Ritik’s mum didn’t want him to go and watch the hangings, of course, but his dad insisted.
“He has to go,” he said. “He needs to see what we had to do to win, and what we have to do now.”
“I don’t want him to go.” Ritik’s mum, as was right and proper, had almost never dared contradict her husband before, and flinched instinctively, in anticipation of a blow. But for once he didn’t raise his hand.
“Try to understand, Aba,” he said. “If he isn’t there, people will notice, and word gets around. We don’t want to draw attention at times like these.”
“My class teacher told us we have to write an essay on the hanging,” Ritik said.
Ritik’s mum, who of course had never learnt to read or write, lived in awe of education. She drew a shaky sigh and wiped her face with the hem of her grey dress. “All right,” she said, with a twist of the lips that might have been an attempt to smile. “If your teacher wants you to watch it, then of course you must watch it.”
“We’ve got to hurry,” Ritik’s dad said, as they left the house. “If we don’t get there in time we won’t be close enough to see anything.”
The street was already full of people, all walking towards the hanging ground. They were forced even closer because the street was not just narrow, it was filled with debris and wrecked vehicles. The burnt, overturned hulk of the lorry which had lain there for months and on which Ritik’s mother had forbidden him to play alone filled up half the street. Some girls, too young to be declared women and therefore still allowed some freedom, were standing on it, as though they could see as far as the hanging ground from atop the wreckage. One of them recognised Ritik and grinned.
“So you’re going to the hanging?” she squealed. “Lucky you!”
“Yes,” Ritik muttered. He was embarrassed at his father seeing him talking to a girl. Especially this girl, Sima, was by far the prettiest in the locality, as well as the boldest. It was well known, though nobody admitted it openly, that her parents were secretly teaching her to read and write.
Sima slid down the side of the wreck until her feet were on a level with Ritik’s eyes. Holding on with one hand to the broken stub of a rear view mirror, she leaned down towards him. “After you come back,” she said, “tell me what you saw. Tell me everything!”
“Now, Sima,” Ritik’s dad said, quite mildly. Sima’s father was important in the local self-government council and he couldn’t slap the girl as he wanted to. “Be careful, you’ll cut yourself. And we have to be going.”
“Yes, Uncle.” Sima grinned, her tongue showing between her missing front teeth. “Bye, Ritik, I’ll see you later.” Toes as prehensile as her fingers, she clambered back up, to take her place with the other girls.
“She’s going to be a problem later, when she’s a teenager,” Ritik’s dad muttered. His fingers dug into Ritik’s shoulders so hard that he winced. “Her parents don’t keep her under any control. Come on.”
As they came out of the maze of lanes and into the larger street, the crowd thickened, until there must have been thousands of people. They were, of course, all walking, because the vehicles had all been taken away and but for the government there was no fuel to be had. Policemen in khaki carrying long rifles loitered at corners and under the porticos of buildings, watching the crowd, but there was no disturbance. Nobody seemed angry, just anxious to get to the hanging ground in time. Ritik saw a couple of women peering from windows down at the crowd. One of them saw him looking at her and jerked back so quickly she seemed to disappear, like a pricked soap bubble or a magic trick.
“We’ll never get there in time,” Ritik groaned. His father didn’t say anything.
Just then there was a commotion. Policemen with sticks came past in a line, pushing people to the sides, clearing the middle of the street. Ritik heard the unfamiliar noise of engines, and saw a line of lorries approach. A great Aaah went up from the crowd.
“What are they?” Ritik asked, tugging at his father’s sleeve.
“The hanging,” Ritik’s father said. “They’re going to the hanging.”
Ritik stared, open-mouthed. The lorries were old and rust-streaked, their paint peeling, and their engines bled blue smoke, but it had been so long since he’d seen vehicles of any kind that they looked huge and fascinating. Soldiers in green-and-brown uniforms stood on them, looking down at the crowd with no expression on their faces.
Despite the best efforts of the policemen with sticks, the crowd ahead was so tightly packed that the lorries slowed down to a crawl, and eventually came to a stop. The first in line was just beside Ritik and his father. A soldier in the cabin, sitting beside the driver, leaned out of the window.
“Hey, you,” he said to Ritik’s dad. “Do you live around here? Can you tell us any short cuts to the hanging ground, without so many people?”
Ritik’s father scratched his moustache for a few seconds. “Well, if you take the first turn to the left, past the old Polytechnic institute, you’ll get into the lanes on that side. They’re relatively clear, and you’d probably get there faster than by the main road, but it’s a longer way round.”
“Do you know the way?” Without waiting for the answer the soldier opened the door and gestured impatiently to the seats behind him and the driver. “Right, get in, then, and show us.”
Even Ritik knew that when a soldier told you to do something, you did it at once. You might sometimes be able to cajole a policeman, but not a soldier. Without a word, his father pushed him into the cab and got in behind him.
“I hope it’s not going to take long,” the soldier said. His uniform smelt vaguely of lime and there were silver stars on his shoulders. He was older than the other soldiers in the lorries, older even than Ritik’s father. His hair and moustache were silver and grey. “We’re running late as it is.”
