Unity is strength. . . when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.
- Mattie Stepanek
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The prayer call sounded from a mosque nearby as I made my way to the third house on the right. I turned to the door and glanced at the black name plate. Thick golden letters read:
Colonel Khurshid Hashmi, PVC. (Retired.)
I knocked. A young man in his mid-twenties with a light moustache and thick glasses opened the door.
“I’m looking for Colonel Hashmi,” I said.
His eyes flicked to my uniform and then he shouted over his shoulder, “Papa!”
A tall, well-built man walked into view. He wore traditional Muslim clothes – a pale blue kurta-pyjama and a white cap. A sprinkling of grey in his hair and wavy beard told me he was in his late fifties.
He reached his son, who said, “This man is looking for you.”
Colonel Hashmi looked at me. Something flickered in his eyes, but was gone so quickly I thought I had to have been wrong. I checked my uniform, fearing there was something wrong with it. But no, that appeared to be alright.
“I’m Colonel Hashmi,” his voice was deep throated.
I came to attention and saluted.
He nodded. “At ease... No one has saluted me in twelve years; I'm retired,” he said. “I'm sorry but I don't recognize you.”
“Namaste sir,” I adjusted the bag on my shoulder. “I'm Captain Akshat Verma.”
His gaze sharpened. “Akshat. You are friends with my son.”
“Yes sir. He asked me to visit you while I was on leave. He sent gifts for everyone... He should’ve informed you; he told me he would.”
His eyes softened. “Please come in.”
He was disappointed to see me and not his son, I realized. Coming here was a mistake.
“You are a legend, sir, at the camp,” I said, carrying my suitcases inside. “Aadil is lucky to have you.”
He stopped in his tracks when I spoke his son's name, and eyed me skeptically.
“I mean Major Aadil of course,” I added quickly, realizing my mistake. “He wanted to be here too, but his leave request wasn't approved; they could send only a few soldiers back home.”
His piercing eyes hardened. “Where is your phone?”
“My phone? Oh, I-I lost it in the train actually. I didn't have a reservation, and the compartment was over-packed... And someone must've picked my pocket, or-or it must've fallen somewhere,” I broke off with a nervous laugh. There goes my first impression.
“I see,” he paused. “Let the luggage be, Farhan will take care of it. You come with me.”
The man who'd answered the door stepped forward and the Colonel pointed at the bags before leading me inside to the living room.
“Sit,” he instructed, gesturing at the sofa. “Son, I'm afraid you've caught me at the wrong time. I have to go pray, but I'll be back in fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, you make yourself comfortable... I'll have Hussain bring you some water and whatever else you need.”
Lost for words, I nodded politely and he left. I sat on the sofa, and sighed audibly. So much for hospitality... and so much for my best friend's father, I thought sourly. 'He's the finest soldier with an impeccable moral compass,' I'd written to my family, talking about Aadil. Much to their dissatisfaction, my letters had been filled with more tales of Major Aadil than my own.
If it were my family, they would be all over the guest by now. There would be people in the street welcoming us with garlands, and Dad would be at the door with arms wide open. The guest is god himself, my parents believed, and if Aadil had been a guest at my house, he would've been smothered by people and food, not left alone in a room.
But then, he left for the prayer, a part of me argued. And Muslims are known to be strict about their religion. I was impressed too, I realized. The determination required to live such a disciplined life was attractive after four years in the army.
A young boy of about eight entered the room with a glass of water. “Hussain?” I leaned forward.
He nodded. “Are you Aadil uncle’s friend?”
“Yes, I am. How'd you know that?”
“Your clothes,” he pointed with a tiny forefinger. “Aadil Uncle has the same uniform and so does Grampa... Where is Aadil uncle? Didn't he come too?”
I offered him a weak smile. “Your uncle is still in Kashmir. He could not come, but he will, very soon.”
He smiled, but caught himself. “Then why is everybody inside crying?”
“Crying?” Did I just drop in at the wrong time?
A soft female voice called little Hussain's name and he ran away without an answer. Aadil hadn't been granted the leave he'd requested, and I had been. And now I felt bad. Aadil had told me that his parents wanted to see me, and I could bring over whatever he sent. I decided to just give them the stuff Aadil had sent and leave.
