Of all modes of transportation and travel, it’s the train, which never ceases to fascinate me. You can shut all the hustle, bustle, and ruffle of the world out of your mind, make a short lived though much needed escapade from the mundane and highly demanding routine, and despite fleeting away at a speed of knots, through a little window you still manage to stay in touch with the ever changing landscape outside. Such is the setting, which arouses the creative faculties, lying dormant or rendered taut by the cacophony and mayhem of the urban world.
I was immersed in a reverie of my own, oblivious of my surroundings, aloof from the world, relishing the much needed solitude and peace, almost hallucinating with a newfound serenity, when I was startled back to life. As I looked up, half weary, half inquisitively, two alien eyes were cast firmly upon me, peering squarely into mine, as I returned the favor with a proportionate gaze, and analyzed that stranger. I discerned just a hint of a smile flitting across his face, resting at the corners of his lips. His two shining eyes glistening like flashlights, his face betrayed his predatory instincts. Impressed yet surprised I nodded my headed as slowly as I would tread on a minefield. As if my nod was a pre-decided hint, he stood up, took a step forward, moved around and sat right beside me. Not that this show of informality sat particularly well with me, but before I could turn brusque, he extended his large hand, which I inadvertently shook, only to find out that it was quite strong as well. With the same steely and piercing gaze fixed upon me, he began in a calculated almost hypnotic style “I have heard about you, have read your book, and also know about your background, tell me what made you leave a luxurious life and join this rugged trade?
He was a complete stranger, who had the audacity of trespassing upon my privacy, derailing my train of thoughts, encroaching upon my solitude, and now was bent upon interrogating me. With a rather stern look I shot back “Who are you? I haven recognized you”. That time worn, crevassed, yet determined face flashed a smile, for the first time, betraying his ageing charm, which at their zenith, would surely have caused hearts to flutter.
Like a perfect orator he began: “I am no one, just another ordinary face, among the swathes of people spread across the length and breadth of this country.” This philosophical quip got me interested. By the looks of things he was an ordinary guy, with an extremely modest attire, rugged features, and a really worn out pair of shoes. Just the sort of guy, you would expect to see hawking around fruit or vegetables across the dingy streets of a shantytown. But he spoke with the conviction of a hard-nosed lawyer, glanced and gazed like a seasoned and instinctive hunter, and had an air of a surgeon who had just performed a highly complex operation successfully.
His paradoxical, ironic demeanor and appearance put me in a fix. Was he a genius masquerading as a street hawker, or roadside material posing as greatness? As if involuntarily I replied ” I love challenges, and with the love of my land instilled in my blood, I have no qualms in spilling it to protect and defend my beloved”. Again a hint of a smile flitted across his face and rested at the corners of his lips. He responded with just a “Very well”.
We were silent momentarily, and as if pouncing upon an opportunity I fired away “Now tell me who are you?” He replied “I am the past and you are the present. I, along with others who were like minded did our job to the best of our ability and successfully accomplished the task put before us. Some did so at the cost of their lives, some at the cost of their limbs, and some of their home life. Now it’s up to you son, to take up the mantle, and keep our charge so we can reach the finish line.”
I inquired “Were you in the Army?” With his face glowing with pride and radiance he replied “Yes, and a war veteran.” This deflated my ego instantaneously, and I turned around to face him, finally interested in whatever this old man has to say. He resumed “I fought in the war of 1965 as a Havaldar (Sergeant) Sir.” And as if by instinct I shook his hand again, this time with warmth and respect. He continued “Those were strange days, when the fate of a country, a whole nation hung by a thread; the fate of critical and vital battles stood, as if on a needle point, each individual cognizant of the fact, that his failure will certainly spell doom and destruction of his country”.
I could see his face flushing, with emotions, and his blood warming up again, inside his veins, pumping against the capillary walls, ready to gush out from every pore. He looked at me and I could see that firm resolve in his eye, typical of a soldier of God. But like the beginning of a battle, he was only warming up, and he roared “We hadn’t recovered from the horrors and ghoulish nightmares of the blood stained partition. Every locality was turned into a living hell, a raging inferno for the Muslims, in which our sisters, mothers, daughters were raped and burnt.
Our fathers, brothers, uncles and friends were butchered in front of our eyes; each household was reduced to a tragic and grotesque tale of human bestiality. Each train to Pakistan was vandalized, looted and violated, and when it reached its destination it used to be nothing but a packed mortuary. How could have we forgotten those gory crimes against humanity, and how could have we forgiven that bigoted, obscurantist, and perverted enemy, who had killed thousands of Muslims, raped countless of our women, butchered thousands of our children in cold blood.” He stopped abruptly, just like a train coming to a squealing and screeching halt; his eyes were blazing and he was gasping for breath. I put my hand on his shoulder and pressed it. He looked at me, bleary eyed. Trying to change tracks, I interjected “On which front did you fight in the 1965 war?” He wiped his tears and began in a hoarse and quivering voice “I was everywhere. I was at each and every front; all of us were the reflections of the same face, rays of the same lamp, which was Pakistan. Plains of Punjab were our den, as well as the heights of Kashmir and Taitwaal. The green fields of Sargodha were our hangout as were the sand dunes of Rajasthan. I was everywhere son, I was everywhere”.
