Wednesday 20 December 2023

Short Story 2023 Second Prize, Urmi Chakravorty


Dreamers are losers... Darn! I hate dreams. Quit dreaming. Act fast, act hard, and victory is yours!

The immaculate handwriting stares back at you from the crumpled piece of paper. A quarter of a sheet hurriedly torn out from a notebook. Its blank spaces still smell of the lunch box you placed in your daughter’s school satchel every day. Its frayed edges, curling inwards, twisting, still seem to bear the touch of her dainty fingers. Fingers that were so different from your own, rendered rough and calloused with all your archery practice. Her fingers that curved delicately around the pen and wrote in a cursive you were so proud of.

“Selma, you should consider joining the calligraphy classes after school,” you often nudged her. Though in your heart, you knew too well that she had also planned to take up archery and excel in it like you did, once she finished high school. You often caught her miming a bullseye shot, all by herself, in front of the mirror. And you would chuckle to yourself.

What is it they say about the apple falling not far from the tree?!

Selma, all of fourteen, would roll her eyes — warm doe eyes glazed with just the right hint of chestnut, smiling at you from a bronzed face. The quintessential example of ‘beauty with brains’ – a perceived rarity amongst the coloured populace but always acknowledged and admired by the fair-skinned majority of your town. The same doe eyes that stared at you a year later – gaping, unseeing, unblinking. You had knelt down briefly to check if she had, indeed, been fatally hit by an enemy bullet or she had simply collapsed by the impact of the sudden shelling. The steady carmine trickle oozing out and forming a small pool around her neck, confirmed your worst fears. You held her palms tight, as if trying to breathe life into them.

A short, sharp whistle blew, urging you all to keep together and keep moving.

“Keep moving fast, Miss! You stay put here and you miss the bus…the ceasefire isn’t gonna last the whole day!” The gruff voice of the escorting sergeant rudely invaded the last few moments you had with her.

Ceasefire, indeed!

The sudden of enemy bullets ricocheting through the air, and the erratic rat-tat-tat of automatic rifles seemed to smirk at the travesty of the word! With leaden feet, you hobbled along the dark, rugged path that promised a getaway from this macabre spectacle of war. On alien shores, far away from your homeland. A land rich in diversity and inclusivity, a sanctuary for all your happy and sad moments, and countless memories of your life so far.

You grabbed Selma’s satchel and plodded along with the other evacuees, tears blinding your sight. A scream rose in your throat but no sound emerged. You were surprised at your own resilience – not a murmur of protest, nor any cry of grief. Only a deafening silence that became an integral part of your new, altered persona. Dry-eyed, stone-hearted, tight-lipped.


You keep reading Selma’s hand-written words over and over again, like a woman possessed.

She was right – dreams mean nothing. Action is the actual and only way out.

Sitting on the uncomfortable cot in the makeshift refugee camp, you look around. At a quick estimate, you find about three hundred people housed in tents, hurriedly set up in a playground in a small town bordering your own. Geographically, it is a separate country, and hence, safe. Politically, it is an ally which has agreed to accommodate war-affected citizens like you.

Displacement and isolation have a quirky impact on human beings, you surmise. Men, women and children of all ages - dazed, displaced, distressed, like you - all grappling with a sense of hiraeth. Each trying to navigate through the labyrinth of newness and uncertainty in their own way. While initially you all were apprehensive and suspicious of one another, with each passing day you notice a thaw in these frigid vibes. You now seek solace and succour in each other’s company, share feelings of nostalgia and anger, and collectively pray for peace. You do hear of stray conflicts among the camp-dwellers but they get resolved within a day or two.

The conditions here are not too bad for a refugee camp, you admit, thanks to a mounting global concern for your countrymen. You have a roof over your head, your own bed, and three decent meals to eat. Volunteers, para-medical personnel and the media routinely check on you. And yet, you’re seized by recurrent bouts of despair, guilt, grief, and most of all, anger. A crippling anger for not being able to save your daughter, your universe, your raison d’etre. For being a mere spectator in your early married years as your husband kept cheating with impunity and finally walked out on you for another woman. For helplessly watching your neighbourhood being razed to rubble, with columns of choking, ominous smoke billowing out of almost everywhere – the fallout of a mindless, unprovoked war.

Funny how war is considered a divisive force. It’s actually the most compelling factor binding people together in a common thread of loss, death and devastation. Much more powerful and unifying than peace itself!

