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The Apricot Tree


I have lived in the camp for close to a year now. When
I remember my old home, somehow I love it more than
I ever did. It was spring when we left. And the barren, grey mountains were slowly turning green. The apricot tree which my grandfather had planted as a young man was heavy with ripening fruit.
Abba and Usman were making last minute arrangements before taking our flock to the high pastures.
I begged to go along with them. "Not this year," Abba had said firmly. In a kinder voice he had added, "Maybe next summer." Usman was fifteen. I was eleven. It seemed like I would have to wait forever to be as old as him. Meanwhile, there
was school to attend, and Ammi and Habiba to look after. "They are your responsibility," Abba had said proudly.
Usman, securing bags of barley flour, salt and dried meat, put them onto a mule's back, had given me a sympathetic smile. I envied him the days of adventure and freedom that lay ahead. While I would be in school, cramming
useless stuff like tables and grammar, he would be out in the mountains, fishing in the streams, sleeping under the
stars. I watched them go till the flock was just a cloud of
dust in the distance and the barking of dogs, an echo in my head.
Four days later, the first shell landed on our village. It came across the ridge and shattered the police chowki. The third period had just begun. Our teacher Sadiq Ali was at the blackboard when there was a loud, dull BOOM! The
walls shook. The blackboard toppled off its stand. Sadiq Ali's spectacles fell off his nose. The rest of us looked at each other in astonishment. Before Sadiq Ali could stop us, we ran out of the school and up the road to the village square. We had barely crossed the grocery shop when another shell landed on it. When the dust settled we saw that one wall had a big hole. Through it we could see the owner cowering behind a sack. He was covered from head to toe with its contents—flour.
The bombardment continued for another hour. Six shells hit our village. Several more fell on the highway and the river beyond. A giant spray of water splashed every time a shell landed in the river.
In the late afternoon, a jeep roared up into the village square. A man got up on top of the bonnet and yelled through a loudspeaker, "You are informed that this village is under attack by the enemy (as if we did not know that already!). This is a war zone. For your own safety, you must evacuate your homes. Take only the bare essentials. Go to the camp at Drass. Make sure that all women and children leave the area." He jumped off, got into the jeep and roared off in the direction of the next village.
Our neighbours, old Suleiman and Amina refused to leave. Chacha was ninety-five years old. "I can't leave my animals behind," he said angrily. "Who will feed them?"
"Fine then, if you are not going, neither am I," Chachi said emphatically.
"Don't be stubborn," Ammi pleaded. "This is a matter of life and death. Come along with us."
"You go, beti" Chachi said. "Your children are small. When Arshad miyan and Usman come home, we will tell them where you have gone, We will take care of your animals too."
Ammi was unhappy about leaving them behind. But what could she do? There was hardly any time. The villagers had begun to leave; their belongings—pots, pans and bags of rations—piled on mule backs or on their own heads. "Take your school books," Ammi said. I was hoping she would forget but I knew better than to argue. She let Habiba take her favourite doll and a new pair of shoes. Ammi left a letter for Abba.
We joined the straggly line heading for the town. The narrow road was chock-full of army trucks loaded with soldiers. In the fields next to the river, men were scurrying about carrying boxes of ammunition, pitching tents and setting up big guns. We made slow progress. Habiba started to complain: her new shoes were pinching. She
wanted to take them off and throw them away. Ammi picked her up and carried her. By sunset we had covered only three kilometres.
We spent that night in the open. It was very cold. The soldiers did not allow us to light fires. Habiba snuggled
with Ammi. I had my own blanket. I thought I would not sleep a wink. It was a clear night. Around us, a ring of
jagged peaks rose up to meet the stars. Somewhere in those peaks were Abba and Usman, thinking we were safe in our beds! Would I ever see them again? Before I knew it, the sun was up and Ammi was shaking me awake. She looked
tired, as if she had not slept a wink. She gave me the last
of the naans to eat. It was hard and dry but I ate all of it.
"Hurry," Ammi said, "we must be on our way before the shelling starts."
We passed two villages. They were totally deserted. There was not a single house without a roof or a wall missing. The ruined village made me sad. Everyone was quiet; even Habiba. Just as we passed the last house, there was a scuffling sound. Habiba shrieked. A big, black head stared at us dolefully out through a broken wall. It was a yak. It had a little brass bell that tinkled when it shook its head. It was a cheerful sound. The yak nuzzled its head against Ammi. Its eyes seemed to plead.
"All right," said Ammi, "we won't leave you behind. Come along." She made Habiba and me sit on the yak's back and led it by the rope around its neck. The yak was smelly, but I didn't mind. I was happy to rest my feet. Habiba started to sing. We passed a hillside covered with yellow roses. Habiba made me get down and pluck a few for her.
When the sun was just over the ridge, the shelling began. The first one landed just a few hundred yards away. It hit an army convoy truck. A huge ball of flame rolled out. Ammi grabbed Habiba and pulled me off the yak. The yak was frightened out of its wits. I could see the whites of its eyes. It dashed off into a field, its bell tinkling crazily. We scrambled into a ditch and lay low. Through the deafening
noise of the shells came the shouts of soldiers, the wails of frightened children. I kept listening for the yak's bell.
At last, the shelling stopped. The convoy started moving. "I must go and look for the yak," I said to Ammi.
"No," she said, then, seeing my face, "all right, go. But be back in ten minutes. It may be..."
"Dead?" I said, interrupting her, "but what if it is not?
What if it is alive and scared and waiting for us?" "It is only a yak," she said gently


It sounded cruel to me. Only a yak!
I clambered out of the ditch and ran into the field. There were huge craters where the shells had landed, as if a giant hand had clawed out the earth. The yak lay on the edge of one crater. It was still. Beneath it was a growing pool of blood. I had never felt so sad as I did then, looking at that poor, gentle creature, now dead. I looked up at the mountains that had always seemed friendly. Hiding in their folds were men who had so casually destroyed my whole world. What harm had we ever done to them?
I heard footsteps. It was a soldier, tall and strong. With a beard and a black turban. His rifle was slung across his shoulder. He looked fierce, but when he spoke, his voice
was not unkind. "Your mother is waiting. It is not safe for you to be here. We will give you a ride to town." Then he saw the dead yak. "Your friend?" I nodded glumly.
Bending down, he took the little brass bell off the neck.
"Keep this," he said gently, "to remind you of your friend." He lifted me across his shoulder and walked back.
We reached the camp without any mishap. The first person I spotted was Sadiq Ali.
"So you have made it," he said in his cool, precise voice.
"School starts tomorrow."
"But we don't have a schoolhouse!" I protested.
"We do," he grinned, pointing at a big, shady tree. "Class begins at 9 a.m."
Since then, we have been living in a tent. It is crowded but cosy. Abba and Usman have joined us. So have old Suleiman and Amina. The winter has come and gone.
Abba went to see our house recently. "We will have to build a new one," he said. "But the apricot tree is fine, it is in bloom."

 M.S. Mahadevan

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