A s s a m e s e   F i c t i o n

 


a
The Prisoner

H a r e k r i s h n a   D e k a

They had been cycling all the afternoon. It was now close to sunset. He was now totally exhausted. If only it was possible to snatch some rest!

It was as though the boy pedalling alongside had read his thoughts. He suddenly signaled a stop, and got off his bicycle.

He too alighted from his bicycle. The first thing he noticed was the beautiful surroundings. It was a spot abutting the hills. A stream coursed down the hill and gurgled passed a huge rock. The soothing sound of flowing water wafted across to them.

The boy walked his bike close to the rock and motioned to him to do so too. When he approached the rock, he was able to get a closer look at the stream. A clear ebullient flow – like a pahari girl running down a hill in gay abandon. The simile flashed through his mind spontaneously and unbidden. These days, whenever he saw anything free or unfettered, his mind would start searching for similes.

The boy stood on the rock and looked around him. He then unhitched the bag from his shoulder and turned to him. “There is nothing to fear here,” he said. “You had better get some rest.”

The word fear created a strange reaction in his mind. The number of nuances that could lie hidden behind the simple meaning of a small word! His eyes flitted to the bag that the lad had taken off his shoulder. He could guess what was in the bag, even though the boy kept it hidden from him. This thing should have become the symbol of fear for him. But strangely, without his realizing it, the thoughts in the boy’s mind had influenced him too: There was nothing to be afraid of here, because army or police security forces were unlikely to come here.

But was it an army platoon or the police he was afraid of? Should he not really be afraid of what was in the youth’s shoulder bag? Yet, the boy’s words had freed his mind too of fear. And what surprised him more was the fact that the thing inside the bag, as also the presence of the boy had given him a sense of security was a source of assurance.

As if to prove his freedom from fear, the boy said, “It is hot. I am going to take a dip. How about you?”

It was not that he did not feel hot. Though summer had not yet set in, the air was humid and he felt a sort of itchy sultriness. But he did not want to have a bath at an odd hour. He could catch a cold or start coughing – that could create problem for him and the boy.

He shook his head to indicate his unwillingness.

The boy took out a hand made towel, a gamosa, from the bag and got into the stream. There was not much water there. The boy started bathing without a care in the world.

His eyes flitted to the bag once again. It lay abandoned on the rock. How carelessly the boy had left it lying there! At times he found all this very strange. It was as though a sort of tacit understanding had developed between him and the boy, and the weapon in the bag was a symbol of that relationship – a relationship that had undergone a qualitative change over the last few days. It was not fear any more but a conviction of sorts that kept him bound. The boy had begun to believe that he would not escape. He could take the weapon from the bag and flee whenever he wanted. He knew he would not do it. This gesture of the boy seemed to alter the very tenor of his imprisonment.

He stretched out face up on a patch of grass near the rock, in the shade of a tree. Time enough for a brief rest while the boy finished bathing. His eyes fell on the branches of the tree. A pretty bird with colourful plumes sat quietly on one of them. He kept gazing at it. And two words turned into a cliché’ with frequent use, passed through his mind – free bird. He had never bothered to develop a rapport with nature and he could not identify the bird. A kingfisher maybe. A long beak. Blue feathers. Perhaps there were fish in the stream and an unbreakable bond tied the bird down to the place. Free bird!

The boy came out of the water with loud splashes. Frightened by the sound the bird flew off.

The youth put on his clothes, wrung out his wet gamosa and put it in the bag. He then slung the bag on to his shoulder and said, “Let’s go. We must reach the village before dusk.”

They got on their bicycles and set off again – he in the front, the boy behind him. A hostage and his keeper. Both pedaling away with the single objective: To reach some haven far from army and the police. In some mysterious way, it was as though he had instigated his own captivity, as though he too now shared the anxiety of the boy and the others in his organization when they got to know of the coming of troops. And whenever they learnt that the troops were withdrawing or when they managed to move him to a safe shelter, it was as though he too, like them, was freed from anxiety.

