India: Point of No Return

If our reception by the village militia the previous night was less than warm, the next morning was chilling. Already, Chandan, Arvind and I had been told that while we'd come by choice, there was no guarantee they would arrange a meeting with the guerillas. And either way, leaving was not up to us. So we really fell on the side of prisoners rather than guests, though no one wanted to acknowledge this openly.

We were to receive a verdict at 7:30 am. We stepped outside into the dirt square at the appointed time, and waited. The air felt wrong. No one was out and about working the fields as they'd been before; the dozen-odd children that stuck around and stared at us when we arrived were nowhere to be found. Even the pigs and roosters had fled. Just heavy silence. Chandan nervously started singing to himself, Arvind tapped his feet and I scanned the barren hillsides for a sign of something.

Off in the distance alarm gongs rang out -- not a good sign. Two files of armed village militia emerged from clusters of huts across the ravine at the right and left, merging together and walking upward and out view behind some trees where the self-appointed big man resided. None of them looked ourway, though we were sitting in plain view. We exchanged glances at a total loss for explanations.

More silence and waiting. By 9 am, a sort of numb panic started to set in. Chandan's songs had now turned into whispered prayers, and he instructed me to invoke my God. Although he insisted all was OK, Arvind looked unconvinced. My gaze stayed fixed on the point on the facing hillside where the militia had vanished, save for the moment I double-knotted my boots.

It could have been five or fifteen minutes later when the men streamed down the path they'd climbed single-file, headed in our direction. They were still carring their machetes, hoes, bows and arrows, and other blunt tools. They again fell from view beneath the mud banks of the stream that ran down the ravine. Spanning the fifty or so yards that lay between us was a vegetable patch, and at the edge of that, a bamboo fence that stood about head high. As the men made their way towards us, about to round a gate and come into sight, they stopped. For what reason, it was not clear.

Now they waited. I could only see a few shocks of hair milling around, but it seemed they were having a last-second talk. Adrenaline was surging inside of me, along with half-baked questions: Was the delay a pscyhological tactic to test us (unlikely given their dimness); a change of heart by an influential member of the group on whaterver their decision was; or a final review before the charge? I didn't want to blink until I knew what was coming our way.

To our infinite relief, the men walked out less their weapons. The leader approached but said nothing, prompting Chandan and Arvind to make eager small talk. Noticing one of them had a second-hand t-shirt with a print of NBA star Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers, I too got in the act: In a charade of hands and elbows, I tried to explain that I'd played ball in high school, though I was partial to the Washington Wizards. He managed to crack a smile -- surely at my antics -- and I was glad to have it.

Chandan wisely proposed that we all go back inside our hut to talk as a gesture to remind them we were guests, not enemies. In English he told me that once inside we should give them a couple hundred rupees "for the good of the village", the "village" being us of course. After some resistance they accepted the money, and we exhaled a bit more. Some young boys were now outside in the square grilling rats they'd skewered with sticks.

Within a couple hours the Naxalites arrived. They smiled, apologized for the incident, berated some of the village men, and said we'd be their honored guests at their camp four hours away -- after we had a round of hot milk tea. As we made to leave, the cadres bid a stern farewell to the villagers with a call of "Lal salaam!" ("Red salute!"). The guerilla at the front our group then switched on a leatherbound short-wave radio and tuned into the BBC. We started marching and never looked back.