Mar 21, 2023
Mar 21, 2023
Amala Iftar guesthouse
In my dream it is summer and James and I are visiting Bamiyan, the highest place in Afghanistan. ‘The roof of the world,’ they call it. The sheer beauty of that landscape may have been the reason why the Buddhas were carved out of the mountain faces there. I’m thinking this in my dream, even though the panorama spread out before me is an imagined one.
We are standing beside one of the famous lakes gazing at its crystal-clear emerald waters when, without any warning, James pulls off the blue-and-orange T-shirt he is wearing – the colours are vivid in my mind, even if dreams are supposed to be in black and white – and dives into the lake with a loud splash.
And then James – his hair wet and plastered to his scalp; warm, grey eyes brimming with mirth – comes out and pulls me in as well.
There is a second splash.
Those are the sounds I hear. I slowly sink into the water, but the thought doesn’t disturb me at all, even though I can’t swim. For with James there I know I’ll be safe.
I can feel the sensation of water flooding my ears.
And then my dream is shattered, quite literally.
Later, I realise that the two splashes I heard in my dream were the sound of grenades exploding one after the other. They had been hurled by the attackers at the front of the building, slightly distant from my bedroom. But the third one was close to my window and had plugged my ears.
I am generally a light sleeper, but perhaps I’d stayed awake so late into the night that I’d been deep in slumber.
The sound of gunfire has woken me up. On opening my eyes, at that moment I see the glass shatter in the window where the gap between the curtains lets in the dawn light. Shards of glass are racing towards me at lightning speed, covering the duvet in a morning frost.
Now the curtains are falling, in slow motion, as if a film is being shot, and the filmmaker has decided to alter the speed to create a heightened effect.
And it’s only then that I realise what’s happening.
I let out a scream.
And when I stop I can hear amid the noise of continued gunfire loud voices from the corridor. Something terrible is going on. We are under attack.
I scream again.
Something clatters on to the floor. My mobile phone, which was lying next to me on the side table, has bounced on to the carpet.
I fall from the bed on to the floor with a thud, as a fresh bullet enters the room through the shattered window and buries itself in the wall. It is random, rapid fire. Someone on the outside is targeting all the rooms.
On all fours now, I grab the mobile and, propping myself up on my elbows, crawl towards the door, praying the firing will soon end. As I reach the door, a bullet whizzes past my neck and bounces back from the wall, burying itself into the carpet.
For all of two seconds I stop dead in my tracks like a pigeon that has been hypnotised by a cat. Some survival instinct forces me on. The corridor, I think. I must make it to the passageway.
I pull open the door, twist my torso back and forth – a movement that even in that moment of terrible urgency reminds me of the National Cadet Training I underwent in school decades ago – and then I’m out.
K-Jim is standing poised on top of the landing, holding a small, black pistol. As he turns, our eyes meet briefly.
‘No going down,’ he commands me. ‘There’s been lots of shooting downstairs. I’m not going to let anyone come up.’
‘You just have a small gun, K-Jim.’
‘Go somewhere,’ he growls. ‘Jump. Try to escape.’ And he lets loose a bullet downstairs even as he hides behind the wall like some cowboy in a western.
‘Do not come downstairs anyone!’ a voice bellows from down below. I can’t see him but know it’s Jonathan.
A spurt of gunfire in exchange.
I must run.
My eyes fall next on Bergen and Jill at the end of the passage, both new arrivals who’ve come to work on our election programme. The Scandinavian is urging the petite, frail-looking Filipino girl to jump. I can see from her expression that she is trying to summon up the courage.
‘Amala!’ Bergen yells across the corridor. ‘Come and jump! It’s safer down below.’
Jill leaps out of the window. Amid the general din I can’t hear the thud of her fall – it must have been fifteen feet down – but the faint sound of someone moaning reaches me. And then Bergen has one foot through the open window as he shouts at me once more. ‘Hurry, Amala, there’s no time.’ And he too jumps.
The sound of gunfire echoes through the corridor. I hear a squeal. Is that Jill?
I don’t know what to think but I believe I would have followed Bergen’s advice and run forward in another two seconds to jump out and take my chance, but all at once I feel a presence behind me. I almost cry out again, but the softness of the tone in the words that follow soothes me.
‘Don’t run,’ says the voice. ‘It’s not safe. They are firing from outside.’
I turn to see a young woman I’ve never seen before in the guesthouse. I take in the scarf wrapped round brown hair, the long lashes and light complexion. An Afghan? How? Our guesthouse doesn’t have any local residents and she definitely isn’t a cleaning lady who has come in early. I don’t know which room she has emerged from, but I guess it’s one close to my own.
‘Come with me.’ She grabs my hand and pulls me towards the other end of the corridor.
A large shared bathroom stands at the end of the corridor. It is big enough to have been a small bedroom. A signboard outside the bathroom reads ‘Females Only’ in English and below there is a translation in Dari. Would that deter the attackers from entering? Somehow I doubt it. Whatever the case, though, it’s certainly better than leaping out of the window or hiding under a bed. And this particular bathroom has the advantage of not having any windows. A skylight lets in air and light, and in a corner an exhaust fan tirelessly pumps out air. At least we won’t have any shattering windows, and bullets hurtling in. All these thoughts are racing through my mind as I blindly stumble after my companion. She is dead right – if that’s the right term. It’s the only place to be.
I follow the young woman into the bathroom and turn on the light switch. My companion quickly bolts the door from inside, even as the tube light sputters to life.
‘No,’ I say. ‘That will signal to them that we’re inside.’
‘But then?’ she protests.
‘Leave it open,’ I command, taking the lead now. ‘Let’s hide in the closet.’
‘The closet?’ she says blankly.
I point to a large wooden closet at one end of the room. The huge almirah cupboard is always left unlocked, for it contains little other than spare pillows, sheets, bedcovers and blankets piled up on the floor. I once had a good look inside it out of curiosity. We hurriedly start to empty out its contents, taking care to stack everything neatly on the top of the almirah so as not to alert anyone entering the room.
I pause to look briefly at the results of our handiwork and am satisfied.
‘Quick!’ says the woman, now retaking the initiative. ‘Let’s hide.’
We climb into the closet, both of us slim enough to fit inside. We sit on the closet floor, knees pulled back, our legs finding space in the space between the others. We’ve left the door a bit ajar, barely a centimetre, to allow us to get some light, air and the occasional, fearful peek outside.
Darkness swirls inside.
After a few seconds it’s just possible for us to see each other’s outline. And hear each other’s breath.
More by : Rajesh Talwar