The Maoist rebels entered Khaireni after dinnertime. The dim filament lights that dangled from veranda roofs turned off one by one as the guerrillas passed by them. Men and women, busy discussing their days’ farm work, stopped in the middle and went to bed. The ones who were already in bed pretended to be fast asleep. Stubborn children became obedient, and the elderly— unable to sleep—cleared their throats as if to tell the world that these houses sheltered the chronically ill. By the time a squad marched onto Premnarayan’s yard, half the village seemed to be dead.
Premnarayan was following the news about last night’s Maoist assault when he heard the sound of marching feet stop in his yard. He flicked off the television, unlatched the front door, made a slit and craned his neck to look down into the yard. For a brief moment he suspected that a man in his sixties could well be tricked by his vision. But the guerrillas were real. Almost a dozen of them—their guns slung on their shoulders and their faces half hidden behind masks and red strips—stood in the yard, facing each other, as if planning an assault.
Premnarayan’s heart pounded. Had the guerrillas just jumped off the television screen? Everything on the screen looked surreal. The Maoists had attacked and leveled the historic Palpa Palace, which housed the chief district officer and other government offices. The ruins spewed black smoke that now filled the otherwise blue sky above Tansen, a popular hill station of the country. The dead bodies had already been removed from the battlefield, but the camera panned to scattered shoes, charred clothing, and clotted blood that could belong to either party, Maoist fighters or government forces. And the news report included footage of Maoist rebels undergoing training at unknown locations in the name of People’s Liberation Army—some guerrillas carrying SLME rifles and others, rifle-length batons for lack of real firearms—running for cover after attacks on police posts, or lying dead in mountain trenches.
Unable to face the Maoists, who were presumably planning an assault, Premnarayan crept back, latched the door, and wished that the guerillas would just disappear. He also wished that he and his wife, who was still at work in the kitchen downstairs, had already put the lights off and gone to sleep. Then he realized what he’d promised his wife—he had to fight the Maoists. He had to strangle them; he had to crush their heads and pluck out their eyes. He’d said he wanted to annihilate them.
“Two comrades will take shelter in here.” When a stern male voice said that in the yard, Premnarayan almost shouted that the house was not a terrorist shelter. He then wanted to wipe them out of his memory.
Premnarayan’s resentment of the Maoists had reached new heights in the last two years as his health continued to deteriorate. In retrospect, it had made no sense when he’d vowed to his wife to bring the rebels to justice if he ever got a chance. Now they were here—what could he do? How could he punish the killers of his son?
He stepped out to the upper veranda, holding the lower end of his lungi above his knees with both his hands—a sign that he was still angry, a little too angry. A female guerrilla—her camouflage uniform and the nozzle of her gun partly visible in the crisscross of light and shadows—stood in the yard, facing the entrance. Premnarayan let the end of his lungi fall down to cover his calves and thought about the second of the two guerrillas. Had the rebel already entered the house? What was his wife doing in the kitchen?
“We are like your daughters, mother. Don’t be afraid,” a stranger spoke at the door right below him. The second rebel. Premnarayan could feel his wife’s fear and her reluctance to allow the rebel into the house.
The rebel at the door first requested, then demanded, and then claimed the shelter as if it were a birthright. The other girl joined her comrade, “We fight for the people like you, mother.”
What do you mean by “fight for the people?” Afraid of his own vulnerability and unable to decide his next move, Premnarayan swore in the name of family gods and devils. This was the day he’d been waiting for. He’d assured his wife, despite her skepticism, that he’d one day bring the criminals to justice and peace to his son’s soul. And the rebels showed up. Wasn’t this the time for action?
* * *
When one evening—three years ago—a rebel had appeared in front of him, Premnarayan had gone momentarily dumb. The sun was setting behind the Govardhan Mountain that the villagers worshipped annually with the belief that the Kali-yuga would not take its full effect as long as the mountain existed on earth. Shepherds were returning home with their cattle, leaving behind a familiar cloud of fine dust. A few cranes that had migrated from Siberia to escape the winter chill soared in the sky, looking for wetlands. Premnarayan was busy studying a Hindu calendar for an auspicious date to pay annual homage to his deceased son. Suddenly there stood a young man in front of him, upright and quiet as a statue, as if he had been there forever, a gun draped over his shoulder.