As if to get a little more intimate with him, I requested “I know a lot about the events of that epic war, but you tell me about your personal exploits. He beamed a smile and remarked “Wars are not meant for personal glory or individual fame. Wars are the testimony and manifestation of a nation’s resolve and grit, its ability to withstand any nefarious challenge threatening its integrity. Nations get baptized, through wars and a new lease of life is infused in them. I didn’t want to interrupt him, and he carried on “when Raja Aziz Bhatti was standing like a rock between the Indians and Lahore, Muzaffar ud Din was the biggest hurdle between the Indians and Sialkot, when the a single FF company was beating the hell out of the Indians among the sand dunes of Rajhastan, our shaheens were murdering the Indians in the skies of sargodha, and M.M Alam was busy creating a world record.” I was impressed with his analogies and pattern of expression and didn’t want him to stop and he continued, “The tales of valor, bravery, and unbelievable courage under most extreme of conditions are countless. Every jawan, every officer, every commander involved, stood up to the gargantuan challenge, and wrote an inimitable chapter of human courage in the annals of warfare and human history. From the rippling drops of water of BRB, to the grains of sands whirling around the vast steppe of Rajasthan; from each pebble of stone scattered across the road to Chamb, to the each lump of earth pummeled by the artillery at Sialkot-all bear testimony to our unparalleled courage and valor, for they had never seen such sterling, awe-inspiring and breath taking shows of bravery.”
I was awe struck, as always, at the sight of a true hero and savior of the nation, whom in a moment of ignorance or levity we would dismiss as just another guy, not knowing that we owe our lives and liberty to these great fellows.
As if his discourse had reached the climax, he intoned “there was a Sergeant, who was assigned the pivotal job of the O.P(observers post). As you know he is the one who locates the enemy, and communicates with the artillery officer and directs the fire. The enemy always tries to target the O.P first; because of him, the enemy fire goes blind. That sargeant was at the front of Khem Karan, an Indian station which we captured, and romped all the way up to the Muna bao station, well inside the Indian territory. That O.P was carrying out his job bravely, fearlessly, and diligently, and his company was advancing rapidly under the cover of heavy artillery fire, trampling the Indians under their feet. But to his misfortune, his position got exposed, and the enemy zeroed in on him, a shell burst near him, destroying both his legs. The impact and resulting damage was so severe that he lost consciousness for a while, when he managed to regain his senses he was in excruciating pain. He still tried to crawl and move towards the enemy positions, but his dangling left lower leg was causing him problems. He wrenched open his field belt, and somehow withstood the morbid pain and tied it on to his leg. He kept crawling, kept directing the fire at the enemy till he again lost consciousness. But he had done his job, the battle had been won, and muna bao had been captured. The Indians were pushed back, and we had taken control of the vast space of Indian Territory across the border.”
He eyes were full of tears, and his voice was shaking, “That’s all son- I can’t tell you more”. By now I was also flushed, numbed, and awe struck by such a sterling yet grizzly account of attachment to a cause and diligence to duty. Almost over-powered by emotions I asked “Do you know him personally? Is he still alive?” As if awakened from a deep slumber, he started in an irregular voice “No, no I don’t, I do not know about his whereabouts; he was a hero that’s why I have heard this story!” With a great deal of disappointment I sighed, and before I could open my mouth again my cell phone rang all of a sudden, and as I was busy answering the call the train began to lose the momentum, and gradually came to a halt. The ticket master came up and said “Havaldar sahib! Your station has come”. That stranger looked at me, and as if not disturb me made a gesture that I should first finish then can say good bye to him at the door, I nodded and carried on with my conversation, and the war orator moved out.
Though I was looking outside while talking at the phone, just out of the corner of my eye I caught the glimpse of my mysterious companion limping, and walking with an irregular staggering gait, with the ticket master helping him out. I nearly jumped up, followed him, and almost ran to the door, but by then he had already alighted, and as I looked he was standing on the platform, looking at me and smiling, like never before. I shouted, “You were that indomitable and incredibly brave sergeant, weren’t you? He broke into laughter and said “No Sir! He was someone else! But I roared back “No I know it was you, and I know you can’t walk because you don’t have legs” Still grinning from ear to ear, with the air of a victorious marshal and royal grace, he held up his hand and kept waving saying “All the best Sir! All the best!” And I kept waving back at him, till the train caught full speed, and I lost sight of him.
It’s been a while but I haven’t forgotten him. When the night falls, the world is at peace, the stars shine and the moon is at its marvelous best, I can vividly see him smiling through it, waving at me and saying “the entire best Sir! All the best!” And whenever I close my eyes and start to fall asleep the last visage I see before sinking into an unknown world is him smiling and waving, saying “All the best Sir! All the best”