|Courtesy : Marta Moran Bishop- Authro and Poet|
The Sun was bright, but its bright, white light, under which the rugged Earth shone, like youth in its prime, carried no warmth of love. The chill which seeped through the spine, overpowered the mild struggle, almost half heartedly put up by the splendid rays, landing on the arrogantly and audaciously rising mountain.
Lance Naik Narender Singh looked out of the window of his barrack. The view was lovely, with only two things obstructing a complete surrender of human mind to the surreal beauty outside-Fierce, unnerving cold and the constant fear. The mountain spread before the eyes, like an enormous giant, with arms spread wide, the blues of the far, merging into to greens spread below them. He had tried to explain what he viewed outside his window, many times earlier to Titali, his wife, in the village back home. She had never been beyond the dusty lanes of the small village, in the hinterlands of the country, about two hundred kilometers from the capital. She would hear him describe those bald mountains, in awe, with her large eyes, listening, with the intensity of a voracious reader trying to drink all the experience put in inadequate words. She would hear his narrative in silence, with the edge of her Saree held between her teeth, hiding almost half her beautiful face. He felt at times, she did not believed any word he said, but merely loved to hear him speak. This was a very different world here. He was a citizen of two different worlds, both separated so much from one another, that only men, who had their lives divided between the two worlds, acted as sole bridges connecting the two worlds. When he was back at home during the strictly rationed times, he was taken aback by the cynicism which flew with the dusty winds in those lanes back home.
He loved those days back home in spite of the overall sense of despair among the people, fed with frequent dosage of news about corruption at the highest levels, running into such large numbers that his limited education found difficult to comprehend or even fathom. He was a man there, with a history, and family. Here he was a number in the battalion. He and all his colleagues, soldiers of the last frontier in the north of the country, were brothers, with no history, no roots. Nostalgia has a certain beauty inherent within it, as we view the past, having moved farther than it, it looks calm, beautiful and even inviting, irrespective of the ugliness we ourselves had been witness to, when those epochs of life passed us by. Narender too remembered the past which had the innocent and playful baths in the tube wells in the farms, the counting of trains, sitting by the railway lines counting the trains and the annual village fest of color and jubilation and magic, with a lot of fondness. But that past carried the scars which went too deep into his conscience to escape acknowledgement. The poverty, plain food or mere hint of what passed by that term; the wily money lender who somehow got most of the land in the villages, rendering rest of the villagers to being landless laborers. The lecherous son of the old village land lord or zamindar, who had around the time of abolition of privy purse, wiping off all special rights of the royal gentry, swiftly moved into a different role with change of garb from royal frills to khadi, thereby continuing the brutal and singular control over all the village resources completed the script and screenplay of a typical village. Narender, on his part took the lessons on civil science in the school and political sciences in the district college around twenty kilometers a bit too seriously when he reported illegal stone mining being carried out by the landlord politician, still reverently addressed as Raja Sahib or the king by the servile poor of the village to the local police, threatening the river flow close to the village. As the police brought his soaring idealism to a crashing drop on the stony perch of cynical realism, as the group of village louts bayed for his blood. Titali, his young wife, whose absolute love for him bordered on deep sense of respect and adulation, in part because of the thick college books which she found her husband reading and in part on account of his unyielding commitment to the right and the just. The world moved fast those days, and his letter of selection to Indian Army reached around those days, as a kind of divine answer to silent prayers of his worried, troubled father. Unknown to him, his father had gone and met Raja Sahib assuring him that Narender was to be sent away to join the army and the mild village revolt was to fly away in no time, thus securing safety for his Son. The farewell was rushed, and Titali, watched her love of life disappear in the dusty horizon as his tall frame walked off without a glance backwards, with a tin box in black in one hand and a bed roll in the other. The unbearable pain gave way to a sudden sense of pride of being wife of the worthy son of the country, as tears rolled through the corner of her Saree held in her lips, silencing a struggling wail. She watched helplessly with mixed emotions which left her in total emotional disarray, as various feelings floated like clouds on the sky.
