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Thriller

The Train to Tinsukia

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Vinayak Gadgil arrived early at the Guwahati Railway Station. He was disappointed that the train to Tinsukia, the farthest town in Assam, was running an hour late.  To kill boredom he picked up ‘The Rainmaker’ of John Grisham and plonked himself in the waiting room. He had developed the habit of reaching a place early during the training days in the Officers’ Training Academy (OTA) at Chennai to avoid the extra duties, the punishment he hated the most.

How and why he joined the army when he wasn’t interested in a career in the uniform? He had his story. His grandfather, a colonel, had served both in the British and later in the Indian Army, and had fought wars with Pakistan. His father, a major, had died on the icy heights of the Siachen Glacier, foiling the enemy’s attempt to capture the post of Bila fondla on the Soltoro Ranges. He was five years old when his father laid down his life fighting for the country. Valour and sacrifice meant little to his simple mind. What he understood, though, that his dotting father would be no more to play cricket with him and pamper him with his favourite ice-cream.

His father’s untimely demise meant different things to different people. To his mother it meant a long, lonely existence without the assuring embrace of her loving husband. To his grandfather the son’s loss was profound more in professional terms.  The old man nourished the dream that his son one day would rise to the rank of a brigadier and command an infantry brigade, his own unfulfilled dream.

His grandpa after his father’s death took upon himself to fill the void. He played cricket with him, indulged him with generous doses of ice-cream and narrated to him the war stories in which the old man invariably played the heroic part. The stories of soldiers’ valour, sacrifice and courage on the battlefield wetted his eyes. Thus, his grandpa became the most reliable friend till he joined the college. To a great extent he had overcome the loss of his father and he owed it to the old man. In fact, he had so much of love and respect for his grandpa that he could never say no to him for anything.

After graduation when he applied for MBA, grandfather said, “Son, you can do MBA anytime. Why don’t you take the combined defence services (CDS) examination and serve in the army for five years. Thereafter, you can leave the army and do the management course. This way you will have the first-hand experience of what your grandpa and pa did in the army.”

A reluctant Vinayak looked at his mother for some solution but he found her non-committal. Before he could frame a suitable reply, grandfather added, “Viny, you can also find out how truthful my stories are.”

He looked at his anxious grandpa. To wriggle out of the tricky situation, he pleaded for more time to make up his mind. His grandfather didn’t press the issue further. Somehow the old soldier was confident that his grandson would continue the family tradition and join the army, and once he served for five years he wouldn’t abandon the glamorous olive green for a drab shirt and tie. Having worn the uniform for more than three decades the old man knew its hypnotic effect.

So, after dithering for a few days when Vinayak conveyed his acceptance, his grandpa wasn’t surprised. However, he wore a look of disbelief on his face and wiped his genuine tears. His mother’s silence carried her disapproval but she chose not to come in the way of her son’s happiness.

Six months later he cleared all the hurdles—the written examination, the SSB and the medical—and joined the OTA. His grandfather escorted him to the academy. Nine months later his mother and grandpa pipped him after a glittering passing out ceremony. Like his grandfather and father he was commissioned into 10 Mahar. His grandpa left no stone unturned in telling the town that his third generation would serve the army, a feat unparalleled in the city. During the brief stay at home he gave interviews to the TV channels and newspapers. More than him, his grandpa enjoyed the flash of cameras and the media attention.

Seeing him in a subaltern’s uniform her mother felt proud and was reminded of her husband’s last words, ‘One day our son too would put on this uniform and join my battalion.’ She was happy that her husband’s wish had been fulfilled. But alas! He wasn’t alive to see it for himself. Though she bade farewell to her son with a smile, she wept and prayed for his safety each night thereafter.

Vinayak’s first day in the palton was as expected. His grandpa had prepared him well what to expect in an infantry battalion. Both the Gadgils had commanded immense respect among the troops and hence the JCOs and men treated him well. Thus, his transformation from a reluctant soldier into a fierce fighter was gradual and enduring. He was humane and caring and that endeared him to the troops and won their hearts within a short time.

After four years he rushed home when his grandfather suffered a cardiac arrest. Emotionally he wasn’t prepared for it. He was too young to suffer two losses within such a short span. Luckily, he made it in time. The old man survived a few days more and breathed last in his lap. His final words to Vinayak were, “Son, after five years make your choice. Live your life. Perhaps, I was wrong to push you into the army to fulfil my dream.”

