Saturday, 4 November 2017

Bigmouth And The Midges

Once upon a time, as they say, there was an ugly insect who lived in a pond.

He was really a very ugly insect. He was so ugly that even the midges that gathered in clouds above the water mocked him, and the tadpoles that cruised among the weeds laughed at him before swimming away. And, perhaps, they were right to laugh, because he was such an ugly insect.

He was fat and slow, his eyes were huge and bulging, and he didn’t even have a single patch of vivid colour to liven up his dull tones. But the worst of it was his mouth.

He had a huge and ugly mouth. It was so big that he had to keep it folded up, and it expanded almost like a trumpet when he opened it. That’s why all those who made fun of him called him Bigmouth.

The tadpoles were bad, and the little fishes worse, but the worst of all were the midges. “Look at Bigmouth,” they jeered, flocking over the water and dancing with contempt. “He’s the fattest, ugliest insect we ever saw. Why, even the caterpillars on the trees look good compared to him!”

“Why can’t you leave me alone?” Bigmouth asked, his huge jaws opening and closing as he spoke.  “I’m not bothering you.”

“Hey, Bigmouth’s upset,” the midges jeered. “Bigmouth’s going to eat us all up.” And they danced and laughed and flew away.

All this made Bigmouth so sad that in the end he decided to go away. Crawling slowly over the weeds and pebbles at the bottom of the pond, he only found more tadpoles and fish all eager to laugh at him. At last he could bear it no longer.

“I’ll crawl up the stem of this weed,” he said to himself. “Then I’ll just keep climbing up it until I can’t climb any more, and then I’ll stay up there until I die of old age. At least neither the tadpoles nor the midges can make fun of me then.”

But the climb up the weed was difficult and exhausting for a fat and slow insect like Bigmouth, and after a while he began to feel sleepy. At first it was only a little sleepy, and then a lot, and finally he simply could not go on any further.

“I’ll just sleep a while,” Bigmouth said to himself. “Then I’ll go on again.” And so he fell asleep, clutching the weed stem.

And while he was sleeping he had a terrible dream. He dreamt that he was surrounded by thousands and thousands of midges, who had all come to laugh and jeer at him. “Bigmouth,” they all shouted, “look at Bigmouth. How fat and stupid and ugly he is!”

And in his dream, for the first time in his life, Bigmouth got angry. “I am not fat or stupid,” he raged, “but even if I were, what about it? I didn’t choose to be like this, any more than you chose to be small and noxious and annoying!”

“Oh, Bigmouth is angry,” the midges hooted. “Bigmouth thinks he’s beautiful and slim. Maybe Bigmouth thinks he has wings and can fly up here and eat us all.” And they laughed all the harder.

In his dream, poor Bigmouth began to feel extremely uncomfortable. He felt as though with each jeer he was getting fatter and uglier and slower, until he was so fat that he thought his body was going to burst. And then there was a cracking noise as though he was really bursting, and all the midges shouted with laughter.

With a start, Bigmouth woke up.

He woke up, and he was no longer fat and ugly. He spread his four new gauzy wings, and he jumped into the air, the sun gleaming on his iridescent blue and green body, the world bright and new to his enormous eyes. He flew up high with joy, and came down again, swooping along the surface of the pond, his body light as gossamer in the air. He flew along, and he saw the midges in the distance, darting and buzzing over the water. And, strange to relate, he no longer hated or feared them at all, and had no desire to flee from them again.

No. Flying fast above the water on his huge new wings, he reached the midges, who were dancing and darting, but now he didn’t have to struggle in the water, slow and fat and clumsy. Now he could dance and dart with them.

And then he ate them.


Bon app├ętit. 

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Once Upon A Time In Bunglistan


Pintu,” Pintu’s mother said, “you come here and sit down and study this instant, or the ghosts will come and wring your neck.”

Pintu, who had been playing with the shadow his hand threw on the wall, came reluctantly over to the mat spread on the floor and picked up his squeaky slate and chalk. “And mind you make your letters properly!” his mother warned, shaking her hand at him. “Or the ghost will...”

