17 June 2016. Kupwara, Kashmir

Window panes in the room shook violently as a grenade exploded just outside the adjoining house. There were sounds of more gunshots then silence. One of four Para soldiers of Delta team in the room peeked outside trying to make sense of the situation. There was some movement outside and it attracted some gunfire from window of the house where three terrorists were holed up.

Their in-ear radios cackled slightly and then they heard the voice of  Rashtriya Rifles Major leading the counter terrorist operation. “ Delta, can you confirm number of tangos and their positions ?” 

One Para moved carefully close to the common wall between the two houses and attached a Hand Held Through Wall Imaging Radar (HH-TWIR) to it. The small gadget weighing 5-6 kgs developed by Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) is used to detect people and their movement in closed spaces from outside. It detects breathing patterns and heartbeat of people on other side of the wall using Doppler radar technology. 

A message was sent to RR Major outside, “There are atleast two contacts on other side of wall. If there are more, they must be in the next room. We are in position to breach the wall.”

“Roger Delta. We are standing by to enter the house as soon as you breach.”

Lead Para acknowledged the message and signalled the  other three Paras to get close. “This firing from outside is not going to work. We’re going to breach the wall.”

The other soldiers simply nodded and moved out to do their assigned jobs. One took a few small bricks of plastic explosives out of his backpack, attached electric detonators to each one of them  and placed four of them on common wall between the two houses.

Blowing up holes in walls of houses in enclosed space  was not the first choice of the counter terrorist team, but they had little choice. The encounter between them and the three terrorists of dreaded Kashmir Islamic Mujahideen had been going on for 5 hours and they were fast running out of options. A large crowd of local villagers had already assembled a few minutes walk from the encounter site and were shouting militant Islamist and anti-India slogans. In a few minutes, they’d start pelting stones and petrol bombs on security personnel in order to help the terrorists .

Some of the protesters were local villagers while the most vocal among them were usually professionals from outside who did it for money, drugs among a few other enticements. With a deadly islamist terrorist movement going on in Kashmir, corruption in politics and bureaucracy, article 370 and the general islamist supremacist attitude of the locals, there were not too  many avenues for employment apart from agriculture and government jobs. So shouting a few slogans and pelting stones on security personnel was an attractive way of earning a quick buck and blowing off their otherwise impotent rage. Some of them would rather be home but they were forced to be there under threats of social boycott, violence and sometimes even murder by the same muslims who claimed to be fighting for freedom of muslims.

So far, about a dozen Central Reserve Police Force and local J&K Police personnel  had been enough to control the protesting crowd. But it was getting bigger with each passing moment. Already there were reports of mullahs from nearby villages shouting over loudspeakers ordering their followers to go to the encounter site and pelt stones on soldiers. 

Security personnel handling the crowd had some riot control equipment like a handful of pellet guns and tear gas shells, but there was a lot of pressure on them from the local administration, journalists and self-proclaimed human rights activists against their usage in crowd suppression. They’d try to milk any injury to the terrorist sympathiser crowd by any means possible for eyeballs, more funding and self promotion. In addition, the soldiers were  implicated in false cases and courts involved to make their lives and jobs tougher.

With darkness approaching fast, there was also the risk of terrorists making a run for it and trying to change positions or escape using the crowd of stone throwing protestors as cover. So something had to be done fast. 

The encounter had started at around 11:30 am after the local policemen had informed the nearest RR camp about movement of suspected gunmen in the southern corner of the village. Some policemen from the Special Operations Group and RR had laid a security cordon around the village and started a house by house search. Local informers suggested that they could be holed up in the house of one Maqbool Butt, a local low level politician who played for both sides. 

There had never been enough proof for his support of terrorist activities being a serious threat. So the local intelligence kept an eye on him and tapped him every now and then for leads. His intelligence had usually been on the point and had helped security agencies to neutralise seven terrorists in the last 3 years. 

