1962 by Trisha Bora

They came to our door just as the fading light of the evening began to swaddle the hills with fog and dark. The bitter cold hit my face as I stepped out of the warm yellow of our living room onto the porch. They stood, stiff with intent, the fire in their torches dancing in the wind, casting pools of shadows under their eyes and drawing moustaches under their noses. I thought I saw the faintest hint of surprise on his face, the elder one. But it was gone with the next flicker of his torch. They hadn't expected me to answer the door. Aro Aka's green eyes were now tarry as the night that was falling fast upon us.


'Is the professor in? There's something he might like to see.' The words were a rumble in his mouth.


'He is. I'll fetch him for you.' I fought back the urge to ask what it was.


Back in the house, the blood filled my cheeks again. I knew where he'd be. The wooden stairs creaked under my feet.


The fire framed him on both sides and he seemed to sit right at the centre of the inferno, head bent, with only the scratching of India ink across paper. He looked up and pulled his glasses down to the bridge of his nose.


'The Aka brothers are here. They say there's something that you might like to see.'


Pen capped and paper put away. The wooden floorboards creaked louder this time under both our feet. I watched, a few steps away as they spoke, enthralled as always by Aro Aka's deep voice. Too deep for twenty. Deep as earth. Deep as the dark stripes that ran across his father's ageing face. The stripes, a reverence to the panther, keeper and protector of these hills, that the head of every house had imprinted on his face when he took a wife and became a man. Soon Aro Aka's honey-coloured skin too would brandish them. Soon he too would become a son of the panther. Would I forget then that teenage boy - river green eyes and black hair down to his waist - who rode horses through the fields, trampling people's kitchen gardens, making off with their apples, with his hair and laughter flying behind him? The boy who had watched me for months, every time I went to the market or rode my cycle, before coming up to speak to me. I had thought he was a man, given his height, and he had thought I was a child, given mine.


They were ready to leave. In the moment that it took for Henry to emerge with his bag, I saw the dark of Aro Aka's eyes shine. I grabbed my coat and umbrella and followed them. Henry raised an eyebrow.


'Not for the world am I missing this.'




From a distance I saw the flicker of light penetrating the pall of fog and wind around the hill; a host of fireflies queuing up for something. We continued our climb down.


The path was a shortcut hacked down the side of a hill. We had to push apart thick brambles as we slid down. Henry's torch cut through the night in sharp beams and all I could see were Aro Aka's sure, sandaled feet. I looked nowhere else and thought of nothing else. One step at a time, I matched his feet with mine in a kind of dance. The night in these parts was not to be disturbed so we walked in silence with cicadas and frogs in our ears. Soon we came to the clearing from where the torches were visible, and in another moment the unruly path licked concrete.


Henry saw it first. He gasped and increased his pace. My eyes had to adjust to see the dark shape against the night, a hill on its own at the curve of the road, trunk lifeless beside it, ivory white tusks gleaming. I approached the dead animal - wrinkled, enormous and majestic, even in death. I wanted to get closer, but I heard Aro Aka's voice catch me by my shoulder.


'Not the best thing to do now. They will take their share first.' He gestured with his torch towards the murmuring beeline behind the elephant.


'What share?' I asked as I turned my eyes away from his beautiful face to the people. And the horror of it struck me. 'Oh no! They're going to eat it!'


He laughed, low but from his stomach. 'How often do they get a treat like that?'


I noticed that he said 'they'. Did he want me to know that he wasn't going to carve into a hunk of it later at dinner, or did he just separate 'they' who were standing at a distance from 'us'?


Henry had made his way right to the heart of the crowd, and was talking to someone who seemed like the chief butcher, considering the size of his cleaver and the fact that he was positioned in front of the elephant, delivering rapid fire instructions. Typical Henry, I thought. He was probably taking notes for his next book - a clinical account of an elephant feast. I watched the men wait their turn in the cold, shadowy figures with their shawls wrapped tight around themselves and their torches standing guard beside them. Was that hunger I saw in their eyes?


