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Short Story: Zalim Singh Bisht

Painting: Bing Lk

By Anirudh Kala

Sub-inspector Bisht had been in the Border Security Force for fifteen years and would soon be promoted to Inspector. If all went well, in another three years he would be a Subedar-Major, the rank at which his father and grandfather had retired. Bisht’s mountainous village near Devprayag, where the rivers Alaknanda and Bhagirathi merge to form the Ganga, had been sending men to the army for many generations. Bisht told his friends that, as a child, when he’d asked his mother the reason for his first name, Zalim, which means cruel, she had replied that she wanted his name to instil mortal fear in the hearts of the enemy.

This was Bisht’s second posting at the Pakistan border, after a gap of five years during which he’d been posted in the East, at the Bangladesh border. In the low-lying mosquito-infested stretch of the East Khasi hills, to be precise, where the land spewed water when the sky did not, the only crop that grew was rice and the only challenge was stopping hordes of cattle from being smuggled into Bangladesh at night.

As borders went, he would any day take Pakistan and the Punjab stretch if he had the choice. Of course, things had worsened since his last stint. Opium smugglers had become smarter, with their satellite phones and automatic weapons. The border had become a violent place, even during peacetime, with armed infiltrators trying to slash breaches in the barbed wire fence and sometimes succeeding. This had been unheard of during his earlier posting. There were long stretches where there was no fence then. There had been so little work that the men of the BSF used to shout good-natured jibes at the Pakistani Rangers, which were returned in equal measure. Soaps and oils were borrowed, exchanged or just given away, as were tablets of Crocin and cold remedies. This was, of course, not officially allowed.

Nor were the short cross-border tours that the friends and family members of senior officers from both sides took. Those used to happen on a mutual, reciprocal and strictly simultaneous basis. At a fixed time on a Sunday, two groups of men, women and children, dressed as if for a picnic, but strictly without cameras, would cross to ‘the other side’ for two hours. They would be driven around by the BSF or the Rangers in Land Rovers and sometimes offered tea or lassi by a friendly family in a village. Since everything, including the houses, the people and the crops, looked the same on both the sides, the only excitement about the trip was having been to Pakistan or India. Exactly two hours later, the two groups, ‘hostage’ to each other, would cross the border back at the same time. The practice had stopped abruptly after an Indian schoolgirl refused to come back without the young Pakistani boy who had served her tea in a village. She had to be carried back across the border kicking and screaming. But that was a long time back and many miles up north, in the Gurdaspur sector. His new posting was a couple of miles from Wagah, near Amritsar.

The bus would be at the barracks in an hour, Bisht thought, as he got ready for his day’s work. It picked up the armed men thrice a day and went along the border, dropping them at their pickets and picking up the ones being relieved. Bisht looked at himself in the mirror after putting on his belt and the beret. He followed the Rajput tradition of maintaining a long moustache, even though it meant half an hour of grooming every day. Whenever the idea came to his mind of shaving it off, the thing which stopped him, now, after his mother had passed away last year, was his name. He found the idea of a moustache-less Zalim Singh incongruous, even comical – but lately he had caught himself thinking about the possibility rather often. Getting ready for work had become a drag and the moustache took most of the time. While tying his shoelaces, he also wondered why his sleep was not as sound as before, even though there were far fewer mosquitos here. It was beginning to affect him. Just yesterday, he had lost temper at a fresh recruit for not holding the rifle straight. While Bisht had been shouting at his juniors for years, he had never felt the bite of his own anger. For a brief moment he’d wondered if he was losing control. He thought the whole platoon had looked at him strangely.

A bus entered the courtyard and heavy footfalls crowded the corridor outside his room. Bisht hoisted his rucksack, slung the rifle on his shoulder and locked the door. He sat in the front seat, reserved for the senior-most person on that detail. This was the third day in a row that he had skipped breakfast. He had not felt hungry at all after having the glass of tea and rusk, distributed at six in the morning. Even thinking about a full breakfast tray was revolting.

The border fence in most parts was well within the Indian side and many farmers had to be checked for their identity cards before they could work on their own land. Over time, the soldiers got to know the faces of the men and women who owned lands on their stretch of border and a chatty familiarity developed. BSF doctors held medical camps, which were very popular. The civil government dispensaries did not reach as far, and it suited the BSF to be connected to these communities. Among other things, they served as a fertile source of informal intelligence about the movements of smugglers and spies.

Bisht spent the day walking the stretch of border allotted to the men under his charge. He picked at the packed lunch, read an old newspaper left by the earlier unit and filled out a report, ticking some boxes – an uneventful day. At the end of the afternoon, he got up to let the farmers go back to their houses, further inland. As he swung the heavy door open, Bisht observed every face filing past him closely, comparing it with the picture on the laminated ID card, just to be sure, since the evening check was far more important than the morning one. As the queue tapered off, he sensed something was wrong. Although the last two faces had matched the pictures they bore, he did not remember them having gone to the fields in the morning. One had almost cleared the security check when Bisht pulled him back with such force that he fell. The other man pulled out a pistol and fired, trying to run away at the same time. Bisht stepped back, took the rifle from his shoulder and fired a short burst, all in one fluid movement, killing both the intruders. His constables came running and within minutes the place was teeming with jeeps and senior officers.

