Radius 200 – By Veena Nagpal (Excerpts)

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Set against the backdrop of a nuclear strike on Allahabad, Radius 200 is a poignant story centering round love and longing and the very spirit of mankind to survive all odds. It very effectively delineates the theme of search for water. A complex narrative exploring an ancient myth, it delves deep into the human psyche of power and control as it looks at the world through the eyes of two women living in two completely different realities and yet bound together through the one glue that propels humans forward: love! ( Sanjoy Roy, Organizer, Jaipur Litfest)

 

Experts have long predicted that if ever there is Third World War, it will be over water.

China, is building the world’s largest dam at Medog, just 30 kilometers from the Indo-China border. Could this be a flash point?

Staff College, Wellington. He had done a paper on nuclear war – one of those joint exercises that were invariably foisted on the group leader. An old document he had studied… a speculative World War III nuclear scenario. It had shocked him. Much of it he could never forget.

The visual images conjured up by dire statistics had left him sleepless for nights. This was not war! Where were the heroics, the sacrifices, the laying down of lives for the honour of future generations? This was just annihilation, a cold-blooded wiping out of any possible future for our children.

Why was there no widespread talk about it?

“In nuclear war, there are no medals to be won. It leaves no heroes. Perhaps no survivors either,” the Chief Instructor at the College had said at the discussion on the subject later. “Only a mad man, someone who had totally lost it, could initiate such a war.”

End of discussion. Collective conspiracy of silence – an ostrich like denial, eyes-shut-hope-for-the-best attitude remained.

“To fight and to conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting,” Jimmy used to quote and it had always seemed to make eminent sense. But what if, in trying to break the enemy’s resistance, you triggered a nuclear war?

Was it possible that… could it be that Jimmy Fernandez had… had lost it?

“…when a person in a leadership position breaks, his organization breaks with him.”

And if a senior officer in leadership position was breaking apart, even if that senior officer happened to be his hero, what should the junior officer do? Was he still duty bound to obey or should he use his own judgment?

“Command,” Jimmy had lectured his officers once, “is a sacred responsibility. If your shoulders are broad enough to shoulder that responsibility, you earn a reward unequalled on this Earth. You earn unflinching loyalty. At your signal, your men will willingly burn through hell for you.”

Goose pimples on his arms, Om had shivered then, knowing he, for one, would lay down his life at the slightest lift of General Fernandez’ brow. Every soldier who had ever served with him, would. If anyone had ever commanded unflinching loyalty in the fauj, it was General Jimmy Fernandez.

Today suddenly, doubt riddled. Must a junior obey a command that he knew would most certainly bring disaster upon his country? Soldiers were trained to fight wars – even wars they did not always understand or appreciate, wars that dehumanize, even. Was there no exception? When your nation’s very existence could be jeopardized by one command, was it not incumbent upon you to exercise your own judgment?

Was he bound to stay with Mission Jaldahara? What could he do? Run away? Lt Col Om Prakash, future COAS to be, an officer who coveted a chest full of medals, desert his post? No way. He’d rather die. Yet…

Was it not his moral duty to at least inform someone of the impending disaster? Who?

 

When nations go to war the biggest casualty is love. For twenty years Om’s love, Kyra, has lived outside the Exclusion Zone hugging to her breast, hope… that somehow Om may have survived. And memories…

Rain came pelting down in a cacophony of sounds. The noisy rattling along the cobbled pathway in the pool area below, the sharp staccato drumming on a metal roof somewhere, softer and duller against the acrylic sheet along the balconies… all the various sounds merging into one huge sheltering, protecting, healing canopy.

Rain on her face and in her eyes, rain drenching her through and through, cool and so utterly blissful. Arjun, sitting in the room forgotten, Kyra opened her mouth wide, letting the rain fall on her tongue, trickle down her throat.

It was falling in sheets now, in straight lines and she was on her toes…

“What are you doing…?”

Walking down Cuffe Parade in Mumbai, sharing a raincoat with Om. School had been shut because of heavy, untimely rain and they had decided to walk home instead of taking a bus.

Suddenly Om had run out from under the raincoat and started zig-zagging on careful tippy toes ahead of her.

“What are you doing? You’ll get all…”

“Shush! I’m trying to walk between the streaks of rain. Try it?”

“You’re crazy… no one can walk between the rain.”

In the silence inside the canopy of rain sound, Kyra stood absolutely still. Mingling in the rain, streaking down her face, were unbidden tears.

 

Is nuclear survivability possible? What effect would extreme depredation have on humans – their emotions?

The heat was oppressive. The scorching sun beat relentlessly upon the dry, desolate landscape. It hurt the eyes to look up at the sky and it hurt the eyes to look down on the heat vapours rising from the barren land.

Everyone had been driven under cover, lying around listlessly, waiting for the sun to go down, waiting for the next dose of water to wet their lips.

On a tattered mat near her herb corner, Jiji lay in a stupor her breath coming in short, laboured gasps.

Is this death, she was wondering? This cavernous silence?  This profound stillness? Have I crossed that seamless border between life and death?

It was almost comforting – the thought of death. Her dry, cracked lips essaying a smile, ended up in a wry grimace. To think she had struggled so hard to live, when in fact, it was only death that could bring a true smile to the lips because only in the wake of death did peace finally descend.

Om was groaning in half sleep. Thrashing. Jiji shot up. Perched on the side of his bed, she frowned. Should she give him a spoonful of water now? His mouth was so dry. She shook her head. No. They had to pace out their share.

Softly she started humming, passing a soft hand over his forehead, till he calmed down and dropped into slumber.

