Okay, here is the thing; I am not a hero. I never was, nor am I now. And I don't think I can be one in the future. My father once said how all your good deeds cease to mean anything once you do a terribly bad thing. 'What is the difference between a bad and a terrible thing, father?' I had asked. 'That depends,' he had said, 'on what you consider a bad thing and what you don't.'
I never understood that remark of his. Surely, I thought, bad things are bad for everyone; that bad things were considered bad universally, that was the deal, correct? Turned out it wasn't. Not always were bad things considered bad. Not in every case were guilt a visible emotion in the guilty.
But when I understood this, my father was not around; neither was my mother. Both had departed in their sleep on the same day some years ago. And I was left alone to comprehend the terribleness of my deed; a deed that had wiped all my good ones, if there were any before it.
It was a few days ago only that I did what did, but I don't want to think about it. It makes me angry and disappointed and right now, I don't need any of those. Right now, there is a girl with me, walking beside me. A girl of about my chest height, a little shorter maybe, doesn’t matter. I don't know how to tell her age, all kids are the same more or less, except for their height and running speed. Some are knee high and can barely stand, let alone walk. Some are higher and can outrun a slug maybe. It goes up from there.
Anyway, here I am, walking with the girl in the village market, looking for food. The morning is at its peak, the sun is almost halfway up and crowd is growing. There are vegetable and fruit sellers, travelling spice merchants, local potters and a woman selling tawa pans. There are groups of people selling caged birds and uncaged fish; there is even a boy trying to sell jaljeera in a rundown cart. He isn't succeeding. There's a small shed with a dhaba look who is selling tea and tobacco at the side of the market, where the road joins.
The girl's eyes move from the jaljeera cart to apple cart to the shiny jars of biscuits at the tea-shop and back again to jaljeera boy. All her emotions and tears from last night have dried down and now there is only a blank stare of hunger left in her eyes. I know she cannot think of much else now, because that is what I am feeling.
I watch the area for some minutes, then tell her my plan while pointing at the apple cart towards the centre of the market. In short, it would involve me falling on the cart uncontrollably and scattering the apples, and she picking up as much as she can and zigzagging out of the market. We have our lunch in a similar fashion; and the dinner later on. For the next week, we borrow or steal food like this. I can not work because I don't want to answer uncomfortable questions, like what was my name.
The area we travel through is not safe for me. Neither is it for the girl; or any girl, irrespective of her height. We have setup some rules amongst us, most of which are about conversation. We are not to talk in front of other people. If we really have to talk, it would be in whispers. If we really have to talk to others, it would be her who would do the talking and I would play dumb. Reason why she will talk is that I am from the south, and she is from north and we obviously are in north. She doesn't know my language at all, and I can understand only a little of north. We know the common language though. It is taught in almost all schools, and she had been attending the common language school before...
Anyway, she is smart, if kids could be that, so she knows the common language well enough that we both could talk without difficulty; plus no one else will understand any of it even if one hears. Of course someone wrong noticing us talking would be another problem altogether, but you get the deal.
We do not know where we are travelling to; someplace better is what is on our minds. Now, my using a we instead of an I here does not mean I am getting any sentimental etc about this whole 'journey together'; or considering us a party. It is just that two people are a we and not an I, so yeah, that is that. I am still going to leave the girl to look for herself when we get to that better place. I can't carry this big a weight with me forever; I have plenty already.
I mentioned something about an emotional and crying night before. This is what happened.
The second night of my finding her in a broken and ransacked house that was the only one which wasn't burnt completely from inside, we were resting somewhere, waiting for sleep to come. We knew it won't come until very late in the night but, and that is when she got talking.
'What is your name?' she asked
I thought if I should tell it to her for a moment, then told my name. She told me hers.
(Later on, we laid the rules for changing her name to one that sounded like my community's when faced with people from it and for me to change to her's when the opposite happened)
'Do you not want to kill me?' she asked on hearing my name.
