Dead soul

April 22, 1939

Tens of thousands perished in the relentless air raids over Malabar. Even more were left injured, maimed, and homeless. The port city lay in ruins; its streets filled with rotting corpses and air choking with flies. The Imperial Navy reigns supreme in the Arabian Sea, cutting off escape or evacuation of the 100,000 coalition troops holed up in the city. A week later, the underground administrative block was hit by a one-tonner, killing the general commanding the coalition troops and several other high-ranking officers in charge of the city’s defences. The remaining 20,000 troopers, famished and diseased, surrendered to the Imperial Army two days later. The vanquished soldiers became practice subjects for the Imperial soldiers to test the sharpness of their swords. Beheading championships, marathon bayoneting, and man-hunting were held in pomp and gaiety.

Towards the island

Twelve-year-old Abu was among the 100 healthy ‘coolies’ herded into a makeshift airport where a large transport aircraft lay waiting. He moved along with the columns, silent and looking at the ground, his feet sinking into the black muck that the city’s roads had become. The soldiers flanking the men kept prodding them with bayonets to make them fall in line. Abu did as he was told. He had seen what happened to those who offered the slightest resistance. He wanted to live; he wanted to live at all cost.

The coolies were led into the cargo bay of the aircraft and ordered to sit on the floor. Abu was in the middle of a column, three of which stretched on his either side. The men, wearing only khaki trousers, panicked when the engines of the plane rumbled into life. One of the Imperial soldiers, sitting stiffly in a corner of the cargo bay shouted something at the terror-stricken coolies, who could not hear what it was. The panic spread and one of the men stood up, his body covered in sweat, his face twisted with fear. A soldier sitting near him looked at him with undisguised rage. Without uttering a word, he drew a short sword from his waist belt and shoved it between the man’s ribs, pulling it out in an arc. Blood spurted forth from the cut. By the time the plane took off and the deafening sound of its landing gear groaning against the rough runway ceased, the man was dead; his body lay sprawling in a pool of blood.

The camp

The plane landed on an incomplete airstrip with a violent shake. Abu covered his mouth with both his hands to stifle a scream; his ears ached owing to the pressure variation inside the fuselage. As they were being led out of the aircraft in columns, he looked around. The hitherto-uninhabited island, his destination, was dominated by a small peak, the tip of an underwater mountain. On its slopes lay a thick carpet of vegetation comprising palms, coconut trees and thickets. The only clear land as far as Abu could see was the airstrip pockmarked by a few buildings in camouflage.

Looking over his shoulder, he caught a glimpse of a tall man emerging from a small tent manned by two armed guards. Sunshine glinted off the rifles resting on their shoulders. He saw the man look at the sky for a moment and then hurry towards what appeared to be the entrance to a bunker. While he was putting on his army cap, he suddenly turned and looked straight at Abu, who held his eyes. Abu thought he saw a smirk on the man’s face before the bunker’s mouth swallowed him.

The coolies were put to work the same day. Abu was among a group of ten told to clear the thickets around the airfield and claim more land for the construction of additional buildings. The army engineer in charge of the group, a middle-aged man with only one ear, wanted the men to work for 15 hours a day. Progress was rapid during the first three days; the coolies cleared a couple of acres around the airfield. The thickets went first, followed by the small trees, palms, and the coconut trees. A second group of coolies were tasked with making charcoal for the thermal power plant on the island.


In the dead of night one day, as most of the coolies slept, Abu lay awake. Despite all the hard labour he had done, he could not sleep; he cannot remember when was the last time he slept He was afraid of the slightest of sounds; he kept waiting for the sound of boots, the drawing of swords, and the whistle of blades cutting the air. That day, however, he heard whispers; men talking something to one another. Over the course of a few days, Abu understood the subject of their clandestine discussion – an escape plan. The boy shuddered. He knew that anyone who tried to escape would be met with the worst death imaginable, and, in this terrain, the Imperial Marines, veterans of the Burma Campaign, could easily track down any escapee. He was, however, more afraid of what would befall the rest of the coolies if some of them tried to escape. “All of us will suffer; the Imperial Army will make sure we do,” he thought. 

