And a soldier cried – Dr Indrakhi Mandal, New Delhi

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The night air was crystal clear without a hint of cloud or mist. High above, the stars shone, millions of them, like silver mukkaish on a fabric of black crepe-de-chine; but in that empty night there was no one to sing paeans to their beauty. Only the cold floated, omnipresent, unhindered, sucking heat off the earth and the air in silent greedy gulps. With even the autumn crickets silenced by this untimely cold, it was deathly still and deathly quiet.  A thin sliver of a moon hung neglected in one corner of the sky, its frail light doing nothing to dispel the dark. The cold seeped in through his boots and stung at his toes. The rucksack strap bored onto his back, carving cruel wheals over the skin of his scapula. His rifle, resting on the sill of a pane-less window of the hut, was ice cold to touch. He had been crouching in that funny position for close to an hour, one leg bent at the knee and one leg extended, his right hand on the trigger and the left supporting the muzzle of the weapon and now his cramped muscles were screaming for relief. But movement was anathema to the Marksman, for movement gave your position away to the enemy. And Kewal was the best marksman that 78 had, 78 Rashtriya Rifles that is, deployed in counter insurgency operations in the beautiful Kashmir valley. But Kewal urgently needed to relieve his muscles, to bathe them in fresh blood so that they could feed on the life-giving oxygen it carried within. So he slowly eased one leg from beneath him, carefully like he had been taught, moving nothing, disturbing nothing and interchanged the position of his legs. His muscles, now released from their excruciating bondage were flooded once more with blood; but because along with the oxygen, the blood brought other not so helpful chemicals, shiver upon shiver of painful pins and needles flowed in waves over his limbs. He now slowly clenched and unclenched each separate muscle group, just like he had been trained to do, so that over time the pins and needles eased and once more Kewal was in complete control of his limbs.

Absolute silence has this quality of absolutely deafening you and so to clear his ears, Kewal forced them to deliberately listen. As he strained them, he heard the soft whispered breathing of his squad mates. They were all around him, waiting for the signal to spring; but the star of today’s ambush was Kewal and only Kewal. His squad depended entirely on their marksman to take down the main enemy before the rest of the company pounced. Kewal was acutely aware of this, he knew that today everything rested upon him, perhaps the very success of this operation. He felt immensely proud and this pride boosted his 23 year old brain and body to the peak of its prowess. And thus he waited, with the patience of a seasoned predator, for his prey to emerge onto his field of vision…..

A light, probably from a match glowed for a split second within the thatch topped barn about 800 feet from their perch and then was rapidly extinguished. It was so momentary that someone else would have surely missed it. But not the Squad. Nothing escaped their eyes. They were the perfect predators, the best that the Indian Army had. And that is why they were today with the Rashtriya Rifles in the heart of this disturbed paradise, tasked to eliminate Javaid Ahmad Lone. Javaid Ahmad Lone, that notorious LeT terrorist, that thorn in the flesh of the Indian government, that grit in the eyes of the Indian Army….! Not much was known about him except for the fact that he was a home grown terrorist, hailing from the Valley itself, son of a reasonably prosperous apple grower from a village in the almond tree encrusted region of Panzgom. His rise to infamy had been short, hardly a year and within this brief time he had succeeded in striking terror in the hearts of the police, the CRPF and the government officials who had the misfortune of crossing paths with him. Not only was he brutal, without mercy, he was also extremely intelligent. And that combination of ruthlessness and intelligence made him a deadly enemy. He had begun by targeting the weaker links like the local government machinery, the district, block and village functionaries, the police and occasionally the paramilitary forces, taking hostages for huge sums of cash as ransom and eliminating them in cold blood in case his demands were not met. But as it turned out, they had been merely prey for his practice; his actual target had all along been the Indian Army and the Indian Army alone. As he perfected his strategy and its execution preying on the small fry, he grew bolder, beginning his first forays against the Army. At first, he attacked only pickets and smaller camps but with each successive victory he grew more confident, his attacks becoming increasingly daring. Then came his biggest achievement, the murder of the Commanding Officer of an infantry battalion, a man he gunned down in cold blood after drawing the unsuspecting , unarmed officer out of cover on the pretext of a possible surrender. It had made him an instant celebrity, that hit and he was now a demi-god amongst his followers.

