A timely story by our resident Amico, Nikesh Murali…
The boy looked through a gap in the rubble of the ruined temple, to find his saviour’s body torn to pieces.
He looked around and found the idol adorned with hibiscus flowers and sandalwood paste, lying on its side. It was cracked in places. Even gods weren’t spared in this war.
A large beam had saved him from being crushed by the bricks and the metal. He crawled out through a gap in the concrete and stood up, his body covered in dust.
Around him women wailed and children screamed and men lamented.
“Down, down, stay down,” someone shouted to him.
He ignored the instruction and walked over to Raju’s body. He sat down on his haunches and closed the eyelids on his decapitated head with great affection. He was not fazed anymore by what a round of mortar could do to human flesh.
A strong anguished breeze carried ash, white as snow, across the landscape, like the usher of a doomed winter.
After a while people started moving and talking animatedly. They were discussing the merits of heading up north to the makeshift hospital.
“Army won’t attack the Red Cross.”
They had said that about the current camp as well. But now it was a tomb of charred flesh and severed limbs, its wreckage a monument to cruelty.
The boy scanned the grounds littered with the dead and wondered how long it was before he joined them.
They didn’t even have the time to bury, because the army always rolled in on their trucks after a round of shelling to ensure they had done a thorough job.
The exodus to safety had resumed.
A chubby woman with burn marks on her hand, carrying a bundle of clothes on her left hip, approached him. “What is your name darling?”
He took comfort in her merciful smile. But his face did not betray any emotion.
“Where are your parents?”
The woman had gold earrings similar to his mother. The mere thought of her jewelry send a sharp pain through his heart.
The woman looked at the mangled body lying at his feet. “Is this?”
He didn’t say anything. He kept looking at her studs, trying to bite down the sob that yearned to escape his lips.
She said her name was Gowri and then she held her scarred hand out. He accepted it and followed her along with the sea of people to the north, to the Promised Land where apparently no bullet was to touch them; no bomb would steal their limbs. A place they called Camp Hope.
His name was Palaniappan, but everyone called him Palani and he had a family once. His father ran a teashop in the village and his mother sold flowers.
His sister Kani went to primary school with him. They walked hand in hand to and from the local school, cataloging the birds they saw on their way.
In the evening they would report the numbers and provide detailed descriptions of feathered friends to their parents.
Their father would tell stories of his time at sea, after a dinner of rice and fried fish caught from the lake. They were always suitably impressed by his brave encounters with the Indian Navy, when his boat strayed too far to the North.
“I don’t miss the danger,” he told them. “I would much rather be here with all of you.”
He would kiss them all goodnight before bedtime.
Their mother would light a mosquito coil and spread coir mats for them on the floor, say a quick prayer and lay next to them listening to the insects of the night assuring that all was well with the world, before sleep took them to a paradise filled with free birds of many colours that sang beautifully from the top of tall palm trees.
One day, the teacher told them that soldiers were coming from the South and the school was going to be shut indefinitely. His sister cried all the way back home.
His parents were traumatized by the news.
“Pack everything up. We never know when we have to leave,” his father said.
That night was frighteningly silent and nobody slept.
In the morning the tanks rolled in and the sound of marching boots sent them fleeing into the forest with their bundles of clothes and food.
The sharp thorns and thick foliage left red welts on their skins. But their father never let them slow down. “The soldiers will do worse to you,” he told them.
The sound of gunfire and the screams of dying people reached their ears in the dense woods.
“What is happening Amma?” his sister asked.
“Terrible things. Terrible things, my little flower. Terrible things,” his mother said, her eyes filled with dread, her voice trembling.
They hid in the hollow of a tree overnight, in the company of insects and watched the gloom anxiously, fearing that the darkness would morph into a killer with a gun.
In the morning, another family they knew from the neighbouring village passed their hiding place and Palani’s father asked them if they knew a safe place.
The man said, “Run! Run! Run for your life. They are raping women and hacking kids. Run.” His eyes were delirious with fear as if he had seen things that could never be spoken of. His body shivered in the humid forest, as if it were a cold winter night.
They followed the family and cut through the forest to reach the main highway. They were joined by thousands of people fleeing the battle.
They were a sorry lot, the tired and the wounded, trudging along, bleeding and sweating, their mouths dry and their bodies weakened from the limited food and water. They clutched their meager belongings feebly and seemed no different from the miserable dogs and goats accompanying them, as they marched indifferently like animals being led to the butcher shop.