“Mum,” Pintu asked desperately, “will the ghost really wring my neck?”

“Of course he will,” Pintu’s mother said, sensing victory. “Everyone knows that ghosts wring the necks of boys who don’t make their letters properly. Ask your school-master if you don’t believe me.”

“Where is the ghost?” Pintu challenged.

For a moment his mother thought her victory was slipping away from her, and then smiled craftily. “Don’t you know?” she asked, pointing up to the cross-beam below the thatched roof of the hut. “There’s one, a bhoot, right there, watching you right now. He’s ready to jump down on you and wring your neck if you don’t do your lessons.”

“Is that so?” Pintu stared up at the cross-beam, but the lantern’s flickering light did not reach up that far. “What’s he like?”

“What do you mean what’s he like? He’s – he’s black as midnight, and has eyes like burning coals and teeth like spikes, and he has long knobbly fingers to wring necks with. What else would a bhoot be like?”

Pintu turned as white as his mud-coloured complexion permitted, and got down to making his letters on the slate with his squeaking chalk. His mother, happy to have frightened her son into obedience, retreated to the kitchen.

Now, of course, she should never have said such a thing, because this was Bunglistan, and there was a ghost on the top of the crossbeam, who had been listening to all this. What was more, it was a bhoot, and he was black as midnight and had eyes like burning coals and teeth like spikes, and his fingers...

“Well, I never!” the bhoot said to himself. “This is a canard! I’ve never wrung anyone’s neck, or had the remotest desire to wring anyone’s neck, and these humans are accusing me of plotting it. And, more than that, they’re accusing all bhoots of wanting to wring necks. I must go to the Ghost Council and ask for justice!”

So, like one of the puffs of sooty smoke from the lantern, the bhoot slipped up to the thatched roof, oozed through it, and climbed down outside the hut. Then, running with the speed of the wind, he ran to the Ghost Council, which was meeting in the giant banyan tree next to the ruined temple on the far side of the scummy pond beyond the tamarind grove on the far side of the village.

At this time of night, of course, no human – not even a bandit – in his right mind would venture near a Bunglistani tamarind grove, let alone a banyan tree or a ruined temple. And tonight being the new moon, when even the reclusive Brohmodottyi ghosts came out of their lairs and the Mamdo bhoots crawled out of their graves, the night was full of spirits.

“Ouch!” said a pret, rubbing his shoulder angrily, where the hurrying bhoot had collided with him. “Why don’t you watch where you’re going, Roktolochon Goshshami? Or do you want me to butt you with my horns?”

The bhoot, Roktolochon Goshshami, looked apprehensively at the enormous curving horns that adorned the head of the pret. “I’m sorry, Porolokchondro Shutrodhor, but I have an urgent complaint to make to the Ghost Council. Humans have accused us, in my hearing, of plotting to wring kids’ necks!”

“You too?” The pret blinked. “I was just on my way there. I was passing the hut of Nimai the Drunkard, and his wife was screaming her throat out at him telling him that if he had another drop of mohua liquor ever again she’d lock him out and the ghosts would wring his neck.”

This was clearly a very serious situation. Ghosts had nothing but their reputations, and they were proud of their reputations. If they inflicted violence on humans, they’d do it for some actual and pressing cause, not because some delinquent child forgot his letters or a drunkard had a spat with his wife. “Let us go and lay the case before the Council,” the two ghosts decided.

The Ghost Council listened to the two ghosts with concern. “Clearly,” the Chief of the Council, a petni – ghosts do not discriminate by gender, unlike humans – said, “this canard has to be torn out by the roots.”

Her chief opponent on the Council, a shakchunni, objected vigorously. “Why should we oppose this?” she asked. “Isn’t it a good thing if the humans fear us?”

“If they fear us for every little thing,” the petni explained, “then each time they do something they think they should fear us for – like not doing their letters, or fighting with their wives – and get away with it, they’re going to start thinking they can get away with anything. And then soon they won’t fear us at all.”