But it had also drawn the Army out of its defensive posturing. They had lost one of their best men, a man their press release described as the finest of officers, the perfect gentleman and a loving son, husband and father. The attack was condemned in the strongest possible words by the highest offices of the army. It was described as being perpetrated by a coward and a dastard, against all rules of engagement, this murderous attack from behind the back on an unarmed man….! But however much they ranted against it, the army was no fool for it knew that terrorism was a dirty war that followed no convention, had never been fair, no never…And that is why it was terrorism and not some text book war under the lofty Geneva Conventions….. ! Colonel Parikshit Mishra, not yet forty, the CO Saab beloved by the men he commanded, that young man with laughter in his voice and fire in his gut was dead and gone, his ashes scattered over the Ganga by his frail inconsolable father….and no amount of rhetoric and righteous indignation could change that. Within highest offices of the Army in the Valley, it was declared a slap in their faces, this murder and unanimous decision taken to avenge it and fast.

And that is how Kewal and his Squad were out here today in the cold, waiting for the enemy to show itself. Intel had been received that Lone was camping here tonight with his cronies, recuperating before they moved for their next attack. The Squad’s instruction had been crystal clear: Take him down!

A faint, very faint movement in the barn occurred again, stirring the air around. Looking through the night vision goggles strapped to his head, Kewal could now make out the green silhouettes of at least two men through the barn window. They were dressed in the shapeless Kashmiri ferhans, the outline of automatic weapons strapped to their backs clearly visible. One of them stretched, stood up and walked out to the open. He withdrew something from the baggy pockets of his ferhan and then lit a match. The glow of the match flashed like a solar flare, blinding Kewal momentarily as he watched through the night vision goggles. The flare died down almost instantly but the green glow of a lighted cigarette point persisted.  “Dumb!” Kewal smiled to himself, “How dumb!” He had never thought it would be this easy. Calmly Kewal now took slow, deliberate aim, going for the head. The shadowy target continued to smoke, oblivious, unconcerned. As Kewal pressed the trigger, there was a muffled ‘thuk’ when his Dragunov SVD recoiled gently against his collar bone and a single sharp crack as the rifle released its lethal 7.62 round. As Kewal watched with bated breath, he saw the shadow recoil as the 7.62 entered his skull and then crumble to the ground in a slow pirouette of death. He thought he heard the gurgle of life exiting the body but then at this distance he wasn’t very sure. There was a slight commotion as the second man realising something was amiss came rushing out. Kewal, deathly calm, took aim again. There was a rerun of the ‘thuk’ and the ‘crack’ and whirling dervish like dance before this man too fell to the ground. But he had managed a last loud cry of warning and soon the entire area erupted as the enemy and the soldiers clashed in battle. But they had lost the game the moment Lone and his so called second in command had fallen prey to Kewal’s 7.62s. It did not take long for the soldiers of 78 to gain control of the terrorists. Within about quarter of an hour, nine lay dead, including the two Kewal had felled and about a dozen rounded up as captives. With no loss of lives on their side and only two minor bullet wounds, it was a thumping success for the Army.

II

So Lone was dead. And now Kewal the hero of the day was on everyone’s radar including his Commanding Officer who delirious with joy had actually physically hugged him. Embarrassed and surprised at this public display of affection from his normally taciturn CO Saab, Kewal had been at a loss for words. And so he had responded in the only way he knew, with a sharp crisp salute. Colonel BS Brar, tall hefty unemotional fourth generation Sikh infantryman a little bowled over by his boy’s salute had then engulfed Kewal in another bear hug.

