The familiar tune emanating from the radio brings tears to my eyes. The lyrics of the song take me two decades back, when my father used to sing me to sleep.
*Twenty years ago*
“Tera mujhse hai pehle ka naata koi, yu hin nahin dil lubhaata koi…”.
I half smiled, and dozed off on his shoulder. He was back after such a long time. I missed him. I missed the familiar feel of his jacket – the one that he usually wore; I missed his strong arms that held me up; I missed his voice and the lovely songs he used to sing to me. After spending many months in the regiment, when he used to come back home, he would kneel down by the door with his arms wide open and my little feet would run towards him.
I missed my father. I was just a tiny four-year-old then. He would carry me in his arms, sing me a lullaby. We would go for walks in the park, with me measuring about one-fourth of his frame, and he would try to match my pace. One day, he put his favourite jacket on me and made me wear his favourite pair of shades. He laughed a little, looking at me in the over sized jacket and the goggles, and clicked a picture. “My little princess”, he had said.
July 1999. The Kargil War was nearing an end. I was six then. Papa had left home for the war three months ago. While leaving home, he handed the jacket to me, and said,” Don’t miss me much, sweetheart. Keep it with you. You can always hold this jacket close to you when you miss me. Put it on the day I return. I want to see my little princess in this jacket.”
I hugged him and wiped off the tears streaming from my eyes. Every day, I used to sit by the television, looking at the clips of Kargil War with my mother, grandfather and grandmother. I did not understand what was happening. My eyes were just looking for a glimpse of the familiar figure of my father. Whenever I would see a man with a gun, I used to inch closer to the screen and scrutinize him in the hope of finding any resemblance to my father.
One morning, when I woke up, I saw my mother sobbing by the side of the bed. My grandmother and grandfather were crying too. I did not know what had happened. After asking them again and again, my grandfather said, “It’s nothing, dear. Papa is coming home after two days.” I was so overjoyed that I did a little dance and ran off to my room to look for his jacket. I still had no idea why the others had been crying over my father’s return. They should be happy, right?
Two days later, there were people in my house, all clothed in white. I didn’t know why everyone was so grim. That didn’t matter anyway; I was going to see my Papa. I had put on his jacket. Its long sleeves hung loose from the end of my hand. It was so long, it almost touched the ground when I walked. Papa would be so happy to see me, I thought.
A vehicle drove in then. A huge vehicle it was. The back door opened and out came a stretcher with a white cloth put over something. Everyone broke into uncontrollable sobs. I was still confused. I was waiting for Papa to come out of that vehicle. But that vehicle went away.
I tugged the palm of my grandfather and asked him, “Where is Papa?”. With tears in his eyes, he took me to the stretcher and lifted off the white shroud. I gasped. I was in a state of shock. My father was on the stretcher. I shook him a bit, tickled him a little. He used to wake me up that way. But he didn’t even move. My father was no more. I cried, I sobbed. He didn’t wake up. I remember telling him then, “See, I have put on your jacket… Wake up. Just look at me.”
The memory of his lifeless face makes me sob even harder. My eyes wander towards the familiar corner in my room where his jacket and his framed photo are hanging, and I cannot help but compare the smile on the photograph with the memory of his lifeless face. I hold his jacket close to me. His familiar scent is long gone, but the feel of the fabric is still intact. The song on the radio has already been replaced by another, but the tide of memories it had brought along with it is yet to subside.
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