The narrow track widened a bit. Obviously they were not very far from their destination. They could see the ruts on the path made by the wheels of the bullock-carts. They were now riding abreast. He looked at the boy. A composed, unperturbed face. As though he was sure that there was no possibility of the army or police reaching that place. The boy’s impassiveness filled his mind too.

His eyes fell once again on the bag slung so casually on the boy’s neck. It was as though the weapon in the bag just fulfilled a ritualistic need. It was no longer a messenger of death. Yet it signified a certain authority; yes a certain relationship. But was that all? At one end of the black metal barrel, he was the prisoner; at its other, it held the boy prisoner. All of a sudden he remembered the kingfisher. A free bird, but a strange relationship bound it to the stream. It was free, but in the context, it was a prisoner. He was a prisoner. Yet, the boy could go nowhere without him, imprisoned as he was by his hostage’s captivity. Until he was released, the boy too could not be freed. And the authority of this lifeless weapon controlled the relationship between the two of them with its mute language.

Suddenly the boy stopped. Two other boys emerged from behind a wayside tree and advanced towards them. He was taken aback. He had not noticed the two boys waiting by the road.

The boy who had traveled with him, indicated by a sign that there was nothing to worry. These two boys were obviously from the same organization. They too had a bicycle with them. The boys asked them something in their language, a tribal dialect. He seemed reassured by their reply. He mounted his bicycle again, and soon they were all on their way.

It was nearly dusk when they finally reached their destination. He noticed a group of boys sitting on a bamboo platform at the entrance of the village. They had no firearms with them, just a few long sticks. There was a kerosene lantern on one side of the platform. These boys probably got together to keep watch. The boy got off his bicycle and said something to the other two boys, in their own language, before they proceeded to the village.

It was a tribal village, tucked deep into nowhere. The huts had thatched roofs and walls of thinly spaced reeds. It was nearly evening and everyone was busy getting the cattle home. The one or two people they met on the way, evinced no curiosity about the stranger. Perhaps the organization had brought other people there, people like him.

There were signs of grinding poverty in the homesteads and streets of the village. Even so, this had not quite succeeded in undermining the healthy look of the few people he happened to see on the way. Nor did he see signs of extreme poverty in the house in front of which they finally stopped. Actually, it was not one house, but two. By the side of the main dwelling was a single-roomed hut with a sloping roof. Though the roof was thatched, the walls were neatly plastered with mud. The courtyard was spotlessly clean. He noticed a large granary next to the hut. There was also a large plot of cultivated land at the back, which had areca-nut, betal, jackfruit and even a plantain grove. All around the house was a close-knit bamboo fencing. The entrance had a bamboo stile.

The boy turned to him and said, “We shall stay here today. This is the gaonburha’s house. There is nothing to fear anymore.”

The other two boys who had escorted them, undid the bamboo bars of the stile and called out to the village chief as they stepped into the courtyard. The gaonburha had evidently gone out and had not yet returned home. But his son came out and ushered them courteously into the one-room hut in the corner.

Inside was a rough, armless wooden chair. They asked him to sit on it. On one side of the room was a low wooden bed. The sheet that covered it was coarse but spotlessly clean. A faint smell of fresh earth mixed with cow dung lingered. Obviously, it was not long since they had wiped and cleaned the room. It was on that very day that the gaonburha had been told of their coming – the decision to move him to this village had been sudden. Normally the business of changing the locations was accomplished under cover of darkness. But this was an emergency. They had learnt only that morning that a group of soldiers would reach the place where they were staying. So they had to flee the place on bicycles, and by day. Someone had been sent that morning to inform the gaonburha.

The gaonburha’s son reappeared, carrying a small bucket of water, a brass ghoti and a clean gamosa, and requested him to have a wash. He was taken to a small enclosure of woven bamboo partitions set up beside the hut. Inside the enclosure, they had even placed a stone slab to prevent the splashing of mud while bathing. And because it was already dusk, they had thoughtfully hung kerosene lantern on one of the bamboo partitions. When he saw the green, still-undried, bamboo strips that made up the partitions, he understood that this had been built just for him. For them he was a guest. Did they know he was a prisoner? But then how could they possibly think that of a man who appeared to move around so freely?

