Somte Ralte | April 2022

Stories had always been one of the most integral forms of bonding to my father’s side of the family, and our family gatherings would naturally culminate into retellings of the past, albeit told from different angles. Many of those retellings were not merely for us children but also for themselves, since there were multiple times when misgivings of the past that remained unattended were sorted and neatly shelved, once retold after many years. 

When her eyes had that faraway look, I knew at once that my aunt was about to tell me another story from her youth.

Growing up, my aunt chose a different path from her siblings. She married young and became a dutiful homemaker, never complaining about anything in her life. She was always cheerful and witty, and her stories always made us laugh till our bellies ached and our breathless pleas to make her stop would excite her all the more.

I expected another funny anecdote from her eventful life at the village that they were forced to leave after the Army-men razed it to ground with fire in the latter 1960s. We had heard countless adventures that our family went through during the period now called “insurgency”, when Mizoram demanded freedom from the Indian state following the Mautam famine of the 1950s–how her quick thinking had saved their domesticated animals,how the soldiers who arrived to burn the village had helped her save many household articles from fire, how she had called out to all the villagers to grab their belongings from their homes as she ran to the top of the mountain to ring the church bell to summon everyone to the church, how the entire family hid in their brother in-law’s jhum hut but had to eventually join the nearest village grouping centre when a storm tore the hut apart,how my father befriended the Army-men and learnt a smattering of Hindi words from them,how my uncle sat for his Matriculation exams under the guard of the Army and how our eldest cousin became malnourished because there was not enough to eat. Despite the hardships that they had gone through, their recollections of this period were always told with their characteristic humour and interspersed with lively anecdotes.

“I’m a bit pensive today,” my aunt began, sitting straight on the bed. It was almost nine o’clock and already past her bedtime. Perhaps she was making efforts to stay up longer with me since she was going back to the village the next day. “Today’s the fourteenth and it marks the anniversary of the day my best friend and I volunteered to help our underground men carry their loads.”

Her tone was sombre and she faltered off, her eyes still having that faraway look and for a brief second, I wondered if she’d get lost in the past and never return to the present.

“When we fought for independence, most of us wanted to be part of the fight in one way or the other; even though we understood the immediate danger that it’d bring. My best friend and I would talk about it secretly when we would go to the forest to collect firewood. But we knew that joining the underground or assisting them in any way would not only put ours but our family’s lives in great danger. There were spies among our very own people who would report to the Army. It was a stressful time to be alive, to be constantly wary of others and be at our own guard.  

“Parpuii, my best friend, came very early that morning. She was wearing her dark green shirt and black puan, which I thought to be unusual for she was fond of lighter colours. But I was more distracted by her behaviour to pay heed to her clothes. She seemed impatient and preoccupied with something but because my parents were around, I said nothing to her. ‘Go and get dressed; I’ll sweep the floor,’ she told me and grabbed the broom. 

“I left her to change into my work clothes. There was one patch of land that needed weeding and since I’d be done before noon, I decided not to take any extra clothes. When I walked out, she had already carried our baskets, slung behind her back, mine on top of hers. I grabbed my iptepui and followed her. ‘I sharpened the chempui; so you better be careful,’ my father called after me in his loud teacher voice that boomed over our lean bamboo-fence.

“When we reached the outskirts of the grouping centre, she looked at me. Her eyes were twinkling. ‘I’ve made our wish come true,’ she said in a quick whisper. I thought I heard her wrong. ‘What wish?’ I asked and she scowled. ‘Why do you have to speak so loud?’ ‘I am loud,’ I replied, a bit annoyed. We’re all loud, our family; I think we all got it from my father’,” my aunt chuckled and continued, “I can’t tell now if I was more annoyed at her behaviour or at her calling me loud. 

“She grabbed me by the hand and whispered again, ‘Today we’ll be helping them.’ There was great excitement in her tone. ‘Them? Who?’ I felt particularly stupid for not being able to keep up with her conversation, or whatever information she was trying to convey. She stopped walking and looked at me, her face contorting with distress. She opened her mouth but words seemed to stuck in her thoughts and she decided to walk ahead instead. I followed her, quite lost. What had caused her to change overnight?