Some of the women wailed without a pause and listed the atrocities they had witnessed in a song like lament that emanated from their hoarse throats.
Palani’s mother tried to cover the eyes and ears of her children whenever a bullock cart carrying the dead and the dying passed by.
The boy’s father was a defeated man and he refused to look at his family.
The father abruptly stopped and sat on the ground. “Aiyoooo. Aiyooo.” He slammed his forehead with his open palm.
The boy tried to pull him up. “Come Appa. Come. You are scaring Amma. Akka is crying. Get up.”
Then the bombing began.
Projectiles of death landed on the highway with the regularity of a heartbeat. Palani screamed with his sister, as if to silence the terrible explosions that tore holes on the asphalt and sent blood and meat flying everywhere, like some crimson festival of colour and pain, which had descended on them without warning.
Palani soon lost his father and sister to the dark fog that enveloped the road. The boy struggled to breathe as he held onto his mother’s sari. He coughed and choked on the scent and taste of deadly chemicals nestled in the exploding projectiles.
There was a loud explosion right next to him and his mother pushed him down to the ground and landed on top of him.
He lay there, immobile, listening to his mother’s breathing grow shallow. The army was done with their bombing run. An eerie silence followed in its wake.
“Be strong,” his mother said. “Be strong Palani. Be.”
She joined the stillness of the surroundings.
Palani slowly squeezed his way out from underneath his mother. His clothes were torn and his skin was covered in black soot, like some primordial form of innocence that had crept from a bed of volcanic ash at the beginning of time.
A large piece of metal was embedded in his mother’s back.
“Amma, Amma…” he lamented. He looked around as he cried with his mouth wide open, as if he were searching for a witness to his loss, as if its immensity wouldn’t be endorsed without the testament of others.
He slapped her a few times on the cheek but she did not respond.
Then he wandered the morgue of charred bodies and wounded forms screaming with what was left of their throats, looking for his father and sister, but he couldn’t find them in the river of blood and splintered wood and smoking shards of metal.
Then out of the fog, the figure of a man riding a bicycle emerged and he jumped off and dropped the bicycle and grabbed Palani and jumped into a nearby ditch and waited breathlessly.
It started again. The clouds rained more fire on the decimated landscape and killed whatever was left unharmed the first time.
When it stopped, the man said, “It is a trick you see, you must never walk around after the first round, they wait for a bit and shoot again to get those who are helping the wounded. You will learn how to survive from the wrath of these animals soon.”
“Amma, Appa,” Palani said.
The man shook him as if to empty out the last vestiges of his sorrow.
“Akka,” Palani said pointing to the tableau of destruction in front of him.
“I am sorry, but we have to go. The soldiers will be here soon.”
“I want to go to Appa.” He started crying louder.
The man covered his mouth and said, “Did you not hear me? Do you know what they do to kids? They stab them with their bayonets and hang them from the trees.”
Palani did not register the man’s threats. He was lost in a sea of a sorrow so great, he wished one of the bombs had got him and he could have joined his family.
The man picked him up and dragged him to the bicycle, which was surprisingly still intact.
“My name is Raju,” he said. “There is a school in a village a day’s journey from here where they are setting up a camp. We should be safe there. The army has promised not to bomb the school.”
Palani looked down the stretch of highway, hoping to see a glimpse of his father and sister. Nothing moved. The wind howled in sorrow in his ears.
“You must come with me now, if you want to stay alive,” Raju said.
Palani walked slowly up to the body of his mother and gently stroked her hair. The big wound on her back had stopped bleeding. He waved away the flies buzzing around her.
Be strong Palani. His mother’s voice loud and clear in his soul.
He didn’t have the courage to look into her dead still eyes, so he kissed the back of her head.
Then he stood up and walked up to the man who was perched on the bicycle. Raju placed Palani on the bar in front of him and rode on.
They passed ghost towns on the highway where dogs howled in misery and dead spirits watched them from gloomy doorways of abandoned houses.
Warplanes and helicopters flew over them in search of rebel forces. Iron birds hunting for prey in the land of the disenfranchised.
Palani cried silently the whole way. He watched the spokes on the bicycle wheel turn round and round like generational mistakes strung to the wheel of time, destined to reap bloody harvests till the last flame of life was snuffed out.
