Dates had stopped bothering him ages back. Even in the POW camp he had never once made parallel lines of hope, despair, and anger. His captors were as perplexed as were his co-prisoners.
‘You never think of your home and family, Major?’
‘I do,’ he had replied and then got up to go to the other side of the cell to do his brooding. He did think of his wife and his son, who would now be on the verge of entering his teens. But he was not the sort who counted days. He knew he wouldn’t want to give his captors the pleasure of gloating about having troubled and disturbed his emotional equilibrium, and every time they tried to play with his EQ he mentally chanted his mantra: ‘Cocusb.’
He remembered the morning he and the other seven prisoners in that camp were abruptly woken up at 3 in the morning and were driven away from the 10 ft high walls of their jail in Lyallpur. They were nervous, circumspect, and defenseless but they could also see that there were no watchtowers with machine-guns and searchlights as far as their eyes could see.
‘You are eight,’ announced the young and arrogant Captain Hanif, and went on, ‘if you live, you will reach Wagah and sent across the border. Or you die.’ The eight looked at each other, confused if this was an announcement that warranted joyous leaps, firm protests, or a hobbled walk into the arena of doom? There were no senior and responsible officers around and they were out in the open where for miles around them was sparse vegetation, big and small boulders, and obviously undulating contours and folds of earth.
‘Teen baje ki line. Dus meel,’ roared the officer. We looked at the 3 o’clock direction he mentioned and waited. He went on, ‘There is a safe 50 yard path beyond which are a network of landmines, so don’t even think of losing your way.’ The officer paused to see if his command was understood and then went on, ‘You have forty-five minutes to cover this distance and I’ll be waiting at the other end. There will be a mortar and grenade firing exercise in forty-five minutes, so if you don’t run fast, you’ll be caught in the mayhem.’ There was a pause after which he simply said, ‘Go.’
The prisoners had no footwear and the terrain was harsh with thorny plants dotting and, at times, blocking the safe zone. Yes, they ran and ran fast not bothered about the thorns, their bleeding feet, the scorching sun, nor their parched throats. All eight made it to the RV and as they stood at the spot where Captain Hanif was busy handing out new pairs of clothes, they could hear the sounds of explosions behind them.
They crossed the border at Wagah awed by their own silence. Sometimes when the heart is full of happiness, there are no words and no sounds coming out. He spoke only when he was asked a question and by next morning he stood outside the house that he had left more than five years back. ‘Cocusb,’ he said in a low voice, and pressed the bell.
His mind could sense that there was joy flowing all around him and curious words, softened glances, whispered touches, and endless sighs were all a part of the celebration that only long absences can get. He was tired and exhausted and full of bruises of the past five years, so it wasn’t surprising that he suddenly got up and said, ‘I want to sleep now.’
This was a week back and he knew this for sure because, for the first time in his life he had put a large pencilled circle around the date he had reached home. He opened his diary – yes, his own diary from the past that Anahita, his wife, had kept carefully folded in an old sari – and meticulously went through what he had written these past seven days.
I have never cared for years because they don’t matter. Time is an abstraction that doesn’t bother me. So why did Anahita ask: ‘We have five years of solitude waiting to be filled, Jatinder.’
Jatinder! This was not how she ever addressed him. She was the one who had first called him Zat because of the way he pronounced his J like it was a Z. Where has Zat gone? Is Zat nowhere in her life now?
There weren’t any long stories that he had jotted down in his diary. He was never known for his verbosity. Healways had a knack to pin-point the most vital aspects in anything and just focus on them. This is precisely what his years of training at the NDA and then at the IMA taught him. He remembered how Captain Bakshi, his DS at the IMA had roared in one of his class: ‘You bloody buggers, learn to look and think of only what is going to matter in your plan. The rest is all crap. So when I say, teen baje ki line…’ This voice from the past faded as he smiled and wondered if he was destined to be looking at this particular direction. Or is it that three was woven in some intricate way into his life?
Zat wasn’t a philosopher and never liked to ponder on the imponderables but this mystery of three was so like a military plan where this number loomed like a zone where he was supposed to keep his sights fixed on.
These bloody civilians are so noisy. They won’t let me sleep. They won’t let me focus. And they won’t let me be me. Why does everyone ask me the same questions?
How did they treat you there? Is that country the same as ours? You look so frail and troubled – are you going to join your unit or will you lead a retired life now? Tell us some stories of the land beyond the LOC? How many did you kill?
Damn these bloody fuckers. Why can’t they just mind their own business?
No, he had not protested any of the zillions of similar questions that seemed to be thrown at him because he had soon realised that they never wanted answers. All they were interested in was throwing in their questions and feeling proud that they had come and patronised a war hero of sorts. He wasn’t so much bothered by the acquaintances who stumbled into his life hour after hour… he was more bothered about the fact that Anahita was not there by his side to protect him from these onslaughts.
‘Why has she taken up a job that keeps her away for the entire day?’ he thought and when he had asked her this question she had just asked him to relax and not bother about it. ‘We had enough money in the bank,’ he had angrily asked.
‘Not enough to fight with the sort of inflation that has been attacking the economy,’ she had retorted and then explained to him that her job was not just being a provider but also helping her keep sane.
