“Ananya, are you ready? They’ve just arrived,” the Assistant Director called from behind the camera.
She nodded, fixing a stray tendril of hair, and checked her expression in the glass pane of the window for what seemed like the fifteenth time. The interviews would have to have a personal touch- But I can’t risk getting too involved after all this time.
“Good to go, bring them in,” she snapped authoritatively at the spot boy, who dashed off to the next room. He returned moments later, with a simply dressed lady in her early thirties, and a curly haired boy of four who held his mother’s hand as he looked around the studio with undisguised curiosity.
Barely concealing her impatience- running five minutes behind schedule, with the episode set to air in three hours, she ushered them into the interview room with a professional smile.
“Hello ma’am, I’m Ananya Chakravarty and I’m really glad you agreed to come here today. Now, this will just be an informal chat about the late Captain…” she consulted her notes and continued “Captain Singh and your life. So you needn’t be nervous. And we’d appreciate it if your son could sit here next to you for the opening shot, yes, right here- such a cute little boy,” she flashed a quick smile at the kid who beamed up at her. Even that could not dispel the irritation she felt when his mother merely nodded.
‘It’s going to take me a lot of effort to get her to open up, but I have to. The audience has to feel her pain,’ Ananya thought to herself.
“Three… Two… One, and action!” the clap echoed as Ananya straightened in her chair, word-perfect as always.
“Good evening, India. Welcome to the first episode of Ankahee Kahaniyaan, a series of untold stories of those, who were butchered at the altar of martyrdom, in the name of so-called patriotism. Tonight I bring before you Mrs. Singh and her four year old son, the innocent survivors of a terrible tragedy that took away her husband and his father, Captain Singh who lost his life in the 2010 LoC conflict. Mrs. Singh, the nation joins me today in expressing deep regret that you had to suffer this loss,” Ananya gazed at the lady, with her most intense look of consolatory understanding firmly in place. During her seven years as war correspondent, she had had the most successful track record of interviewing war widows and mothers of soldiers.
Ananya was taken aback by the flat tone of the other woman’s voice. She decided to skip the usual next step which would have been a comforting pat on the arm.
“So, Mrs. Ishita Singh, tell us something about the Late Captain Singh. What was he like away from the warfront, as a husband, a father?” she smiled encouragingly.
“Aditya was a crazy, passionate man,” Ishita laughed for the first time, ignoring Ananya’s slightly startled expression, “Yes, I realize that is not how one refers to a martyr of the country. But it’s true. He was a fierce lover, and he loved his country as fiercely as he loved his family. As for a father, he would have been the best. But unfortunately, he was gone before I got the news. He never knew,” her voice remained as steady as ever, her eyes blazing with a quiet pride that made Ananya want to run away and hide from her own mind.
Composing herself, she asked the next question, “What did he last say to you before he left?” This was usually a question typical of such interviews, guaranteed to make several in the audience shed a tear. Today it made her sick to ask the same.
For the first time, the lady’s armour of calm showed a chink. Ishita’s voice wavered, “The same thing he said in 2008 when he was leaving for Kashmir. He said, “I’ll look at the North Star and write you a poem each night before I sleep.” We got engaged a month after he returned from that war.”
Ananya could not hold it in any longer. Uttering a brisk “Cut it!”, she barely managed to ask Ishita and her son-his son- to take a break for ten minutes before she raced to her office and bolted the door.
A stream of memories threatened to spill as she looked through the papers on her desk for the short biography of Captain Singh she had received in the morning but not bothered to read. ‘All martyrs are the same, casualties of an unnecessary war,’ she had thought. It lay innocently at a corner of the desk- the final piece of evidence she had needed. It read- ‘Late Capt. Aditya Singh, 24th Regiment, decorated war hero in Kashmir 2008, and martyr of the 2010 war.’
She fought the nausea rising inside her, as the tears finally rolled down.
~ 2008, Kashmir ~
Ananya gazed at her surroundings in awe, once again thanking her stars. For a newbie war correspondent, a posting in Kashmir could be a potential game changer in her profession. Clutching her authorization letter from the Ministry, she walked up to the outpost. The soldier on duty gave her a mistrustful look as she smiled at him, obviously thinking she had no business to be here.
‘Of course I do. I’m going to show the country the real life heroes who risk their lives each day to keep us safe,’ she thought to herself.
