Sonali Kumar IAS (Retd.)
I think I will always feel like an outsider. – Leonardo DiCaprio
Romesh Yadav stood alert, with his fingers playing with the safety catch of his automatic weapon. His duty that day was to guard the Air India office on the Boulevard on the banks of the Dal Lake in Srinagar. His colleagues Subhash, Anil, and Ismail were all on duty at the nearby Heemal Hotel of the J&K Government that had some important Government officials staying in.
The sun was setting, and the lake was reflecting the beautiful red-orange-crimson evening colours. When the leaves of the poplar tree fell, it seemed as if fairies were descending and bidding farewell to the sun. The cool September breeze was a relief, and it all looked so peaceful, so heavenly.
Romesh’s thoughts wandered. He couldn’t help it. His leave had just been sanctioned and the thought of going home to his beloved wife Radha and his three-month-old baby girl filled him with joy. Radha had still not named their daughter and was simply calling her baby. So typical of Indian parents, Romesh mused.
But no, Radha had protested. That privilege, of naming their little bundle of joy, had to be Romesh’s. And till that happened, the baby would continue to be called, you guessed it, Baeaeaeby. The family had to have a puja and a formal naming ceremony once Romesh arrived. It will a grand event, from their standards, because after all it’d be the first time that the father would be seeing the baby.
A smile creased Romesh’s lips as he remembered how Radha and he used to go to the same school till class 5. Radha was always the “correct” one – punctual, diligent, and studious. Romesh was the exact opposite-tardy, truant, and a dehati or a village bum. But for some strange reason, they had hit it off well. It was not just a simple case of opposites attracting each other, Romesh thought. Rather, it was the case of an opposite filling up the deficiencies of the other. Radha would explain the intricacies of compound interest to Romesh and Romesh ensured that no one bothered Radha in the class or en route to her home. Simple!
Radha’s father was a school teacher in the local Government school who received a regular salary at the end of every month, without fail. This ensured not only Radha’s good grades but her two square meals too, every day. Romesh’s father, on the other hand, used to work on the farm of a big landlord. Depending on the rains, and the agricultural output that season, his wages used to vary. And that had an impact on Romesh’s meals and his overall nutrition. Radha, however, would always bring him something, especially a sweet, from her share.
After class 5, Romesh went to a boys’ school while Radha went to a girls’. Their friendship, however, continued to blossom. Romesh could still remember that day when they had just finished their class 12 exams and were wandering near the river. Generally, in the urban areas, you finish class 12 by the age of 17/18. But Romesh was already 21 as he had started his schooling late. Radha had turned 18 and in fact, it was her 18th birthday. She was wearing new clothes, a beautiful salwar kameez, and had brought laddoos for Romesh, when Romesh should have been the one carrying sweets for the birthday girl. Romesh was so overwhelmed that he suddenly took Radha in his arms and kissed her.
Surprisingly, she didn’t pull away and, in fact, reciprocated shyly. That was too much for Shyam, Radha’s neighbour, who was passing by and who noticed, as he announced, the full filmi scene. The result was that when Romesh reached home, he found Radha’s father at his place fuming.
“Your son is a scoundrel,” he had shouted.
Radha, his sweet Radha, had turned a deep red. But she had wrenched herself free from her father’s clutches and had declared, with no hesitation in her voice, that she would marry Romesh. And Romesh alone, come what may.
There was a stunned silence all-around. Radha’s father was not the one to yield ground so easily. After a lot of mutual recriminations, and haggling, and mediation, that carried on for days, he had finally relented in the face of the daughter’s dogged resolve. And had agreed but on one condition only:
“Romesh must find a government job.”
Romesh’s world went into a whirl. He hadn’t seriously thought of a job, marriage, etc. But now that Radha had been so bold, he had to do his best.
He began visiting local employment exchanges and leafed through newspapers for opportunities. It was then that he read about a CRPF recruitment drive taking place in his own district. This could be it, he thought. So, he got hold of a form, filled it up in long hand, and when called, appeared for the tests. He had to be taller than 153 cms, with a chest size of at least 74.5 cms, and had to run a 5-kilometre race in 24 minutes. Romesh was tall and athletic and had been running and jumping all his life. Getting selected as a CRPF constable was, therefore, a breeze for him.
He could see the pride and joy in Radha’s eyes. Oh, how much he loved her! And the incredulity in her father’s eyes was unbelievable. He had, however, a trick still left under his sleeve. He insisted that they postpone their wedding till Romesh completed his training successfully.
Romesh soon moved to the recruitment training centre at Rajgir. For 44 weeks, he trained rigorously. It surprised him how much he enjoyed being a part of the CRPF family. His heart swelled with pride every time they played the National Anthem and as he saluted the Tricolour, the National Flag.
Radha meanwhile did a teacher’s training course and got employment in the local school. Every month, Romesh would send her part of his salary as if she were already her life partner. The other part he would send to his father.
After completing his training, Romesh came home. Their wedding seemed like a fairy tale. Both Romesh and Radha were ecstatic and so were their families, they hoped. Radha moved to Romesh’s home and made it her own. She had saved the money Romesh used to send her and used it to renovate her in-laws’ house. She got a new toilet constructed, remodelled the kitchen, got a gas connection, a fan, and a small TV with a dish antenna.
But Romesh had to join active duty soon. Kashmir was in turmoil and the JK Police had requested the Central Government to send more forces. So, they sent Romesh’s unit to Srinagar.
The train journey to Jammu was uneventful. At Jammu, they got into buses and moved on the long winding road to Srinagar. As their bus neared Pampore, a suburb of Srinagar, there was a sudden blast. Black smoke engulfed everything. The smell of the smoke tickled Romesh’s throat. Out of nowhere he heard gunshots.