His handler, an Intelligence Bureau officer tried contacting him on phone but got no response which raised suspicions. His house was not that far off from where the terrorists were sighted, so an inner cordon was discreetly laid around his house by RR and two soldiers accompanied by a local policeman went to his door to check. They were let in by 19 years old Shaahid, younger son of Maqbool who seemed a bit nervous and didn’t seem happy when the policeman insisted that they wanted to check. He grudgingly let the policeman in who found his sister and mother sitting in the living room. 

He was told that Maqbool had gone to Srinagar along with his older son Tahir to sell his fruit crop and wouldn’t be back for 2 days. Policeman did a quick search of the ground floor but was unable to find anyone. The door leading to the 1st floor section was locked and upon asking the son claimed that Maqbool had taken the only key with him. When soldiers insisted that he open the door, he turned aggressive and refused to follow instructions.. 

In  the confusion, one of the soldiers noticed the daughter pointing discreetly towards the roof and mouthing something. Their suspicions solidified, RR soldiers informed their commanding officer of the situation. He ordered them to escort the whole family outside without any delay while he ordered his men outside the house to cover the windows of the house watching over the exit of the double story house. 

The women burst in to tears when they were ordered to go outside but did what they were told. The two soldiers had to grab Shaahid and drag him out of the house.  Once behind the boundary wall, he broke down and informed soldiers that while Maqbool was indeed in Srinagar, his older brother had been taken hostage by three armed terrorists of KIM. He knew one of them as a local from a neighbouring village but claimed that the other two were not Kashmiri and spoke heavily accented Urdu. They had arrived to collect some supplies that Maqbool had in his house and perhaps stay there for some time before moving to some other place. After they had known about the arrival of Counter Terrorist team in  village, they had taken Tahir hostage and hid in the upper floor after locking it from inside.

The two women said the same thing and implored the soldiers to rescue Tahir from the terrorists. As far as he was concerned, soldiers had no way of knowing if he was a willing hostage or a collaborator. His father had acted as an informant a few times in the past, so some of his shady activities had been tolerated. But he was allowing his own house to be used as a supply base and shelter for the same terrorists. As far his utility as informant was concerned, it was more or less over. It was not that different for terrorists either. Once they knew that Maqbool was under scanner of security agencies, they’d not even think of using him for anything in the future. 

One point which remained unclear was whether the Butt family was telling truth about Shaahid being an unwilling hostage or not. The strategy of flushing out or killing the terrorists inside depended upon this. If he was with the terrorists, the soldiers could have simply attacked with Carl Gustafs and grenades and killed all four of them without too much trouble. But a hostage situation made things complicated.  

 A local village elder was brought in from his house and given a loudspeaker in order to convince terrorists holed up inside the house to surrender and let the hostage leave safely.  He talked and repeated his pleas for half an hour to no effect. A decision was then made to storm the upper floor of the house and neutralise the terrorists while trying to keep the hostage alive. As soon as the raiding party started to take positions for assault, they were fired upon from two windows simultaneously. One soldier who was moving towards the door was hit in the leg, but he managed to reach for cover behind a brick wall and returned fire. Four other soldiers  who were covering the advance also fired back, but had no way of knowing if they had hit any terrorist.

Just seconds after the first volley was over, terrorists hurled two grenades, one of which exploded only meters from another soldier taking cover behind a car and caused him shrapnel injuries. As the encounter dragged on, first a crowd on curious onlookers, then the violent protestors started to form up. Some of the manpower was diverted to keep the hostile stone pelting crowd away from the encounter site, in case they assaulted the soldiers with stones in order to help the terrorists escape or inflict casualties.

Sometime after the presence of terrorists was confirmed, a small team of 6 Para soldiers had arrived to take part in the operation. Four of them entered the adjoining house which shared a common wall with Maqbool’s. The occupants of all houses within the firing range had been evacuated, so there was nobody in their way.

