were at their divinations – and the army still did not come.

A speck of black appeared in the blue-white sky, coming steadily closer. For a moment her spirits soared, thinking it was a carrier pigeon, winging its way with a message from the army that it was on its way. But it was only a hawk, soaring on outstretched wings over friend and enemy alike.

Idly, she watched the hawk, wondering how it would be to be able to fly like it. Then she would have left this terrible place, with its stony hills, its immense forts and arid deserts, and fly home to her own green plains which she hadn’t seen since her marriage seven years before.

The hawk could go anywhere, she thought. It could fly so high that surely it might be able to see the ends of the world, to the distant blue sea of which she had heard, or to the great cities of the river valleys with their markets and artisans, their temples and mosques and palaces, where people could live as they wanted and not as prisoners within walls of stone.

She wondered, for a moment, how it would be to see the ocean. She had heard the tales of the great ships that voyaged from far and distant lands, like huge wooden houses roofed with sails, and the men and women in them had pink skins, yellow hair and blue eyes. They came from lands where it was winter all year long, and they worshipped a god who was dead and nailed to a piece of wood. It was all very difficult to believe, and she wished she could see it for herself.

But that was the problem – she never would.

It was her curse, she thought, that she’d been born a woman. It was because she was female that she’d been married off to an officer in the Rana’s army, forever to leave her green fields and come to this desert land to live out her days. If she were a man, what might she not have done. But she couldn’t speak such things aloud. Nobody would understand, least of all the other women. They never had an original thought, and she avoided them when she could.

Even her husband wouldn’t understand. She remembered him as he’d said goodbye to her before starting out on his expedition, carefully looking over her shoulder so she couldn’t meet his eyes. She knew he believed she’d failed him, by not bearing him children after seven years. But it was scarcely her fault if she was barren – and he hadn’t even touched her in over a year now. At one time she might have worried that he was going to other women, like the prostitutes who hung around near the barracks of an evening, but she’d stopped caring even about that, long ago. If he’d found solace in the arms of another woman, good for him. At least someone was happy.

For all that, she wished he was back. It wasn’t that she loved him – neither of them had any feeling for each other, not any longer. She could barely remember the thrill that had once run through her at the sight of him, just after their marriage, when the world had still been young and full of promise. But she was an old woman now, in her twenties, and her hopes were beginning to fade along with her looks and her future.

A sudden flash at the corner of her vision brought her mind back to the present. It came from the plateau near the enemy camp, where the Emperor’s troops were camped. For a moment she thought it was sunlight glittering off a piece of metal, but then she saw the puff of black smoke and heard, attenuated by distance, the explosion. Again there was a flash, and again. The Emperor’s soldiers were beginning yet another cannonade, and she wondered if this was the prelude to the all-out assault people in the fort had been nervously predicting in recent days.

The soldiers along the battlements below her didn’t look particularly concerned. One of them leaned his long musket on the wall and took aim at the enemy, but the others did not even react. They had grown apathetic, she thought, now that the officers were away with the Rana’s army. If her husband had been here, he would have seen to it that they didn’t lounge so lazily, drawing on hookahs and talking of the charms of the serving women in the kitchens. They did not know she was there, listening, or else they did not care. Though she couldn’t understand all their dialect, the bit she could made her blush.

The enemy barrage was building up steadily, the plateau ringed by flashes glimpsed through the swirling gunsmoke, the sound like distant thunder. She stood up restlessly, wondered if she should go down to the yard and try to find out what was happening but decided against it. The fort was full of rumour and supposition now, without any hard facts, and she decided to stay where she was.

Just that morning she’d heard that the Queen was planning to commit Jauhar if the Emperor’s troops broke into the fort, along with her ladies-in-waiting, rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. It was only a rumour, of course, but it had sent a ripple of panic through the women. If the Queen herself was so despairing of their chances as to plan on suicide, what hope was there for everyone else?

She thought of how it must be, to burn oneself alive rather than fall into the hands of the enemy, the pain of the fire on one’s flesh. It was of course a rumour, and it would be so unnecessary. By all accounts, the Emperor was an honourable man, for all that he was the enemy and a Muslim, and he had promised to protect the women.

But the Emperor was far away in Agra, and his generals and soldiers on the plateau might not share his liberal views.

She shivered again. What would she do if the enemy soldiers broke in? She had a knife, left her by her husband as a parting gift. Would she use it to take the fast way out if the fort fell, or would she wait to see what happened? What would she do when the time came?

The cannon were falling silent one by one, the smoke drifting away, and she wearily folded herself down again, and stared out at the broken hills. Another false alarm then – there would be no assault today. She actually wanted the assault, she thought, just so that it would be over, one way or the other. She was tired of waiting. The waiting was the worst.

With surprise, she saw that the hawk was still soaring above, circling over the fort and the battle, the fighting and dying and the fear and the waiting.

She watched the hawk, and yearned to have wings like it, and to fly up into the sky and far away, beyond the desert and the war. She wanted to fly down to the ocean, where the pink men came in their wooden ships, and the water stretched to the ends of the world, and further, beyond the edge of the world. She wanted to fly higher, beyond the sun and the stars, until the day and night were no more.

Evening was falling, the shadows lengthening on the hills. She watched the creeping shadows and thought about the hawk and why it did not fly far away, when it could. It was a stupid bird, she thought, to stay when it could get away.

At last she got up and went down into the fort, telling herself that tomorrow she wouldn’t come up and sit here through the day. But of course she would.

Suddenly impatient, she ran down the stairs, as though haste would bring tomorrow closer, and as though tomorrow would have something new to come.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

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