The Boys of That Country

by Swati Malik (India)

Making a local connection South Sudan


My heart is in my throat and I can feel fear pulsating through my veins. I can’t recall the words of the mantra my mother had taught me to chant in times of fear or sorrow or both. I have been trained thrice before on how to respond in situations like the one I am caught in now. There was a step-by-step guide the instructors had given us – stay calm-engage verbally-surrender-don’t resist. I am tongue-tied and the instructors’ faces are a blur. I wish I had paid more attention in the survival training classes or at least listened to the locals minutes before and not embarked on this route alone. Staying back would have meant no change of clothes, no toothbrush, but at least I would have remained alive. He looks young, this boy holding a gun against my forehead. I can almost never correctly guess the age of folks here. My boss calls it “the magic of African genes”. He has smooth, unbroken skin. His eyes are bloodshot. Too much alcohol, lack of sleep, stress, who knows. His even teeth gleam white and he has a pair of cheap plastic sunglasses wrapped on the helmet mounted on his head. I guess he was really going for the GI Joe look. I am diverted by my train of thought. As diverted as one can be moments before death. He is increasing the pressure of the nuzzle on my forehead. My hands on the car’s steering wheel are visibly shaking and my palms are clammy. From his uniform I can tell that he belongs to the rebel group that has been particularly ruthless over the past three months and has killed hundreds of unsuspecting civilians. Why yesterday I had a meeting with their senior representatives where I was advocating for suspension of all violence. In the many moments of my life that have overwhelmed me, death has occasionally seemed to be the easier alternative. That death though is supposed to bring a sweet lull. Oh God, not like this. Please not like this. His menacing glance breaks my reverie and he suddenly demands, “you Indian?” I nervously nod. Even though he does not lessen the thrust on my temple, he breaks into a grin and calls out to his comrades dispersed nearby and shouts over the din of my heartbeat, “this one Bollywood”. A group of seven or eight young boys about his age begin approaching my 4x4 chorusing, “Bollywood, Bollywood”. My disposition is fairly amenable to sudden bouts of giggling and in a different situation their singing would have invited peals of laughter from me, but today I am just ready for a heart attack any moment. The child soldier band stops for a moment while my protagonist declares his undying love for Shah Rukh Khan, christened the “Badshah of Bollywood”, the envoy of sappy romances and blockbuster song-and-dance routines. Then he ominously commands, “you sing one Shahrukh Khan song, you go!” This is surreal. I can’t remember Khan’s face forget about a song of his. I, the self-proclaimed devotee of Indian cinema, blank out. There’s dread on my face. Surely this is how it ends. I don’t think of my family, only of how desperately I want to be alive. As an afterthought he begins humming. It is a melody I know. I hum back. Slowly the lyrics come to me. I begin to sing. They sing along. Their lyrics sound like gibberish. The nuzzle still presses against me, but its pressure is weakening. The sun is high up. Moments pass and we continue singing.