The bus going in front had just been fired upon by two youth on a motorbike. The convoy came to a halt. All the CRPF men picked up their guns and got down. The scene was pathetic. Romesh’s dear friend Rahul, who was in the first bus, lay dead. This was the first death Romesh was witnessing in his adult hood. His grandfather had died when he was young. All he remembered of that event was that his head had to be shaved to express sorrow and when the hair grew back it had felt like prickly cactus.
But Rahul was another matter. They had both trained together and had a bonding which went beyond normal brotherhood-in-uniform. Rahul was as old as he was. He wasn’t Romesh’s grandfather who had lived a full life. To see Rahul lying dead filled his heart with a strange anger. Romesh felt like shooting all those terrorists who had dared kill his dear friend. But he had to show restraint. He was no ordinary human being. He was a disciplined CRPF constable now.
Anyway, the convoy with its dead and injured constables soon reached Srinagar. The state government had allotted an abandoned school building as the temporary abode for the CRPF men. This was a tiny primary school with two rooms and a non-functional toilet. Their food was cooked centrally but their resting place was abhorrent. How Romesh missed his little bedroom that Radha had decorated with so much of care and pride.
But a job is a job. Next morning, they were deployed in a locality where a large crowd had gathered and was trying to pass through an area where carrying out such a procession was prohibited. First, they shouted slogans like Jeev-e-Jeeve Pakistan (long live Pakistan) and Indian Dogs Go Back, and then they started pelting stones at the police, the CRPF, the cars on the road, the shops — everything. To many in the Indian media, stone throwing is treated as some kind of peaceful activity. But Romesh facing the brunt knew otherwise. His colleagues were getting hit right, left, and centre. One had a fractured jaw and the other a broken femur. Still being disciplined paramilitary men, no one was firing until their commander gave the order “fire.”
And this was when the crowd had swelled up to over two thousand and they were only twenty. Will I get lynched today? A sudden thought flashed in Romesh’s mind while his finger pressed the trigger. He had aimed his gun at the feet but the pellets that came out went in all directions. Suddenly, the menacing crowd melted away. There was the smell of gunpowder and screams everywhere. It was as if Romesh had landed in hell, in a corner of this paradise-on-earth that Kashmir is known to be.
Next week, they changed Romesh’s duty from crowd control to guard duty. But he was guarding no VVIP. Instead it was one of those so-called separatists who spewed venom at the very name of India. For some strange reason, this person was provided security by the J&K Government. So, poor Romesh had to stand guard while this so-called separatist screamed “Barat tere tukde honge, insha’ allah, insha’ allah.” May India break into pieces, God willing, God willing.
Romesh also learnt that the separatist leader he was protecting was a puppet of Pakistan and was acting as their conduit for getting counterfeit Indian currency into J&K for fomenting trouble in Kashmir. But he was forced to rein in his anger and disgust and do nothing.
They abused his beloved homeland and trampled upon all concepts that Romesh held so dear. Why can’t I just pump a few bullets into him and be done with it? But Romesh was a disciplined CRPF man and so had to carry out orders without complaining. Later, as he told Radha on phone, this was the most obnoxious duty he was asked to perform.
Romesh felt so depressed and lonely. That’s why he used to carry a picture of Radha in his wallet that he would glance at occasionally whenever he felt sad.
Thankfully, after a few months, he was put on another static guard duty on the Boulevard. So, he didn’t need to serve that Separatist India Hating Leader again, thank God.
It was there on the banks of the beautiful Dal that Romesh had received that wonderful news that he had been blessed with a daughter. His boss was a kind-hearted person who sanctioned him a month’s leave. But the catch was, he could take this leave only after two months, after the tourist season was over.
Romesh was still thrilled because this meant he could go home for Diwali, the festival of lights. Of course, not being able to meet his daughter immediately was painful, but national interest came first. He watched the beautiful setting sun and pictured Radha’s face and her pleasant smile and wondered how she was. He looked forward to lighting oil lamps and bursting fire crackers while eating Radha’s handmade laddoos. That was when he heard a sudden whoosh sound. Subhash shrieked. As Romesh turned around, he realised a bullet had just hit Subhash. As Subhash lay writhing on the ground, Romesh turned his gun in the direction of the bullet and fired. Suddenly, there was a loud blast as if someone had thrown a hand grenade, and Romesh lost consciousness.
When Romesh woke up, he was in the army hospital at Badami Bagh. He was writhing in pain. His leg was bandaged and so were his eyes. A drip was running into his left-hand pumping God knows what.
“My leave! I’ve to go home for Diwali,” Romesh’s voice was almost inaudible.
“Saab,” a voice, probably a doctor’s, said, “get well first.”
“Doctor Saheb,” Romesh had felt the bandages on his eyes, “what happened? Why can’t I see?”
“Romesh beta,” said the kind doctor looking at his treatment sheet, “some splinters from a hand grenade appear to have hit your face… and the eyes.”
Romesh had never wept in his life. But hearing the doctor’s clinical analysis, he couldn’t stem the tide of tears that were streaming down his bandaged eyes.
“Oh God why have you condemned me to this hell,” Romesh whimpered, and then gathered courage to ask, “Doctor Saheb, do you think I’ll ever be able to see my little baby’s face?”
The doctor didn’t reply. He had seen miracles happening, but could he promise one for Romesh?
He didn’t think so. He only wondered why young men like Romesh were being sent to this god-forsaken place to do duty. Like him.
Some kind of Outsiders’ Curse? He wondered.
(The writer is the author of two books ‘Unmasking Kashmir: A Bureaucrat Reveals/ The Outsider’s Curse (2017)” and “The Outsider’s Tales (2018)”. This short story has been excerpted from the latter volume and is being printed in this paper as a tribute to the supreme sacrifice made by the valiant CRPF men.)