“Or else,” another of the Council members, a fishing ghost said, poking out his immensely long limbs to get them into a more comfortable position, “we’d have to wring their necks each time they do anything, and that would never do. We’d have time for nothing else.”

“Right,” the Council Chief said. She turned her fearsome glowing eyes on the bhoot. “You, Roktolochon Goshshami – you’re the one who brought this to our attention first, so you’re the one who will do something about it.”

“It’s a great honour,” the fishing ghost said quickly, with a sigh of relief that he wasn’t being included in the mission.

“So that’s decided,” the Council Chief said. “Go right now and begin.”

“But what can I do?” the poor bhoot howled, as loudly as though he was still alive and had a toothache. “How can I make the humans understand that we’re only going to wring their necks if they really do something to deserve it?”

“Don’t bother me with questions,” the petni said, correctly guessing that her rival the shakchunni would start poking holes in any suggestion she made. “You’ll figure something out. But maybe you should have help.” She glared at the pret, who had been trying to ooze silently away. “You go with him, Porolokchondro Shutrodhor.”

And, ignoring the pret’s despairing bleating, she returned to the other matters before the Ghost Council. There was only the rest of eternity, and far too much work to be done.

*********************************************************

Thrown out of the presence of the Ghost Council, the bhoot and the pret retired to the ruined temple to plan their next move.

 “Maybe,” the bhoot suggested, “we should go to the market place and tell everyone that we don’t wring people’s necks for small things. Do you suppose that will work?”

“Have you gone insane, Roktolochon Goshshami?” the pret snorted. “I’ve never heard such a stupid idea in my unlife. Do you think all those people in the market will sit still to listen to us? What do you suppose they’ll do when we jump down among the fish stalls?”

The bhoot was reluctantly compelled to acknowledge that the pret had a point. “You’re right. Besides, the market is closed at this time of night. Perhaps...” He had a sudden idea. “Perhaps we should go to the zamindar and tell him. His word is law in this village, so if he announces what we told him, everyone will listen.”

The pret looked as though he was, with difficulty, holding back from goring the bhoot with his curling horns. “Roktolochon Goshshami,” he said finally, “this zamindar is the worst tyrant among all the zamindars in Bunglistan. He takes pride in the fact and goes out of his way to refine his cruelty. If we tell him that we won’t wring necks for small offences, what do you think he’ll do?”

The poor bhoot scratched his head. “I see what you mean. He’s more likely to tell them that we told him that we’ll wring necks for even the tiniest offence, especially against the zamindar’s own word. So what is to be done? If only...” he was struck by another idea. “if only,” he said, “there was someone whose word the zamindar would obey. Is there someone he’s scared of?”

“Well...” The pret rubbed his horns in thought. “Maybe we could go to the zamindar’s mansion and spy on him. Let’s go.”

“Yes, let’s,” the bhoot said. “We’d better hurry, or he’ll have gone to sleep. There’s no time to lose.”

So the two of them ran and leapt through the village, jostling aside other ghosts they met on the way, until at last they came to the zamindar’s mansion. Its walls were thick and the windows set with heavy iron bars, but of course these were no obstacle to a pair of ghosts. They crawled in through one of the windows, found themselves in a passage, and at once heard an immense shouting from behind a door opposite.

“How dare you eat all the fish?” a feminine voice was shrieking. At least, it was probably a feminine voice, but neither ghost had heard even a shakchunni with laryngitis produce quite those tones. If they’d been alive they’d have turned white. “You know I like fish, you know I was waiting to eat the fish, and now it’s all gone!”

“I only ate one, dear,” mumbled a male voice. The two ghosts could hardly recognise it as the voice of the zamindar. His usual booming had faded to a meek murmur. “There were ten fish, I ate one, and you ate the other nine.”

“Just nine fish,” the female voice screeched. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, leaving only nine fish for your wife? Go right now and get me more fish, do you hear?”

“But...but...” the zamindar stammered. “The fish market is closed at this hour, my dear. Can’t you wait till morning?”

