[Note to reader: This was inspired by a recurrent "waking vision" I've had for the last several days, of my own corpse being dragged down the street with ropes. Any connection with recent political happenings in North Africa is, of course, fully intended and not at all coincidental.]
The hard light of noon pours down on the street, down on my blood that trails behind me, glittering rich red in the sun.
This is not the death I’d imagined for myself. When I’d pictured my demise, I’d always thought that it would happen sometime in the evenings or the small hours of the night, in a room shrouded in darkness, with nothing but silence to mark the occasion. I had not thought that I would die in the bright hot sunlight of a summer day, with a crowd gathered round.
They have tied my body with ropes around the ankles, and are dragging it behind a pickup truck. The vehicle is driving slowly, so that everyone gets a good look, and that I’m not too badly mutilated by the time they’re done. Each bump and crevice in the road surface jolts my body, throws the trailing arms around, the curled fingers twitching as though they still want to reach out and grasp at the life that has slipped by.
Almost curiously, I watch them drag along my corpse. Now that the moment has passed, the moment everyone dreads, I can afford mild curiosity, a detached near-amusement. When my head bounces in a pothole with a crack hard enough to be heard over the little pickup’s labouring engine and the voices of the crowd, when one of my eyes, still half open, is covered with a smear of mud, all I do is watch. Not that there’s much more I can do anyway.
Momentarily drifting lower, I look at my body, realising that I’m bidding it farewell. It was a good body, hadn’t given me too much trouble, and lately had borne up extremely well under stresses it had never had to deal with before. I study it almost like a laboratory specimen; the shabby business suit I’d worn as a disguise, the hole in the head from which the red blood still bubbled on to the ground.
Here, on my body’s left hand, I can still see the scar that I’ve borne since my teens, when I had tried to commit suicide by slashing my wrists. The right hand scar – made by my weaker, more unsure left hand – had long since faded, but the other one never quite did, and now is an angry weal on the skin. I’d survived then, but it seems I’d only postponed my death.
Well, don’t we all?
It’s strange to think that even half an hour ago, I’d been not just alive but filled with hope for the future. I’d been hunted for weeks, in the towns and from the air, but I was still free, still going, and, after months of “freedom” and “liberty”, more and more of the people were beginning to agree that I’d been right after all.
I had to travel light, sometimes alone, sometimes with two bodyguards at the most, men who were loyal to me, who had stuck with me since the old days. I, who had once dwelt in rooms with plush carpets on the floor and air conditioning round the clock, had learnt to adapt. I had spent nights in tiny village storehouses, sharing my space with sacks of grain teeming with weevils and learning not to flinch as rats scurried over my face and hands. I’d crouched in a dugout under a field with my ear pressed to the wall, listening to the sound of boots through the wall as they walked around above. I, who had dined on gourmet dishes on the finest china at state banquets, had found that a disc of flat bread and sour wine was enough to live on for a day, and counted myself lucky if I could get it. And though once I’d had doctors at my beck and call, I’d found that illness, as long as I could still move and talk and walk, was an irrelevant distraction from the important things in life.
Yes, I’d changed, from the man who had made speeches on the television that everyone had listened to and then analysed and discussed for days, not just here but abroad, in the halls of power in countries on the other side of the world. I’d become leaner and harder, and I’d realised again what I’d forgotten: that honour and loyalty and friendship are more important than palaces and luxury and the trappings of power, but even honour and loyalty and friendship are not the equal of having a tattered blanket to wrap around you in the cold of a desert night.
I had learnt more, too; I’d learnt to tell a genuine look of sympathy and friendship from the plastic smile of insincerity, to know when to tarry and when to leave. I’d developed a kind of sixth sense which had told me more than once to stay away from a village that was just a little too quiet, or not to cross a road which might be under observation from a hill in the distance. I’d learnt, once again, to trust my instincts, and most of the time they had served me well.
Not today, though. Today, my instincts had failed, and at the worst possible time.
Furqan had tried to warn me, to stop me from coming. “I have a very bad feeling about this,” he’d said. “We can leave it this time, President, sir. Please don’t go in there today.”
“I’m no longer the president,” I’d told him for the hundredth time.
“You’ll always be my president,” Furqan had replied, also for the hundredth time. “The traitors won’t hold on for much longer. They can’t. Even those who backed them at the start are wavering now. Another six months and we’ll be on the way back, mark my words.”
“I know,” I’d replied, smiling at him affectionately. Furqan, who looked so much like the young Fidel Castro, tall and broad shouldered with his curly beard. Even though he no longer wore his peaked cap and green uniform, nobody who saw him would mistake him for anything but what he was – a warrior through and through, though one touched by compassion and a sense of decency that never went away, not even in the worst times. If I’d ever married, if I’d had a son, I’d have wanted him to be like Furqan. “But it won’t happen by itself. We have to make it happen. And this is an important meeting; the opportunity won’t come easily again.”
“Then let me come with you,” Furqan had said, his huge hands clenching and unclenching in agitation. “At least I can do my best to keep you safe, if something happens.”
“If something happens,” I’d pointed out, “you, all by yourself, won’t be able to do a thing for me. I’ll be able to sneak in and out of town if I’m alone, anyway. A single person attracts less attention.”
He’d given in reluctantly, and stood watching as I’d driven away in the old, dusty red car we’d been using for the last week. The car had been lent me by the owner of a house in which we’d spent two nights after I’d hurt my foot and hadn’t been able to walk for a while; I’d promised him that we’d return it before the month was out.
