The newspaper, dated 4 September 2004 lies open on the dining table. My eyes are riveted on the news item, “When a mother was made to choose between her two children.” I read the news slowly.`In Beslan, Russia, ZalinaDzandarova cradled her son Alan as he slept with his small face buried against her stomach. He was the child that Dzandarova was able to save, the child she chose to save, really. It was the other one, little Alana, her six-year-old daughter, whose image tormented her: Alana clutching her hand, Alana crying and calling after her. Alana’s sobs disappearing into the distance as Dzandarova rushed out of Middle School No. 1 here on Thursday, clutching Alan in her arms. Guerrillas armed with automatic rifles and explosive belts allowed 26 women and children to leave. About a dozen mothers, like Dzandarova, were allowed to take only one child and forced to leave another behind.’
Ma is sitting on the chair by my side, her eyes on me. As I finish reading the newspaper and keep it aside, she reaches for it. She reads the newspaper, oblivious to the world, oblivious to the fact that her tea is growing cold, and that a fly has begun to hover dangerously close to her half-eaten egg.
“Terrible, isn’t it,” clucks Aunt Saras in sympathy. “It is a choice no woman should have to make.”
A gentle shudder passes through Ma’s slender fame. “No,” she says, in a voice so low that I can barely catch the words.
“She chose the boy, didn’t she?” asks Rati, and her mother looks at her indignantly.
“She chose the younger child,” Aunt Saras rebukes her, “he just happened to be a boy; she had no choice really.”
“We are all,” says Rati,“in the grip of terrorism.”
“9/11 has changed the entire world. It has made the word `trust ‘disappear from our lexicon. It has made us realise how vulnerable we all are,” says Aunt Saras.
But Ma and I barely hear their words. Her eyes lock into mine and I look away. I cannot bear to see them so tortured and pained. Both she and I know what she is thinking. 9/11 was not the beginning. I am thinking of that terrible day some eight years ago that changed our lives irrevocably.
It was a sleepy summer afternoon in Manipur, a troubled, insurgency-prone, hilly state in North-Eastern India. The air was suffused with the smell of sweet flowers, the humming of honey bees, and the occasional growl of a dog. Both Mani, my younger brother, and I, were asleep, when Ma woke us up.
“Get up,” she said, “we have to attend a function.”
Mani started crying. Ma immediately put him in her lap, although he was now more than two years old. “Come, Charu, get up,” she said, shaking me by the shoulder. “Get dressed.”
That is why we were dressed at 3.30 that Saturday afternoon, to be present at the parade ground in the district headquarters at Thoubal by 4 pm.
Papa was away on training, but Ma insisted that Papa would have wanted us to represent him at the official function. The parade ground was packed. The entire town seemed to have congregated there, although I now know that it could accommodate only a thousand persons at best. Ma held Mani in her arms and clutched my hand.
She was ushered in and taken to the second row, just behind the VIP seats. She smiled with pleasure, for Papa was just a middle rung officer in the Central Reserve Police Force. Mani put his thumb into his mouth and Ma tried in vain to pull it out. His lower lip began to protrude. The Chief Guest arrived just then and we stood up as the flag was unfurled.
When the crackling sound was first heard no one quite understood what it was. Firecrackers? They were supposed to be lit at the end of the function, as a part of the grand finale. Why was the crackle, the sizzle and the smoke coming now, when the programme had just begun? The next time the crackling sounds erupted we realised what they were. Gunfire.
Suddenly yellowish brown men in Khaki uniforms, with masks over their faces and with narrow slits for their eyes swooped like eagles before us,with guns in their hands and hatred in their eyes.They were men who wanted to wreak revenge upon the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force), for swooping down upon them in their hideout and killing their comrades a few days before. It was an insurgent group which had opened fire.
I saw Ma’s face, with her mouth wide open. The babble of voices was replaced by total silence. Everyone was petrified. Then Mani began to bawl. His voice, never feeble, had now reached a crescendo. Ma tried to put a hand on his mouth but he dug his teeth into her soft flesh and she yelped with pain. An armed insurgent came plucked him from her hands and slapped him on the cheek, before depositing him back in Ma’s arms. Mani howled even louder. All heads turned towards Ma. Her face turned ashen.
“Tell him to shut up,” hissed the insurgent, his eyes blazing.
“Get out, get out.Leave immediately,” shouted their Commander, who was standing on the dais, his gun trained at the Chief Guest.
Ma looked uncertainly in my direction.
“Leave right now,” he bellowed, “or I will kill you and that brat.”
The armed insurgent next to her prodded her with his gun repeatedly. “Leave,” he growled, “take that brat and leave immediately.”
“Ma,” I called out, my voice hoarse with fear. “Ma,” I cried once again, trying to clutch her saree.
Ma shivered, looked at the guard scowling at her, then at the Commander on the dais, and saw them shake their heads imperceptibly. Then she put her hand on Mani’s mouth, silencing his screams, and, pulling the saree from my hand, she walked away.