“I don’t care if the fish market is closed. Go and fish in one of the ponds if you have to, but get me fish. Or I’ll tear your ears out by the roots.”

This was evidently not an idle threat. The door opened, and the zamindar, shaking like a tree in a gale, his moustache drooping and sweat rolling down his face, emerged. “I’ll go and see...” he began, wiping his face with one plump hand, the fingers of which twinkled with jewelled rings.

“No go and see about it,” his helpmeet squalled. The ghosts got ready to flee, in case she should follow her husband out through the door, but fortunately she didn’t. “Either you come back with a fish, or you stay out the night, and if the ghosts wring your neck, see if I care.”

“Again this wringing neck business,” the pret whispered to the bhoot. “We didn’t wring his neck despite him oppressing the entire village all these years, so why should we wring his neck now?”

The bhoot clutched his arm so tight that his claws dug into the pret’s ghostly skin. “Don’t be a fool, Porolokchondro Shutrodhor. This is our golden chance!”

Without giving the pret a chance to protest, he dragged him out through the window and back down the wall. By the time the zamindar, shaking with fear, had emerged from his mansion, they were waiting for him.

“Hey, zamindar,” the bhoot said, quite quietly, but the zamindar jumped as though he’d been stabbed. “No, don’t turn around, you don’t want to see what we look like.”

“That’s right,” the pret said, anxious to get a word in. “Trust us, you don’t.”

“Now don’t gibber in terror,” the bhoot advised, kindly. “We’ve been listening to your wife – ”

“We didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” the pret said anxiously. “We couldn’t help overhearing. Her voice – ”

“Never mind her voice,” the bhoot said firmly. “You want a fish, zamindar. We will get you a fish.”

“As many fish as you want,” the pret said, finally catching on. “You just need to name a number.”

“And in return,” the bhoot said, “we want you to tell the whole village that they aren’t to threaten each other with having their necks wrung by ghosts for every little thing. Agreed?”

The zamindar, who had been standing frozen in terror, finally found the strength to nod. “Excellent!” the bhoot said. “I’ll go and get your fish. My colleague here will keep you company, so that you don’t wander off and come to harm. Wait.”

Leaving the pret to keep an eye on the zamindar, the bhoot raced off through the village, until he arrived at the scummy pond near the Ghost Council’s meeting tree. The Council was still in session, but many of the younger fisher ghosts had grown bored of the proceedings and wandered back to the water. The bhoot approached one of them.

“Shombhuchoron Majhi,” the bhoot said, grabbing hold of one of these fisher ghosts by the arm. The arm was so long and thin that his hand slid down as though on a wet rod, until it came to one of the fisher ghost’s knobby joints. “I want a fish. You will get me a fish.”

“Is that so?” the fisher ghost asked. “And what will you give me in return?”

The bhoot blinked, and then remembered the sight of the zamindar’s hand wiping off his sweat. “I’ll get you a ring off the zamindar’s finger,” he said. “Now get me a fish.”

“All right. A thick ring, remember, with a stone.” The fisher ghost waded into the pond, fumbled around with his hands, and soon returned with a large carp. “I’ll be waiting for the ring,” he began. “What kind of stone...” But the bhoot had already departed, the carp clutched to his bosom. In a few moments he was back at the zamindar’s door.

“I’ve got the fish,” he said. “But before I give it to you, I want one of your rings.”

“My rings? But...”

“Or else you don’t get the fish, and your wife...”

The zamindar quailed at the thought of his wife. “You can have a ring,” he said. “Give me the fish.”

“All right. Put the ring down on the ground, and I’ll throw the fish where you can see it.” As the zamindar rushed to pick up the fish, the bhoot picked up the ring. “Now, here is the other thing we want you to do, in return for this service.”

“Or we’ll wring your neck,” the pret said helpfully.

The bhoot darted a baleful glare in his direction. “We will wring nobody’s neck as long as you do as you’re told,” he said. And, in a few short words, he informed the zamindar what he was to do.