“I’m a Maoist fighter,” the young man said.
Premnarayan gaped at him, speechless.
“I’m a Maoist fighter,” the young man repeated, as if being a Maoist fighter meant a lot more than Premnarayan took it to be.
Premnarayan dropped the calendar on the veranda floor, but his eyes did not move away from the young man’s face.
“I have a question to ask,” the young man said.
Premnarayan’s posture didn’t change.
Nor did the Maoist ask his question. Rather, he seemed to wonder how he’d know from Premnarayan’s appearance that he could be deaf and dumb, and left. (He would be found dead in an adjoining village the following morning, with a suicide note in which he’d written that he hoped his younger sister might take care of his parents. The young fighter didn’t expect his family to forgive him for all the crimes he’d committed at such a young age.)
The sun set behind the Govardhan Mountain, the shepherds and the cattle settled in their respective places, and the Siberian cranes disappeared from the sky—they’d perhaps found a wetland. But Premnarayan sat through the evening at the same place without ever altering his position. When his wife returned home, he looked like a meditating saint, staring at nothing the whole time. Shantidevi had to serve him a jumbo glass of water mixed with yogurt and a huge glass of tea, and expend a few nice words to cajole him into speaking.
That night Premnarayan said to his wife that he wished he were as young as his younger son, who now worked in Dubai. He also wished that he possessed a gun, and his heart were not so weak. Shantidevi insisted that everything would be okay eventually, but he said that he would not spare an opportunity like this one again. He had been deeply hurt.
Then they lay awake and silent through the night, as they had been doing too often since the Maoist rebels had attacked the headquarters of Arghakhanchi on the night of September 8, 2002, killing his son, among others.
The following morning, Shantidevi had said that God would bring the killers to justice. But Premnarayan had disagreed. He had insisted on doing it himself.
* * *
Premnarayan descended the wooden staircase, his legs unsteady with agitation. As soon as he stood on the lower veranda, Shantidevi ran from the door.
“Those bitches want me to cook dinner for them. At this hour of the night,” she said in a single breath.
“We’re not bitches, mother; we’re your daughters,” an answer came from inside, calm and indifferent.
The couple flinched; Maoist rage threatened them even more than the potential grilling from government forces for sheltering rebels.
After a short while, Shantidevi blew her dry nose as if to let the strangers know that she was still around and didn’t neglect her guests. Something she certainly couldn’t do.
A few seconds passed, then one of the girls spoke up, “I’m sick of these villagers. They don’t know their friends from their enemies.”
“We’re like your daughters, mother. Why are you afraid?” the other girl shouted out.
Premnarayan let the length of his lungi fall down to his ankles as if he’d found the rebel’s claim comforting.
“Can’t they see that we are fighting for them? Why’d I quit college at the age of eighteen and hold a rifle if not for their liberation? But they just don’t understand it. Sometimes I wish I could wipe out all the unfortunate villagers and shoot myself dead.”
Premnarayan’s heart raced. The sense of comfort he had a few seconds before deserted him. He looked away into the darkness and asked Shantidevi to go in.
“They encourage their children to toil in the Middle East as present-day slaves rather than fight for their rights in their own country. And they treat us as aliens,” one of the girls complained. “Fighting for the ignorant is truly humiliating.”
“We’re not your enemies, mother,” the other girl insisted.
Shantidevi covered her head with an end of her sari and walked in. She looked like an intruder in her own home.
Left alone at the door, Premnarayan had two competing thoughts—whether to go in and confront the rebels right away or to run to his next-door neighbor for consultation.
He peeked inside the door. Shantidevi sat by the oven, readying herself to cook dinner for the rebels—rice, vegetables, lentils. With a charred piece of firewood, she scooped out glowing coals buried in the ash. He could see reluctance in her face. Hardly any villager would be happy to cook for the rebels—at this hour of the night, at gunpoint. No villager would expect to awaken the sleeping fire until the following morning. Any decent guest would know the villagers’ belief that it was indecent to oblige one to make the fire once the coals were buried in the ash after supper. But those girls? They would have no problem making fire even after midnight. They, in fact, burned villages and towns after people went to sleep. Premnarayan’s eyes fell on their rifles. As they stood against a low wall that divided the floor into kitchen and living area, they projected blurry silhouettes across the lighted half of the kitchen area and a quarter way up the yellow wall. As shadows, the rifles looked much bigger than they were.
