I enjoy time travelling.
No it’s not as technical as it sounds. All you need to do is pick up a memory from the past and revisit it. The link to time-travel is usually around you, like some song, some jokes or maybe a face. For me, this time it was newspaper headline on current situation in J&K. My memory immediately transported me to my regiment, back to my first experience of this beautiful state.
The year was 2003. I was only 8 months old in my regiment; “baby” of the unit as everyone would refer me as, and a tag people carry with mixed feelings. At times, one gets fed up of all the unnecessary work passed on in the name of “learning phase”, while there are times when proximity with the men manifests as special treatment in the form of Nimbu Pani, Lassi, Halwa, dal tadka or even simple things like namkeen poori with chai. .
It had been over 2 months since we were back from our ‘OP’ (Operational) deployment in Rajasthan. The bachelors had just begun to enjoy the peace posting in Gwalior. “Enjoy” had a very different connotation for us. It meant we could shit and bath inside concrete bathrooms, sleep under a well-built Military Engineering Services (MES) infrastructure, were usually free by late evening. On a few Sundays we could wear civil clothes and go to the market. So yes, I was enjoying those pleasures of life during the onset of summers.
It was one such Sunday morning. I was awakened by the loud Marathi music playing in the adjacent room of Lt. Rohan. I grabbed the cup of tea kept at my bedside stool some half an hour ago when my buddy would have made some futile attempts to wake me up, and walked towards Rohan sir’s room.
“Bloody chap, you were high yesterday and were riding my bike all over the Mess lawn trying to show your wheelie skill and you couldn’t even raise the wheel one inch off the ground.” Rohan sir remarked as soon as he spotted me.
“Sir, you said it yourself, I was high”, I smiled.
Rohan Sir pointed at Capt. Anurag’s room, the senior-most of the three bachelors. “There is some message from Second In Command (2IC, second senior-most officer in the unit after the Commanding Officer (CO)); I saw a dispatcher (DR) entering his room”..
“Saheb, Anurag Saheb aap dono ko bula rahey hai (Anurag Sir is calling you)”, the DR shouted from the concerned door.
“Guys, Tiger (the Commanding Officer) has called for an urgent meeting in his den”. Anurag sir informed.
CO discussed the movement plans with 2IC and other senior officers. I realized that our peace tenure, which effectively lasted for only four months, was over and we have to move to J&K in a Counter Insurgency (CI) role.
The CO had tasked Maj. Anand to move with an advance party of few men, Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) and one additional officer to initiate the taking over with the unit deployed there.
I personally liked Maj. Anand. He was witty and multitalented, a good sportsperson, guitarist, rally driver, always full of life with a wide smile on his face. He also used to share cigarettes with me. I was glad that he was the officer in-charge (OC) for the advance party.
In a week’s time the advance party left for J&K. The train reached Jammu station early Monday morning. Maj. Abrahim, who incidentally was also Anand sir’s course-mate had come to receive us with a convoy of 1 Jeep and 2 ALS 2.5 tonne trucks. Jammu onwards all military movement had to be in convoy with proper protection and Quick Reaction Team.
We were to reach Sundarbani, a small town around 75 Km from Jammu, where the Regimental Head Quarter (RHQ) was located.
In a CI role, 80% of the troops are deployed at forward location, terrorist intrusion routes and other operational areas while RHQ acts as a base location for administrative purposes.
Sundarbani had some concrete infrastructures built in early fifties by MES for the Army. Our advance party was allocated one such barrack within the army garrison at Sundarbani. Unlike any peace area, garrison there didn’t have high walls. This was a mountainous terrain with dense forest around, hence there were barbed wire fencing all around the area with a 2 men post every 50 meters.
We both were allocated a so-called one-room accommodation. It was more like an outhouse straight from some horror movie. The guest house was actually a ramshackle shed, with four walls around and one half built wall in the middle of the room acting as a partition. The front portion of the partition had a broken window tapered with a wire mesh and a small verandah, which by virtue of his seniority and service was chosen by Anand sir; the later part with an attached bathroom was given to me.
The path to the guest house was a narrow long dark muddy walkway with high grass and shrubs on both sides. From the main entrance of the garrison it was about 1.5km walk with no lights till the entrance of the house, where it had a small crooked wooden gate standing three and half feet tall. The guesthouse had one 20watt bulb inside the room tactically placed right above the center partition wall, which would offer just enough light for us to see the boundaries of every tangible thing in the room and not bump into each other or any other stuff.
Anand sir sarcastically said, “Buckle up! The handover has begun and you can see the quality. I would not be surprised if they handover some ‘floating soul’, with this guest house.”
