Smoking guns filled the atmosphere of one of the boot camp rooms on the island of Zelda. One man was killed here a couple of hours ago. This man was killed because he tried to escape. He was locked up in the bootcamp of Zelda for seven long years because he was a refugee; a shithole he couldn’t take anymore. He tried to escape. In the eyes of the authorities, this was mutiny. Guards shot and killed an unarmed man. They had always been unarmed. Other detainees were fearful of this incident, especially one detainee by the name of P12. Authorities didn’t identify them by their real names, but by numbers. In boot camp, they were dehumanised statistics.

P12 had been fearful. He hid under a bed when this incident occurred, cramped in with five other detainees like a pile of chewed-up rubbish in a bag bursting at the seams. He thought he would get caught in the crossfire and lose his life, too. He thought of his mother, Maa, but had not called her.

The last time P12 spoke to her, she was too upset to carry on a conversation. It saddened him too; he had then decided not to call her again. He wanted to send money home. Feeling quite useless, he didn’t think,it was going to be so hard to make money here on this land of Zelda. Dangerous as this boot camp was, there was also no escape from here, either. Besides the barbed wires, the ubiquitous presence of the sea fenced them in. They were an island onto themselves. Refugees were forced to camp here. It felt like another kind of persecution from that which they had escaped.

Hallucination was common among detainees. Sleeplessness and uncertainties about the future were the main reasons. Sleeping pills didn’t work. But it was also mandatory to visit boot camp psychologists known as confidantes. After this incident, many detainees went to see them, these confidantes. P12 was no exception. He feared that he would too get killed by armed police. However, he had other delusions, too. He chiefly wanted to feel optimistic again. He had just turned 17.

At the psychologist, P12 felt harassed by repeated, monotonous questions shot from the confidante. But the session continued. He told his confidante that Hell begot hellish behavior. That he didn’t feel safe in this boot camp for many reasons. He felt like other refugees might rape him. People who came from other remote parts of this two-moon planet. They gave him suggestive looks. They even invited him to come into their rooms at night. P12 was still a child, not quite an adult yet. At 17, he didn’t want to lose his optimism, nor his virginity. He didn’t want to be raped by other detainees.

“Optimism is a good thing, P12,” the confidante reinforced. “Are you suicidal?”

“No, I’m not suicidal. Not yet. But it scares the hell out of me.”

“But why are you afraid?”

“Many reasons. Rape, getting killed by gunshot, and so on. Is there nothing you or anyone could do to let us out? Everyone tells me to be patient; investigations are underway. Has anyone been to see my father yet? What’s taking them so long to complete background checks? I haven’t killed anyone. I was framed; they set me up. That’s why I am a refugee today.”

“I know, but you know what? There’s always light at the end of the tunnel. You just need to wait it out.”

“And I am waiting. Oh, God knows I am! That’s all we do, isn’t it? Wait and be patient, while Maa suffers. I don’t call them anymore. It upsets me to see her so sad. She cries endlessly on the phone.”

“What do you do when she does that?” the confidante asked.

“I try to console her. Well, I used to, but I feel I’m in a losing battle. Words dry up in my mouth. I don’t know what to say to her anymore.”

“She should be happy that you’re alive.”

‘Oh yes, that she is. People won’t leave her in peace, you see. Back home, police come around to ask about my whereabouts. Maa tells them that she doesn’t know. Baba got badly beaten. The police tied up Maa.”

“All this must be really hard to talk about. But thank you for sharing. Is there anything else you want to say?”

“What else? No, nothing. Would no one take a shine to me ever? I don’t want to be tinkering all my life doing nothing.”

“You won’t. Be strong now, so you can deal with life’s difficulties later.”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

‘Goodbye, P12. Come and talk to me anytime you want, okay?’

P12 came out of her office feeling slightly upbeat. Life’s paradoxes were strange. Hard work sometimes didn’t pay off. Who would intervene on his behalf, man or God? That was most crucial now: divine intervention. People running away from oppression of some sort. Evidence? Where was he going to get all this evidence from? In the Zeldian culture, documents were taken seriously. But not in the Lost Winds, where he was from. Nothing was well documented under the present regime there. He arrived hardly with any clothes at all and no passport. There was no evidence of his alleged crime. How did one prove innocence? Yet he fled Lost Winds because he was going to die a terrible death in the hands of the leader Miah and his corrupt politicians, who set him up. That indeed was the truth.

