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 Shortlisted for the
 short fiction prize,




In armoured jeeps, they were taken to the camps and [safe-kept]. It wasn’t a hostage situation. We knew from the beginning—even if we didn’t want to admit it—that this was [something else].

The first night, it was my squad posted at the No-Man-Zone. We saw the women come out one by one. A couple of boys shouted [in surprise]. The rest of us, trained under the iron rule of the Commander, knew better. Fingers stiff on our rifles, we tried to keep count. Each time we thought our census complete, another shadowy form emerged, as if the women had been stacked in like sticks of wax on a shelf, slowly melding into each other’s shapes.

The moon was high and bright, an uninterrupted circle. We sensed something amiss. Was it that the women’s saris were askew, the ties of their bhotos unloosed? Or that they wore no jewellery, and so carried no markers of age, religion, marital status, community? We only knew them as ours because their footsteps rung with the same pauju our mothers and sisters wore at home.

Why had those pauju remained around their ankles when everything else was stripped?

Later, when we compared counts, the numbers veered wildly: anything from 3 to 30 women per vehicle. The Commander knocked our heads with his pistol. We must have seen ghosts, he said, because how could that many people fit inside a vehicle that size?

As the moon dissolved and became sickle-edged, there were more jeeps, at least 2 if not more than 12 at once.

Even from our campsite, a mile far from the No-Man-Zone, we heard the women [talking]. The soldiers were [relieved]. Some thought they recognised a neighbour, an old schoolteacher, their bank teller. A week later, after lines of bodies had been swallowed by the enemy camps, we thought we recognised our friends’ wives, our distant cousins. Another week and we thought we heard our sisters and mothers.

What was more [remarkable] were the times of silence. We heard nothing, as if the camps were really peopled by ghosts.

Suman was so [moved] by the sound of [talking] that one night he crept across the No-Man-Zone. He’d been posted there every day since the first jeeps. He kept mumbling that he’d seen his baby sister. A red blotch marred her right cheek, he said, he could spot her from miles away. He had to go. Don’t be [hasty], we said. Breaching the Zone meant death on sight. We thought we managed to talk him out of it, but he slunk off when no one was expecting.

He came back two days later. We’d lied to the Commander for him and were furious, but seeing him made the [sympathy] inside us grow. We gave him hot water, a ball of stale rice, wrapped his shaking body in our own blankets. I still see that ashen face. Those [soft] sounds he made.

This is what Suman saw:

[Illegible script]

He became agitated. Some muttered he was possessed. Most found his account [humorous] and [pleasing]. They told him to [get some rest] and tried to [take him to his bed]. We protected him [from further agitations]. After lights out, some of us went to speak to our squad captain in private. I was unable to go because I was on reprimand for [antinationalistic behaviours]. I kept thinking about what Suman said of the [enemy soldiers], how dirty and bleak their camps, how [barbaric] and [cruel] their faces.

When the squad captain heard Suman’s account, he didn’t say anything for a long while, just stood with his head cocked. Finally, he said he would speak to the Commander and the strategy committee. We looked at each other with [relief]. No one wanted to approach the Commander, but we believed he was a man of principles. The strategy committee, however, had only one of our own within its ranks. The other five members were [Friends], the same advisors who once [guided] us on [morality] and [supervised] our governance, culture, civility and religion. We [were indebted to] them. They had [magnanimously agreed] to [grant] power to our new Leader and were invested in [seeing us emerge victors], in possession of the new nation we dreamed of since they [helped us dream of it].

Our people usually [welcomed] the [expertise] of the [Friends]. We knew what the [Friends’] strategies led to in the past, so we weren’t surprised when the [Friends] decreed [yes]. It took 29 days for this decision to arrive. The nights we waited, the chham chham of pauju [serenaded] us. Even the soldiers who ignored the sound were affected: we saw how their fingers trembled as they polished their boots. I kept dreaming of a girl I used to know, startling awake every morning, face wet.

The committee said [nothing was more important] than our civilian women. Since [safe-keeping wasn’t] happening to war regulations, [a rescue mission] was planned. Most of our squad was of the same mind. At this crucial point, when so many soldiers had been lost, they said, the women [were] important.

We decided to [volunteer].

But by then, the day now marked as Independence was upon us. That was perhaps the last time the women in the enemy camps had names like Rani and Komal and Chameli and Aneeka, because after that they were only known as War Heroines.

[Missing pages]

Some [fell in love] and when those enemy soldiers vacated our borders, the women [chose to leave with them]. We watched them go with bellies swollen, hair adorned with gajra, saris draped in the old way. The women didn’t glance at us, which was a blessing, for who could bear the weight of their gaze?

During the exodus, the Leader pronounced that these War Heroines were paving the way for future peace. We will gift these women to the other side. Do not think of them as ‘our’ daughters. Down the line, when their descendants meet our descendants, they will look at each other and say, Brother.

When the Leader visited the first [Rehabilitation Home], I was assigned a spot in his security. I found myself shaking as we neared that [pleasant] building. All those nights I had listened to the women [talk] and now I would come face to face with them. The rifle almost slipped from my sweat-slicked hands. The squad commander looked at me sharply. I kept my eyes on the Leader’s head, a perfect circle of skin that shone like the moon that first night. I didn’t let my eyes waver.

