“How come you are back so early?” asked Myni anxiously when she saw Rukni and Sindayi coming towards her when she looked up from her writing. She had sent them to the village on work just a short while ago. “I believe the police are here. Comrades from Salepal village met us and told us”. “Where did they come?” “Supposedly to Bodili village” “Who saw them?” asked Myni closing her book. “Do not know who saw them but I believe Bodili people brought the news” said Rukni. “There are lots of rumors these days. I hope this isn’t another rumor?” said Myni stashing her book in her bag. Rukni responded saying “Don’t know”. Myni picked up her bag and rifle and called her guard.  Meanwhile, there was a further exchange of questions and answers between Myni and Rukni.

That morning around 30 guerillas had gathered together in the forest near the Kadiyametta village for the Area Committee (AC) meeting. This village is in the Amudai area of East Bastar Division. Myni is the division committee member and the person responsible for all the people who had gathered there. They were expecting two more AC members that night. If they reach on time, the meeting was planned for the next morning.

In a few minutes, four of the AC members who received the information from Myni’s guard joined her.  Rukni sat down on a nearby stone. Sindai went back to her section. The five AC members discussed amongst themselves and came to a decision within five minutes. As per that decision, Kamlu, Sunny, Rukni, Punni and Sainu were tasked with finding if the news regarding the police was true or not. Only when they know the truth of the information, can they decide whether to continue with the meeting or postpone it and prepare themselves for the counter attack.

It was past four in the afternoon in the month of October. The monsoon was past and winter was yet to set in. Kamlu’s team occasionally crossed rice fields which had matured and will soon reach the reaping stage. After they had walked for half an hour, they met three women from Kadiyametta who had come to the forest to collect silk worm cocoons. Punni’s mother Danai was one of the women. As soon as the women saw the group, they came forward smiling and exchanging salutes.

“We heard police have come nearby, Didi. Do any of you know anything?” asked Kamlu. Danai said, “No, we haven’t heard” while the other two women shook their heads. “I believe people from Salepal met some of our people and informed them. We are going to find out if that is true or not. You also do not go to the forest. Better go home and be careful” said Kamlu. The women did not go further as they knew what it meant to be seen by the police. They said “You be careful too and be on the lookout” and they went back to their homes.

Punni’s mother had seen her daughter for the first time since she had joined the squad three months back. She wanted to stay back and talk to her daughter but the situation was not conducive to it. She looked at Punni, who was leading the formation, until they were no longer visible. She began to feel anxious.

The guerillas walked for another 15 minutes before they entered the plains. They were nearing Salepal village. On one side of the plain were hills and on the other side were fields. “This hill is a good site for an ambush by the police. We need to cross the plain quickly” was the thought that entered the minds of the guerillas almost simultaneously. They started hurrying.

Then, they saw Salepal village resident Badru coming with his son. Rukni and Punni proceeded on their way wishing “Lal Salaam” to Badru. But, Kamlu stopped to ask Badru “We heard police have come. Do you have any information Dada?”. “Oh, is it? I don’t know. I had dinner and came to the forest. Maybe the village has received some information” said Badru.

As Kamlu came to a stop, the others stopped too. Kamlu asked some more questions of Badru. Suddenly there was the sound of automatic firing from the hill. The danger they had anticipated was upon them. It was not a convenient location for any of them to counter attack. Rukni and Punni ran towards the fields. The other three ran in the same direction but backwards. Since there were trees in that direction, the three of them took cover behind the trees and started counterattacking. Rukni and Punni had no cover. The police started shelling too. Punni ran to the right and became separated from Rukni. Badru did not know what to do. He had his son with him to run anywhere far. So, he ran and hid behind a small tree squatting there and bending his body over his son thereby using his body as a shield to protect his son from any harm.

**            **      

Punni’s mother went to her home and was starting the fire for cooking when she heard the sound of exchange of fire and was startled. She understood that it must be the police firing against her daughter and others. Her heart stopped. She left the work to be done in the house mid-way and came out to stand in front of the house with trembling legs. She did not know what to do. She saw Jugai, who had accompanied her to collect the silk worm cocoons, coming towards her home. “Looks like the firing is on Punni and others?” asked Jugai anxiously as she came in. Danai could not answer and tears filled her eyes. “It appears to be very heavy firing. How come these people went in that direction after having heard the police have come?” said Jugai. Danai collapsed and started wailing.

The news that Punni is part of the team which was being subjected to the firing spread in the village in no time at all. Punni’s father, Sukram, who was working in the fields, also came to know the news. He immediately rushed home. Normally, the moment firing is heard, the men who are in the fields or the forest do not go into the village. In fact, men who are in the village will take to the forests to avoid the police. Sukram made his way home worried about how his wife and children were doing. By that time, the firing had stopped.