“It won’t, sir.” Ritik’s dad’s voice was more deferential than he’d ever heard it before. The line of lorries began grinding forward slowly. “Here, turn to the left.”
The lorry began to turn. The back seat was small and rather smelly, squeezed behind the driver’s and the other soldier’s seats, and Ritik twisted uncomfortably, trying to find space for his legs. The older soldier with the stars glanced at him over his shoulder.
“Your son, is he? Taking him to see the hanging?”
“Yes, sir. He’s seven.”
“A good age. Well, boy, are you eager to see the hanging?”
Ritik blinked stupidly, and only realised that he was meant to answer when his father gave his thigh a vicious pinch. “Yes,” he said. Another pinch. He blinked back tears, and then remembered what he was supposed to say. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Excellent. And because your father’s showing us the way, I’ll make sure you get a place in the front line. How’s that?”
“That’s good...” Ritik saw his father’s frown beginning. “Thank you, sir,” he added hastily.
The soldier wasn’t done. “Do you know why we’re going to hang them?”
Ritik glanced quickly at his father, but saw no way of escape. He remembered what the class teacher had said, and made them memorise and recite. “Because they’re criminals, sir. Because they want to destroy our society and make us like the animals.”
“That’s right. We can’t have them getting ideas about their station, do we?”
Ritik did not understand. “Sir?”
“Which way do I go?” the driver asked, speaking for the first time. He had a high, plaintive voice. “Right, or straight ahead?”
Both the silver star soldier and Ritik’s dad turned to look through the windscreen. “Right,” Ritik’s dad said. “There’s another turn just past this turning, to the left. And then...”
Relieved that their attention was off him, Ritik sat back, and wriggled again to find a more comfortable position. He ended up with his back to the window and facing his father. There was a pane of glass set into the back of the cabin, just at his right shoulder, and to avoid having to look at his father or the silver star soldier he turned his head to look through it at the back of the truck.
At first all he saw was the soldiers’ green and brown clad legs. In between them, lying on the lorry bed, was a bundle of blue and grey. He didn’t for a moment understand what it was, and then he noticed the pale oval of the face, framed by dark hair. The woman was sitting with her back propped up against a box, facing the front of the lorry.
Ritik was so astonished at seeing a woman in a lorry that for a few moments he seriously considered drawing his father’s attention to ask him who she was. Then he noticed that her ankles were tied together, and her arms were behind her back, and then he understood what she was there for.
“Nasty, isn’t she?” It was the silver star soldier speaking, behind Ritik’s left ear. Leaning over the back of his seat, he pointed with a calloused finger. “Just look at that face.”
Ritik looked at the face. She was a young woman, he realised, probably not even as old as Sima’s mother, who was very young. She was also very pretty, though her face was pale and there was a smudge of dirt on her cheek. Her black eyes, wide open, stared at Ritik but seemed to see him not at all.
“What’s she done?” he wanted to ask, but didn’t. The silver star soldier acted as though he’d asked anyway.
“She’s one of the worst,” he said. “She organised resistance groups and ran a network of arms to the old government’s supporters. And apart from that she refused to obey the laws. Just like the others. Some of them were running schools for girls.”
“Schools for girls,” Ritik’s dad repeated. He sounded tired. “What next, giving jobs to women?”
“That’s what they want, don’t they?” The silver star soldier pointed again. “That’s the face of the enemy, my boy. Look at her properly, so you know the type next time.”
Ritik didn’t really understand, but looked. Something strange happened. The soldiers’ legs seemed to melt away into a greenish blur at the edges of his vision; he could only see the woman, and then, even her body melted away. He was looking into her face, and her eyes, which were so wide and dark and unblinking. He suddenly felt quite certain that she was so terrified that she couldn’t even blink, let alone move.
“It’s all right,” he wanted to say, the way his mum told him if he fell down and skinned his knee. “It’s all right.” Only it was not all right, and it wouldn’t be. And he couldn’t say it aloud, anyway.
There was a wrenching feeling, and suddenly he felt himself in her body, looking through her eyes. Her body felt uncomfortable and new, too large and bulging in the wrong places. And he couldn’t feel her hands and feet, which had gone numb because the ropes were so tight.
He tried to say something, but couldn’t move her lips. All he could feel was her fear, flapping like a trapped bird inside her head, tearing with metal beaks and claws at the back of her skull to set itself free.
“Please,” he wanted to shout. “Don’t be so afraid. Please, I’m here.” Only he wasn’t, not really, and the fear didn’t stop flapping at all.
Dimly, he heard his father giving more instructions, and then with a jerk the lorry stopped. He found himself back in his body, so suddenly that he almost fell off the narrow seat. His father’s hand steadied him.
“We’re here,” he said. “We’ve to get down now.”
The silver star soldier was already down on the ground, pointing at people and giving orders. He glanced round at Ritik and his father as though surprised to see them there.
“Oh, you two,” he said. “Go stand over there, just this side of the rope line. You’ll get a good view.”