It was not only his officers but his unit mates too that had been treating Kewal like royalty.He was the paltan’s shaan, its glory. They had even hosted an impromptu barakhana (unit feast) in his honour. Everyone it seemed wanted to meet him, Kewal, the vanquisher of Lone. From garrulous television journalists to seedy pot bellied politicians, everybody wanted to shake his hand, to stand next to him, hug him, bask in his reflected glory…..

Kewal on his part did not feel at all different. He had just done his job and he was mighty glad that his aim had been steadfast and true, that he had not missed. Not that he lacked confidence in his own skills but then he was very glad that everything had gone exactly the way it had been planned. He now suddenly felt a twinge of curiosity about the slain terrorist, a little unusual for him for he was a stoic, rather unemotional man. Since someone had said that the body was lying in the police hearse van parked just next to his unit, he walked over and peered into the vehicle. But it was empty. Lal Singh the company havaldar seeing him peeping thus yelled,

“Array Kewal, body udhar shed mein para hua hai.”

So Kewal walked onto the vehicle parking shed. A few of his unit mates along with a number of photo journalists and policemen were crowding around the bodies lying on the shed’s concrete floor. Kewal leaned over the heads of the crowd and spotted the body just as someone turned it over with his foot. He saw a young face, with thin dark beard framing it. Except for the trickle of dried blood from the bullet hole over the right temple, there was no other sign of any injury. It had been a clean kill. The man’s eyes still open in death revealed corneas that had turned opaque after life had exited the body, giving him an unearthly look. Kewal gazed at the face for a long long time, his heart hammering inside his chest like the dhol beats from the paltan Mandir………….

III

He sat under the gnarled almond tree that grew on a little ridge overlooking the valley. He was not on duty today but had been unable to sleep; so he had come down here, to this favourite spot of his under that almond tree in the futile hope that it would somehow clear his mind. This was also the place his buddies usually sneaked in to grab a smoke, away from the ever alert eyes of their Doctor Saab. Even today, cigarette stubs lay strewn all around, the white butts shining in the moonlight. But Kewal did not smoke, never had. In fact it repulsed him, that acrid smell of cigarette smoke. He sat quietly, on his haunches like he used to sit as a young boy in his village, his arms hugging his knees and chewed slowly on a stalk of reedy grass.

He was the hero today. The whole country it seemed, knew his name, him- Rifleman Kewal Ram of the 78th Rashtriya Rifles of the Indian Army, the man whose bullet had felled the apparently invincible Javiad Ahmed Lone, that most wanted LeT terrorist with the price of a crore of rupees on his head! In a world with a serious scarcity of real life heroes, Kewal fit the bill perfectly and the cyber world seemed to have gone berserk, extolling, lauding, even worshipping him….! Someone had set up a FaceBook page in his name and this page had received so many hits that it had crashed and had to be reset. Not limited only to the social media, his unit and he in particular were on every television news channel, every magazine cover and every newspaper front page in the country, being applauded by the entire nation….!

But Kewal was not happy. He had a headache, a deep nauseating pain that throbbed inside his skull, burned his eyes and chased away sleep. Disquieting thoughts whirled inside his head making him want to puke. He was a simple man, just an ordinary soldier. He was trained to obey orders, not to think so much. His simple uncomplicated brain found it difficult to deal with these unwanted, convoluted, whirling thoughts. It made him feel physically ill and Kewal did not like the feeling. He had never been sick, had in fact never reported on ‘Sick Parade’ to the dispensary…. and so this sensation was new and unnerving for him. As a wave of very real nausea flooded his chest making him actually retch, Kewal realised that things were going out of his hands; and at that moment the only man he could think of to whom he could turn for succour was the Doctor Saab. Having taken the decision after a few moments of intense deliberation with his own self, Kewal left his perch and walked with heavy steps towards the Dispensary.

