There was only one. You. The rest were voyeurs, ignorant parasites.


When you spoke up, alone, your words were cold flaked stone, scentless white violets.


Murugan was caught while collecting firewood earlier that morning, from forest land you owned for centuries, dragged to the clearing and made to kneel under huge Sal trees, ringed in by them — the forest guards. Them — only slaves of the State. Murugan only an object, a hapless prey.
 

Murugan thought it was a question of what belongs to all. Land, forest land, his, yours, native land.
 

You knew better. Because ascribing identities of faith or caste is easier than giving rights or livelihood. Because equality is a bad word.
 

‘Shred him to pieces!’ the Beat Constable had shouted.


His deputy used his leather belt; it looped and fell on naked skin like markings of shame. The shame of being thieves of land. Encroachers. Everything, he and you, were not.
 

Murugan writhed in pain, latched on to the belt, like straw for an almost drowned. It enraged the
constable. His belt was furious still, Murugan’s wounds oozed blood.


~~~


Next afternoon, the humble home of Murugan perched on a hillock abutting the jungle wore a deserted look. His mamma sat by the front steps. They brought Murugan on a bamboo cot, ready for cremation.


~~~


You cried. Alone. At other times, you led your people, the forest dwellers, united by shame, by death, by fate. The band of landless people snaked through the jungle, your shrieks perforating the compressed canopies. You emerged by the motorway and up to Bhopal, stood in front of the Collector’s Office, where they could no longer ignore you.
 

This time there were many. Many who were grieving alone, now a sea seething. If rage had a face. Baleno eyes, fists curled in pockets.


No placards, no pamphlets, no slogans. Nothing to elaborate what you wanted — they who must know already knew.
 

You and more of yourselves only squatted there, silent but determined, firm as stone.


~~~

2

Days rolled. You remained on the pavement, unclean and unfed, but you attracted the crowd of them deprived, them who were prepared to shed their slave-shells, stand behind you.
 

Now, no one called upon the color of your skin, your dialect, your ancestry, because they were afraid of you, your resilience.
 

Your group braved the searing heat. You braved pelting rains that made you shiver to the bones.
 

You chronicled clouds as they scaled the hills, on the horizon framed the moon as it woke up from where the sun had died.
 

‘Shred it to pieces!’ You thundered the thirtieth morning, when an official showed you a four-page-long eviction order. Crowd behind you roared, charged at the official and his staff.
 

For once, the people own. Them, the slaves, retreated to their masters.
 

~~~
 

Years later, when you till your small patch of land, the one you’ve cleared, and which, by rotation, you’ll return to the forest as your tribes do, you think of Murugan, and view the dying sun.
 

The moon emerges from behind the thick virgin forests. It’s a silver plate that you’ve won.

Mandira Pattnaik writes in India. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, Citron Review, Bending Genres, Splonk, Flash Short-short Story Magazine, Timber Journal and Amsterdam Quarterly, among other places.

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