As she left, the Commander at the dais shouted, “Everyone on their knees. Lie flat with your heads down. Don’t move.”
I saw everyone do as he said, their nose touching the gravel. But I was shell-shocked. Completely bewildered, I remained standing. Then the man next to me pushed me down. At the gate, when Ma turned back, she saw him bending over me, his body covering mine. For a moment she froze, her mouth open. Then slowly she dragged herself from the parade ground, where she knew mayhem would follow.
I have no idea what happened in the intervening hour. I could smell the sweat on the man’s body, mingled with a strange musky scent. I felt his breath fan my face and I was reminded of the smell of disinfectants in the hospital. It was Sekmai, I learnt later, the famous beer made from fermented rice.
I looked into his eyes, small, brown and almost expressionless. Tiny red veins threaded the whites. His proximity did not disturb me. I did not understand its implication, or the implicit danger. I was just eight years old. I was not crushed by his weight; he rested most of it on his elbows. Then we heard some more shots. I saw the terror I felt, mirrored in his eyes. Almost savagely, he raised his hand and turned me on my stomach. I felt the gravel rub against my nose, my cheeks and my chin. I closed my eyes.
Gunfire crackled once again. Bullets were sprayed all around. They fell here, there, and everywhere. There was something familiar about the man whose body covered mine. I frowned, trying to remember if I had seen him before. Gunfire crackled once more. I wanted to cover my ears with my hands, for the noise seemed deafening.
However, the Commander had said, “Don’t move.” No one moved. Suddenly, the man fell on top of me. I was almost crushed under his weight. But I still did not move, not until I heard the siren, the sounds of scuffle and the shouts, and finally the announcement in English and Manipuri saying that it was over. I crawled from under his body, rolled his body away from mine, saw his glazed eyes, the gaping hole in his back, his blood-splattered shirt, and knew that he was dead.
For a long time, I stood there, looking at the bodies of officers being taken away by the jawans, the bodies scattered in the field, the children bawling and the women crying. I crossed the parade ground, which was just a 15-minute walk from my house. The road was familiar to me as the parade ground was on the way to my school. I reached home grimy, with scratched knees and grazed elbows.
Ma was standing by the door, staring glassily at the gate, with Mani in her arms. I saw the look of terror in her eyes when she saw me return with grazed knees and elbows and blood splattered all over my frock.
“Are you alright, Charu?” she asked. “Did anything happen to you?” She looked at the blobs of blood all over my frock once again, and asked in a strange voice, “Charu, are you hurt?”
I thought of the ground I had just left. Littered on the earth were men who were dead, women who were dying and children who were bleeding. Lying on the ground was the man whose mouth reeked of Sekmai, who was now quite dead. Was I hurt? Indeed I was, but mine was not a physical hurt. I didn’t say anything.
“Charu are you hurt?” she began saying once again but then she saw my set mouth and bleak eyes and kept quiet. The maid came and took me to the bathroom, helped me change my frock, cleaned my grazed knees and elbows with antiseptic and later on put me to sleep. I thought once again of the man who had rolled on top of me, dead, quite dead, and realised that, but for him, it would have been me.
No newspaper covered our story. There were more than 800 people who had gathered in the parade grounds, and 28 among them were dead. Eight of them were officers. One of them was the Chief Guest. It was the dead and the dying who made news. No newspaper was interested to know about a mother and son who got away and the daughter who got left behind.
I have no idea what Ma told Papa on his return. But if he found me quiet and withdrawn afterwards he understood. “She has seen death at close quarters,” he said. “No one can remain untouched by it. No wonder she has become withdrawn.” He knew that this explained my silence, my occasional bouts of bad temper, and my recurrent nightmares.
“Charu?” Many a time I heard the pleading note in Ma’s voice, but she could never ask me what happened that day. At that time, I did not understand the reason for her anxiety. All I could remember, whenever I looked at her, was her walking away with Mani and brushing away the hand of the daughter she was leaving behind. It was later, as an adolescent, that I understood the source of her worry, but I did nothing to alleviate it.
For eight long years she had suffered. For eight long years I had never forgiven her. But now, reading the newspaper, I wondered if she really had no choice. Would every other woman in her place have done the same? I am not quite sure.
Ma’s eyes are resting on me and I see in them the question she had asked that summer, years ago. “I’m alright, Ma,” I say. “I wasn’t hurt.”
Ma understands immediately. I see tension being slowly released from her face. She still has an unspoken question in her eyes. I know what it is. I will tell her later about my blood-splattered dress. I will tell her of the unknown man who had saved my life by shielding my body with his, of the bullet which had torn into his back, of his blood, which had splattered on my clothes. Why did he save my life? I will never know. Was he someone we knew? I cannot remember. Did he have a daughter at home? Did I remind him of her? I will never know.
One day I shall find out about the people who died that day and find out who he was. One day I shall meet his family and tell them that he was a hero.I look at the newspaper lying on the dining table and then at Ma, who had left her daughter behind at the parade grounds. This daughter has come home at last.