“Ammi, o ammi”, Ruksana shouted from outside.
Ammi’s aging eyes lit up when she heard her daughter’s voice. She dropped the vessel she was rinsing; dipped her hands in the half-full bucket of muddy water and impatiently opened the rickety door.
Ruksana embraced her mother. Little Salim looked at the two women with his big eyes and wondered why they were crying.
Ammi picked up the garam roti by the edge and it landed with a flop on Salim’s aluminium plate. The roti had blown up like a flat balloon. He poked it with his finger and withdrew it quickly as hot air poured out of it.
“Ammi, you never make rotis like nani.” Both women laughed.
Ammi and Ruksana sat by the sleeping Salim. Ruksana thought that the wrinkles on Ammi’s face had grown in the last two years. She most definitely was not as old as she looked. Ammi’s thoughts centred around her daughter’s frail body. Poor thing, Ammi thought, she has grown at least twenty years since she got married five years ago.
And the moonlight peeping in from the window was a mute witness to their woes.
“Salim’s abba and Hanif bhaiyya have gone to fetch bhabhi and munna,” Ruksana revealed the reason for her coming. “I will stay here until they come back.”
Ammi sighed. “I did not want bahu to go to her parents’ house for the delivery. It is not like our times. We could come and go across the border without fear in those days. Nowadays neither the soldiers nor the villagers like us. We are neither here nor there.” A tear went down her cheeks.
“But Hanif has no work. How can we spend for the newborn? Allah only knows how I spent the two days when Hanif took bahu across the border to her parents’ house. I read the namaz with my heart in my mouth till he came back.”
“Don’t worry Ammi. Allah will take care of everything.”
Ammi looked out of the window at the fading moon. “Yes,” she echoed, “allah will take care of everything.”
There was a knock on the door. Ammi and Ruksana pulled burqas over their heads as Ammi opened the door.
“Indian army,” the man in camouflage uniform said roughly as he barged in. “Where is your son?”
The bullock cart crawled across the muddy path, recently drenched by rain which had stopped just an hour ago. The moon looked tenderly at the newborn child and its mother while Hanif and Mohammed tried their best to stay awake. Suddenly voices rang out in Bangla.
“Stop! Or we’ll shoot!”
The driver only whipped the bullocks to go faster. As the bullock-cart entered a shallow stream, shots rang out and the driver slumped in his seat. Hanif and Mohammed looked at each other and then at the mother and child. Even through the thin fabric of the burqa, Hanif could see the terror in his wife’s eyes.
Mohammed shook Hanif. “We have to run. If we cross the stream, we will be on Indian territory. The Bangla soldiers won’t shoot us once we get there.”
After a second’s hesitation, all three of them jumped out of the cart and started wading through the stream, the mother clutching her first child to her bosom.
“Run,” Hanif prodded.
They kept going. Out of the trees, a group of five-six soldiers emerged. Rays from a torchlight danced on the waters to spot the intruders. They stopped on the three figures.
“Stop.” A stern voice commanded. But it was disobeyed and the soldiers' fingers twisted around the triggers to unleash the tiny vials of death.
Two out of the three figures fell down into the stream.
The third stopped and turned, but only for a moment as the crying infant reminded her that they would meet the same fate if she did not go on. The mother scored over the wife. She stumbled out of the stream and ran into the woods. The soldiers stopped near the two bodies and began pulling them towards the other side.
The mother and infant reached the door of the small house. She stopped and leaned against the frail wall and caught her breath. Her parched throat ached for water as much as her tired legs craved for a mat on which they could sleep. She fondled her sleeping baby and knocked on the door.
Silence from inside. Outside, the darkness was lifting and heralding the dawn of another day. The mother pushed the door open and only one word escaped her open lips: “Allah!”
Ammi and Ruksana were hanging from the ceiling, their clothes strewn about on the floor. Little Salim was … the mother’s eyes closed as she fainted.
When she regained consciousness, a rifle-holding bearded and turbaned man was towering above her. Beside him was a female, ostensibly Muslim, but she was not wearing a burqa. She, too, held a weapon in her hands. Their eyes met, and the mother stretched out a trembling hand for the weapon.
Ammi - mother
garam - hot
roti - thin, flat wheatbread popular in the indian subcontinent
abba - father
bhaiyya - elder brother
bahu - daughter-in-law
burqa - veil