Owners of the Land (Short Story)

“I want to take a peek, I will open the door just a bit”, says the voice in my head. It sounds like the most ridiculous idea I ever had. But I want to see whats going on outside.
I am crouched next to the door as the wood and building material fall from the ceiling of this old bungalow. As I hear the sound of bomb blasts in the vicinity and I am very scared.
It has perhaps just been half and hour but it feels like ages, have they killed my parents. They said they will, I wish I could have saved all of this from happening. Look at all this now, look at all the savagery, what can all this give anyone?
England was so much better, why did we have to travel all the way back to the East Indies again, here in this remote location? Everyone back home called father, the Zamindaar, the land owner. The villagers worked in his lands but he didn’t pay them any wages, it was not right. I wouldn’t have even noticed if it was not for England. Rumours were rife that the British will soon have to leave and then the people will take away all of his land or worse still, kill him and us. They hate us. Father being a friend of the British just makes them hate us more.
I loved England, my school, my classmates and the snow. Catherine, Elisabeth and me were best of friends. We were the envy of the class, we would score the most in the class and were great in poetry recitation, elocution and school debates. Milton is my favorite poet.
Mother did not enjoy it so much though. Unlike there in England, families back home did not send their daughters to school. Mother always had to observe the Purdah or a face cover and could not decided who she would marry. I have never seen mother talk in front of father and his word is final in our household. My mother’s family were also Zamindaars from another village. There are not many photographs of my parents wedding but in one of them she looks so beautiful in a Saree laden with gold jewellery. She looks like a goddess yet father’s face is stern as if disappointed. Mother told me they saw each other on the day of their wedding. “Was my fate going to be the same?” I would always think, I dare not ask.
Although mother could not speak to anyone but the servants, she loved the trains. She would marvel the idea of the giant iron monster taking her wherever she wished to go. She would go about bragging in front of everyone telling them where she had been and that too in a train!
I was 7 when we left and my mother was ecstatic that I would go to school. She herself had always wanted to. I would come back from school and teach her whatever I would have learnt that day. However I soon realised that she was not so interested in studying but her eyes would lighten up when I would tell he about all the girls playing hopscotch and the skipping rope. She would ask about the school plays I would participate in and although whatever she understood was very limited, she would always want to see when I practiced.
Father decided to leave as soon as I finished school. My friends were there and Henry. But my father would not have it. I overheard him talking to the Officers that he could handle the Queen’s Estate in the Indies. He was to be paid very well and had to set up a factory for making dyes.
We have been here for three years. Father said that I am to be married to some Zamindaar’s son. I don’t even know his name, and when I asked, my father called me out for my insolence. I was to trust his decision that he was to take for me just like he did for the horses.
But these three years were not as bad as I imagined. This place had changed my opinion.
Since my spirits had been low, my mother suggested that I go with the servants and get to know the local gentry. How can I say “No” to my mother?
The servants never really talked. They always answered with “Yes, Ma’am” and “No Ma’am” when I just wanted to talk to them but I understood, I was not born in an equal society. They were born poor, I was born a girl.
On my way I saw some children playing some local form of hopscotch so I asked the driver to stop and talked to the kids. They giggled at how I talked and let me play with them. The servants kept calling out, I was making my feet dirty, my dress dirty, I was just happy to know that they could actually talk! After leaving England this was the only time when I had actually enjoyed some merriment. I asked the servants to give an apple to each of the children and then with my dirty feet and upbeat mood, I left for the get-together that I knew nobody was going to enjoy.
Since then I would leave everyday to play or just talk to the children, with the servants serving as unwilling confidants. Mother would think that I have made friends with the local affluence. It was perfect. Sometimes I would just play, sometimes just talk to them, tell jokes. I would take some sweets for them everyday, sometimes fruits and we would have a mini picnic. The children would bring home-made bread and local berries and sometimes even clothes that I could wear to look like them. We would run round, with some people not able to recognize me with my “village clothes” on. I would not go far though, I didn’t want the servants to lose their job.
It was that one time when we were playing hide and seek and I was still in my village costume. I decided to hide behind the bushes right next to the car. As I hid there, I watched some men who looked like the ones working in the factory talking amongst themselves. They talked about a train robbery and guns and that they can finally drive “those blood-suckers” out as they walked past the car. The servants looked worried but they didn’t mingle with the workers. The children found me and I cut short our play-date that afternoon.
I had eagerly waited for father that evening. When he arrived I insisted on leaving, not just us but the British families too. But he asked me why? I couldn’t tell him why. What would I say, that I have been mingling with the villagers under the pretense of socializing? I just told them that I didn’t feel good with the recent news of increasing incidences of unrest at the factory being printed everyday in the newspapers. Father never took me seriously, he would boast about the prowess of the British and how they would kill everyone who revolts. He said that we were with the stronger side and I should just worry about buying jewelry for my wedding. So, I told myself that perhaps we were with the stronger side, did I want to be with the stronger side? Did I want to be at any side? I just wanted what Henry would have in England, an opportunity to study in a university. But I dare not ask.
A bullet whizzes a few inches past my right shoulder. I am taken by surprise. My worst fears have come true. I run to the other side of the house. There is so much noise, I am completely covered in dirt, from hair to toes. I am worried that I am going to die tonight.
