A version of this appeared in the World Literature Today in 2010. THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION. The story does not represent any moment that occurred during the real civil conflict in Nepal. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The little girl is a metaphor for all the innocent people who died in the crossfire.
THE LITTLE GIRL WHO DIED
Major Krishna Basnet jerked his bitten hand back, as
if stung. Tooth marks, where the seven-year old girl had bitten him,
left dark indentations in the hollow between his thumb and forefinger.
Major stared at the tear-stained face of the little girl. Then he spat
into her defiant eyes. “You should have learnt to respect your elders,
A cold moon glittered in the black sky. No wind stirred the leaves.
The Major’s voice carried upwards, towards where Ambika lay, hiding.
Ambika could hear and see everything from where she was—a recessed ledge
of rock embedded in a cliff above the village. Respect, spat out from
the Major’s throat, floated up with a strange resonance.
Ambika felt like a little girl below, held hostage by the Major with his
gun on that brilliant moonlit night. How many times had she been told
to respect her elders? The rage rose in her with the same uncontrollable
force as when she had been a child.
She closed her eyes and remembered the moment, years ago, when she had
fallen from a cliff, hunting for wild honey, and almost broken her neck.
A little keyhole to death had opened up in her mind as she lay on the
ground. Then she had heard sounds of the next world, the atonal moans
echoing through red, cloudy vision, the sighs of terror and despair from
unseen beings. That’s when she had known, on a visceral level, the
certainty of death. Ambika felt her finger tighten on her trigger.
“Perhaps I’ll die today,” she thought.
Ambika looked through her viewfinder. Major Krishna Basnet’s head looked
like a black blob from where she lay, about twenty meters away. It
would be easy to put a bullet through his back. Would paralyzing him for
the rest of his life be more fitting than death? Ambika would die in
the return volley of gunfire. But death would be worth the price to rid
the earth of this torturer. As her finger tightened around her gun’s
trigger, she was jerked out of her single-minded intention to kill the
Major by a sound. Gita, her youngest cadre, sixteen, lay on the rocky
ledge along with her. Gita shuddered as she breathed. This was her first
Ambika became aware of her five comrades—the clove-laden breath of
Comrade Nepali, the warmth of an arm pressed close to hers, the huddle
of bodies behind in the deep black corners. Shame took the place of the
adrenaline that coursed through her body seconds ago. How could she have
imagined putting her comrades in danger? Justice would have to wait.
Ambika forced her tense finger to slacken.
As Ambika lowered her gun, a single shot rang out. Ambika could not have
said whether the terrified scream of the little girl came before or
after the gunshot. Or perhaps she screamed twice—once, seeing death
hurtle towards her, and twice, when the bullet hit her between the
The gunshot, and the scream, appeared to richot around the enclosed
valley where the small village nestled. A ghostly gunshot and a ghostly
girl-scream magnified and echoed, then fragmented into a thousand pieces
of broken sound. An eerie silence followed. Ambika put her forehead
down on the cool limestone, and closed her eyes. She felt a wetness on
her cheeks and realized she was crying.
* * *
The little girl died one hour and thirty-two minutes after Ambika spied the soldiers running down to the village.
coming.” Ambika was terse as she looked through her binoculars. Blurry
figures streaked downhill. They seem to carry heavy loads. The Royal
Nepal Army, the guerillas had heard, now carried sophisticated weapons.
“Twenty-five soldiers. Maybe more.” Cold metal pressed around Ambika’s eyes as she strained to count.
“We have to…have to…kill them.” Gita, who’d joined the Maoist People’s War at the age of fifteen, was on the edge of hysteria.
“If you shoot now, you’ll reveal our location,” Ambika looked back and
saw the young girl stand up. Her legs astride, she held her gun up, as
if ready to shoot. “Sit,” Ambika commanded. Her voice was harsh, with
the slightest hint of a tremble.
Comrade Nepali’s semi-automatic gun had served him well during Mangalsen
battle. Ambika carried the same model. The two had killed a fair number
of policemen with those two guns. But then the police in Mangalsen had
just been armed with outdated .303 rifles. Today, it appeared, they
would have to face a Royal Nepal Army force armed with sophisticated
weapons. But what tipped the scales was the armament their comrades were
carrying—the four new cadres, recent recruits, had homemade muskets.
They had learnt to clean it, and shoot it, but the muskets did not fire
“What do we do, comrade?” Fresh-faced, wide-eyed, Rama, the other female cadre, scared Ambika with her phlegmatic innocence.
am ready to die.” Gita sounded combative. The command to sit infuriated
her. With her childish face, and her red band she wore like a
fashionable hair band, she was the youngest girl that Ambika had worked
with. She appeared to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“Up!” Ambika commanded. She did not need to deal with a nervous
breakdown right now—the single most useful thing her cadres could do was
to hide themselves. The rocky ledge they had scoped out earlier, carved
into the cliff, was their hideout. “Wait for us.” The two girls,
frightened, ran. The two boys, eighteen, followed close behind. All of
them had been recruited two months ago. This was their first battle.
“Why did they send these raw recruits?” Comrade Nepali muttered.