You smile at your own dystopian thought. Such thoughts seem to have found a permanent shelter in your heart these days. But you don’t complain – you’re grateful that you’re still capable of humour, even if it has a dark, wry flavour.


It’s been six months since you came here. By now, you’ve interacted with most of the camp inmates. You often find yourself observing a young girl at the far end of your enclosure. Blessed with spotless ebony skin, sculpted features, and dense curly tresses, she’s poised on the cusp of adulthood. A casual conversation reveals her predicament. She is a war orphan, with her entire home and family wiped out in an unannounced shelling on their neighbourhood. She was visiting her suburban friends and hence, spared. However, instead of agonising over her fate, you’re pleasantly surprised to find her maintain a sunny disposition most of the time. Chatting up people of all ages, frolicking with children in the makeshift play area, rocking infants to sleep while their tired moms took a catnap, lending a sympathetic ear to hoary women recounting their happy past – she seems to do it all so effortlessly that you cannot help but admire her affability. And patience. You often wonder at the secret behind her sang froid. Her devastating reality makes your own grief seem a tad less burdensome. You enjoy talking to her and sharing memories of happy times. Her radiant smile injects a trickle of lightness into your woebegone veins. You realise with some surprise that your benumbed heart has started beating after a long hiatus, and this time, it is throbbing for Zahra, the young girl.

Of late, you’ve noticed a man sneaking into the tent at odd hours, often when the other inmates are resting. A beefy man with an outdoorsy tan, a thick unruly mop and constantly shifting eyes, he talks intently and furtively with Zahra. They have long conversations, peeking over their heads, as if to remain out of everyone’s earshot. Especially yours, the lone waking member in the tent. Sometimes you see them leave together and walk to the far end of the ground, engrossed in a deep dialogue. The man seems to explain things at length, his demeanour reeking of coercion rather than persuasion. Zahra looks uncertain at times, hopeful at others. Your maternal instincts kick in, you’re tempted to find out more. There’s something here that raises the red flags but you’re unable to put your finger on it. You decide to ask Zahra herself.

“He's Alex, an experienced job agent, trying to help out the refugees here and elsewhere. He has a slew of influential contacts, especially in the American states. They have helped change the lives of many educated, unemployed war survivors in the past few months. He’s offered me a lucrative job in the US hospitality sector,” she tells you, hope lighting up her charming eyes.

“But Zahra, how’s that even possible? There are bound to be visa and immigration issues. Besides, recession has hit the job market globally. How come he’s able to land jobs so easily? That too, for godforsaken displaced people like us, with not even a permanent address or any plausible recommendation?!” The anxiety and disbelief in your voice reach a treble. “Please don’t trust this man blindly, Zahra…there’s something iffy here.”

“I’m sorry but no, I’m not gonna waste my life languishing here anymore in this rat hole. I’ve already suffered enough. I’m done with grieving and mourning. Now, I want to l breathe free…lead a regular life. I’m leaving with him tomorrow night and that’s final!” The desperation and urgency in Zahra’s voice slice through your heart.

“Did you speak to any of his contacts yourself? And have you informed the officer here about your plan?” Your rhetorical question is met with a small, bitter smirk.

“No, I haven’t. And you also please don’t. I want to leave as quietly as possible. He’ll bring his vehicle around midnight and park it outside the ground. No drama, no fuss, just an easy exit. And a step closer to my new, happy life. I hope you’ll cooperate,” Zahra looks at you pointedly, a childish eagerness shining through her hazel orbs.

You nod and fall quiet but your mind is on an overdrive. You recall all those incidents of human trafficking plaguing war-afflicted regions that reach your ears, albeit in hush-hush tones.

Here’s this beautiful young girl with no one to guide her, lured by dollar dreams - such an easy prey for these vultures in human guise! Will she become the latest addition to their statistics? And she seems so completely convinced and enamoured by Alex’s rhetoric!

Darkness descends and yet, you’re not able to sleep.

This is sheer foolhardiness! I have to stop Zahra from doing this. But how?! How do I even begin to explain the pitfalls that lie ahead of her? She’s not ready to listen to any reasoning. And tomorrow is just a few hours away…

You keep tossing and turning and finally drift off into a fitful sleep, punctuated by nightmares of the swarthy Alex bombing your home and taking Selma away by force.