“Yes, yes, of course,” the zamindar said in joyful relief, for he had feared that he would be ordered to stop oppressing the village. “I’ll tell them that.” He felt such an outpouring of happiness that he almost forgot himself and turned to the ghosts. “Maybe you could come to dinner? My wife cooks fish quite perfectly, fried with mustard oil...”

At the mention of the dreaded stuff the two ghosts quailed. “No, no,” the bhoot said. “Don’t bother. We’ll be fine.”

“We’re going now,” the pret added. “Don’t forget your promise. Or we’ll come and wring your neck.”

“I will,” the zamindar said. “I will.” And he went back home, the huge carp in his hands. 

His wife glared at him. “Back already? What could you have got in only a few minutes, a tadpole?” And then she saw the fish.

“Not bad,” she said grudgingly. “But if you could get such a big fish in such a short time, you can certainly get more. Go and get more right now, or I’ll tear your ears out by the roots.”

The zamindar came out of the mansion and looked around. “Ghosts?” he called. “Ghosts? I need your help again, urgently. Ghosts?”

But the bhoot and pret were long gone. At that moment they were reporting success to the Ghost Council.

“Ghosts?” the zamindar bleated plaintively. “I need more fish, or I won’t survive the night, and then I can’t do what you ordered me to. Ghosts?”

He was perfectly right. He didn’t survive the night.

A fisher ghost, trying to help him catch a fish, accidentally drowned him.



Copyright B Purkayastha 2017        


Sunday, 29 October 2017

Forsaken

This morning, when I had gone to find water, Umm Maryam informed me that she had seen my son.

“He was at the Salahuddin Market,” Umm Maryam said. “He was with some others.”

I looked down at her where she crouched next to the broken pipe opposite the hardware shop, a bottle held under it to catch the trickle. I felt fear rise, metallic, in my mouth. Salahuddin Market was only three streets from where the front line was, from what we’d heard.

My mouth moved, as though by itself. “When did you see him?” I asked. “What did he say?”

“Yesterday.” Umm Maryam tilted the old cola bottle to catch a few more drops, carefully set it down, and picked up another. I felt like screaming at her but fought down the impulse with an effort. Screaming would not help. Maybe she was waiting for me to scream. “Yesterday, at noon,” she said slowly and deliberately. “I’d gone to see if there was any food going. There were rumours.”

I had heard the rumours, and dismissed them. I’d have thought Umm Maryam would have, too. It didn’t matter, anyway. “What was he doing, my son? You saw him? You’re sure?”

“Of course I’m sure.” Umm Maryam glanced up at me, a slight frown on her face. She was a widow, like me, and the same age as me. But she was very beautiful, and had left her veil off because there were no men around, something I had not dared. At that moment I hated her for her beauty and her boldness, like all the other women who waited for water did. But she said she had seen my son. “It was Farid, sure enough. It’s not as though I don’t remember what he looks like.”

Her words hit me like a blow as I remembered the last time I’d seen Farid. That had been the night the men had come for him.

“We want him,” they had said. “The Movement needs him.”

I’d tried to stop them. I’d begged and then I’d cried on my knees. They’d stared at me and then they’d laughed. “When the Movement had been protecting you, and feeding you, you didn’t refuse its aid. But now when you’re asked to give back what you owe, you’re crying? You should be ashamed of yourself.” And they’d kicked me till I fell on the floor, looking up at them, those big bearded men with guns who looked much larger from ground level.

“I’ll go,” Farid had said then, in a whisper. His eyes had been huge, holes of darkness and fear in his white bloodless face. The first wisps of fluff on his cheeks had merely shown how absurdly young he was. “I’ll go, Ummi.”

One of the men with guns had helped me up. He had a broad scarred face, and was one of those who hadn’t cursed and kicked me. “It won’t be that bad,” he’d said. “You’ll be a martyr’s mother, and that means you’ll have a place reserved for you in Jannat when the time comes.”

I’d said nothing more. Farid had said nothing more. They had taken him out. From the window, which I hadn’t boarded up yet then like everyone else, I’d watched him pushed into line with a few other boys in the street. They’d been marched off into the night.