Raju had the comforting smell of his father – sweat and pan. His large frame protected the boy from the harsh sun most of the way.
They stopped twice, once to drink water and another time they sat under a mango tree and they ate cake and biscuits that Raju stored in his cloth bag.
They saw few people walking the road, mostly old men and women, painfully dragging their belongings, nursing a hope that their next step would be their last; cowards who couldn’t end their own life on a pilgrimage to death.
A few tractors carrying disheveled people raced past them, their giant wheel covered in gore, a reminder of the horrors they had escaped and passed.
As the sun was about to set, they heard gunfire behind them. Raju and Palani disembarked and they hid in the bushes along with their trusted pair of wheels.
Exactly opposite to them, on the other side of the road was a gravel path that snaked into the forest, but Raju wasn’t sure where that led, so they lay low peering through the foliage as a military jeep arrived and six soldiers clambered out and set up a road block.
Raju pressed a finger against the boy’s lips and put an arm around his shoulder.
Palani’s heart raced. His mind registered that the men carrying the gun could have been responsible for the death of his family. He dug his nails into the moist earth in anger.
The soldiers scanned the surrounding jungle casually, with the arrogance of suzerains who had cleansed life from their domain and did not anticipate its resurrection.
The survivors remained unspotted for hours and dared not move as the men chatted among themselves, looking bored and constantly wiping the sweat off their foreheads and the back of their necks.
The forest was unusually quiet. At one point Palani sneezed, but Raju managed to drown the sound with his big strong hands.
When night fell, a truck arrived and a man with a big moustache and distended belly, wearing camouflage pants, pulled half-naked women from the back of the vehicle and offered them to the soldiers who took them into the bushes.
They were women he would have called ‘elder sister’ in his village. Women who would have teased him about his hair cut. He wondered what the soldiers would do to the beautiful flowers.
Raju covered Palani’s eyes and ears, but he could hear the man weeping and felt his tears fall on his forehead.
He stayed like that for hours, his senses numbed by the resolve of a man determined to protect his innocence.
At one point he thought he heard gunshots. But it could have been the imaginings of his dark prison.
When Raju liberated Palani from his cocoon of silence, the soldiers were standing around the truck smoking and chatting.
“You can still hear her moaning in your head can’t you,” They teased each other.
“It was good fun. They breed them good up here.”
“We are in for some great times. Look at this,” They crowded around a soldier who shared a video with the others on his mobile phone.
“Let’s go,” Raju said.
They tracked as quietly as they could through the forest while the soldiers were distracted, raucously laughing over some atrocity captured in their digital journals.
They kept walking, parallel to the highway for hours, like lost pilgrims of the night.
Close to daybreak they joined a mob of survivors who informed them it was only an hour’s journey to the school.
Raju smiled at the boy. “See, I promised you. Maybe we will find the rest of your family there. There will be food, doctors. We will be safe.”
Palani looked at Raju’s assurances with eyes of shattered glass.
“Promise me you will forget the things you have seen,” Raju said extending his hand. “Promise me.”
The boy placed his soft hand on that of his saviour’s and grunted.
Someone gave Raju a bottle of mineral water and he shared it with the boy and with the last handful he washed Palani’s face. “You are looking good now.”
The school in the middle of a coconut grove was a haven for them for a few days. Raju and Palani went around looking for his family. But he didn’t find them.
Raju bathed him with water from the well and dressed him in a new shirt and shorts donated by one of the schoolteachers. They ate rice porridge with salt and pickle two times a day.
Palani ran around pushing the long stem of a tapioca plant, along with the other kids, pretending it was a bus servicing the many coconut trees that towered over them.
Raju helped the nurses in the temporary clinic by ferrying supplies and helping to move the patients.
At night, he lay on Raju’s lap as he sat on the steps of the temple and talked to other adults, their conversations bearing the weight of an uncertain future. Raju mentioned he once had a young wife and that the soldiers had taken her and when he realized Palani was listening, he stopped and stroked the boy’s hair.
The boy dreamt that his father and sister had stumbled into the school hungry and thirsty. He ran towards them and hugged and kissed them and his father informed that Amma was fine and following right behind them. Then an army truck pulled up and the horrible man who had thrown the girls to the soldiers dragged his mother out from the back. She walked towards him still bleeding, a stilted smile on her face, a zombie from the wastelands of war. Before she could reach him his mother transformed into thousands of humming birds that went searching for nectar that was nowhere to be found.