Now he’ll never get that car back. I hope that at least he has the good sense to get out while he still can, before they trace it back to him. Unless, of course, it was he who had tipped them off about me, once I was safely far enough away. If they pay him at least a part of the reward they’d offered, instead of killing him and keeping it all to themselves, he can afford to buy another car, after all.
They’d known what to look out for. I had changed drastically from the night I’d fled my presidential residence, crouched down in the back seat of an old SUV. I’d grown a beard, been burnt deep brown by the sun, and lost weight. Besides, I’d had false papers, showing me to be a small time businessman, living in the city. None of it had helped.
They’d got me at the first checkpoint. I should have been more alert, knew to park the vehicle in an alley and walk on. But my mind had been elsewhere, on the upcoming meeting with the arms dealer, and the promise of weapons which we needed if we were ever to overthrow them and take the country back. Now, I wonder if the arms dealer had even been there, or if that had been a trap, too.
The checkpoint had been deceptively sloppy to look at, little more than a few oil drums scattered on both sides of the street, the gaps between them stuffed with sandbags, and a pole laid across the space in the middle. The buildings on both sides were still streaked with soot and marked with bullets, the result of the fighting earlier in the year. They had promised “freedom” but hadn’t even got round to cleaning up before falling on each other over the spoils. I’d had those buildings constructed, and people, at last, were beginning to remember that. Too late, perhaps, but then is something ever too late? Really?
I’d safely negotiated a hundred checkpoints like this, so I’d braked automatically to a stop while reaching for the fake driver’s licence and registration papers in the glove compartment. My mind had still been on the meeting with the arms dealer, what he might have to offer, what I could get, and how I could arrange to pay. Only when the pickup truck had rushed up behind me, armed men spilling out of it even before it skidded to a slantwise stop across the street to block my retreat, did I know what was happening.
I’d not gone without a fight, though. Even now, when it no longer matters in any way, I’m obscurely proud of that. I’d come out of the car shooting, and had even managed to get past the first few of them before they got me. I don’t remember anything about that – a flash of pain, and then I was floating above the street, looking down at them looking down at me.
They’d been disappointed and angry. A quick death for me, with no opportunity for a little casual sadism followed by a show trial and a public execution – this wasn’t what had been planned. A death fighting alone against overwhelming odds is a heroic death, not one a monster ought to have.
Of course, by now a lot of people have already realised who the real monsters are.
Once, people had lined the streets like this, when I’d gone on my first public motorcade, waving to them from the back of a car. Now, I’m going among them one last time, and my flopping hands wave as they drag along the ground, bloodstained fingers signing a final farewell.
I drift over the heads of the crowd, watching them watch my corpse. Some of them are eagerly snapping photos, mostly with cell phones, though a few have digital cameras with long telescoping lenses and at least one has an ancient black box which probably uses real film. I wonder for a moment where he intends to have it developed. By tonight these photos will be all over the net, and self-satisfied newscasters will interview smirking politicians speaking of how summary justice was visited on the fugitive dictator. And then they’ll move on to the sports news or the latest high tech release from Hollywood.
The crowd doesn’t seem to be as enthusiastic about my death as the men in the pickup, in their assorted uniforms, had expected. People, even those who are taking photos, are beginning to look around at each other, and murmur uneasily. The men sense the unease, the growing apprehension, and this makes them in turn apprehensive and angry. They lift their automatic rifles and glare at the people, daring someone to do something to give them an excuse to shoot.
The people know, though, they already know what is going to happen. They can see for themselves that without me, without my being held up as a bogey, an enemy, they will fall apart even faster, begin fighting among each other even more openly, and soon the country will remember my time with sighs of nostalgia. The people know, and the men in the pickup, I think, are beginning to realise it as well.
It’s only a matter of time before they start looking at each other with suspicion, wondering which of them will be on the other side of the new frontline a fortnight from now. I can see the thing grow in their eyes, like a slow-rising tide.
I find myself drifting higher, and now I think I can see where they’re taking me. Up ahead is the bulk of a hospital. It’s going to have a morgue, and there they’ll probably put me on ice, to display to the world. Pink faced politicians with deep pockets will come from distant countries and smile for the camera, saying that they’re sure my death will be an important step forward for the country and the cause for freedom. Then they’ll dash into their cars and rush back to the airport, never to return. They’ll be able to see which way the wind is blowing, and they’ll know that the primary objective now is to avoid blame and association with the disaster.
I wonder what Furqan will do. We had, of course, planned for the eventuality that something might happen to me, and I’d left him strict orders that if I weren’t back by midnight he should assume I’ve been captured or killed, and take over the movement. I’m sure he’ll do a good job, a better job than I would myself; and, besides, he’s not tainted by direct association with me. Nobody outside my immediate circle even knows who he is. But they will, I think, they will.
I hope he is not going to go looking for revenge. There are much more important things at stake than that. Besides, what is the point of revenge? I’m through with all the pain and fear, the agony and the ecstasy. There’s nothing to avenge any longer.
More time than I’d thought has passed, and I’ve drifted higher. The town is a purple smear below me, the sun a red swollen ball in the west, red as the blood that had dripped from my shattered head. Someday, that sun will swell further, a hungry giant that will burn this planet to a cinder of dead rock, and all I’ve striven for, all that I fought to build and then to regain, will be as meaningless as the greatest symphonies and the most poignant love songs ever sung. Someday this will all be gone anyway.
But not just yet, I think, my thoughts slowing, coming harder. Someday, but not here, not now.
Darkness is beginning to close in. I do not know if it’s the coming night or my own dissolution. Not that it matters to anyone anyway. Least of all to me, any longer.
Let the darkness come.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015