A Trooper on Leave is the English version of Shahnaz Bashir's Kashmiri short story Fouji Chhutti Peth which appeared in this magazine in January 2017.
Above all, don’t lie to yourself.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
The first spectacle that Ramvichar Koi witnessed on reaching his home in Chhatisgarh dazed him to the core. He was stunned to see the new red refrigerator—that his wife had invited the entire village to worship—smothered with garlands, tilaks and incense. It reminded him of a similar fridge his colleague Ram Lal had kicked and battered with gun butts in a village in Kulgam, Kashmir.
This time Ramvichar had almost begged his authorities for a leave. It had taken a hell of a pleading before Major Gopal Prasad melted. Fighting insurgents and stone-throwers without a break for four months had not only sucked all his physical strength but also drained away his mental energies. When he pictured both, the new fridge at his home and the broken one from Kulgam, juxtaposed, he felt dizzy and week at his knees. The new red refrigerator is not cheap; halves of the salaries for ten months have been saved to make the purchase possible. And how easy had it seemed to see Ratan Lal pummeling that fridge in Kashmir. Perhaps, if I too had executed a kick or two or had broken some things in that Kashmiri house, I’d not have felt such stupefied now, thought Ramvichar.
Ever since Ramvichar had been posted in Kashmir, his mind was fogged with certain questions.
He had not yet properly entered the house but his old mother was informed that Ramvichar had arrived. He dropped both the bags from his hands and at once headed towards the backyard, the village people following him in glee.
Without greeting her son, the old woman dropped the galette of cow dung from her hands, stood up and breathlessly told her son, “I was wondering about your coming…first of all take me to an ophthalmologist. If dung wouldn’t stink, I’d not have been even able to find the globs, not to speak of the galettes." But it was not as remorseful to look at his mother’s cataract-clouded eyes as it was to remember the pellet-blinded bloody eyes of Kulgam’s children. As soon as Ramvichar began to think about those children’s eyes, he quickly shook his head off the thoughts, cheered up his mother and promised to take her to an ophthalmologist. While talking to his mother, Ramvichar’s attention diverted towards the rubble of a wall that once stood on the backside of the backyard. The rude neighbours who lived across this wall had for the second time knocked it down in his absence. The rubble reminded him of a house in Kulgam which had been razed to ground with mortar shells for a single unwell insurgent hiding in it.
While waiting and waiting at ophthalmologist’s, Ramvichar observed that some patients were breaking others’ turns. An old man in the queue whispered about them, “They are the local MP’s relatives and henchmen.” Tired of waiting and waving off the flies that gathered on his mother’s face again and again, he stood up and angrily pranced towards the doctor’s cabin. As he pushed the doorman aside and entered the cabin, the doctor stood up and began shouting.
Ramvichar showed his identity card but his being an Indian army trooper did not make any impact. He was pushed, dragged and thrown out of the hospital. He took his mother and left the hospital in dismay. “Let them go to hell…I’ll take you to another good doctor,” he vowed to his mother.
While entering the house the rubble of the wall in the backyard struck him again. He heaved a deep sigh and decided to meet the local MP for a lasting solution to the issue of the wall with the neighbours. Still angry and sad, he became worried with some more apprehensions: just one day at home and so many tasks…I had never imagined it.
And, however, he multi-tasked, nobody recognized his hard work. He had forgotten to give the new cell phone to his wife. He ventured into the kitchen and presented a box to his shy wife. His nine-year-old daughter, dressed in her school uniform, came running to him, and with a mouth sparsely stippled with soupy rice grains, asked her father, “Papa, what have you got me?”
“A doll.” And as he said the word doll, it reminded him of that small Kashmiri girl’s doll that his colleague Mahesh, while ransacking a house in Kulgam, had trampled and mangled under his heavy jackboots.
His delighted daughter went to the sink and washed her mouth clean off the grains. His wife carefully stowed the phone and started chatting with her husband. “Can’t you extend your leave by a few more days?” she asked him, rolling the bangle around her wrist.
“I had to even beg for these ten days.”
And before she could talk more with her husband or could tell him about her being pregnant, Ramvichar’s mother called him.
“There is still time for the night to come. Must not you take this opportunity to go to MP Charan Kumar Ji and get the issue of the wall resolved? But don’t mention anything about what happened at the ophthalmologist’s,” his mother directed him.
Without rest, Ramvichar Koi headed towards the MP’s house, crushing and rubbing some cheap tobacco on the centre of his left palm with his right thumb. Availing just the first day of leave and so many things he had to do.
MP Charan Kumar’s tidy village was across a stinky pond. As Ramvichar strutted along the boundary of the pond, he remembered Charan Kumar’s ten-year-old fierce sermon which had instilled in him the passion to join the army. Kumar Ji will resolve the issue of the wall in a click of fingers, Ramvichar thought with a great hope.
When he reached Charan Kumar’s mansion he sensed a trace of a festive ambiance around it.
“It’s MP Ji’s daughter’s wedding today, he is busy,” a security guard, outside the gate of the mansion, told Ramvichar.
“But why isn’t it looking like properly cheerful as a wedding should?” Ramvichar asked the guard.
The guard looked around himself, moved close to Ramvichar and whispered near his ear, “MP Ji’s daughter has actually already married a Pakistani guy in London… It’s only a small ceremony here.”
Dumbstruck, Ramvichar turned to leave.
Dejected, as he reached home he released the cow and herded her round and round in the backyard. Looking at the shallow eyes of the cow he forgot all of his deep thoughts for a moment. His daughter found him in the backyard and rushed out of the house. With a book in her hand and a pencil tucked between her teeth, she asked him, “Why is the doll’s hair falling?”
Ramvichar couldn’t think of anything to say. He tethered the cow back to its stake, and went into the house with his daughter.
During the night Ramvichar couldn’t sleep. Early in the morning he took his mother to an ophthalmologist in the city.
Back home, around noon his phone rang. It was Major Gopal from Kashmir. “Ramvichar, cancel rest of your leave and return immediately... Your friend and colleague Ratan Lal got martyred.”
Glum, he was now bound to return to Kashmir without availing even the second day of his leave properly. By evening he was all ready to leave for Kashmir.
He stared at the new red fridge besides which his wife was coyly and furtively watching him leave and squeezing the bangle around her wrist. The little girl chased her father and asked him, “Would you buy me a scooty when I grow up?”
Back in Kulgam army camp, Ramvichar Koi realized that Ratan Lal had in fact committed suicide. This disclosure made him more despondent and dispirited.
In a few days he was doing his normal duty in the camp. One morning, while ironing his uniform he vividly remembered Ratan Lal. Abruptly, he also realized that it was the day to get the monthly salary. Moving the iron back and forth on the shirt, he began to figure out how much must be saved from each month’s salary to collect an amount for the scooty.