Once, On a Mountainside

(This story was written when I read in  the newspaper of the massacre of twenty six school boys in Suriyakanda and a weeping mother identifying the remains of her little boy.)

The mountain looked down the village like a benediction. The sun shone over the rim of the peak every morning bathing the valley in a silver glow. Often it was the signal for the farmers to shoulder their mamoties and  walk to the other side to their fields. The women waited in the shadow of the mountain watching children take the rough track towards their school. On the other side of the mountain.

Often they watched the children come home, impatient to get together again after hasty mouthfuls of rice and to play till the sun went down in a cloud behind the mountain. The mountainside was their fairyland where gnarled trees became palaces, where witches hid behind leaves and fairies danced on the toadstools. It was their hunting ground for elephants and tigers, for kangaroos and even a hippopotamus as the nature books revealed them in exciting pictures.

It was where they played weddings, set up homes, cooked feasts of sand and leaves in coconut shells. And, as they grew a year or two older, the mountainside became their battleground where they dreamed their dreams of fighting enemies and setting up kingdom.

Not many years later, it was to be their graveyard.

*******

Kiri could never forget that afternoon, waiting for her son, Bandu to come home from school. She always waited for him at the foot of the mountain, away from her house in the valley. When he was very kittle and had just started going to school, she recalled how Bandu would tell her of ghosts under those huge  goraka trees, of devils lurking in the shadows and hunters with bows and arrows ready to shoot! Kiri smiled to herself as she waited remembering stories of Bandu’s bravery, fighting those creatures that he told her of at night, in that twilight zone of the day  just before he fell asleep.

Warm tears trickled down her face as she remembered the grip of his little hand in hers, his face uplifted to her, flushed, sweating and telling her a hundred stories of what happened at school that day.

But that afternoon there were no stories, no breathless accounts of what happened during the ten minute interval, no tentative questions about what there was for lunch.

Bandu never came home again. He was seven, five years ago.

                                                           **********

What had happened that afternoon in the school, not two kilometers away, on the other side of the mountain was a mystery, an agonising puzzle to Kiri and a dozen other mothers like her…who waited with bated breath, pathetic plates of rice and a vegetable getting cold in their little homes, for  sons and daughters to come home eager for their meal, impatient to wolf  it down and rush out to play again, on the mountainside.

Not one of them ever came home again.

The wind moaned through the trees of the cadju  trees, the crickets chirped their songs at night and the village waited.

                                                                           *******

It was the season of killing. Murders were talked about with little concern. Guns were toys in the hands of young militants  who played with them with deadly greed. Villagers woke up in the morning to see ‘traitors’ shot and hanging from friendly trees by the roadside, trees which had fed them for many seasons. Burning tyres filled the air with their acrid smoke and the stench of smouldering human flesh. At night, sleepless, many hid in the jungles in fear of their lives, dreading the knocks on their doors and the guns pointing at their chests.

*********

Kiri  waited for death. She wanted to welcome the gun toting devils into her home, face them and feel the soothing balm of forgetfulness engulf her and end her agony.

At night she sat outside her house, slapping mosquitoes, in a half daze seeing little Bandu come to her through the darkness and clasping her arms telling here where he had been and how he was home again, home with her.

There were days when she wanted to welcome her death, to know for certain that her son had gone, that he was happy in some after life that she could now accept that now she would never see him again.

********

But there was no early respite.

The months slid by. The sun shone over the mountainside and the fields grew green again, lush with the crops watered by the new channels from the diverted river many miles away. There was plenty once again. The farmers had enough to eat and to spare.

New crops brought new wealth t he valley. But the cloud of fear and dread persisted.

Kiri and the dozen or so of the mothers whose children had disappeared still waited, unmindful of the changes of the seasons, the harvests that were gathered and the fields where new life had begun to spring again. They were heartsick and weary of trekking to the camps where boys and young men were detained, weary of the heart stopping hope and the despair of disappointment as sullen young faces were scanned one after the other and there were no familiar and beloved features among them.

Kiri dreamt of her son, a uniformed militant, brandishing a gun and threatening to kill her when she heard that young boys had been ‘taken away’ to be trained, to shoot, to kill to order.

There were the seasons when there were no stories. Then a forest fire of a sudden wild rumour singed hopes that had begun to spring inside her. She lived in this cocoon of agonizing loss. Her husband had gone long go there were no other children  to keep her busy. Her mind revolved round loss and despair and the occasional groundswell of hope that engulfed her and cast her in dark abyss when it vanished in the face of reality, like a drop of dew in the morning sun.

Things were happening around her, which she felt as in a dream. The valley was being developed. Tractors were taking the place of the bullocks which had tilled the fields. Young men were going away. New families were moving in. Life went on, busier than more hectic than ever before.

It was the sound of machines felling trees on the mountainside that startled Kiri to life again. There was going to be a factory, the villagers heard, where there would be jobs and money flowing into the village. The village was excited and happy looking forward to a future free from want.

The mountain still stood, guarding the village, casting its shadow over the valley, waiting waiting…

How does one identify  a cherished one, borne in the womb for  many months, nurtured at one’s breast and sucked and soothed for years, from a bit of bone found buried in a shallow hole on the mountainside? This was the dilemma Kiri faced when the news came that human remains had been found by the diggers on the mountainside.

Her feet ached with the effort of climbing the steep mountainside. It was a pain she could bear, but not the unidentified feeling inside her, a mixture of dread and despair worse than the years of waiting. She sat on a fallen tree trunk, unmindful of the crowd around her, the curious on lookers who had made the trek, the other families that waited in dread, the officials who waited with them. It was as if a war was going on inside her.

She looked at the mountain. It was dusk. No sunlight peeped over the top of the mountain, casting its customary silver glow.  But there was enough light to see by and twilight was lending its strange evening shimmer to the forest as she refused to look at the remains displayed before her.

She had no need to. Just a few feet away her eyes settled on something that seemed familiar. It was just a torn, mud stained soiled bit of leather. But she saw enough to know that it was from the school bag she had patched all those years ago for her son.

Kiri’s war was over.

(From ‘Once, On a Mountainside” published in 1995, reprinted in 2005 and 2008, Tharanji Printers)

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