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The Apricot Tree

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.

 

The  Apricot  Tree

            M.S.    Mahadevan

 

 

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 dust in the distance  and  the  barking  of dogs,   an  echo  in my  head.

 

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.

"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."

................................End............................................

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Study Material, Lecturing Notes, Assignment, Reference, Wiki description explanation, brief detail

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