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Woman to Woman

By Madhulika Liddle

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From ‘Poppies in the Snow’

An old man once told me that the stream from which we draw water comes from high up in the mountains, behind the deodars. Above the tree line. From the snows. ‘If you climb up, Iqbal,’ he had said, squinting up at the distant peaks, ‘you will see it. You will see snow melt into water. The purest water, clear as crystal, fresh and sweet. You could kill for water like that.’

I was not even ten then. It was a simpler world, a quieter one. A world where cold, clear water could be thought of in such poetic terms. Even then, I had thought him odd, senile. Who would kill for water?

I know better now. I have seen men kill for water. And not just for water, but for less. A word misheard, an action misunderstood. A matter of opinion, a sudden rage. For the pleasure of killing. For the exhilaration of knowing that one had lessened the enemy’s numbers by one. As if, where there were thousands waiting, one would make a difference.

If you follow our stream up till the big brown boulder with its crown of lichens, you will see the stream split. A smaller branch, faster and narrower, goes off to the west. A couple of minutes’ walk, and you come to a meadow on the mountainside. In the summer, it is beautiful. The grass is green, and there are poppies everywhere. Vivid red, their petals so thin that if you hold one up to the light, you can see the sun through it. Bright flowers, vibrant. Short-lived.

It was here that Mohsin died. In this meadow, his blood sprayed all across. It was autumn. There was not a poppy in the meadow, but it was red. Red with Mohsin’s blood.

Three months, that is all it has been. Three months, in which even the brown of the grass has withered away. The ground is covered, right now, with perhaps six inches of snow. It has been snowing, off and on, for the past two days. The stream, where it slows down in the meadow, is rimmed with ice. There is utter silence here, the brooding shadows of the deodars behind me dark, grim.

The sky above is the colour of steel. There is more snow coming. I shoulder my gun, feel its weight on my arm. A comforting weight, a burden I am grateful for. It is an AK-47, once Mohsin’s, now mine. It has killed men. Perhaps half a dozen, perhaps more. Sometimes when you fire into the dark, you hear a scream as the bullet strikes home, but you cannot tell if a man has been merely hurt or if he has died. And you are too busy to go and look. Too busy trying to stay alive, too busy trying to kill others.

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