All the niceties of the world were a mirage to P12. Fame, wealth, power, and happiness were lures revolving around him. Somehow, he was not a part of it. He felt he existed in a parallel world with only a “see through” button. He could look but could never be in it, like the forbidden fruit, not permitted to enjoy, as though these impossibilities were hardwired into his system. Burn it. Oh, burn it all! There was no need for art to flourish, no music to sooth the soul, no latent talent to be recognized. Barrenness was all that there ever was. However, he harbored strong passions to become someone; he waited for his ambition to flower, as the world prepared to impede it.

P12 sat down to eat his lunch at boot camp. He toyed with the tomato skins in his food. Today, it was a meal from the Serendipa, another island on the Red Sea. Every dish came with the tinge of a sour and sweet taste. He picked at his yoghurt and smiled, remembering the young confidante lady. He managed that conversation in broken Kroll language. Warmth grew in his heart for the lady. He was curious to find out if she was married. When night fell over the mountains of the camp, he sat down in his room. He began to rummage through all kinds of thoughts. That was mostly what he seemed to be doing these days, besides attending Kroll language classes, training, gym, and sports. He stared at the ceiling for a while and then sat down to pray. Then he went to bed. Getting sleep was the hardest to achieve, that too, between nightmares.

In those troubled hours of sleep and waking limbo, he heard Maa’s frantic screams: they echoed through his delusions. “Run, boy, run! They’re coming for you!” P12 ran breathlessly through the alley by the Mohammadan masjid. His small chest heaved tight with fear. Motorbikes surrounded him; men in dark glasses came to take him away.

“I don’t want to! No, don’t want to!” P12 cried in a child’s thin voice. “I don’t want to be a part of all this! I don’t want to throw bombs at people, rocks, kill, and plunder! In the name of resistance, God save me, I shall be growing up doing all this! Oh, I want to go to school, read, and write!”

But those men were resolute. They picked him up without hesitation, took him away, and put him to work. It was recruitment; it was awful.

“Leave me! Leave me alone!” P12 screamed in bed. He woke up sweaty and frightened. He looked out the window; a still, pale morning descended with red streaks across the sky. It was time for the early morning prayerPatience was a virtue. Were there any other options left, besides being patient? Yet life came with no promises or guarantees. Mega-dreams and aspirations were futile, leading to grand deceptions, central to life’s contradictions. Get better at your task. Push at the boundaries; freedom and fame lay ahead. Happiness was just as elusive as caffeine in a coffee cup. A pat on the shoulder that one had done better than a few million others appeared to be all-important, somehow. P12 was ambitious. He wanted to give his life another chance; he wanted to reload every bit that he had missed out on; education and employment were only some things to begin with. He called Maa impulsively one day.

“Maa, I’m going to get out of here, I know.”

“How long? Pintu, how long?” Maa asked.

Maa addressed him by his real name. It put a smile on his lips. “I don’t know, Maa. But I’ve got to be patient. Pray for me. Is Baba feeling better?”

“The wounds are healing.”

“Did anyone come to investigate?”

“Yes: yesterday, some people did come. Police from the local station.”

“You need to send my school certificate, Maa. This will get me a job here in the end.”

“Okay. Keep trying Pintu. Never give up.”

“I’m trying, Maa. I’m doing everything they ask me to do; I couldn’t try any harder.”

“Are you praying regularly?”

“Yes, I am, but the man who got killed couple of days also prayed regularly, Maa.”

Silence lay thick on the other end. P12 stooped low and sat down on the campgrounds.

“Maa, you there?”

‘Yes, Pintu, I am. He was just unlucky.’

“Is it in our hands to change fate? What is luck, Maa?”

“Learn the ropes, Pintu. Bye.”

“Bye, Maa.”

Men died in the Red Sea. Some survived with tremendous luck, saved by dolphins. Those stories were true, too. Life’s journey was at odds with or without free will. Life could pass without understanding exactly what we were supposed to do here. Could cosmic pitfalls be avoided?

