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Priya Narayanan
‘No Woman’s Land’
Priya Narayanan

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The kilometre-long stretch between the barbed wire fencing on either side is like a jaded river. And like the banks of any river, the two sides of the stretch never meet. They do come tantalisingly close at places, as if to tease or dare someone to cross over; but the glint on the spiked metal fencing as it reflects the sunlight during the day and the floodlight that famously makes it visible from outer space when it gets dark, is enough to keep anyone at bay. That and the knowledge of a thousand pairs of eyes being constantly on the watch.

“I want to stand right in the middle of that land,” she said, peering through the binoculars formed by her folded palms.

“Impossible. They don’t call it No Man’s Land for nothing,” he said, not bothering to look up from the book he was reading.

“I’m a woman. The rule doesn’t apply to me,” she snapped. “Nobody ever called it No Woman’s Land.”

He shrugged his shoulders. There was no point in arguing with her logic.

“I’ve heard that people continue living in some stretches,” she spoke again after a brief moment of silence, “farmers mostly, who do not want to give up their land and move into either side of the border. They have special gates through which they can pass to enter the mainland. They even have their voter IDs; you know?”

“Yes, I’ve heard of it too. They can’t cultivate anything other than rice and that too nothing taller than three feet. Sometimes I wonder why they continue with their lives there. What’s the use of such a life? Peace is so fickle. You’d be busy tending to your crops one day and crying over fields laid to waste by the shelling and firing the next.”

She wasn’t listening to him. Her eyes had squinted into two slits, still peering through the binoculars, as she contemplated something. “Has anyone thought of digging a tunnel through to the middle? I think that’ll work. I mean, we’ll only get into trouble if we dig all the way to the other side; but who’s going to notice a hole of two feet diameter in the middle of nowhere? I will fit into that much; you know?” She shuffled to sit upright and twisted her waist left and right for effect.

Yes, there was no denying that she could fit into a two feet hole. She’d always been slim, but now she was wiry. They’d warned that the cancer would eat her up, slowly but surely. It wasn’t a pretty sight and it was frustrating to be a helpless bystander. Exhausted, he closed his eyes. Cancer cells appeared before him as Pac-Man figures -snapping up everything that came on their route. He stood up with a shudder.

“Why don’t I pull some strings in the government . . . or the army?” he said, pacing up and down the room. “Maybe they’d permit us to travel to the middle with an armed escort? Or we could try the Make-a-Wish foundation . . .”

“I don’t need permission to do nothing!” she retorted. “Neither do I need pity.”

“But . . .”

“No, we have to do it my way. We’ll dig a tunnel and I’ll crawl though it and pop my head out of that two feet hole like one of those pesky moles in the ‘whack-a-mole’ game tables at the mall. How I liked thwacking those heads when I was younger!”

He imagined her head popping out that hole and being thwacked by a bullet from either or both sides of the fence. He cringed, but remained silent.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “Do you think the BSF is oh so alert? Will they really notice me? And if they do, will they be quick enough with their guns? God knows I’ve struggled with whacking those moles!”

“Oh, so you believe in God now?” he tried to change the subject.

“You know what I mean. When they say God is in the details, I wonder what kind of detail that would be. Would it be the kind that says I’d be killed by a bazooka rather than the cancer? Or the kind that says it would be an American-made 3.5 calibre M20A1B1 super bazooka fired by a jawan hailing from Tamil Nadu who’d just got back on duty after a 10-day leave to visit his wife and new-born child?”

“Is that what you’ve been doing with my phone? Researching bazookas? In that case, you must have noticed that they don’t use bazookas on people.”

“I know, I know. But it does sound more romantic, don’t you agree? Compared to a machine gun or a carbine or whatever? I’d rather have a bazooka fired at me than a bullet.”

“Shall we break for lunch now? Please?”

“Hmm . . . why do you eat the same shitty food that I eat? I don’t have a choice, but you do. Why are you even here, by my side? I know it is not pity. No, you’re not the type to waste your breath on something so vulgar. So is this that detail of love in which God resides? I like God in that case. Yes . . . I like the detail with which you’ve been made and with which your mind works. The Pac-Man, for instance.”

He choked at the last sentence.

