This is Part II of a series

Click here for Part I

Disclaimer: This is an absolute work of fiction.

A/N: This one is slightly longer than the last, I considered splitting it into parts but it would have broken the flow. I sincerely hope it is worth your time. Thank you!

My throat was getting heavier with tears by the minute and I wanted to shout out in agony. But no words came out. I was left absolutely stunned. I’d seen this in movies, but why had I fallen prey to the same instance? I’d watched those movies with interest and for entertainment, frowning at the disappointment of the characters and at times gloating at their poor acting or overreactions, yet when the scene flashed in front of my own eyes, the world had never appeared so grey.

It was a short phone call. Of course it would be, after all the army would want no soldier wasting their time talking to a daughter shedding her tears over something that could not be reversed. I’d always known and accepted that duty came first, yet this once, I wanted to go back in time, steer it away from the prospect of living without my father for goodness knew how long. I’d heard rumours of Pakistan planning to attack India. Could my father be part of the same war? I never came to know, for no Army man must reveal information about their missions nor was the call long enough. All I could get out of his shaky voice was two distant words, like cold metal against my cheek. ‘Goodbye, Anu.’

I wanted him to tell me that it was not a goodbye, but a simple see you soon. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. For he never lied.

The world seemed to be spinning. Dadi and I just stood there, the air filled by her slight sobs and my sighs. All tears that there were had been shed away, leaving a dry sense of emptiness in me. I felt no emotion, just blankness. And it hurt way more than any pain in the world.

‘Lost, are you?’

A deep yet shallow voice made it’s way across the station from the other platform. An image of Krishna that my grandmother had showed me in the morning seemed to give me déjà vu as I stared at the owner of the voice. A young boy, perhaps no older than 14, stood relaxed, and absolutely unfazed by the throngs of crowds around him. The dusky complexion and blackberry eyes of his seemed to make him even more like Krishna. He just stood there and watched, as I used to at the dramas on the television. We sure looked liked actors at the moment. My physical state betrayed my disheveled state of mind. In spite the storm of emotions inside me, his presence slightly irked me.

‘Idle, are you?’

He gave a throaty laugh. ‘You’re not from here.’

I didn’t reply. The last thing I needed in such a scenario was an argument. I didn’t feel confident enough, anyway. I felt like every piece of my soul had been shattered into pieces.

‘You know, ignoring me isn’t going to help.’ He started walking across the railway track and I stared, fascinated. In spite of having an adventurous spirit, I’d never been brave enough to do so on my own. ‘I could help you with those bags of yours.’ He continued, his slippers slapping the ground and I mentally apologised to Mother Earth, the way his soles were hitting the ground seemed painful enough to my ears, I couldn’t imagine what the ground was going through.

I stared at our trolley bags sprawled across the floor. We most certainly looked like tourists at an unknown place, with our crestfallen faces. I couldn’t reply, or think of a smart one. In normal circumstance, I’d have come up with a sarcastic retort, but my mind seemed to have betrayed me. I simply stared.

‘Yes, please call a porter. That would be a great help.’ My grandmother cleared her throat. She had somehow overcome her silence and struggled to get a few words out, perhaps simply for my sake, as many loved ones do, for she knew her messed up emotions would affect mine as well. I wanted to be sympathetic towards her situation, but all I could do was gaze at her with an expression I could only hope would be uplifting. For the first time in my life, I saw her not as a grandmother but a mother whose son would disappear for the next couple of years from her life. My chest tightened at the thought. A few years, I thought. A few years, without my father’s jovial laugh, without his witty replies, without his exasperated sighs and his perfect schedule. I didn’t want to think about it. I couldn’t, for I felt sure I would collapse with grief.

‘Papa!’ The boy shouted. His shout seemed quite loud as it rang across the crowded station, only a few heads turning. Delhi was noisy enough, a shout or two wouldn’t bother them. And his papa followed suit. A man rushed along to the spot as he heard the boy, who apparently, as the situation portrayed was was his son. ‘Namaste! Namaste! How many bags, maa ji?’ He joined his hands in greeting. This common yet traditional greeting of India always seemed to awe me into his silence and I stared at his palms and fingers pressed together, which certainly seemed strong enough to lift our heavy bags.

He spoke with the slightest tinge of a marwari accent, his words although clear seemed almost muffled. He was quite well-built, considering he spent most of his day heaving heavy suitcases, I couldn’t have expected any less. His eyes held a rare twinkle like his son, and he looked even more like Krishna, although he should have looked like Vasudev. Whatever, I thought.

He heaved one of the suitcases onto his head as if they were made of light foam, on his head laid out a handkerchief and I identified it to be from a handloom that I was familiar with. Having visited the city every year for about a decade now, I knew of most of the shops and stores.The boy followed suit, setting the trolley bag smoothly on his head and I was surprised by how strong his bony body must have been to carry it. We’d planned a lot to do in Delhi, and so the suitcases were stuffed. This didn’t bother the boy, though. I began to think of my father. He had always been a bony child, yet at the moment, he was off to some border to fight for his beloved country. Perhaps sensing the hole in my stomach, dadi hurried to change the topic. She looked flustered as well, but won’t let me see it.