Refugees were leaving the camp every day, but P12’s day of release never came. He suspected that perhaps more papers were required; evidence, more and more of it to fully satisfy the high counsellors of this land of Zelda of his innocence. Time would pass like slow waters down a drain, each invisible minute lost towards an irrevocable Infinity. Life was too short.

He went to see the confidante again on another afternoon. He sat across the table from her as he spoke with her in his usual broken Kroll language. She noted that he squinted often and looked at the floor continuously. P12 was afraid to make eye contact today.
“Tell me why you wanted to see me?”

“I want to tell you something.”

“Okay, what is it that you want to tell me?”

“My Maa grieves for me every day.”

“I’m sorry to hear that your mother is so heartbroken.”

“How can I prove that I had nothing to do with that murder?”

“Provide papers.”

“What evidence? I’m innocent.”

“Do you have a court case? Have you been charged with murder?”

“A case has been filed recently. Maa said that the local police think I did it.”

“Unsettling. Oh, look, don’t worry about it. Tell your mother not to worry. As long as you’re in camp, no one can harm you,” she said.

“When will I be released?”

“I don’t know.”


“Sorry. Have you told the counsellors of the high court everything?”

“I lied at first. I told them I came here because I was poor. Friends told me to not to tell them the truth. Also, I was afraid. Not understanding the system properly, I thought I would get into trouble if I told them that I was implicated in a murder case back in the Lost Winds.”

“Have you told them your true story in your subsequent interviews?” she asked.

‘Yes. But I could not tell them the date when this murder had occurred. I was confused and I gave them different dates at different times. This very difficult journey by boat fried my brain. 15days out on the sea, without food and with very little water; I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“You were confused. I’m sure they’ll understand. Just tell the high counsellors that there has been an error,” she said calmly.

“I ran away from many places. I’m tired of running.”

“Yes, understandably. Just be patient.”

“I go to class every day to learn the Kroll language, and I play sports and of course train everyday, but I still get anxious.”

“We can help you with that.”

“My life has been such a lie!” he cried impatiently.

“Why is that?”

“I am only 17. I wanted to go to school, study. It just didn’t work out.”

“Take solace from the fact that none of it was your fault.”

“I had the same dream last night. Trying to run, but couldn’t, I couldn’t run away. My fate is sealed; born with broken luck.”

“Now you’re trying to set it right, yeah?”

“I can only try.”

“Don’t underestimate your strengths. Each of us is talented in our own way. You have to find out what is it that you do best, and then do it.”

“Yeah. I was always fond of singing. I often played the flute in the village when I took my Baba lunch.”

“What does he do?”

“Who? My Baba? He has a farm. I wish none of this had happened.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, so am I.”

She left it at that. And as soon as he went out of the office, he met two other refugees who told him their release was imminent and that both had converted to Christianity: Jesuits. Whether or not these releases were related to any covert operation of proselytizing in the boot camp was yet to be seen. P12 had battled long and hard, but never thought of using religion as a means to an end. The banality of evil had caused him misfortune, but had never really made him entirely Machiavellian.


In the village, Pintu’s life was simple, but a happy one. He was a diligent boy. Among many other chores that he did, he also took his father’s lunch to work. At lunch time today, Maa cooked rice and green papaya mash. She plated rice and the mash with a raw onion, a small pinch of salt and green chilies on the side. She covered the plate with a lid and placed two smaller bowls on top. One container carried a watery fish dish, the other bean soup. The pile of containers was tied up together in a red cotton kitchen towel. They inclined like the leaning tower of Pisa. He held a small pitcher of water in the other hand.

“Pintu, dear, take this to Baba, okay?”

“Okay, Maa.”

Pintu left the task at hand to take lunch to his father. Maa’s face brightened up lovingly with a smile at his small shape leaving the house. Pintu walked for about 15 minutes down the dirt road in his tiny penguin gait to meet Baba. The farmer had just finished tilling land and was resting expectantly, waiting for lunch to arrive. He sat down under the shade of an old Banyan tree and looked out towards endless tones of greenery. Pintu was nine years old at the time. His little body slowly appeared on the horizon. He wore a white shirt and patched-up black shorts, which Maa had stitched together. Barefooted, the boy walked unsteadily over the pebbled dirt road. The farmer smiled at him when he saw his little boy. Pintu smiled back and put the three tier containers down on the grass.

