“The Vestiges” is one of the outstanding stories of the first biannual International Short Story Contest 2018 written by Kshitij Kumar, Birla Vidya Niketan, New Delhi, India.
It was a cool day. The sky was grey, ready to burst and shower its love on Earth. Despite repeated requests from my driver, I had left a portion of the window open. I liked the wind hitting my face and leaving its cool presence before going away. We must have driven 20 miles, when my driver asked me, “Sir, you haven’t yet told me why we are driving to Ukhrul. No one has been living there since years. It’s an abandoned village.”
“Well…it is a long story.” I replied.
“No matter, Sir. We are yet to cover a long distance before we reach Ukhrul.”
I thought for a while and then agreed. “Sir, before you begin, please roll up the window,” the driver added, “the rain will spoil the seat.” I smiled, rolled up the window, and took a long breath…
The open ground near the lake at Ukhrul was full of people. Everyone had gathered to watch performances by their fellow mates. The dance had ended and now it was my chance. I was an 11-year old boy then, famous in the entire village for my flute skills. As my fingers moved rapidly over the holes, the audience could do nothing but get lost in a different world. Truly, it was a mesmerizing treat for the senses. The performance ended and there was a thunderous applause from all corners. My parents, seated in the first row, beamed with pride.
“The time is over. Go back to your camps!” the refugee camp incharge announced. The crowd began to disperse. Our camp was located at the opposite end of the lake, near a young mango tree, which I had planted with Baba and Ma the year before. You might ask how we ended up as refugees. But honestly, I do not know. I was too small when everything happened. Baba and Ma have never told me and nor I have ever asked them.
We were slowly walking up to our camp when I asked my parents, “Baba, Ma, I hope you remember that it’s my birthday tomorrow. What are you going to give me? I know the government gives each family a few hundred rupees each month”
Baba replied, “We have saved enough money to buy you a gift. But, I cannot reveal it. However, I am sure that you will cherish it throughout your life.”
“Please tell! Or else I will spend a sleepless night.” I pleaded.
“Well--- before Baba could finish, the camp that lay 30 steps away from ours, blew up with a deafening explosion. The fire raged on and I could see mushroom-like smoke in the air. Before I could understand anything, people began to run for their lives. Terrified, I ran under the mango tree and closed my eyes.
I was woken up by some loud noises. Hundreds of bodies lay charred and bleeding on the Earth. There were ambulances, police officers, crying children….I got up and walked amidst the bodies. The memories of the previous evening were clear in my mind. We were talking about my gift…and yes, it was my birthday…There were many bodies but my blood dried up and my body began to shiver when my eyes fell upon two of them. They were Baba and Ma!
“No! No! No!” I shrieked as they pulled me away….
The next day, I was taken to New Delhi where I was employed in a cracker factory. Later I learnt that someone had installed a bomb in the camp and the people involved in it had been arrested. That day I promised myself that I would return to Ukhrul one day to relive the memories, which I had spent with my parents.
The car stopped on the outskirts of the village. The rain had subsided. “Sir! We have reached.” The driver said, in a voice that was too full of emotions. I could see his teary eyes in the front-view mirror. I patted him on the shoulders and said, “Ok! You wait here. I will be back in an hour or two.” Soon, I found myself walking amidst the ramifications of that fateful night. The lake had dried and although it was spring, the trees wore no leaves. Their naked branches appeared like ghostly creatures and all that I could see in front of me were shattered houses, old tyres, bricks, logs, dried twigs, rotting leaves and some plastic junk. The open ground, where I played my flute, had now turned into a wasteland. I walked further and came across a tree. At the foot of it, laid fallen some dried mango leaves and I immediately deduced that it was the same tree, which I had planted with Baba decades ago. Pigeons and bats had built their nests on it now. Next to the tree, a tattered wooden structure stood. Our home!
I entered it. A portion of the wall had crumbled down and through the ‘window’ that had been created, I could see the sky, the rain-washed valley, the field…The floor was strewn with twigs and straws and pigeon droppings. Among other things, there was a flute. It had a deep ochre color and a red ribbon tied elegantly at its end. I picked it up. There was a piece of paper inside it. I unfolded it. The ink had faded and with great difficulty, I read. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO OUR BELOVED SON, ANKUR.”
Tears rolled down my cheeks. The words of Baba echoed in my mind. “I cannot reveal the gift. However, I am sure that you will cherish it throughout your life.”
I held the flute close to my lips. The sun had begun to set behind the mountains and the evening was slowly creeping in. The environs were wrapped in silence and one could hear nothing except for a series of soulful melodious flute tunes, seeking love and harmony from the world, filling up the air of a refugee town.