Lance Naik Vikram Singh rubbed his right eye and smeared his handkerchief with the sweat dripping from his forehead. The nip in the air was long gone. He squinted again and looked through the binocular atop his rifle. It was nearly two hours since he assumed his duty on the watch post and he felt uneasy at the thought of eight more there. He was flat on his stomach and a slow rumble made it sound against the muddy floor. He drank some water from his flask and saved the rest for the long day ahead. The sun was peeking from its sandy blanket and reflected golden light hit Vikram’s face from his left. Soon it was going to be 44 degrees and the Thar desert was going to dance in the mirage of self-inflicted ignominy.
It was an empty mud-house at the west most end of a deserted village that had been converted into a bunker. The egregious fallout of a war and its imminent repetition was too much to take for the bucolic villagers who least understood the diplomatic wordings of the government when they were asked to vacate. Vikram, for that matter had a better understanding of the workings of a war, and he could not curse himself enough for the possession of that knowledge. It is easier to fight a war if the objectives were kept simple for a soldier. He should not have been bothered by the ominous and sweeping declarations of the intelligentsia of the country about the fatality as well as fecundity of the war. However, owing to his senior secondary education at the local government college and the acute scarcity of civilian jobs, his metamorphosis into an educated and dissatisfied soldier was complete.
He was a man in his early thirties and had an angular face which would have delighted a consummate sculptor. His eyes when fully open had the light of a gem and darkness of a coal mine married into unison. With stern jaws and unwavering expression, he could have induced a cold wave into a late night revelry. His muscular and athletic physique carried him swiftly through the physical selection process of the army five years ago, about the same time he married Radha. He remembered the first time he accompanied his parents to her house. He saw her in a red and golden sari with her face fully covered. He had a glimpse of her rosy red lips which were shaped as if carved with a chisel to match the perfection of a lover’s imagination, when he raised his eyes to collect a cup of tea from her hands. That was all he could see of her face until he removed her dupatta on their first night after marriage. And from the moment he saw her, he never had a doubt that he would not love her for the rest of his life. If only he could tell her the same someday, if only he could draw the courage to break the social shackles of patriarchy, be man enough to admit his love, and fall to his knees to shed the guilt of hiding his love under the diaphanous cover of superiority.
He had another sip of water from his flask as the denser air began to scoop the lighter layer from beneath creating a breeze. His green and brown army jacket blended with the brown walls of the mud-house and only the muzzle protruded out of the small window. He felt his right pocket to see if the folded paper was wet with his sweat. It was not. He removed the piece of paper from his pocket, without taking his eyes off the binoculars, and kept it inside his bag. He had finished writing that letter to his wife last night. He mentioned that his leave application will soon get sanctioned and asked about their three year old son. He wrote that he would admit him to the primary school once he gets back. He wanted to write that he missed them and that he loved her, but restrained himself to a parting sentence about taking care of his parents. His mind wandered in the thoughts of his days back home when a moving black object caught his attention.
Vikram positioned his rifle to align its telescopic sight and focused it. He saw a body, covered in a black blanket moving swiftly and stealthily at the far right of his bunker. He calculated the distance to be more than a hundred meters. It had a long shaped object and moved in a stooping manner, as if to avoid the sight of a tower which stood at the center of the village. It moved swiftly and Vikram had little time to decide. He moved his rifle to follow the object, but knew that soon it would go beyond its range and also beyond his line of sight. Any pursuit on legs would be futile as the object in sight had enough start to disappear anywhere inside the barren village. He was running out of time as his muzzle followed it with precision. His finger on the trigger wavered, there was a slight pause followed by the recoil of the rifle and a loud sound reverberated throughout the emptiness. The metallic sound of the recoil combined with the smell of burning gunpowder to fill the obnoxious silence with an ominous din. A wry smile stretched his lips for a second, only to get back to its original stern shape. The black object was down.
He stayed still after pulling the trigger. The black object lay immobile like a blot on the golden sand. It was back to the indolent silence. He watched the terrain from left to right, moving his rifle across each time expecting another target to shoot at. An hour passed. No other object came through. He felt amused at the game of expecting something at the other end of his rifle but soon it got weary. He decided to check out on the body lying far outside his bunker. He collected his flask and detached his rifle from its stand.
The sun looked over his left shoulders with a dark shadow following behind him as his protégé. It moved with firm steps of the army man and copied his moves with obduracy. Vikram approached the body slowly watching the whole area in anticipation of a cavalry. However, he knew that there might not be any as there was not a single alcove to hide in the vast expanse of desert before him. He could see the body of a boy, lying below a black quilt. He approached nearer pointing the muzzle at him. He stopped for a while to ascertain any movement, but there wasn’t any. He walked towards him as he saw his head, with his face on the ground on the other side and he could only see his long hairs. He fixed his eyes on the boy and took few steps and continued moving. Suddenly he heard a click.
It was immediately that his mind realized what has happened, but the shiver that passed through his bones delayed his reaction to the comprehension. He looked down at his right boot which was pressing a button over a round metallic box. He was frozen to his lungs and even the heat of the air he intermittently breathed denied infusing any warmth. He looked down once again to see the emblem of Indian Army etched beside a serial number on the anti-personnel land mine.
