A Street in a War Zone
The lone soldier hesitated to enter the empty street. Measured steps took him in footstep after footstep, eyes darting from road to rooftop and back, gun pointing this way and that. The eerie silence was broken only by the clomp of his heavy boots. He felt a thousand eyes tearing into his skin from barred windows. Soldiers can’t be afraid, he reminded himself.
Another sound. The creak of a door opening. Instinctively the soldier raised his gun. A man, arms folded over chest, stood against a door staring at him. He looked a bit like the soldier’s elder brother. Same height, same broad shoulders, same brown hair.
“There’s curfew! Go indoors!” shouted the soldier. The man did not move. “I have shoot-at-sight orders! Go back!”
No change in the man’s position. The soldier’s lip quivered. He had never killed anyone. But he had orders to obey.
A shaky finger pressed a trigger, gun aimed at air. Silence split by a whizzing bullet. Still the man did not move. Was he a devil? Suicidal? How could he remain standing in the face of real danger!
He’s protecting his family behind the door, thought the soldier. His mother? Wife? Children? His own mother was safely far away. Would he have the guts to protect her as this man was doing? He pushed the thought away. This was no time for weakness. His orders were clear. No one was to break curfew.
He levelled his gun and shot. A red blotch appeared on the man’s shoulder. The door behind him opened and he was pulled in. Within seconds another man took his place, arms folded identically across his chest.
The soldier couldn’t believe it. Was he hallucinating? The gun prevented him from rubbing his eyes. The barrel was still warm. Hadn’t he wounded the man? Why would another take his place knowing that he too might be shot?
The second man resembled the first. Only his shirt was black, not blue. He stood in the same defiant position. Silent. Defiance began to unnerve the soldier. His lip trembled as he ordered “Go inside! Curfew!”
Was the man deaf? Was the whole family deaf? Were they all mad? Did they not realise there was a war? That they could be killed for defying authority!
Authority…? What authority? He was the son of an ordinary farmer. He had joined the army because of his interest in martial arts. Only his uniform gave him authority. As part of a powerful army his was a voice to be obeyed.
He had been trained to obey senior officers. In three years no thought of defiance had entered his head. Now he had to quell defiance, bring rebelling citizens under control. How was he to deal with a single man standing alone in the street during curfew?
Why was this street so quiet when the whole town was in disarray? The black shirted man, about a hundred meters away, was gesturing him to come forward. What did he want? Was it a trap to avenge the wounded man!
Fear gripped his throat. Though the man’s bearing was not menacing the soldier could not trust him. But he was curious about this family of lunatics. He took a few cautious steps, then marched towards the man appearing far more confident than he felt. His heart was thumping.
As he drew close the man lowered arms from his chest. The soldier did not lower his gun. A wary appraisal of each other. Then the man turned, reached for a knob and opened the door. A stream of light poured out. The man stepped inside beckoning the soldier to follow.
Fear gripped his throat as he struggled against the impulse to run. His training. A soldier does not run away from danger. Raising the gun to his shoulders protectively, he approached the open door. As he stepped into the room the door shut gently behind him.
The room held three women and half a dozen men. All sitting quietly facing a resplendent Madonna, white veil draped over a blue cape, hand raised in blessing. Three red candles glowed in a makeshift alter at her feet. A musky fragrance hovered in the air.
It was the Madonna of his village church. He had knelt before her a thousand times – when his mother was ill, when his brother lost his job, even before the army entrance tests. His mind got trapped in a whirl of memories. He stood paralysed, mouth agape.
“Ask her to protect you,” murmured the man behind him.
The soldiers dropped his gun, kneeling.
Meher Pestonji, Mumbai, India
Meher Pestonji from India is a veteran journalist writing on street-kids, housing rights, communalism while covering
theatre, art and interviewing creative people. She has written short stories, novels : Pervez and Sadak Chhaap, and plays.
A digital performance of Turning Point is running on zoom. She is active on various international poetry groups.