He was sent away, and in spite of the initial annoyance at being sent off in the middle of a righteous struggle, he soon came to enjoy it. The discipline sought was strict with no room for exception, but it was a truly different world in which he found admission. It was a world very difficult to define for those who have not seen it. It was not a class-less society, the classes were there, prominent and well defined. There were officers who lived on the other side of the road from their billets, with those stretches of beautiful residences and those lovely manicured gardens, in a different world. Those in those heavenly homes were to be obeyed with obedience, complete and reverential, by those on his side of road. It was like back in the village, but the similarity ended right there. The obedience here, unlike back in the village was not servile, it derived its legitimacy not from some divine ordinance, but from a necessity which determined their existence. Those who commanded where not ordained to be rulers by birth or divine ordnance; they were bound by the discipline no less strict than that of those they commanded. They were not borne into commanding; they had earned it and were governed by the rules of discipline and honor which were as stringent as they were for them. There was an order in life which they had never seen before in life, and all that was asked of them stood the test of pure logic and very soon posted to the border duty, he was to learn, that those rules were the thin threads on which there were to depend on for their dear lives.
He had his worries, having heard the stories of melting toes in unbearable, never-ending winters, days dawning without any hope of sun. When he went home, the worry was there, peeping through outwardly brave posturing of everyone.
His father avoided looking into his eyes, as he offered unsolicited solace, stating it was just a job as any other, and soldiers on front do not always end up dead in tricolor, and when on rare occasions they do, it is a matter of honor, not of sorrow.
The Titali's deep, dark eyes were floating lamps in a tranquil pond, full with tears. She served him food on the roof, and then sat there looking at his broad shoulders, strong arms, defined well after a tough round of training. He was no longer a common villager that she had married to; there was a certain refinement in his being, which made him an almost gentleman, or what she imagined a gentleman to be in her mind, with clear idea of right and wrong. She was not much educated but knew with clear sense that what constituted a gentleman was the least amount grey patches of thought, a gentleman always stood in bright sun, with the world around him clearly split into the patches of black and white. His decisions were definite, without self-doubt, his evaluations were vivid and clear, just like her husband's.
She looked at him having his food, as a lump rose through her neck.
As if on a cue, Narender looked up, paused and almost like reading her thoughts, said
"I am not going for ever. It is not a barbaric world to which I go. It is much more civilized than the thoughtless indignity that we see here in village, even on the other side of the border."
"If it is such, why everyone doesn't go to army. Why can't you farm here like others?"
She said and almost immediately regretted. There was no land to farm anymore; there was no other way, at least none for a life with dignity.
The conversation froze for a while like a mist suddenly fallen between the two of them. Narender ate in silence. Truth sometimes kills the conversation. They both soaked in the bright light of brutal truth on that dark night.
They lay watching the stars on the moonless night on the roof, as Narender described the uniformly structured life in the army, and promised to take Titali with him, to the new world, once back into peace posting after couple of years on the border.
She slept like a child on his arm, as he ran his fingers through her hairs and contemplated the life ahead of him.
The sudden and urgent knock, with a voice, crisp and quick, shouting 'breakfast' on the door broke his reverie. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, reached out to the table, painted dull, blue to grab his wallet. He opened the wallet and looked at the picture of Titali in side. He thought of her and smiled. The struggle of supremacy between the sun and the cold reached an ineffectual agreement, Sun was spread out bright, with no impact on the chill in the air. The day was up, and can no longer be wished away. He got up, stretched himself out, grabbed the thick white mug and porcelain plate and walked out.
He was easily able to locate Devesh in the mess, even in the sea of olives which spread before him. That was the visibly happiest table in the mess, with other soldiers listening with occasional cheers, his tales from the village back home. His story had no ends and moved swiftly between fact and fiction. He was not married and was able to ward off initial homesickness of a young lad, with a hand of friendship from Narender, when he met him as a solemn young man on the initial day of training.
As they trained along, they grew fonder of each other, writhing in pain after a grueling day in battle training and laughing in happy abandon after drink in the mess. After the training they landed in the field posting in the Uri sector of Kashmir, on the edge of the country and stood with their guns as days passed by.
"Oye Aashiq, aa jaa, bhai (Oh lover boy, come here)" shouted he, waving towards Narender.
The sincerity of Narender's love sneaked through his tough structure and controlled demeanor and was known to most men in his battalion.
