Clash By Night
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
I hurried towards the
west of the city, where the bus station was, and where the convoy would arrive
if it could get through. The curfew was to begin in less than two hours, and
after that anyone found outside was liable to be shot on sight and questions
asked afterwards. But, of course, that was another chance one had to take. If
you wanted to meet anyone, or needed anything like a strip of painkillers
someone might have, in return for a half-loaf of bread, darkness was the only
time when you could do it. Barter was forbidden, and everything was supposed to
be handed in to be shared equally out among everyone.
Lately there had been
nothing even to barter, let alone share out equally. Lately, people had been
ripping weeds out of cracks in the pavement and boiling them in water scooped
out of puddles to eat.
Coming round a corner, I
ran right into a patrol. Theyíd been standing silently, watching the shelling,
which was why I hadnít known they were there in time to take another way.
"Stop," one of them
shouted in a high-pitched voice. "Where are you going?"
I looked at him, and at
the others. There were only four or five of them, and they were all kids, of
course. Their fathers, uncles and older brothers would be in the trenches
outside the city.
"Itís not yet curfew
time," I pointed out mildly. "Thereís still well over an hour to go."
"You answer my question,"
the boy shouted. He couldnít have been more than thirteen or fourteen at the
most. The uniform he wore was so large that the shirt hung almost to his knees,
and the automatic rifle over his shoulder looked half as tall as he was. "Where
are you going?"
I told him. He peered
suspiciously into my bag, found only files there, and gave it back reluctantly.
"Why are you not in the militia?" he demanded. "Everyone must be in the
"Iím a government health
worker," I said. "Iím exempt."
"No, new orders." He
fished in his breast pocket and brought out a tattered scrap of paper. It was
far too dark to read what, if anything, was written on it. "No more exemptions.
Everyone to report for military training, right away."
"Thatís right," another
of them said. It was a girl, even younger than the boy. She had expressionless
eyes that glittered in the light of the shell bursts, and her uniform looked as
though it had been stitched out of a curtain. "Commanderís orders."
"So you go right now,"
the boy said. "Go and join militia."
"Go and join the militia
where?" I asked.
"Central School," the boy
replied. "You know where that is?"
"I know," I said. I
passed it every day. The classrooms and playground, which once had echoed to
the voices of children, and then fallen silent, now again echoed to the voices
of children Ė learning to shoot rifles, to crawl along trenches, to take apart
machine guns and put them back together again. "Iíll do it as soon as Iíve sent
these documents back."
"You donít forget," the
girl said. I wondered how long sheíd been a militia member, and how much
training sheíd got. The rumours were that they were only training the kids for
two days now, barely enough to learn which end of the gun the bullets came out
of. It made them a danger even to themselves. She went up on her sandal-clad
toes to peer into my face. "Or I will be finding you myself and bringing you."
The rest of the kids
laughed. "Will be good joke," one said. They were still chuckling as they
wandered off the way Iíd come.
Walking on, I began to
feel dizzy and weak. This was something Iíd been feeling increasingly
frequently the last weeks, and there was nothing strange about it; I didnít
even remember when Iíd last had anything to eat. Perhaps it was the half a
slice of mouldy bread Iíd found yesterday, which Iíd chewed for half an hour
before swallowing. Or was that the day before? Iíd forgotten.
I leaned against a wall,
waiting till the dizziness abated, and the hunger twisting my gut eased.
Perhaps I should join the militia after all, I thought. At least in the ranks
they got whatever food was to be had. Only when the fightersí needs were met
was anything handed out to the civilians.
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