Prasanth, Captain Prasanth KV MBBS, alumni of one of the best medical colleges in the country did not have exactly medicine on his mind at that moment as he lay on his sagging charpoy and dreamt of the new wife he had recently left behind. She was, like him, a captain in the same medical service but was currently stationed in some mist covered village far away at the other end of the country, beyond the mighty Bramhaputra.  Of course there was always the world wide web to lessen your pangs of separation with video calling and what not but it was not the same as being together physically. So he did the next best thing and simply thought about her,  imagining what it would be to have her with him just at this moment, in this asbestos roofed, cardboard walled home of his…… !

“Saab, Jai Hind!” AK Singh’s urgent voice interrupted his musings. AK Singh was his medical assistant. That was the technical job description. In reality, for Prasanth, AK was much more than just that; he was his compounder, dresser, planner, adviser, confidante and a friend (though of course you did not say so in public as fraternising too much with the ranks was not the norm…..!) But AK, older to Prasanth both in age and service by a good many years, was more experienced in the ways of the uniformed force especially life in operational areas such as this and had taken the young Prasanth under his wings. He was intelligent, sensible and professionally competent; a rare combination and together AK and he made a good team, a team whom the officers and soldiers of 78 respected and completely relied upon.

He looked askance at AK, now peering over the doorway at him.

“Kya hua, AK?”

“Saab, patient hai!”

“Serious?”

“Nahin. But I think you should have a look, Sir…”

Prasanth did not dawdle. If AK Singh insisted he take a look at a patient, it was definitely something that needed his attention. He pulled his windcheater on buttoning himself against the cold outside and walked to the consulting room of his tiny clinic.

A soldier waiting for him stood to attention as he entered.

“Jai Hind, Saab!”

“Arrey Kewal!” exclaimed Prasanth recognising him.

“Kya ho gaya?”

The boy looked apologetic.

“Saab, sar mein dard hai.”

A sudden onset headache was a symptom that no doctor took lightly as it could be the portent for something really serious; so Prasanth asked Kewal to lie down on the patient couch as he simultaneously elicited history and examined the young man thoroughly. But to the best of his knowledge nothing seemed to be visibly wrong with the soldier. So Prasanth wrote out a simple prescription for a painkiller and asked the boy to return back in the morning. Kewal took the prescription and was just leaving the clinic when his exit was blocked by AK Singh.

“Sir, will you talk to him once?” he requested his words simple but his eyes full of grave           emotion.

Prasanth understood at once. Often the illness is not of the body but of the spirit and a walk and a talk with a empathetic doctor is all that is needed to heal, the voice of his madcap psychiatry professor from college echoing in his head.

“Kewal, come walk with me.” he said and smiled at the slightly bewildered soldier.

But an order was an order.

‘Saab!” said Kewal in acquiescence as the two of them left the warmth of the clinic into the biting cold of the autumn night.

“Dawai kha liya Kewal? Did you take the tablet I gave you?” Prasanth asked.

“Yes Saab.” the boy replied. “Kha liya.”

“Good,” said Prasanth. “the headache will go away soon.”

The wind flew in a sudden gust and bits of dried leaves whirled against their faces.

“Soye nahin Kewal?” Prasanth enquired

“Nahin Saab. Neend aa nahin rahi hai!”

They were now on that same ridge with the old almond tree. Settling down on a smooth stone under it, Prasanth gestured to the soldier,

“Come sit. The fresh air will do you good.”

As the soldier complied, Prasanth noted how he sat not on the seat of his pants but on his haunches, hugging his knees to his chest. It reminded Prasanth of the way rustic villagers were wont to sit… He wondered why the boy had adopted this posture, this apparent return to his past in some village in India’s dim hinterland… Was it some kind of defensive reflex he wondered…….?

He looked straight at Kewal.

“You can tell me what’s wrong, Son!”

Though they were not very different in age, Prasanth being hardly four or five years older than Kewal, these words said in his quiet, reassuring, best ‘Doctor Saab’ voice did not sound at all contrived.

Kewal did not reply immediately. From whatever he could make out of his expression in the darkness of that moonless night, it appeared to Prasanth that the boy was undergoing some intense turmoil with his own self.