He felt very comfortable after he had washed his hands and face. He returned to his room after drying himself with the gamosa. A lantern now lit up the room. His young companion was waiting for him and rose from the chair as soon as he entered. Even though the boy did not utter a word, he sensed a certain respect in that gesture. He sat on the bed instead of the proffered chair, and asked the boy to sit down.

“You must be very tired today,” the boy said. “Rest. This time we may have to spend a few days here. Then we shall move to a safe camp on a hill. We’ll have to travel through thick forests. It is going to be a tough journey. So you should spend a few days regaining your strength, yes?”

The youth took out two tablets from his pocket, and offered them to him. “You should take these,” he said, holding them out to him. He could make out that they were vitamin tablets. He really had no need for vitamin tablets for his health. But the tablets conveyed another message, too. Was it boy’s sincerity? A sort of fellow feeling? Another reminder of the changed relationship? He wanted to say something, but the boy went out to the verandah without waiting for a reply. He never waited for replies. It was as though he needed only an intangible kind of communication. As the boy left the room, he noticed that the bag was once again slung across his back.

“I am just outside,” the boy shouted from the verandah. He knew that he would not remain just outside.

The words had been in a kind of curfew jargon: I have a certain duty. I shall discharge that duty, but I also trust you. Do not betray that trust and escape. These words of mine have merely reminded you of that trust. My duty is closely linked with your cooperation.

I am just outside. What astonishing power the words held! Even amid the unrestrained opportunities to escape, these words held him prisoner. But had the words had the same kind of meaning in the early days of his imprisonment? No, but they had aroused simultaneously feelings of fear, indignation, helplessness and insecurity.

He could hear footsteps on the verandah outside. A middle-aged man entered the room. He guessed without anyone having to tell him that he was the host. A small girl followed, carrying a bell-metal plate full of rice. The aroma of cooked chicken assailed his nostrils. The gaonburha was carrying a ghoti of water. He picked up a stiff square mat of woven bamboo strips lying in a corner of the room and put it carefully on the floor. He then placed the ghoti beside it. The little girl put the plate of rice in front of the bamboo sheet. With great politeness the gaonburha invited him to have his meal before he went out to return at once with a fresh gamosa. He placed it on one edge of the mat.

“We have little to offer you. Please partake of whatever simple food there is. We got to know of your coming very late. It is my good fortune that a great leader like you is staying in my house.”

From the respectful word of the village chief, it was clear that this was how he had been introduced in the village. The gaonburha turned up the wick of the lantern a trifle and went out, asking his guest to leave the plate outside when he had finished eating.

He was famished. And though they had served only parboiled rice, it tasted quite delicious with the chicken curry. He washed his hand over the plate itself, opened the door and walked out with it. There were no guards around. Nor was there any arrangement for locking the door from outside. He put the plate in the corner of the verandah and shut the door on entering his room.

He then sat on the bed and took out his notebook from the bag he carried. For the last three months or so, he had been keeping a diary of his captivity, when he had expressed a desire to maintain a diary, the boy had got him the notebook. Thus, out of his seven months of captivity, he had kept a daily record of his experiences of the last three months. He had also written whatever he could about the earlier period from memory.

But with the door shut, the feeling of captivity overcame him. It was as though he had voluntarily made himself a prisoner by shutting the door as if this voluntary imprisonment was a natural state for him. He had not felt this way as long as the door had been open. The subdued hum of conversation from the other house had reached him and that had seemed to forge some kind of a link with the outside world. Now that link seemed to have snapped. The room was desolate, and complete silence prevailed. It was closed from all sides. He was a prisoner. But this only gave him a strange sense of relief.

The boy who had said, I am just outside, had gone away, leaving the heavy burden of captivity on him. As long as the door was open, he was afraid that his mind might actually incite his feet: There is an open sky outside, there is freedom outside, go there. What if his feet repudiated the bondage of that unseen trust? But by shutting the door, he had accepted his captivity, and the authority of the words, I am just outside. And, wonder of wonders, he felt relieved!

He flipped the pages of his notebook to record his experiences of the day. But before starting to write, he read once again what he had written earlier. Reading the old entries everyday had become a habit with him. This was how he wanted to preserve indelibly the memory of every single day.