***

Armed infiltration was uncommon at the Punjab border in those days, so whenever it occurred, it was a matter of discussion – and celebration as well in the officer’s mess, if the intrusion was foiled. Bisht was praised by the Commandant for his quick thinking and reflexes; he would recommend Bisht’s name for the President’s gallantry medal, he said. Afterwards, Bisht had answered eager questions from his colleagues about what had happened that afternoon, over and over again. He himself did not feel any particular jubilation about the matter. To him it was a day’s work reasonably well done and that was it. It was not the first time and it would not be the last. He left his glass of rum and cola untouched, pretending that he had a cold and wanted to sleep early. On his way to the room he picked up some boiled eggs from the dining hall just in case he felt hungry later at night.

Back in his room, Bisht wondered what was happening to him. He had seen some of his colleagues go through spells of home-sickness, but he himself had just come back after spending two months with his family. He could also remember a couple of his colleagues becoming reticent during phases of heavy drinking. Bisht had not had alcohol for a month. Perhaps he was sliding into something more serious? Something that needed treatment? He banished the thought as soon as it entered his head. It was just the change of place affecting him, he told himself.

There was a heavy knock on the door which startled him out of his reverie. It was an orderly informing him that the Inspector General from the headquarters was on the phone, waiting to speak to him. Bisht sprang out of bed and half-ran, half-walked, in his bare feet, to the phone at end of the corridor. Men coming out of the dining hall were amused to see a shoeless Bisht standing stiffly at attention and saying ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘Thank you, sir’ into the phone.

In addition to showering Bisht with praise for ‘extra-ordinary bravery in the face of the enemy’ and informing him that he had already forwarded the Commandant’s recommendation for a President’s medal, the IG told him that he had sent a ‘small personal gift’ from him and the ‘missus’ as a ‘token of appreciation’. At the end of the conversation, Bisht, still at attention, smartly saluted his officer, holding the telephone receiver in the other hand. The orderly, who’d been standing behind him all the while, came forward and gave Bisht a gift-wrapped box which turned out to contain a brand-new cell phone with a SIM card in place. In those days, cell phones were not common and Bisht had never owned one. In fact, he was not much of a talker and used telephones only when he absolutely had to.

What the IG did not tell Bisht was that over the weekend he had attended a seminar at the headquarters in Delhi on the topic of ‘Mental Health in Border Security Force.’ It had emphasized that men posted at the borders for long periods of time often felt isolated and disconnected. The experts had recommended easy access to phones on the borders as one of the strategies for good mental health. And when he had thought about a personal gift for Bisht, a cell phone had seemed like a very good idea.

***

His brother’s house in the village was separated from Bisht’s own by a partition of only single bricks. In fact, the houses had grown out of their joint home. The partition had become necessary because of escalating quarrels between the two wives, which would start over kitchen expenses and end in fisticuffs. Bisht’s wife refused to pay more than one-third for their small family – herself and a three-year-old daughter, with her husband mostly away. Her sister-in-law, who was fortunate enough to have her husband live with her, along with their two teenage sons, felt that Bisht’s wife should contribute two-thirds without cribbing.

During his recent leave, the two brothers, after half a day of discussion about the sparring wives over several pegs of rum, which also involved much headshaking and reminiscing about their dead parents, had gone out and bought three donkey-loads of bricks and had together erected a seven-foot-high wall. One brother got the kitchen and the other the toilet and the street door. The missing parts in each portion were constructed by them over the next three days. The undivided house also had a telephone which seldom worked. This was, by mutual consent, fixed into a miniscule window in the wall dividing the two dwellings.

It was this telephone which started ringing all of a sudden at nine or so that night, startling the hens in the coop, the pigeons in the babool tree and the residents of both the houses. Bisht’s wife was the first to reach it. This was the first time ever that Bisht had spoken on the phone while lying in a bed, and he felt awkward doing so. In a matter-of-fact manner, he told his wife about the encounter at the border and the reward from IG Sahib himself, modestly conveying his surprise at the need for any reward at all. The two made polite conversation about the family. After that, Bisht did not know what else could be talked about over the phone. Then he remembered a pending issue of business – the encroachment of his small piece of farmland by the village headman’s cousin, which should have been resolved last month.

Bisht’s wife told him that it had not been sorted out yet. Bisht’s brother, who was supposed to have gone and met the land officer, had not yet done so. In fact, the village headman’s cousin had told them that he would not vacate the area because he owned that piece of land and had the papers to prove it. As his wife let him gather, in an oblique manner, that his brother was suddenly very busy and probably would not mind too much if Bisht lost the case, Bisht began pacing restlessly around his room. He was now worried since he had always thought that it was just a misunderstanding and that there really was no ‘case’. He asked to speak to his brother, but she reminded him that it was past nine – his brother would be in no position to talk coherently.