* * *
In the last ten years of Maoist insurgency, the village of Khaireni had remained relatively calm, at least on the surface. No villager had so far been slain in front of his or her family; no dead bodies of school teachers had been found in the nearby jungle; no guerrilla leader had so far coerced the villagers to voluntarily send their young family members to join the so-called People’s War; no villager’s property had so far been confiscated by the decision of the Maoist-run people’s court; and even the private English boarding school—which hired high school dropouts from Darjeeling as English teachers and used the textbooks which told children that the national animal of the country was the tiger (instead of the cow) and the national flower was the lotus (instead of the rhododendron)—was allowed to do its business as usual.
It was a different thing that the Maoists had killed a few young men from the village elsewhere in the country; the schoolteachers put aside fifteen percent of their salary as Maoist levy; almost all the young men without work in the village had left to unknown destinations for fear of being asked to volunteer to kill or to be killed for the liberation of the poor; the villagers had been giving shelter to Maoist leaders without question when they visited for their deals, despite repeated threats from government authorities; and the English boarding school had been paying fifteen percent of student fees to the Maoists. There were also rumors that the school principal had accepted Maoist party membership as part of the deal, although Premnarayan thought it was a bogus claim meant to tarnish an industrious young man’s character.
Gradually, without their realizing it, the villagers’ lives had been thrown into an intricate web of conflict, and there was no easy way out. When the whole country reeled from uncertainty, one could hardly expect the village to breathe in peace. The villagers could be awakened and coerced to vacate their houses any moment. The peace that appeared on the surface was only a pretext for lulling children to bed.
Early in the morning that day, February 1, 2006, the villagers had heard on local FM radios—the sound of one radio drowning out another’s—that more than four thousand Maoist guerillas had stormed the historic city of Tansen, the district headquarters, and destroyed police posts, army barracks, the historic Palpa Palace, and half a dozen other government offices, leaving more than a dozen security personnel dead. After a five-hour rampage through the city, the Maoists had captured more than three dozen security personnel and other government employees and fled the scene. At daybreak, the army started an operation, but the guerrillas had already disappeared into the mountains.
Although the villagers had already felt ripples of the attack, they didn’t expect the attackers to breathe in their faces with the fresh smell of gunpowder. A platoon of more than three dozen fighters had chosen the village of Khaireni as a safe haven for a day or two on the way to their hideout miles away in the mountains. To protect themselves from being betrayed, and for logistical reasons, they’d decided to make every house their shelter.
* * *
Premnarayan had no idea that there would be more rebels waiting at his nephew’s. He considered returning home right away when he saw two Maoist fighters talking with his nephew. He waited at the door, undecided.
Real Maoist guerrillas, about whom so much had been presumed—some villagers claiming that the rebels ate holy cows and ceased being humans—were living with villagers and telling them stories of their assaults on district headquarters, the police, the army. They were telling stories of their fight for the people’s liberation and killing innocent people. It was nerve-wracking. Premnarayan wished that their stories were as romantic as they sounded and their hands as clean as they claimed them to be.
After a few moments of contemplation, he tied his woolen muffler around his waist, adjusted his sweater sleeves, took a deep breath until his heart expanded and he felt strong enough—at least for a second or two—and entered the house.
“Lal salam, comrades!” he said, raising a fist.
The rebels promptly responded with a red salute and made a space for him beside them. But instead of settling, Premnarayan started rambling, “You Maoists, you think you’re fighting for the people? That we believe you’re fighting for the people?”
The fighters became alert.
Premnarayan continued, “Is that how you establish democracy? By killing innocent people? Is that how . . .?”
One of the rebels, who wore a red headband with a star on it, grabbed Premnarayan by his arm. Premnarayan didn’t seem to have the strength to resist.
