A Distant Death
In cyclical time, in a land apart, Dalbir Singh Gill sprawls on a cot in village Mallian Wala, district Faridkot on India’ s side of partitioned Punjab. He stares in increasing concentration at circular wavelets of light undulating on the wall of cement opposite. Golden motes of dust float dizzily in swathes of wintry sunshine. His head feels heavy from drinking moonshine all night. It is the season—for marriage-festivities, gambling-debts, death-feasts and drinking-feats. The crisscross pattern of the blue and black nylon charpai cuts into his back. He turns on to his side and looks out onto the world through the slit of a half-open eye.
Outside is a blur of movement and sound. His wife is a tawny-orange whirl as she steps in and out of several simultaneous frames. Milking the buffalo, shouting at the majhbi to bring more fodder, getting her hair oiled by the majhbi’s woman. At times he wishes the new Gurudwara had not been built so close, just across the old chappar on land reclaimed from theWaqf Board. Or that Santokh Singh’ s son had not donated money for the shiny, new loudspeaker installed there. It puzzles him as he grows older, that God’ sWord should sound so harsh in the pebble-mouth of the Granthiji. The sky burns with a blue fire and high above, the vultures begin their slow spiral downward to look for carrion floating on the green-blue scum of the chappar. He turns on to his other side, back toward the quiet gloom of the cement wall.
Coming is an ArmyJeep, O Coming is an ArmyJeep, children shout in glee as they leap past the lane outside the courtyard. Their bare feet kick up small clouds of dust along the grassy mud track. Later, years later, he would still be able to feel the sound of their small footsteps juddering through his bones with a strange intensity. They are asking the way, O they are asking the way to Dalbir-of-the-Chajjalwaddi-Family’ s house, the children call out as they run past, jostling each other like nimble goats in a frenzy.
His wife stops in mid-shout, her mouth forming an elongated O. The majhbi stops in mid-track, the pile of fodder balanced on his head and the majhban’ s hand stops in mid-air, long gray strands of Dalbir’s wife’ s straggly hair caught in the comb. How still they seem, like actors striking an exaggerated pose during a Ram Lila on stage. Like stuffed dummy figures to scare away the crows. Dalbir can feel the vibrations from the jeep’ s wheels as they turn into the wide-open gates to the courtyard. He sits up, instinctively straightens his patka, and reaches for his gurgaabis. The frozen tableau of the trio breaks up and they turn toward him, mouths slack and eyes expectant. He barks out a request for tea. He can feel his wife’s eyes clawing his back even as she turns away toward the chullah. Their son Amarjit Singh, Jittu in affection, is an officer in the Indian Army. 2nd Lieutenant in the Gurkha Rifles to be precise, currently posted in Jammu and Kashmir, to deal with the insurgency there.
The jeep shudders to a halt. The soldier at the wheel jumps out to open the door for the two officers and salutes them smartly as they step out. Dalbir prepares his suddenly shaky hand to form a salute, reaching out to old memories of his own days in the army. He retired as a Lance Naik, from the ranks, though everyone in the village respectfully addresses him as Subedar. He owns land, after all. And his son is an officer. The officers move stiffly toward him and salute him in unison, before his own trembly fingers can manage the unfamiliar task. In that sunlit instant, when the officers’ fingers flash upward in a bright arc to their foreheads, he knows. He knows why they have come. And why they, officers in the Indian Army, salute him—a retired Lance Naik with a monthly pension of four hundred rupees. Not him. Not “Dalbir Singh of the Chajjalwaddi Family” as everyone in the village refers to him, to distinguish him from the other Dalbir, the “Dalbir Singh of the Golimaar Family.” No, him. The Father. The Father of 2nd Lieutenant Amarjit Singh, Late, of the 17 Gorkha Rifles. Officer in the Indian Army. Posthumous recipient of the Shaurya Chakra, bravery award given to those who demonstrate conspicuous gallantry otherwise than in the face of the enemy.
The mother wheels around, flinging the teacup away, flinching as it hits the ground. The majhban begins the ritual wail.
The neighbors start streaming in.
