The soldiers arrived on a morning in spring when the sea was unswollen and everyone said they were here to save them.
“They are Asian, like us,” said the father of Nomi and Zee, because he was like everyone.
Zee did not believe him. “Nobody cares about us.”
“The British have left. We are free.”
“We are not free. We are now under the Japanese.”
They argued till Zee left the village in a sulk and Nomi followed him.
The soldiers were everywhere, just standing around, carrying long guns and small satchels. When the children reached the jetty, Zee said, “There is nothing new here, there never is.” Pretending to study the sea, he tried to sound casual, but she knew him as well as he knew her. There was plenty new here. There were bombers in the sky and battleships in the sea. Nomi’s nose was full with black snot. The sirens had stopped.
“Let’s go up the mountain,” announced Zee.
“Don’t be stupid,” she said.
“Are you a coward like –”
A soldier looked at her and yawned.
Nomi thought it strange that even the Indians who had worked for the British were now gone.
“Why would they leave, if something bad wasn’t going to happen?” Zee had asked, during one of his fights with their father.
“Wait and see,” their father had repeated. “The Japanese are here to help.” To their mother he said that the price of raising a family on a prison island was that the children would never know trust. Their father was a settled convict. He had been arrested in India, long ago, for reasons the children were never told, and sent here to South Andaman Island, to the jail that looked like a starfish. After serving out his term, he had been given a ticket of leave and the hut where they now lived. Nomi and Zee were born on the island. They were the Local Borns.
Earlier this morning, Nomi had heard their mother say that the first thing the Japanese did after they arrived was release the prisoners, and now look, terrible men were wandering about stealing chickens and bothering women. She told Nomi to stay close to her, and to keep the hen, Priya, close too.
Now, as Zee pulled Nomi away from the jetty, towards the mountain, she wanted to tell her brother.
He knew her as well as she knew him. “Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m afraid for Priya.”
“The Japanese like fish, not chicken.” He laughed at his own joke, he always did.
“That’s not what I mean. Mama says there are freed convicts who are savages.”
“What if Baba was still a prisoner? Would you call him that?”
“I’m just telling you what she said.”
“Mama is usually wrong.”
“No, she isn’t.”
“Yes, she is.”
“What about what Baba says?”
“I want to go back.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do.”
“They can’t both be right.”
“Mama sides with the British, Baba with the Japanese, whose side are you on?”
She was stumped. What sort of question was this?
Their mother would not be here if not for the British, she had been forced, it was called transportation for life, just because Zee was already in her stomach when Baba did what he did.
Her family said she was with his child now and belonged to him. Nomi had heard their mother say this, sometimes holding Nomi while Nomi held Priya – it was one of the important things she had to discuss with Zee.
But he was confusing her. She was twelve – only a year younger than their mother when she got married – yet, with Zee, Nomi felt like a child. Maybe this was why Priya grew muddled and went where she should not. One of the other chickens was saying stupid things.
“That makes no sense,” she decided.
He laughed. “You’re on nobody’s side, okay? Because nobody’s on our side.”
He looked at her. She looked at him.
And she has wondered ever since, ever since, why she did not think to ask, What’s our side, Zee?
They started climbing. Their mother never allowed them up the mountain that Nomi called Mount Top, but Nomi had been here once before. It was their secret, hers and Zee’s.
There were no Indian guards telling them not to go up. There were only the Japanese, some lying in the grass with their boots off and long guns to the sky. They said things hard to understand, but did not stop Nomi and Zee from continuing. For a few steps it was just the two of them, then more olive-green uniforms, different up here against the bushes than down there against the sea. And again Zee gripped her arm, and again she wanted to be home, but they kept climbing. There was the lake they had been to before. Then, a little further, through the padauk trees on the summit of the next hill, they saw it. The jail. Shaped like a starfish and the colour of a wound, its seven arms severed by the tall, tall trees.
This was as far as she had ever come. The higher up Zee took her, the more the ocean flew through the trees, and she tried to focus on this because it was beautiful.
From up here she could finally see where she lived. Where she had always lived. Zee had told her that the Andaman Islands were the tip of a submerged mountain range. Below the surface of the sea, there were many Mount Tops, far taller than the one on which they now stood. If Nomi shut her eyes and listened closely, she could hear a rhythmic rumbling all around her. The islands were breathing. The whole universe seemed to sing. The sea was so many greens and blues, all glassy and glittering. The surf rolled sweetly along the white beaches, though she had never known a beach to be white, a surf to be sweet. The sky was absolutely clear, and there was just enough of a breeze to kiss the sweat from her arms, but not the terrible kind that said a storm was coming and they would be wet for days.
There was another story about how these islands were made. Lord Rama had created them, perhaps on a day such as this, as a bridge to cross the sea. His wife Sita had been abducted by a demon, and he wished for a way to retrieve her. He did recover Sita, but finding the islands too forested for his feet, Rama fled, in search of a softer landing. He soon forgot about this corner of the world.
But on this afternoon, the islands appeared soft to Nomi. She wanted to pull them to her, all the soft corners of the world.
