ALARM BELLS

Malsawmi Jacob

Fire on the mountain, run run run!

“Parte, Parte,” Thanpari’s mother shouted breathlessly. She had come back literally running from the morning market on hearing the news.

“What is it, ka nu? [i] Is a tiger chasing you?” Pari asked in her habitual joking way. “Let me get the axe to kill it,” and pretended to be going for it.

“Parte, it’s no time to joke,” her mother said, half amused, half annoyed. “Call the children and get them ready. We have to run away from here. There’s going to be war between the MNF and the Assam Rifles. With our house so near the barracks, it’s not safe to stay here.” And she told her daughter the news she had heard.

***

Some MNF men had been on a mission to capture the Quarter Guard of the Assam Rifles in Aizawl and were getting ready for the operation. They were cleaning their guns and fitting the grenades. They talked as they worked. “We must get some of the vai [ii] army heads to decorate our houses as in the olden days,” one said. They all laughed.

“Then when we have sons we can give them names like Vailukhaia,” said another.

“Or Vaikapa, Vaithata, Vaisama ” rejoined another.

“A bad idea! If you give such names to your sons, their friends will address them as ‘Vaia’. Do you really want a son called Vaia?”

“That’s right! You think you’re trying to evict vais from the land but you will be multiplying vais if you give your sons such names.”

“Ha ha ha ha!”

The crucial task ahead did weigh on their minds but the mood was upbeat.

“We are well prepared, we can expect this one to go smoothly,” said Captain Chawnghminga. “We must do it a bu ang thlap, perfectly according to the book.”

“Yes, we are almost independent now.”

More laughter.

“By this time tomorrow we will be a free country.”

A sudden hush fell over the group. The magnitude of the moment seemed to have taken hold of them.

The hand of a boy who was handling a grenade trembled. The grenade slipped out of his hand and rolled on the floor. No one knew how the pin came off. He watched in horror helpless, transfixed.

Chawnghminga acted quickly. He went down on the floor and threw himself on the grenade, covering it with his body. It went off immediately. Those who heard the sound came to see.

The house owner’s daughter, a girl of about twenty, was the first to reach the room. She gave a piercing scream and tottered out. Others ran in. Pieces of flesh were pasted on the walls. Blood was splattered all around.

The news was relayed fast. Two young men were despatched to inform the family of the victim that an accident had taken place. The youth group took charge according to normal practice. All the local people knew what to do in an emergency. They were trained for that from the moment they became teenagers.

“Booommm….” The deep bass of darkhuang sounded out in the night. In the quiet late night air, the sound travelled a long way. After a gap, another boom. And then yet another after an interval. Those who heard understood that the gong was announcing death.

Zorami, then aged eleven, woke up from her sleep. She looked towards her mother’s bed and saw that she was awake and sitting on the bed. “Ka nu, where is it from? Who has died?” she asked.

“I don’t know, it seems to be from Zarkawt side. It’s not loud enough to make out where it is. We’ll get to know in the morning. Go back to sleep.”

The swift footed ones living close by ran to the church, from where the gong sounded,   to find out who had died.

The youth flocked to the dead man’s house to keep the family company, singing hymns to comfort them. The next day, the men made the coffin and dug the grave. The funeral was held a little before noon.

After the burial, the MNF group re-assembled in another house. They were exhausted with the previous night’s ordeal, with shock and sleeplessness. But they were not able to rest. Lieutenant Thanga, the second in command of the group, addressed them.

“Captain Chawnga died to save our lives, as we all know. If he had not taken the brunt of the grenade’s force, more of us would have died. Because of that accident we could not carry out our last night’s mission. I think it is our duty to complete that work. Should we allow our captain’s sacrifice go in vain?”

Some spoke up. “If we do not carry out the task it would be a shame.”

“Yes, his spirit deserves our respect. Let’s go ahead and do what we have to do.”

“But isn’t it better to wait for some days and recover our strength?”

“No, no! Let’s strike at once.”

They stormed the Assam Rifles camp in the night. But the Rifles men were ready for them. A gun battle raged the whole night. It continued the next day too. People living in the houses nearby left their homes for safer places.

***

Thanpari was the eldest child in the family. She had just turned fourteen. Her father, a travelling trader, was out of town. As her mother told her, she herded her two brothers and two sisters. They finished their morning meal and started packing. They grabbed a few clothes and two blankets, some uncooked rice and a few food items – all they could carry, and left their home.