On the first day of the diary, he had written down his experience of the first day. That day they had dragged him into a house and locked it. “We are just outside. Do not attempt to escape.” How harsh and terrifying those words had been! They had snatched him from his familiar surroundings and plunged him into another world. And that moment when a car had suddenly stopped in front his… Four gun-totting boys had dragged him out and pushed him onto the rear seat of the other car…. And then the car raced away. What a terrible moment it had been! He had felt for the first time how cruel the crisis for survival could be in a world devoid of causality.

Of course later on he had begun to realize that there was a total contradiction between the boy’s logic of causality in the world and his own logic of it.

He had heard various words appear in their speech that he had himself read or used. No, not the tribal words. Those he had not been able to understand, and they had remained as gestures for him, gestures that aroused fear. But there were some Assamese and English words – mainly from books – that they used: Nation, state revolution, imperial power, colonialism, ethnic awareness, government, people, independence, rights.

These words had completely different nuances in their world. Even the word security had a different meaning for them, because their law was of their own making. They did not regard as a state what he had so long recognized as one. They had created their own. His was but an imperialist power in their eyes. He had thought he was a citizen of an independent country, but they had maintained that he was a slave of this imperialist force. The law that he had regarded as haven of security, they saw as state terrorism. He had regarded his abduction by them an act of terrorism; they regarded this as their national duty. The government that he had thought was giving him social and political security, was, to them an illegitimate government, a dam of bare sand put up at the mouth of a river which the turbulent deluge of revolution would sweep away. He had read about several revolution in human history, but somehow he felt that these boys were pointing revolution at him through the muzzle of a gun.

They had, of course, assured him that he was no more than a token. Their opposition was to the repressive and imperialist state machinery, they had said. He had been taken hostage because he was a symbol of that machinery, which gave a lot of importance to symbols like him. They said that once this illusion of security was removed, the regime which imposed its authority on the strength of such security, would be panic-stricken.

They had some demands of that machinery. (Some day they would overthrow that regime, but revolution would take time to gather strength. So that they had to extract some of their demands in such ways even from an illegitimate government). And the state was sure to concede their demands, because the imperialist forces had a vested interest in securing his release. If he were to die at their hands, the state would lose face.

It was not as though they had presented such arguments in precisely this fashion. But this was what he had been able to glean from their conversation. He had the impression that the thought processes of the world he lived in were controlled by a semantic field – an electromagnetic field that held a positive charge, for him and for others who thought like him. These boys too had found a positive electromagnetic field around the semantic world of their making. There was no way at all for the two fields to get close to each other. Whenever these two positive electromagnetic fields approached each other, there was conflict. Even through his bureaucratic perceptions – he was a senior government officer, after all – he could vaguely discern the strong influence of economic order over both the fields, and this had somehow become merged with politics.

He was afraid. He saw no means of escape from the yawning gap, the emptiness, between their world and his and the way this emptiness surrounded him. The meaning of their words and their logic were indecipherable for a long time, like obscure riddles.

They had never tortured him physically. Even though their speech was blunt and rough, he could not say that they had ever shown him disrespect. They had, from time to time, even made it possible to write letters to his family. But since the world of their ideas often clashed with his, he had been unable to trust them. He had feared that at any moment bullets would zip out of their rifles and riddle his chest.

But his mental tension was far more intense than his fear of physical injury. True, there was no end to his physical suffering. They had to change their hideout everyday. This had meant having to walk through fields, ford through chest-deep waters, trudge through forests, and wade through swamps by night. He could not feel settled anywhere. He would not have cared for this physical strain if could only have trusted them.

At night, they would put him in a room and keep watch outside. They would let him know of their presence by working the bolts of their rifles, by walking up and down or coughing occasionally. But even before they did any of this, they would drive a veritable shaft into his being with just a few words: We are outside. Don’t try to escape. It was as though each word carried the burden of disrespect, ridicule and cruelty. It was as though each word had sought to expose not just his own helplessness but that also of the bureaucratic set-up. It was as if each word had assailed him had become a synonym of terror.