“He’s my own uncle; he doesn’t mean anything bad, sir,” the nephew said. “Let him go, sir. He’s a little stressed. No one in this village would speak against the party.”
The nephew’s calmness intrigued Premnarayan. Was the world conspiring against him? Had the nephew become a Maoist supporter?
“Maoist is the people’s party. We’re fighting for you,” said the other guerrilla with a Lenin-like beard.
“What’s the problem, father? Tell us!” asked the bearded guerrilla, after Premnarayan sat beside his nephew.
Premnarayan didn’t speak; only his lips flickered, inconsistently. Instead, his nephew spoke for him, “He has some family problems, sir.”
What family problem? Why can’t he say frankly what happened? Premnarayan almost yelled that the rebels had killed his son. Does he mean it is dangerous? he thought, and rose to leave.
“How far is your house, father?” the bearded rebel asked. “I think you’re staying here with us tonight.”
“What will I do here? I am going.” Premnarayan sounded sincere.
“But we think you’ll stay here!” said the star-bearing rebel.
“My house is only next door. I’m going,” Premnarayan insisted.
“We said you won’t go anywhere!” commanded the bearded rebel. “You’ll remain in our custody until we leave this village.”
A moment of disconcerting silence prevailed at the rebel’s verdict. Gradually, the sound of simmering rice, accompanied by the occasional sputtering of firewood, took over the void. With time, the sound became so monotonous that it irritated Premnarayan. As if he didn’t care about the Maoist’s order, he repeated his intention to leave. “My house is only next door. I’m going.”
The star-bearing rebel grabbed him again.
“Want to inform the police, huh? The army? Spying against us at this age?” he asked.
His nephew came to Premnarayan’s rescue again. “He can’t be spying, sir. I will guarantee it.”
Premnarayan looked grave. It is unacceptable, he thought. He deserved much better treatment than that. He muttered, “Why would I spy? Why on earth would I spy?”
“Okay, I’ll escort you home. Don’t get agitated,” the bearded rebel said. “And mind it—you can’t leave your house until we leave this village.”
On the way home, Premnarayan heard gunfire in the mountains across the river. As if it was none of his business, he kept pace with the guerrilla, his muffler wrapped around his neck, his ears and chin safely covered.
It is unacceptable—Premnarayan kept thinking as he climbed up the wooden stairs on the veranda.
* * *
He sat on his bed. But it felt as if the bed pushed him up, like a spring that wouldn’t settle easily. He gripped the mattress with both hands. He pressed his legs against the floor. The spring kept pushing him up.
He stood on the floor. How could his son’s murderers treat him with so much disrespect? It was unacceptable. Reports said the rebels had captured his son wounded, a bullet hole on his thigh. But they returned him dead. They had killed him in cold blood. Murderers.
He reached the door and stopped.
But no. He had to settle his accounts with them. They couldn’t harm the family anymore. What would they achieve by killing an old couple who had already lost a son?
He climbed down the stairs. He would not care even if the rebels killed him in front of his nephew. But he would not let them go scot-free. They had to answer his questions. They had to justify the murder of his son. Was it his son’s fault that he served the country as a policeman? They had to answer to Premnarayan and confess their crime. They had to ask for him for forgiveness.
He again stopped—he was a murdered policeman’s father. Who did the rebels spare, from aged teachers to innocent peasants?
Next, he thought about the girls. He could possibly talk to the girls. He could possibly force them to confess that they had committed a crime, an unforgivable crime. How could he let them go unpunished?
He stood at the door. Shantidevi was silent. The girls were silent. They had perhaps put him under surveillance. Every villager was their potential spy. There were many cases of the elderly being mutilated and left to die in the jungle on the charge of spying. You can’t trust anyone in the war zone with so many zealots prepared to die for their beliefs.
He returned to the staircase. Step one. Step two. Oh, he couldn’t make any noise. The girls were still silent. They had him under surveillance. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they speak? Step three. Four. He should have built a concrete staircase. Even climbing on four legs didn’t help. Five. Two more steps. Just two. Oh, creaking kills. The girls might run out the door and arrest a feeble old man. One. Just one more to go. Pray, no more creaking!