“I’m worried,” she murmured to herself. “There’s talk that someone is stealing water. All these long years we survived only because we were together, always sharing equally whatever we had.”

She shook her head. “I have to find out who is behind it and immediately put it down with a stern hand. Now, before it gets out of control.”

Returning to her mat, she sat with her back against the wall, thinking.

Not far from Jiji’s dwelling, in a deserted cellar that no one used, Mina gingerly opened the tiny bottle in her hand and held it up to Chief.

“Drink.”

Chief shook his head. “How can I take your share? What we get is barely enough to sustain us. No one can afford to give away their share.”

“You deserve it! You did so much for all of us, putting your life in danger, trying to find water. We owe you.”

“I feel so guilty!”

“Why should you? You need to regain your strength, because if anyone is going to ever find water for us, it is you. Now drink.”

Mina was wearing strips of red cloth, like ribbons in her hair and a faded, almost-clean, almost-red cloth as a waistband. Sensing the spark in his eyes, the quickening of his pulse, she knew he had noticed.

He took the tiny bottle and drained the four tablespoons of water she had brought.

“You should sip it slowly, roll it in your mouth. That way your mouth will remain wet much longer.”

He nodded. “I know, but it’s so difficult to resist.”

“I’ll get you more tomorrow.”

“No, don’t. Why should I get favoured treatment?”

“Because I… you know I’d do anything for you.”

She edged up to him till her small pointed breasts rubbed against his chest and her lips were close to his mouth.

“Kiss me!”

Even with her closed eyes she could sense his large, black eyes growing dark with desire, feel the tightening of his hold, the hardening between his legs.

“Mina, I… we shouldn’t!” he whispered, as he locked his mouth on hers.

They heard a noise and quickly he pushed her away.

“I can’t… Club Foot is my brother! Go now, please go!”

“Tomorrow.” Her eyes were teasing. Confident. “Here. Same time… I’ll bring you water.”

She ran out.

Minutes later, there was commotion. Female voices screeching. Cursing. Someone falling. Chief rushed out, halted half way, watching in horror.

“You bitch! You stole my water! You…” Shanno pulled at Mina’s thin braid and the red ‘ribbon’ came off in her hand.

Mina lunged at it, twisted Shanno’s hand. Shanno put one foot out and Mina came crashing down, pulling Shanno with her. Covered in a haze of flying dust, now they were wrestling on the ground.

Almost everyone had heard the uproar. Jiji was the first out and was trying to separate the two but they were too strong for her.

Just then Club Foot arrived. “Enough!” he shouted. “Stop it! Just stop it, you two!”

Catching hold of Mina’s hand, he jerked her up. Shanno was dusting her clothes, still shouting obscenities at Mina.

“What do you think you were doing?” Club Foot clouted Mina in the ear then suddenly noticing the red and white string of beads at her neck he stopped.

“Where did you get that?” he hissed.

“Don’t touch it!” Mina pulled away.

“I found it,” she continued sullenly. “What’s it to you, anyway? You didn’t get it for me, that’s for sure!”

“She stole my water and you stand here worrying about beads!” Shanno screamed at Club Foot.

“Yes, I stole it!” Mina yelled back at her. “Just two table spoons and you notice it, no one else did. I’ve been taking it from everyone and no one protested. Except you, you selfish slut! It was for Chief. It’s our duty to give him a part of our share so that he regains his strength soon, because if anyone can find water for us, it is Chief.”

With a scowl, Club Foot turned on Chief. Stricken look on his face, he averted his eyes. Club Foot advanced towards him. Jiji put out one hand and peremptorily stopped him.

“No. This, I will handle. Everyone is present at the moment and I’m going to kill this issue here and now.”

She turned to face them all. “How many of you think water has been stolen from your glasses?”

Besides Shanno, five hands went up.

“I know that Mina has been stealing from Om’s glass too – at least five times she has stolen from him. So, starting from tomorrow morning, from her share, Mina will give two tablespoons of water everyday, in turn, to each person she has stolen from. And in the end, she will replenish Om’s glass for five days running. She will do this in my presence everyday.”

Mina had been glaring at Jiji. Now she screamed at them all.

“Keep your water, all of you – and choke on it! I will give Chief my share. He needs it. He deserves it. He…”

The force of Club Foot’s backhand slap stopped her screams midway. She wiped her mouth, saw the blood and sent a stream of blood-laced spit at his face.

He caught hold of her good right arm and dragged her all the way to their dwelling.

Jiji was exhausted.

“It was Mina,” she said, sitting down on the edge of Om’s bed. A coughing fit seized her and she doubled up with pain.

She waved away Om’s enquiring eye and started speaking again.

“All this time, I was wondering who could be stealing water, thinking I was being suspicious for no reason, doubting if anyone would ever do such a thing… and all this time it was Mina.”

Again the cough overwhelmed.

“There is also this business,” she wheezed after a while, “between Chief and Mina – complicated business. The thieving will stop but I am afraid of what Club Foot could do if Chief and Mina… he could kill Chief! I’m worried.”


 

About the author:

Veena Nagpal is an Indian author and RADIUS 200 is her fourth novel. Her previous novels are : The Uncommon Memories of Zeenat Qureishi (Tara), Karmayogi (Jaico) and Compulsion (Sterling). She has also written four books for children. A passionate environmentalist, she has conducted more than five hundred environment workshops for school children in India. She loves travelling. “Must have inherited gypsy blood from somewhere,” she laughs. She is also an avid photographer and dabbles in oil painting.

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