A tall, athletic man of around her own age strode out of a nearby tent, giving her a nod and a hard glance as he passed. He had a certain affable charm to him, as he reached the group of soldiers standing at a distance and started talking to them animatedly; he seemed almost like a school boy. Except his eyes, she noticed- they were older, more experienced.
The next time she saw him was three nights later. Unable to sleep, she’d stepped out of her tent. Things had been quiet so far- it didn’t really seem like a war zone. As she sat on a rock, gazing at the star studded sky, she noticed a figure in the distance, a soldier, sitting alone near the dying embers of a fire.
Quietly, she walked towards him, until she was a few feet away. He was writing something with great concentration, she noticed. Almost before she could realize it, he spun in his spot and had his gun trained on her.
“Hell, I could’ve shot you! What on Earth do you think you were doing sneaking up on me?” he muttered in a low angry tone.
Defiantly, she stood her ground. “I was just hoping to find some company, Captain Singh,” she said, reading his name off his uniform.
He relaxed a bit. “Sorry, Miss. I’ve just been on the edge because out here, it being this quiet is like the calm before a storm. And you can call me Aditya in private,” he smiled.
“Then it’s Ananya. And I completely get it, how much you have at stake here. By the way, I’d love to do an interview with you later when you’re free.”
He nodded and went back to his writing. She sat quietly for a while. He looked up and said, “I’m writing a poem.”
“Am I that obvious?” she blushed.
“No, no. It’s just that by now I would have asked at least ten questions so I presumed…” He grinned.
“If it isn’t personal, may I…” she started just as he had said “Would you like to read…”
They both laughed out loud, as the North Star twinkled on the horizon.
In the coming days, they saw more of each other, though lesser than they would have liked, as the enemy unleashed a sudden round of firing and a full frontal attack was declared.
Ananya fulfilled her duties with professionalism, crying in private as she woke from her nightmares of mangled bodies. Every evening she waited tensely as they carried the bodies of the dead and injured, and she breathed a sigh of relief every time she saw that ‘he’ was not among them.
After twenty two days, which seemed like months, she had the first real smile on her face as she reported that their army had achieved victory, and despite heavy odds had secured their territory. She was waiting to question the soldiers who were in reasonably good shape, and while she saw Aditya for a moment, he slipped away before she could get close.
“We lost one of our finest tonight- Captain Akram. He was Captain Singh’s course mate and best friend.” A soldier informed her later that evening.
At night when all was calm, she stepped out of her tent. She was unsurprised to find him at his usual spot, hunched over his notebook. Without a word, she sat next to him. It was almost an hour before he spoke his first sentence, “I wish I had been the one to die.”
A sharp “No” escaped her even before she could think about it. He sensed her tone and turned his face to look at her. In that night’s brokenness, their lips met, seeking to communicate an emotion made futile by words.
As light started to spread across the horizon, he looked at her resting on his arm, “You have a beautiful soul.”
She smiled a hollow smile, “But. There’s a but. Right?”
“Each night I write a poem. For her.”
She never met him again.
“And action!” the Assistant Director cried, relieved at her return.
Ananya settled into her chair, not caring for the first time in years that her appearance was less than perfect. Her next question was a scripted one, and one she already knew the answer to.
“Mrs. Singh, do you think your husband regretted his decision to join the forces?”
“Never,” his widow replied.
Ananya could see the director signaling frantically. This was the cue for a follow up question such as “Do you think he’d prefer being dead to being with you and your son?” Something to shock, to stir up an emotional furor, to make people bay for the blood of those who brainwashed the “poor soldiers”.
Instead she smiled and said, “Mrs. Singh, what do you have to say to those who think that the soldiers are manipulated to serve a worthless cause?”
“I believe it is because of those who fight to keep us all safe, that these people still have the liberty to ‘think’. They should put it to good use.”
They exchanged a tiny genuine smiles as they walked out of the studio.
While Ishita stopped to exchange a word with the next guest, a lady of her acquaintance, Ananya walked over to the desk where Aditya’s four year old sat in rapt concentration, chewing a pencil as he looked down at a small notebook.
As he noticed her looking at him, he smiled shyly and said, “I’m writing a poem.”
A long frozen shard melted into a tear, as she asked, “May I read it?”
By Amrita Brahmo
(Edited by Soumya Chakraborty)
Image Source: flickr.com