He had not quite understood how a bureaucrat could be symbol of state. And yet, they assumed that by taking him as a prisoner, they had unleashed some invincible weapon against the state. They had somehow felt that this act of theirs had caused the bugles of revolution to sound more stridently. He had been convinced that these boys were being controlled by a monumental illusion, that just as he had failed to fathom the outcome of this illusion, they too had no inkling of where all this would lead them.

In fact he had not been quite sure whether his reasoning was right or wrong. But his mistrust of the boys had gone. There had also been a simple reason for this. Almost every week, they who kept watch on him had been changed. Before he got to know one group, there would be another.

Nor did he get to talk to the boys who guarded him. He got to speak only when a few of their leaders dropped by. The impassive faces of his guards never let him guess what was on their minds, and he was thus never able to trust them. And just as they had taken him to be a symbol of the state machinery, he too had regarded each one of them as a minor symbol of terrorism.

But four months ago, everything had changed. It was as though the change had begun with this boy assuming charge. It seemed as if, amid their respective positively charged magnetic fields, they had begun to discover points of attraction that allowed them to touch each other’s psyche.

He did not know whether the boy belonged to the higher echelons of leadership. But he could make out that he was no ordinary bodyguard, because in most matters he took independent decisions without having to wait for orders from his superiors. The boy’s English had led him to surmise that he was well educated. And even though he was a tribal boy, he spoke Assamese fluently. Mostly they talked about domestic matters. True, they did discuss ideology at times, and the boy’s conversation revealed his deep convictions about revolution, but the boy always listened attentively to his opinions.

On the day this boy assumed charge, he had adopted a measure that made him feel as though the very nature of his captivity had undergone a change. Till then it had been their practice to lock the door after he was put inside his room. When the guards were near him, they would keep their firearms pointed at him. But when this boy first came to meet him, he had not carried a weapon. He had not even brought other guards with him. He had made solicitous enquiries about his well-being and brought him tidings of his family. When he had left the room the boy had gently shut the door and said, “Please bolt the door from inside. I am just outside. Don’t be afraid.” The words, Don’t be afraid, had set up a strange reaction in his mind, and the emptiness and the distance that he had felt all along vanished in a flash. The phrases, “Don’t try to escape,” and “Don’t be afraid” reflected two different attitudes.

And yet, the situation remained the same. As before, they had changed his hideouts frequently, moving with him from one village to another. In the process, they had got bitten by mosquitoes and wasps. There had been no question of resting for long in any one place, because the boy’s organization had impressed upon him the importance of exercising the utmost caution.

What had changed was the mental equation. He was still the prisoner, and the boy his guard. But, despite the great difference in age, they had become companions. The boy had never behaved like his captor. True, he carried a gun inside his bag, but it was as if it had metamorphosed from a symbol of terror to a symbol of security. And when they roamed through the villages and hills, sometimes he had become the boy’s mentor, and the boy his disciple. Now and then the boy would mention the name of a famous writer. And at such times his extensive study of books was of great help. It was as though he felt happy to be able to talk about that writer’s personality, his achievements, a particular facet of some book. And the boy would listen to every word like an attentive pupil. But whenever the topic of conversation shifted to nature, rural life or the care of animals, it was the boy who became the teacher and he the pupil. He had no first-hand knowledge of the relationship between the man and nature. This life of imprisonment had helped him in the most unexpected way to acquire knowledge of life in the open.

On one occasion, he had fallen seriously ill after reaching a village. With high fever racking his body, he had lost consciousness at times. But even in his semi-conscious state, he was aware that the boy had secretly brought a doctor from a distant town. Whenever he had regained consciousness in the course of his raging fever, he had found the boy sitting near the head of his bed, anxiety writ large on his face. When he recovered, he learnt from his host that the boy had not left him alone even for a moment. He had nursed him with utmost sincerity and concern, giving him his medicines, boiling water for him, sponging him, putting cold compresses on his brow and even cleaning up his faeces. And yet, when he recovered, there had been no show of emotion. The boy had just said, “We did not inform your family. They would have been worried. I hope you don’t mind.”