Para (Special Forces) are one of the most active and prestigious units in Indian Army. Since their formation in 1941, they’ve been a part of every major conflict and counter-terrorism operations in as well as outside India. Para soldiers are trained to operate in deserts, mountains, jungles, under water and are experts in para jumps of all types. Every applicant has to pass a 90 days probation period followed by 3.5 years of training which is supposedly the longest training period of all. During the training period, they have to run 20 km with 60 kg load daily followed by rigorous training throughout the day leading late in to night. Then every week,  they have to march 90 to 130 km with 65-70 kg load and do multiple parachute drops during day as well as night. It’s only after almost four years of this hellish training that they can wear the coveted Maroon Beret of Para (SF).

Once the decision was made to breach the wall, they all took cover and triggered the explosives. There was a loud bang and a hole big enough for a man to jump through the wall appeared. One Para soldier lobbed in two flashbangs for good measure and two of them took cover behind the just breached wall while the other two raced inside. They found one bleeding and disoriented terrorist trying to fire a AK-47 who was killed with one quick burst of TAR-21 assault rifle by lead Para. 

  After clearing that room they  opened the door to a narrow corridor with 1 room to either side and the closed door leading to stairs in front. As they moved in to take positions, one of the terrorists hiding in the room on left rolled a grenade in their direction and and the other emptied a whole magazine in their direction. The lead Para managed to kick the grenade in direction of the locked door where it exploded with a loud bang. But he was hit by 3 AK-47 rounds in the process. One grazed his Mukut  ballistic helmet forming a deep gash in the hard armour. Another passed through a weak point in his chest  armour and hit him in his chest. The third ricocheted off something in the corridor and hit him just below his knee pad. He almost fell down to his knees but managed to shoot the terrorist who had fired his AK square in the face with two bullets. 

The third terrorist had managed to grab Tahir by the neck and was hiding behind him by pointing his AK-47 with a bayonet at his neck. Tahir himself was shaking and crying profusely, seemingly terrified out of his wits, but otherwise unharmed. His captor was no less shaken himself and was shouting threats in Urdu with a heavy Punjabi accent. He suddenly moved on hearing the footsteps of other two Para soldiers as they entered the corridor. They tried to talk him into dropping his weapon and surrendering but he shouted some more obscenities and stabbed Tahir in the neck. One of the soldiers shot off most of his head in a sharp burst from his TAR-21 in return. Tahir and the terrorist both collapsed to the ground at almost the same time. 

A call for emergency medical aid was placed and 2 medics came running up to provide first aid to injured Tahir. They tried to stop the bleeding and carried him to the ambulance waiting in the street. His family members came rushing out to see him and his sister collapsed on seeing him on stretcher soaked in blood.  Calls were made on loud speakers to let the ambulance pass, but the crowd was slow to respond and a few people lobbed stones at it. Sharp rebukes from the village elders finally dispersed the crowd. But it was too late and Tahir breathed his last a few minutes later just a few minutes after reaching hospital.

Another ambulance took care of the injured para who was conscious and could still walk with support. 

Statements of family members and neighbours were taken and it was found out that one of the foreign terrorists, Nassiruddin Boota alias Abu Zubair was demanding his 17 years old daughter to be “wedded” to him. The family was firmly against it and the Pakistani terrorist had brought in his two companions to forcibly kidnap the girl. 

Local media published the news about the encounter and deaths, but ignored the real reason behind the encounter. 

24 June 2016

Military Hospital, Udhampur

Naib Subedar Anil Dahiya  was enjoying his evening cup of tea in scenic hospital gardens when an orderly came up and told him that he had a visitor. HIs CO had called him last night and asked him to expect a visitor without offering any more details. So he was mystified about the identity of his visitor and followed the orderly to the visiting area. The orderly pointed to a  man dressed in civilian clothes sitting quietly on a chair and leafing through a magazine and walked out.

