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I was going to meet a few of my childhood friends over coffee and today I was the guest of honour. It had been a long time since we boys had met up and the coffee and the snacks were on them. The evening was going to be a promising one, meeting up with old buddies, coffee and a Bengali’s favourite pastime, Adda. It is essentially something which is very Bengali. It’s a habit he can’t do without. Every culture has its quirks, for us Bengalis Adda used to be sitting at road side stalls sipping hot tea and like all knowing humbugs discussing almost everything under the sun. But two topics were very close to a Bengali’s heart, politics and football. Everyone has “read up” Marx, Lenin, Hegel, Mao and even Stalin. But gone are those heady days, yes I agree in some circles it is still considered to be cool if one is a leftist intellectual and discuss the local football clubs but Adda is still Adda, it never did loose its sheen. Its position in a Bengali’s life can only be compared to fish curry and rice.
I took an Auto till Gariahat and walked till I reached the rendezvous point, a brand new coffee shop at Golpark. Yes, the tea stall has been replaced by the coffee shop and sweet milked tea for café latté. The new generation has moved out of the roadside tea stalls and into the snazzier premises of coffee shops with their printed menu cards and delectable edibles. Some of these places even double up as hookah bars- an added attraction.
I walked into the coffee shop and the air-conditioned pleasant environment immediately agreed with me. It was still sweltering outside and the fragrance laden cool air put me at ease. I took the day’s newspaper from the rack and chose for myself a big table in anticipation. As I was skimming through the day’s main headlines, a footnote caught my eye. It spoke briefly about an encounter between the army and terrorists in the valley. No unit name or terrorist outfit were mentioned. A line was dedicated to a young Lieutenant who had lost his life. My mind immediately raced back many years, nine to be exact.
Those days I was an aspiring reporter, well not exactly, I used to work as a reporter for an inter-school magazine. I don’t know how else to put it, but in the words of the man who created it, “it was for the students, of the students and by the students”. My reporting career till then boasted a few interviews with minor celebrities and a breaking news about unhygienic food served in many school canteens. That was it, and I was hungry for more as a good reporter should be. As the man who ran the news paper said, a sharp eye and hunger can take a reporter a long way, it was the essential mark of a good reporter. Yes I was hungry and was looking for a good story. My euphoric moment came when I was rifling through a stack of old news papers. I was looking for a story, rather a thread of a story, and I found one. I would write about the Kargil war. It had been hardly 7 months since the hostilities ceased; the war was still fresh in the memories of the people. I wanted to do a feature on a war hero from my city, and I didn’t have to look far. A distant cousin of mine had died in the war. He was 23 years old when he died. I remembered how the army had sent his parents a missing in action telegram. Two months later all their hopes were dashed when his
body was found. I couldn’t attend his funeral because I was down with a fever, but from what I heard from my mother, I was sure he had gotten a hero’s funeral. I did attend the Shraad ceremony; I thought that was important as well. I was paying my respects to the fallen hero by feasting. Remembering how he was rather than how he died. I was touched by the help and generosity bestowed on the deceased parents by the people of their locality. The state government had declared that the grieving family of the hero would get two hundred and fifty thousand rupees and the government in Delhi had promised the family a petrol pump. I remembered feeling a sense of pride and admiration. Proud to be an Indian, a country which respects her glorious dead and I felt admiration for my deceased cousin.
As I sat down to write over-excited and couldn’t distinguish between real and false memories. The human memory is not completely understood, it has a habit of filling up the gaps and it always fills up the gaps how it wants to. I had no clue how many I had fabricated in my head, in my zeal for getting a front page story.
I went to a newspaper’s archive to research my deceased cousin, yes it would have been easier to ask my family for the number of my aunt; but there was always a chance that I might be accused of “war profiteering”. After I found out his father’s name and where he stayed it wasn’t difficult to get hold of the telephone number for a seasoned reporter like me. I called up the number I had found in the yellow pages and my aunt picked up the call. I first established my relationship with her, and after exchanging the usual pleasantries I came straight to the point. I had never ever called this lady up, it was obvious that I wanted something from her. I felt it was going to defeat my purpose if I sugar coated my intentions. I spoke clearly what I wanted to do, I wanted the country to remember a fallen hero again, I didn’t quiet get the hint of sarcasm she had in her voice when she asked me to come down for lunch the next day.