It is late afternoon and Dalbir is at the Army unit headquarters in Faridkot. The body will be flown in by Army helicopter to the base. He has already signed all the forms—the forms of release, the forms of capture, the forms of denial, the forms of acceptance. He is hemmed in everywhere, wherever he turns, by men in white turbans. White turbans for grief and condolence. The cloth nicely pressed, neatly wound into crisp pleats. Turbans of mulmul, thick cotton and polyester. Tied in the sikh style, the rajasthani style, the village style, the schoolmaster style, the pop singer style and the army man style. He touches his own head. He does not have on a proper turban, it is a blue-and-white checked cloth he had wound around his head in the morning. He had wanted to change before setting off for Faridkot in his nephew’ s car. But he did not know where his wife kept his turbans and he did not want to ask her, with everyone looking on. He was rummaging in the trunk in the inner room, when his idiot of a nephew thought he was looking for his army rifle, to make a dramatic statement and shoot himself. And so dozens of prying hands had pulled him away, out into the sunlight and crammed him into the Maruti van’s backseat. It irks him now, as he sits in the outside office of the Army base, surrounded by a sea of white turbans. It irks him, that he is a retired Lance Naik and has to receive his son’s body wearing a patka and not a proper turban. His nephew is a fool and grows worse over the years. Constantly eying the land. Now that the son was in the army and not always home for the harvest, the nephew’ s eye had turned more and more proprietary. Fool, he thinks to himself as he watches his nephew talk to the officers in hushed, important tones. The son the soldier is dead, but the father the ex-soldier is still alive. You shouldn’ t look toward the land. Not just yet. I still have my army rifle, hidden where you cannot find it.
His stomach growls angrily, embarrassing him. He cannot remember eating last night; the evening had drowned itself and him in drink. The nephew arranges for tea from the dhaba outside the gate to be brought in. The milky-sweet liquid burns his throat when he tries gulping it down. The body arrives just then. He looks outside through the wood framed window and sees the helicopter hovering gracefully, arranging its landing space. It shocks him, that they would bring the body in a body-bag. He does not know what to do with the half-finished glass of tea. He feels awkward sipping tea and watching the soldiers bring the body in. There is no space around the chair, to place the glass where some one’ s foot cannot casually knock it over. No one else seems to notice his predicament as they gaze at the helicopter and the soldiers, as if watching a patriotic film on television.
It is twilight when the body comes home. Everyone crowds him out as he gets out of the van. The nephew orders people about in a calm tone. The cot from the inner room is taken outside and the body taken inside the room and placed on the floor. The mother’ s hair is still uncombed, the comb still stuck midway down her tresses. She has screamed herself hoarse and now gazes blankly into mid-air. Someone leads her close to the body. She falls on it, crying hysterically. Someone else pulls her away, back to the woman-pack. The women want to bathe the body. He wanders out into the cool emptiness of the courtyard.
When he was young, he had come across a corpse in a wayside ditch one day. Suddenly the morning’ s mists had cleared and a ray of sunshine had outlined a man’ s body sprawled in careless abandon, his face hidden deep in the clean green grass. The man’ s stillness catches at his heart now, as it had done on that distant misty morning. He tries to conjure up a clear memory of his son’ s face but fails. Images of the boy as a baby running naked into the cowshed, escaping from his mother’ s embrace, get superimposed on the boy’ s adult face. He leans over the face of the body and tentatively touches its waxy-cold cheek. It is the face of a slightly hostile stranger, the same face his son wore on his visits home from his city-college, a brooding presence sullenly eking out his holidays in the village.
It is very late when they get back from the funeral ghaat. He wanders around the dark courtyard, inhaling the silence. His wife coughs in the inner room. She mutters in her sleep, her drugged words sounding abnormally harsh in the stillness of the night. The nephew’ s wife has left a solitary diva filled with ghee burning by the doorway. He watches the flame waver and bend till the tears come, making harsh tracks down his cheeks. The air quivers when his chest stops heaving, and he can feel the moist heat of his tears when he finally draws breath. The night does not feel different from any other. The stars look the same.
Dalbir tries to recall the last conversation he had with his son, but can only come up with a fragment from eighteen years ago when the boy was five, about fireflies and moth wings. He feels tricked by his mind. They must have had other conversations. Only he cannot remember them now. And his son had not talked to him about his experiences or his hidden desires, about going to Delhi one summer for a vacation with his friends, about the movies he watched in sweltering shadowy theaters, about his secret experiments with cigarettes behind the trekh tree. About his decision to join the Indian army.
Dalbir climbs the stone stairs to the outer terrace. It is too cold to sleep outdoors but he drags a string cot out from under the eaves and lies down for a while. The khad-khad of a tanga’ s wheels on the main street disturbs the fixity of his thoughts. Through the gaps in the balustrade he watches as the horse’ s breath comes out in little puffs of steam and his hooves strike aquamarine sparks off the metallic road. He wonders again why the boy joined the army. There was enough land for an only son.
Not too long ago, when the boy was a teenager, Dalbir used to have terrible nightmares. That was when the boy had disappeared from home. No one in his college hostel knew the precise day when he had stopped attending classes and stopped eating in the hostel mess. Those were troubled times, at the peak of the separatist movement in Punjab, and in his dreams, Dalbir mourned for the boy as one lost, trampled by the hurried footsteps of history. Dalbir dreamed the boy had become part of a splinter terrorist group that specialised in eliminating Members of Parliament. The terrorists had begun to bite the political hands that fed them. Hands that had a decade ago, reached out all the way from New Delhi, to carefully stroke and nurture them. When the politicians who exploited the terrorists decided to eliminate them, and when the police backlash began, his son and others like him would be the first targets of the cops’ bullets. Every time a dog barked or a man coughed in the blackness of the night, Dalbir would start up violently in bed. A violin played screeching scratchy notes incessantly in his head. Every time he heard footsteps at night, he thought the police had come to drag him to the lockup and interrogate him about his son’ s whereabouts. Or make him watch as they sent police dogs into golden wheat fields, to drag his cowering son out. And then shoot the boy dead, like a mad dog at high noon, foaming at the mouth. Like they shot those countless young men, slaughtered in fake “encounters” between the police and the terrorists.