Dahiya tried remembering if he had ever seen the man before but drew a blank. He approached his visitor with a puzzled expression on his face and introduced himself. The man rose and shook his hand with a smile. “Good evening Subedar Dahiya, my name is Rajesh Shyoran. Pleased to make your acquaintance.“

He noticed the still blank expression on Dahiya’s face and spoke again, “ Don’t worry, you don’t know me and we’ve never met before. But I do have a proposal for you.” He then looked around the large visiting room and said, “I’d prefer it if we talk somewhere with a bit more privacy like the garden outside. I hope that’s fine with you.”

Dahiya nodded and rose up stiffly. Shyoran saw that and asked as they started to walk, “Please excuse my manners, I forgot to ask. How are you feeling ? Getting shot thrice can’t be a pleasant experience at all.”

Dahiya noticed that his visitor knew about his injuries and instinctively touched right side of his chest. “I am almost fully healed now. First bullet was deflected by helmet, 2nd one hit one rib and managed to only fracture it. The 3rd one on my thigh was a slowed down ricochet and didn’t do much damage. I’d not be walking around so soon after the encounter otherwise.”

Shyoran smiled and nodded, “Good to hear that. I also heard that you’re being considered for yet another medal now, perhaps Shaurya Chakra this time. Congratulations.”

Dahiya looked at his visitor and shrugged,  “Perhaps. I was just doing my duty.”

By this time they had reached a comparatively quiet place. Shyoran considered that good enough for the detailed conversation he wanted to have and spoke, “Naib Subedar Dahiya, whatever I am going to say to you is completely confidential and you are not to share anything I say to you to anyone. I can proceed further only after getting your approval.”

There are not many people in the world who can say no to a statement like this. Dahiya was no exception and he nodded his approval. “I agree to keep it secret, but first I need to know who you are and what do you want from me.”

Shyoran smiled and spoke, “That’s what the secret is. In simple words, I am here to offer you a job for a unit or you may call it an organisation which doesn’t exist in official records. It’s existence is known only to a handful of people on the absolute top and the work it does is never documented or recorded in any archives, except for a few relevant operational details.”

Dahiya didn’t seem  impressed, “So are you here to recruit me for something like a black operations unit or is it SFF?” 

Special Frontier Force also known as Establishment 22 was formed after the 1962 war with China under supervision of Intelligence Bureau . It’s initial purpose was covert operations behind enemy lines in case of another war with China and initial recruits were Tibetan refugees. Control of the force was later transferred to Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). It’s operatives are trained for covert warfare, rock climbing, mountaineering, counter-terrorism, long range reconnaissance patrols and raids on enemy strongholds in tough terrain. There are some elite groups even within already secretive SFF like 4th Vikas, commonly known as Special Group.    

Shyoran looked at a bee floating on a flower for a while then answered slowly, “Well, if you put it this way, you can call it a black ops unit, but it’s not SFF. We’re, let’s say bit more secretive than that. Would you be interested ?” 

“What will be my job and before that, why me ?” Dahiya answered the question with two of his own.

“Well, you are one of a small number of candidates we have shortlisted. You are trained very well. Paras do mould a man to perfection, more or less.“Shyoran chuckled lightly as if he remembered a private joke. “You have repeatedly shown great skills in shooting, mountain climbing and reconnaissance; you have a sharp analytical mind and you always stay cool under toughest conditions. We’ve done thorough background checks, spoken to your seniors, colleagues and even your friends back in your home town. You are exactly the kind of person who fits our needs.

Is that enough or do you need more ego boost ?”

Upon seeing Dahiya shake his head, Shyoran continued further, “In a nutshell, your job may not be too different from what you’re doing now. It’ll be just a lot more demanding and will require a lot more skills which we’ll train you for. Also, if you do an exceptionally good job, you may get a medal but there will be no detailed citation.“

Dahiya smiled lightly, “So why should I take this job ?”