I groaned and sank back into the sofa. A few minutes later, I drank the water Hussain had brought and looked around the room. Strange, I mused. There was no TV, no paintings or portraits on the wall, not even a glass cupboard full of soft toys and fake flower vases I'd come to expect in every house. Instead, thick, aged book filled the large shelf that dominated one the left walls. One other sofa identical to the one I sat on and a desk sat against the far wall. Books lay stacked neatly on the desk; a chair, a pen holder and a lamp, each in its proper place. My eyes returned to the bookshelf. Curiosity got the better of me when I saw The Mahabharata and Adventures of Sherlock Holmes –my favorite books– and I walked over to have a closer look.
And then I saw the medal. It was perched up on the top shelf, right next to a thick, leather-bound book with an Arabic title. The Param Vir Chakra¬, the highest military decoration in India, awarded to Colonel Khurshid Hashmi for the highest degree of valor in the presence of the enemy.
And it's sitting on a wooden shelf with second-hand books!
Someone cleared his throat behind me. I turned, my face not unlike that of a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “Oh sorry sir, I was just looking at the medal... it’s a great honor.”
“Yes,” the Colonel nodded and walked over to the shelf. “I received it after the last war with Pakistan... It was a... uh, a difficult time.”
“Why don't you put it on the wall?” I blurted.
He raised an eyebrow.
“I mean the walls are bare,” I added quickly. “They could use some pictures, a wallpaper, or even the medals and certificates... These things make the room feel homey.”
A thoughtful pause. “My religion doesn't allow me to put photos on the walls, and as far as the medal is concerned, it is right where it should be, beside the Quran.”
I glanced back at the leather-bound, hardcover book, with an Arabic title and a spine cracked by its use over time. The Quran. Oh.
“These are the two things I live for,” he continued. “My religion and my country.”
“Of course sir,” I apologized. “I'm sorry if I said something inappropriate-”
He waved a hand. “It's alright son; no harm, no foul.”
Switch to something positive, my subconscious screamed at me. “Sir, the medal reminds me, Major Aadil might get one too– did he tell you about that?”
“Yes, he mentioned it, but by all means, please tell me more; Aadil is a bit shy sometimes.”
Aadil was anything but shy, my inner voice commented. Maybe in front of his family. I figured it was something worthwhile to talk about. “About a month ago, there was some maintenance work being done at the base camp. Major Aadil and Lieutenant Yadav were returning from a routine check when they spotted four insurgents. Gunfire broke out, but they shot the intruders. Lieutenant Yadav was wounded during the crossfire and Aadil carried him back to the base camp. We found later that the terrorists had bombs hidden in their backpacks... The reinforcements arrived just in time. Colonel Singh was impressed with Aadil's actions and promised to recommend him for a bravery medal. Later that night, when we ate together, all he could talk about was how proud you would be if he received the medal.”
Tears began to trickle down his cheeks. I didn’t know what to say. A few seconds of silent tears later he shook his head and sighed. “Thank you son.”
“Uf-of Course sir.”
“Call me Uncle.”
Hussain entered the room again, this time with some tea and biscuits. I helped myself to the refreshments while the Colonel sat across the table staring at me fixedly, as if searching for something.
The awkward silence... now you are a true uninvited guest, my inner voice remarked.
“You must have had a long day,” he said finally. “Allah knows I did. I have had your bags sent to the guest room. Go and sleep, you must be tired.”
I shook my head. “It’s okay, Uncle. I can find a hotel. You don't need to—¬¬¬¬”
“No. You are staying here. You are my son’s friend and my guest.”
“No buts,” he ordered in a tone that was accustomed to giving orders and knowing doubtlessly that they’d be followed. “You are staying here.”
He walked over to the door. “Come, I'll show you to the guest room.”
My body had other plans. “Actually if you don't mind, I'd like to go to the washroom first.”
“Of course; it’s right there,” He pointed towards the end of the corridor.
I nodded and crossed the room to the hall. As I walked down the corridor, I passed a closed door and heard someone sobbing. It was a female voice –no, voices– and they were crying. When I returned minutes later, I heard the crying again.
Did someone die? I wondered. Maybe a relative; Uncle would’ve told me that. Or was it Aadil’s absence? Aadil had been in the army for more than 7 years and I'd presumed they would've grown used to his absence. Or was it me? I was there instead of him– was that it? I was perplexed. Maybe they don't like our friendship.
“Come on son, I'll take you to the guest room. Rest and I'll have dinner sent to the room later.”
“It's okay. I'm not hungry.”
“I'll send the dinner to your room,” he repeated with finality.
At the door, I asked him: “Uncle, is everything alright?”