He had felt very grateful to him for his thoughtfulness.

Even when he had recovered, it had been necessary for them to remain in the same village for quite a few days – until he regained his strength. During this period the two of them talked about diverse subjects. It was then that he had expressed the desire to maintain a diary. He had thought that the boy will not be willing to let him keep a daily record of his captivity. But he had readily agreed and had even got him a notebook the next day. Every time he made an entry in his diary, he would show it to the boy. The boy could see his captive’s inner world in this. After his illness, the sense of uncertainty gnawing at his mind had increased. His conscious self had failed to perceive this but the boy would read out the diary entry and show him how his subconscious had found expressions through the words there.

As soon as he had regained his strength, it had become imperative for them once again to keep changing hideouts. At times he had become restless at the very thought of how uncertain his release was. And this was reflected in his diary.

It was after reading some such entries that the boy had said one day, “You are impatient for your release, aren’t you? But your government is not thinking of you at all. We have put forth some conditions. The moment they agree to them, we can release you.”

He had asked the boy, “And what if they don’t accept your conditions?”

The boy had remained nonplussed for a while, and then he had replied with a smile, “In that case you can be one of us and remain with us. Would you really dislike that?”

Finally he had given up thinking about his release. He had begun to accept captivity as a natural state of life. It was during those days that the boy had relaxed even the security arrangements. There were nights when after he had said, “I am just outside,” he would abandon his vigil. He would leave the bag containing the weapon lying near his prisoner. It seemed as though the boy was giving him innumerable opportunities to escape, yet on the other hand, it was as though he was trussing him up with invisible bonds of trust.

It was during that period that he had begun to get news of police military troops searching high and low for him. But somehow he had ceased to regard such news as happy tidings. Whenever he got the news of army approaching, he too would become anxious. He too would feel impatient to get to some “safe” place with the boy. Of course, a part of his conscious mind was aware that his behaviour would be regarded by his society as irrational. Yet, he had begun to think of his distance from them and the boy’s weapon as the assurance of safety.

Even today, it was news of approaching troops that had made them flee their earlier hideout and take shelter in this village. Leaving him in his room, the boy had gone elsewhere to sleep – perhaps in the main house of the gaonburha – while he had voluntarily acknowledged his captivity by bolting the door from inside.

As on other days, he recorded the day’s experience in his notebook. He then had the two tablets the boy had given him, with a gulp of water, and stretched out on the bed. The security of the bed took him in its embrace.

He woke with the first chirping of the birds. He undid the bolt on his door and came out to the verandah. It was as if the gaonburha had been waiting for him. He promptly fetched a round bamboo stool, put it on the verandah with great courtesy and requested him to sit down. The little girl who had brought him his supper last night, brought him a bowl of milkless tea along with a bit of jaggery. It seemed as though the rest of the family were maintaining a respectful distance from the “leader”. He relished the milk even though it was without milk.

Just then, the two boys, who had escorted him the previous day, arrived on a bicycle. When the boys heard their voices, he came out of the main house.

“It is no longer safe to stay even in this village,” the two boys told him. A few kilometers down the road they had come across some soldiers. The soldiers had stopped and searched them and had asked them if any stranger had come that way. The boys had, of course, sent them off to a wild-goose chase to a distant village.

When the boy had heard them out, he said, “We must move to the camp today. Villages are no longer safe.”

He had long wanted to ask a question, but a certain diffidence had prevented him till now. Now the question shot out of him, unbidden, “if the soldiers surround this house now and attempt to rescue me, what will you fellows do?”

The boy had not been prepared for the sudden question. He just stared at him, not answering him at once. Then he retorted, “What will you do?”

Unprepared for this counter question, he looked quite non-plussed. Then, the boy came out with an unequivocal reply, “If such a situation does arise, I would have no option but to sentence you to death.”

The words so stunned him, he just kept gazing at the boy. Was this the same boy who had nursed him with untiring devotion?

As if he could fathom his thoughts, the boy said, “You are not our enemy. But don’t misunderstand me. The state seeks legitimacy for itself by promising to provide security to its citizens. We shall have to prove that your government is not capable of doing this. If you die, the cause of your death would thus be neither me nor my organization. Your death would have been caused by your government. If I wish to keep the revolution alive, then, it would be my duty to give you the death sentence.”