“Because you’re either crazy, stupid or both. None of the people you’ll work with are normal and between just you and me, most of them wouldn’t fit in well doing normal jobs anyway. Ah wait, I haven’t told you the fun part yet.” Shyoran sounded almost excited.

“Fun part ?” Dahiya asked. 

“Yes, there are a lot of fun things. Do you have a minute to hear it ?

To start with, our operatives don’t have any ranks. You can be a Colonel or a Lieutenant or a Naib Subedar from any organisation. None of it including your name matters in training or in the field once you finish it. We’ll give you completely multiple new identities, depending upon situation. It goes without saying that no one outside of a select group of people giving you orders or working with you will know about your real line of work. Even your colleagues wouldn’t  know your real name.

Many of your missions will be solo while a few can have 3-4 operatives. We have people from Indo Tibetan Border Police,  Assam Rifles, Commando Battalion for Resolute Action, Intelligence Bureau and a few others organisations from all over the country doing all sorts of mostly military related jobs.

If you accept, then your CO will send you a deputation to some place like DRDO, HAL or maybe  a study leave and then forget about you. You’ll come back if you fail the training or screw up in some way. Well, if you’re lucky you will be able to come back in training itself. Failure in field usually means you are not likely to go anywhere ever. In your case, we can make up something about your injury if you wish.”

He gave Dahiya a minute to absorb the information and then said, “That’s about the most of it. There are a few more details, but I am not at liberty to disclose them unless you say yes to joining us.”

Dahiya looked at his prospective recruiter closely and asked plainly, “If you know so many details about me already, you must also know my answer. Don’t you ?”

Rajesh Shyoran just smiled back.

Previous ChapterIndex.Next Chapter.

That long night, I found myself sitting under a rocky ledge on middle of a mountain trying to protect myself from the rainstorm in progress. Above me were dark clouds which had completely covered the night sky and 2 meters in front of me was a long, almost clean fall to a small mountain stream, 400 meters or so below. That stream flowed down to Indian territory about 3 kilometers from my position as the crow flies. Every few minutes, I tried to move my neck and squint in the general direction of border hoping to catch a glimpse of lights on border fencing. All I could see were flashes of thunder in distance which shadowed massive mountain peaks all around us. It was supposed to be a full moon night 3 days later, but the clouds covered every inch of the night sky. The mountain on which we were went on for another 600 meters or so above from our location but we were not here as mountaineers to climb it. The temperature was just marginally above freezing point but felt like the blood in my body had frozen over already. I could neither see or feel my fingers but I was sure that they must be an odd shade of blue by now, even under the high quality thermal gloves.

The rain was falling as if someone was pouring the water down by buckets and the ledge barely provided any shelter against the downpour. I was a bit careless with my waterproof parka. Apparently it’s good in keeping it’s wearer dry only if the buttons and zips are all tightly fastened which I had neglected to. At one time earlier, I was sweating due to the effort of walking on the mountain, and a few minutes later I was shivering due to cold. Some quantity of ice cold water managed to seep through folds of my clothing down to my spine and I assure you, it isn’t a nice feeling. My feet were still dry and comparatively warm due to those special shoes and socks but a large part of my combat trousers were soaking wet. Every few minutes a strong cold gust of winds blew in my direction bringing a bucketful water of ice cold rain along with it. Couldn’t even get up to piss without getting wet as a fish or worse tumbling down the mountain into the swollen stream below. Couldn’t even sleep even if I wanted to. Certainly not a nice feeling at all.