That had been long ago. How long? Weeks? Two months? Somehow I was horrified that I couldn’t remember. I must try to remember, but not now, not here, standing over Umm Maryam and waiting for my turn. “Did you talk to him? What did he say?”

Umm Maryam shrugged and finally finished filling her last bottle of water. “Talk to him? He wasn’t alone. You think I could talk to him?”

“But he was all right?” I had to restrain myself from clutching her arm as she got to her feet. “He didn’t seem hurt or anything?”

“No,” Umm Maryam said. “He looked all right. He was...”

Someone shoved me in the back. “If you’re going to get water,” the woman, whoever it was, snapped, “get it. We’re waiting our turn.”

I crouched to fill the bottle. The water had slowed from a trickle to a drip. By the time I’d filled half the bottle, to the increasingly impatient shouts of the waiting women, Umm Maryam was long gone.

****************************************

I woke that night to the sound of thunder.

I’d spent hours looking for Umm Maryam, but found her nowhere. Her house was abandoned, the door missing, the roof fallen in. I’d not been able to find anyone who had seen her either. She must be somewhere in the warren of buildings around – perhaps behind the wall I was passing at that moment – but there was no way of telling.

Would she be there tomorrow at the water pipe? Could I wait that long?

By noon I’d decided to go to Salahuddin Market to see for myself. But where in the market? It was huge, a maze of buildings and stalls around a maze of alleys, tangled in knots around each other. A woman could look for her son for days there and not find him, and that was in peacetime, and  assuming he wanted to be found.

The thought had brought another terrifying one in its wake. Did Farid even want to be found? Could he really, if he’d been in the city all this time, not have found a way to come to me even for a brief visit?

I’d fought down the fear, and decided that I would go to Salahuddin Market and see for myself. I’d have to walk, of course, since the remnants of public transport had broken down long ago. But it wasn’t that far. I could get there in a couple of hours, if I hurried.

I’d only gone two streets before I’d been stopped by a roadblock.

“Where are you going?” the picket leader had asked. “This road is closed.”

I’d looked past him at the roadblock. It had filled the street to chest level, concrete slabs ripped up from pavements, chunks of smashed walls, and polythene sacks overflowing with rubble. On top two boys were gingerly stringing barbed wire.

“Well?” the picket leader had demanded. “I asked you a question.”

I’d peered up at the boys, hoping that one of them was Farid, but one was surely too young, and the other was far too tall. Besides, he was obviously left handed, unlike my son. Still, I’d tried to get a look at their faces, until the picket leader had waved his hand in my face.

“I live in the next street,” I’d replied. “I need to go home.”

The picket leader had been very young too, and strikingly handsome. Or, rather, he might have been strikingly handsome without the mottled brown uniform and the ugly ammunition vest draped over his chest and shoulders. A boy that age should be romancing girls and worrying about exams, not interrogating women twice his age beside a pile of stones.

“Can’t do that, Auntie,” he’d replied. “This district is a combat zone now. The enemy are getting closer.” Something enormous had blown up then, the explosion so violent that I had felt the street vibrate through the worn soles of my shoes. The boys on the roadblock had both flinched, and one had come sliding off. “See?” the young man had said. “Go away, Auntie, this isn’t the place for you.”  He’d hesitated a moment, this boy, and then leaned close to murmur in my ear. “You’re lucky you can’t go through, Auntie, believe me. The people living that side, they aren’t allowed to leave. They’re going to be martyred along with the brothers fighting there.”

I’d tried another street, but there had been a roadblock there too, and men with machine guns who had waved me away before I’d got close. And as I’d turned back homewards I’d seen more of them, hammering holes in the walls of houses to use as sniper nests and observation points, and stretching plastic sheets and tarpaulin overhead to hide the streets from drones and aeroplanes. They threw the streets into shadow, as though it was twilight even at high noon.

And now, in the middle of the night, I’d been woken by the thunderstorm. The flashes of lightning seemed right outside my windows, gleaming through every chink. The walls vibrated and trembled like a child with the ague.