After a gap that seemed like eternity, he spoke at last.

“Saab, do you remember the cricket match?”

Though he had not mentioned specifically which cricket match, Prasanth knew what he was talking about. The cricket match, in fact the last village match that the unit had played before they shifted location. He remembered it well. But Kewal was now talking and so stopping the flow of his own thoughts, Prasanth listened.

“Saab, I was the only fauji on the village team. One of the civilian boys had sprained his ankle and since they did not have any spare players, SM Saab (Subedaar Major) asked me to shift to their team.”

He had not liked it initially; Kewal thought aloud but had no choice. Once the SM had issued the order, he had no option but to obey. And so he had perforce shifted to the villagers’ team. But it was not so bad, in fact not bad at all, as he realised over the course of the match. He was easily the best player in that raggedy village team and the entire team, all of them young school and college going boys (except for the wicket keeper who was the very fat and very forty village bania) soon began treating him like their star player. He had fun that day; and though of course they lost and lost pretty badly, he had enjoyed himself thoroughly.

As Kewal spoke, Prasanth’s thoughts went back to those days nearly fifteen months back. Operation Milaap, the army’s goodwill mission in the valley was in full swing. Funds were flowing in from the government with specific orders for the army to undertake projects and gestures of goodwill for the awam, the common man of the Valley. A job that actually was supposed to be done by the local administration was loaded upon the shoulders of the Indian Army. But for the army a task was a task and like everything they did, they put their whole heart and soul into this too. Suddenly guns and bullets were being substituted by cricket bats and blackboards. Makeshift schools were being constructed, tuition classes organised, cricket matches scheduled, dispensaries and makeshift hospitals set up by army doctors, right there in the villages…!

Prasanth remembered well the changed atmosphere. There was a closeness with the people, at least on the surface and a sense of camaraderie with the awam that he had never experienced before. Being only a doctor, he was unaware how this impacted the anti-insurgency operations or whether this itself was an anti-insurgency strategy; but he felt as all the others did, how it was so much easier being friends than being enemies. Of course, there were the initial murmurs of dissent from within the battalions but it was a disciplined army and these soon got quelled; less by command and more by the sheer fun that they all were having.

Kewal continued to speak.

“Saab, you remember I was injured that day? Me and that boy while fielding…?”

Prasanth nodded for he remembered it well. He smiled as he recalled the incident. Kewal too was smiling now. It had been really funny the way these two had sustained their injury. They had been stationed at different fielding positions and as one particularly high ball came flying in a smooth wide arc, ripe for a ‘catch’, both Kewal and that boy began running, eyes heavenwards on the sailing ball. Because they had both been following the same moving object and that too from directly opposite ends, it was inevitable that they would collide at some point. Sure enough, within the next few seconds there was a loud thump as the two smashed into each other, head on. And what was worse was they both missed the catch. As a great cry of disappointment went up from the gathered village supporter, both boys fell to the ground, clutching at their foreheads. The point of impact had been both their foreheads and since both were well built young men running at a pretty high speeds, the momentum of the impact had been quite severe, rendering them slightly dazed from the collision. Prasanth had rushed to the site but of course the injury was really not serious, except for two very visible purple lumps forming on both the boys’ foreheads and two mildly sprained egos.

And then Burman, the barber of 78 who occasionally doubled up as a paramedic and Prasanth’s assistant in AK’s absence, while applying ice to both the scalps advised the boys in his broken Hindi tinged heavily with a Bengali accent (he hailed from the rural heartlands of North Bengal),

“Doobara maatha maaro Bhai log, nahin toh seeng nikal jayega ….”