Suddenly as I turn around, I see more bullets making big holes in the wall I sat next to. I run without thinking in the opposite direction and all I can see is the fallen wooden beam from the ceiling. My room is completely demolished and I can simply run out of the house. I see the other bungalows through the collapsed wall. They seem to be suffering the same fate and through the dust, I can see human figures with rifles in their hands. I am frozen inside but I know at the back of my mind that the room will collapse if I don’t get out so I run out without wasting any more time.
There is a cross-fire it seems as I see people is uniforms shooting towards me! I keep running behind towards the servants quarters opposite to the door of my room. I look back as the roof of my room collapses and billows of dust clouds form, suffocating me. There is so much noise from the gunshots.
I just stand there dumbfounded as someone pulls me in. I let out a shriek but am too weak to resist. I turn around and its a woman, I don’t know her. Who is she? Will she kill me, have they killed my parents? Where are they?
Then I see the whole room is full of people, I can’t see the servants. These are just regular village people, women and children. What are they doing here? Children too! Its a war zone here, why are they there? And then I see the women carrying single barreled guns.
Am I their prisoner? Are they going to torture me just like my father tortured them? Nobody says anything, they are quietly listening. Then a blast and the main door opens wide from the impact. I see the children’s face lit brightly in the light. I don’t see my little friends, the whole room is full of children. As someone closes the door, the woman who pulled me in, looked right at my face and says, “Thanks for the apples, Kishan loved them.” Her eyes are now full but she tries her best not to cry and she looks away.
She had saved my life because I gave apples to her son! She must be his mother. But why did she cry? And then as I understand, tears run down my cheeks. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to say. A part of me felt that we all will suffer the same fate with this shack becoming our mass grave. I now wait for my fate to unfold.
Then I notice that at the back of the room a woman is whispering to a man, I go close enough and try to pay attention. They are talking about leaving as they have already guessed that this house cannot hold us much longer. The man says that the back door of the room is still being guarded by the village men, they have sworn to kill any Zamindaar or Britisher they see. I wonder why they haven’t shot me yet and then I realize I look nothing like what they expect. I look filthy and Lord did I just thank heavens for it.
The children are all absolutely quiet. I have never seen such a thing. I keep listening. The two of them plan to escape from the backdoor, they say they want to live and I think I agree with them. I now have to find a reason to leave the quarters. I look around and then I have a brilliant idea. I pick up a very small boy and place him on my hip just like the villagers did. The boy does nothing to resist, just stares at me. “Great!” I think. Then walking to the door I say to the men, “the boy needs to use the lavatory” The men just stare at me. I realise my folly as I handle the situation, “I mean he needs to pee”
“Then make him go here in the corner, woman!”
“He won’t, I tried”
I hold him out towards him and say, “Here, you make him!”
The man makes a confused face and says, “Ok ok, its hell out there and we have this drama going on here!” as he lets me out.
I feel proud and look at the boy who makes no attempt to say or do anything.
As I reach the back of the house, I find the man and the woman again, talking amongst themselves. Behind them I see people running away with livestock. I don’t know if its theirs or they have looted it but its better than dying in this mess. I look at the two and without saying anything we start running away as well. This time I don’t want to look back, I don’t want to see if the servant quarter is alright. I don’t want to witness any more mass murder. I just want to run away.
As I am running away, I wonder if mother had felt like this every time she sat in the trains. Did she just want to run away, did she, even if for just a while, forget us and all the trouble of the strong and the weak side. On any side, she was the one who was weak.
Its doesn’t take us long and we have left the bombs behind. Its dawn and we are tired as we finally stand on the pukka road with tarmac. The man now stops and says that now we can go wherever we want. I just stare at him. I don’t know where to go. I am now able to see them properly, the man is clean shaven and not wearing village clothes. The woman is a villager and she basically looks just as filthy as me.
“Where can I go? I don’t know this place. I have to find out about my parents first.” I say to him.
“Who are your parents?”
“The Zamindaars”
He just looks at me and then as if trying to stay clam says, “I am sorry, they were killed”
I don’t feel my heart beating for a few seconds. I feel a knot in my throat but I can’t bring myself to cry. I just look at the boy.
The man takes something out of this pockets and amongst things are his wallet and bus tickets. He’s a bus conductor. He hands me a few Rupees and some to the woman.
“Go straight onto this road. When you think, its far enough, go to a village and make a small house there and stay until you know that its safe for you. Don’t tell anyone about who you are”
He bids us goodbye and I start walking on the side of the road. I turn around and the woman is still following the man. I ask him loudly, “ why does the boy not speak?”
The man turns around and shouts, “Maybe ask when was the last time he ate!” as he disappears behind the trees.
I look at the boy again, he must be 4 or maybe older, I am ashamed but I have to take care of us now. This boy has saved my life and now he is my responsibility.
As I walk in the cool light of the dawn, I wonder where the parents of the boy were, were they even alive? How correct was I in taking him away like this? Why did the man ask us to build a house? Is this, whatever this is, going to take so long? What will happen to us?
As I keep walking half stupefied, I say, “..make a small house…”


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