To make it worse, I couldn’t talk to anyone else. I didn’t knew what rest of men in my team are doing. We were sitting too widely spread apart to hold a proper conversation. Talking loudly or even in a normal way was out of question due to two reasons. First, the rainstorm was too loud. Second, we were on a covert operation. So talking loudly, lighting a match or lighter, checking mobile phone or any other activity that may reveal our presence was not allowed. Talking on radio was also prohibited unless absolutely necessary as we had to observe complete radio silence. Only the Major leading our party could speak, that too only when absolutely required. It’s not that he needed to shepherd us around anyway as we were all pretty well trained or at least I like to think so. We had left our base at 18:45 and were supposed to be on our objective by now. But this rainstorm came out of nowhere and forced us to take shelter right on the face of this mountain. Some of us wanted to press on, but the Major who is a veteran of numerous such missions ordered us to stop and I agreed with his decision. There was no path or even a proper trail on these mountains and one slip could result in a deadly fall down the rocks for hundreds of meters. Pressing on in such lousy weather without any source of light is virtual suicide. Hell, even the wind seemed strong enough to push a grown man off the mountain. Although we had some night vision devices between us, they were not enough for the whole squad to travel safely. We also needed to conserve the batteries for actual combat, if and when it happens. Better to wait out the rain rather than risking life and limb.

My attention was diverted by someone coughing and trying hard to stifle the sound. If I remember and identified the voice correctly it was probably our squad’s machine gunner Bheem. He was stocky, built like a tank but hated cold weather. It was a running joke in our unit that his cough and sneezes were louder than the firing sound of INSAS LMG that he carried. Just to make it clear, I’m using fake names and descriptions of certain people in my story have been changed for obvious reasons. Not mentioning ranks or parent unit of anyone in the squad apart from Major’s, but that may or may not come later.

Somebody close to Bheem, probably Harry threw a rock in his general direction which rolled down the slope and stopped a few inches away from my feet. During flashes of thunder, I could briefly see rest of my squad as we tried to wait out the worst of rainstorm. Subhash and Jaggi, our snipers were furthest from rest of us, but straight in my line of sight. Shanky, our only heavy fire support guy with his Carl Gustav was on my left, probably sleeping as he could manage to do in the most uncomfortable and least likeliest of places. Rest of our 11 man team including me, Major, Vikram, Pandit, Viru and Rana all carried AK-47s as our primary firearms and 9 mm pistols as secondary. We had to travel light, but had to wear heavy combat boots, upper body armour with two plates for back and front, a kevlar helmet, popularly called patka. All of it weighed around 12 kgs plus the additional gear like grenades, knife, water, basic climbing gear, radio, NVGs, utility belts and so on. There were 3 axes, wire and bolt cutters each between us and I was carrying one of the axes. We had very limited time to check all our equipment and had done most of this work while we were in the truck being transported to our staging area. I’d have brought something better to eat than the tasteless biscuit packs that I hurriedly grabbed if I had the time to think about it. But there was nothing better at the moment.

I was so sleepy that I’d have fallen asleep immediately if it weren’t for rain. Since I couldn’t sleep my brain was playing games by running images of my thoughts like a dream in my head.

As I fought the urge to doze off, my thoughts were diverted to my life before army. My parents were from a small mountain village in Garhwal region but I lived almost all my life in Pune where my father worked in a small factory. I was the younger of two children, my sister was 5 years older and a second mother to me. Living so far away from our native place, we didn’t have many people who shared most of our festivals, language or food habits, but we adjusted somehow. I was born there, so it wasn’t any difficult for me unlike my parents. My father often spoke of settling back in his village after retirement and living off his share of farm back there. Considering that he had two brothers, I doubted that our whole family could survive on that. Although I liked the mountains, school wok and distance prohibited me from visiting often. So inspite of having pahadi ( पहाड़ी ) genes inside me, I hardly had any exposure to mountains. During my annual visits, I was a source of amusement to my cousins and temporary playmates in the village who could run up hilly paths without any trouble while I huffed and puffed my way much behind them. I wasn’t fat or unfit, but it was just too difficult for a plains dweller like me

With time, these visits got shorter and more rare as school and other stuff took it’s toll. Things changed a bit when my sister got married to a armyman from our village when I was 16. I visited the village after a long time for the wedding ceremony and observed the simple but hard life of people there. It was not like we lived a life of luxury ourselves, but you had to be strong as well as hard working to live in a mountain village. At first, I wondered if my sister could adjust to the new life as she was as clueless about living in mountains as I was. But later I realised that she’ll be living with her husband wherever he was posted which happened to be in Rajsthan during the first year of their marriage. Things changed for me too as I finished school and enrolled in to a college for my graduation.