Seeing her husband, Danai started wailing even more. Sukram collapsed on the cot. “I saw her only today after she joined the squad. She was looking so good in a dress and holding a gun. I had hardly any time to feel happy for having seen her”, cried Danai. “Why do you say that? She might have escaped the firing”, said Sukram. “Did you not hear the firing? It was heavy and bullets were raining down. Escaping from such a firing is not an easy matter”, said Danai. Nobody could disagree with her.

“Punni was so good and clever at household work as well as field work. She was such a great help to her parents”, said one woman. Punni was the eldest child. She had two younger sisters and two even younger brothers. She was the right hand for her parents until she joined the squad. “She was active in the organization work too” said a second woman. “She was active in singing and games too” said another woman. Musalaih, who was like a grandfather to Punni, could no longer keep quiet. He scolded the women saying “That’s enough! Nothing will happen to that girl! Have we not seen that many of our people escaped firing? If you are all here, you will be talking in this vein and increasing the worry of her parents. Go on to your homes”. At that, everyone returned to their homes.

The night deepened. The two small children were asleep on one cot each. The children had eaten the food brought by the neighbors but the parents could not touch the food. The two girls sat with their parents. They were also thinking of their elder sister.

Suddenly Danai said, “We met only five of them. That means that the others must be around here somewhere. Those who escaped from the firing must have come and met the others. They may be in the tent near the Mango tree or the tent near the boulders. I will go and check once” and got up to go. “How will you know in which tent they are? Also, if there is firing they usually change the location of the tent and go far. Don’t go” said Sukram. Danai refused to listen to her husband. She said, “I am unable to sit still. I will go and check”. “You are so stubborn! Where will you go so late in the night? We also don’t know if those police bandits have gone away or not” scolded Sukram. “Let them be around. If they kill me, let them kill me”, Danai almost shouted. She was angry that her husband was unable to understand her anxiety. Realising that she will not listen, Sukram said “You stay. I will go and check” and got up from the cot. Danai said “No. You be with the boys. I will take the girls and go”. Danai and the girls left.

Sukram sat on the cot checking his watch every few minutes. By the time Danai and the girls came, it was past 11pm. Even though he could not see their expressions properly in the dim light of the lamp, he understood from their silence that they did not have any news. “Did you not meet anyone” he asked consolingly as he handed her a tumbler of water. “Yes”, she said and sunk on to the cot with the youngest child. The two girls were tired and they slept off on another cot after drinking some water. “Listen to me. All of them must have escaped. Just lie down for a while”. “Punni was leading. It was such heavy firing like a rain! Do you think she could have escaped?” she asked in a dejected tone. “Remember how Kailash dada escaped firing even from close quarters?” “He was involved in many firings. Our Punni is new to it”. It is not that Sukram did not know this. But, he was unable to believe that his daughter came to harm. He was trying to console himself through such arguments.

Danai lay down next to her youngest son. Sukram also lay down next to his other son. But, neither could sleep. They kept wondering if they will ever again see their daughter’s smiling face. Will they ever hear her talking nineteen to the dozen? 

“Could we have stopped her from joining the squad?” – The thought occurred to both of them. “Did we send her to the squad for amusement? Or that she will earn money for us? We had to because the government has ruined our lives. They did not leave us alone. They are building the Bodhghat dam which will submerge all these villages. Where will we go leaving these villages and forests? How will we live? What else can we do but fight?”

“It is not only Bodhghat. They want to excavate the Amudai hill.  The government does not care about the people living here.  Its only concern is how to increase the profit of the corporates!”. “If not for this fight, we would have been reduced to penury long ago”.

“Punni grew up in the struggles against the Bodhghat dam and the excavation of Amudai hill. From the time she became aware, she became part of the propaganda team that had gone around singing in the villages. She then wanted to join the squad. How could we deny her? If we do not allow her to join the squad, it means that we do not want to fight. If we want to live in our own lands, we have no choice but to fight. If we refuse to fight, we have to leave our village, our forest, and our cattle and go somewhere. But, where can we go? How do we live? How do we bring up our children? What will be their future?”

“Are we not seeing youngsters going to unknown places for employment? After slaving for long hours, they came back with empty hands. When we hear about the troubles they undergo, we would not wish such a life on our enemies too! Swallowing self-respect, they endured physical and verbal abuse, lived on empty stomachs and came back in distress. If you resist such treatment, they may even get killed! We can’t even begin to narrate the problems of women! They are just disappeared. It is said they are sold off”.