Even so many months later, Prasanth could feel laughter bubbling inside him as he recollected the very serious Burman dispensing his own special brand of medical advice. When the Kashmiri boy unable to understand Burman’s heavily accented Hindi enquired of Kewal what he had meant, Kewal had explained the ‘horn-germinating-on-forehead’ theory, giggling in spite of his pain. The boy had laughed too and actually doubled up with mirth in spite of the pain from the lump on is head; much to the chagrin of Burman. And when that chatterbox of a unit Panditji who was manning the microphone announced this ‘seeng’ episode publicly, it became common knowledge and the joke of the month. When prizes were announced at the end of the match, the Kashmiri boy and Kewal were awarded prizes for the ‘best fielding’ category, more out of compassion for their injury than their skills on the playground. As they went up to the podium to receive their prizes, the Commander who had come from far away Srinager to witness the match asked them both,

“Ummeed karte hain seeng nikla nahin abhi tak?”

Kewal standing to attention, ramrod straight before these very senior officers had not been very sure whether the remark was in jest and whether he was permitted to laugh. But a furtive inspection of the Commander’s face had revealed the man’s eyes twinkling merrily behind his glasses and emboldened, Kewal had permitted himself a brief smile. The Kashmiri boy on the other hand, having no such qualms and not being bound by military protocols was giggling away in abandon even as the Commander shook his hand and patted him encouragingly on the back.

It was strange but that injury sustained in unison and the prevailing joke about the germinating horns drew the Kashmiri boy towards Kewal. Because of Operation Milap, a Computer Centre was being run by 78 and many young boys from the local village had enrolled in it. The injured boy was one of them but it seemed that more than learning computing, the class was an excuse for him to search out Kewal and gossip with him. In the prevailing environment of Milaap, he was generally allowed free access in the unit and often they were found, Kewal and the boy sitting under an apple tree and talking nineteen to dozen.

Over their many gossip sessions, Kewal found out that the boy’s name was Vicky. Quite impressed by this smart sounding ‘foreign’ish name Kewal found himself wishing that he too had a smart modern name like ‘Vicky’ instead of the outdated ‘Kewal’. Vicky’s dad was quite rich, being the owner of a number of fruit orchards both in this village and in the neighbouring Traal. He had a little sister and three older brothers all of whom were studying in a college in Srinagar.

“Why don’t you go to college like them?” Kewal had enquired of Vicky

Vicky was dismissive.

“Itna padai karke kya hoga, Bai. I don’t want to become a professor!”

Vicky addressed Kewal as Bhai, pronouncing it ‘Bai’ in his Kashmiri accented Hindi. Since for Kewal Bai meant a woman, he had tried to correct it; but Vicky’s tongue like that of the dog’s curved tail, was completely un-amenable to change. So Kewal let him be, cringing each time Vicky yelled out to him from behind the concertina wires that ringed the unit’s perimeter, “Bai, Bai, Kewal Bai…….!”

“So what do you want to do for a living?” Kewal had asked him.

Vicky’s eyes shone.

“Business!”

“What business?”

And that set off the young fellow.

“Cars!” he had whispered in the tone of a conspirator.

“Cars??”

“And bikes. You know those big black motor cycles and those tiny red and yellow cars that race like the wind. I’m going to open a shop for them in Srinager.”

But Kewal was always the realist.

“Who will buy race bikes and race cars in Kashmir? In paharon mein who will ride race bikes Vicky???”

The fire died for a moment in Vicky’s eyes. But not for long.

“What about a mobile handset shop?” He had queried

Kewal wanted to tell him that it was a rather steep fall from race cars to mobile handsets, but he kept it to himself.

“Why don’t you join the army Vicky?”

Vicky clucked in negation.

“Nahin Bai, fauj nahin.”

“Why not?”

“Dad will never let me go far away from him, leave home…” he waved to the vista around, “leave this Valley…..”

Then he asked,

“Tell me Bai, do get your own gun when you join fauj?”

Kewal laughed at the boy’s naive question.

“No you don’t get to own a gun . But they teach you fire all kinds of guns, you know.”

“What kinds?” he asked with the natural curiosity of boyhood.