Zee was pointing to the purest of sands below, where palm trees swayed in prayer. Nearby were strict rows of coconut palms, a whole army of them. These were the plantations where some women worked. From this height, the other islands were just dots, and now Zee was pointing to the one where there had been a sawmill and elephants to clear the forests. When the Japanese bombed it, the cry of elephants could be heard even over the sirens, and some people reported seeing monstrous globes of re charging into the sea. According to Zee, the black snot in Nomi’s nose was scorched elephant flesh.
She could hear no elephants now. And though she had not climbed all the way to the top of the mountain, already she had seen the world, already she had grown older.
“We don’t have to keep going up if you’re tired,” said Zee. He seemed happy with her now that she had stopped wanting to go back. “Let’s sit here.”
He pulled her through a loop of padauk trees, the tallest tree- loop she had seen, and a wide, wide fig tree with a mesh of vines in its endless loving arms. A flock of yellow parrots fluttered far into the dazzling sky. There was a bench with curly etching. Harriett Tytler, brave and beloved wife of Colonel Robert Tytler. Nomi did not like the smell of the bench but when Zee sat down, so did she.
He released her arm. “Are you still afraid?”
“No,” she lied. The smell was familiar. She did not know why.
“You don’t need to be. I have this.” From somewhere under his shirt, he pulled out a small gun. “It’s an air pistol,” he added, as if this meant something.
She was horrified. “Baba will be angry.”
“Where did you get it?”
“From Mr Campbell, before he left.”
Mr Campbell had been their school teacher. “He gave it to you?”
“I found it in his office drawer.”
“You stole it?”
“So? What would he do – transport me?” Again he laughed at his own joke. “Anyway, he’s gone. Maybe he thought I should have it.”
Zee was staring ahead, a smile around his lips. He was not happy with her but with himself. His hair had grown again. As the wind blew, the hair lifted off his forehead, where he had a rash. The rash was all over his body. He had to always keep dry and clean, which was hard on a wet island, with only three shirts. Many children at school had what their mother called “the itchiness”. Nomi checked her skin for the itchiness often.
This is how she will always see him, her brother, Zeeshan Haider Ali. Gazing at the sea, always at the sea, with a tuft of hair pointing to the sky, like the comb of a rooster. His cheek is red and covered in dark bristles because shaving irritates his skin. So do mosquitoes. He slaps his cheek to move them away, killing one. It hangs from his bristles. He says shaving is the worst part of growing up. His voice has become the best part, since it stopped changing. It is now deep and warm, it is why she follows him. His eyes are light brown, like their mother’s. His brows are thick and folded with a deep hollow in the middle, like their father’s.
When she flicked the dead mosquito off his cheek, a spot of blood hung on her finger.
“Instead of teaching us to read,” said Zee, “don’t you wish they’d taught us to swim?” He was stroking the gun and still staring ahead, at the everlasting blue below.
The smell was closer now. She could almost touch it, almost name it. Then she heard something.
The bench rested on a level patch of ground, a few feet before the mountain began to descend. There were bushes all around, cupping them. The fig tree had as many roots as arms, and the grass was high. The sound could have come from anywhere. Slowly, Zee began to hide the gun under his shirt. Then he grabbed her arm again, a finger of the free hand firmly to his lips.
It happened again. A shift in the bushes to their right. Zee’s hand grew so tight the mark would stay with her for the rest of the day. But she did not feel it, not till later.
From out of the air sprang a toddy cat.
She had seen one before, at school. The boys pulled its long tail, cheering till the teacher came outside and said to leave it. This civet was smaller, with a hiss that was louder. There was a white spot beneath each brown eye. A white band swept across the forehead, as though it lived inside a worried mask. The tail whipped the air twice before the cat raced over the mountain. They both knew it was time to do as the civet had shown, and go back down.
Instead, Nomi looked behind her. That smell again.
A soldier was pissing in the bushes, the sprinkles brushing her arm. Another crouched and farted. Others emerged from the tall grass, zipping up pants, tucking in shirts. This was their latrine and this was the smell: of the camp of prisoner families before prisoners served out their term and were given a hut. Nomi was born in a camp. She had never wanted to smell that smell again.
Zee pulled her past them, quickly. The soldiers began to yell and whistle and seemed to be everywhere now, shirts off, boots off, kicking at grass.
There was a restlessness in the air, she could feel it. It had taken hold of them in the time since they started climbing. They were surrounded by mosquitoes and gnats, the drone filled the heat-haze, the breeze was dead. The white vests under their uniforms were soaked in sweat and mud. They looked at her the way boys in the camp looked at girls. The way boys at school did too, except at her, because she was the sister of Zee. These men were irritated and bored, and their mother always said the bored ones made trouble.
“Wait!” shouted a soldier in English. He had a caterpillar moustache and round glasses.
“Keep walking,” Zee hissed. And then he was dragging her down the mountain so fast she stopped feeling the grass beneath her feet, there was only the sea, all glassy and glittering, they were floating, Nomi and Zee, while behind them, the soldiers laughed.
Excerpted with permission from The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali, Uzma Aslam Khan, Context.
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