The Leader walked up to the women lined up in the courtyard. He clasped the hands of the first one and said, You are a Mother of this Nation.

I knew from her tender wrists she must be young. I saw the protrusion of her belly and her shorn head. Her scalp was clotted with scabs, like she’d wrapped her hair around her fists and pulled with all her might.

I couldn’t look at her face.

We will take care of you, Mother, the Leader said, placing palms on her stomach. We will take care of this.

The Leader presented them all with saris, blood red, the colour for new brides. As we were leaving, I heard murmured voices.

She will burn that sari.


Because of what happened at the camps. The enemy took their saris so the women wouldn’t knot them up and [shame] themselves. At those words, my very bones trembled. The [War Heroines] must have been kept [in different clothes]. Had I known this? Had Suman in fact told me a long time ago, and I scrubbed the knowledge from my mind?

It was that same day the Leader ordered the mandatory [care] of all pregnant War Heroines. Only when they are looked after can we look towards the future, he said.

[Unfortunately] within two weeks, the unborn babies had all [perished].

The new government poured in funding to train the [War Heroines] so they could re-join the labour force, provided [financial incentives] to any man who married them. We want them to re-enter society, the Leader said, and the [War Heroines] cried [over his goodness] and [thanked] him whenever he visited.

The Leader also ordered the women’s families to come and claim them. I found out later that many retracted their family names from the [War Heroines] and [gave them freedom to carve out new life paths]. They didn’t want [to diminish the War Heroines’ fame].

During this time, as I trailed after the Leader on his visits to the [Rehabilitation Homes], I kept a lookout for the girl I dreamt of. Some fog had seized my mind, and I could no longer remember her name. But I knew her face, the dimples and pointed chin that accompanied me through gruelling tuition classes and wooden rulers on palms, that appeared to sneak me guavas through the fence. I looked in every centre, and later, when we were discharged, every town I passed.

What did I hope to see when I found her? A sign, a medal, or a wound visible to the eye? I realised I was no different to those droves who gathered outside the [Rehabilitation Homes], peering through windows as if it were a zoo, whispering:

They don’t look any different.

No, see there, that one’s face, and that one’s neck is covered in [gold].

How can we tell when they’re out among us on the streets though? It’s not right, I want to know who was in those camps, who was [talking].

I kept dreaming of that beloved face in those cells Suman described. Where had my friend disappeared? Where had they all disappeared? That first time we’d thought of them as ghosts, it was like we’d predicted the future, seen their true forms.

[Missing pages]

The statue in the middle of the square had a green tinge. Pigeons roosted on it, and it was always hot to the touch. This was the highest honour bestowed on the [War Heroines]. There was something [distinct] about the monument: the woman’s face was [shielded] by her own hands like she couldn’t bear the [bright of day].

It was here that I met [the War Heroine]. Every day, I saw her sleeping by the statue, wrapped in rags, dull coins scattered about her. When she was awake, I offered her some sips of water. She didn’t thank me but accepted. Another time, I brought her a thick woollen blanket. Another time, I took over hot paratha and we sat, breaking off pieces, chewing in silence.

Finally, one day, I asked for her story. She turned her head, looked at me without blinking: a clear gaze, bright as the moon.

She said yes when I asked her if she’d been at the war camps.

I wanted to know what her life was like after, if she married, if she worked. She nodded, but there was a gaping in her eyes, a slackness to her mouth, the kind I was used to seeing on the faces of fellow soldiers. I asked her where her husband was and why she was at the feet of this statue.

This is what she said:

[Illegible script]

[†] An Unnamed Soldier’s diary was recovered for the Great Independence Exhibition, which took place three decades after the First Independence War. Archive restoration and translations were sanctioned by the current Leader of Nayadesh, who famously pledged allegiance to Truth when first sworn in. These extracts were showcased at the Exhibition, where a monument to the War Heroines was also unveiled. Unfortunately, the monument, which paid tribute to the design of the original, has since been defaced and stolen. The Exhibition was generously funded by our international benefactors, still affectionately known as Friends. For details on renewed public interest in the War Heroines, see previous entry on the #justiceforourmothers movement.

DESPERATE LITERATURE is an international bookshop in the heart of Madrid, founded in 2014. They sell books in English, French and Spanish, working to build a literary community around and through these literatures. They (normally) run weekly events with authors from around the world, and in 2019 hosted Spain’s first English language poetry festival. They first launched the DESPERATE LITERATURE SHORT FICTION PRIZE in 2017.  The Prize is an international attempt to recognise writers of innovative and experimental short fiction, with the aim of providing opportunities to all those shortlisted through a publishing and events programme that partners with literary organisations across Europe.

The 2021 edition was judged by authors Otessa MOSHFEGH,
Deerek OWUSU, and Isabel WAIDNER
A pamphlet collating all shortlisted stories, published by Desperate Literature, can get got HERE as a PDF (and a print copy, ordered).

With thanks to Terry CRAVEN and the prize team, Layla BENITEZ-JAMES, Dom CZAPLA, Charlotte DELATTRE, Robert GREER, Kate McCULLY and Emily WESTMORELAND.

Isha KARKI is a PhD student and a graduate of Clarion West. Her short fiction was awarded the Dinesh Allirajah Prize, 2021, and won the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize and Mslexia Short Story Competition in 2020.


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Partner to a press called Tenement, Hotel is a publications series for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. 

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