'Isn't it sacred though…the elephant?' I asked.


'Yes. But these are tough times. And food is food.'


Suddenly the grotesqueness of it caught me unawares. I felt a wave of nausea sweep over me.


He said without a prompt, laying naked my mind, 'It was old, Maya, and it's time had come. By tomorrow there'll be nothing but bones.'


The nausea hit again but this time it was because of the way my name rolled off his tongue.


He looked down at me, a smile curling at the corners of his mouth.


'I'll save you a tusk, if you like.'


'That's horrid!' I said, and he laughed again.


A flash of lightning ripped up the sky, and Aro Aka and I looked up involuntarily. Henry was back.


'It looks like the weather's going to turn. We should head back home. Aro, this was fascinating. Thank you for letting us know.'


Aro Aka nodded an acknowledgement, and we made our way back to the vicious path. The climb back up to the cottage was easier. But I was doing the dance again. When we got to the top the wind was raging and the first few drops of rain were splashing against our porch. Henry asked the Aka brothers to come in and wait out the rain. I waited a minute at the doorstep for their reply. No, they were leaving. What was a little rain to the would-be sons of the panther, joked Aro Aka. I looked back to see the tall frames of Aro Aka and his brother being swallowed by the vast night.


A night that stretched in yards and miles before me; I tired of tossing in bed, and slipped out to Henry's study. The rain thundered on our tin roof, threatening to break through and flood our house. As if it was wreaking its fury over the massacre that had taken place tonight. And the wind sighed in though the ventilators causing it to snap shut in short bursts - solitary staccatos wedged in a ballad. I picked up a sheaf of Henry's paper and wrote to get the demon off my back.




Morning unsullied like fresh bed sheets. Henry and I had breakfast on our porch and after clearing up, he retired to his study. The crisp mountain air beckoned. I got my cycle and walked it to the gate. The road was slippery from last night's rain but I peddled downhill - my heart hammering in my ribcage, my skirt hiked up to my knees, my breath caught in my mouth.


This time I saw it from far away. A forgotten mountain of mangled bones. I dropped my cycle and went to it. There was nothing left, like Aro Aka had said, but bones. No sinew, no blood; the rain had probably washed away the mess the people had made. It was the cleanest job ever. As if this ghost skeletal cage had never once been a trumpeting elephant. I noticed that the tusks had gone too but I wasn't surprised. These were tough times, and ivory would feed them for months.




Not long after that our skies were alive with the deafening drone of the Chinese AN 12 four-engine aircrafts. The menace of war hung like unsaid words, between buttering toast, while pulling out carrots from soft earth, or starting up the fire in the hearth. After dinner, Henry and I would turn on our crackling radio and listen to the news. We put off leaving day after day, waiting for something to happen that would return our skies to the clear blue they once were.


The war was at our throats when we finally left Arunachal. We had packed hastily, hoping to return after the fighting abated. The Indian army jeeps were ferrying the last of the people around the area across to Assam.


I was waiting on the porch for Henry to finish locking up his study when I noticed a package wrapped in newspaper lying on our step. I opened it to find a white tusk in my hands, and panic gripped me. In another moment Henry was closing our door we were walking down the road with quick steps to where the jeeps would be waiting.


From the jeep window, I watched our town pass by. I searched the crowds that thronged the unusually crowded road to catch a glimpse of the face I knew so well. But tears clouded my sight, and I was left clutching white bone.




The Chinese aggression or 1962 Sino-Indo War was triggered by a border dispute that came to the foreground when India responded to the increasing Chinese presence by establishing army posts on its side of the border. A sketchy war in purpose and on the ground, it has no real conclusions that can be understood by the people who are caught in the crossfire. One has to visit the areas affected to know that there is still a war raging.



Trisha Bora is an editor and writer who has been away from her home state—Assam—for many years now and currently lives in Delhi. She studied Literature at Miranda House, and started a career in publishing soon after. Her works have been published at Ultra Violet, Nth Position, Pyrta Journal, Asia Writes, Green Light Dhaba and Nether Magazine.