When the soldiers came to the village, I was playing at the well, just where the fields begin, trying to wait till the sun disappeared behind the trees before going home. Of course, Amma would scold when I returned. "One day a ghost will get you. Don't you know they look for young girls like you? And just at the time when the sun is going away," she always threatened. But she still sent Dhanu-akka to find me every evening.
I started running home when I first heard the screaming. But someone caught me by the end of my half-sari and pulled me into the paddy. "Shhh... quiet." It was Chitti, pushing me into the muddy waters even as I struggled to get away. She held me down in the paddy, nearly drowning me in the brown swamp, her hand pressed tight against my mouth. She threw herself over me, pushing me further into the mud.
We stayed like that all night, Chitti lying on top of me, nearly squeezing all the air out of me. The water in the field was cold and the ground was soft. But Chitti was on top of me and even though my fingers and toes felt they would fall off, she kept my back warm with her fleshy body. She lay stiff over me, barely moving, her hand covering my mouth.
The soldiers left before dawn, but Chitti waited till the sun was high and hot before rolling off me.
"See if you can move your arms and legs a bit," she whispered, showing me how to bring life back to my cold limbs. Little tingles ran up my body as I tried to imitate her. Even then, she had to pull me up by my arms to get me out of the mud, squishing and squelching. We stayed for a long time, crouching in the paddy, until Chitti thought it was safe to go back to the house.
We walked silently, in the shadows, pausing frequently against walls and behind trees, before we reached the narrow lanes of the village. Chitti went first, craning her neck around the corners of houses before running to the next turn. She held my hand tight and dragged me along. Away from the paddy, the mud dried on us, sticking to my hair, clumping up in the braids that Amma had made yesterday. Oh Amma would be angry, I kept thinking, she had just washed and oiled my hair the morning before. The mud caked my skin, fading on my arms like a light crust. I could feel it stretch the edges of my face as it dried.
The house was empty. The kitchen fire was dead, the ashes cold and still. All Amma's pots and pans were broken and overturned. In the corner, where Amma kept grain from the fields, there was nothing. All the sacks were gone. Only handfuls of rice remained scattered all over the floor.
I saw them first. Amma and Dhanu-akka. Lying near the hand pump. Some blood around them, mostly near the head. Hands and legs spread out. Dhanu-akka lay half-turned on her side, her legs splayed in strange angles, one arm flung across her middle. But Amma's breasts lay baking in the sun, floppy and empty, the nipples large and brown, encrusted with something darker. There was blood also between their legs. More on Dhanu-akka than on Amma. And on their bellies. The earrings that Appa had given her were gone from Amma's ears. Bits of flesh hung from the lobe, with streaks of blood marking the soft skin where her dark hair ended. I must have watched them for a long time, wondering if I should cover them. Nipples get sore and burned if they stay bared to the sun too much, Amma always warned us.
Then Chitti pulled me away. Jerking me away from Amma, from Dhanu-akka, into her own slumped shoulders. She held me there for a long time, her arm tight around my head, my face crushed against Chitti's muddy sari.
"Ay, no no no," she kept mumbling, half-slumped against the wall. I peeped up to her face, twisting my face a little. Tears were streaming down her dark cheeks, washing slim rivers in the drying mud. "No, no... what to do now... ay, no, no, no."
Finally she let me go. I didn't cry then, not even a tear. My eyelashes felt crusted with the drying mud and I could barely see clearly. When I rubbed my hands across them, little clumps of mud came off, flecked with black string-like lashes.
We left for the forest quickly, not even pausing to gather things. Chitti just scraped up the scattered rice to tie at the end of her sari. Then we went, heading north to the camps where soldiers couldn't reach us. Chitti didn't know the way but we kept going deep into the dark jungle, looking for places where the tigers stay. Places that could be safe, she told me. Tigers were safer than soldiers. Tigers would eat you up, but not leave you in your house, naked and bleeding, staring with blank dead eyes at the sun.
At first we hid, walking through the night and sleeping in the fields in the daytime. Many times we slept in the paddy, like that first night. Me lying in the muddy waters, cold and shivering, Chitti lying over me, almost suffocating me with flesh that had once smelt of jasmine and coconuts. Now she smelled of dirt and sweat, and fear, I think. Something rancid and rotting. I had to hold my face against her shoulder to breathe. Turning the other way meant that I risked ending up with a nose full of mud. Each night I curled my fingers into the folds of her sari, holding on to the fabric as if it were life itself.
As we passed into the deep shadows of the jungle, we began travelling in the daytime, sleeping under the trees at night. Chitti would lean against a tree trunk, pulling a few broad leaves over us as shelter against the rain. She pulled my head against her shoulder, her arms wrapped tightly around my waist. And each night, she hummed old lullabies, the same ones I remembered Amma singing: "Dearest darling daughter, never forget me, the mother who loves you best."
Finally we came to the camp. It was a place where many people lived, some in tents and houses made from bits of wood and tin. Others – new like us – huddled under trees. There, safe from soldiers, Chitti tried to make me cry. She told me stories about Amma and Dhanu-akka, about Appa. And about me.
"At the crossing to the main road was a post of soldiers. They were laughing and talking and spitting. They were checking mostly everyone who was going into the city. They didn't check the people in the cars so closely. But everyone on foot – poor people like us – they checked. All in the open – thrusting their hands up under the women's saris, pushing their hands in the blouses. Some women were weeping, sobbing. Their men stood, glaring but silent, heads turned away, eyes looking down. No one could say anything to the soldiers. Your Amma and I wept in fear when we stood in line. Your Amma kept saying how it was good Dhanu had been left in the village with the neighbours. 'Good she doesn't have to see this, my daughter.'
"They didn't check us when our turn came. Just pushed the barrels of their guns against our bellies. We stayed silent, your Amma holding you close against her shoulders. But then one of them laughed. And he pulled you away. He put you on the table – right on top of a bunch of papers – and unwrapped the shawl around you. He spread your little legs apart, started to push with his fingers. You cried and cried, yelling so loud. Your Amma was crying too: 'Stop stop, you are hurting her. Please stop.' But the soldier kept pushing, in one hole then another. 'How do I know you aren't carrying messages? Or hiding a bomb there?' You were only two months old. We begged and screamed but he kept pushing. Finally he stopped and wiped his fingers on the shawl. 'You can take her,' he told your Amma. Then he turned away."
Strange that I think of things from so long ago tonight. Chitti is dead. One of the bombs that fall from the planes killed her in the forest. Many others died too. I am alone now. But I am not afraid. I am a tigress now.
Tomorrow I will look like a bride, ready for her marriage. Aruna has already painted my toenails with bright pink polish. I will wrap the pink and red silk around me, put fresh jasmine in my hair. I will go to the hotel where soldiers gather to relax and eat and laugh. I will ask to meet my fiancé where the lawns are meant only for the officers with ribbons of many colours on their chest and gold stars on their shoulders. I know I must be careful as I walk and hold my head straight and high, and not hold my arms too tight against myself. I know that I must smile, and walk slowly to the inside of the hotel. And I know that I have to be sure to bend slowly, slightly, when it's time to detonate the explosives.
First published in The Drawbridge, Issue 8, Spring 2008: http://www.thedrawbridge.org.uk/issue_8/tomorrow_the_tigress_will_hunt/