At the end of the rope, when there is no hope,
You begin to separate the truth from the lies.
Explosions usually end stories. But this explosion started a new tale, albeit a very short one.
The explosion was of a bomb thrown from the top of the war-torn mountain ridge. Lance Naik Sumer Bishti had been warned of such attacks. “That is their leverage,” his Commander had said, “but you have to break into that zone at any cost.” The Commander’s words had been enough, enough for the platoon to surge ahead.
The others were far below now, and Bishti, without concern for life or limb, began crawling upward on the hill on that fateful night at the border.
He hoped his guerrilla gear would camouflage him enough to reach the summit where the enemy outpost was. His task had been direct — to take down the single sniper in that outpost; and if he did that well, the others could move in.
But he had forgotten about the bombs. He was halfway up when the explosion occurred. He first saw the light—a blinding bright light that lit up the atmosphere and exposed every tiny fragment of the ridge. And, no sooner had the flash penetrated his slightly myopic eyes than he felt the impact. The blaze came up to him, from more than a hundred meters away, but still it clean threw him off the ground and burned his clothes and part of skin away, leaving him a little more than a mass of writhing flesh.
For long moments, he lay on the ground, bleeding and believing he was dead, but then he began to feel the pain. The immense pain started from his back. He turned to see, but the moonless night didn’t help him see any more than a mass of blood and burned tissue. Then the pain began to grow; and it enveloped every portion of his body, except his right leg. His right leg. He didn’t dare to find out the reason why his right leg felt no pain. He knew what that meant.
And, even in that pain, he was aware of one thing—he had to get out of there. Soon the ridge would be teeming with the enemy soldiers, and if they caught him there, it would spell the doom for his nation’s campaign. His Commander had told them, “Die, but don’t fall into the enemy’s hands.”
He started crawling on his stomach, with only his two arms and one leg to help him, to reach someplace where he would not be caught, where he could die in peace. He laughed at the irony of it—Why had Fate given him these moments of pain? Why couldn’t it have killed him in the blast and just got done with it?
When he had crawled a few meters, he saw the small rock formation. This could be place for him to hide till he died. It was just hidden from the enemy side. The only downside was that he wouldn’t be able to see his own side from that place, but did it matter anymore? He dug into the barren soil of the ground and moved on to the place, which would be his last refuge.
It surprised him that he did not die on the way. There was still life left in him, still a few more breaths he didn’t know what to do with, when he reached the rocks. They weren’t high, just enough to let a sitting man hide from view, but they would be adequate. They were removed from both enemy sides and thus provided some kind of respite from the mad firing that constantly pierced the silence of the night.
And then he found out that he wasn’t the only one who had thought the rocks were a good hiding place.
There was another man there, a younger man, and he was grievously wounded too. His eyes were closed and his clothes were completely soaked in blood. “Certainly he is another of the Commander’s scapegoats, poor fool like me,” he thought. He tugged at the man’s foot to see whether he had died.
But he opened his eyes, and it was clear that even the action of opening his eyes hurt him to damnation.
“Hello brother,” Sumer said through his bloody lips.
“Hello brother,” he replied and coughed up a volley of blood-stained spit.
“I am Sumer Bishti. Who are you?”
“Aman Chowdhary,” he said and winced in pain.
Sumer pulled himself closer to the man and propped his head on a shorter rock. “I am not going to make it,” he said.
“Neither am I,” Aman said.
“It seems we are fated to die together. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? It is good fortune that I won’t be dying alone. What was it, this bomb?”
“No,” the younger man said. “The previous one. The Commander sent me to scout out the enemy, and they got me. Do you have some water?”
Sumer shook his head as much as he could.
“Seems you lost a foot,” Aman said. “I lost an arm, my good arm.”
Sumer shut his eyes and became still. He found the peace overcoming him, and he wanted to sleep more than anything else, but he found himself being tugged on his shoulder by the young man’s hand.
“No, don’t sleep,” he said. “You have to give me company. We go together, okay?”
“Okay,” Sumer breathed.
