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Short Story Contest 2020-21

The Martyr

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“Why is Papa wrapped in the national flag, Ma?” asks Mithun plaintively.

“Why do you say that?” I say, wondering if he is being facetious. But he doesn’t even know the meaning of facetious. He is genuinely perturbed. He has seen the tri-colour flying at the Red Fort. He has seen it in movies. But he has never seen it wrapped around a man.

“Is he feeling cold?” he asks.


This time I frown while looking at him. He is definitely being cheeky. But I suppose I am being unnecessarily suspicious. He is just six years old. He does not know the meaning of death. This is the first time he has seen a dead man. His father.


I look at Rajesh closely. The flag is wrapped tightly around him, like a shroud. And that is what it is. His eyes are tightly shut. Maybe it is my overwrought imagination. Probably the doctor has shut them. But it makes me feel that he is trying to hide inside the flag.


20 soldiers died inTangdhar in Kashmir. He was one of them. The world is in sympathy with the dead. So are all Indians. Four extremists came and killed 20 jawans. What were the jawans doing? Were they caught unprepared? Maybe the soldiers had fallen asleep, lost to the world, battling their own demons, each one of them, just as Rajesh was. Just as I am. Each one of us has his own demons to fight. For Rajesh it was guilt, which was the slow poison that had been corroding his insides for years.


He must have been thinking of that evening seven years ago. He has never been able to forget. Neither have I, however much I have tried.


I look away. The top brass in the military is about to arrive to pay homage to the dead. Rajesh is one of the martyrs. His photograph will be splashed  all over the newspapers tomorrow. He deserves it. He is a good man. It is so difficult to think of him in the past tense. I expect that I will continue to talk about him in the present. It will be a long time before I will be able to say “was” whenever I speak of him.


The dam bursts at last. My tears begin to flow. I cry. I howl. A sad and melancholic baying which is disturbing. I am not the stoic wife of an army officer. I am just a scared, wounded, weeping widow. Hands help me to a bench. They pat my shoulders in an attempt to console me. But my tears flow unabated.


I have so much to cry about. But no knows about it, except Dadi. She knows what I am remembering. Because she is thinking about it, too. I am remembering the day when Rajesh had come to “see me”. For Dadi it was coup of sorts. She had got her friend’s grandson, a lieutenant in the army, to come to meet me.He had come to our house one evening, a reticent man with an enigmatic expression  on his face that gave me no clue about what he was thinking, although his eyes were fixed on me. I blushed. Perhaps our two-bedroom house was not the place in which he could talk to me.


So Dadi suggested that we go to the Buddha Jayanti Park.Although it had turned dark, we  walked to the Park, which was not far from my house. I was oblivious to my surroundings, to the profusion of flowers, the overgrown grass and the parrots in flight.  I was only conscious of the man walking beside me.  Wesat  on a bench in silence,   immersed  in our own thoughts.  I had no idea of what to say to a man I had met just a couple of hours ago, but with whom I would spend a lifetime, in case he said yes. I did not think my views in the matter were of any consequence. I have no idea what he was thinking about, but I was  mulling  over the strange coincidence that both of us were orphans, who were raised by their grandmothers. I looked at him covertly from time to time.


Suddenly I saw a shadow emerge from behind us, which struck Rajesh on his head. Rajesh toppled from the bench and fell. “This is what they mean when they say a man was axed,” I thought, just as the man dragged me into the bushes.


Two hours later Rajesh got up from his concussion, his head heavy, his vision blurry, when he realized that I was missing. He found me near the bushes, bruised, battered and bleeding. He did the only thing he could do. He shook his head a little, as if to clear it, lifted me in his arms, and with sure military strides, the hallmark of a soldier, cradled me in his arms and took me home.


At home I lay on the bed, images of men leering over me, of my flesh being kneaded by human hands, floating in my mind. I understood, for the first time, the meaning of lust, of sweaty bodies and smelly armpits, of weights being rolled on me and off me, of the pain of possession and even greater, the pain of humiliation, as I was pinioned on my back, reminding me incongruously of Jesus Christ being nailed on the cross.


“Say something, Jayati, say something,” said Dadi.  But how could I say anything? I knew that I would torment myself this way, until I died. Because memories like these never go away. They stay to torture and torment, to fester, leaving behind wounds which bleed.


So Dadi did the next best thing. She took me to the bathroom, put me under the shower and turned it on. Jets of water fell on my naked flesh and Dadi rubbed me vigorously with Deetol soap, as if the strong antiseptic smell would wash away all the filth, and cleanse me, like a child reborn. But I was not Christ resurrected, I was Jayati, soiled, debased and defiled by two men who had raped me brutally.


“I will marry her, of course,” said Rajesh, who was sat in the drawing room with his hands on his face, and Dadi heaved a sigh of relief. There was no need to go to the police. He would marry me. But that answered nothing. It would not heal me or my scars. For Dadi however, it was reprieve. Soiled goods were being sold,with a `no return’ policy.


