Chapter 6

38K 229 5
                                                  

The village is a collection of a dozen single-room structures made of branches, vines, and thatch, located in a flat patch between two ridges, on either side of a thin stream. As Danielle and Laurent approach, holding commandeered lathis, they join a half-dozen women, wrapped in dull shapeless cloths, returning to the village with spine-warping loads of firewood on their heads. The men who wait for them wear dhotis, like pale kilts, stained with years of wear and filth. Most are shirtless, but a few wear tattered T-shirts.

Both men and women seem less curious about their battered white visitors than Danielle would have expected. Maybe they are too exhausted; the women must walk for hours to find firewood, there are few trees in these stony highlands. Maybe, after growing up in a place like this, they are incapable of being curious, they have never developed enough imagination.

Chickens, pigs, and dogs pick their way among and inside the buildings. Small, ragged fields line either side of the stream, to the end of the valley. Danielle doesn't know much about farming, but even she can tell that the crops here are sparse and stunted. A few bullocks graze further afield. Every thatched hut has a few plastic buckets and watering cans, metal pots and implements, candles, cigarette lighters, empty whisky bottles that Danielle is appalled to see – how can anyone in a place as poor as this spend money on whisky? A few of the huts are adorned with Bollywood movie posters, and colourful pictures of deities, Ganesh and Krishna and Lakshmi, decorated with marigolds, are found in nearly every one. A simple wooden cart, four wheels on a frame, the most elaborate machine in the village, stands next to the single dirt track that leads away from the village, over a ridge and to the north.

It would be bad enough without the sicknesses. But those are everywhere. Of the sixty people in this village, fully a third have a visible illness or deformity. Children missing legs. Adults with rubbery, cancerous growths on their throats, abdomens, faces. Limbs so devoid of muscle they are only bone wrapped in skin. Men and women whose every breaths are loud, rasping struggles, overcoming deformations in their throats. Babies born missing an eye, or with faces warped like melted plastic. It is like visiting a leper colony. Danielle's exhilaration at being alive, at having escaped, slowly dissipates into appalled horror. She has never even imagined misery like this.

A group of men, relatively hale and hearty, sit around a small open fire, smoking bidis, cheap Indian cigarettes made from individual dried tobacco leaves, and drinking, from clay cups, what Danielle angrily realizes is whisky. One of them sees Laurent, recognizes him, stands to greet him. The others glance over at them and then away, disinterested.

"Namaste," Laurent says to the standing man, pressing his hands together in front of his heart and bowing.

The man returns the greeting. He seems neither pleased nor displeased by Laurent's presence.

"Dr. Lal?" Laurent asks. "Is possible?"

The man gives Laurent the sideways Indian nod, bringing his ear almost to his shoulder; not quite as much a 'yes' as the Western nod, but a definite acknowledgement. Without another word, he stoops to put his cup on the ground, then turns and walks away.

"One of our doctors should be near here somewhere, doing vaccinations," Laurent explains.

"Should we go with him?"

"No. He'll find him faster alone. We need to rest."

Danielle can't argue with that. Now that they are safe, however briefly and tentatively, bone-deep weariness has fallen on her like an anvil. She finds a relatively inviting patch of grass, some distance from the whisky drinkers' fire, and sits. Laurent does the same.

"Is this the village where they captured you?" she asks.

"No. No one here would report on us. This is a village of friends. But they will search for us here. We need to leave very soon. If we are found here we endanger the entire village."

Invisible ArmiesWhere stories live. Discover now