By Sutapa Basu
When he opened his eyes, it was still dark outside. His bones creaked as he pulled himself up and sank on the pillows. His wife was already up. After all, they had to catch the flight to Srinagar in a few hours. She must be in the kitchen brewing ginger tea.
His elbow ached as he reached out to the box on the table beside the bed. The arthritis always played up in the mornings. He placed the box, painted with chinar leaves in jeweled colours, on his lap and opened it slowly with stiff fingers. The folded blue sheets inside fluttered in the cool breeze wafting through the open window. They had been unfolded and folded numerous times, discolouring the edges. The old man fingered the one on top of the pile and spread it out.
Dear Papa, Mama and Birdie,
- Last night, the paltan moved into a school in Kandi village, so we are quite comfortable now.
- After the last skirmish with terrorists when about thirty bullets were fired at me, things have been quiet. I should be happy but I am not.
- Now that the Kargil episode has started, I want to get into action. Isn’t that what we have trained for all these months?
- By the way, I met somebody yesterday. After our dawn parade, I was walking along the barbed wire fence when I noticed a girl on the other side. Above the dark grey phiran, her face glowed in the morning light. Large light-brown eyes stared at me. I asked, ‘What is your name?’ Her small mouth trembled a little but she did not reply. I wondered if she understood Hindi. So I pointed to myself and said, ‘Robin. And you?’ Still she kept silent.
Then I heard a voice calling, ‘Shabnam! Shabnam!’ and a woman came through the trees. She seemed to be her mother. She grabbed the girl and said, ‘Sorry, Sahib. She will not come here again. She does not speak. Sorry!’
And before I could say anything, the mother and daughter disappeared into the apple orchard. At night, the girl crept into my thoughts. I felt strange…as though a butterfly fluttered inside me seeking a way out.
Give my love to Granny.
Vijayant Thapar’s father sighed, kept aside the letter and picked up the next one.
Dear Papa, Mama, Birdie and Granny,
- I am so excited. There are rumours that the regiment will soon get orders to move to Drass. I hope that happens.
- By the way, when you next send me a parcel, can you send me some girl’s clothes? Don’t be surprised. It is for Shabnam. Only remember, she is just 5 or 6 years old and barely reaches up to my knees.
- The Principal of the school told me about Shabnam. Her story is very sad but I am going to change it all.
- You see, Shabnam was born quite normal. A year ago, she was in the forest with her father, Afzal. He was cutting wood when four men had appeared. They had been carrying guns. Her father softly told Shabnam to hide behind the logs. The girl peeped through the wooden tree trunks as the men came up. They loudly asked Afzal something that the girl did not understand. Then they hit him. As he fell, they pumped bullets into him. Watching her father’s lifeless body jump with each bullet smashing into it, the little girl had been terrorized into silence. Since then, she has never spoken. But I will make her speak.
- I persuaded her mother to bring Shabnam to our regiment’s medical officer. He is treating her and says physically nothing is wrong. I often go to her home in the village. Sometimes, she smiles at me. The family is very poor so I take them some of the snacks that you send me. Shabnam loves the chocolates I give her.
- It is time for our evening parade, so I must go. Pray that we go to Drass. That is where Tololing and Tiger Hill is.
Nicknamed Robin because he loved Nature, Vijayant was 22-years-old and Shabnam, only 6, when he had written this letter.
Vijayant’s parents, Colonel VN Thapar and Mrs Tripta Thapar, were going to travel to Kand village from Srinagar. They were to meet Shabnam for the first time. She was now about 16 years old and studying in class IX.
Dear Papa, Mama and Birdie,
- It has come through. Your prayers have been answered. 2nd Rajputana Rifles is going to Drass. The marching orders are for this Friday.
- Isn’t it wonderful? Ever since this war has started, I have been dying to get into it. Not just I, our entire clan here has been itching to get at the enemy. We call ourselves ‘The Dirty Dozen’!
- Another exciting news is Shabnam has started speaking! Only a few words but actually speaking. The first day, she uttered, ‘Muoj,’ her mother had come running to the camp. She met our doctor and he passed the message to me. That evening, I went to her home with a few of the ladoos you had sent me. That would bring a little more sweetness into their lives.