It’s D-Day and you are up with the lark. You go about your daily chores like a robot. A mishmash of distant sights and voices eddies inside your brain. After Selma, you never thought you would need to worry about anybody else. You had painstakingly coated every fibre of your being with a cold stoicism. You were certain your synapses had turned impassive with too much grief and enduring. And now belying all your beliefs, you work yourself into a tizzy, exploring all avenues, trying to devise an escape route for Zahra from what you consider a joy ride to disaster.

Your options are limited. If you report Alex to the camp authorities, the odds are stacked high against you. You do not have proof, and Zahra will certainly not testify. Besides, Alex would get cautioned and probably target some other gullible child in one of the many refugee camps dotting the country. You need to do something yourself. You are reminded of the words Selma believed in – it is purposeful action that matters and not a dream that keeps you lying in limbo!

The day comes to an end, thankfully faster than you had anticipated. The entire camp is swathed in a blissful slumber. Lying on the cot, you train your eyes to see in the dark - no sound, no movement. Satisfied, you rise ever so gently, taking care not to awaken anybody. Least of all, Zahra. You literally crawl out of the tent and make a dash for the wall circumscribing the perimeter of the playground. Through the dark haze of the moonless night, you try to locate the spot where the wall has crumbled partially, leaving a reasonably large breach amidst the bricks. It is through this breach that Alex usually sneaked in, Zahra had once mentioned, as the main entrance points are carefully manned.

This gaping hole, is this a casual oversight or a deliberate slip-up? How come it’s remained unnoticed till now? And is it sheer coincidence that this spot lies beyond the range of the dull yellow light burning wearily from the nearest lamp post?

A flurry of thoughts and doubts criss-crosses your mind. The answers continue to elude you.

You bend down and your fingers grope on the ground till they find what they are looking for. You clutch them tight inside your fist. You silently walk a few metres back and blend in with the shadows. The pervading silence is occasionally broken by the whirr of a patrolling motorbike on the road outside. A church bell ding-dongs at a distance, indicating midnight. A few minutes pass – liquid beads of apprehension gather on your forehead. You start wondering if this was, at all, a good idea. If you should have taken recourse to a police complaint. And right then, your alert ears pick up the low rumble of a largish four-wheeler, carefully coming to a stop right outside the boundary. Within minutes, Alex ambles in through the wide chasm. You crouch low against the obscure wall, your fists clenching and taking aim. It’s now or never, you remind yourself. Then, as he starts walking towards your tent with a practised swag, your balled up fist swings into action.


You hold your breath as you see Alex suddenly getting hit on the temple by a couple of jagged pebbles. From the shadows you watch as he lets out a loud, anguished cry and stops dead in his tracks. Clutching his forehead, he teeters for a few seconds before slumping on the ground, right in front of your eyes! Bullseye, you congratulate yourself! So many days without practice but you still haven’t lost your mojo, you realise with a grateful smile.

Alex keeps wiping his forehead with a dirty handkerchief. There’s some blood, you presume. Alerted by his cry, you notice a few people running up to him, both guards and camp dwellers. Words like ‘ambulance’…’arrest him’…’not from the camp’…’looks shady’ float into your ears. Seizing this opportunity, you emerge from the dark and merge unobtrusively with the crowd milling around Alex. You heave a sigh of relief as he is taken away by the burly guards. In the melee, you catch a glimpse of Zahra, looking both bewildered and deeply disappointed, at this quirk of destiny. You feel gutted for having destroyed her dream, her lone ticket to freedom. But there was no choice, you console yourself, as you watch Zahra walk back to the tent, crestfallen.

The commotion gradually dies down. You squat on the ground and watch as the inmates retire to their respective tents. Selma is gone, but Zahra is here - safe and alive. Tears spill out of your parched eyes, unbridled, after a prolonged drought, redeeming you of your self-imposed emotional exile. You secretly thank the puckered paper containing Selma’s credo, for breathing life into your moribund senses.

Dreams, indeed, mean nothing, Selma…it’s only action that matters. And I did act this time, my dear girl!

Novalunosis had always been your favourite de-stress activity. But today you do it with a purpose. You blow a loving kiss heavenward, trying to locate your beloved girl, your shining pole star, among the million twinkling specks dotting the infinite expanse above.

You prepare yourself to spend one more night in deracination. To wait, and to pray, that you go back home as a free, proud citizen, at least once within this lifetime. And pick up the threads of your fragmented existence, one stitch at a time. The very thought fills your unhoused, unsettled, self with an overwhelming moment of yugen.

You inhale deeply.

Bullseye, indeed!

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