As soon as Premnarayan lay on the floor upstairs, a lump sagged in his throat. Felt like he won. Felt like he lost. When he caught his breath, he wished to create a hidey-hole in front of him, in the air, and hide in it forever so that he would never have to face the killers again.
* * *
Past midnight, the rebels blew away the bridge that linked Khaireni with neighboring villages. Not a living soul in the village, except the rebels, dared to breathe comfortably for a long time after the blast. Half an hour passed, and the Maoists announced that their enemy had spotted them. They said they’d been betrayed and no villagers would be allowed to step out of their houses.
Then the rebels launched an investigation into the case of betrayal—who in the village might have the nerve to inform the King’s Army about the Maoist shelter? They declared the probable informant their “enemy,” put together a list of possible suspects, and awakened the unfortunate villagers who made it to the list. After each grilling, the rebels reminded them that any betrayal against the Maoists would result in “people’s action,” which might mean anything between a fine of a few hundred rupees and execution by bullet in front of their families.
Having interrogated a few villagers fruitlessly, the bearded rebel announced, as if enlightened with a revelation, “It must be that old man. I knew he was going to do this.”
Then the commander led a squad to handcuff Premnarayan.
As his aides executed his order, the commander expressed his regret that a man like Premnarayan would betray the Maoists. Then he said the old man would not live to see a new sun had he not reminded the rebel of his own father, who had disappeared since the army raided his village two years ago. Before the commander led his squad away—to defend the village against the aggression of the King’s Army, as they claimed—he instructed the two rebels, staying with the family and claiming to be two daughters of the aging couple, to take charge of Premnarayan. Their glorious party would decide on the spy’s fate the following morning. Premnarayan ceded to the rebels without resistance, as if he’d in fact committed the crime.
Shantidevi fixed her eyes on the girls, whom she’d fed like her own daughters a few hours ago, as if she’d never seen them before. We are your own daughters, mother! The couple never had any daughters. They had only two sons; one of them now just in memory.
After the squad left, Premnarayan reclined on his bed, his hands resting on his crotch between his raised knees, and stared at the ceiling beams that his deceased son had managed to fetch from the nearby sal forest more than a decade ago. He recalled how proudly a huge sal tree stood in the forest among smaller trees, and how glad he had been when his son felled it and produced those steel-like teak beams with the help of a few carpenters. His neighbors had praised his house for having the best beams in the village; some had said that an industrious son always held his father’s head high. But now the villagers had started constructing different houses. The new houses had concrete beams and concrete pillars. Who cared anymore if a house had teak beams that would last one hundred years? Times had changed. People had forgotten the magnificence of teak beams.
“Father, who did you inform about us?” one of the girls keeping guard asked.
Premnarayan had no words. The girl wouldn’t understand the language of teak beams. She was on a mission that she believed would change the world. Fuck your teak beams!
“Who did you inform about us, father?”
But Premnarayan would not speak yet. The beams would last for more than one hundred years, and his son would not die as long as the beams lasted.
“We didn’t expect a man like you to betray us.”
Premnarayan did not respond. What could the son have done even if he had been around, still alive? May his soul rest in peace!
Fresh gunfire pierced the night. A couple of stray dogs barked in unison in the neighborhood and then stopped one after another.
The commander reappeared with two policemen, both handcuffed and blindfolded. One of them could hardly stand up by himself. Three rebel fighters, one of whom masked his face with a handkerchief that displayed stars of the European Union flag, supported the policeman. Handing them over to the girls, the leader said that the house was the safest place to keep the detainees, and the girls would keep watch over them as well. After the policemen were laid out on the floor and their blindfolds were removed, the commander stared at Premnarayan, murmured something that no one in the room could understand, and hastily untied Premnarayan’s hands, as if he were prompted by forces beyond human control.
“I’m sick of these ungrateful hogs. Let them all go to hell,” he said as he left, followed by his comrades.
The wounded policeman, his left leg wrapped with bloody rags and his right eye hidden behind a bruise, groaned. “They were detained from Tansen. Lucky ones who escaped death,” one of the rebel guards said, as if she had been asked.