“If we don’t want to fight, we have to live such lives. Otherwise, if we want to live like a human being we have no option but to fight. We see only these two paths in our lives. Then, how can we not fight?” Both the parents were having thoughts similar to these. When Punni was going to join the squad Danai had said “Why join the squad at such a young age, my dear? Why don’t you wait for another year or two?”. “I look young to your eyes. But, whenever the police come to the village, they enquire about me” had said Punni. “Once she had said that, I could not say anything. I was afraid that her future would be ruined if she had gone to be a coolie to avoid the police. Though she is only 16 years old, once she joined the squad, everyone from youngsters to old men respect her in all the villages! How can I refuse if my daughter wants to live that life?” thought Danai.

Sukram remembered the time when he met Punni two months after she had joined the squad. What a difference in her in those two months! She had talked to him about so many matters sitting on the polythene sheet! “Father, since you are not feeling too well, you have said that you cannot work in any of the committees. The party has also agreed to it. Just because you are not in the committee, don’t go back to your old ways of drinking etc. Live according to the principles of the party. Help the current committee members.” She talked like a mature adult! When he remembered this he wondered if he will see her again and that thought brought tears into his eyes. He suppressed his sobs with difficulty.

They passed that sad night with a heavy heart. As soon as it was dawn, Danai got up with a new resolution. She woke up both her daughters and said “Let us go pick up the silk worm cocoons”. Both the daughters were bewildered by their mother’s actions. Sukram understood Danai’s logic and said “It is not even morning yet. Where will you go so early?” “How will we know anything if we sit at home? I will go out and see if we can get any news. Look after the boys” said Danai and left along with her daughters.

They went straight to the location where the firing had happened the previous day. By that time, the sun had risen completely. It was a chaotic scene with the empty shells scattered all around, fallen leaves, broken tree branches, bullet marks on the trunks of the trees. They saw blood in one place and marks of a person being dragged on the ground. Danai’s heart sank when she saw that. She collapsed there itself and started wailing loudly. Both the girls also started crying seeing their mother.

After sometime, Danai gathered herself and started walking towards Salepal village. They reached the village in ten minutes. They learnt in the village that Badru was injured and went to his home. He had a bandage on his arm and was moaning with pain. Danai collapsed on the floor beside the bed and asked him in a tearful tone “How did you get injured? Our daughter was also in the squad. Did anything happen to her?”. “I did not see the girls properly. They met and gave a red salute. Kamlu asked me information regarding the police. I told him I didn’t know anything about it and immediately after, the firing started.” “Were you there until the firing was done?” “I was right there. There was no way to get away from there. If I had been alone, I might have run to the village. But, I had my son with me. I found shelter behind a small tree and covered my son with my body. I was hit by a bullet. I did not think that I will come out of it alive. I did not think my son will live either. I do not know how we escaped death!” He pulled his son who was nearby and demonstrated to Danai how he protected his son.

After sometime, he resumed his narration saying “As soon as the firing started, Kamlu and the two women comrades behind him ran towards my right where there were trees. They took cover there and started firing too. The two women comrades ahead of him ran to the front where there were no trees. One of them was hit by the bullets and fell down. After the firing was done, they tortured her to death. The poor woman screamed a lot.” Danai started crying even before he completed telling what he saw.

“Our daughter was leading the way. Ohh! Looks like they killed her only…” Badru’s wife came and sat beside her to console her. She also started crying. Hearing the cries, neighbors joined in. After a while, their grief turned to anger. The women started cursing the police and the government.

**       **           

Sukram met his grieving wife at the doorstep and said “Don’t cry. I believe our daughter escaped the firing and has met the squad”. For a few seconds, Danai was too distraught to understand what her husband was saying. Then she said in an unbelieving tone “Are you telling the truth? How do you know? “Why will I lie? Just now, Rainu came and told me. I believe Mynididi asked us to come. Let us go”. Danai was ecstatic on hearing this news. She felt happier than when she became a mother for the first time. She sobbed out of sheer happiness! “Come now, drink this water. Let us go quickly”, said her husband comfortingly. His tension of the night before was replaced by the longing to see his daughter as quickly as possible. The entire family set out to see Punni.