“We reached the turn at the road where it diverged into three. We took the one to the right which would take us downwards to our jhums overlooking the river. Our jhums were opposite to each other. When we walked a bit further down the slope of the mountain, she stopped and turned to me. ‘Last night U Zuia appeared out of nowhere,’ she began. ‘I was washing the dishes outside when he came.’

“Hearing U Zuia’s name made me uncomfortable. He had joined the underground two years earlier and the Army would be delighted to catch him. What made him return? Had he surrendered? I thought to myself. She then told me that he had asked her if she knew anyone trustworthy who’d be willing to help carry some loads. They were scattered into groups because they were relocating at the moment, and had received word from the higher ups that their group was to wait for a supply that would arrive by pum on the river. 

“I was scared, honest to God. I wanted to tell her no, that despite my constant babble to join the movement, I was worried about the possible consequences and hence, apprehensive of the plan. But I saw the determined look that would set in her eyes once she made up her mind and I couldn’t help but follow her. I didn’t want to betray her as much as I didn’t want to contradict myself. This could be my way of helping the fight, I had convinced myself by the time we reached the bank of the river, having walked past our respective jhums.

“U Zuia had lost considerable weight and looked extremely haggard and much older than he was. But when he smiled at us, he looked exactly the same handsome young man both of us had a crush on. However, I realized that he liked my best friend better by the way he looked at her and spoke to her in soft tones. I took back my heart from him that very day. 

“We didn’t wait long for the supply to arrive. A man we’d never seen sat on the edge of the pum. U Zuia called him by his name which I don’t remember any more. Everything was covered with black cloth so I had no idea what I was carrying. It wasn’t heavy until we reached the foothill and had to walk upwards. I was right behind my best friend and I could tell that she was struggling with her footing as we climbed higher. But then we reached a small clearing where we rested. U Zuia made some light conversations with us but the others (I don’t even know how many were there) were silent. We drank water from their canteen. We were so delighted! I felt like an underground myself then!

“Then they took out the load I was carrying and U Zuia told me that I must return to my jhum. I tried to argue but then I realized that plans had been made and the best for me was to obey. If they thought I couldn’t be quite trusted, I wouldn’t blame them because of the prevalence of mistrust everywhere. I didn’t want to leave my best friend behind; but I also knew that trying to stop her from doing what she had put her mind into was impossible. I picked up my basket and turned to go. The man who arrived with the supply followed me. I turned around to see them before they disappeared upwards in the bend on the hill. My best friend waved me goodbye. She was smiling, and that was the last I saw of her. 

“Because there were times we would return separately or with other people and because I returned at the time I told my parents I would, no one suspected anything. I grew anxious when evening came. I thought someone would come and look for Parpuii, but no one did. I didn’t know what she had told her family but it was with equal distress and relief that I went to sleep that night. I wanted to tell my sisters about what had happened but I was afraid that they’d scold me so I kept quiet.

“The next day I didn’t go to the jhum but stayed at home helping my mother husk the rice. In the evening Parpuii’s younger brother came to ask after her. I told him that I left early yesterday and did not go to the jhum. My heart seemed to be beating in my mouth; my ears rang. I might have peed on myself a little.I couldn’t eat but I was scared that my family would notice so I downed every bite with vegetable broth. I couldn’t sleep at all because my heart was thumping too loud. 

“Soon as daylight came, I rose and ran to her jhum. Someone had spent the night – I could tell from the smoke that was rising from the small hut. When I reached the hut, I didn’t think of anything but pushed the thatched door open to find Parpuii’s father and elder brother sitting by the fireplace. Their faces bore the distress of a sleepless night, it was obvious that they had been looking for Parpuii without informing others. Soon the three of us went round the jhum, calling her name. I cried at the realization of the magnitude of the secret that no one must ever know. My tears kept flowing and I couldn’t stop them. But everyone thought I was crying because I feared the worst for my best friend.

“Till today I don’t know why no one suspected my role in her disappearance. Perhaps it was because of my father’s influence or perhaps they might have suspected something and dared not ask. But Parpuii had told her family that if her work wasn’t done that day, she’d spend the night at the jhum hut which was why they only worried about her when she didn’t return the next day. 

“Ten days after Parpuii and I set out to meet U Zuia at the riverbank, neighbours from the next village found her dead body on one of the shallow banks in the river,  with a single bullet lodged perfectly at her back. Her face was badly bruised, perhaps from her fall on the rocks of the river when she was shot. Older men who inspected her body concluded that she might have been dead for three to four days. When they found her, she was still wearing her dark green shirt but was wearing trousers instead of the black puan. Nobody noticed the trousers; and I had no reason to point it out. 