The trauma I had undergonerecurred, on the wedding night itself, when I screamed, “No, no,”as Rajesh came to me, and clawed his chest, my nails long and sharp, the weals on his chest red and angry. “No,no,” I said, as I raised my knee and hit him on his groin. He doubled up in pain, and said, “I was not even going to touch you; I was just picking up my pillow to sleep on the couch.” I was stricken when I saw his face.


He never touched me again, although on several nights I heard his low moans and the words, “Jaya, Jaya,” coming gutturally from somewhere deep inside his throat. So that is what he calls me, I thought to myself, one part of me wanting to go to him and surrender and the other ready to give him a kick if he dared to touch me.


A few days later his leave was over and he went away, while I returned to Dadi’s house, as Rajesh wanted, because living in his grandmother’s house, without him by my side, would have been daunting.


“Perhaps you should find something to keep you busy,” suggested Dadi.

I bristled with anger. “After what has happened to me, you still suggest I go out to earn a living?”


“Well, you can’t live all your life like a lizard hiding under a rock,” she said practically.


“What do you know about what I have undergone?” I said woodenly. “You have led such a sheltered life.” The next minute I wanted to bite my tongue. Dadi had faced trauma of a different kind. She had lost her husband, son and daughter-in-law, when the bus taking them to Simla had overturned and fallen into a ravine. Thank God for the Life Insurance Company in which Papa had worked and the hefty insurance policies he had bought in Dadaji, Mummy and his own names. At least we were left comfortably off, and I do not remember Dadi shedding tears anytime during my childhood.


“My tears had dried up by then.” This time it was Dadi’s voice that was wooden.

“Why?” I said.


“Do you know that we came from Lahore, after crossing border during Partition?” she asked, opening up at last.

“Oh!” I said. “I didn’t know.”

“Well, when I was crossing the border with my family, I got left behind. I joined them in a refugee camp four days later.”

“What happened to you?” I asked her.

“Whatever happened to you,” she said. Then she was silent and stone-faced.


“How many were they?” I asked, unable to restrain myself.

“I don’t know,” she said, in a voice so low that I had to bend my head to hear her. “I lost count. And it lasted two days.”

“Why didn’t you kill yourself?” I asked her with the callousness of the young.


“Because I loved life,” she said, with a sudden burst of anger. “Because I wanted to live. Because this was an assault on my body, but not on my mind. Because even when it was happening, I had separated my body from my mind, and did not let what was happening, touch my being.I wanted to live, Jayati,” she said, her  voice growing stronger,“was that so wrong? I wanted to watch every sunrise and sunset. I wanted to smell the fragrance of jasmine,and savour the smell of the rain-washed earth. I wanted to dance in the rain. There were so many things I wanted in life. I didn’t want half a dozen or even a dozen bastards to ruin it all for me. I blanked my mind. I was a cadaver and they were all bastards desecrating the dead. The girl in me, whom they wanted to rape, was never there at all.”


“I was not the only one,” she added. “There were many girls like me who were casualties of Partition. Some jumped before coming trains. Some survived to live a long life. I met my family in the refugee camp three days after I was left behind. They didn’t ask me what had happened to me during those three days. I didn’t tell them either. I was just glad that I was alive.”


I looked at Dadi’s careworn, weather-beaten face, with deep lines that often crinkled with laughter. I had always assumed they were laugh lines. Now I knew better. “How old were you when it happened,Dadi?” I was about to ask her. But I knew Dadi was born in 1935. She was 12 years old when it had happened. I was speechless. I was 22.


Maybe Dadi’s stoicism rubbed off me, when I discovered, three months after my marriage, that I was pregnant. Dadi smiled. She had no reasons to believe that the child was not Rajesh’s.


“I will have an abortion,” I told Rajesh when I rang him up to tell him.He sounded subdued. “No, your life may be in danger. The mandatory 16 weeks are over,” he said. “Now you should have the baby.”


“Don’t be Mother Teresa,” I shouted into the phone,“Our marriage will never work if we have a child who is a constant reminder of that evening.” “Do you think that not having the child will wipe away whatever happened that evening?” he asked. Hearing him, I was reminded of his groans, “Jaya, Jaya,” while tossing and turning in his sleep.


I was sure that Mother Teresa was wrong when she spoke against abortion. But whenMithun was born I found that she was right after all. It did not matter that Rajesh was not Mithun’s father; it did not matter whose Y chromosome had mixed with my X chromosome. Nothing mattered but the wonder that was Mithun.


Rajesh took leave and came back when Mithunwas born. When he saw Mithun for the first time, something  within him changed. The remote, reticent air surrounding him disappeared and I saw the animated happy man he must have been before he was cloaked in a shroud of guilt.