And so Kewal told him about the guns, the big ones and the small ones, about the days and months and years of training required to learn to operate them, about the vast matter in theory that one had to learn before they actually let you operate a gun…Vicky listened, thrilled, gulping each wondrous fact like it were manna from heaven. But Kewal did not like to talk much about guns. He considered them a purely professional subject, not one you discussed with curious wide eyed boys….He soon steered their conversation away from the guns, much to Vicky’s intense disappointment.

And so this unlikely friendship continued to flower with Vicky following Kewal around like a little puppy, always looking for gaps in Kewal’s training routine when he could come and gossip with him. He had recently been gifted a smart phone by his doting Dad and the first person with whom he shared the handset and its secrets was Kewal. He took the soldier to one corner and showed him a photo stored in the phone. It was that of a young Kashmiri girl demurely covered in the hijab and very pretty. Kewal was little taken aback.

“Kaun hai? Your sister?”

No, Vicky announced triumphantly, “my girlfriend!”

Now Kewal was impressed.

“Girlfriend? Kya baat hai, Vicky. To kab shaadi kar rahe ho?”

But Vicky sounded morose now. It seemed that the father of the girl had refused their family’s offer of marriage.

“Why?” Kewal was intrigued

“I don’t have a job Bai. And she is a graduate.” He replied glumly.

“Dont worry, Vicky. Sab theek ho jayega.” He tried to reassure the unhappy boy.

And added, “Join the army. It’s the best job in the market.”

Vicky looked at him, question in his eyes,

“Bai, why do you like this fauj ki naukri so much?”

He waved at the tin huts that served as the men’s barracks.

“This living in jhopdis, away from your father, your mother, your home……! And then all this gola baarood……”

Because the fauj is the only home I have, Vicky. It’s my father, my mother, my brother and my village….thought Kewal. But only to himself. He knew he could not explain to this boy what this ‘fauj’ had given him, the untouchable dalit from the heartlands of Rajasthan. He remembered his mother being dragged through the village by upper caste men because she had dared to steal water from their upper caste well…..He remembered his sister being slapped by the teacher in that village school because she had not revealed her low caste when she had offered her water to drink. They had lived all their lives at the fringes of the village, outcastes, untouchables…… And then one day when the entire basti was burned down by that upper caste mob over some altercation over water, his entire family had perished in the flames, his mother, his father and his two baby sisters. He had escaped because he was not at home but in the fields, as usual dreaming under the kikar tree. It was the local district collector, a feisty young man who had come to the village in the aftermath of the incident who advised him to join the army as he had nowhere else to go. So he stayed for a few months in the collector’s residence along with the other staff as he practised running so that he could pass the physical tests of the recruitment process. But he needn’t have worried or even practised. He was a natural soldier. He ran like the wind, had an aim like Arjun and took orders well. And soon recruited, he joined the famed Rajputana Rifles and was stationed at the huge Amrolpur Cantt on his first stint with his mother unit. It was here that Kewal realised that in this organisation they called the ‘fauj’ no one gave two hoots about the colour of your skin, the Gods to whom you prayed or the caste to which you belonged. The only things that mattered were that you tried to do your job well and that you obeyed orders without posing too many questions. And Kewal was good at all of these. He ran fast, played all games and played them well, was an excellent shot, happily obeyed orders and of course never asked too many questions. He thus blended well with the unit and this organisation. With no family to call his own, the army became his father and his mother, his home and his refuge…. He owed this organisation everything….

But of course being a man of few words, he did not say any of these things to Vicky.

All he said was,

“Bohut achha hai fauj, Vicky. It’s a great job.”

And so their jaunts under the apple tree continued for the next month and Kewal even grew fond of this irreverent boy with his head full of wild and wonderful ideas, completely impractical but somehow fun nevertheless. He realised how Vicky was easily swayed by ideas, easily influenced by what people said especially if they said it forcefully and with conviction… Yet the boy was extremely intelligent and except for this one flaw, Kewal enjoyed his company. It was refreshingly different from the mundane routine of his soldier life and the same old langar gossip. Often they would be found at mealtimes, that being the usual time when Kewal was free, under the old apple tree, their laughter echoing loud and clear…..!

