By Savitri Narayanan
“Today’s news,” said the school captain, conducting the morning assembly.
As he came out of his line, Saurabh, Class V prefect, pulled out the piece of paper from his pocket in which he had noted down the news to read – something about flood in Odisha and a train accident in Delhi.
“Last night there was an attack on the LOC in which four Indian soldiers were martyred. End of the news, thank you,” he said and moved out.
“What is LOC and what is martyred?” Arun asked Kaushal as they walked back to their classroom.
“No idea, yaar, ask her,” Kaushal pointed at Sumita, a teacher who walked along.
A student of Class II, Arun didn’t like the word attack and he had to know what happened to the four soldiers. Appa was a soldier!
Arun remembered the last time his father came home. It was more than a year ago; he was still in the aanganwadi. The whole family had been waiting since morning. Some neighbours, too, had wandered in. When the jeep stopped at the gate, Appa was out in a second. “Where’s my little hero?” he had rushed forward to lift little Arun who was hiding behind his grandfather. Appa tossed Arun in the air and hugged him tightly. His moustache felt rough on his cheeks and he smelt funny but still Arun had clung on to him for a long time as he chatted with the family and neighbours.
“What’s LOC and what’s martyred?” in the evening he asked his grandfather as he was tending the garden.
“Who knows beta? I never went to school,” he said, “Ask your teacher….”
“It’s something about the military and the soldiers,” Arun and grandfather often had long conversations. Mutthappa listened well and never laughed at Arun’s questions.
“In the morning assembly news time Saurabh said that at LOC there was some attack…..”
“Oh! That’s nothing new,” Mutthappa continued to dig as he explained, “At the border the enemies often come to attack and our soldiers fight back to protect our country. When Appa comes on his annual leave, ask him.”
“What if they shoot Appa?”
“Don’t worry,” Mutthappa stopped digging, leaned on the spade and met Arun’s eyes, “The soldiers know how to fight back, and they get training. Also God protects brave soldiers like Appa. Now run and close that tap! It’s time for tea, let’s go in.”
After dinner, Amma put him to bed but sleep evaded Arun. When he closed his eyes, rows of soldiers kept shooting each other.
Eyes closed, Arun waited for his mother. Before long, she wound up the kitchen work, switched off the lights and came to the bedroom.
“What’s LOC Amma?” he asked as she switched off the lights and snuggled close.
“You still awake?” she asked in surprise, “What’s the matter?”
“Yesterday there was an attack on the LOC,” he said, “and four soldiers were martyred.”
She adjusted the blanket, kissed his forehead and said “We’ll ask our soldier when he comes home, OK? Next week, this time, he’ll be home, sleeping here!”
Arun did not miss the softness in her voice but was worried still. As the days passed, Arun became more worried.
The temple around the corner was part of Amma’s daily routine. Every evening as the sun set, she would walk down there with Arun and Vivek tagging along. Down the lane, Bharti aunty would be waiting at her gate to join them.
“Amma, why do you put money in that box in the temple?” he asked her one day as they came down the steps.
“That’s an offering,” said Amma, “It is a way to thank God who listens to our prayers.”
At night Arun stayed awake waiting for Amma to come to bed. When she switched off the lights and snuggled close to him, he said, “Amma, I want to offer my piggy bank to God. He keeps all the soldiers safe, isn’t it?”
There was no answer but Arun felt her arms hugging him tighter. He also thought Amma was sobbing.
Next morning, Arun woke up bubbling with joy, a thrill, suspense, wanting to get up and shout and dance! Along with sunshine, old Hindi songs from the radio floated into the rooms. The whole house was ready to welcome Appa. Floors were washed, ceiling fans were swept clean, beds and curtains were aired. Murukku and chips filled the jars and bunches of bananas hung in the store room. The home was ready to welcome Appa. Outside the window, two new pink roses had blossomed. Some sparrows chirped on the branches of the hibiscus plant. Mutthappa stood chatting with Krishna uncle across the fence.
And then a military jeep drove in and stopped at the gate.The soldier was home.