Turn Around

Best of the Boards
Sheela Jaywant


She recoiled and whimpered as he swooped her up in his arms, turned her face away from the stiff uniformed chest. The skin of her lower back, where her blouse and sweater had moved up, away from her flannel, trouser-like salwar, felt the cold buckle of his belt. She recognized the emblems and stripes of the Indian Army. Conditioning made her cringe.

“Stay away, Badriya,” her father used to warn, “Hide when you see any stranger.”

Once, she would have sprinted and sunk into the shrubbery around the village at the mere suspicion of a newcomer’s presence. Now, her limbs weren’t protesting as they might have before the earthquake, when, just at the start of winter, the house fell down. She had been sleeping, cuddled between her mother and brothers, on rough mattresses spread over the bare floor. The staccato shots that echoed across the Pakistani border didn’t bother her; she was used to those. Then, suddenly, she was beneath a gray, weepy sky, shivering, alone, surrounded by stones. Had she imagined that thunder-like sound? Where was she? Was she dreaming? Where was Ma? What was all this… wood? Who was crying? Allah, what was happening? The scene still seemed real, yet distant. The mountains were there, and some trees, but where were the houses? In the darkness she saw hands, legs, faces. Unmoving. She saw familiar clothes, vessels, crushed, spread out. Moans stabbed the silence. Wails of pain. Inhuman, indistinct, scary.

Next day, someone removed the stones, picked her up. Then she felt pain, hunger, cold, miserable. One brother had died in her mother’s arms, she learnt, and her mother in the Army hospital at Srinagar. The others had gone to Allah in their sleep, their bodies crushed by the fallen walls. She was carried, like now, in a soldier’s arms, to a tent. The bloody flesh that hung from her leg was swabbed with a burning liquid and bandaged. Despite the acrid smell and nausea, she ate warm dal and rotis. Someone who she had been taught was ‘the enemy’ fed her. She swallowed the spoonfuls instinctively. Unwillingly. She was terrified, helpless, confused. He held a crackling radio to her ear. ‘Aid for the earthquake victims was coming in from all parts of the world,’ she heard. At ten, her world ended at Kupwara, Kashmir. She wasn’t sure where Delhi was.

This man, who was carrying her now, said nothing. Where was he taking her? Who was he? Would he do ‘things’ to her? Kill her? What?

It had been two-and-a-half months since the earthquake. Badriya had worn and eaten whatever she was given. Quiet, withdrawn, sad. Her leg was still in plaster. She couldn’t even limp without help. The man carried her over the rubble in the village. A light blanket of green covered the scape. The clouds over the mountains were thinner, the morning sun more yellow. The snow had melted into a grey slush. Tiny buds dotted the almond and apple trees. In a month, the boughs would be bare no more. Amongst the ruins she recognized some collapsed structures. A lump came to her throat. Her body moved with the rhythm of his steps. She moved her eyes to see whatever… was left of her world. They crossed the graveyard. Did her father lie there? The others? Who knew? Beyond it stood the tents where the man was purposefully heading. What was he going to do to her? Where could she run? How? Allah, help me, help me, she mumbled in prayer.

The loud murmur from inside one tent fell as soon as the flap was moved aside. A second’s silence, then a single voice: “Badriya?” Followed by a cheerful roar: “Badriya-a-a.” She raised her head from the man’s chest and… flailed her arms and injured legs to get down and partly hop, partly crawl towards her childhood mates, sitting cross-legged on the floor, in the makeshift ‘classroom’ where they were following the school routine, doing lessons in a temporary-camp environment. Each face she recognized brought tears to her eyes. Hug, hug, hug. The uniformed man picked her up again, to carry her to her place on a mat in one corner.

She snuggled trustingly now; she was amongst her own, he was no longer the ‘enemy’.

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“I’m a hospital administrator whose work can be read on Chowk.com and Toasted-Cheese.com. I do a weekly column for a local newspaper and my book, Quilted—Stories of Middle Class India, has been reviewed on Sawnet.org.” E-mail: sheelajaywant[at]yahoo.co.in.

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