That Abu did not sleep at night quickly reached the ears of the leader of the group planning to escape. He was a well-built Muslim man from Calicut, known among the coolies as Koya. In one overcast night, as Abu lay awake in his flea-infested bamboo mat, he heard someone approaching him. He sat up. A few feet away, near the hem of the mat, darkness thickened and he heard the faint sound of someone breathing. Abu held his breath, beads of sweat appearing on his forehead. “Boy, do you know who I am?” a whisper reached his ears. Abu recognised the voice as that of Koya. “Follow me. Don’t make a sound. I have a kattara (a dagger with a thick blade and a handle made of antler) in my hand. If you utter so much as a whisper, I will slit your throat,” the voice warned.

Abu stood up; he could now make out a figure walking away in the darkness. He swallowed hard and followed him. He was led to the far end of the labour camp. “Stop. Sit down,” Koya said. Abu obeyed and, as soon as he did, felt the presence of other men around him, probably staring at him. He heard a faint shuffle, which he believed to be Koya sitting down.

“I know you heard something, but I don’t know how much. I have asked around about you. Your father was a coalition lance naik, yes?” Koya whispered. “Y..Yes,” Abu said, shivering. There were a few seconds of silence; then came the question. “Boy, you want to die here? Do you know what they would do to you — all of us for that matter? Once we are worked to near-death, they will make you dig your own grave and then behead you or shoot you, if they have bullets to spare.” Several moments passed before Koya spoke again. “Do you want to live, boy?” “Yes,” Abut said, surprised by the firmness of his voice, something that Koya also noted. “Then, you stay with us and do as told, and, Inshah Allah, we will escape from these devils.”

Over the next couple of days, Abu learnt that a fishing vessel arrived at the island’s northern shore every week. The Imperial Army, starved of supplies, had begun purchasing supplies from fishermen inhabiting nearby islands. The transaction took place around midnight for security reasons. The other islands of the archipelago were fast falling to the advancing coalition forces and the fishermen there had been barred from supplying anything to the Imperial forces. Koya’s plan was to reach the northern shore and board this vessel, a large pathemari. Koya, a fisherman himself, also learnt that vessel was commanded by a man from northern Malabar coast, where, Abu was told, Koya’s hamlet is located.

One can see the perimeter fence from the labour camp. Koya, Abu, and the other men had already begun digging a tunnel from the camp to the other side of the fence, but progress was extremely slow. Food rations to the coolies had been reduced to three handfuls of rice, a piece of yam and two pinches of salt. The backbreaking work, lack of sleep, and little food had made the coolies bags of bones.

War of attrition

December 22,1940

In the mainland, the war slowly settled into a stalemate. The commanding officer of the island, a young major, received information that the coalition forces had sunk their heels, refusing to retreat. The Imperial forces were facing stiff resistance along the south Indian front stretching from Mangalore to the west to Madras to the east. In the sea, the Imperial Navy lost three battleships and four aircraft carriers in the decisive Battle of Laccadives. The result was the Imperial Navy’s loss of dominance in the Arabian Sea. Supply ships bound for the island were being sunk by the coalition’s surface and submerged vessels.


It had been only half an hour since the coolies finished their work for the day. Famished beyond imagination, their faces did not even have enough flesh to effect a change in expression. They trudged to the barracks in columns guarded on the flanks by armed guards. Abu, Koya and a number of other men in the group were at the end of one of the columns. They stole glances at one another occasionally, communicating with their eyes. Suddenly, the guard walking in front of the coolies stopped and turned around to look at the sky behind him. They heard a strange whistling sound. Before the coolies could understand anything, the guard dropped his lantern and bolted, shouting something to his comrades, who also took to their heels in split second. The coolies, still in fetters, jostled one another as they moved in short, pathetic steps, helpless as the whistling* noise overhead rose to an earsplitting screech.