“They’re useless.” Last week, seven cadres, experienced fighters of the
People’s Army, had headed up to meet them. They slept at a widow’s
house. At three am, a low whistle awakened them. They didn’t need to
hear the knock on the door to know that a cordon of soldiers surrounded
the house. Blindfolded and handcuffed, they were taken in a black jeep.
The soldiers took them to the army barracks of the district
headquarters, Ambika was certain.
Ambika thought about her seven comrades, the ones with whom she had
shared many battles, and felt an impotent grief. The three women were
almost certain to face rape, and the men would be tortured. Some, or
all, could be killed. The precious cache of guns, bullets and bombs,
meant for this crucial battle, had been seized, and would be paraded to
the cameras of TV journalists, for all the world to see.
A teacher from a Ramechap village had informed the police, they heard.
The teacher was now strung up in a tree, dead. His tongue had been
ripped out as a warning to others.
Ambika followed her cadres up the
rocky cliff, pulling at roots and clinging vines to pull herself to the
shallow, recessed ledge. The entry was narrow, but inside it was
cavernous, with enough room for the five to stretch out. Ambika laid
herself flat on the ground, and raised her binoculars, to her eyes. The
warm, rich smell of harvest rose around her. She inhaled – drying
stalks, the glorious smell of seeds thrashed on the ground in the fields
below rose to her nostrils. In her binoculars, she saw the soldiers
running downhill, getting closer to the village.
* * *
Flat on their stomachs inside a rocky shelf inside the
limestone cliffs, out of eye line of the settlement below, the six
guerillas waited. Ambika, at the very edge, her navel pushing into rough
ground, had a clear view of the village. More than a dozen soldiers,
weighted down with arms, arrived soon after. They bashed the wooden
doors down with the butt of their rifles. The sharp barks of dogs,
howling at the intruders, rose to a crescendo. A couple of bullets flew
past, lodging themselves on the wood of a porch near a howling dog. The
dog ran off, hiding its tail between its legs.
The yellow beam of the soldiers’ flashlights lit up the smoky corners of
the cottages. Faded lamp-black walls. Sooty rafters. An uncleared
cobweb. Here was a young mother, hoping a pile of firewood would hide
her. There an old and toothless man, a resigned look on his face, on his
bed. A soldier seized the mother by her hair and shoved her, infant
cradled in her arms, on the ground.
“Shoot anything that moves!” a voice commanded.
A dog, snarling,
appeared from beneath a bed. A swift and well-aimed kick from a
soldier’s boot sent it fleeing out of the door and across the yard.
Major.” A short burst of gunfire. The dog fell, and started to whimper.
There was the sound of another gunshot. The dog’s body twitched, then
became still. A dark pool started to collect around the body.
This voice, with its polished and modulated edge, belonged to Major
Krishna Basnet. The Major was now posted to Ramechap. Ambika raised her
head to catch a good look at his face. This was the man she had come to
kill. And now, because of an informer in Ramechap, her goal remained
The Major was handsome, with fine bone structure, and regal poise. He
grew a thin black moustache above his lips. Ambika caught a glimpse of
him as he moved towards the door. Even in the darkness, she saw his
grace, his commanding presence.
A seven-year-old with a dirty face and a wispy pigtail, frightened by
the sudden invasion of men, clutched her mother. The move annoyed the
Major. He grabbed the little girl’s hair. He pulled her head back and
forth. Her head lolled on her head like a broken doll. Over the child’s
sobs, he asked: “Where are the terrorists? Speak, you bastards. Where
are the terrorists?”
Ambika felt bound, as if she were inside an airless room with hands and
feet tied. Comrade Nepali was still, as if he had stopped breathing. The
two girls huddled in terrified comradeship.
“We don’t know. We don’t know!” The mother pressed her palms in plea.
“Please, let my daughter go!” Major Basnet let go. The child’s face was
smeared with snot. She sniffled and wiped it with the back of a dirty
hand. The sniffling annoyed the Major—he found the child dirty and
repulsive. The Major looked up and around the village—the darkness of
the surroundings warned him guerillas, as ugly and as repulsive, were
lying in wait to ambush him. The moon was bright and cold, but he
couldn’t see anything. This sense of helplessness, which he had felt
many times in the past few months, infuriated him.
The Major bent down, and picked out a rubber band with a rose from the
child’s hair. He held it up to his nostrils, close his eyes, and inhaled
with exaggerated enjoyment. “Ah, a beautiful rose,” the Major said. The
child stared at him with a dirty, tear-smeared face, petrified.
The mother’s face, pleading for mercy, angered him. Is this how I look
when I am afraid?, he wondered. The Major cocked his revolver, aimed at
the center of the mother’s forehead, and squeezed the trigger. The
mother’s brains splattered the red sari of an old woman behind. The old
woman crumpled to the ground in a faint.
“Hatyara!” The child’s shrill accusation echoed across
the valley. The Major was surprised, for an instance. He hadn’t expected
this snot-smeared girl to know such a complicated word. A murderer? He
considered this verdict for a brief instance, then grabbed the girl’s
chin. “What did you call me?”
“Hatyara, hatyara, hatyara!” The girl, overcome with rage and grief, lunged forward and bit the Major’s hand.
* * *