“How will it be, I wonder? Some people say there will be a blinding white light. Some say we will see darkness. My grandfather said that he saw serpents on the floor before he went. I wonder how it will be.” Aman had a childlike innocence when he said that, almost like a child who anticipates a joyride at an amusement park.
“I don’t know,” Sumer said. “I haven’t had any experience with dying. I hope it is just over. But I only wish I could have seen my twins who were born last month.”
“Oh, that sucks. Boys?”
“A boy and a girl. My wife says they look like angels.” He let out a sardonic laugh. “And I didn’t even get to see them. Maybe that’s all for the best. If I’d seen them, I wouldn’t have been able to leave so easily. What about you? Any regrets?”
“Perhaps… I wanted to have a wife. I have never done it, you know?”
“You have never been with a woman? How old are you?”
This made Sumer laugh. His laugh was broken and punctuated with blood spurts from his mouth, but it was genuine and hearty.
“Why do you laugh?” Aman asked him.
“Nothing,” he said.
“Oh tell me, I could do with some laughing too.”
“It’s just that—you don’t have a woman and now you don’t have your good hand either. It’s better you die, fucker!” He laughed again, and this time the younger man joined too, and they laughed at the cheap locker-room joke till they could be heard over the sounds of the gunfire and the bombing.
“Shh… shh… the enemy may hear us,” Sumer said.
They relapsed into silence, and their eyes began to close, the stars over their heads beginning to dim into nothingness. But they weren’t destined to die just then, for there was a loud explosion quite close to where they sat, and they opened their eyes painfully.
“How long will this go on?” Aman asked.
“Till one side wins over the other, I guess. Till we rout the enemy and take back what’s ours. But it seems for us, there are a few more moments. Tell me, why did you become a soldier?”
“Oh, don’t ask that. That story is quite long; it may not finish before I do.”
“Then don’t start,” Sumer said. “It’s better that we don’t keep behind any more unfinished business.”
“I wasn’t going to be, you know. This soldier stuff is not meant for me. We are farmers, but my father said, ‘Son, go join the army. There’s money and glory in that. There is no money in farming. Our lands have gone barren.’ And then the Commander came to recruit people, and I was among them.”
“What about patriotism?”
“I don’t know about that,” Aman said. “I was here only to feed my family. And now—”
“There is so much similarity between us,” Sumer said. “I am here for my family too. My father was a Subedar and his father before that, and he pushed me into it. Anyway, that’s how I got here.”
“So we are both incidental soldiers, ha! There is so much in common between us.”
“Maybe. The Commander never impressed me,” Sumer said. “All this talk of war and fighting—it’s all political. We are just pawns of a large power struggle. Did you hear about the 40 civilians dying yesterday? They died of our bombs, that’s what. Sometimes, it makes me wonder—whom are we protecting?”
“I believe in you, brother. Really, whom are we fighting for?”
“That’s it for me I think,” the older one said after a moment of pensive silence. “I can see the white light.”
“Ah, the tunnel,” Aman said. “It’s happening. Yes, it really is a tunnel. We’ll meet soon in the afterlife.”
The sounds of the bombing seemed to have ceased. Now, all the two men on the verge of death could think of was of dying itself. There was no other thought clouding their minds; perhaps this was the reason why all other sounds seemed to have ceased.
“I cannot hear the bombs,” Aman said. “Can you?”
“Maybe this is the peace they speak of.”
And when they realized their last dying moment had arrived, Sumer held the other man’s surviving hand in good comradeship. He made a feeble attempt to shake his hand, like one does to someone he has well-met, but his body had now given up.
His words were drying up too, but in those scarce moments, he said, “Well-met brother. May my sacrifice mean something to my India.”
And at that moment, the grip loosened. The younger man’s hand moved in the older man’s. “Are you, my brother, an Indian?” Aman asked.
The realization came at the very end.
The man whose hand he held and died, the man he thought was his brother, was not from his country.
He was, in fact, what the higher powers had deemed to be ‘his enemy’.
And both had died in an attempt to attack each other’s people.