Death of a Soldier

by Nitin Malik

Braving the scorching heat and stifling air, Kartar Singh, slowly walked into the Police Station. His awkward shadow, wobbling when his only hand tired of the crutch, followed him dejectedly. Armed with helplessness; he desperately tried to make sense of his life. An unemployed man burdened with physical disability"what will become of him? For him, every new day was a struggle.

"Sahib, I am retired Lance Nayak Kartar Singh Sodhi," Kartar Singh introduced himself with folded hands to the S.H.O. of police station.

"Toh...what you want?" the officer asked in anger.

"Sahib, Police has picked up my son Ashok wrongly, without any charge on him," Kartar pleaded, "he hasn't done anything Sahib, please leave him."

"What you mean...Police is fraud?"

"Nahi Sahib, I certainly didn't mean that," his troubled eyes met the officer's, but dared not stay, the lashes fell down.

"Your son is a budding criminal; he is involved in a robbery case."

"How's that possible, Sahib?" Kartar asserted, "I know him very well, he can never do such illegal things."

"Now, don't teach me what is legal or illegal, just get lost, otherwise I would throw you too behind bars. Hawaldar, take him away from here," S.H.O. called his subordinate grinding his teeth.

"Aree sahib, don't do this injustice to us," gripped by a sudden panic, he shouted.

A constable tries to pull him back softly but he protested.

"First, you sit there," said constable.

With muted blues of pain, Kartar sat on the bench and leant heavily against the wall.

"Make him understand how things work here," the S.H.O. said to the constable with a smile mocking Kartar's vulnerability.

"Are you mad or what?" the constable said, "you are fiddling with bade sahib. Now listen to me, if you want your son to be free, arrange fifty thousand rupees before evening."

"Fifty thousand rupees?"

"Aree, you should be thankful, it's too less compared to what we are charging other boys," the constable said.

"But I don't have that much money," drops of sweat trickled down from his forehead.

"Better you do till today evening," the constable warned him and cut him off with his sharp, icy words, "otherwise..."

"Please Hawaldar sahib, I beg of you."

"Don't waste my time and get lost," constable ignored his helplessness and got up from the bench.

Mouth dried with a pucker of gloom, tears rolled down his cheeks upon hearing this blatant reply from the constable. Sweat trickled down from the back of his ears onto his creased shirt. His deformed body ached with impatience; the rock hard wooden bench wasn't of much comfort.

"His son is one of the four robbers caught looting the Milan jewelry shop next to the ATM machine in the main market," the constable mouthed the details to his colleague seated shirtless with his legs on a table nearby diligently picking his nose.

It was loud enough for the entire chowki to listen to; Kartar could feel every single eye scrutinizing every inch of his being. For once he wished the ground swallowed him, his broken limbs, broken dreams, and not a trace of his wasted life be left behind.

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A life of sheer agony, both physical as well as psychological, Lance Nayak Kartar Singh Sodhi served the Indian army for six years. He took great pride in rattling off the agonies he faced while in the army to anyone who cared to listen.

"One had to wake up at three in the morning and jog. Jog until your legs cried out for rest. On a scorching summer day I jogged till the moon went up in the sky."

"Once I was late for the parade...my commanding officer made me circle the huge ground till he returned from his meetings. It was almost four in the afternoon when someone reminded him about me!"

Most people in the village avoided him when they could. For no one had the time to listen to his stories of wars, no one cared for and none remembered. So the brave soldier would regale his son with tales of his encounters with the enemy. The little boy's eyes would widen with surprise as his father shot, jumped, yelled, and killed in the battlefield.

"I was posted with the 3rd JAT Regiment (Infantry) in the Kargil Sector," he would tell this with pride.

"On 20 Jun 99, my unit was tasked to capture Point 5140. As the unit reached the conflict point, the enemy opened fire on us," although he had grown frail in body, his eyes would shine like two piercing stars when he talked, "We retaliated, but ran out of ammunition; and our signal instrument too crashed. Under devastating fire, we were heavily outnumbered..."

"In an audacious move, I decided to attack the enemy position from the rear along a sheer cliff face," Oozing enthusiasm and rare joy, he would keep telling, "Undaunted by fire, I, followed by three jawans, climbed up and hurled two grenades into the enemy chowki."

His son, with his heart in mouth, would eagerly hang onto every single word that his brave father uttered and hungered for more.