In another half an hour, they were with the guerillas. When Punni extended her hand for a red salute, her mother hugged her and cried. Her father had tears in his eyes as he caressed her. Myni came and comforted Danai. “Punni said that when they were on their way, they met you on the way, Didi. I knew that you will be badly disturbed. Since we were nearby, I knew you would like to meet her and so I sent the message”, said Myni. Sukram informed her about how Danai had gone to the two tent locations and asked “How are the other comrades?” “Punni escaped from the firing and met us last night itself. We got the message just a while back that Kamlu and the other three have also reached the RV place. Punni is saying that it is unlikely Rukni will be able to make it. But, we have not yet heard anything.”

Danai wiped her tears on hearing this and said “I went to Salepal village to enquire if anyone knows anything about the firing. Badru was there until all the firing had stopped. He was also injured by a bullet in the arm. He said that they seem to have killed one person and carried the body away. I also saw blood on the ground and tracks of a body being dragged”. All the people there along with Myni were deeply saddened to hear this news. All of them became very grave and a couple of comrades started crying.

“Punni, sit down with your parents and tell them what happened” said Myni and moved away from there. She had to send a message to Rukni’s parents informing them of what happened and ask them to go claim her body. She also needed to send a doctor with medicines to treat Badru. She called all the AC members together.

As soon as they sat down on the polythene sheet, Danai asked Punni “How did you escape such huge firing?” “We met you on the road, isn’t it? A little distance later, as we reached the outskirts of Salepalvillage, we met Badru uncle. We wished him. Kamludada started asking him about the police presence. He was just saying he does not know when the firing started. I did not know what to do. Rukni and I ran forward. The others ran a little back. They were able to find cover and started firing. We did not find any cover. That was not a normal firing. They started bursting shells too! Rukni ran in one direction and I in another. After I ran for a while, I could find a tree. When I hid behind it and looked, I saw Rukni on the ground. I was badly frightened. Since I had never seen firing, I did not know what to do. Slowly I went into the rice fields. The plants were of such a height that I could bend and walk and remain invisible. I felt it was tough to bend and walk with the gun. So, I hid the gun in the field itself and made my way out. I felt I cannot go alone all the way to the RV place. I knew that the tents will be evacuated immediately. Still, I thought I will check and was making my way there when the comrades spotted me and called me”, narrated Punni.

Her father’s face became very serious on hearing her story. “You left your gun and came back? Why did you take a gun? Was it for fun or, for fighting? When you see the police, you are supposed to fight”, he said. “Is the gun a toy, my dear, to go around carrying it without using it? You should learn to use it properly, is it not?” said Danai lovingly unlike her husband’s angry tone. Punni’s face fell on hearing this. She had not expected such a reaction from her parents!

When she met Myni the previous night, Punni felt apprehensive to tell her about hiding and leaving the gun behind. She expected to be criticised by all. But Myni had said “You are new to firing and so you must have been frightened. Also, you are saying the area was not convenient to return the firing. But, in future, do not ever leave the gun behind. You have to be brave”, in a consoling tone. That had made her stop feeling guilty.

Punni’s first reaction to her parents’ criticism was anger. “Where was the opportunity to return the firing? I told you that there was no cover!” she said impatiently. “If you have no opportunity to return the firing, you have to retreat with your gun. Do you leave the gun behind?” asked her father. “I did not throw it away! I hid it well!”. “You may have hid it properly. But, if the police conduct a thorough search operation, they will find it, is it not my dear? I wonder if the gun is still there or those bandits have found it?” said Danai. Punni felt ashamed at that.

Myni, who was returning after talking to the AC members, found Punni’s parents approaching her. She understood their serious mien. From the time she heard the firing, she had been feeling guilty. “Knowing that police have been seen, will you send a new girl to find out about it? Somehow she has escaped but otherwise she might have died needlessly” is what she was expecting to hear from Punni’s parents. She was thinking about how to answer them as she approached them.

“Why did you give this girl a gun? To fight or to lose it? How difficult it is for us to obtain guns? If everyone behaves like her, we will be left with no guns!” said Sukram. “Do not give guns to all! Give them only to those who fight well” said Danai. Myni was bewildered by the turn of events and it took her a while to understand what she was hearing. She was dumbstruck by the reaction of Punni’s parents. Interrupting her husband who was about to speak, Danai said “We can talk later if you have something further to say. Let us go quickly and get the gun back. If it is found by any informer, we will lose the gun unnecessarily”, and moved on. Sukram followed her. Myni’s vision of the parents blurred as her eyes filled with tears…..


RV place– meeting place

Dada – elder brother, also used to refer to male Naxalite

Didi – elder sister, also used to refer to female Naxalite

Lal salaam – red salute

(Translation of “ViplavamlookaTalli-Tandri”. [Initially published in Arunatara, February 2019] From the collection of “Viyyukka”) –Translated by P. Anupama.

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