Ranjit knew that he had to dislodge the bullet from his right leg if he wanted to live. The searing pain seemed to radiate fast from the wound, rapidly decimating the strength and will that the man needed so badly. Ranjit propped himself up on his left elbow and tore out a large section of his uniform from the sleeve. Soon he had twirled the piece of mottled dark-green fabric to fashion a tourniquet for his injured leg. He tied it just above his knee with all his might. Instantly the lower portion of his leg went numb signalling that he had done the first bit of his job right. Fatigued, Ranjit lied down and sighed. He desperately wanted to sleep but a tough voice from within screamed out a warning. If he sleeps, he dies as well. Ranjit sat up again and pulled out a pocket knife from his pants. For a second he closed his eyes and summoned every bit of courage from the ends of his mortal body. And then in one quick motion, with gritted teeth and clenched muscles, he dug a hole into the massacred flesh of his leg to loosen the bullet. One final determined scoop and out flew the bullet with bits of blood and tissue sticking to it. His human instincts took over as Ranjit let out a deafening scream and passed out on the spot.
As Joe sank his teeth into the grilled sandwich, the scene from his office played out at the back of his mind.
“Your work is deplorable; people don’t pay us to read lullabies, they want the adrenaline rush,” the boss had screamed out at him.
Joe’s boss Mr Matthews was just 5 feet in height and almost that much in width and had been born with no sense of moral scruples. The man had used all possible tricks in and out of the book to rise to the top and now he was the all powerful editor of the influential Marrica Mirror publishing house. As a man with ferocious ambition he kept the company policies in line with his personal whims and fancies and they always managed to rake in sky-high revenues.
“I’m sorry sir but nothing sensational happened in the last week,” Joe had replied in a weak voice.
“Bullshit! Listen, if you want to keep your job, you’ve got two options in front of you; either hunt out truly thrilling news or use your imagination to turn the lame ones into thrillers.”
Now, more than a dozen countries away from Matthews, Joe was sitting on a boulder. He crumpled the empty sandwich wrapping along with the bitter memories. Then he stood up and looked around. The sun was setting, colouring up the sky in shades of scarlet and petunia. The undulating grassy landscape looked absolutely majestic in the dreamy light. He took in a deep breath and felt alive.
Faya swept out the last bit of dust from the corners of her home and sat down on her cosy armchair, feeling satisfied. A few minutes later she glanced at the wall clock and jumped up in fright. It was 6pm already and she had not yet started with dinner. Soon her husband and child would be back, tired and hungry. Faya gathered herself and went quickly into her small and tidy kitchen. A swift cut in the string separated the bunch of green leaves it was holding together. She then carefully plucked out the wilted ones and washed the rest under cold water a couple of times; before dousing the lot in the pot of water, boiling on the stove. As she roasted the spices on high flame, she planned to toss in some sautéed prawns to enliven the vegetable stew for her child. In the next forty minutes she had deftly gotten four courses of meal ready and had moved on to rolling the dough to make flat bread that was usually their staple.
Once she was done with cooking, Faya scrubbed, washed and dried the assisting cookware and put them neatly back in their respective places. The time was 7:14pm, she checked again. Faya smiled to herself and peeped out of the window in the corner to view the path outside. There was still no sign of her husband or daughter.
She picked up a magazine and slumped down on the sofa. Faya rested her head on her left hand and began to idly leaf through the pages with her right hand.
Ranjit came round after what seemed like eternity to him. There was a moment of disorientation and then the throbbing pain in his leg reminded him of his woe-infested situation. He thought of his wife and kid, waiting for him at home and his eyes grew moist. Various bits of fond memories came flashing by. The cobbled red path that led from the wrought-iron gate leading to the main door of his sweet home, the small airy room where his child played, the big, soft bed where he fought, made up and painted dreams with his wife, all seemed to call out to him. Ranjit rubbed his eyes and resolved that he would live; he would live and return to the ones he loved. He was now surrounded by a sea of darkness and the familiar buzz of night made him feel safer. If they came looking for him, it would be much harder to find him now. However, he needed to find a shelter for the night.
The nearest source of light seemed to come from a cottage, located atop a small hill. The gradient was steep but the lights in the window resembled the Diwali decorations in his daughter’s room and it gave him a fresh spurt of hope. He balanced his body weight with his forearms and the good leg and hauled the rest of his body up, inch by inch, along the slope of the hill.
After several minutes of arduous effort he was finally at the wooden back entrance of the cottage. Leaning his raised torso against the door, he began to tap at the door, as hard as he could, with the blunt sheath of his knife.