“There were many speculations about the whole incident. Some believed that she was kidnapped by the Army and shot because they didn’t want her to speak out. Some said that she was an informant and was shot by the underground people because they thought she’d betrayed the nation. I’ll never know why she was shot; but I think it safe to assume now, after all these years, that Parpuii was murdered because she knew too much for her own good. The men were relocating; and she knew their hideouts. She was with them for some time and so she posed a great threat. She could be caught and interrogated. She might tell everything to me; and I was the one they sent back. 

“U Zuia died of malaria at Dhaka the next year, and so I have no way of knowing what had transpired after I was sent back from the clearing at the hill. I think about that day every year and things seem to fall into their place one by one. I’m not saying that they fall in their right places; but I’ve deduced why Parpuii was dressed in dark colours that day. We never got to talk about what had happened the night U Zuia showed up except for what she told me. But the mind likes to play its own game and fool me into thinking that I could solve the puzzle.

“So I relive the day every year in my head; and imagine that I could change the past by adding bits and pieces from my own deduction of the whole incident. In my reliving of the past, Parpuii told me about her plan with U Zuia on the night itself and I had been permitted to go along with them. Or the supply never arrived and after having waited the whole day, U Zuia sent us home. Or somehow, Parpuii returned and was found in her jhum hut, resting fitfully.”

My aunt gave a long, heavy sigh and grew silent. I couldn’t see her face but I guessed that she might be saying her night prayers so I kept my quiet. After a minute or two, she laid down on the bed beside me. She kept her arms behind her head.

“So many years have passed but I can never forget the look in her eyes that day. That determined, willful look was the only reason that stopped me from persuading her to return with me. But I had no right, had I, to stop her?”

“You had no way of knowing,” I spoke up, quite at a loss to find better words.

“Yes, I had no way of knowing,” she replied at once. “We never had any secrets from each other and that was why I couldn’t think straight that morning. I should’ve asked more; I should’ve thought that something was going on that wasn’t right. But I was confused with her secrecy and I was also afraid, that perhaps, she would stop trusting me. 

“Sometimes I ask God why He let us be born during that particular time. He could’ve let us be born five years later; and Parpuii would still be alive today. Or He could’ve stopped our births; and I wouldn’t have to live with the image of her twinkling eyes only to be renewed every year in this way.” My aunt gave another big sigh and grew silent again.

After what seemed like ages, she said, “This is the first time I’m talking about that fateful day. I feel so much better; I should’ve done it a long time ago.”

“I’m happy for you,” was all I could think of but said nothing because I didn’t feel like it was the right thing to say.

I turned to lie on my back and stared at the mosquito net overhead. I felt as if I could see a pair of bright, determined eyes staring back at me. I pictured a woman slowly falling into the water, a bullet lodged in her back. The river water splashed into million drops when she fell in. The white foam of the water formed an artistic contrast when it came in contact with her long, black hair. The water turned red, and ran red till the leaves of the trees were all red.

“Your eyes have that faraway look,” I heard my aunt’s voice in the dark.


Glossary:

Chempui: A traditional Mizo blade made of iron and mainly used to cut trees and bamboo for clearing the forest

Iptepui: A traditional Mizo sling bag

Jhum: Hillsides cleared for cultivation through slash and burn

Mautam: bamboo- flowering in Mizo hills that would cause the rats that feed on the bamboo fruits to replenish. Once the bamboo fruits are depleted, the rats would invade and devour grains and other edible food

Puan: A traditional wraparound cloth worn by Mizo women

Pum: a raft made out of bamboo stakes bound together by vines or ropes

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Author of two poetry books, Wild Hearts (2019) and A Place in the Sun (2021), Somte Ralte has published several of her poems in anthologies and journals, print and online.  Her translated story appeared in Contemporary Short Stories From Mizoram published by Sahitya Akademi(Ed. Margaret Ch. Zama, 2017). She has also translated three books for Good Shepherd Books, Hyderabad. She teaches in the Department of English (UG), Kristu Jayanti College, Bengaluru. This is her first short story.

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Photo by RK Dinpuia

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