The Prime Minister of Tawa – 29
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Rhymala sighed and ran her fingers through her hair as she surveyed the jeep she was traveling in. She was the only woman in the vehicle, which in addition to her assistant, carried a bureaucrat from the interior ministry and an army colonel. The driver seemed to be in awe of them all. He barely glanced at any of his passengers and drove extremely carefully. It was quite cold inside the jeep, since the colonel had his window rolled down. Rhymala wondered if she should ask him to close the window but decided not to. Instead, she wrapped one end of her thuli, which was much longer than the thuli worn by Keenda women, around her head. Rhymala’s assistant too seemed to be feeling cold since he had his arms folded and palms pressed against his chest in the manner of one who was harassed by the weather. Unlike the bureaucrat from the interior ministry who wore a full-sleeved shirt with a sweater on top, her assistant was wearing the traditional Seeda dress – a kiree with sleeves that were a bit longer than what the Keendas wore, and a sarong. Once they left the Central Hill District behind and the hills gave way to the lush green plains, it would be a lot warmer.
Rhymala had missed the plains. She had missed Hepara. Most of all, she had missed the ocean. The last time she went to Hepara, the negotiations had not been successful, and she had not been able to visit any of her old haunts. This time she was a bit more hopeful that they would agree on a peace deal. If they did, she would stay on in Hepara for a few weeks. If she got to stay on after the talks were over, she would go to the beach every day.
Even though she was a Seeda, she had spent the best years of her life in Hepara. She had gone to Hepara for the first time to attend college, where she had made lots of friends, most of them Keendas, and had a jolly good time. After she graduated, she had got a job with the Hepara Herald. Everything was fine till General Naranin came to power. Rhymala enjoyed her job, had many friends and occasionally received a proposal from her many suitors who all thought that she was smart and beautiful. She rejected the proposals as soon as they were made, avoided the men who made the proposals, got her promotions on time, had enough money to live on her own and had an opinion on every issue in the world.
And then Maheshdas Zoloda had been deposed. Rhymala had been fired from her job as senior editor at the Hepara Herald within a few months of General Naranin taking overpower. Her job was given to a Keenda woman with half her experience or skill. After she was fired, Rhymala started her own newspaper with the help of a few friends, who were all Keendas. It was more of a newsletter than a newspaper, cranked out by a rickety press and distributed through half a dozen road-side vendors. Rhymala managed to get it out three times a week. It sold for fifty peesa a copy, just enough to allow Rhymala pay her bills. However, Rhymala had been happy. Happy to be able to express herself as she had got used to doing without fear or favour, until one day she wrote a piece criticizing the crackdown on the communists. A few days later, a dozen army men led by an officer turned up at her office, ransacked it, warned her against ever writing anything about anything, and left. For good measure, the officer who led the soldiers hit her on her back with the flat of his palm. It was not a debilitating blow, but it conveyed the message that worse could follow. Rhymala fled to her parents’ home in the Central Hill District. From Eko, she once again started to publish a newsletter. She didn’t have much trouble with the authorities, but that was because no one really read her newsletters which she herself handed out free of cost to people on the streets of Eko. The Seedas living in the hill district were not really interested in reading political commentary. Her parents tried to get her to marry someone sensible and lead a less active life, but Rhymala refused. Unlike the Keendas, Seedas do not have arranged marriages. A couple will get married if they like each other. Rhymala refused to like anybody. In a sense, Rhymala was the first Seeda to rebel against General Naranin. At a time when most Seedas supported General Naranin as he cracked down on the communists, Rhymala was busy writing unread articles on how General Naranin was leading Tawa to disaster.
After the Seedas took up arms, people started to read Rhymala’s newsletter that continued to be published three times a week from Eko. Soon she was officially admitted into the SFF. Since the Seedas were not the most literate people in the world, Rhymala set up a clandestine radio station high up in the mountains and began a broadcast service which included songs, plays and her own analysis of General Naranin’s rule. Her broadcasts soon included details of Seedas killed by General Naranin’s army and victories achieved by the SFF. General Naranin set a price on her head, but the Tawan army never ever came close to capturing her.
Rhymala was now over sixty. And she was tired of the fighting. If only Hanoleeyan would agree to a peace deal, she could return to Hepara and lead a normal life. They had almost agreed on a deal five years earlier, but Hanoleeyan had not been ready for peace. Was he ready for a peace treaty now? Rhymala asked herself as she traveled to Hepara in the army convoy as Hanoleeyan’s emissary. Hanoleeyan had assured her that he wanted peace this time. And once she had a deal in place, he would come to Hepara to shake hands with the Keendas and sign a piece of paper. There was a time when Rhymala actually liked Hanoleeyan. Now she was no longer so sure. He was as power hungry as General Naranin. In fact, if he had been born a Keenda, he would have been another General Naranin.
Rhymala’s assistant who was traveling with her in the jeep was a forty-year-old man who helped her with her newsletter and radio service. He was a slim man of medium height and did not have the hefty look which most middle aged Seedas had. He was no fighter. Not that it would make any difference. If the Keendas wanted to kill them both, they would do so, irrespective of any fighting skills her skinny assistant with his arms pressed against him, might or might not have.
She was being silly, she knew. Last time after the negotiations failed on account of Hanoleeyan’s obstinacy, they had allowed her to go back. Horan Samiban himself had seen them off in an army jeep. ‘Hope better sense prevails with everyone soon,’ he had told her by way of a parting greeting. I hope Hanoleeyan will see sense, Rhymala told herself. Now that the Americans had started to crack down on the SFF in the US, they were starved of funds. The most unfortunate byproduct of the 9/11 incident was that anyone with an Islamic sounding name was under extra suspicion in the United States. The main fundraiser for the SFF in the US was one of those rare Seedas who had adopted Deelahee. Not only did Jehangeer Khan believe in the Guardian Akbar, but his Persian-origin name made him appear to be a Muslim. Jehangeer had not found it easy to explain why he had collected so much money and paid most of it to arms dealers in various parts of the world. Picked up from his Brooklyn home, he had been held in a naval detention centre without trial for three months. When he was finally released, it was accompanied with a warning against raising money for any form of terrorist activity anywhere in the world.
Jehangeer’s detention and the warning given to him had turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Seedas. Maybe Hanoleeyan would now realize how futile it was to fight on, Rhymala thought. That man had been fighting for the last twenty-one odd years. Maybe this time, things would work out. Maheshdas Zoloda was in power. Rhymala did not believe that Maheshdas was a saint. His father had started the policy of easing out Seedas from key positions in the army. To be honest, what Seleem Zoloda did was only to have been expected. The Seedas formed twenty percent of the population. Yet at the time of independence, they constituted two-thirds of the army and ninety percent of its officer class. The Seedas had not taken part in the freedom struggle, except for a few rare instances. Not a single leader from the freedom movement was a Seeda. The Keenda accusation that the Seedas had helped the British rule over Tawa was not entirely without merit. If Rhymala had been in Seleem Zoloda’s place, she would have done exactly what he had done.
Maheshdas needed peace much more than anyone else in Tawa. He was desperately trying to kick-start the economy once more and get foreign companies to invest in Tawa. Unless he had a peace treaty, none of his plans would work. Where there is a will, there is a way. If there are two wiling parties …. Oh God! Please let Hanoleeyan be willing, Rhymala prayed.
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