He pondered over it for a moment. “No son, it isn't. But that is Allah's will… Now you should rest. I need to pray again; there are some answers I'm looking for and I need Allah's guidance... just holler if you need anything.”
I couldn’t sleep that night. Major Aadil was one of the finest men I had the honor to know, but his family wasn’t what I’d expected. The stark contrast to my family made me restless. I didn’t know these people. I tossed and turned for hours before drifting off into fitful sleep.
I woke up the next morning to an insistent knocking at the door. Knuckling the sleep out of my eyes, I looked at the clock. 10:22 A.M. Damn.
“Come in,” I said sitting up.
Uncle Hashmi was at the door dressed in a white kurta-pyjama. “Are you alright?” He asked. “You slept like a log.”
He sounded concerned and my cheeks reddened. “Yes sir, I was just tired and had a restless night.”
“It's quite alright. Freshen up and come to the living room. You can have your breakfast there.”
Twenty minutes later, I made my way to the room wearing a tee-shirt and faded trousers. I was greeted by the sight of 6 people and a table heavily laden with dishes. The room smelled of fresh food and perfume. The family faced me; three women, two younger men and uncle himself.
As I entered, I got the distinct feeling that they'd been waiting for me with strained expectancy, as if they'd adjusted their invisible masks moments earlier and had begun to play-act.
“Hello... Namaste,” I offered, sitting beside Uncle.
Uncle answered with his customary nod. “So what are your plans, young man?”
“I have a train reservation tomorrow for Pune– home, I mean. My wife is there, and my parents. I came here only because Aadil had asked me to bring you some gifts.”
He nodded again but did not answer. Tension hung in the air. Everyone exchanged silent looks and tried to hide their stares. I felt like a blind man in a strange maze.
“So you're Akshat; Aadil has told us a lot about you,” the elder brother greeted suddenly in a monotonous voice and left instantly, having received a phone call. I was grateful for the him breaking the ice nonetheless. I turned to the other brother, the one that had greeted me at the door earlier.
“You are Farhan, the younger brother. He has told me a lot about you; you play football, yes?”
If he was surprised, he hid it well. “Yes, I have played at the state level, won the silver medal last month.”
I picked up a tea cup. “Wow, congratulations.”
“Thank you... what else did he say?” he kept the conversation running, something that relieved me.
“You struggle with mathematics,” I blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
There were a few chuckles, and his face reddened. “Did he now?”
“Well, he's a private person, shares little, but yes, he misses all of you.”
“So do we,” the woman sitting across the table said softly. “I'm Aadil's mother,” she added.
“Oh, Auntie. Aadil wasn't exaggerating when he said that your tea tastes heavenly.” I sipped my tea. “He misses you the most, you know... the stories you told him, he repeated some of them to me, they are truly beautiful. Especially the one with Umar, that's my favorite.”
She didn't answer for a long moment, then tears filled her eyes. She dabbed at them with her with the edge of her handkerchief.
“Do you eat non-veg?” She finally asked, her voice cracking. “I've made lemon chicken.”
The question caught me by surprise. Is this because I am a Hindu? I wondered. All military men ate non-vegetarian food as far as I knew.
“Sure, auntie; I love it,” I agreed wholeheartedly.
“It’s Aadil's favorite,” the young woman sitting beside her said. In her mid twenties, she had agate eyes and pouty lips. A pink scarf covered her dark hair.
“That's Salma, Aadil's sister,” uncle said.
“Yes, Aadil talks about you too,” I told the sister. “He tells me that you two used to fight all the time– and I think he has sent you the biggest box of the gifts. I believe it's one of those teddy bears he ruined when he left; in some silly fight... he still hopes you will forgive him. I'm sure he'll mention that in the next letter he writes or when he comes back home himself–”
With a smothered cry, Salma rose and ran out of the room crying. Auntie followed.
“Did I say something wrong?” I asked, worried. Something was definitely wrong.
“No, certainly not,” the third woman in the room spoke up. “She's on edge today; she just needs some rest.” My face must have reflected the doubt I felt because she added, “Don't worry, she'll be alright.”
I wondered what had set Salma off. I hadn't been disrespectful in any way. You're a Hindu, my subconscious hissed. That's what is troubling them; you getting three weeks leave while their more deserving and beloved son not getting it. I shook my head, trying to dispel the thoughts.
“Maybe you should rest,” Uncle suggested, as if reading my thoughts.