The sudden loss of grandpa brought onerous family responsibilities on his young shoulders. Besides taking care of his mother, he had to manage a large agricultural land. Since he had a year left to serve in the army, he thought of completing the service. During the fifth year the battalion was deployed in Nagaland to fight the insurgents there. The emotional trauma he underwent left an indelible impression on his mind and he hated to relive some of those moments. In the killing fields, he experienced a spiritual awakening that churned the core of his heart and altered the foundation of many of his beliefs.

A year later he left the army. Later, he did his MBA from a reputed institute and armed with degree and five years’ of army experience got the job in a mobile company. During the interview he was told that he would have to spend some time in the north eastern region of India and improve the company’s business there before he could expect his transfer to Pune. He accepted the job as he saw no harm in spending a few years in Guwahati. Moreover, he was familiar with the region and found it an easy task. Having spent many years in the jungles and god-forsaken places in Kashmir and Nagaland, he thought any city with water and electricity as liveable.

A jarring announcement pulled him out of his reverie. He moved closer to the speaker. The train was about to reach Platform No. 1 any moment. He picked up his suitcase, moved out of the waiting room and picked up a bottle of mineral water from the food stall. A few minutes later he stepped inside the compartment. After a while the train whistled out of the station.

Memories of the region resurfaced as soon as he settled down. The coupe was empty.        Almost three years ago he had travelled in a special train when his battalion was inducted into Nagaland. Most troops were anxious as only some of them had served there earlier. Though the battalion had fought the Kashmiri militants in the valley for many years, the troops knew the Naga insurgents used different tactics.

To train for guerrilla warfare the battalion did the pre-induction training at the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School. He recalled those four weeks of bone-breaking training after which every soldier had become confident of taking on the dreaded Naga insurgents.

The battalion was sent to Tuensang district, the hotbed of insurgency and his company was deployed near a village about twenty kilometres from the Battalion Headquarters. In his effort to gain intelligence about the Nagas he came across as many stories about them as many folks he talked to. The locals and the Assam Rifles troops narrated him the stories of valour, wisdom and compassion of the Naga rebels and often in those tales the insurgents were painted as much misunderstood and maligned fighters.

The most common story that did the rounds among the troops in the lungers and tents was that the undergrounds never ambushed a convoy with families travelling in it, for they had utmost respect for the women and children. And they didn’t ambush an army convoy unless they were two hundred percent sure of its success, even if they had to wait in the ambush site for months. The rebels were fierce fighters and never forgot to avenge the loss of their men. Nobody could escape their revenge because their intelligence network was very strong and nobody was safe until they crossed Guwahati. In the first month itself Vinayak heard many such stories that bordered on incredulity and hilarity.

In a year with his company he lost track of the time as he carried out relentless operations against the insurgents to gain the moral ascendancy over them and restore normalcy, thus allowing the civil administration to discharge their duties. Before his battalion’s arrival the insurgents ran a parallel government in many areas, collecting taxes and dispensing justice.

            On numerous occasions he led his troops in laying ambushes, carrying out raids and opening the roads and providing protection to the supply convoys. He had lost count of the encounters with rebels. A month prior to his release from the army he was tasked to raid a hideout about which the battalion had solid inputs. To augment resources his commanding officer (CO) asked him to co-opt another officer, junior to him. Since the officer was the CO’s blue-eyed boy he couldn’t object.

He presented the raid plan to his CO who after minor changes approved it and gave him the green signal. The raid was to be carried out with minimum loss of time as the insurgents were to shift the hideout in a few days. At the company post after a detailed briefing and a brief rehearsal, he moved out for the raid after sunset. The trek over the treacherous tracks through the jungle with thick undergrowth took them to the dispersal point from where various groups moved out to take their positions. The second officer led the reserve group and he with the main group tiptoed towards the hideout. Muffled snore sounds filled the air. With a shot from his AK-47 the raiding party opened a volley of fire on the huts. Human cries of the dying and injured tore the pre-dawn silence. The bamboo pieces flew all over the place. When the rebel fire ceased, Vinayak closed in.

A couple of rebels lay dead while most had escaped. He was shocked to see an injured man dress up his bleeding hand. Against a flickering lantern the young man’s eyes shone like a cat’s. The Naga gave him a cold stare. He begged for no mercy, no sympathy but sought respect on equal terms. On different sides of the ideological divide both the rebel and the captain shared one thing in common: the youth and the indomitable will to live. They were so much alike, young, hot-blooded and ready to lay down their lives for their cause. But for the circumstance he could have been an insurgent and the Naga an army captain, Vinayak thought.