The altercation with Matthews had escalated badly and it eventually made Joe quit his job in a fit of rage. That night he had sat alone, having a meal of roasted duck and beans, and reflecting back on his latest life choices. He was a man in his early forties, divorced, childless and jobless. It could have pushed him towards the depressing abyss of midlife crisis but a few swigs of the good old scotch saved the man from the brink and helped him to reach a moment of epiphany instead.
Joe realized that he still had an extremely fit body and no tangible responsibility towards anyone. A week of planning and a knapsack were all that he needed before embarking on a solo trip to unknown countries. His first choice had been the scenic European towns and hamlets but a look at his budget made him realize that picking the developing countries of Asia will be a far more judicious decision. Plus, his white skin could potentially earn him favours that he could never expect in his side of the world.
Joe has already travelled through many countries, doing odd jobs along the way to pay off his bills. And now, while exploring the unsullied terrains of Rakstan, he had unknowingly gotten close to the conflict ridden border that the country shared with neighbour Lydia.
The sandwich had left him thirsty and Joe scanned the area, hoping to spot human presence. A lone cottage appeared some distance away, located at the very beginning of what seemed to be a very small village. Joe happily hiked the way up to the front door of the hut and knocked gently.
Finding nothing exceptionally interesting, Faya put the magazine down. Her daughter was wasting too much time at Umna’s place, she decided.
“I’ll revoke some of her privileges,” she grumbled to herself. “The girl is sure to get a failing grade this year, if she continues to be this frivolous.”
Faya got up, intending to make her way towards the telephone, placed at a lit-up corner, not too far away from the front door.
And at that very instant she heard knocks from both the front and back entrances of her house.
“Ah, they are home,” she thought happily as she went to unlock the front door, which was closer.
Faya mentally prepared herself to hurl a volley of threats at her erring daughter as she unlocked the latch. A complete stranger, Caucasian by appearance, was standing at the threshold.
“Hi, I’m Joe,” started the man. He extended his hand for a shake but withdrew it awkwardly in a second, noting the rather cold expression on Faya’s face.
“I’m new here, and I think I might be lost. Can you help me with the directions? I’m also very thi…”
The dull knock on the back door got louder cutting Joe off.
“Please come inside and take a seat,” Faya moved away and gestured towards the sofa. “Excuse me for a moment, my husband is waiting outside.”
“Sure ma’am,” Joe bowed a little as he came into the house and offloaded the knapsack by the telephone. He observed quietly as Faya’s tall frame slid through the narrow passage leading to the rear end of the hut. As she opened the creaky door, Joe realized that his gaze was invading the personal space of absolute strangers. He turned back quickly and sat down. But he could not remain seated for long, as a small scream was heard, along with a commotion, from the back of the house. Joe got up and took a peek.
Faya was trying to drag inside a man with great difficulty whose ashen face made it seem like he was minutes away from death.
“Can you please help?” Faya looked straight at Joe with pleading eyes. Joe took off his jacket and rushed to help.
Joe grabbed the man at the shoulders and pulled him up while Faya gently lifted his two legs off the ground. They carried him in this way to a big green bedroom which had twinkling lights adorning the window. The man was writhing in pain as the gash in his leg kept swelling at an alarming rate.
After placing the injured man on the bed, Faya ran to her medicine cabinet. She came back with some pain killers and a glass of water.
Joe and Faya helped the man wash the tablets down with gulps of water. And then, for the next twenty minutes or so, they both kept repeating words of hope and assurance as his groans slowly diminished and gave way to a deep, peaceful sleep.
Faya was bending over and staring at the man’s face while Joe poured out a glass of water for himself.
“So, any idea about how your husband got hit?” he asked after quenching his thirst.
Faya looked up, startled.
“He’s not my husband,” she clarified. “That reminds me; I’ve to call Umna and check on my child.”
She went to the telephone and talked to someone for a couple of minutes. Though the conversation was completely audible, Joe could not follow a word of the local dialect.
Faya was back in a while with two cups of coffee and a plate of biscuits in a wooden tray.
“My daughter will stay over at Umna’s place tonight. Looks like there has been heavy casualty at the border; my husband will have to attend to many men in the coming hours, so he can’t come back as well.”
Joe sipped the coffee, not following a word of what Faya was saying. His face reflected his feelings.
“Oh sorry…you wouldn’t know. Right behind these idyllic hills is the border between Rakstan and Lydia. So sometimes the armies exchange fire, maiming and killing men from both sides. My husband works for the Rakstani army; not as a soldier though, as a doctor.”
Faya’s eyes shone in pride and Joe made a small sign of respect with his right hand.