* * *
The sun rose as usual the following morning. Its winter rays seemed falsely metonymic. At this time on any other day, the villagers would be feeding their cattle, cleaning pens, and milking buffaloes. Some would be preparing to collect fodder for the livestock or to work in the field. Others would be taking the morning’s milk to a local dairy. Some village gentlemen who hardly worked in the field—they believed that it was womenfolk’s job—would be walking to the local teashop for a glass of tea, hit-and-run gossip, and political ruminations. The lucky children would be doing their homework sitting on the veranda, while the less lucky ones would be joining their mothers, grudgingly, to collect fodder or firewood. And Premnarayan and his wife would be drinking tea, sitting beside the oven on which Shantidevi had cooked late last night to feed the guerrilla girls guarding them now.
But today, little happened. The villagers pretended that the sun had not risen yet, or else they were still asleep. They had been ordered to remain home until the Maoists told them otherwise. Both the government and the private schools were announced closed. The dairy that collected milk from the farmers would not open. The owner of the local teashop would not risk opening his doors.
Only one, Gangaram Gairey, who had lost his nine-year-old son in the 1990 revolution, wandered the village trails, claiming that the boy was watching them from the sky and he would come down one day with justice for everyone.
The sun rose higher. A buffalo in the nearby shed repeated her call for milking.
Late that morning the Maoists relaxed their order. At a public tap beside Premnarayan’s buffalo shed, a middle-aged woman offered water libations to the sun and joined her hands, saying Namaste. She cleaned her copper vessel and put it under the running tap. The sound that came from the tap changed its pitch as water filled the vessel, until it eventually stuck to a monotone.
Life seemed to be returning to normal, or so thought Premnarayan. And only now did he seem to understand what the girls had said last night, a few hours ago: “They were detained from Tansen. Lucky ones, who escaped death.”
The rebels could not be more ruthless in their mockery of the poor couple. Having killed their son, they had thrust upon the couple those two images to double their grief. It was unacceptable.
Premnarayan rolled his lungi up to his knees, and announced, “Look, madams! You cannot hide these policemen here. You cannot.”
The girls showed no sense of urgency; they continued to play with their braids, as if Premnarayan’s complaint meant nothing to them. With a sense of added insult, he rolled his lungi further up and said that the Maoists had already broken the couple’s hearts; they needed no more suffering. “We’d be happy if you killed us,” he added.
The rebels still didn’t react. The fire in Premnarayan’s eyes extinguished, as if he were defeated by the girls’ passivity. His face looked like a scorched landscape, and his lungi covered his ankles.
In a few seconds, he realized that he had not, in fact, told them anything. What he said would not affect the rebels. He had to speak out. He could not become a fool.
He started ranting. When he said, “This is not a Maoist camp,” the girls became alert.
After insisting that the Maoists had already given his family enough pain, Premnarayan exited to the veranda. “You’ve already broken our hearts. You are murderers,” he said, and stopped halfway down the stairs. He sighed. Oh, yes—he’d said it at last. They had killed his son. They were murderers. As if their enemy had just launched a new assault on the Maoists, one guerrilla grabbed her SMLE and caught up with Premnarayan, who resisted. He was saying, “This is my house, you know. This is a poor man’s house.”
* * *
That afternoon, the commander stood in front of a group of villagers picked at the guerrillas’ discretion and thanked them for their support for the People’s War. He promised not to betray their aspirations and invited all the villagers, from children to the elderly, to join hands with them more actively so that they could overthrow the age-old monarchy and the feudal system, the major cause of all the ills in the country. He said that the King and the reactionary government worked only for the benefit of the bourgeois and foreign agents. He insisted it was the time for everybody to unite and establish a people’s rule. And only a people’s war would free the poor, who had been denied human dignity for centuries, he said.
Premnarayan pressed into a corner and began to murmur the Gayatri mantra, his last refuge, for lack of anything better to think of. Never before had he found his life so insignificant. Never before had he thought that an attempt to speak out would rob him of his entire voice. He repeated the mantra and waited like the other villagers who gathered there for the Maoists to decide on his fate.
Then the commander laid out a plan for how the villagers could now support the “People’s War.” He read out a list of the young men—including underage boys—who would join them and undergo guerrilla training. Then he read out a list of those who had to pay a certain amount of money—his glorious party would decide on the amount later—for they had no family members to send to fight in the battlefield; their children lived in Kathmandu, or in Bahrain, or in America. And then he read out the list of those people who would work on the local committee of the Maoist party they would form now.