"As three enemy soldiers came out, I single handedly engaged them in close fire fight and killed them all," Ashok would see his father's eyes roving over with a not so innocent look, "The enemy started heavy artillery firing. While I was busy fighting the enemy, a mortar shell exploded near me. In spite of serious injuries on my chest, face and arms yet I did not withdraw an inch but kept fighting."

"Phir papa?" Ashok would ask.

"Phir..." Kartar paused for a moment without any sign of pain or anxiety on his face, "I opened my eyes in the hospital. My right arm and leg were amputated."

"You weren't scared, papa?" Ashok would question innocently.

"I have no fear, beta. One goes into the battlefield with the head held high, there is nothing to regret. Whatever had to happen has happened. It is not every day that one gets a chance to die for the country, I am happy that I did it for the country,'' he would say, his eyes crinkling with a smile.

He still remembered the day when he had received a stupendous welcome by this city with open arms and flowers. The crowds at the railway station had merged into a single huge being, whispering, craning its neck, its eyes probing the horizon for the brave hero, who won Veer Chakra, to appear. He could see mothers pointing him out to their kids who looked at him with a mixture of awe and curiosity. The huge horde of people thronged every available inch of space to give their hero a red-carpet welcome.

"We want to show how much we love you and your sacrifice was worth for,'' said a woman with garland in hands.

He was sitting on the front seat of an open jeep and the people were gathered on both sides of street to welcome their hero of Kargil. As the convoy winded its way through the city roads, people lined up significant portions of the route,

The convoy was stopped again by a large group of women who swore their support to him, put tilak on his forehead, and assured him of their all possible help in whatever they could offer.

All local newspapers had written about the son of the city coming back to home. A function was held by the local MLA to felicitate him. The Deputy Collector awarded him 50,000 rupees, a shawl and a memento. The Deputy Collector further honored him with high praise, "Words won't do justice to his worth. Dry speeches of gratitude are not sufficient to recognize his sacrifice, he is not the general citizen, but in true sense the son of the soil who love his country."

The local MLA too praised him highly and announced, "You have risked your life for our Mother India and made our city proud. We won't let you down. On the behalf of my party, I announce 2-acre plot for him in Malviya Nagar, as a small token of love and respect." The entire hall echoed with loud claps. Kartar Singh was overwhelmed with emotions.

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Sitting in the rickshaw in his torn shirt, the trouser and sleeve fluttering, he was immersed in the deep flood of tension. The rant of evening traffic seemed like a rebuke, horns and loudspeakers composing a condemning noise, a chorus uttering failure, failure, and sheer failure.

Against a hostile society, crestfallen; first time in his life, he felt so helpless. His wife died without the proper treatment because of lack of money. Ashok, the only graduate in his entire family, was unemployed from past two years. His pension, amount to 4,200 rupees, was not enough even to meet the day-to-day expenses.

Promises were made to be broken. The announced 2-acre plot with much ado in front of a big crowd was never materialized. He made countless rounds to the local housing administration and the Deputy Collector's office for the much-fantasized plot, but nothing concrete came out of those visits except sheer wastage of time, money and energy. All hopes and dreams were shattered.

And today, his only son was picked up by police just to make a scapegoat. Kartar Singh was a broken man inside-out. His ever-lasting grit, which tested against deadly fire on the battleground, was shattered into pieces by his own people.

He fell back against the wall licking the sweaty salt on his lips. And the terrible emotions broke through his restraints and took over his mind. He shut his teary eyes and burrowed into his mind.

"My own countrymen are today hell bent upon breaking my spine, people for whom I had risked my life once," his bitterness coming to the fore, stated the truth "I had lost my one arm and one leg in the war but never lamented for this," his mind raced with thoughts, "all I wished for was a simple respected life after coming on pension from the army. Did I ask too much?"

Face flushed in the heat of the moment, he opened the trunk and brought out his medals. First time, he had tears in-stead of pride while looking at the medals. With head bowed and face filled with relinquished anger, he stared at the medals wiping away the tears. Strangely, he felt a mockery emerging out of those medals for his grief. He gave a last look to all medals he once was so fond of. He pinned the medals on his crumpled shirt and gazed at the mirror.

"Was it worth?" he whispered.

Sharp edges of sickle slicing his palm-veins, he could feel himself sinking into a deep shroud. When he looked at his blood-ridden wrist, choking off a sob, he let out a long sigh for his exhausted being, his useless being; out-and-out drowned in his deep ocean of melancholy. Deafening silence of screams erupted from his soul, unmoved as he fell dead in the pool of blood...

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