The ropes were strung up on short poles, and there were already a lot of people on the other side. They watched Ritik and his dad curiously. He could feel them talking about him. Someone shouted and pointed. It was a familiar voice, a boy from school. Ritik waved at him self-consciously.
“Here come the other lorries,” Ritik’s father said, pointing. The rest of the line of lorries emerged one by one from the lanes, six, eight, nine, until ten had followed the one he and his father had arrived on. The drivers turned them and moved them back and forth until they were all in a line, side by side. Behind them was a long wooden bar, held up on posts. It looked like the framework of a wall of a house being built for a giant.
“What are they doing that for?” Ritik asked, and then he understood. The soldiers in the backs of the lorries had lowered the tailgates. Now they began looping rope over the top bar, one rope for each lorry. Other soldiers dragged boxes to the edges of the tailgates, like the box on which the woman he’d seen had been leaning. Then, one by one, they hoisted bound figures on to the boxes.
They were all women, of course. Ritik couldn’t see all their faces, but he could see they were all ages. Some were white-haired and dressed in traditional clothes, and some even younger than his young woman, who was closest. She looked straight ahead without moving, even when a soldier climbed on the box behind her to loop a noose over her head.
People were pushing and jostling, so that the rope barrier bulged, and seemed about to topple over. The silver star soldier strode angrily back, gesturing and shouting. The crowd’s noise fell to a low mutter and the pushing eased.
Ritik hardly noticed. He was staring at his young woman, trying to will himself into her head again, to see what she was seeing, to find out if she was any less afraid. He balled his fists, trying desperately to get into her again, but it didn’t happen. He was still trying when the lorry engine burst into life and the vehicle moved off.
Things began to happen in slow motion. For a moment the woman moved with the lorry, and then she seemed to lean forward and fell off it. The rope around her neck caught her before her feet could touch the ground, and Ritik heard a faint snap. Her bound legs slowly bent at the knee, rose, and straightened again. Her head twisted towards one shoulder, she swung round and round.
She was just the first One by one the other lorries began driving away, the women dropping one by one. Most of them fell like his young woman, but one or two bobbed and twitched and kicked.
The crowd roared, the noise washing over like the waves of the sea. It was a roar of approval. Ritik could tell that because the silver star soldier was grinning and waving. The lorries had stopped a short distance away, and the soldiers began unloading the boxes.
“They’ll be cutting them down and stuffing them into the coffins now,” Ritik heard someone say, close by in the crowd on the other side of the barrier.
“It was too easy for most of them, if you ask me,” someone else replied. “They broke their necks instead of hanging them properly. It’s just the two of them over there who got what they deserve.” The two figures were still twitching and kicking spasmodically. Little by little, the kicking stopped, and then they were just swinging like the others.
The silver star soldier, who Ritik decided must be an officer, came back up to Ritik and his father. He seemed in a very good mood now, his face split by an enormous smile. “Got a good look, eh?” he said, clapping Ritik on the shoulder. “Want a closer look, do you? Go on, then.”
“Go on,” his father repeated, pushing him forward. Ritik walked forward until he was looking up at his young woman. Her eyes were closed now, and there was blood still trickling round her neck. Her feet, like Sima’s earlier, were on a level with his eyes. Somehow, one of her shoes had come off as she’d fallen, and her big toe was poking through a hole in the sock. The toenail was painted dark red. It was the first time Ritik had seen nail polish. He wanted to touch the toenail, to see if the polish would rub off.
“Ritik,” his father called. “Go and look at the others.”
Ritik nodded, and turned away from his young woman for the last time. He wondered if the bird with the metal beak and claws had fought its way free, and where it had escaped.
Once more, he tried to get into her head, but of course now he could feel nothing there at all.
“There’s your friend,” his father said, as they walked into their lane. “You tell her what’s done to bad women, so she doesn’t end the same way. And then come in. Your mother will have dinner ready.”
“She’s not my friend,” Ritik muttered, but his father had already walked off ahead. Sima jumped off the wrecked lorry and came over. She was eating an apple, and juice ran down her chin. Ritik’s stomach growled with hunger at the sight. It had been at least a year since he’d last seen an apple.
“Well?” she demanded. “What was it like? Did you get a good look?”
“Yes,” Ritik said. “I got a good look.”
“Tell me, then,” Sima said. She stamped a bare foot. “I’ve been waiting and waiting.”
“It’s not interesting,” Ritik said. “You wouldn’t like it.”
“Go on,” Sima said, and brought out another apple from the pocket of her dress. “Tell me. Do you want this? I’ll give you this if you tell me.”
“Yes, well, thanks,” Ritik said, and took the apple.
Its juice filled his mouth with tart freshness, and he wondered for a fleeting moment when his woman had last eaten an apple, and whether in her last moments she’d focussed on that memory, thought about nothing but that at all.
"Boys have all the fun," Sima said.
"Boys have all the fun," Sima said.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017
Note to reader: This story is based upon, and written to exorcise, last night’s dream.