It was absurdly long before I realised that it was not a thunderstorm. And then I could only climb off the bed and roll under it, my arms around my head, the cold concrete against my cheek, feeling the earth heave and jolt with each shell that was falling.

Between blasts I heard screaming, impossibly loud screaming, not far away. Surely screaming like that could come from no human throat. Surely this screaming would fill the universe, echo in the ears of all the powerful men, sitting in their offices in green, peaceful countries half a world away, men who made those bombs and shells and sent them off to be dropped on us, to make a person scream and scream –

There was a terrific blast, so loud that I felt the air sucked out of my chest. The screaming stopped abruptly. Silence fell for a while, followed by the distant noises of rushing feet and cries.

Dimly, I heard myself gabbling. “I’ll go and find Umm Maryam,” I kept saying. “I’ll make her tell me where in Salahuddin Market she saw Farid. I’ll make her tell me. She will. She will.”

I think I kept gabbling that for hours. Then, somehow, I fell asleep.

****************************************

Nobody would be talking to Umm Maryam ever again.

The women had come to get water during the night, and had been lined up next to the broken pipe, when the last bomb had fallen. Probably, none of them had wanted to run, because that would have meant giving up their places, and they’d all died as they’d stood, in a row. Umm Maryam’s corpse had been flung almost all the way to the hardware store’s twisted shutters, as though even in death the others had not wanted to have anything to do with her. The water pipe, incredibly, had survived intact, and people were already filling bottles and cans at it, stepping over the bodies as though they were not there. I joined them and filled my bottles as well.

What else, I thought despairingly, could I do?

There were people in the corridors of the building when I came home. Most of them had been forced out of their own homes from the barrage of the night, and they huddled in the passage, with whatever they could carry with them, not talking. Their faces were covered with white concrete dust, their clothes splattered with clotted blood, and, crouching in total silence, they looked as though they’d all sat down and died. None of them looked at me as I squeezed past and in through my door.

There was just a little food left, that I’d been keeping for weeks – a couple of handfuls of dried millets, little better than grass seeds. I put them to soak in the water I’d managed to get, and sat down on my bed. Almost immediately there was a knock on the door.

“Wait,” I called, and hid the pan under the bed. At one time I’d have offered a visitor anything I was eating. At one time I’d have invited people to lunch. That time was long gone. “Wait, I’m coming.”

It was Bushra, whom I’d known for years. She was carrying a large bag. “Can I stay here?” she said as soon as she’d come in. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but I have nowhere to go.”

“Were you bombed?” I asked stupidly. “Is that why you’re here?”

“Bombed? No.” Bushra was a large woman, with a round face that had once been fleshy. Now she was stooped and her cheeks were fallen in with near-starvation, like everyone else’s. But her voice was still booming, like the big woman she had been. “They’ve taken my house. They said they needed it for a strongpoint, and gave me fifteen minutes to get out.” I didn’t need to ask who they might be. “The last I saw, they were smashing holes in my walls and filling my old fridge and steel cupboard with earth and rubble. To stop bullets, they said.” She dropped the bag on the floor and suddenly began to cry. “You won’t tell me to go, will you? I don’t have anywhere to go. Don’t chase me away.”

I looked at her aghast, watching her dry-eyed sobbing. She had too little water in her to waste on tears, like all of us. “I won’t tell you to go,” I said. “I won’t. Please don’t think I will. But the food – I don’t have...”

“I have a little.” She scrabbled in her bag. “The men gave me some flat bread, in compensation for the house, they said. Look, here, you can have it all.”

“No, no, keep it for later.” I did not know whom to feel ashamed for, her degradation or the fact that the very mention of the bread had brought an agonised twist of hunger in my gut. She had flat bread, and I a handful of millets soaking in water, which I had no fuel to cook... “Keep it for when we really need it. Here, look, sit on the bed. Take your shoes off, rest your feet.”

“Thanks. Allah will reward...” Bushra broke off. “No, of course not. Allah has turned His back on us all.”