Six years later I went to Tanghdhar in Kashmir. “It is beautiful,” Rajesh had written, “Although it is a non-family station, it is open to spouses for a month.”


It was my first visit to Kashmir. I saw the snowcapped mountains and breathed the fresh air and felt reborn. Perhaps I could  finally put the past behind me. I looked at the treacherous roads with hairpin bends, the Jhongathat took me to the barracks, the family accommodation that was available to us for just one month, and fell in love with it all.


On the last day of my trip the Commanding Officer threw a party to celebrate his promotion. It was the first time in my life that I had champagne. “It is mandatory,” said Rajesh, “to raise a toast and drink champagne.”


But after the three toasts made by the Commanding Officer, his next-in-command and someone else, the champagne hit me, the floor began to look uneven and I was afraid to pass out. Once in our own accommodation I fell on the bed, and as Rajesh bent down to pick up his pillow I pulled him down towards me, and held him tight. And Rajesh, who had the three mandatory toasts, as well, struggled momentarily and said, “Jaya, Jaya please don’t!” and I giggled. In the morning I looked at him with tenderness. At last I had put the past behind me.


That was three months ago. That was the last I saw of him. Until now, at his cremation.

The cremation takes a short time. Rajesh had wanted the electric crematorium, I am told. And now that he is no more, how can I ignore his last wishes? Mithun stands by my side. He clutches my hand and holds on to it tight. He is bewildered by what is going on. He is too young to understand the meaning of cremation, although he was a part of the ceremonies.


“God, I am hungry,” I mutter once we reach home. Dadi is shocked. She tells me that she had not eaten for a week when the news of the accident that killed Dadaji and my parents had reached her.


“I want to have paratha and mango pickle,” I say plaintively. “We cannot light a kitchen fire at home,” she remonstrates, reminding me of an old custom.“Our friends will send us food.”


“We have no friends,” I argue. The ones we did have had also abandoned us when we were cocooned in our grief.


At last Dadi compromises. She takes out 200 rupees and sends our part-time maid to get two potato parathas and mango pickle. “Make that six,’ I mutter. I am not only thinking of myself. I am also thinking of Dadi and Mithun. But he is sleeping on the bed, his face pinched and his body exhausted. Suddenly I hear him moan, “Papa, Papa.” Just like his father, I think, as I look at him with tenderness. Then I remember that Rajesh is not Mithun’s father, at least not biologically. Maybe I will have to tell Mithun the truth one day.


“So will the Government give you a job?” asks Dadi. “Dadi!” I am shocked. “But you need a job,” she insists. “How much would be your widow’s pension?And now you will have one more mouth to feed.”


I raise my eyebrows. She looks pointedly at my belly. I realise that I can no longer ignore the bouts of nausea that I should have diagnosed as morning sickness long ago. A shiver runs down my spine. A Rajesh Junior. A posthumous child. Do I want it or not? I know the answer to that one.  Yes I do.  Finally I admit it to myself. I was head over heels in love with my husband all along. Even when I felt betrayed. Even though I felt letdown, because I felt that a soldier had no right to let his guard down, and fail in his duty of protecting citizens. Specifically me.


I am having the paratha with dollops of butter when I hear a knock on the door. Dadi opens it. A man dressed in army fatigues walks in with a brown Manila envelope and a small suitcase. Rajesh’s personal effects. He places the suitcase on the bed and leaves.


I browse through it hurriedly. Shirts, pants, uniform, underwear, socks. I bury my face in his clothes. I can smell him. I fight back the tears that threaten to flow. It is not good for the baby, I tell myself fiercely. Then I look at the wallet. It seems a little old and careworn. It contains a lot of cash. And only one photo. I slide the photo out and smile in anticipation.


But it is not mine and Mithun’s. It is of a girl with large limpid eyes and long flowing tresses, a girl whose eyes  seem to glow and whose smile dazzles.


Everything falls into place. Rajesh’s reticence when he came to see me, his reluctance to ask me anything  at home, his preoccupation with his thoughts when we were  in the Buddha Jayanti Park, his stoic, “I shall marry her, of course,” when he was being torn asunder by the choice he had to make, his crying, “Jaya, Jaya,” in his sleep, the love he gave up because of what happened that day, the sacrifice he made when he gave up his love to salvage a woman’s honour.


I read the inscription behind the photograph: “To Rajesh, with all my love, Jaya.”

Vandana Jena

Vandana Jena is a retired IAS officer by profession and a writer by inclination.She has published over 200 middles in leading newspapers like The Times of India, Hindustan Times. The Indian Express and The Statesman. She has published two novels- The Dance of Death (Har- Anand 2008), Clueless (Lifi- 2019), three short story collections< The Incubation Chamber (Lifi- 2014), The Future is Mine (Ocean books-2015), and One Rotten Apple (Niyogi Books-2017). She also writes poetry.

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