He woke up to loud explosions. Raju had him pinned to the ground, protecting him for the chaos that ensued. The temple disintegrated and showered debris on them.
When the attack stopped briefly, against his own wisdom, Raju rushed to rescue a little girl who had lost both her legs. Palani lifted his head up just in time to watch death leave one more entry in his balance sheet of loss.
Gowri and Palani befriended a nurse on their journey up to Camp Hope. Her name was Sujatha and she said her parents hailed from Palani’s neighbouring village. Her big eyes and pearl white teeth and long black hair reminded Palani of a young actress he had once seen in a movie at the local cinema.
She promised they would be safe in the hospital because the Red Cross had given the satellite coordinates to the government to establish a no fire zone.
She asked Gowri if she was the boy’s mother and when she shook her head the nurse looked away and she stayed quiet, as if the memory of many orphans had sealed her mouth shut.
Gowri said that she was going up North to meet her husband and teenage son, who were fishermen, waiting with a boat to escape the war.
“You can come along with me,” she said to the boy and the nurse.
They walked through coconut groves and orchards and paddy fields, all abandoned by their owners, left to nature’s conquering ways.
Sujatha asked the boy if he knew any songs from his school.
He shook his head, reluctant to remember the melodies of a time that had passed, memories that were now shrouded in the grime and cruelty of war.
Sujatha started singing about butterflies in a garden and for a while her beautiful voice rose about the crying children, and the shuffling of desperate feet and the monotonous clacking of the bullock cart wheels, like an angelic sermon of hope to uplift their dejected souls.
Gowri urged Palani to join in and the boy sang along reluctantly. He was reminded of his sister’s songs.
The waves are children of the sea
The sandy shore its playground
Let’s leave our footprints when the foam recedes
And scream in joy at the blue sky
“Are we going towards the sea?” Palani asked
“If we go farther, yes. But the camp is right next to a river.” Sujatha said with a smile.
“Where are your parents?” Palani asked her.
“They went to God a long time ago,” Sujatha said pointing up to the sky.
The boy knew his loved ones weren’t with God. People who rot on the roadside don’t make it to heaven.
The camp was a single storied building, surrounded by several blue tarpaulin tents.
Palani accompanied Sujatha as she signed up at the makeshift office to volunteer.
“We are so glad you are here,’ the doctor said with a grateful smile. “We can’t keep up with the influx of people who need help.”
Inside the tents, the wounded lay on the ground so close to each other, the doctors and the nurses didn’t have space to move. The stench of infected wounds and vomit and shit overwhelmed their senses.
“Why don’t you go and sit with Gowri in the shade,” Sujatha said to the boy. “I have work.”
Palani sat under a banyan tree with Gowri and she fanned him with a small, torn magazine as they watched the medical professionals at work.
It soon occurred to the two spectators that the tents were a triage to sort the dead from nearly dead.
Attendants took limbless bodies, decorated with gaping wounds on a trolley to a mass grave where they were all piled on top of each other and men with masks threw lime into the pits as if anointing the dead with holy ash derived from a ritual to appease the wrath of Gods. Some of the men wept as they performed the tasks, unfortunate priests of some exiled sect, destined to the do the bidding of their cursed destinies.
Gowri stopped covering the boy’s ears whenever they heard screams of patients being amputated. She had reconciled with the cruelty of the situation and the fact that the boy must steel himself to the sights and sounds, at this, the end of times for their unfortunate people.
A river of blood had soaked the sand and it looked like a continent denied to them, a map of their wretched journeys in search of a home.
“We will rest for a few hours and if you want to come with me, we will go to the sea and sail away from this hell,” Gowri said to him.
The boy did not know what to say, he just observed. He had started to believe that the worst thing one could do was to fantasise about escaping. There was only death written in their horoscopes.
Palani was going to the toilet in the bushes when the first shell landed in one of the tents and exploded shredding the blue material and the lives within.
He was fairly certain he had seen Sujatha, working in there. It crushed him that he would never hear her sweet songs again.
He saw Gowri rushing into the concrete building for safety.
Without bothering to wipe himself, he pulled up his shorts and ran to the nearest ditch and he lay low listening to screams that had now become the soundtrack of his new existence. He had developed immunity to the horror of many vocal chords crying in unison and the futility of such physical displays of fear.
He heard the tanks in the distance like thunder rumbling within the earth in some long contained fury. He got up and ran.