I didn’t reply. When you hear the absolute, unvarnished truth, there is nothing to say.

Somewhere not far away, a giant began clapping rhythmically.

I listened to it for a while and tried to tell myself that it was not the sound of mortar bombs, falling.


****************************************

The war is here. It is at the door.

The bombs have been falling outside all night and through the morning. The streets are full of shattered masonry, the air full of dust. There is no point going for water – the entire street outside the hardware store, water pipe and all, are buried under a landslide of broken bricks and concrete. Umm Maryam and the other bodies are somewhere down there, given the burial the living among us could not give them.

I am alone. The people crowding the passages have gone. Bushra has gone too, disappeared during the night. At some point, when I had been lying under the bed with my hands over my ears and the taste of blood from my bitten lips in my mouth, she had taken her bag and walked away.

I had never seen any of her bread. Somehow, that fills me with anger. I should have taken all the bread and eaten it there, before her eyes, I think. She said she had nowhere else to go!

The people are gone, but the men are here. A large black flag hangs from a window across the street. I can see a few of the men, crouched on the corner, looking at something I can’t see. One of them steps out, fires a few shots, and steps back again. Apparently he’s hit something, because they all shout the taqbir.

 I feel as though I am in a parallel universe to the one I have always known. How can anyone shout to Allah in the middle of this devastation, thinking He wills it and wants it so? How is it possible?

I want to go back indoors, but at the same time I don’t want to. Indoors I will feel trapped in a box, waiting for a bomb to send it all crashing down on my head. Here, outside, I may be disembowelled by shrapnel or ripped to pieces by bullets, but at least I can see what is going on.

This is how it will end, I think. This is how it will end, all over the world, when the tide of civilisation ebbs. Women will stand, terrified, on street corners, watching men murder each other, waiting to be killed in turn. Women will see their sons torn from their bosoms and sent –

“Ummi?”

I spin round, swaying, almost falling. Three of the men have come up behind me. Two of them I don’t know, but the third...

“Ummi,” Farid says. He’s taller than when I saw him last, surely, broader, his arms and legs thick with muscle under his jacket. The wispy beard curls around his jaw and on his cheeks. “Ummi. Are you all right?”

I can only nod. My eyes and face refuse to do what my brain screams at them to do, to cry, to smile. My mouth opens, the tongue in it thick as a log of wood. “Come in,” I say. “Come in, quickly.”

Farid shakes his head. “Sorry, Ummi, I have no time.” Something roars by overhead, setting the polythene and tarpaulin sheets flapping. We all look up, instinctively, but there’s, of course, nothing to be seen. “We have no time,” Farid says.

“Just for a minute,” I say urgently. It is suddenly vital that I get him into the house. If he’s in there I can get him to throw away that heavy green and brown jacket, that rifle, that thick, bulky ammunition vest with the wires...my eyes fall on the vest and the wires and my heart seems to stop.

Farid sees where my eyes are and smiles slightly. “Yes, Ummi,” he says gently. “I’m on an ittishadi mission – I’m going to sacrifice myself now. Don’t worry about it.”

I open and close my mouth. No words come.

“It won’t be for long, Ummi.” He reaches out and touches me. His hand is rough with callus, not like the baby soft skin of the boy I had given birth to, whom I’d brought up and held close to me for so many years. “You’ll be with me soon. That lot over there, the enemies of Allah, they kill everyone they find, man, woman, or child.”

“Abu Abdallah,” one of the other men says impatiently. “We have to go.”

“Don’t cry, Ummi,” Farid says. I had not known I was crying. “Here, give me a smile. Just one smile.”

I don’t know what my mouth does. Maybe it smiles, maybe it grimaces, but whatever it does seems to make him happy. I raise my hand to touch him, but he’s already stepping past me, turning away.

“It’ll only be a short time till we’re together, Ummi,” he calls over his shoulder.

My son walks away from me, towards the crouching men at the corner, and my heart and blood and flesh scream and scream soundlessly, come back, come back.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2017