Ramlal sat beside a pond tossing pebbles into the water. He watched the ripples slowly disperse until they vanished in the stagnant water at the pond’s edge. Each pebble, like my dreams, gets absorbed in the deep, he thought.
The constant murmur of the twenty-two spouts in the background mingled with a voice saying, “Bathe here; the water from these sacred taps will purify both your mind and body.” Ramlal muttered under his breath, “Fat chance! This spring water is contaminated at its very source; can it clean anything?” But then nothing is pure, everything is polluted here . . . water, food, milk . . . tainted by corruption, like politics in Nepal!
With Baishak Sankranti around the weekend, Balaju Park had been gripped by a festive fervor. Men whistled, women laughed; they all sang doharis while engaging in cleaning and decoration works. Ramlal was physically present in the Park but his mind travelled to that time in his past.
Seven years back, he was Comrade Chattaan! He was hiding inside a cave in the dense forest in Dang. With him were four fellow revolutionaries. Others involved in this mission—his fellow combatants—were posted a bit further, scattered in groups. Their task was to stall the army trucks that transported a consignment of arms and supplies to different military barracks and to capture weapons and ammunitions for their liberation.
Fearing an attack by militants, state security had been alerted. There was a high risk of being killed or arrested. For Chattaan, however, the mission was extremely important.
Chattaan waited with his colleagues. The trucks would reach this point shortly after dusk. Choppers hovered overhead, plying the length of the highway. Chattaan wondered if this was a routine security check or if the army anticipated their ambush!
Gunshots shattered Ramlal’s composure. Surely, the enemies know our plans! Is this a trap? But their movement would not sustain much longer without this consignment. This culvert near Bhalubang was the place for them to capture the vehicles en-route to Rolpa.
It was a matter of pride for Chattaan for being chosen as the commander of this mission…Any slight error would be fatal…but they could not turn back. Chattaan did not fear death. Their mission mattered a lot, more than his life or that of any of his friends here for that matter.
He heard gunshots again. Where on earth was Hari! He should have been here by now with information.
The four of them, all in combatant outfits, looked at each other. They had to plan each move stage by stage; so, information was important. Chattaan sneaked out of the cave. Just then, a small boy handed him a crumpled note and dashed off. It was a coded message: Hari was critically injured in an encounter with patrol personnel.
Despite the setback, Comrade Chattaan, true to his name—a boulder, could not be destroyed easily. He would forge on.
Just after sunset, the team had planted an ambush at the turning, concealing the wires with leaves and twigs that littered the dusty road. An hour later, the consignment trucks appeared, flanked by escort vans, one ahead and another behind. They took their positions. “Attack…ready 1, 2, 3,” Chattaan commanded.
Then a powerful blast rang through the forest. Pandemonium broke out. Birds abandoned their nests and dogs barked and foxes howled in the eerie darkness.
The first vehicle had overturned, as had the second. Everything had gone according to their plan. At Chattaan’s orders a supporting group of their militant army arrived.
Burnt limbs lay strewn all around. In just a few minutes, the forest was still, like a cemetery.
What happened next was all fuzzy in Ramlal’s memory.
Things became chaotic but at the end of this battle, Chattaan and his friends managed to seize a huge consignment of weapons and ammunitions. Many people from both sides were killed but Chattaan had little time to grieve for his friends.
Chattaan was a hero, a part of unrecorded history! His four comrades were declared martyrs, and his contribution to free his motherland from tyranny of corruption was registered in invisible lines.
A wave of loud sounds playing Bollywood dance numbers jolted Ramlal out of his nostalgic reverie, bringing him back to his present reality. A group of teens had set up a camp nearby, clearly intending to dance and party the day away.
Insurgency had ended but the chain of events that followed within his organization after the peace pact had Ramlal perplexed. Suddenly, then the ideology by which they had set on the path to transform the society itself seemed to have changed its meaning for some in Ramlal’s party hierarchy. He found his seniors involved in accumulating wealth for themselves, instead of working for the poor and downtrodden as they had pledged.
Ramlal had produced sufficient proofs that his seniors were involved in corruption, and reported it to the organization. But on the contrary Ramlal found himself framed on charges of corruption! Overnight Ramlal, the golden boy of the revolutionary unit, was transformed into a rebel, a law-breaker and a threat to society! A warrant was issued. An inquest was ordered.
Ramlal had challenged his seniors. He felt like a fool to have blindly trusted such people. “I am not guilty,” he had shouted repeatedly. A charge-sheet produced before the committee was read out: “Ramlal, alias Chattaan! You are charged as guilty for assassinating innocent people and are held responsible for masterminding the capture of state weapons and ammunitions in Dang attack. Do you have anything to say?”
A bewildered Ramlal screamed at his own tribunal, “I am innocent. My papers have been tampered with. I only worked for my organization. Why, then, am I accused? If I am guilty, aren’t the people who gave me those orders to be blamed too? I have risked my whole life for the cause and betterment of society, but now…Our ideals, what happened to them!”
But nobody seemed to hear him.
An order for Ramlal’s arrest was issued. The earth beneath his feet suddenly seemed to cave in.
Some of Ramlal’s former associates still did believe Ramlal was innocent. His sincerity was something these few friends would vouch their lives on. And it was these friends who helped Ramlal escape the custody.
Ramlal reflected on the transition. His past – a hero; and present – a wretched fugitive. As for his future, he did not know. He just knew his goal was still unfulfilled and he had to plan many things. He had to act fast before the anti-terrorist squad rounded him up, to be incarcerated in a dark dungeon where he would be lost in the abyss till eternity…
He took out George Orwell’s Animal Farm from his bag. This book was now his Bhagawat Gita, Koran and Bible. He had read this book several times in the past, but only now he seemed to understand it all. Snowball…Napoleon…the commanders…the comrades… The pact against humanity had cost many innocent lives. Ramlal remembered the lofty pledges in their party manifesto, but as the situation changed, it seemed the policy and pledges had been sacrificed.
Wasn’t I a freedom fighter? Or all of a sudden have I become a terrorist all over again? Ramlal could not answer his own question.
Who actually is a freedom fighter and who is a terrorist? The lines between the two seemed blurred.
A grating sound interrupted Ramlal’s thoughts as the music that the youths were dancing to, ended abruptly. Image FM halted its broadcast for an important alert: “A deadly terrorist by the name of Ramlal Chetri, alias Chattaan, is absconding from the police. According to eyewitnesses, he was last seen near Narayangopal Chowk. Citizens, please beware: this man could be armed. Any news about his whereabouts will be handsomely rewarded.”
“Let’s move. I think we should leave this place. The situation may get bad,” a female voice said. Others agreed.
The voices faded away in the distance…
Ramlal had to move fast, but inconspicuously too, before someone recognized him and informed the authorities.
Stealthily, Ramlal stood upright, ruffled his khaki trousers and stomped dust out of his canvas shoes.
One last time he looked at the landscape of Kathmandu: the concrete jungle, the hazy sky polluted by smog and dust. He tossed one last stone at the pond, and without waiting for the ripples to dissipate, walked uphill, north towards the mountains, towards wherever destiny would lead him.
[Eda Upadhaya has an MPhil degree in English literature from Pokhara University. He writes stories and poems, and also enjoys translating. Her published works include The Winding Path, a collection of poems. She has also edited Hulaki, a collection of stories published by Institution of Advanced Communication, Education and Research (IACER), Pokhara University.]