This is an immensely readable and endearing, yet at the same time searing, little novel about children in conflict.
Many books have been written about this subject. But the uniqueness of this novel is that it is set in the context of the insurgency in Mizoram in the 1960s, and specifically the bombing of the town of Aizawl in March 1966 by the Indian Air Force — a horrific event about which not many people in the rest of India are even aware. The whole action of the book takes place in just a few days.
The main protagonist and narrator of the story is a young school boy who curiously remains nameless — perhaps to emphasise that he could be any boy in such circumstances. His life is centred around his beloved father and grandfather with whom he lives, his playmate Zuala and school friend Rini. His neighbours and school make up the rest of his intimate world.
The focus of the novel is the inner world of a boy caught up in larger conflict. The author almost lyrically brings out his love for his peaceful life. As when she writes (on p.29): “I am barely concerned about what is happening. Somehow, I am fed up of all the talk about independence and everything. Father walking around the house, listening to Rini talk, sitting with Grandfather by the window at night — the world is perfect for me that way. My world is small, but I am free in it. I am independent and that’s all that matters.”
Even when his best friends tentatively engage with the political developments around them, the narrator is reluctant to be drawn into it. This makes the suddenness and intensity of the transformation of the world around him all the more harrowing. In just a matter of days, the action moves from one or two demonstrations and troop movement, to sporadic firing and curfew, to explosions, bombing and mass flight of the population.
The contrast between his erstwhile carefree existence and the stark choices posed by the conflict raging around him is the central tension of this book. The narrator sees and experiences it all: the bodies of wounded children, the terrifying fear that his father has been caught in the explosion, separation from his father and friends, a desperate flight from home.
How does such a scenario affect a child? What is brought out so well is the loss of innocence. The author refrains from turning the narrator into a confirmed insurgent; rather he is still a boy who bursts into tears when he sees his father at long last. But what we see is a coming of age in the direst of circumstances. The boy who has led a sheltered life till now has to take sole responsibility for his ageing and ailing grandfather while on the run. The ultimate step in the collapse of his world is having to see his best friend, the carefree Zuali, die before his eyes and to have to accompany his body back to the boy’s family home.
The author’s greatest achievement is to get into the skin of her protagonist so smoothly that when she pens his innermost thoughts, there isn’t a trace of artificiality, of putting an adult’s words or feelings into the mind of a child. The language is deceptively simple. There is no attempt to underplay the horror of what transpires, but it is conveyed with a light touch that makes the reader turn the pages fast. The novel is only 120 pages, but within it a whole world turned upside down by conflict is captured. The author deeply understands the society she is writing about, but at the same time what she conveys is universal.
Excerpt from the book (pp.95-96)
As I walk back to my spot, I glance towards Aizawl. From where I am standing, I can see motor headlights — jeeps and trucks, I assume — streaming down the road from Durtlang Hill. The lights from the vehicles start to get blurred from the tears in my eyes till they become yellow blotches in the distant space. What will become of me tomorrow, I do not know.
I stay awake the rest of the night, dreaming of when I will see my father and my friends again. I think of our little Assam-type house where I have spent all my growing up years. The uncertainty of our tomorrows frightens me every now and then; how just a few days ago we all made a toast to a long happy life and the next day the town leapt up in flames; how I laughed uncontrollably yesterday and how my eyes never seem to dry today.
I gaze at the roof and whisper a silent half-hearted prayer that the people I love be in good hands. It is not even a proper prayer; I just need to fool myself that there is someone out there watching over us. For a moment, I envy Grandfather who is already quite old and has less to lose. I haven’t even reached fifteen. I still have so many things I want to do, and a long road stretched out in front of me.
Then again, it does not really matter how old or young we are. I guess one can never be too old or too young to die or to suffer this kind of tragedy. I think of all the faces of different people in the group. Mothers with infants on their backs, children running in search of their parents, young people looking for a safe place to hide, old men and women limping along on their scrawny feet. We are all frantically trying to escape death.
I must have fallen asleep with these thoughts running around in my head…
Madhavi Thampi taught at the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Delhi until her retirement.
Penguin Random House India, 2022
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