“Here lie the fragile remains of a nation glorious,” she said emphatically and placed a small rock that became the marker of their deaths. Rukmini knelt next to it, somber, thoughtful, almost pious. I knelt next to her on the red earth, the hems of our skirts changing hues from our usual white to a grainy, burnt sienna.
“It’s alright. Don’t feel bad for them; they have moved on. So should you.” I tried to soothe her in my big girl voice and in my older cousin wisdom. But it had the opposite effect.
“I’ll never forgive them!” she seethed. I could see the faint wrinkles forming on her forehead that would embed themselves deeper and deeper as we aged, but that's a part of another story.
“Rukma, you know we can’t do anything about them…They’re foolish, stupid. Just ignore them.” I was always the more mature of the two of us, she the more…not naive, heedless sometimes to the point where I'd wonder if she had a death wish.
“Why?” She said, jumping up like a powerful panther. “Why? Just because they’re the Master’s sons? Just because they own this land? Did they own this anthill too, the ants that used to live here, the ants that they knew we cared about?” she pointed to the remains of the great anthill we had seen rise, day by day, month by month, into the mammoth colony that it had become. It was truly a nation, home to millions of those tiny, laborious creatures who we loved and guarded from man and beast. Why we took them for pets, I do not know, but we both felt very strongly towards the growing anthill and the ants therein. We were their gods and their devotees, their masters and their slaves – feeding them, protecting them…ever watchful.
That is till the Zamindar’s sons had decided to destroy it because one of them was bitten by some ants, and Rukmini had jeered at him “That’s what you get when you try to disturb these mighty minions”.
Yes, they are a force unto themselves when they work or attack en masse. But even the strongest of armies are but a blimp before the force of nature.
So, aware of our love for the anthill and its occupants, and itching for retribution, the Zamindar’s boys had taken pails of water to the anthill and destroyed it all till it was nothing but a huge pile of squishy, red dirt, speckled with the floating black of their dead carcases. Rukmini had let out a blood curdling screech when we had returned from school and saw the savagery of it all.
Her absence from my side brought me back to the here and now. I saw a cloud of red dust not too far away from where we had been kneeling. It was she, running to the enemy for her revenge. From a distance she looked like a minion herself - all dark hair and a smidgen of white engulfed in a cloud of red earth.
I ran after her because I feared she would do something foolish, like she was wont to. And true to form, she ran straight to the kennels, where the Zamindar’s dogs were lazily napping in the arid Indian summer. I knew just why she had run to the kennels instead.
As I neared her I found she was running with a stick in her hand. Where did she get that from? I ran faster, panic making me sweat more than the burning sun over our heads. I could not have yelled for her to stop for fear of alerting the others, worse still the Zamindar or his feral boys. I had to gain on her somehow. I cursed myself for having drifted off into the past.
She had reached Rustom, the eldest’s favorite, and she thwacked the stick right on the muzzle of the poor beast, just as she yelled “For the Ants!”. He yelped in pain and I yelped in horror “Nooo Rukma! This isn’t right!”
I saw blood streaking the dog’s muzzle and her skirt. She rose her hand to strike the whimpering dog again, but I lunged at her and we both went down. The uproar had alerted every servant in the household and they all came rushing in, only to find two 12 year olds in a wrangle. They grabbed us each by the hair and took us out of the kennels.
We were slapped, then called names, then slapped again, till my father appeared and begged mercy for us.
“Your girl will do well if you keep this little witch away from her. How dare they attack my animals?!” the Zamindar roared, his mustache flaring in tandem with the stale breath of beedi releasing from his thick lips.
“Sarkaar, they will be punished, but, if I may Sarkaar, they did it for the ants…”
“Ants?! You mean those pesky ants are more important than my dogs?”
“They are as important as your dogs, you feudal dimwit !” Rukmini spat out.
That very instant, she was slapped so hard by the Zamindar that she lost consciousness, and so did I, having been fatigued and shocked by the day’s extraordinary events.
The next thing I remembered was my poor mother sobbing over my head, Rukmini sleeping beside us, with the blackish-bluish imprint of the Zamindar’s hand lying across her cheek like a grim memento. Long did that scar glare at us angrily reminding us of the unfairness of it all, the high-handedness of those who had everything with those who had nothing. Things were changing, they said; a man called Gandhi was fighting for change. But 'change' is such a relative thing and Mahatmas are humans too who often don't notice ants like us.
That night we left, bundled up with our belongings in a bullock-cart, streaking the red earth as we left the village and our ant nation behind. It was time to find another anthill.