It was during the 3rd year of their marriage when tragedy struck. My brother-in-law stepped on a land mine while on a routine border patrol and got severely injured. I took leave from college and visited him in the military hospital in Delhi along with my parents. By the time we reached there, doctors had already amputated his left leg just above the knee. He had sustained injuries elsewhere too and most of his body was wrapped in bandages and plaster. His left arm was broken in three places, four ribs were fractured and had shrapnel wounds all over the body. Although my sister’s in-laws were there, my mother stayed with my sister to help her through while I and father came back after a few days. My college and his work couldn’t wait. Even after returning, I couldn’t stop thinking about my brother-in-law. His discharge from army was certain, he had lost more than half of his left leg and even with therapy and an artificial limb he’d never be able to walk as well he used to. I wondered how he would manage to move around in his village with an artificial leg. Army did gave him some monetary compensation, but was it enough considering that he wasn’t even 30 at that time ? He wasn’t that well educated or sophisticated to land a job in either private or government sector easily. Working in his family farms wouldn’t be an easy job either. They had a baby girl just about an year before that. What was her future in such a situation ?

It took 4 months for him in hospital to recover from his injuries after which he was discharged and fitted with an artificial leg. Training to use it and therapy took almost as long. He was finally able to go back home 9 months after the incident. Slowly he recovered and started to move around on his own with help of a walking stick. He also bought some land from the money that he had received from the army and started to work in the fields trying to rebuild his life. Although he couldn’t wok the way he used to earlier, it was still something. His strength and power of will never ceased to amaze me.

Life went on as usual for me in the meanwhile. I had appeared for my final year exams and was waiting for the results when I faced the worst day of my life. An out of control truck rammed the cab my parents were traveling in, killing them both on the spot. I was completely numb from the shock and hardly knew what was going on around me. My sister and brother-in-law rushed in as soon as they heard the news and after rituals were over and done with, took me with them to their home. It was a good change for me and I slowly started to recover from the grief. My uncles from my father’s side lived in the same village but I had only limited contact with them. They tried to help in their own ways and slowly things started to get back on track again. We didn’t have any property of our own in Pune except for some basic household possessions. My father’s meager salary hardly allowed for any luxuries or even a house of our own. Only property we had was the partial ownership of ancestral farmland in the village which was tilled by my uncles jointly. They generously offered to take me in, but it was obvious even to me that eking out a living just by land wouldn’t be enough. Besides they had children of their own. I needed a job fast.

I was getting more depressed when my b-i-l noticed it and asked me about it. He started taking me along to the farm to divert my mind. It was only then that I observed him closely for the first time. He had been really different in our previous meetings. First was during the wedding, a person hardly looks like a human being in an Indian wedding. Second time was when he was wrapped in bandages in hospital. Hardly normal on both occasions. So it was only after I had been living in his home for a few days, I realised what kind of a person he really was. Like most pahadi people, he woke up at th crack of dawn and performed pooja after bathing. After breakfast, he left for his fields nearby and sometimes came back for lunch or at other times it was carried to him. He did a lot of work himself but had hired some labourers to do the manual work which was no longer possible for him. He’d have needed labourers anyway even if he was totally fit. He came back home in the evening sometimes accompanied by a few friends and they had long chats, a lot of time over drinks which extended till sundown. He rarely if ever watched TV and went to bed early. In between, he found time to play with his daughter and help her with whatever little schoolwork the primary school entailed. Overall, a pretty normal life. Once over dinner, he told me that this was the life he actually wanted after retirement. Then laughed over the fact that the retirement had come too soon. I wondered if there was some regret in that laugh.