'No.' I said.
'And I won't let anyone else hurt you too,' I added after some time.
'Why are your people killing my people?'
I stayed quiet.
'My papa said your people want to take our homes'
'He said someone would have to be brave and fight them’
This was mildly interesting. ’Did he go out to fight then?’ I asked
‘Yes. But he did not come back’
‘Three days ago, we heard that some people were coming our way. They were already in our area’
‘My mummy told me to go into the cabinet and she closed the door after I went in’
‘I saw through the keyhole outside. Mummy had left the room door open.’
‘There was, there was shouting outside. My mummy and elder sister and dada were there; but there were other voices too’
She paused for a long time as if to try to form words. To me, it looked like she thought something bad would happen if she said those words.
‘Then I saw a man pulling my sister by her hair’
She started sobbing. After a while her sobbing grew and hiccupping started. I did not try to go near her though. It was bad that she had to see that, but I couldn’t have her attached with me.
Eventually, she had cried herself to sleep.
So we are travelling. After some more days, we arrive at the end of town and the start of villages. We move in, crossing the countryside, finding it harder to arrange food on most occasions. Sometimes, we borrow food from farmers, sometimes we eat with them. We avoid places we hear are dangerous and try to stay safe.
Truth is, we both are tired of moving. There is not so much fighting here, where we are now; and we don’t know where that better place is.
One night, we eat with an old man who asks if I want to work on his farm with him. I look at the girl who is anxiously looking back at me, wanting to say yes herself, and I nod a yes.
She by now has seen enough to know that none of her family is alive anymore and that she has nowhere else to go at the moment. Whatever relatives she once had, she had no way of knowing where they would be now. I, obviously, have no one. So yes, you can say we are together in this for now.
The man finds us a room, where we could spend the night. Later on, we are to move to the outhouse. We look at a proper bed after such a long time, and take to it happily. She talks, and I talk too. We don’t notice when sleep comes.
We are deep asleep when the raiding party comes.
The old man is already dead before they reach our room. Two of them snatch up the girl and four pound on me. They have knives and other tools. I fight as best as I can but they are all attacking together from all sides and one manages to stab me in the side.
He leaves the knife there, in my body. I can’t think why but he or any of them do not proceed to finish the job, and instead just leave with the girl. I am left bleeding out on the bed.
Three weeks pass. I do no bleed to death after all, as the rival gang showed up just a few minutes after the others left the house, and took me with them. They dressed my wounds. They asked my name and I told them. What could be worse I thought?
So three weeks pass and I heal some. During my stay I come to learn that the mob who took the girl was from her own community. My worst nightmares are somehow laid to rest for a while. Maybe they were still human somewhere inside and would have listened to the girl; believed her. Maybe they would not have…
After a month, I leave the village for good. This time back towards the town and on a different mission. I do not know whether I would find her even, but I have to go.
I arrive at a small intersection market after following a path that was most travelled by mob and raiding parties, looking for the girl. No one in the village had noticed any girl in the night with the gang, but many had pointed me to the direction they went in. The direction led me here. I don’t know where to go from here; there are five roads leading to and from different villages and the town, including the one I just came from.
It takes two weeks for me to ask everyone at the market and travel on and to the three out of five roads. I ask almost anyone I can, knowing very well that some of those who took the girl might live in one of these villages only. There is danger, without a doubt; but my life right now, is only as important as the kid’s.
So now I am left with only one major path that leads to town, apart from the forest in the middle of the town road and the village I have just visited. The other one left was the one I came from after getting healed in the first place. You would say why did not those people who saved my life helped me find her, but they did. They said the girl would be in town in all cases. But I don’t want to leave any place unlooked and it is very difficult to come back from the town once you are there. It is huge.
The forest takes another week and a half, there is nothing there as well. Except the woman I find with a newborn baby. She has another small boy, who is off to the market to bring food. Her husband is not with her.