Sane. Ha! How can jobs keep you sane? Sanity is when you are together with those you love and care for. Why can’t Anahita understand that all I want is that she take leave for a few days to be with me by my side. I don’t want to talk to those false acquaintances who come in only for stories that they don’t have the capacity to live and experience.
I want her. I want her attention. All the time.
He had found himself getting alienated from everyone, including his wife and his son Zesty. Yes, Zesty was a name given by him to his son because he always found his toddler so full of energy and a craving for action.
‘How is Zesty now?’ he had asked Anahita when he came back from his training in Mhow.
Anahita had smiled and said, ‘His name is Prateek and he responds to his name very well now.’
No, there was no war between Anahita and him on the name of their son, but he remembered he loved to insist on the name Zesty. This was true even now. He had said, ‘Zesty, you need to play more games and keep fitter than you actually are.’
‘Aw, come on now,’ Zesty had replied, ‘don’t be old fashioned. You need to come and tell me how to protect my village in this game.’ He was always in front of his computer screen and was playing some game called Caesar II which he thought was really such a ridiculous way of trying to learn tactics and strategy. He told Zesty that only team games had the ability to teach him the tactics of ground manoeuvre and that this was all that would help him in his later life as a professional. Strategic thinking too was something that meaningful interactions with the peer group could give.
‘You’re boring now,’ said Zesty to all his logic about games and strategy, ‘I know my PC is going to teach me everything. I wish you were like you were before.’
Zesty wants me to be like I was before. I don’t understand this at all. I was like I am now all the time. Have I really changed? Why is Zesty treating me like a stranger?
I still remember the good times we had on the basketball court together. The long walks and the jogging we did together. I still remember the time when I taught him the intricacies of under-water swimming.
But I don’t have much idea about his new world that is so immersed in the PC. It wasn’t there when I…
He wondered if it was technology or his lack of awareness of the new technology that was causing him to drift from his son. He wondered if he really cared to bridge this gap that was seemingly becoming wider.
‘Am I confused?’ he had asked himself when he was alone in the house. He had, it seemed to him, returned to a world that was defying him. Or was it that the world had just moved on and all he needed was to increase his pace and catch up with it? He did not have the answers and whenever that happened even now he found himself moving to the other side of the room he was in, just like he did in his prison cell in Lyallpur jail.
Is my world really out of my reach now? Can I bring back any of my learning from my own past to help me put back into this new seemingly alienating world?
Yes, I remember Harlal Sa’ab on the Drill Square giving us marching commands in such a rapid succession that after just a couple of minutes of this the entire squad found itself full of GCs facing different directions and spread unevenly all over the concrete there. ‘This is not good sa’ab,’ he shouted and then laughed before continuing, ‘just hear and do. Don’t hear and think and do.’
Yes, just hear and do. Will this mantra save me?
‘Why is it that life never really works out the moment we start filling it up with the stress of deliberate thinking?’ he asked himself that day. He was not just a fauji, he was a fauji with ‘OG stampeding all over him’ as they used to say back in the Academy. ‘Yes, I need to get over this romance of half-baked thinking that civilians are so fond of and get back to my Olive Green or OG way of life.’
That day when Zesty had come from school he went to him and said, ‘Tell me how to start this PC. Tell me all about passwords. Tell me how to play Caesar.’
‘Later,’ Zesty had said as if trying to brush him aside because of his ignorance.
An hour later when Anahita returned from her office, he asked, ‘So how was your strategic marketing meeting today?’ Anahita gave him a look of surprise that had suspicion written all over it and went into the kitchen to instruct the maid for what was to be done for dinner. ‘Sir has told me what to do,’ he could hear the maid telling Anahita, ‘and dinner is already prepared.’
I am trying.
I am trying to find my way through this maze, this unfamiliar maze that evolves due to an absence.
I am trying to understand myself.
I am trying to instruct myself.
Will they try and unlearn and be willing to relearn?
He woke up that day feeling better than he had felt on any morning in the past week. He opened his eyes to find Anahita bent over him, smiling.
‘Good morning,’ said Anahita, ‘wake up, wash up, and get ready to wind up.’
He looked questioningly but Anahita laughed and called out to Zesty, ‘Zesty, your father is awake.’
He was told that the day being a Sunday, there would be no office and no school… however, Zesty had decided to teach him all he knew about the PC with a hope that he would learn and not remain technologically challenged ever.
Anahita then added, ‘And we’re going out for lunch to that restaurant where we had gone on the first day after marriage.’ He smiled.
It is time to live again.
It is time to type out my formal resignation from the Armed Forces on MS Word.
It is time to spell romance the way it is spelt.
He looked at the last page of his diary and muttered, ‘Cocusb. Not many know what this means. Not many know that this is what makes a fauji what he is.’ He paused for a while, went zipping back into the past and heard his PT instructor at the IMA shouting to cadets: ‘Don’t ever slouch. Remember, you must always have your chest out, chin up and shoulders back.’ His mind had immediately converted this vital piece of information into an acronym and whispered, ‘Cocusb.’
Author intro: Words fascinate me. Spent my years in the OGs, then in sales and then heading corporate communications… and now discovering myself through blogging. Words, obviously, have always mattered everywhere — yes, even in the Army, where even a firing command needs words spoken loud and clear and from the head! However, my journey is now taking me into a different world where words get written but emerge from the heart. I don’t know yet if they do visit the head before tumbling out to disperse themselves into the dustbin of eternity.
28 January 2013