I laughed. “Sir, at least we are not in a tent, digging out mud, making holes for our morning deeds.” We both burst out laughing. Day routine was usual, checking and inspecting documents, equipments, weapons, etc., and then falling back to our guest room around 03:00pm to take a short nap, and then again off to administrative block for volleyball game in the makeshift courts. Evening would be our customary drinks and dinner and back to our guest room, where we would smoke and talk, since in that dim yellow light there was nothing else we could do. One fine day after we returned from dinner I noticed our bathroom light was switched on. Since the light was not working earlier, we were surprised.
I joked “Sir, look we have light in the bathroom today. Seems they have handed over the so called “floating soul.” It has repaired the light point in bathroom.”
This became a routine for us going forward. There were times when we would initiate a random chat with our imaginary friend, ‘the floating soul’; “good morning”, “good night”, “see you later”, “enjoy your day” were some customary wishes. We had unanimously allocated the third room, bathroom, to him.
I kept the bathroom light switched on all through the evening. One day when I missed switching on the light. Anand sir commented, “You should not ever be so careless. What if he complains?”
Days passed. We had adjusted well with our third partner whose presence was limited to our conversations. Meanwhile news came that the move was held and rest of the regiment will join once the approval came from AHQ. So now the two of us, rather three of us, had no work to do, but to sit in the middle of the forest and chat, indulge in some firing practice, since the take-over was stalled too.
One day Maj. Abrahim advised Anand sir to send me for the preparatory classes being held at Jammu for Part B exams (Mandatory promotional exams in Army). It was Sunday morning; I had my breakfast and left for Jammu.
The stay in Jammu was a good break. However, it was time to move back from the civilization. I reached my humble abode around 4:00pm. I knocked the door calling out for Anand Sir, knowing pretty well that he wouldn’t be. ?”; It was just a protocol we followed in fauj.
“Sahab nahi hai (Sir’s not there)” a voice came from inside. It was Sanjay, my buddy, who was later nicknamed as Hira by our 2IC (his story some other day). I pushed the half shut door and entered. Hira, with his ever infectious smile on the simple face, and his typical Bihari tone asked “Kaisey hai sahib, ho gaya padahi (how are you, Sir, finished studying?)?” I smiled and nodded my head in affirmation.
I looked at the bathroom and said, “kya haal chaal bhai (How’s you bro)? Hira looked at me, confused.
I changed into my white shorts and T shirt and quickly got onto my bed, pulled my pillow upto my shoulders, rested my back on the wall, lit another cigarette and pulled out the novel “Airframe”, from my bag. . I had few hours before it would be dark, so I wanted to read as much as I could.
In the evening, Hira left the tea flask on my table. I poured some tea in my steel glass and then looking towards the bathroom, asked “Tea?” I waited for a few seconds as if I was expecting a reply. “Aur agar haan bol de, to (What if he said yes)?” A voice came from behind startling me. I turned to face Anand sir standing with his wide smile and a cigarette in one hand.
“Sir you scared me!” I smiled.
“Really? You were scared of me, or my sudden reply to your question, since you didn’t expect anybody?” Anand Sir asked while taking another quick puff from his cigarette.
“Actually you startled me, since I didn’t expect a reply”, I confessed.
Anand sir looked a bit tired, eyes were little red as if he had not slept properly.
“Sir, is everything fine? Any problem?” I asked.
“I am happy you are back.” He said seriously. “You know, we have created a ghost out of nothing and it’s not easy to live with it when you are alone. Once you left for Jammu, I was alone here. You know how long the evenings are, with no other work to do. So I would gulp down few drinks, have an early dinner and sleep. One day while drinking, I said cheers! And there was a reply from inside. Cheers!”
A chill ran down my spine. I wished he was joking but he had the most genuine look on his face. I could see a concern too.
“What are you saying sir?” With my eyes popped out, I took a quick glance towards the bathroom.
He said, “Yes, there was a reply and then suddenly I woke up from half-sleep. I realized that it was a hallucination, a real bloody frightening one.”
I sighed relief. “C’mon sir. You dreamt of a reply?” I said.
“Exactly! Just imagine, what if this was true!” Anand Sir still wasn’t at ease. “Saurabh, since that day I have stopped talking to our creation. I have this fear that what if he replies someday? I wonder, how would I react? Will I run outside or would I ask more questions to him? Saurabh, we have created a Ghost but we don’t know how to handle him when we are alone!”
“Saheb (Sir), Chai” interrupted Tanu, our cook, bringing me back from my time travel destination. I looked at her, and then once again at the headlines.
“Youth Protesters light up police vehicles in Srinagar!”
I took a deep breath, till air filled my lungs.
Perhaps this is another ghost which cannot be handled alone.