Premnarayan was picked as a committee member. “You’ve become our responsible party member, father,” the leader said.
Premnarayan hiccupped twice. As dozens of eyes fell on him, he blinked nonstop, rose abruptly, rolled his lungi to his waist, waited for a moment as if he were expecting someone to rescue him, and ran into the house. He was shouting, “You murderers! You sala murderers!”
The crowd stirred, and the leader paused. The guerrillas heightened their vigilance. In an instant, Premnarayan ran out the door with a clay pot that he smashed against a stone slab, water and shards splashing against his own legs. The commander fired a few shots in the air and ordered the villagers to stay calm. Already nabbed by a couple of guerrillas, Premnarayan sat on the wet floor, his head hung like that of a subdued burglar.
“Is he mentally ill?” one of the rebels asked.
“Yes, he’s been ill for quite some time,” Premnarayan’s nephew replied. “Sometimes he behaves irrationally, sir. Let’s continue.”
Shantidevi collected her disheveled hair and made her way toward her husband. “Who is ill? Who says he is mentally ill? Who behaves irrationally?” she shouted. A couple of female guerrillas led her into the house, but she continued to yell at the nephew.
“Everybody seems to be insane in this house,” someone assessed from the crowd.
“Sometimes they behave like mad, sir. Let’s continue,” the nephew said.
“Yes, sometimes we are mad. Why sometimes? We are always mad,” Premnarayan retorted. But his remarks didn’t seem to bother anyone anymore.
"Let's continue, sir," the nephew insisted, as the situation appeared to be under control.
Premnarayan closed his eyes and sighed in despair. His nephew, the private school principal, had already become a Maoist. The rumors were true.
The gathering turned into a ceremony that ended with villagers wearing vermillion on their foreheads. A few who honestly believed that they were going to change the country threw fistfuls of vermillion on each other’s faces and turned the ceremony into Holi, the festival of colors. By that evening, when the Maoists started disappearing one by one, with a few of their new recruits and the two detained policemen, every villager had been turned into a Maoist accomplice.
The villagers became aware of this only when fighters of a new creed, the royal army, entered the village late that evening to hunt for Maoists.
Were there any Maoists in Khaireni?
The army patrolled the village through the night. They conducted a search operation and arrested a few, especially those who had tried unsuccessfully to wash the vermillion off their heads, and the soldiers fired a few rounds of bullet when they saw suspicious movements.
The following morning, the villagers listened to a report on the state-run Radio Nepal that said the village of Khaireni had been freed from Maoist guerrillas; the army had done a commendable job.
The sun rose high. But the villagers were not busy feeding their cattle, cleaning pens, and milking buffalos. They were not preparing to go out to collect fodder for their cattle or to work in the field. Nor were they taking the morning’s milk to the local dairy. The village gentlemen were not going to the local teashop. The lucky children were not doing their homework sitting on the veranda, nor were the less lucky ones joining their mothers in the field. Premnarayan and Shantidevi were not drinking tea, sitting beside the oven on which she had cooked food for Maoist rebels.
Only Gangaram Gairey wandered the village alleys, claiming as usual that his son was watching them from the sky and he would come down one day with justice for everyone.
The army continued to patrol Khaireni.
Khem K. Aryal's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Northeast Review, Poydras Review, Qwerty Magazine, Of Nepalese Clay, The Kathmandu Post, Madhupark and elsewhere. He has two books of poetry, Epic Teashop and Kathmandu Saga published by Vajra Books and NWEN, respectively. Before coming to the U.S in 2008, he served as president of the Society of Nepali Writers in English and co-edited its bi-annual publication, Of Nepalese Clay, for over six years. More recently, he has served as an associate editor of the Missouri Review anthology of short fiction, Breaking Away: Experimental Fiction (2012) and the Missouri Review anthology of essays, Going Mental: Essays on the Fringe (2013). Currently, Aryal is working on a collection of short stories and also finalizing his novel, Outsiders in Indonesia.