The gentleman soldier

“Education is one thing, ma’am. But humanity – that is different. And I think that, is more important.” – Raja Basheer Khan (a soldier guarding India’s borders).

The lonely soldier atop a mountain is sometimes a philosopher. He is also someone who is entrusted with one of the most extraordinary jobs in the world – being India’s first line of defense.

He stands guard over snow-covered ridges, day and night. He watches the desert sun set across the fence. He opens the gates for the farmers ploughing the last tract of India, lying beyond the fenced border. He watches as the river turns into a sea and drowns his camp every year.

He will tell you about his daughter who is in college and his wife who is his strength. He will tell you how far his home is. He will also tell you, how important his job is – for his family.

He will tell you of struggling with frostbites and low-oxygen situations. He will tell you how he helped another soldier, still.

He will tell you of the difficulty of navigating a river which builds and destroys islands as it pleases. He will tell you of the people who live on these islands with a compassion that is rare.

He will tell you of cross-border smuggling and how that makes his job difficult. He will also tell you, better than any economist of how poverty makes smugglers of people sometimes.

He will ask you if you feel fine as he drives along what is affectionately called a national highway, but is really just a dirt track cut into a steep cliff. He will later smile and tell you that it was one of the most dangerous roads in the world. And if you ask him, how he knows that and drives on it still, he will merely smile and shrug.

He will tell you of long marches and treacherous climbs to unreachable outposts. He will tell you how that helps him when he is sent for disaster relief.

He will fret over your comfort and apologize for the lack of electricity and other amenities while showing you into the best room there is in his camp.

He will also wait hours for you and when he finally finds you, he will insist on showing you the gurudwara nearby and with a child’s enthusiasm tell you it’s history. He will blush like a teenager if you tease him. He will also trek miles carrying weights you cannot lift.

He will help you climb a mountain and tell you, you are almost like his daughter and that he will fall before you slip on the sleet and slush.

He will tell you it was nice to see a new face after so long. He will ask you to hurry up and leave as the snowstorm was coming and you shouldn’t have to deal with it -with him.

He is the gentleman soldier guarding our borders. And it was my privilege to have spent some time with them as they went about performing the sovereign duty of protecting my nation.

(a few memories from the 2 weeks spent with the BSF and the ITBP -India’s first lines of defense)

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An honest homage

Death trudged along;
A lonely hitchhiker
In a very alive world.
A few lives here
And a few there;
It moved on-
Hardly keeping a count.
Somewhere, in this
dispassionate murder of life-
Loved ones were lost.

Simple things are
Sometimes,
The most difficult
To say.
Let us try.
There was life.
And then there was none.

No. It doesn’t make the cut.
Let us try again-
Maybe, they are in a better place.
Maybe, there is a heaven
Where good souls socialize.
– that is a pleasurable thought.
All the peddlars of credulity
Would have you believe
In grey heavens
and afterlives-divine.
Belief is easy.
Should we try belief?

Delusion!
What is a soul?

I am because-
I think.
I think because-
I can.
And that is all there is.
To think and to believe
Are very different things.

Shall we try again, then?
It is necessary
To document
Good lives.
History
Is otherwise
A drudgery of wars
And deaths.

There was a man.
And now he is dead.
There is a void
Where kindness once was.
Death was not vengeful.
It was life
That was-
Conflicted.
And yet simple;
ephemeral.
He did well. He was true to himself.
We will leave it at that.

The whisper in the woods

The wind came in today –
uninvited, cheerful.
It’s an old soul,
you could tell.
It knows it’s stories well.

It has heard people breath.
It has heard people laugh
and sigh.
It has carried kisses
and left them burning
on an anguished lover’s cheek.

All this and more,
And yet it plays
with curtains
in my little hall.

It says there is a whisper
in faraway woods.
And the whisper
has enquired
if it knew a girl
by my name.

The wind knew me well.
Trapped in my hair once,
it had heard my fears.
It knew me as how
the night would know a dream.
It asked of the whisper,
this story held in the woods
in which was my name.

The whisper spoke
of love and fear –
and how they shape
men and women;
the degree – it differs.
Some lean on love, some on fear.
Most – on a mix of both.
There is a story in the offing,
the whisper said to the wind.