The youngest, Mawiteii, three years old, had to be carried. The boys, Masanga and Mathanga, aged six and eight, were excited. To them, it was fun carrying their luggage and marching out of home.   Only Hmingteii, the sister just younger to Pari and twelve years old, could understand the enormity of the situation. She trembled and wept as they left their home. They set out on foot, as they had no access to any other form of conveyance.

The family reached the outskirts of the town in the afternoon. They spent the night in the house of a distant relative, and set out again the next day after the morning meal. They were heading for the village where Pari’s grandparents and uncles were living. On the way, they met others who were also fleeing Aizawl. These talked about an all-night gun battle between “Vai sipai and Mizo sipai,” and how scared they were of getting shot in the crossfire.

As they went up on a hillside, Aizawl town was clearly visible from the path. They heard the sound of aeroplanes, and saw that they were flying low over Aizawl. Some things dropped down from the planes, loud cracking sounds and fire followed. “It’s burning, houses are burning!” some of the travellers exclaimed.

“They’re dropping bombs!”

They all watched in horror.

“If father comes home now, what will he do?” Mathanga asked in a sudden touch of worry.”

“What will we do if a bomb falls on him?” Masanga echoed the anxiety.

Their mother winced and said, “Don’t think of such terrible things. Just walk on.”

***

The group of MNF soldiers who attacked the Assam Rifles were still engaged in gun battle. Tired and sleep deprived, they fought with double ache in their hearts. They had lost Captain Chawnga but could not mourn for their saviour. Spurred on by guilt and anger, they fought ferociously.

Suddenly, a roaring sound came from above. The men looked up in the midst of their shooting and saw two aeroplanes in the sky. They put down their guns and watched in horrified fascination as some objects dropped from the planes and fell with loud bursts. Soon the houses caught fire.

“Aaahh! Awiii!” Women screamed.

“They are dropping bombs!”

Children cried, calling on their mothers.

“What shall we do?”

“Run! Run to the jungle!”

Karei Alas! It’s awful!”

“All our things are lost!”

“Where is my baby?”

“What will we do with grandpa? He can barely walk.”

“We have to carry him.”

People fled in alarm out of the town, many running with no clear idea of which way to go.

About two decades earlier, during the Second World War, there had been fears that the Japanese might reach Mizoram. But the area had stayed safe. Not one bomb of the enemy had fallen. But now, India had begun an attack on a part of its own territory. Targeting its own citizens. The Mizo people began to experience genuine terror for the first time in their national history.

In one home, Zari, a nineteen year old girl, was about to serve the morning meal when the planes roared above. A loud crash some way off, the house shook.

“Get under the beds!” Pu Luaia, the father, said. He set an example by rushing into the bedroom and crawling under the double bed. Zari and her two younger brothers, also in their teens, followed and quickly slipped in under their own beds. Mother was the slowest. “Quick! Before it hits you!” her husband said and pulled her in beside him. More blasts, but farther away. Finally, the planes roared off and became silent.

They all crawled out, shaken. “They’re likely to return. Get ready, we have to flee. Let’s go to the forest,” Zari’s father commanded. They packed in a hurry, in silence. “Take the food along, we’ll eat when we reach a safer place,” the father said. So they loaded the pots of cooked rice, vegetables and boiled chicken along with its soup in an em and set out. All carried loads, Zari carrying the basket of cooked food. The chicken soup spilled and wetted her clothes. But there was no time to go back and change. They hurried on.

On the way they met a large number of people who were fleeing too, all heading towards the woods. Just as they entered the forest, they heard the sound of aeroplanes again. They crouched under bushes.   Children cried, their mothers tried to calm them. Some of the older children were curious, and wanted to watch the planes. Pu Luaia cautioned them. “Don’t look up, the pilots can see your eyes! Hide your faces!” More crashing sounds.

Then the planes flew away and it was quiet again. The whole party camped for the night among the trees. Many of them set out for nearby villages the next morning. But Pu Luaia’s family and some others stayed on.

It was going to be a long haul.

***

Notes:

[i] ‘My mother’

[ii] Non-Mizo plains people

***

Excerpted from the forthcoming novel Zorami by Malsawmi Jacob

***

Malsawmi Jacob lives in Bangalore. She writes poems, stories and other materials, and also teaches English in a degree college as a guest lecturer.
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1 Comment

Filed under Book Excerpts, Fiction, Tin Trunk

One response to “ALARM BELLS

  1. Roderick Chalmers

    When I first started reading the story of the fighting in Aijal, I found it a bit slow, but I continued reading and got absorbed in the storyline.
    It became more interesting towards the end.
    Thank you so much.

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