I had to change two buses to get to my aunt’s place. I was tired, I had attended school and it was hot for a February day, but my mind was fresh, it was buzzing with millions of questions that I wanted to ask. I needed to be sincere, I needed to be strong, and I needed a front page story. It didn’t occur to me then that I was in a way furthering my interests over someone’s misery. I mean we do it all the time don’t we? Someone’s loss is always another’s gain. That is how society runs. Now some would like to argue that the men who join the army are state sanctioned killers, well that’s true, but it is because they patrol our borders and lay down their lives so that people like me can think about protesting by burning the flag. People in the uniform give us that freedom, but what we forget is they return home draped in that very flag. Call me an idealist fool, but I believe we need romantic fools who will die for a higher cause. I can safely vouch for that. It is very easy to criticise, very hard to be part of a system and try to improve it and fight its evils from within.
My aunt had a smile on her face as she opened the door; she asked me the usual questions as I settled down on the sofa. She gave me a glass of water and a plate of sweet meat, she had dressed simply in a white cotton sari with a red border, I noticed my uncle was in the house but was listening to the radio. My cousin sister, the subject’s elder sister joined us. I took out a note pad and asked them to tell me a bit about the man.
His mom took out a family album, it had pictures of him as a kid, and she had a fond look on her face as she recounted anecdotes about her little boy. I had a lot of incidents from his family about his childhood, how naughty he was, how generous, how he used to be the life of any social gathering due to the money business he was always involved in. how he had a life long love affair with karate and cricket, two very different sports- the lessons from each game was easily transposed to the other by the man. He was a winner, an achiever. A good student through-out school, a scout, a debater a quizzer- I began to wonder why he joined the army? When I asked the question to his mother she simply said, he wanted to prove he was the best among the best and he loved his country, I was happy I was getting good material for my front page splash. The questions and their answers went on smoothly for sometime till I broached the subject of his role during the war. That’s when his mother fell silent and his sister chipped in, it was all sketchy, he was leading an advance patrol to access the enemy’s strength when his platoon was ambushed from almost all corners, wounded and bleeding profusely, he still managed to get half his men out alive. A few survivors of that ambush later came and told his family that the last they saw of him was when he did a bayonet charge to allow the wounded to escape. He was 23. I couldn’t hold back my tears. This was a war where 20 something’s marched to their deaths, where you were old enough to die but not old enough to drink. Most of the men were facing well stocked, well trained and well entrenched enemies, but that just wasn’t it, my cousin was ambushed at 13,000 feet, fighting in those kinds of altitudes is not a joke. One is not just fighting the enemy but the environment itself- near vertical cliffs and spine ridges were crossed to fight the enemy. It was where the young guns of the Indian army rewrote the concept of mountain warfare. Those boys might have been hungry, cold and bone tired, where other men would have given up they fought on. Everyone who witnessed the war from the sidelines thought we would never be able to capture those ridges back, but we did.
Two months after my cousin was reported missing, my uncle received a telegram stating that his son’s mortal remains had been found. His body was brutalised by the enemy like so many bodies of Indian soldiers. My aunt with tears in her eyes remembered the last time she spoke with her little boy, he had said” we will get those wolves out”, and promised to be back home for his sister’s engagement. I couldn’t help but notice that his sister had no bracelets on her hands nor was her forehead adorned by vermillion. I noticed how proud they were of their little hero, I couldn’t hold back my tears either, but then something happened
I had read in the newspapers about a monument erected by the people of the locality to commemorate the hero. As soon as I asked about that, I released a dormant volcano. His mother started to cry profusely and his sister got up and left for her room. When I stupidly enquired why she was crying she asked me to accompany her.
She led me to a veranda from where the road was visible, she pointed her finger, and I looked in the direction. There stood his monument, about 5 feet high, it was simple in design, two concrete blocks placed on top of each other, and a railing surrounding the monument. I saw dogs; I saw dogs roaming about in the garbage littering the area around the monument. I saw the dogs tear open bags of refuse and fight over them, I saw a man reliving himself on the sly. I saw the stream hit the side of the monument. She entreated me through her sobs, “Please tear it down. I don’t want it there, he is my son”. I just kept thinking he was only 23 when he died.
I put my heart and soul into the story, I wrote about the injustice faced by the veterans and their families. I started the journey trying to find one man’s story, I ended up biting more than I could chew I guess. I waited eagerly for that issue to be published, I wanted to see the story in print. I was too excited to sleep and waited near the door since the early hours of the morning. When I finally got my hands on the copy of the news paper I found that the front page contained only a huge blow up of Hritkik Roshan. The rest of the pages were mostly dedicated to an interview with him by one of our correspondents. I never wrote for that paper again, that was the day I decided I didn’t want to be a journalist.