On winter evenings, when ice threatened to plummet onto our barracks, we’d face each other on plastic stools and chat over cups of tea. Only the fire sat between us. And of course, the wires of the border. But they slept. The shadows of the knotted wires ran through the biscuits that we popped into our mouths, dissolving in the cricket scores rolling on our tongues.
I offered whiskey once but he wouldn’t touch it, so I learnt to get drunk on sweet, over-boiled tea. The tea was passed carefully through barbed wires. The jawan on duty ensured that the sleeve of his uniform didn’t get caught in the knots.
Sometimes I brewed the tea myself, relieving the fussing jawans of protocol. I hoped to figure out some concoction by which the metallic smell of the tea would disappear. But try as I did, each time I brought the cup to my lips, I was reminded of the steel smell of local trains. And of the wire. Like the wire added its own flavour to our rendezvous.
I spoke to him of pickled chillies, sweetened yogurt, and streets lined with sellers of puffed rice. He yearned for the fragrance of earth doused in the first shower of monsoon. He said it was the most beautiful smell in the world. I recollected school teachers and childhood pets; he, dips in a large lake amidst white mountaintops. We didn’t speak family.
Sometimes I’d imagine what it would be like without the wire. Just two men chatting, cardigans about their torsos, sipping on tea and munching biscuits, like a page out of innocent boyhood. Only it wasn’t innocent boyhood, but then, maybe, it was.
He sported a moustache, I didn’t. Our uniforms were greenish-brown; his more green, mine a darker tinge of brown. A manipulation of dye, but in our world, that makes all the difference.
“Training tomorrow” he’d tell me sometimes and I would sit on the benches with my colleagues and hear the grenades and rifles go off. I could tell from the sounds that the equipment was outdated, over-used and stained with rust, while his booming voice, younger than the youngest rifle, would ring ominously in my ears.
Those evenings we’d play cards and laugh. For some reason, we laughed heartily but couldn’t smile.
Then came the call and the sleeping wires stirred.
It only took one urgent dispatch to awaken the miles of knots through which we had exchanged tea. And more.
A handful of powerful men passed some papers around and two little units across a snoring border abandoned the dress rehearsals and brought in the finale.
Strike, the orders said. And strike, the men did. Cranked up the daisies and loaded the launchers, with cannons and mortars in tow. The wires were now on fire.
The heat of the battle came too soon for me. I pointed the rifle at him the same time as he lifted his.
My finger gripped the trigger and I knew that his too had stiffened. Suddenly, in the dry afternoon dust, I smelt earth. Earth after the first rains, fresh as a sprig of bouncy green coriander.
Between us, the brown filth flew up. Red drops of the wounded met the surging dust halfway and they joined together on the ground. Sounds bombed my ears.
Him or me. Green or brown. The time of reckoning was now. Now! shouted everything that made sense. Don’t, whispered the absurd. He’ll kill me! I thought. No, I thought.
For a second we did nothing.
I pulled the trigger. He staggered backwards and all sound stopped. In the silence, the coriander sprig withered, and around me, mute men whose uniforms were too stained to discern the colour, fell and wept blood.
Slumped on the ground, a red blotch darkened over his chest, the rifle slipped from his fingers. The limp head that hit the ground was his, the eyes that shut out the sky were his, the breath that first gasped and then stopped was his.
But I died.
Pervin Saket is a writer, editor, and poet.