‘Are you not from around here? I can sense Rajasthan in your way of speaking.’

The father laughed. His voice was a deep one not unlike his son’s, the difference being the boy’s had a musical feel to it. This one seemed it would be as likely to sing a song as a turkey would be to perform the Odissi. ‘You’re quick to observe, indeed we are from Rajasthan. My wife still lives there, quite alone, with her brother. She wanted to come to Delhi with us, but we couldn’t afford it. Hopefully, if circumstance changes, I may be going to Rajasthan any day now with Chetan here.’ The tale was long, yet not tall. It seemed quite possible to me, anyway. I thought of his wife, standing there in the midst of a desert. It was a sad thought. Meanwhile, the mind’s train changed tracks.

Chetan, I thought. One of my classmates had the same name. However weird it sounded, the boy’s name had a slight resemblance to his grin, it was short, yet held a rare glow to it, making the receiver want to answer with a grin immediately. I liked those sorts of grins.

‘So what circumstance stops you, uncle?’ I asked him, staring at the handle of one of the bags that was coming loose. I would have pushed it back in but did not do so for the fear of the man landing head first in to the tracks. While I was ready to do anything of the sort in my grief, dadi yanked me back because the porter was a likeable man.

‘The circumstance of affording, baccha. Once I’m recruited into the army, it will no longer be a problem.’

The army. It sounded so near yet so distant. I turned away from further thought. Affording was something I could understand as well. There was a time when money was used only for our needs and neither more nor less.

‘They’re recruiting soldiers right now. My…father is there too. He called us a few minutes ago only.’ My voice had a low note to it and felt almost hollow. No matter how hard I tried, the problem would remain, staring in my face. Facts however, as they are, could not be ignored. So I said it aloud. Perhaps, I thought, It will give me some confidence.

‘I may get the letter any day now, hopefully. Chetan here wants to have a go into the army too, but he doesn’t want to attend school. The army doesn’t recruit uneducated people, I tell him. But he won’t listen. He doesn’t even know where Pakistan is!’ He gave a light laugh.

Chetan rolled his eyes, while I gave no reaction. I was still shocked by the phone call enough for the word army to give me cold feet. I took a deep breath and brought myself, or rather, forced myself to the present moment. Uneducated. How sad, I thought. Maybe it is of his own will or perhaps because of money. I did not mention it, for it would have looked rude.

‘It’s to the North-West of India,’ I said with a quick analysis of the directions in my mind. ‘You can see it on any map.’ I made an imaginary India in the air and pointed to the top of it to specify the location of Pakistan. He stared, clearly bewildered. I couldn’t blame him. I probably looked like an idiot flailing my finger about in mid-air.

‘Maps aren’t what I understand.’ Said Chetan, shrugging. ‘They say India is a distorted shape on the world and almost quite small, but for me, it is huge.’ He stared at my finger, which was still floating, and I quickly brought it down, humiliated. ‘There’s so much more to it than a pencil drawing a line can depict. The culture, the languages, I see none of them on the map.’

I felt a sudden warmth towards the kid. Somehow, all of us army kids- although he wasn’t one yet- were connected. In each of us lay absolute deep respect for the country. I wanted him to know it was more than boundaries, I wanted to tell him about its fame. I simply wanted to spill it out. Perhaps it would lower my belief of the fact that my father had left me for the country. But I knew it wasn’t true, for he had not left his family for the army but a few members of the family for another member, for India was everything- a mother, a daughter, a sister and always an ancestral grandmother. She was the epitome of kindness, always giving away, yet never asking for anything in return. I fished out a piece of paper and pen from my dadi’s stuffed purse and drew a rough boundary of India on it, drawing Rajasthan as well. I gave it to him and pointed out both Pakistan and Rajasthan. Growing up with an army man, I’d seen him do this countless times. I’d known all of the states of India at the age of 5, and at 8, I knew all the capitals. The teachers had been amazed, and a few kids reckoned I was a robot.

‘This can’t be India,’ he said disbelievingly. He fingered the crumpled sheet, tracing the lines on it as if it would allow him to reach out and see the real India.

‘It is.’ I didn’t let him reply but instead continued. ‘Just like you are much more than the boy that you’re visible on the outside. Cheeky or messy as you are, what lays on the inside is far more important. Just like India, which appears to be a distorted shape, it has so much- spices, clothes, everything!’ I smiled. ‘People as well,’ I added. I wasn’t finished, though. I was well-known for being a chatterbox. ‘Keep it.’ I smiled once again.

My smile was answered, in a way that truly took my breath away. I simply stared, my heart aching yet laughing at the same time. He’d smiled at me, while both of our guardians gazed fondly at this exchange of information and now, of smiles. He smiled at me and it left me entranced.

The smile was just like that of my father’s.

To be continued…

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Hemanya Vashishtha

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