Strange logic indeed! He was quite sure that no legal system in the entire world would regard such logic to be just. But in the world this boy inhabited, such logic had acquired legitimacy. Even he began to feel that there was no other path before the boy. And the jolt that his mind had received on being told of the death sentence seemed to fade away. He felt a calmness within him. It was as though he had transcended his own logical orbit to enter the world of the boy’s logic.

It was decided that they would set out for the camp that very afternoon. Meanwhile, the boy called a few others from the village and sent them out to get information about how safe their route was. By lunchtime one of them returned with bad news. Troops had already located the camp on the hill that morning and had destroyed it.

So there was no question of moving to the camp. The village was no longer as safe as it had been, but they would have to spend the night there and look for a safe hideout the next morning.

The boy set about tightening the security measures for the night. Several new faces were seen just before dusk. He also hint of weapons in their bags. His bodyguard gave the boys several instructions and sent them off to guard all the entry points to village. The boy even sent the gaonburha and his family to other homes in the village for the night.

“We are taking special measures for tonight,” the boy told him. “In the interest of your safety, I’ll have to spend the night in your room. Several of our liberation force boys will remain on guard all around the house. If we can get through the night safely, we’ll move to another place at the crack of dawn.”

They all had their meal before dusk. Soon the village was engulfed in darkness. The lantern dimly lit the room. An aura of stillness and silence hung heavy all around. The boy was not even talking today. He stood beside the door with fine-honed alertness, the deadly weapon fully exposed. He sat silently on the bed.

The boy turned to him and said, “Go to sleep. I am awake.” But he remained sitting as before. How could he possibly fall asleep, even if he wanted to?

Perhaps he had just dozed off. He woke up with a start when he heard one of the guards barge in. He said something to the boy and ran out again, shutting the door behind him. Somewhere far away or maybe not so far away – he could not quite make out – something like a fire cracker went off.

“The enemy has surrounded us on sides,” said the boy. The eyes locked momentarily. The boy stared at him, without even a flicker of his eyelids. Then, he signaled him to get off the bed.

There were a few more sounds outside. This time he was certain that they were of guns.

He got off the bed and stood before the boy.

The boy was pointing the gun at his chest. He felt as if the final moment of his captivity had arrived. Were the final moments always as long as this?

Several rounds of firing were heard now.

Was this death? Then why had he not lost consciousness?

And then everything happened all at once. Just as the boy was about to lay down his weapon, countless bullets had riddled the boy’s body. He saw blood gushing out of his mouth. His gun slipped from his hands, and the boy’s body fell heavily to the floor.

The ultimate moment of his captivity had not turned into his moment of death, because the boy had not fired his gun.

Several soldiers rushed into the room. One of them extended his hand to him and said, “I am captain Batra. Thank god, you are safe!” He pulled out his walkie-talkie. It crackled briefly, before the officer sent his message: Operation successful. Target safe. One terrorist killed.

Terrorist! The word seemed to dash against the magnetic field of his brain and explode. Two agonized words escaped his lips – Oh, no! – as he sank to the floor next to the boy’s lifeless body. He put his hand on the boy’s brow and gazed steadfastly into his captor’s unseeing eyes.

Captain Batra did not stop him. He stood there. His fingers touching his cap in ritual respect.

– End –

Translated from Assamese by D. N. Bezbaruah
Courtesy: The Assam Tribune

Photo Harekrishna Deka (b. 1943) is a poet, short story writer and a critic who received the Katha Award (India) for creative fiction (1994) for this story. He is a prominent literary figure in Assam. He also received the Indian Sahitya Akademy Award (1987) for Aan Ejon, a collection of poems. (You can read some of his poems here.) This story was written in Assamese and first published as Bandiyar in Gariyoshi, an Assamese literary periodical, in October 1994.

The translator, D. N. Bezboruah, is a former editor of widely circulated English daily from Guwahati, The Sentinel. The translation was first published by Katha in December 1995.

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