The first shell exploded right in front of the column. The blast flung Abu and Koya into the air. Abu landed on his back with a thud and chunks of earth landed on him, battering his frail frame. Before his ears, stunned by the explosion, could regain senses, Abu saw explosions after explosions ripping apart the island. Turning, he lay on his belly and looked at the army barracks just in time to see it being sent upwards by an explosion.

He saw soldiers rushing to man the coastal batteries. He saw them training the guns to the horizon painted in light blue. There, he saw stars blinking; only they were too low to be stars – they were muzzle flashes from battleships. Part of a large coalition fleet had sneaked close to the island under the cover of darkness and was pounding the island.

The Imperial forces were caught off guard. From the distance, Abu heard the report of naval guns. Shell, each weighing nearly a tonne, battered the island, scooping up the island as if it were wet clay. The barrage lasted for 15 minutes, during which time volley after volley of shells obliterated everything they fell on, sending shock waves along the breadth and length of the island. 

Hauling himself to his feet, now infused with a new strength, Abu bolted for the thickets. A shell had created a huge gap in the barbed-wire fence. He jumped into the crater, and then turned, his head poking out just enough so that he can scan the landscape. Overhead, he heard the rumble of approaching aircraft. Silhouetted against the moon, over a dozen coalition bombers were making their way towards the island to seal the fate of the smoldering pit that the facility had turned into. He felt something hot churning in his belly. Having taken one final look at the camp, Abu blasted through the thickets.


Abu kept running till he reached the valley of the peak. He could still hear the explosions and his feet went numb from shockwaves reverberating through the earth. Whether the coalition would bomb the entire island, he did not know but he had to find a shelter in case they decided to. In the cold light of the moon, Abu walked with his hands outstretched in front of him, afraid of running into the sharp stumps of branches left behind by timber-collecting coolies. Sand mixed with sweat scrapped the skin off his feet as he walked.

He walked parallel to the peak for some time, looking for any crevice between the large boulders formation in the foothill. It did not take much time before his eyes fell on a cave with a mouth shaped into a triangle by boulders resting on each other. Using all his limps, Abu crawled into the cave. He could see that the cave went deeper than what his eyes could measure, but he decided to not venture farther. He crawled to a side of the cave where the moonlight still trickled in. With a heavy sigh, he slumped on the floor of the cave, drifting into a deep slumber within seconds.


Abu and his brother sat cross-legged on the floor as their mother spread plantain leaves before them. Abu saw the frail woman wobbling as she walked and holding the wooden desk in the kitchen to support herself. She suddenly turned and smiled at him. Abu was relieved to see umma smile. Steam rose from the rice spread on the leaves. Abu’s mouth watered as he saw her take the boiling curry pot from the hearth. He made a small depression in the rice with his tiny hands and waited for the curry to fill it. He was happy; it was going to be his first good meal in days.

The smile on his little face vanished when, instead of curry, hot blood splashed on the steaming white rice. He looked up in horror just in time to hear a gasp escaping from the woman. His eyes fell on her gaping mouth taking short quick breaths.Her eyes bulged out of their sockets and her hands trembled. Even as the curry pot fell from her hands and shattered on the floor, Abu saw something red protruding from between her breasts. He heard his brother scream when a head appeared on her right shoulder; the head of a man in a khaki cap. His expression was invisible in the glare of light at the door that he had so diabolically darkened. With a shudder, Abu realized that the thing sticking out of his mother chest was the tip of a sword that the man had thrust into his mother from behind. Wrenching his eyes off that dark face, Abu, with tears rolling down his cheeks, looked at his umma, now a lifeless sack of bones hanging on the sword, her feet grating sickeningly on the mud floor.

To be continued…

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