The rebel had a gun on his lap but he didn’t pick it up. For a moment they stared at one another in mutual awe and respect. Suddenly the captain heard his men call him from behind. With finger on the trigger for a fraction of a second he turned his head. Next second his gaze returned to the insurgent who had vanished in thin air. With soldiers he combed the area around for a few hours but in vain.

Two insurgents had died and three soldiers including him got minor injuries. The seizure included over two hundred rounds of ammunition, a couple of automatic rifles, old clothes, medicines and some documents. For several days after the raid he wondered why the injured rebel didn’t kill him that night in the hideout. And he would never meet him again to know the answer. Perhaps, it would remain a mystery forever.

The incident had drained him so much that he wanted to run away from that region but he still had a month to serve. The fact that the second officer who didn’t fire a single bullet was awarded the Sena Medal while he had to contend with a commendation card didn’t unsettle him. His life had acquired a new meaning and awards meant little to him.

The last raid haunted him for a long time. Often he felt the wounded insurgent’s large eyes staring at him and wondered why they didn’t fire when both saw each other for the first time. It was a mystery that lay hidden in the complexities of human nature and he would never be able to solve it.

After a month a relieved Vinayak bade the final good-bye to the battalion and the army. He carried a mixed bag of feelings treasured over five years. Some of them, he was sure, would fade away with time but others would embed in his character. He might forget many faces of the soldiers he had served with but he would never forget the face of the injured Naga insurgent.

Somehow he couldn’t get over the trauma of that fateful night fully. Among a thousand faces he could recognize his eyes easily if the man ever appeared in front of him. Often he thought whether the rebel would have survived and where he would be that moment. Most likely he would be crisscrossing the jungles of Nagaland in peace as the ceasefire between the Naga insurgents and the army was in force.

The train halted at Dimapur of which he had fond memories. He alighted to see if any changes had taken since his last trip. To his surprise nothing had changed except the increased security on the platform. Over a hot coffee he recollected some pleasant memories. After a brief halt the train moved out. He settled back and wished for some company as he was getting bored. Suddenly he froze in terror when he found the same eyes staring at him. Dressed in jeans and a half-shirt the man stood before him.

“I’ve reservation for the upper berth till Tinsukia,” a gruff voice hit his ears.

The man lifted his bag and placed it on the bunk. Vinayak caught a glimpse of the pistol butt protruding out of the jeans. Petrified, he feared for his life. The man wouldn’t lose that godsend opportunity to avenge the loss of his men. But it would be foolish to run away and draw his attention, Vinayak thought and waited for his foe to make the next move. Then it occurred to him that it was almost impossible for the rebel to have recognized him in the hideout when his body including face was well camouflaged. So, he breathed easy and waited for him to initiate the dialogue. But the man seemed in no mood to talk. He took out a magazine and read it. Convinced the insurgent hadn’t recognized him, Vinayak resumed reading the novel. Once in a while they exchanged smiles when their eyes met accidentally. Out of the corner of his eyes he caught a glimpse of the wound mark on the forearm of the rebel. He had hidden his under the full sleeve shirt.

During the six-hour journey till Tinsukia they almost kept quiet. Immersed in their thoughts, both showed no interest in talking to each other. When they got tired of reading, they gazed outside. For Vinayak the journey was too much to endure and he wanted it to get over soon. It gave him a sense of relief that the injured rebel had survived that night’s raid and was hale and hearty. Though he wished to know more about him, he kept quiet for his own safety.

Finally, when the train reached Tinsukia he let out a huge sigh. Both alighted. Outside the station the rebel suddenly stopped, turned back and walked towards him. Vinayak froze. Beads of sweat trickled down his temples.

“After that horrific night in the hideout I never thought we would meet again,” the Naga smiled. “Captain, welcome to Tinsukia.”

A petrified Vinayak could manage a feeble thank you and watched him get into the taxi.

 

*          *          *

SP SIngh

SP Singh, an army veteran, is a novelist, short story writer and painter. His debut novel, Parrot under the Pine Tree, published in 2017 was shortlisted for the Best Fiction Award at the Gurgaon Literary Festival and nominated at the Valley of Words Literary Festival in 2018. His short story, Palak Dil, made it to the finals of South Asian Award for Micro Fiction 2019. Presently, he is working on his new novel, The Scent of the Saffron.

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