Then Kewal was selected for a special arms training course at Delhi. The course was long and gruelling, lasting for nearly four months and when Kewal finally returned, the Valley had changed colour. The unit was no longer in Vicky’s village, having shifted to another location nearly a hundred kilometres away. And there was no more Operation Milaap, no cricket matches, no computer tuitions… nothing. It was back to guns and bullets….back to business once more. And because unlike most young soldiers,he did not own a cell-phone  having no family to talk to, he lost touch completely with his Kashmiri friend, Vicky.

Kewal stopped for breath. He gazed at the valley stretching away before him, a little blurry now with the late night mist.

He then looked directly at Prasanth.

“Doctor Saab, I shot Lone yesterday!”

Prasanth smiled at him.

“Of course I know that, Kewal. You are the hero, paltan ki shaan!”

“I saw his body, Saab,” Kewal went on as if he had not heard Prasanth’s words. “It was Vicky !!!”

It took a few seconds for the full import of Kewal’s words to sink inside for Prasanth. And then he was horrified, aghast and sickened, all simultaneously as the realisation of what Kewal had said percolated into the cells of his consciousness.

He repeated after Kewal like a zombie, “Vicky was Lone…..!”

Kewal was now watching his face intently. Gazing back at that young, innocent face, Prasanth felt immense pity fill his heart. And as this pity coloured his eyes, he saw Kewal look away……

It was then that he understood. Kewal did not want his pity. Heck, he did not need his pity. That was absolutely the wrong emotion that he had projected. Pity for what?  For unknowingly killing a friend? But Kewal was a soldier. He would have done it even if he had known; for Lone had been the Enemy…..

Realization continued to flood Prasanth. Kewal had not wanted his pity. Kewal had just needed someone to understand this pain that he felt, this indescribable pain of being that man who had taken the life of a friend. And no, he did not feel sorrow or grief but pain, pain as tangible as any physical wound.

He could not articulate this pain to the soldiers of his paltan or to his officers. They like him, were made of iron and steel, of fire and brimstone ; they would not understand. In fact it would only bewilder and perplex them, confuse their uncomplicated minds…They were only soldiers, just like him, trained to think in terms of black and white, of Enemy and Friend. There was no gray in the colour palette of their world….! How could he look them in the face and say, “That man I took down, that terrorist who had killed so many innocents, had murdered the CO Mishra Saab, that terrorist was my friend……!  And today as I think of this friend whose life I took, I feel pain….!” No he could never do that.

He was Rifleman Kewal Ram, Shaan of the 78 th ….. He had just eliminated the most important target of his battalion, a target they had spent sleepless nights on, strategising his elimination. No he could never let anyone know, never ever! This pain was only his to endure, to fester within his soul till the day he himself was no more…

Yet there was one man whom he could vent this pain to, the only man in Kewal’s small little world who he felt would understand. And so he had turned to Prasanth, his Doctor Saab.

Prasanth now understood. He himself was not a soldier, never could be, never wanted to be, though he wore the soldier’s stars on his shoulders. He would always be the Doctor Saab, of flesh and blood, a live circuitry of complex emotions, blessed because of his profession with a deep understanding of human emotions and human failings…; something surprisingly Kewal, the simple soldier boy understood. And that is why he had sought him out, not to seek pity or absolution; but only for him to understand this hurt he felt. That is all he had asked from him, this soldier, only empathy and perhaps a vent for his pain.

The mist had cleared as the night progressed and the stars once more shone bright and sharp. Prasanth felt as if he had aged a million years in that brief interlude. He looked towards Kewal. With his back to Prasanth, the soldier sat very straight, cross-legged, gazing into the valley below. Prasanth knew that Kewal had felt his Doctor Saab’s empathy. Now spent, the young man’s wide muscular shoulders were convulsing in wordless, soundless, tears. Prasanth exhaled a deep gulp of air, placed an arm around Kewal and let the soldier cry.

 

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