I nodded. You'll be better off without any company, especially female company. I wondered if that was it. Maybe I had said something in front of the women, maybe I'd sounded too familiar. God knows Muslims are queer in their ways when it comes to women.
“But he's hardly touched his food,” the young woman complained.
It was true; I hadn't eaten much. But I felt melancholy after the incident. “I'm not hungry; I'll eat later.”
She seemed to understand. She stood up and walked away. At the door however she turned towards me and mouthed a silent 'thank you'. I smiled politely before retreating to the guest room.
Alone, I pondered over the strange household. Barely three days ago, Aadil had told me that his parents would love me. Funny way of showing it, I muttered.
Farhan came to my room fifteen minutes later, asking if I needed anything and I couldn't help but complain. “Does Uncle dislike Hindus?”
“Of course not,” he shook his head.
“Then there must be something about me he doesn't like.”
“Oh no, not at all,” he answered eagerly.
“Then what am I supposed to think?”
“Don't think anything just yet,” he pleaded. “Wait a little and you will understand.”
“He doesn't even answer my namaste!” I complained.
“Oh, that's just our religion. You see, namaste is a Sanskrit word that means 'I bow before you' and as Muslims, we cannot bow before anyone but Allah.”
Partially satisfied, I thanked him before immersing myself in an Agatha Christie novel.
Hussain knocked on my door at one in the afternoon. “Lunch is ready,” he said, grinning. “Quick! Come on. Everyone is waiting for you and I am hungry,” he whined.
At least the kid doesn't hate me. I made my way to the dining table. Uncle Hashmi occupied the head chair, and next to him sat Auntie. The woman who'd thanked me earlier sat on the opposite side.
“Namaste,” I smiled at her. “I-I mean salaam.”
“It's okay,” she smiled back. “Walaikum salaam.”
Uncle Hashmi cleared his throat and everyone fell silent. “Son, this family has proudly given a lot of sons to the army, and the one thing I've learnt is that it's hard to be a soldier... but it's harder to be married to one. She,” he said gesturing towards the woman sitting beside him, the woman who had thanked me earlier. “She is Zanab, Aadil's wife, and I am proud to say that her love and devotion for my son surpasses my own. May Allah bless this family and the whole world.”
“Amen,” everyone said and started eating.
“You must tell us more about your life over there,” Zanab said after a few minutes of silence punctured only by the sounds of eating. “Stories and adventures.”
“I'm sure uncle will have better stories to tell.”
“Yes, but we have heard them a thousand times,” she complained playfully, drawing a number of chuckles.
“Well, there was this time when Aadil played this stupid prank. It wasn't a prank exactly, more like a social experiment. We were on a trip to the village for supplies. And one of the grocers asked –jokingly of course– if he could borrow my gun and shoot down some Pakistanis. So Aadil took my walkie-talkie and handed it to the grocer saying that we had to... uh, pee.... and if he would mind holding on to it. So we handed him the piece and we left. Then we hid nearby. Aadil used his own unit –his walkie-talkie– and called the grocer. He pretended to be some border security official and said that he had captured two Pakistani families crossing the border and asked if he should shoot them.”
I realized that everyone was staring at me expectantly.
“Aadil repeated the question, asking the grocer if he should shoot the families or not. The grocer was very afraid at first, but determined and angry when he finally answered... He said 'no'. He started calling us names even. He said that killing soldiers in the line of duty might be justifiable, but killing civilians was just plain wrong. Aadil grinned at me then; his experiment was successful. Then Aadil said and I quote, 'Nobody is purely evil. Mostly they're just misguided and too arrogant to do anything about it.' He said that his mother had taught him that.”
Auntie and Salma broke into tears again.
“I need to attend to the pot in the kitchen,” Salma apologized and hurried out of the room.
I felt like a bull in a china-shop. I almost wished I was back at the LOC. The duty might be difficult at times, but at least I knew what I was up against. It wasn't as baffling and queer as the present situation. Unsure, I stayed where I was. Zanab was dewy eyed too. Once she had eaten, she stood up. “Thank you,” she said, ¬-audibly this time- and left.
After lunch, I walked back to the room and picked up the Agatha Christie novel I had been reading. Hussain came 5 minutes later asking if I needed anything.
“Will you do me a favor, Hussain?” I implored. “I need your help.”
“Tell me... Is auntie still crying?”
He nodded. “Salma aapa too.”
“But why are they crying?”
He shrugged. Nothing I can do about that.
“Hey, can you give these gifts to everyone?” I pointed at my bag. “Your Aadil uncle sent them for all of you.”