Narender walked to Devesh, ran his fingers through back of his head and sat down, holding his white mug with hot tea, in both his palms.
The bugle played and as if suddenly charged, they got up and rushed out. The rush of soldiers came to halt in the ground, as they fell in line. The national anthem was played, and tricolor flapped on the pole, with pride. Those were the moments when individual in those soldiers leapt out to be a part of something bigger, something almost religious.
The prompt assembly ended with another bugle sound. They had half an hour to collect their rucksacks and go on the patrol. They were to walk from one post to other, watching through binoculars for anything alarming, on the other side of electric fence.
Though the shelling happened through the night and responded to, nothing was alarming. It was business as usual.
"Ninety one soldiers dead this year, was on news last night on the Radio" said Devesh, “guess that included Harbans, martyred last month and Ashraf who died with him."
“For those back home, it's just number without any names to it." Mumbled Narender, as if talking to himself.
It was heavy and too serious a thought for Devesh to contemplate.
They walked in silence for a while.
They halted and then looked through the binoculars to a known post on the other side, and waved.
The man on the other side stood still.
They knew each other, and shared a common fate. That of being a pawn to a plan which was beyond their comprehension. Theirs was not to think, theirs was to live to the best of their usefulness and kill to the best of their capability.
“He didn't wave back, seems upset" Devesh remarked.
"Maybe, didn't get leave to go back home." The loneliness, home-sickness, the constant paranoia did take its toll and men on either side of the divide knew that.
"Narender bhai, can I ask a question?"
Narender paused, took out his water bottle, had a sip, looked at Devesh and smiled indulgently. He knew, Devesh will ask anyways, he was not the kind to suffer the suspense, and he did.
"Doesn't you feel stupid sometime that while we stand guard here, our leaders throw chairs at one another. We save ten thousand rupees from twenty we get each month and they do scam with money we cannot even imagine. They won't even leave our earlier chief alone, because he fought against corruption. Are we standing guard to protect them?"
“Are we?" The question was returned with deftness of a badminton player.
“No, but then what are guarding?"
“It is something bigger than the government, the symbols, the land, and the people. It's a bit of all these, but it is bigger than all of them. "
Narender would always amuse him with his words, they were not words of a soldier, or a villager, but they would always comfort him.
Narender answered, but explanation he rendered fell short for his own comprehension. He looked at Devesh, who looked free of worrying questions for the moment.
He watched him with affection, and then his eyes fell on a metal thing on the earth right where Devesh was to step.
"Watch out" he shouted through his breath and pulled him back.
In such cold, sweat broke off the forehead of the younger soldier as he spoke in a whisper," it's a land mine"
"It wasn't there yesterday."
The sight of the man on the other side of fence came back to them, as Narender lifted the communication set to report back, other arm taut on the gun.
Something moved in the bush, and before he could speak on the Comm-set, six men with faces covered emerged. They were not untrained terrorist, they moved on Devesh in pattern, like trained hunter dogs, not like unruly pack of wolves. They were regulars from the other side.
They didn't fire, that would attract attention, attacked with sabres. Devesh buckled, blood oozing, as he caught hold of one of the attackers by neck. The kill was quick.
A knife cut through the flesh of the arm holding the gun and a sword cut through the left shoulder blade which held the comm-set.
Narender was not scared, he had contemplated this moment many times in his thoughts and woke up in sweat. But today, he felt calm, without fear, proud and little angry as he let the gun drop and with a last surge of strength pulled out the battle knife from the side of his belt and ran it through flesh of the one who gave him the cut on the arm holding the gun. The guy next to him panicked and the sword moved. H could see it coming to his face, but there was neither time nor strength to move. For a second he couldn't believe it, it was street fight. Then a thought came to him, Ninety two, ninety three...and then Titali's face floated before him and then there was no thought, no pain, no light, nothing.
He saw his body buckle down and land on the ground with a thud. He watched his own body, blood dripping down the arm, and then upwards, no head. He was dead, and there was nothing above the shoulders. He tried to cry, but there was no voice, he saw the six running off, one of them bleeding and pulled to the other side, and one, the large one in the front with beards with a heavy bag in his hand with blood dripping. He could make out what was in there; these animals, he wanted to vomit, if only he could.
