Night wandered in through the drapes. She swept around the house, bringing a coldness to everything she touched. She spread herself around the house and settled into the corners.
In the living room, a lone lamp shone an arc of light. Saaya sat reading in a chair, silent, composed, watchful. She was waiting for Ravi. Waiting for his return, waiting for dinner.
Outside, the battle was still raging. The humid air was still with a watchful silence that was broken only by the cawing of crows and the fluttering of pigeons. And then, occasionally, there was a sudden sharp report of a gun. Sometimes, just a single shot, sometimes a barrage of shots. And then, silence again.
Yesterday, Saaya had looked out of her front window at the public tap on the other side of the street. She had wanted to check if water was flowing. These days, the public taps were mostly dry, and the water was irregular and scanty. She had to keep checking to catch the first sight of water in the taps.
She saw him then – a man, dark and thin. He had his back turned to her, which was fortunate. He was washing a long, curved sword in the public tap. A red river of blood flowed off the sword, coloring the ground, as if someone had carelessly thrown away the waters of an aarti. The steel blade glinted evilly in the sunlight.
Saaya hastily withdrew from the window. She did not want him to catch her watching. But she wondered, with a shudder, whose blood it was.
For now, this house was a fortress – it kept out the violence, it protected her from the evil blades that were preying outside. It spared her from harm – as long as she remained indoors. This house was also a prison, for she could not step out in safety.
But this house was built with brittle brick walls, not the strong walls of stone. The walls could not protect her if she was in real danger. All they could do was offer her a false sense of security. She clutched at it, eager to hold on to anything that lulled her feverish anxiety. She wanted to deceive herself, for that was the only way she could remain sane.
There were other walls that had broken down. The wall of trust had breached, releasing a flood of passions – hurt, anger, hate. Walls of propriety had come down, and every man believed he was his own law. The thin wall of decency that covers the beast of lawlessness had been scraped away. Now, only beasts prowled the streets.
Ravi went out every morning to work in this charged atmosphere, and every day she waited anxiously for him until he returned at night. With each day the fear grew on her that one day, he too would vanish. One day, the mobs would devour him, just as they had devoured so many others. What can one man do against an irrational mob?
She often wondered if they should move away. But move where? Every part of the city, and every city in the country was unsafe. Her story was playing out in millions of homes across the country, with just the names changed.
She had hurt her finger today, while cutting vegetables. A deep cut, not much blood, but the wound would take time to heal. She sat reading, the wound throbbing, her heart pounding as it grew late with no sign of Ravi.
The doorbell rang. Anxiety rose to fever pitch, as it did each evening, as she wondered if it was someone from the mob. Cold relief poured in, just as it did everyday, when she realized it was Ravi.
Saaya served his dinner and listened to him describe his day. She listened, eager to clutch at the few minutes of the day when she could forget her fears and relax. Eager to drown out her thoughts in the sound of his outwardly calm voice.
She wondered whether she should tell him about the finger. But it was unimportant, like the rest of her day.
Night settled in, creeping out from the corners and taking over the whole house. Tomorrow, a new day would dawn, and the cycle of violence, and hate and fear would begin again. But in these few hours until dawn, everyone could sleep and dream their own dreams.
For even their worst nightmares could not match the dangers that came with dawn.