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I do not like to die.

It was my father that died. Facedown,
in the broken nullah where they bathe the buffalos.
Yellow vomit streaked the black sludge.
It had clogged his alcohol breath;
Filled my seasoned nose
one last time.

No one cried. Not one.
Except the toddler.
Sibling, born two Diwalis back.
It wailed, long nagging plaint.
Hungry bellies and listless eyes-
My mother's chulha colder than the December frost outside.

So when they came one January morn,
in fatigues, two large green trucks
and a white tape to catch the fastest runners,
I ran.
Bare feet, bare back prickling with cold.
Three full glasses of water to fill my stomach, now sloshing.
They caught me at the white tape. The other hundreds were far behind. lace-up corset dresses for a wedding
Gave me a uniform, a rifle
and a rank before my name.
And the money arrived on the first of every month,
surer than the sun's rise each morrow.

So now I run through mustard fields.
Tender stalks, pale green
and soft yellow flowers swished away rudely.
Heavy squelch of my boots on the ground-
squelch, swish, squelch, swish.............
Keeping perfect time.

Not far away great mountains rise,
brightly white.
Unmoving wall.
I get closer.
On my right shoulder, the mortar gun thuds:
cold metal on cold bones.
My breath draws will-o-wisps before my eyes.

While all along, in a city choking on its self-importance,
a man slouches before his PC screen.
His cursor paused at an Excel-Sheet cell
bristles impatiently, full of itself.
Soldier's pay-
Basic, DA, MSP
and Hard Area Allowance.
The man adds and multiplies.
Then very quickly subtracts and divides.
The cursor jumps his bidding from cell to cell.
Obsequious, like it's terribly eager to please.

I run.
At night, black and white mustard fields, the Jhelum's gentle gurgle.
Winter clouds curdle over the yolk moon's face.
The snow floats
like down-feathers escaped from pigeons necking on thatch rafters.
Frozen pine slopes slippery with ice.
Cold black boulders, mammoths lost in the moonlight.
Chilblains bite my ear lobes,
excruciating itch of my cold-swollen fingers.

Something glints high up on the frozen mountain.
He is there I know, like me.
The Other Bastard.
I know him. And I know what he will do now.
Fix his foresight. Between crosshairs,
frame me within these grayscaled mustard flowers I will blur, now I will be sharply in focus.....
But who will fall first, I cannot really say.
Perhaps he.
Perhaps me.
But still, I run.

Still I run.

My mother's tea laps my tongue, sharp gingery slivers.
rich with fresh cow-milk and loads of sugar.
Shaloo giggles, beneath her new sequinned dupatta.
I can see her lips: pliant, playful.
The goat kid born yesterday nuzzles my feet.
Bholu sniffs it curiously, then curls up around his own tail.
The toddler's all grown up, new school bag, new school books.

I still run, keep on running.
Forward, forward.
My mind is now bare
of my memories: pictures, smells, sounds cleaned out.
My eyes and brain glued to that glint on the mountains.

And with each tread of my booted frozen feet
The cursor in the city office jumps,
Adding and subtracting numbers.

I do not want to die.
But this time he is the Marksman.
And now the red flower blooms beneath my shattered carapace.
Grows large slowly, like on a time-lapse video.
I fall, crushing
the flower shapeless on the gray night-snow.

I did not want to die.

On that marble pedestal with its guard of flaming urns,
there where you keep appointment every January and every August,
this time don't waste your flowers on me.
Instead, pin a note:
"He was paid!"