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They were coming closer. The nameless, faceless sea of… of… Who were they, really? They, who lived in these very streets; who had been neighbours.
Darkness had descended on them a few hours ago and yet the city was ablaze with brightness. It was the kind of night when even the moon cowered in fear, shrouding itself in the blanket of comforting clouds, as if to turn its gaze away from the atrocities that went on right under its nose. As if shielding its eyes from seeing would stop it from actually happening at all.
A scrap of paper floated up and disappeared into oblivion. In the corner, a short distance away, a lone street light angrily blinked on and off.
In front of the Kapoors’, right in the middle of a row of houses, was the white car. From the backseat, the face of a child peered out the open window. A stack of suitcases and bags constituted the luggage, packed and loaded in the bootspace. They were all set for the long tiresome journey ahead.
From somewhere deep in the city came the faint traces of sirens and screams. The three adults gasped for breath at the same time. Was it the rising temperatures or was it fear gripping their hearts?
‘GO!’ Ananya said, her voice a hoarse whisper.
Samaira refused to loosen her grip and clutched Ananya’s hands tighter. ‘What are we without you all? You-our family, our friends, our people. Where will –’
‘That’s pure nonsense. Just go!’ Ananya said, her voice laced with fury. How could Samaira be so naïve at this time. She wouldn’t be swayed by these frivolous emotions now. Didn’t she know this wasn’t the time to show any love or longing? Not anymore! ‘We are not your people,’ Ananya hissed through clenched teeth. ‘We don’t care about you. We would leave you to die. Worse, we will kill you.’ She refused to meet Samaira’s gaze.
‘You won’t, Anu, I know, you won’t. Hide me in your home. Lock me in your cupboard. I’ll remain quiet and unmoving if they come to check. We all will. Zeeshan won’t even utter a peep.’
‘That’s not possible. I don’t want you here,’ she blurted without a second’s thought, her mind focussed on freeing her hands from Samaira’s.
A sharp intake of breath from Samaira forced Ananya to look at her in the eye. Endless tears streaming down both their faces, their fingers still locked in each other’s, the two women stared at each other.
The mention of Zeeshan, her favourite person in the world, had begun to weaken Ananya’s resolve. She didn’t want them to go. No, she wanted them to be with her. She wanted them to stay. Her gaze travelled to the face peering at her from the car. A surge of love for those innocent eyes, that once had a mischievous spark in them but today were clouded by a pool of tears, was soon replaced by sanity.
She recovered quickly enough and spat out her next words. ‘Have you lost it? He is a kid! For how long? For how long will you remain silent and invisible? Don’t you get it? Better you alive and free elsewhere than with me and dead? There is nothing, you hear me, nothing for you here. Get out while you still can.’
The voices in the distance grew louder. The flames that had engulfed the city grew hotter. They were coming closer. The nameless, faceless sea of… of… Who were they, really? They, who lived in these very streets; who had been neighbours. Neighbours with whom both the girls had spent numerous years together, chatting, laughing, celebrating. Those neighbours were now out there in that sea, their hands holding swords, sticks, knives – anything at all that could end lives. Would end lives. Muslim lives.
In the shocked moment of silence that followed Ananya’s spiel, a whispered urge rang out. ‘Samy, please, we have to leave now, before it is too late.’ Ayub was getting impatient. He had almost got in the car but stopped when he saw Samaira still at the imposing black gates. Watching the two of them caused a lump in his throat too. It was the culmination of a lifetime of moments that had to be fit in to a few seconds. Could love really be expressed so quickly? And could regret, hope, fear?
Samaira shook her head furiously, blocking out everything else. She clutched at Ananya tighter. ‘No! No, I am not leaving you here. Either you come with us or we stay.’
‘Don’t be stupid. I’ll be fine.’ Ananya tried extricating herself from Samaira’s grip. A memory of their Badminton games flashed before her eyes. Ananya pushed it away. Now was not the time. She looked at Samaira and pleaded. ‘We spoke about this. We’ve gone over it all a thousand times. We’ll be connected all the time,’ Ananya said, her words a hollow reassurance to her own ears.
‘Samy, there’s no time left. Please.’ Ayub’s voice was louder and more commanding this time.
‘We promised each other. We promised eternal friendship,’ Samaira said, ignoring her husband’s pleas.
‘That was a long time ago. We were stupid!’ Ananya flashed her a look of fury and hatred. ‘What do you want me to say? What will make you leave, huh? Don’t you get it? Haven’t you seen, heard, experienced enough?’ The piercing look in Ananya’s eyes made Samaira shrink back.
Over the rolling din of thundering footsteps and screaming voices that kept coming closer and threatened to flatten them in its wake, came the sound of a solo sob. ‘Mummy!’
Torn between staying and running, Samaira looked back at the tear-stricken face of her seven-year-old son.
Ananya grabbed this moment of indecision. ‘For him, go!’ She pushed Samaira again, but their hands remained locked, a reminder of their unbreakable friendship. Ananya looked at Ayub desperately; a look that needed no words was exchanged. That had been the relationship between the women. With Ayub, there had been comfort in words. How had the roles reversed in the space of a few hours?
Ayub let out a conflicted sigh, slammed the car door shut, and raced to where his wife and their next-door neighbour stood. Or rather, his next-door neighbour. For his wife, it was her best friend for more than a decade. This separation was no wonder hard on them all. For one, it was not their choice. And two, no matter how many times you’ve said it before, there really is no easy way to say goodbye and leave your life behind. And, for what? Where were they going? What were they moving towards? Their home, their life, their world was here, where they had lived all these years. Ayub didn’t have the luxury to reminisce.
Together, Ananya and Ayub pried Samaira’s fingers free. A screaming, kicking, sobbing, Samaira was half dragged, half pushed to the car, and bundled up in the seat. ‘I’ll bind your hands if I have to. Stay put,’ Ayub threatened gruffly. Samaira burst out crying but remained seated. Ayub got in the driver’s seat and revved up the engine.
Ananya waved them a final goodbye, the tears flowing faster and thicker now. The image of the back of Ayub’s hand, outstretched through the window, raised in response to her, and Zeeshan peering at her through the back windshield, his tiny hands sending her a flying kiss, would remain etched in her mind, albeit not for very long.
As the car lurched forward, it took them away from what they called ‘home’; now obscured from their own view in a cloud of dust and smoke.
The raging sea of demons was almost visible now. The shapeless shifting mass had acquired the form of humans charging through the streets. Some of them carried guns and pistols. By the time, they crossed the now-on-now-off street light, the car had sped off to safety.
Ananya let out a sigh of relief and turned to face them. Angry but familiar faces questioned the whereabouts of that one family that lived next door to her. She smiled at them. Her eyes, devoid of any evidence of the tears that filled them minutes earlier, told them what they did not want to hear. Humanity had won.
A single shot rang out in the silent night and made true a promise the two friends had made to each other years ago.
Image source: unsplash
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Piyusha is a sometime sane reader, part-time crazy writer and full-time wacky alien.
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