“Actually there is a hidden alley close to the border that winds its way up to my cottage. So I have had quite a few times in the past, injured men, coming to my door, seeking help and refuge.”
Faya suddenly seemed to remember something. She got up and rummaged through the pockets of the sleeping man.
“Just as I had guessed,” she said as she read an identity card and held it out for Joe to see. “He is from Lydia. Probably my husband has shown him the way to our home.”
Joe took the card and read out the name, “Ranjit Narayan Singh.”
“So you’re helping a man who is technically, an enemy of your country, Rakstan? Isn’t that illegal?” Joe was surprised.
“Illegal? You know what’s illegal? War! In a civilized world war should be a banned entity.”
Faya collected the empty crockery and took them to the wash basin.
Later in the course of the night she fed some broth to a drowsy Ranjit and followed it up with more medicines while Joe gave her a hand. She then served a simple supper for Joe and herself.
“My brother lives close by,” Faya explained before turning in for the night. “In the morning he will come with a few of his trusted friends. They will guide Ranjit to safety. Please share the room with him for tonight, my home isn’t too big. Tomorrow the group will help you to resume your journey.”
The next day Joe was up before anyone else. He went out of the back door and examined the area for about 10 minutes, after which he saw a group of men coming towards him. They looked like a horde of ruffians but Joe was a big, beefy man himself, so he held his ground fearlessly.
The group finally stopped in front of Joe and looked him up and down with inquisitive eyes.
“Where’s Faya?” one of them asked.
“She’s still asleep, I guess,” Joe answered casually.
“I’m her brother, Khaled,” replied the man. “Are you the one who took shelter here last night?”
Some strange instinct found its way up through Joe’s throat and he half-lied, “Yes.”
“Well…you aren’t Lydian…are you?”
“Nope…am from Marrica.” Joe pulled out his passport and showed it to the men.
The entire group flashed out their teeth at this revelation and shook hands warmly with Joe. Then they almost dragged him to an eatery and forced him to eat a breakfast of Koozy Haleem and Masala Kulcha with them.
“Faya’s husband Umaid was killed 1.5 years ago,” Khaled casually said halfway through the meal.
“What are you saying? She kept mentioning him!”
“I know. She has never been able to accept the truth. Her daughter too died in an accident a few months after my brother-in-law’s death. And Faya has lived in her make-believe world ever since. Every evening she calls me or my wife Umna and we tell her some lie about her family which she happily accepts.”
“You never tried to make her see the truth?” Joe was still shocked.
“Several times; but she has never listened or cried her heart out. Now we’ve given up.”
Joe offered to pay the bills after they were done but Khaled vehemently refused.
“You are from uncle Jam’s land…you are our close friend,” he said and gave him a mini tour of the valleys.
“Let me tell you one secret, Joe,” Khaled whispered conspiratorially. “Our army knows about the pass that leads to Faya’s home. We take away the men she saves and hand them over to the soldiers. The Rakstanis are given medical care while the Lydians are either executed or tortured for information. Don’t disclose this to Faya, it’ll break her silly heart.”
Joe nodded obediently.
“You know what, Umaid was actually helping a Lydian to cross back when he was killed by one of our officers.”
Joe and Khaled stood silently amidst the regal hills for some time and shared a cigarette.
“Well then, we’ll be off on our way,” Khaled shook hands with Joe. “Have an early dinner and give me a call. I’ll walk you up to the bus stop; the overnight bus departs at 10pm sharp.”
When Joe walked back into Faya’s cottage, the lady was busy with her chores while Ranjit was trying to make himself walk in the passage.
“Good morning,” Joe smiled at Ranjit who returned it warmly. “How’re you feeling now?”
“I don’t have enough words to thank you two,” his voice almost choked.
“Don’t thank anyone already,” commented Faya. “Remember, you are in Rakstani territory. My brother and his friends will escort you out in the evening; you can feel thankful after that.”
“Actually Faya, I met your brother Khaled,” interjected Joe. “He entrusted me to take Ranjit across the border.”
“You? It’s too risky!”
“Marrican passport! It’s the magical ticket here,” smiled Joe, waving the thin green book in air.
For the rest of the day Joe kept an eye on the phone and the door while plotting the escape strategy with Ranjit. Fortunately no one called and at dusk Faya guided them both out of the back door.
“Mention my husband, Dr Umaid in case of any trouble,” said Faya as the two men prepared to leave.
“I’ll always be indebted, sister,” Ranjit said to Faya before starting off. She closed the door softly, creating complete darkness for the two men.