He cursed aloud. His arms were wearing off holding the rifle and his muscles were getting flaccid with each moment. He stood still and held his leg religiously steady over the mine lest it gets him blown to pieces. He cursed again at the emptiness of the desert when he heard a cough. He saw the body wriggle a little and he heard him coughing again. The boy was at-least ten feet far but Vikram immediately aimed his rifle on his head.
“Don’t make any sudden moves or you will be shot in the head”, shouted Vikram at the top of his voice.
He heard him cough again, this time spitting, probably sand which might have gone in his mouth, thought Vikram. He could see no firearm beside him but only a long cane which he might have used as support. The boy slowly turned his face which was half covered with sand.
“I am not a terrorist”, he blurted.
“Who are you and why are you here?” shouted Vikram in his dominating tone.
The boy moved his face and rolled his body to support it sideways but cringed in pain as soon as he tried to bend his upper body to try and stand. Vikram saw blood oozing out just below his left shoulder. It might have broken the collar bone and punctured the vein. His chest was wet with blood and the sand stuck all over his wound making it difficult to ascertain if the bullet went through his chest. He doubted it considering the distance at which he shot it. It was still inside him which meant the boy had a maximum of an hour before the bullet poisoned him.
“I am Sohail saheb, I live across the border in the neighboring town”, he said in a tottering voice.
Vikram saw the face of the boy in full for the first time as he stopped looking elsewhere for wound and firearms. His face was that of a boy with the charm of a teenager and wisdom of a seer. He was beautiful and might have been a prince if casted in television shows that were frequently aired nowadays. He had blue eyes and an angular nose, his long shoulder length hair free from any artificial bend or partition. They flowed freely with the wind and blended with the golden sand that covered half of his face. His age, Vikram thought, might not be more than eighteen years, and he knew that he was not a militant trying to cross the border.
He lowered his gun to settle the butt on the ground and held the muzzle. Sohail looked right at him with his innocent eyes naturally trying to convince his identity. He had difficulty trying to lift his head and see ahead him.
“What were you thinking boy, didn’t you know this is a no-man’s zone? Why were you running in that manner?” inquired Vikram with a slight tone of resentment.
“I knew saheb, but I had to cross the border anyways. I had thought of getting across before dawn but couldn’t get here earlier” said Sohail in his frail voice. He did not sound malignant even though what he said alerted Vikram as he pierced his eyes through him once again.
“Why? Are you carrying any drugs with you?”
“No saheb, I have nothing with me but some food and this blanket.”
“Then why the hell were you trying to cross the border?” he was now getting irritated at the foolishness of the boy which had landed both of their lives on the edge of a cliff.
“I just wanted to see her saheb, before she gets married and sent off”, his voice got hoary.
There was a long silence before he spoke again, gaining physical and mental strength to speak.
“We met for the first time when their family visited our town on a mercantile exchange program. They were exchanging spices and red chilies with my families’ textile goods. It was a dinner called by my father when I first saw her. She wore a blue lehenga, with her long hair open, and her smile was so enchanting that I could not take my eyes off her. We did not talk until I could find her alone on our balcony looking at the town beneath; when I asked her her name she smiled back lowering her eyes. I knew from that moment that for the rest of my life I would be in love with her.”
Vikram was taken aback. He heard his own thoughts converted into words by the boy laying ahead him. He saw tears rolling from his blue eyes and could barely stop himself from moving towards him. He did not know what to say.
Sohail laid his head sideways on the ground and was probably thinking about his love when Vikram spoke to him.
“Look, my shift ends in some time and a patrol van will soon come to pick me up. There will be medical assistance, just hold on”, knowing fully that the patrol van was not due for another six hours and he gave the boy not more than an hour to live. He tried to keep his tone kind to the boy.
“It’s fine saheb, I never expected to reach her anyways, but I had to try. I could not bear the feeling of staying back and disheartening her. Her last words before she left for home were to come and get her. I could not let her think that I didn’t try.”
“Can you move your hand? I can throw my water flask to you”, he felt sad for the boy.
Sohail tried to move but his collar bone was shattered and it sent a painful current through his body. He looked at Vikram with dejection and they exchanged their incapability with the flutter of eyelids. Vikram looked down as if to explain him why he could not come to him and Sohail followed his gaze to see the landmine below his boot.
“I will pray that you come out of it safe saheb, I feel very weak now and will close my eyes. I want to pray and remember my beloved before dying.” He closed his eyes.
Vikram cursed again, this time not aloud. He stood looking at the boy’s face which had transcended into a peaceful state that he wished for himself too. He called his name the fifth time. No response. He saw his body getting limp a few minutes ago. Now he looked at him and thought about Radha while he waited for the patrol van. He thought about the girl who would perhaps never know about what Sohail did. Or perhaps she will if he could get the story in the local newspaper. He looked at the bright sky, then at the landmine below his leg, and closed his eyes. He promised himself he would go back and embrace his wife and tell her how much he loves her.