There were sounds of boots running, coming closer. Must have caught something on the Comm-sets. Some firing began from the other side, to cover those running away to their territory and to slow those approaching. It continued from sides, rhythmic points and counter-points. His comrades arrived, for a larger nation back home, they might be ninety two, ninety three, for them, they were slain brothers.
They approached the bodies to pick them up, and then stood silent in horror. The firing ceased, they rescue team looked up to the other side, the man at the post on the other side, who did not wave, sat down.
Headless corpses were picked, and taken to the base. Eyes of fellow soldiers were with tears, most palms folded, tight with visible anger. The commanding officer came, looked at the bodies, slowly he ran fingers through the dress, the military insignia on the shoulder, where the body ended. Narender watched the moment of gloom, as he wanted to rush and embrace the father figure. And he thought of his father back home, who sent him to army to save his life.
Death followed him there. He escaped a brawl death and got a soldier's death. It was a death with honor. It was not for his love, his land, not even for his ideals, it was for those back home. He thought of kids going school, buses full of people, festivals, and the crowd out on the streets few days back to protest against the political corruption. Then he thought, why was he still around.
Titali did not cry when the soldier spoke to her, she was numb. She wanted to believe she had received it in error, she knew the truth lay in the crumpled paper. Narender saw his father raising both his arms towards the sky, there was no sound, as if a wail without a voice floated towards the Gods.
They sat in silence, joined in a shared grief, Titali inside the house, and her father in law on the broken cot outside in the courtyard. The soldier who brought the news, sat silent, with deep remorse, knowing full well that he could have been in the casket and a slight sense of guilt as to why he wasn't there. Slowly people gathered, and sat in silence. The news broke on the television; OB vans started reaching the small hamlet, like animals on a pry. Raja Sahib noticed this and came to offer condolence to his father. Last time he had come to the house, was with intent to kill him.
The minster, people said, announced in the television that the peace process will go on, and cricket match with the neighboring country will continue. He smiled between the announcements to this effect. He knew that a fortnight back citizen of the country poured on the streets, outraged at the gang rape and subsequent death of a girl, but he thought, there was not a possibility of a repeat of the same. He briefed his bosses. Everything was under control, there were no Christmas holidays for people to get outraged on the streets, no NGOs for the soldiers, who did not vote anyways, so business as usual would be the best policy and media can always be advised, strongly, to report with restraint.
But then the scene burst out, the news could not be contained, and anger was too large to be ignored. The PM announced that with beheading, it cannot be business as usual. Oblivious to all this, Narender sat in front of Titali, as she sat there, three days without word, without any thing that could constitute a sign of life. The minister, the same with unbroken smile, came and gave a cheque to Titali, which slipped through her fingers.
He did not feel hungry, tired, anything. The time for the last rites came; Titali was brought to his body. It was to be the last farewell. She asked for the tricolor in which the body was draped to be opened. Villagers and officials surrounding the body were alarmed. The death of martyr's wife will make bad headline. But Titali insisted. Worried officers approached Narender's father, who refused to intervene between husband and wife, and Narender, for the first time regretted having not been able to muster the courage to embrace his father after he grew up. He saw his father in his white dhoti was slightly bent with old age and grief, but at that moment he felt among all men there, he stood tallest. The tricolor was lifted and there was a space where his face earlier existed. His father glanced and then turned away abruptly nit having found the face with large eyes which he had since Narender was borne. Titali, walked slowly, looked at the hollow. But she stayed, unmoved, her palms moved slowly to where once head was, so full of wavy hairs. Then her fingers moved over the hollow, as if tracing the eyes, the nose. She remembered those calm eyes, which when looked into hers, would build a bridge between the two souls in love. She could still see that, no one can take away that head, those eyes through which love smiled. And then she smiled, fleetingly, before breaking down into tears with a loud wail, as she slid down to the ground. Up came her arms and with a sudden fury came down on earth, breaking all the glass bangles. She gave him his face back with a love which he had always known, as Narender walked backwards, and slowly as if made up of desert sand, started fading in the air.
This story was published on StoryStar.