“Pintu, what has Maa cooked today?”

“I don’t know. Take a look.”

His father unknotted the red towel gruffly and took the rice plate out of the pouch of the cotton towel into which it was sitting. Pintu sat cross-legged across him under the Banyan tree. Affection glimmered in his eyes like a simmering desert-mirage. Baba started to eat in big gulps of rice and washed them down with pitcher water. Once he finished, Pintu packed up the chaotic crockery in a bundle and then pulled himself up. He swung the pack over his shoulders, and said he would leave now. Baba nodded. On his way home, he stopped to pick yellow mustard flowers from the side of the dirt path for Maa. She would have bathed by now.

Maa waited for Pintu. He returned in a while and entered though the door. She looked up at him and beamed.

“Come, baby. Let’s eat now. I want to feed you today, sweetheart.”

“Okay, Maa.”

He ran to the tap and placed the towering stack under the running water. He felt special and pampered; his face glowed with warmth through a child’s downy, dark skin under a mass of oily hair pasted to his scull like wet cow dung, glued to dry on thatched walls.

“Maa, I’ll always stay with you when you grow old. Way much older.”

“You will? You will have your own life by then with children and a wife and my little grandchildren.”

Pintu rolled up his eyes in embarrassment. “I’ll take care of you, Maa, so you never have to work so hard. And I’ll make sure that Baba never has to work in other people’s fields again. We will buy our own land. Become rich, work for ourselves.”

“You’re a good boy, Pintu. Have you done your homework for school?”

“Yes, I have. Teacher said I did well in language.”

“Good boy. Soon you will be helping Baba in the fields”

“I’m afraid to go to the house of God.”


“Men on Hondas tell me to go with them.”

“Go with them? Where to?”

“They tell me and other kids to go to meetings and rallies. They tell us to hurl rocks at others.”

“Oh my God! Stay away from those people.”

“Yes, Maa.”


A long way away from home now, Pintu sat at the boot camp and heard echoes of his own sobs. Men succeeded in recruiting him and many others like him in the end.

One midsummer afternoon, as he was returning from the mosque, they caught him on the dirt road and took him off to the city. He had turned ten by that time.

“Let me go! I want to go home!” he had cried.

“We will kill your Baba and your Maa.”

“No, no, no.” His existential cries reverberated through the empty space.

Pintu fell victim to that threat and could not utter another word. He stopped going to school and found himself running errands for the resistance party instead. He did what he was asked: brutally recruited children. He recruited friends he played with so they too would distribute leaflets and brochures for the party. The jobs then escalated to much more extreme, and disappointingly, to more heinous and dangerous crimes: torching cars; hurling rocks; beatings and brawls became regular. On the streets of Potteiclay in the city, Pintu was seen one evening with blood-shot eyes in a tattered shirt, sprinting frantically through a furious mob with a Molotov cocktail in his hand, blood running down his left cheek. Marks of a beating stood out in red-hot streaks crisscrossed on his back. Soullessly, it behooved him to keep up his end of the bargain so his mother, his father, would live. He went from one prison to the next, all in the name of democracy and freedom which, in the end, became an excuse to grab more power. Patriotism was never a part of this zeal. He fell out with the party in the end, however, and the party betrayed him by making him a scapegoat in a murder case. Maa had been mute with fear and Baba could not protest. It was too late, too late now to go back to that golden age of purity. Oh Pintu, how could you have corrupted your soul?


P12 walked up to the gym down the grassy path of the bootcamp. With a few other refugees, he waited for his turn on the treadmill. As soon as one got off, he quickly got on and did a run for half an hour at the speed of six. Then he went into the shower. Next was Kroll language class. Here, very attentively, he concentrated on listening skills today. He had to master Kroll if he were to get ahead, one of the ropes to success. He had to convince the authorities that he wanted to be a model citizen.

“Hello, how are you?” a voice in the tape asked. P12 parroted first and then said, “I’m well, and you?”