The wind played purposefully
in my hall.
The curtain grazed my cheek.
A little less fear,
a little more love;
I heard.
The stories are in the woods.

Frail Selves, ephemeral lives

There are nights
when moonlight
comes home
into the cup of my hands
and time holds still, shy
to move on.
Within its bosom,
the night holds
a wisp of the serene
and I glimpse it
reflected in another soul.

Know this –
as the world around
diminishes
and you recognize
the faint markings
of this another;
Know this –
Moments are ephemeral;
however heavy, they linger.
The cup of your hand
cannot hold
all of the light
there is to see.

What then, you ask –
What of life?
Why gather vulnerabilities?

Because it is love
we are here to discover;
Empathy – for another.
We are frail within ourselves,
vain and forlorn.
All that you are –
there is – another;
Know this, too.

On verses yet to unfold

The halls seem desolate. The rooms, rather impersonal. Like the last breath has left a body. Only, here the rooms await someone else. Melancholy inhabits the spaces, in the meantime.

Another onam has passed. Someone died today, as the sun came up.

I’ll pack my bags again and move tomorrow. In the meantime, I linger and ponder on whether these trees will miss me. How I have stayed and dreamt with these trees day and night. They look beautiful. I should pack.

Are all notions of permanence mere transitory thoughts?

It might be preposterous to imagine, that my presence here mattered. The day will look just the same tomorrow.

*
What are we really working upon – each day – every single day of our very short lives? What are we building? What should we be building? A family, a name? Are they incongruous to each other? Where lies that fine balance?

The echoes of the past reverberate through stories and monuments. Walk into an old tomb and listen to the stories of yesteryears- stories of workers that laid hands on every sculpture there is. They must have measured out every angle of every chin of every sculpture. They have left behind, a witness to their existence.

What is my monument? What is my grand story? All these seemingly regular days; these winds I whisper to; these moments I so love – what will they translate to?

“That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
– Walt Whitman (O Me! O Life!)

What will my verse contain? Maybe, I’ll know… soon enough.

Onam of my memories

Onam began at school – with a bucket-full of mud and dirty hands. A bucket-full of mud dug out of the school grounds, set into a big circular cake in the verandah, soon transformed into rows and rows of pookalams.

Onam began at home with Chandrika chechi making a small round circle with cowdung in the frontyard which I and my brother filled every day for the next few days with flowers collected from the backyard and the roadside, using a non-existent imagination.

After a few days of joyously making pookalam and a few more days of grudgingly getting out of bed and making a pookalam and a few more days of telling mom and grandmother to go make the pookalam for themselves, Chandrika chechi would again come by and make for us the maathooru. No one could exactly remember how or why the 3 pyramids of clay came to symbolize Mahabali. Mom would make kolam around the maathooru and try vainly to pass on the skill to me. My indifference notwithstanding, she would write my name and my brother’s with the rice batter.

As a child, I could never get my head around to why Mahabali was given a raw deal or why he sounded like Innocent all the time. You felt sorry for him, our king of good times and angry at Vishnu for being sneaky and conniving. You learn about politics and back-channel power-struggles and about people who are left leaderless.

But slowly you realize, that is what Onam is all about – recognizing the good in an asura king, accepting the fallibility of your deities, a call to color your life, to celebrate the flowers, the rains, the nature and the togetherness. That is why Onam belongs to no religion.

Onam then ended aptly with my mom and my brother’s birthdays – More payasams and more of those sadyas.

Explanations:

Pookalam – a floral decoration
Chechi – Literally elder sister, but used to refer to any lady elder than yourself
Kolam – A drawing made using rice batter
Maathooru – Pyramids of clay made during onam and kept outside the home. They symbolize Mahabali
Mahabali – The asura (technically demon) king who ruled over Kerala.
Payasam – Sweet dish
Sadya – A feast
For more on Onam: Click here

Conformity

Today,
I saw a million opinions
go up in the air
and melt into clouds.
By evening, I was drenched –
in someone else’s thoughts.

By night,
when the judgments
and rain
had finally stopped;
I looked for myself
in puddles
that lay on the ground.

I saw a person,
shaped
by what other’s think;
Empty and dull;
One with the crowd.
Me? – I was washed away.