- Mama, thanks for the clothes. Most of them fit Shabnam. Some are a little oversized but she will grow into them. She was delighted with her new clothes. You should have seen the smile stretching across her face like a Cheshire cat’s!
- I have been a bit worried about Shabnam. Now that I will go away, I am not sure how they will manage. And I will miss little Shabnam.
- Next time I write to you, I will be at Drass.
The old hands trembled as they picked up the next epistle.
Dear Papa, Mama and Birdie,
- We have taken Tololing Knoll. The enemy fortified it well but 2nd Raj Rif was given this task and we did it!
- I hope you are reading or listening to it all because we will certainly get Battle Honours for it.
- Taking Barbad Bunker Pt 4590 was my share of pushing out the enemy. I am alive but you never know what will happen in the next attack.
- Life is tough.
- It is frustrating. I am at 16000ft.There is snow all over. I am on rocks and dead bodies everywhere waiting to be picked up. But I am getting used to the shelling now.
- We lost an officer yesterday. He may get the PVC (Param Veer Chakra).
That’s all till now.
Capture of Tololing Knoll on19 June, 1999 was the first victory of the Indian Army and has gone into history as the turning point of the Kargil war. Nine days later, 2nd Rajputna Rifles was given the task of capturing Three Pimples, Knoll and Lone Hill area.
Now there was only one blue sheet left…the last one. As the father held it up to the light of dawn filtering through the curtains, a tear rolled down the wrinkled cheek.
Dear Papa, Mama, Birdie and Granny,
- By the time you get this letter, I will be observing you all from the sky enjoying the hospitality of the Apsaras.
- I have no regrets; in fact even if I become human again, I will join the army and fight for my nation.
- If you can, please come and see where the Indian army fought for your tomorrow.
- As far as the unit is concerned the new chaps should be told about this sacrifice. I hope my photo will be kept in the A Coy mandir with Karni Mata.
- Whatever organ can be taken should be done.
- Contribute some money to orphanage and keep on giving 50 rupees to Shabnam per month and meet Yogi Baba.
- Best of luck to Birdie. Never forget this sacrifice of these men. Papa you should be proud. Mama, so should you. Mamaji, forgive me for everything wrong I did.
Ok then. It is time for me to join my clan of The Dirty Dozen.
My assault party has 12 chaps.
Best of Luck to you all.
Live Life King Size!
The entire country had held its breath on 28 June, 1999 as the 2nd Rajputna Rifles fought against impossible odds, treacherous terrain and tenacious enemy. Finally, the strategic peak, Knoll had been taken by the Battalion sanctified by the blood of its best and brightest men such as Vijayant.
Colonel Thapar impatiently brushed away the tears. Why am I crying? Robin will never die. His love for the world forged bonds that resonate with life. He lives forever in our thoughts and his words.
He fought for our tomorrow. He lives in our tomorrow. He lives in Shabnam’s tomorrow.
He looked up at the large photograph of Captain Vijayant Thapar, Veer Chakra, 2nd Rajputana Rifles. Proudly, his head came up and arthritic shoulders straightened as the father saluted his 22-year-old valiant son, the immortal martyr of Kargil War.
[Note: Based on the story and letters of the Kargil War hero, Captain Vijayant Thapar, Veer Chakra (third highest Indian gallantry battlefield award) as related in press reports, articles and family website: http://www.captainvijyantthapar.com/indiagate.html]
Capt. Vijayant’s Diary
Capt. Vijayant’s last letter
Sutapa Basu is an avid reader and a compulsive bookworm. An author, editor, trainer and publisher, she had been travelling all over India, UK, USA, Singapore and Dubai, while working with Oxford University Press and Encyclopædia Britannica until she decided to strike out on her own. Sutapa is an Honours scholar from Tagore’s Visvabharti University, Santiniketan, India and holds a teaching degree from Maharaja Sayaji Rao, University, Vadodara, India as well as a masters in English Literature. Her poetry has been published by Muse India and Readomania which has also profiled many of her short stories. Recently she has co-authored and edited Crossed & Knotted, India’s First Composite Novel as well as edited Chronicles of Urban Nomads, A Collection of Unputdownable Stories and Rudraksha, The gods came calling, published by Readomania. You can read more of her writings on her website StoryFuntastika.com. Now she dabbles in authoring, editing, art, training trainers and counseling educational and publishing entities. Twitter: @sutapabsu20
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