Ranjit felt much stronger than the day before and putting one hand across Joe’s shoulder, the pair hobbled down the hill, as fast as they could manage. The Lydian border was only an hour’s walk from Faya’s place but Joe insisted that they should focus on precision and not speed during their journey.
After about 90 minutes they were at the foot of the hill and the narrow alley appeared in front of them. Not too far away from them, a few bonfires were visible with armed Rakstani men around them.
Ranjit and Joe took one step at a time, careful so as to not make the slightest of noise as they crossed through the alley. The next few tense moments passed on well until Joe stepped accidentally on a glass bottle. As it noisily crunched to pieces under his heavy hiking boots, a steel cold voice commanded loudly from the dark, “Halt! Hands up!”
The men stopped and slowly raised their hands.
“Shall we try to run?” whispered Joe.
“No, we’re at point blank range,” counselled Ranjit. “Turn around slowly.”
They turned to face the unknown enemy. There was a moment of silence and then the soldier began to sprint towards them, screaming at the top of his voice.
“Ranjit!!! Ranjit…my man…you’re back alive.”
He came and hugged Ranjit tightly while Joe heaved out a sigh of relief.
“Here is the hero who saved my life,” said Ranjit, pointing to Joe. “He’s Joe, from Marrica.”
The soldier saluted him immediately.
“There’s one more hero,” Ranjit added. “But we had to leave her on the other side.”
“Why?” The soldier raised his rifle and readied himself to rescue the mentioned woman.
“You first get me to a hospital,” said Ranjit. “Get my leg fixed and I’ll tell you the rest of the story.”
In the following 6 months Ranjit and Joe collaborated to take up a peace mission. After several rounds of meetings and discussions, a peace treaty was signed by Lydia and Rakstan and a glorious felicitation ceremony was arranged by Lydia to honour the brave hearts Faya and Joe.
At the end of it, Ranjit and Joe walked up to Faya. She was dressed in all white, looking like an angel with beautiful, vacant eyes.
“Sister Faya, I’ve started a citizen exchange program,” started Ranjit. “From the next month I’ll be doing a civilian job in Rakstan along with many other Lydians while some brothers from Rakstan will be deputed to work in our land. We hope it’d promote mutual trust.”
He tied a rakhi on her hand and saluted her.
Faya was overwhelmed by the gesture and she gently nodded her head while her eyes glistened with emotion. After Ranjit walked away to talk to a waiting Rakstani diplomat, she turned to Joe who extended a bouquet towards her.
“For your husband and child,” clarified Joe. They walked together to the cemetery and placed the flowers on two graves. Faya kept silent the entire time.
It was only after Joe had escorted her back to the safe confines of her cottage that she broke into tears. And she continued to howl and cry for hours as Joe sat silently, supporting the broken lady in his arms. Much later on, when she had collapsed wearily into sleep, Joe put her on the bed and arranged a blanket over her. He stood back for a moment to admire the halo emanating from her face. Then he proceeded to crash on the sofa.
Early next morning, a deeply embarrassed Faya ran into her kitchen only to find Joe humming a tune and making toast and scrambled eggs for two.
“Hey, morning,” said Joe with a cheerful smile.
“I’m soooo sorry,” replied Faya and sat down scrunching her messy hair with both hands. “I can’t believe I disrupted your routine so badly when you came to drop me off.”
Joe placed two cups of coffee on the counter and held Faya by her shoulders.
“Faya, listen to me,” he started. “My life was absolutely messed up when you came in like a guiding star.”
Over the next hour, as they had their breakfast together, Joe recounted to Faya his life and struggles in the fabled land of Marrica.
“What’d you do now?” Faya asked after a long pause.
“I’ll go back and try to garner support for a global “no-war” agreement,” smiled Joe.
“Hmm…nice,” said Faya. “I think I’d move to Varachi. Maybe I can start something similar from there.”
“Or, you could come with me,” added Joe as he pulled out two flight tickets to Marrica and presented them to Faya.
“You purchased a ticket for me as well?”
“Well, it’s scheduled 2 months away, enough time to get your passport stamped.”
“You never even asked me!”
“So? You don’t want to come with me?”
“What if I say no?”
“Then I simply tear up the ticket,” said Joe and he promptly tore the ticket in half.
“What? You wanted to come?”
“Yes…maybe, but you have…”
“I’ll just take one more print-out,” Joe shrugged his shoulders and grinned.
And that’s when Faya broke into a smile. It was the first time that Joe had seen her smile. He took her hand and held it tightly between his palms as he looked into her eyes. And thus, their broken lives came together to form one complete picture, replete with new hope.