Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Short story: The return

                                                                                                           
The morning papers came right on time, at 6.30.  Just as I settled down on the verandah chair with my mug of black coffee, they fell with a thud on the floor.  I picked up the bundle and opened The Assam Tribune first.  I glanced through the headlines on the first page.  They were mostly the usual fare.  About the travels and speeches of the Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi, and the activities of the militants; an abduction here, a shootout there.  At the bottom right corner was a small heading, ‘Christians prepare to celebrate Easter with religious fervour.’  I smiled to myself.  I really can’t see how seemingly sane people can keep on believing that a dead man buried for three days could come back to life.  Well, to each his craze!
Then under the column 'News Capsule’ I saw an item that caught my eye: Sepoy Bipul Das of Kachubari village, who was captured by terrorists in Kashmir, has returned home safely.
The news interested me.  “I must interview the man before someone beats me to it,” I thought, and decided to go at once.  If I caught one of the morning buses that pass through Tamulpur, from where Kachubari was four kilometers away, I could hope to be back by evening.  
     “Anu, don’t bother about my breakfast, I’m going out at once,”  I called to my wife.  
She ran out of the kitchen with a troubled look.  “What’s the matter?  Why can’t you have some roti before going?”  she asked.
     “I have to go to Tamulpur.  I must rush so I can be back by evening.  I don’t want to stay the night there,”  I said, and hurried to get ready.
Poor Anu!  We had been married only five months, and she already had to put up with a lot of such incidents.  I sometimes wished she had married someone else, for her own good.  A long bachelorhood and freelance journalism were sure ways to develop erratic habits.  And the fatal combination didn’t make a guy any easy to live with, especially for a na├»ve, sweet girl who had lived a sheltered life in a small town.
She now followed me into the bedroom and pleaded, while I put on my shirt.  “Please, why do you have to go so suddenly?  Why didn’t you tell me before that you had to go?”
     “I just read in the news that a missing person has returned.  I want to talk to him and find out more,” I replied, hardly able to contain my impatience.
     “What’s all the hurry to do that?  Why can’t you have breakfast and go?”  she pressed.
     “Enough!  You can’t understand these things.  Don’t bother me now,”  I said.
As I set out, I thought about Anu and the way I talked to her, and regretted it.  She was only twenty-three, fifteen years younger than me.  It’s often so hard to make her understand things, and I usually ended up talking gruffly.  I wished with all my heart that I could be kinder to her, but didn’t seem to know how.  I thought of getting her a present on my way back.
I was just on time to catch the ASTC bus plying between Guwahati and Mela Bazaar, on Bhutan border.  I luckily got a seat too.  Being Sunday, there were fewer commuters. We jostled along slowly.  The lahe lahe, easy-going syndrome, affected everything here. Slow and sweet, sweet and slow.
The village roads were bad, terrible, really.  Not that Guwahati roads were anything like good, for that matter.  No wonder our Chief Minister had to be treated for a bad back at AIIMS, Delhi, some time back.  He did say that he thought his trouble was due to traveling on the bad roads.  I’ll soon need treatment too, I thought.  Traveling by the crowded bus was far from comfortable.  But I wasn’t about to bring my rather battered, newly-bought third-hand Maruti 800 either.  A friend of mine, an aspiring writer, had sold it to me rather cheap.  He had bought it second hand from the Sunday Car Bazaar.  I call it third-hand, since I was the third owner.  Before that I had been driving a Vijay Super scooter for thirteen years, but it conked out on me and couldn’t be repaired.  The needed engine parts were not available as the company had stopped production long ago.  My new old car was pretty doable on the rare smooth roads in the city, but a trial on the rough, pot-holed ones that made up most part.
At last, we neared Tamulpur.  The army men on duty, in their normal high-handed fashion, stopped the bus and made us all get down for checking.  The empty bus was moved ahead about ten metres.  All the passengers lined up and walked forward with hands stretched out, to board the bus again.  All this just to prove that we were not carrying arms, were not part of a militant group!
