During my childhood days, summertime inherently implied one month of the unambiguous and unobstructed presence of my dad. He occasionally came over on holidays but those few days always felt like froth. Hence all-around the year I eagerly awaited the arrival of summer. During that brief period, I could leisurely spend time with him without the constant, mind-tapping worry of his impending departure or the unnecessary fuss from my mother on the school nights.
Initially, after I was born, I and mom used to travel with him wherever he got posted but after the horrific incident when my, recently turned fat mother spent a week in the hospital (and everyone returned home with gloomy faces and informed me that my sister would no longer be coming now), we settled with grandpa and grandma in their house and so began my everlasting wait for my dad’s flying visits.
In the summer of 2000, on the last day of school, I somehow managed to sit through the first seven classes but the last class of history tested my patience like never before. My restlessness tremored through my neighbors and traveled to the front reaching Sushant Sir. He glared through his plastic framed spectacles at me before pinning them back to their original position. Satisfied with the effect of the stern glare he turned and began writing the key points of the Dandi March on the wooden blackboard.
I raised my head when Sushant Sir immersed himself in his work and looked around the class. As the minutes ticked away the tension began to increase around me. Most of the students were now jotting down in their notebooks half-heartedly but a few impatient ones like me had completely given up, ready to pounce up from their benches the moment we would be set free. Sitting ahead of me on my right row was Raju, a dark-haired and languid boy with the most notorious brains. Following his gaze I noticed, he had his eyes on the tiny bits of the overused chalks scattered on the teacher’s desk which were an indispensable part of the throw and hit game we played after school hours.
The loud booming sound of the bell reached my eager ears and I sprinted up. Raju gave a loud howl as soon as Sushant Sir’s tall legs crossed the threshold. Some joined him while others laughed. The fervor of the summer holidays could not be denied even by the greasy-haired geek of our class, Ratan who was smiling ear to ear.
“C’mon Jeet. Let’s celebrate in the schoolyard,” Raju invited me, throwing the tiny chalk in the air to catch it with expertise when it came back down.
“Not today, I have to rush home,” I said, impatiently packing my stuff in my bag.
“Your father will not come home till evening,” he objected fully aware of my reason to rush.
“I have to help with the preparations,” I said firmly without looking up.
“Suit yourself. Who wants to be in my team?” he shouted on the top of his voice running out of the classroom followed by the group of boys who wanted to play along with him, a sure shot win against another team in my absence.
I ran back home, stopping only when I reached the gates to fill my squeezed-up lungs with enormous puffs of air. Once my breathing returned to normal I walked inside the eerily quiet house. The tranquility within bugged me. Usually, on the days when dad returned, the inhabitants could be seen scurrying around preparing his favorite dishes. So why so peaceful today?
I walked deeper and heard hushed voices of my mother talking to grandma and grandpa.
“How could they do this? How could he do this to us? Getting posted at Siachen,” my mother was sobbing hard. The fear in her voice gripped my heart. Siachen glacier was the highest battlefield in the world and considered the most dangerous one also, I recalled dad’s words during one of our morning-strolls in the park.
“Be strong and pray to God for his safe return. That’s the only thing any of us can do right now,” said grandma tenderly.
“But what if he-” My mother’s worry was hushed by both the elders.
“Don’t even think about such things,” grandpa stated flatly but I could hear the edge in his voice. Unable to listen anymore I dragged my feet to my room. Suddenly my cheeks felt very wet. I buried my head in my pillow and let the tears shed freely.
Three months ago, if I had known his separation would stretch so long, I would have tightly held onto him and would have never let him go. It already felt like an eternity when he was last here. My misty eyes yearned to see his vivid beautiful smile, my hollow ears longed to hear his pleasantly, booming voice, my trembling hands hankered for his firm loving touch.
I sat upright on my bed. But why Siachen of all the places? Why did dad agree to it? He had said only volunteers are sent there. Then why didn’t he refuse? Why does he love his work more than his life, more than his family, more than me?
A bout of insecurity made me dart to his room. Wiping my cheeks with my sleeves, I picked up the telephone and dialed the number of the army base in Agra. As I stood, waiting for the call to connect, my gaze fell on the old wooden almirah standing alone in the corner.
Last year when dad was packing his clothes, I had stared at his dull green uniform hanging on its open-door which had produced an inquiry for me.
“I wonder why you chose to be a soldier,” I responded to his question with mine.
“Because that’s what I wanted to be,” he said with a smile. “You don’t like that your father is a soldier?” he asked but it felt more of a statement. I lowered my eyes. I was proud of him but hated it at the same time because he had to stay away from us. In school, every student’s father stayed with them as none of them were soldiers. Once I had voiced my dissatisfaction and was made to understand the necessity and dignity of becoming a soldier by the few bravest citizens in order to protect the nation, so I remained quiet this time.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” he asked when I didn’t answer.
“Cricketer,” I replied automatically.
“Do you know cricketers have to travel to other countries and stay away from their families for months.”
This was surprising and sad information imparted to me and I started deliberating over my choice of career. My father laughed at my confused face.
“There are many professions that demand people to stay away from their families. Should everyone boycott these professions and their dreams?”
Remembering his enthusiastic smile brought fresh tears to my eyes and I placed back the receiver. Slowly, I went back to my room and cried silently for a long time.
Summer of 2015
‘Surgical Strike in Myanmar conducted by Indian Army last month where 21 Para commandos were airdropped-’
I turned off the TV, knowing very well that the anchor had nothing new to report and went out in the hall.
“Have you made the halwa?” I called out to ask my wife who had been bustling in the kitchen for the past hour.
“Yes, yes,” she hollered back, “why don’t you make yourself useful instead of ordering and questioning?”
“Old habits die hard,” I commented with a smile. She heaved a sigh and resumed her work. I looked at the wall clock for the hundredth time. The hands seemed to be moving slowly so I checked my phone and heaved.
“Why isn’t he here yet?” I asked restlessly.
“He will be here,” my wife reassured me.
“How come you are so patient?” I asked her as she came out of the kitchen and placed the bowl of halwa on the dining table.
“Why are you so impatient? You of all people should know how to keep patience while waiting. You have been in the same-”
“Yes, yes don’t start over me now,” I said. She laughed and went back in. But however I tried I just could not contain my agitation, so I started pacing around in circles.
“Why are you going around in circles?” she asked peeping out from the door.
“It’s been almost a year. I cannot wait any longer. He should have come home last month instead of withdrawing his leave application for the surgical strike mission. There are so many soldiers in the army. The mission would have been a success without him as well. Why did he have to volunteer for it when he had not been home for so many months?” I ranted remembering the emergency call. My heart had sunk down to the bottom of the ocean on hearing the news.
“Old habits die hard,” my wife repeated my words. I scowled at her back and resumed my pacing.
After what seemed like an eternity the screech of the tires reached my ears and so did the corners of my mouth. I took a deep breath and stood straight before the door. The next moment a young man in shining uniform entered through the door and stood tall before me.
“Captain Jeet Rajput reporting Sir,” he saluted. I raised my hand to my forehead as my eyes welled up, no longer able to control the flood of year-long dammed-up emotions.
“Long time son,” I said, my voice breaking.
Written by Tamanna Bansal