Two years later the boy had come home one night, his sullen presence lightening the ever present gnawing ache in Dalbir’ s heart. A year later the lad had joined the Indian army. Dalbir had never asked why. He was just grateful for the boy’ s presence when home on vacation, beside him on the tractor while ploughing the land, and when they went to the grain market together.
Strange that seasons change but life does not come back to normal. The boy had joined the Army. But as an officer, unlike his old man. And now the lad was dead. Like a young trekh tree in the prime of life cut down and chopped up as firewood. Dalbir wonders if there is a father somewhere in Kashmir tonight, waiting for news of his terrorist son’ s death. He wonders if the Indian Army gives the bodies of dead terrorists back to their families. At least his own lad had a proper cremation and would be given a medal for valour. He wonders if the terrorists his son had killed would be buried all together in a mass grave, unmarked except for green grass growing above their heads. He feels distressed and ashamed by the turn his thoughts take.
Memories of the boy’ s thoughts come to him filtered through the mother’ s words. She said the boy felt ashamed of his father’ s drinking bouts, his drunken stupors and the riotous evening mehfils with friends. She said the boy felt the father would drink himself into an early grave. Drink away the boy’ s inheritance. Gamble away the land. He tries to pick his way carefully amongst the memory of her jumbled words, looking for shards of his son’ s feelings. If death was just the boy going away, the boy had left home, left him, long ago. He feels uneasy. The star-constellations wend their pre-destined way overhead. The Hunter wheels toward the south and the Seven Wise Men look sleepy.
Years and years from now, Dalbir had been lucky to escape the bloody carnage that history called the Punjab-Partition. The gutters running with sluggish blood, the krrch-krrch of chappals stumbling on railway platforms sticky with blood, the sweet, sickening smell of burning flesh, the skies black with smoke from torched cities. He sits up in a panic now and feels around the cot but cannot find his blanket in the dark. A small lantern flits in his nephew’ s fields like a lonesome firefly on a summer’ s evening. He feels the wind change. It must be close to dawn now.
He closes his eyes and finds he can see into the light-green eyes of a Dogri soldier from his ex-regiment. The man was dead these thirty years now, his body blown up by a fragment of shrapnel. He used to recite Shiv Kumar’ s poetry often. Dalbir thinks Shiv Kumar’ s poetry too modern, too absorbed with the poet’ s own self. He tries to remember the opening lines of an ancient war-ballad instead, but the voice of the light-eyed soldier interrupts his thoughts.
Assan taan joban rutey marna, Mudd jaana asaan bhare bharaaye.
I will die when young, turn away with the power of pain still sealed in.
He feels a pang as the soldier’ s faraway eyes come into sharp focus. The disembodied voice of the Granthi, emanating from the loudspeaker, breaks into his reverie. It is dawn. The village stirs to life.
It is nearly a week since the body was cremated. Dalbir is worn out with the arrangements for the Bhog ceremony. His daughter, Preeto, is home for a while to be with the mother. She takes care of the tea for the condolence visitors. The older men usually arrive in the mornings, in groups of three or four. Aho Dalbirya, they sigh. It is a strange twist of fate, that leads a man to lend his shoulders to the funeral bier of his son. And yet, these things happen. Even Sohrab died in Rustom’ s arms. Dalbirya, time heals all wounds. This too shall pass.
Dalbir’ s friends come in the evenings. They talk of the Panchayat elections, just around the corner. Santokh Singh is hoping for more votes this year, his brick Dorai/Death kiln is doing well and he pays a good daily wage. But the majhbis have a strong candidate this time and he doesn’ t have a mother’ s prayer of winning them over. Dalbir’ s silences fill in the awkward gaps in their conversation. His kadha clinks against the steel tumbler whenever he takes a gulp of vilaayti. He almost cannot bear it when their talk turns to army pensions. Later, he fumbles his way to his wife’ s cot. Her angry hiss warns him away and he stumbles on the footstool on his way to the terrace. The stars look lonely to him at night. He cannot recall his son’ s features, they look distorted now, covered by garlands of yellow marigold and blurred by the smoke of incense wafting past.
In his mind’ s eye, Dalbir sees the officer pivot in slow motion and salute him. He raises his hand in a gesture of return.