When we reached Tamulpur, I got down and hired a cycle rickshaw to Kachubari.  On reaching the chok, the village square, I asked the way to Bipul Das’ house from a teashop.
     “Oh, the Kashmir hero!  Go straight on this road, and when you come to the stream, cross it and go towards the east.  Bipul’s house is the third hut from there,”  the man told me.
I paid the rickshawwalla and followed the dirt road, wondering which way east would be.  The village folks had this habit of describing directions as east, south, and so on.  After a while I came to the stream and walked across the bamboo bridge.  Then I approached the first hut and shouted “Konu ba aasene?  Is anyone there?”  An elderly man came out in response, and I asked him where Bipul Das’ house was.  He pointed to the path on my right and said, “Number three hut there. But he has gone to Sualkuchi, only his mother will be at home.”  This was bad news, but I went on all the same.
Bipul’s mother welcomed me into one of the cluster of little thatched huts with mud walls and floor.  She was dressed in a home woven mekhela-chadar, frayed but clean.  Her wrinkled face crinkled into a smile when I started asking about Bipul.  She made me sit down on the only wooden chair and offered me taamul paan, betel nut and leaf.  She became animated as she talked about her son.  She recounted how she cried and cried when the news of his capture reached her.  Bipul was part of a patrol party when they were ambushed.  During the exchange of fire, he slipped and fell.  He was taken prisoner by the terrorists though his companions got away.  But after two days he miraculously escaped from their clutches and reached back the army camp.  Then he was given leave to visit home.
     “I’m so happy that my son is back safe and well,” she said, between tears and smiles.  “If he were here you could have talked to him.  But he has gone to visit his mama, maternal uncle.” 
*
When I at last reached back home in Guwahati, it was nearly eleven in the night.  The bus had a puncture and changing the tyre took a long time.  I had forgotten to charge my mobile phone; so it had gone dead, and I couldn’t contact home.  Anu was almost in a state of shock.  “I kept calling your mobile but it was off.  I thought you had been kidnapped by ULFA.  So did you meet the man you went to see?”  She asked.
     “I didn’t meet him, but I talked to his mother,” I said.
     “I know!  You told me a lie and went to meet your girlfriend!  That’s what you have been doing with all these long outings!” she burst into tears.
Tired as I was, I tried to calm her.  But she would not quiet down.
     “I don’t even believe the man came back from Kashmir.  When terrorists catch someone, they shoot them.  They don’t send them back without any exchange.  You didn’t meet him, how can you say he had really come back?” she challenged.
     “I met his mother and talked to her.  A simple old woman, why should she say her son is back if he isn’t?  And she was so happy.  She would be crying if her son were still missing.”
     “Maybe she is mad.  She must have gone mad with grief and made herself believe all that,” she argued.
     “Interesting theory!  Even if the mother were mad, the news reporter, the tea-shop keeper and Bipul’s neighbour can’t be all mad.  What do you say?” I countered.
     “They’re all telling lies.”
     “Whatever for?”
     “I don’t know.”
I was amused by her un-reason, in spite of my irritation.  “How like a woman!” I muttered.
     “What!  What did you say?”
     “Nothing.”
     “You said something about woman.  Tell me,” she insisted.
     “I said ‘how like a woman’.”
     “Now you’re insulting women!”
     “No.  But I’m angry with those who refuse to believe that a poor soldier has returned safely.  Even if you don’t care for him, aren’t you happy for his mother?  Why don’t you want him to come back?”
She softened a little.  “I’m happy for his mother.  But I don’t want my husband to go roaming late into the night,” she confessed.
     “So, because you’re displeased with your husband, you would say that all who said Bipul has come back are either mad or lying!”
She was silent.
     “Anu, you’re not a child.  It’s necessary to learn to think straight,” I lectured.  “What you wish or feel does not change the truth.  Everything points to the fact that Bipul has come back.  That’s that.  And I’m very hungry and sleepy.”

                                                                                                                           Malsawmi Jacob