He was not only cheerful and happy with his life, but also was much fitter than me. Even with his artificial leg, he could walk faster than me even on inclined rocky paths on mountains as I struggled to keep up with him. Although he carried his walking stick all the time, it’s use was down to a bare minimum. It wasn’t like he was completely fit. He had suffered some hearing loss in one ear and his left arm and ribs were still not 100% healed. According to doctors, he needed therapy for full recovery. But that meant leaving his home and fields for 2-3 weeks every 3-4 months and live in a hospital 100s of KMs away. He once said to his wife who kept pestering him to go for the therapy, “I’ve had enough of those fancy doctors making me walk in water, do silly exercises and what not. All I need is weekly massage from the village barber and I’ll be fine.” He never complained about the pain and discomfort to anyone though. He patiently taught me the basics of farming, tending to animals and lots of related stuff. With him, I started to get over my depression but the question of what to do with my life was still there. One day while working on the farm, he was telling me an anecdote about his life in the army when I hesitantly asked if I could join the army.

His expression grew a bit serious at the question and he thought for a while before replying. ” I’ve thought about suggesting you to join the army, but you know what happened to me. Sure, there are lots of good things about the army, but theres always the chance of things happening.” He grew silent for a few seconds then said, “Do you want that risk ” ?

“Tell me one thing that’s really safe . My parents died just like that while traveling in a taxi. You can’t really control such things.” I replied.

“You’ve started talking like an old philosopher” he sighed. “Have you talked with your sister yet ?”

I shook my head to which he replied, “Your sister loves you more as a son than a brother. Although we were virtual strangers before, I too have grown to love you like a younger brother. You don’t have to do anything under the assumption that you are a burden to us. If you want to study more, sit in a competitive exam, anything you want, I’ll be happy to support you. You can go to Delhi, Pune whatever place you like for your studies. I’ll be even more happy if you stay here with us and help me with farming. I already have more land than I could manage anyway. ”

I didn’t know what to say so I kept quiet. Observing my silence, he asked me to think about it and we went back to our work. He must’ve told my sister about our conversation. She came to me next day and repeated whatever he had said, but in a more womanish way. But she didn’t seem too enthusiastic about me joining the army.

After a few days, I came to know about an army recruitment camp about to be held near our village. I made up my mind and announced my decision to join the army as we were all having dinner in kitchen. On hearing this, my sister dropped everything she was doing and walked away from the kitchen with teary eyes. He nodded once at me and then left to look for her. I went to bed soon after but couldn’t sleep. Next morning everything went on as if nothing had happened. Once in the fields, he called me over for a talk and told me about his conversation with my sister. At first she had opposed but reluctantly acquiesced. Then he said that I needed to improve my stamina in order to increase the chances of getting recruited and from that day, I was supposed to train for the physical test instead of working on the farm. So, my initial training began right there and then. He made me run laps around the field, do chin ups and push ups till I dropped and much more. When I reached home that evening, covered with even more dust and dirtier than usual, my niece laughed at me. Sister didn’t say anything. Slowly I started gaining strength and stamina needed to pass physical exam but I was always worried if I’ll be able to pass competing against rest of the locals.

Soon, the army setup their recruitment camp in a village not very far from ours. I took the overcrowded bus and attended the camp along with thousands of other young men who had gathered from perhaps hundreds of villages. Luckily, I cleared all the physical and written exams and was shortlisted . My brother-in-law who didn’t care to leave his farm even for his physio-therapy, came to see me off till Delhi as I left for my training in Mhow. Although he had prepared me for it, the training was still hard, mentally as well as physically. But somehow I managed to keep my wits around me. After completion of training, I was assigned as a Rifleman in Garwhal Rifles, same regiment as my brother-in-law. Even my sister who seemed unusually pensive ever since I declared my decision of joining army seemed happy when I broke the news to her.