He grinned and nodded. I wasn't sure if the gifts would help or make matters worse.
Ten minutes later, Uncle, Auntie, Salma and Zanab came to my room.
“Salaam,” I said hesitantly.
“Auntie, I'm sorry if I said something wrong earlier. I didn't mean to-”
Silence fell. “Tell us about Aadil,” Zanab said finally.
I did. I told them everything. It felt good to talk about him; he was the common link between all of us. And it felt better when neither Salma nor Auntie cried or ran away. They just sat and listened, dewy eyed, occasionally questioning.
“Thank you son,” Auntie said before leaving. “May Allah bless you.”
Uncle wrapped his thick arms around me and patted my back. Salma nodded and managed a weak smile. Everything was starting to feel better.
“You're a good man, Akshat,” Zanab said at the door. “And Allah has been very kind that he arranged for you to come here.”
I breathed a sigh of relief and slumped back into the bed. Later that night, I started packing my things when, looking at my mother's photo that I always kept with me, I remembered to call her.
I left the room to find Uncle and ask for his phone. I followed his voice to a closed door. He was talking to someone. “But how much longer will we keep lying to him?” He was arguing.
“I don't know,” said Auntie.
“Oh Allah, I don't understand how you do it! Whenever I see him, I just want to tell him, to send him back where he belongs.”
“Allah is testing us...”
I hurried out of earshot, having heard enough. Of course the mighty Colonel would hate the sight of me sitting next to his precious son, me drinking tea while his son was in the trenches... It seemed as if Farhan was mistaken.
The next morning, I woke up to the prayer call. I showered and changed, and had my breakfast. My last meal there was as baffling as all others that had preceded it. I could feel a certain sense of withdrawal on their part, and was thankful no one made small talk. It was finally over, and I was about to leave.
“I just wanted to thank you for all you have done for me. As soon as I see Aadil again, I’ll tell him about everything.”
With a smothered cry, Salma stood up and left the room, sobbing uncontrollably.
“No son, no,” Uncle said. “I'm afraid Aadil is gone.”
“Gone?!” I repeated.
“Yes,” Auntie said, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Oh Allah, my son is gone...”
“Not dead!” I cried. Silence greeted me. “No... You’re lying.”
“It's true, son,” Uncle said. “The day after you left, Aadil and another soldier were following up on an intelligence report of insurgents' sighting near the border... It was an ambush. Aadil and three other soldiers lost their lives.”
The room began to spin. Suddenly, Uncle was beside me, with an arm around my shoulders, holding me upright. He maneuvered me into an armchair. “Steady, son, steady,” he said, though his own voice wavered.
“When did you hear?” I finally managed to speak.
“We were informed of his fate a few hours before you arrived. You lost your phone and the base couldn't contact you.”
“And you welcomed me inside your house in spite of knowing! You let me stay on, when every word I said must've hurt you so much! Oh forgive me!” I cried. Oh, how wrong I was! I grasped his hand. “Forgive me…”
“Dear son, there is nothing to forgive,” Auntie said softly. “Aadil had always been shy, and when you praised him, it gave us comfort. We wanted to hear everything, but we were afraid we might break down –and we did– and you would find out.”
Tears bathed her cheeks. She did not brush them away; she seemed glad to have them there at last, glad to give in to the need to grieve.
“But why didn't you tell me?” I pleaded. “I would've understood. Couldn't you have trusted me to understand? If I'd known, I would've gone away at once.”
“That was precisely what we were afraid of,” Auntie said quickly. “We were afraid you would go away heartbroken. When he,” she gestured at Uncle, “told me that you had no idea about Aadil's death, I asked him not to tell you... I wanted to talk about Aadil, to know him, to know what he did over there... I wasn't ready to let go yet. I wanted –needed– closure.”
“Where did this happen?” I asked after a long moment of silence.
“Arnia,” Uncle said.
“But that was my outpost! I was supposed to be investigating that sector... My god, it was supposed to be me, not Aadil who died.”
“No,” said Zanab. “It wasn't your fault. It was Allah's will.”
“She's right,” Uncle insisted. “It was just as Allah planned it to be, and we accept that.”
I felt a strong desire to run away from those wonderful people, to bury my face in my hands and cry for my loss. I wanted to be by his side when he took those bullets, to share them with him, and then by his side again, six feet under.
I saw my mother's face. “My family wouldn’t have been so brave,” I said humbly.