She tells me that he hid them here and ran off in the other direction in the wake of a pursuing gang. He hasn’t come since and they have been living here for some time, waiting, just in case he shows up some day.
What she doesn’t tell me is that she is also afraid of leaving in case someone comes for her and the little baby again.
I stay and talk with her, share some of my food, then leave them the next morning on towards the town. But by evening I am back to the place where the family is, having decided to take them with me. I tell her that we can go to the town together to find his husband as well as the girl.
Of course she doesn’t trust me and refuses to go anywhere but when I wake up the next morning she had somehow decided that she would go. After arriving in the town, we spend a considerable amount of time looking for the both of them in all the likeliest places. We live on the street all this while and arrange food and other needs somehow. The state of affairs in the town have become better but it still shifts in and out of curfew every few days.
The first places I go to look for the girl are orphanages. The second, brothels. It weighs a weight of hundred rocks on my heart every time I go into one, fearing the worst, but I don’t find her in any of them. Each time I come out relieved and fearful at the same time. What if she is in a worst state somewhere else. It makes me cold to think of it. But despite all these fears, the one thing I never consider is the possibility of her not being alive anymore. It just can’t be possible, I tell my heart.
We look for the woman’s husband as well; we don’t know any one place where he could be, but then we also can’t find a satisfiable enough reason that if he is still here, after all the searching we have done and not found him, what could possibly be a reason that he did not come back to the forest to rescue her wife and two kids. There is a silent knowledge in her eyes that he is not alive anymore but she doesn’t say it; maybe she thinks that the acceptance of it would make her weak and vulnerable.
Weeks pass in search and in the meanwhile we find a temporary shed to live in and I gather money to become a travelling balloon seller. I choose this so that I could roam around the city and maybe find the girl in one of my customers.
One day, while roaming in an old locality of the city, I cross a house with its doors open. A girl is washing the floor inside. I ask her for some water. at which she analyses me first and then calls inside for a name to bring some. Another girl comes out with a glass, much younger than the other one. She stops at the sight of me near the door, staring at me unbelievably; I do the same. For a minute, it looks like the world has stopped, all the voices nearby drowned, the very air escaped from the place. The moment of shock is stretched to incalculable time. Then the girl faints.
I don’t want to go into details of how I manage to take her from the house. The house was of one of the heads of the gang who had abducted her that night from the farm. They had called her their prize and was going to suffer a terrible fate when she was rescued by a woman who was present at the place they all took her to. After some days she was taken to the town and was made to work in the house I found her in.
Months have passed and we live in a small village way off the place all the past incidents happened at. We includes me and the girl and the woman and her two kids. We interact with a few people and pass off as a family. The situation around has since become calmer. Lately, everyone has been tired of fighting and fearing for the future.
I work on one of the landlord’s farm and the woman works from home; she makes embroidery and sells locally. The two elder kids go to the local school. We could be said to be living a normal life.
That night, when the mob took the girl, we had slept late. She and I were talking and she told me about her family.
It was while she told me about her family when I realised how things had really turned out.
When the rioting began, I was staying at a cousin’s house. It stood in a small neighbourhood containing houses of members of same community as ours. That day, I had gone out for some work; only to return in a chaos and see a group of four men leaving the house of my cousin with bloody swords. Inside were the bodies of my cousin, his wife and their two children. Out of sheer outrage and passion, I pursued the gang and tracked them at a fairly lonely place. The gang was headed by a man who, according to the girl’s description, was her father. Was it luck or fate or what, there was nobody around at the time and I do not know how but I killed each one of them. The girl’s father I killed most ruthlessly; I could never forget the look in his eyes when I did it.
I don’t think I would ever forget the look in any one of those faces; and the terrible deed that wiped all of my good ones forever.
I HAVE AVOIDED WRITING ANY NAMES, PLACES AND TIMELINES IN THIS STORY ON PURPOSE. YOU ARE FREE TO CHOOSE AS YOU LIKE.