The building that Gowri had tried to hide in was completely destroyed.
He didn’t dare to go back in there to check on her. He had a promise to keep to his mother. He needed to survive while everything else around him was crumbling into nothing.
He had nearly reached the riverbank when he heard Gowri shout his name. He turned around. She did not have any of her belongings with her and she was bleeding from the side of her head.
She ran towards him and hugged him tightly. He pressed his face against her breasts and it comforted him momentarily.
Then the gunfire began. And they watched as trees exploded, their leaves shaking violently as if a vengeful cyclone was tearing through the orchard. Smoke signals rose from the midst of exploding starbursts of bullets. Like some alien God displeased with the terrain he had sculpted from nothingness, the soldiers dug holes into the soft earth and wiped out the legacy of a harangued people, to usher in a bloody dawn.
Gowri and Palani ran along the river. Bullets whizzed over their heads and kicked up the sand where they landed, sounding like lashings.
“We will go to my husband. He will be waiting with the boat,” she said.
They raced to the mouth of the river where it emptied its sorrows into the sea.
The waves were black in anticipation of the approaching night. The army shepherded a sea of humanity onto a large sandbar, where they waited with their bundles and aluminum pots, like the abandoned brood of some sea creature waiting to be drowned in the high tide.
Palani clutched Gowri’s hand as she looked everywhere for her husband. All she saw was the desperation of souls trapped between the great big ocean and their tormentors.
“He is not here. He hasn’t come,” she uttered. “He promised he would be here.”
People jostled for space around them. Beyond the wall of desperation, the sounds of army vehicles and gunshots.
“Kanna,” Gowri called out to her son several times.
Palani suddenly felt a strong urge to reach the edge of the crowd. He wanted to witness what was about to transpire. He felt it was his duty to record the turmoil of this evening, when his people were reduced to the inheritors of a narrow strip of sand.
He pulled at Gowri’s hand.
“Where are you taking me, boy?” she asked.
People who were desperate to stay away from the sight of the soldiers gladly obliged and he soon found himself staring at men bearing arms, who were grabbing young men from the crowd. Once they had lined up a dozen, they took them to the woods and the boy saw muzzle flashes and heard shots, like an absurd theatre of violence staged behind a screen, which challenged the audience to imagine the horror. Terror pulsed through the crowd, every time the soldiers stepped forward to condemn the next lot.
The wives and girlfriends and old mothers desperately clung to their men, but they were cruelly parted and executed and thrown into the river that took out their bullet ridden bodies out into the ocean, to deep blue nameless graves, acres of sand they could claim as their own.
When most of the able-bodied men were gone, they turned their attention to the women and Palani knew he would have to bid goodbye to Gowri. He looked around for a weapon to fight with but even in his fanatical rage he knew seashells and sand couldn’t stop the tide of cruelty that was finally going to dissolve every trace of his future. He prepared himself to be orphaned again and in his resolve he cursed the wonderful birds his sister painted, the forefathers that his mother prayed to, the sea goddess that had spared his father’s life from storms.
The soldiers licked their lips and examined the bodies of the women lecherously before they led them away.
When it was Gowri’s turn she handed Palani her small bundle and placed both her hands on his cheeks and kissed him deeply. Everything he needed, all love he ever wanted for the rest of his life was sealed in that moment.
The armed man grabbed her by the neck and pushed her into a line of women snaking their way up the shoreline to some unknown fate the boy dare not imagine.
He remembered the glee in the eyes of the soldiers on the road watching the videos on their phones. He was convinced these were vampires unleashed from some secret cavern, sharp tooth and shrapnel nails, clawing their way through the arteries of his home land, and this here was the heart. This here was the killing blow.
The boy stood on the sand bar with the old and the wounded and the young children, one of the last champions of their right to live among birds and trees and the river; to have the shelter of a roof, to have faces to love and remember.
“I will be strong Amma,” he said to himself.
He stood bravely, chest pushed out, fists clasped to his sides like a revolutionary whose cause was unperturbed by the desperate cries and failing resolve of his fellow survivors.
“I will be strong.”
Meanwhile the sea continued to accept the mutilated bodies of rebels and the refugees and raped women, without discernment, as if the colour of the skin and the speech of the tongue did not weaken its blood lust.
Please consider donating to the Syria Crisis – Urgent Lifeline Appeal, implemented by the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR.