mum didn’t want him to go and watch the hangings, of course, but his dad
“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
“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
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
“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
“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’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
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
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
“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
“Ritik,” his father called. “Go and look at
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
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.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017
Note to reader: This story is based
upon, and written to exorcise, last night’s dream.