A Short Story By Brig PS Gothra
“Where is Havildar Harnam Singh Ji? I haven’t seen him in last five days.” I asked my father when I was spending my first leave after passing out of the Academy.
“He is not well. In fact, he is terminally ill. He wanted to meet you. Right from the day you went for the training to the Academy. He used to say that he will be the first one to receive you in the village when you come back as an Army Officer. He craved to salute you.”
“I will just go and meet him,” I said.
“Don’t do that. He is suffering from a contagious disease,” said my father.
I sat down, but I remembered that the old man was the most lovable neighbour. He had retired as a Havildar in the Army when I was just three years old. His upright posture, smartly tied up beard, immaculate clothes, nicely tied up turban, an emphatic voice, mesmerising eyes and a lovable smile made me salute him every time he crossed me when I was a child. And he always gave me an extra toffee when he was distributing toffees among the children. Time and again, he would say, “Sukhi raho bacha, tum pakka fauji afsar banoge (Be happy my child, you are certainly going to be an army officer).”
Remembering all that, I could not hold myself from sneaking out with a packet of sweets to meet him on the last day of my leave. As I entered the courtyard of his house, I found him lying on a cot near a neem tree. The shade of the neem must have moved on, so he was lying in the sun. He had gone frail; one could hardly see him on the cot. His hair & beard was unkempt. I don’t think someone would have washed his face for days. I touched his feet. His clothes & bedsheet were smelling of urine & stool. He said, “Paani (Water)”
I looked around. Not seeing anyone, I walked up to their kitchen, took a tumbler and moved to the enclosure with the hand pump to fill water. His daughter-in-law was washing clothes there.
So, I said, “chachiji (aunt) can I get some water? I have to give it to dadaji (grandfather).”
“Don’t give it to him. That buddha (Old man) will urinate. Who will wash his clothes and bed sheets?”
“I will do it.” I couldn’t hide contempt for her in my eyes as I said this.
Old man consumed two tumblers full of water. I pull his cot under the shade of the neem tree. I could see him feeling better. He asked me to help him sit up for a while. Then with whatever strength he had, he saluted me. I saluted back with tears almost rolling out of my eyes. He asked me as to where I was posted. I told him Arunachal Pradesh. I could see a spark in his eyes as he had also served there. And then his daughter-in-law passed by mumbling, “dukhi kita hai budde ne, marda vi nahin.(Old man is a nuisance. Doesn’t even die).”
She had made sure that her volume was enough for the old man to hear. I could see a streak of pain and insult on the face of Harnam Singh Ji, but he covered it up by saying, “You must look after your soldiers. They are worth their weight in gold.”
It must have been more than five minutes sitting with him when I heard his wife calling me from inside the room, “Jitu just come here.”
I walked up to her and touched her feet.
“Don’t go near him. He is suffering from TB,” said Mrs Harnam Singh.
“But that is curable. You must take him to a doctor.” I said.
“We take him to the military hospital every month. It costs more than eighty rupees to hire a taxi.”
The extra emphasis on eighty rupees conveyed what was the worth of Harnam Singh ji in his house. I thought that he must be drawing a pension more than eight hundred rupees. I was right as Mrs Harnam Singh gave his pension documents and said, “Just have a look will I get a family pension after his death?”
“Yes, your name is there on the documents. You will get family pension after his death. I think Dada ji did not have a bath for some days. I will give him a bath?”
“No, you will get infected. We have employed a boy. He comes every week and gives him a bath. We pay him twenty rupees.”
My conscience didn’t allow me to leave Harnam Singh ji in that dirty state. For the next two hours I was busy bathing him, changing his clothes and bedsheet. His daughter-in-law was magnanimous in not allowing me to wash the bedsheet and his clothes. I could see change in his condition as I combed his beard and hair. I gave him a ladoo out of the packet of sweets. I could see that he was hungry and he wanted more but his pride won’t let him ask for more. So, I said that I will keep the packet by his cot only.
It was only after he urinated in the bedpan that I got up to leave. As I touched his feet while parting, he said, “Sukhi raho, Shaheedian Pao (Be happy and attain martyrdom).”
Blessings to say that you attain martyrdom is not common and as such was intriguing me. I asked my father what it meant.
He just said, “Old man has gone senile.”
All these years, every time I escaped death in encounters with terrorists, I remembered Harnam Singh ji. Trying in vain, to understand what it was that the old man wanted to convey.