“Don’t be alarmed,” she laughed. “I’ve been with you too long to not be able to read your thoughts.”

“Can I ask you why?” He walked back to the bed and shifted the blanket a bit so he could sit next to her.

“Why what?”

“Why you’re obsessing with this idea of standing in the middle of the No Man’s Land? How is it going to change anything?”

“You’re right. It won’t change a thing. Except perhaps, the detail that God forgot to write into my life.”

She formed her palms into binoculars once again and held them in front of his eyes. “Look at that land,” she said, “how parched it looks despite drinking up the blood of thousands. Do you think it is greedy? Perhaps it could do with some more blood . . . the cancerous variety maybe?”

“Oh shut up . . .”

“No. You must listen. Somewhere in that stretch of land is my family – all bones or ashes I’m sure, but family nevertheless.”

“Nonsense! I’m the only family you’ve had.”

“Maybe. But sometimes, I have these visions . . . when the nurse ups the level of morphine in my drip. I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. I could then show you what I see. Or wait, maybe that’s not such a great idea . . .”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s not a sweet vision,” she said, closing her eyes tight. “I see myself huddled under mother’s protective embrace. Father and brother carrying several bundles, hobbling beside us. There are thousands of people swarming towards either side – on foot, on carts- as though they are ants in a race to reach the finish line and taste the saccharine sweet life of their choice waiting for them. And then there are people looting, stabbing, massacring . . .” her voice trailed away.

“You don’t have to do this,” he said, taking her hands in his. “We’ve not discussed this in all these seventy years. Why now?”

“Because I should... I need to! Before I start losing my mind. Or maybe because I’ve already lost it.”

“No. You haven’t.”

“Really? I’m not so sure. Can you really see that stretch of land through my binoculars? All I can see is a nurse passing through the peephole in that door every now and then. Maybe it’s you who has lost your mind,” she quipped.

“Maybe. It isn’t a bad thing, you know . . . losing your mind. At times I feel sanity is overrated. What really do we achieve by maintaining sanity, especially at our age?”

“Pain, mostly?”

“Yes. Pain. They say time heals, but if you ask me I’d say time amplifies. It amplifies all our pain and hurls it back at us again and again when all we want to do is forget.”

“And makes us want to dig a tunnel to the middle of some Godforsaken stretch of land,” she chuckled.

“Ah yes . . . the tunnel. I’ve been thinking about it. And I’m going to help you dig it.”

“Really? Why?”

“Because I can see that land. I thought it was a mirage, at first; but I now know that it is real.”

And how do you know for sure? Her raised eyebrows seemed to be asking him.

“You are not the only oracle here. I get visions too. Not of the same stretch of land as yours, but something pretty damn close. With the haunting whistle of a train to boot.”

She tightened her grip on his hand. An unfathomable sadness had settled into his eyes. He was no doubt recollecting their days at the refugee camp. For a moment, she wished she hadn’t broached the subject that they had packed and stowed away in the farthest corners of their hearts.

“So, it is decided then that we’ll dig the tunnel?” it was now her turn to change the subject.

“Yes. As soon as you’re discharged. But mind you, you’ll not be alone in crawling through it. I’ll be there right behind you.”

“Impossible! You’ll never fit into that hole.”

“Oh you’ll see how I do it! And when we reach the middle, our heads will pop out in unison.”

“And we’ll get bazooka-ed in unison?”

“Maybe. I’ll be, for sure. But if you hold up a placard saying ‘I’m a woman’, maybe they’d program that thing to avoid your head.”

They laughed. She knew she’d never hold up that placard. So did he. It wasn’t long before tears streamed down their eyes and flooded that parched stretch of land, hoping to alter its taste buds for ever.


Issue 86 (Jul-Aug 2019)

  • Editorial Musings
    • Semeen Ali: Editorial Musings
  • Stories
    • Anubhav Chakraborty: ‘Why does the Blackbird Sing?’
    • Bhaskar Thakuria: ‘The Butterfly Effect’
    • Meghana Yerabati: ‘City Girls’
    • Priya Narayanan: ‘No Woman’s Land’
    • Rituparna Sen: ‘An Ordinary Possession’
    • Shweta Tiwari: ‘The Golden Watch’
    • Sridhar V: ‘The Firewall’