Bisht took out a rum bottle from behind his clothes in the cupboard and poured himself a stiff drink. He did not have a cola to mix it with, nor salt and pepper for the boiled eggs, but this was no celebratory session. He slept fitfully and had a dream in which he was ten years old, tied to a sled and hurtling down a snowy slope, as his grown-up brother jeered at him, his features hidden behind a black monkey-cap.

He got up early, eager to speak to his brother before he left for the fields. Nobody answered the phone. It had probably stopped working after the previous night’s exertions. He rang up the neighbour’s number, written in an old diary. The message came back after ten minutes of waiting that his brother was having a bath. He finally reached him after half-an-hour, during which time he himself hurriedly got ready for work, skipping his own bath. His brother told him that he was going to meet the land officer that afternoon and everything was likely to be sorted out. The officer had been away on a tour, his brother said, hence the delay. At the end of the conversation, Bisht was convinced that his wife had been mistaken about his brother.

He decided to take the cell phone with him on duty, so that he could talk to his brother again in the afternoon. Cell phones were forbidden on duty and people in the past had been punished for carrying them, but men who were expecting important news from home did so, all the same. The signal was very poor on the border because the Indian government did not allow phone companies to put towers in the vicinity. The idea was to make things difficult for smugglers. But everybody knew the patches of land from where it was possible to have a brief conversation. The men on duty that day were amused to see Bisht, who had ruthlessly punished them for using cell phones, hopping from one spot to another in search of the precious signal.

That night, Bisht did not sleep at all. His brother had not been able to meet the officer. He explained that there had been a tornado and the road from the town was blocked with fallen trees, so the officer had not reported for work. Bisht wondered if his wife was right after all, and that his brother was not pursuing the case deliberately. Bisht had skipped breakfast through the whole week now.

***

The next day was Diwali. Bisht decided to skip the function at the Wagah border gate, where, every year, officers from the Indian side would give sweets to the Pakistani Rangers. Besides, he wanted to try and get some sleep, since he was to be on night duty. A large number of men had gone home for Diwali and Bisht had volunteered for night duty, although he’d long since become too senior for it.

He must have slept just for an hour or so when he was woken up by his cell phone ringing. It was his wife, worried because their infant daughter, Banno, had diarrhoea and there was no doctor to go to. The roads had still not been cleared after the tornado, and the dispensary was lying empty. Not much of a conversation was possible as the phone got disconnected almost immediately. Bisht tried desperately to call back. Nothing happened at the other end. Maybe, he thought worriedly, the tornado had damaged the telephone wires too.

The bus came to pick up the men for the night duty at six. The barracks were lit up and some men were bursting firecrackers. The seat behind him was empty. When he asked why Assistant Sub-inspector Rathore was not present, one of the other soldiers replied that he’d had to leave for home abruptly because his four-year-old son had died. Bisht had a sinking feeling, as he asked about the cause.

‘Loose motions,’ the same person answered. There was some discussion about the fact that children were particularly vulnerable to diarrhoea if left untreated; it could deplete the water in their small bodies so quickly. As the bus lurched forward, the mournful mood inside contrasted sharply with the celebratory air outside.

The buildings at Wagah were ablaze with multi-coloured lights, with a long line of diyas flickering at the gates. The rows of coloured lights stopping abruptly at the border made an odd geometrical pattern to Bisht’s eyes, as they went by.

***

Bisht felt sick with apprehension as he walked to his post in his long coat and heavy shoes. The sky to his right was a spectacular show of glittering fireworks. A cheeky blue one streaked over the border and landed in Pakistan a hundred yards away. Normally, this would have brought an amused smile to Bisht’s face, but all that he could imagine just then was water seeping out of a frail body.

He did manage to talk to his wife at ten, but her voice cracked and buzzed on the phone. It seemed that she had gone to the neighbouring village in an auto rickshaw and brought some medicine from a hakim, which should start working in another hour or so.

***

Bisht did not do anything that night except punch phone buttons furiously. The next time he spoke to his wife was three hours later.

‘How is she?’ he asked, trying to steady his tremulous hand by pressing the phone hard against his ear.

‘Not too well. She just had a motion. But why are you up so late? You sleep. I will manage.’

‘Is it loose?’

‘What?’

‘Is the motion loose?’

‘Yes it is, but….’ There was just the familiar static again. Bisht slumped to the ground and lay gazing at the kaleidoscopic sky.

Ten minutes later, with a steady hand, Zalim Singh Bisht pulled the trigger of his service rifle, which was pressed firmly between the ground and his temple. The report was drowned in the din of the firecrackers.

***

The next morning there was a telegram from Bisht’s brother: ‘LAND VACATED STOP BANNO FINE STOP’

Bio:
Anirudh Kala is a psychiatrist and lives in Ludhiana. He is author of The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Madness and Partition (Speaking Tiger Books). In addition, several short stories have been published in Contemporary Literary Review, India, Muse India, Café Dissensus and Café Dissensus Blog. He likes Urdu poetry, hiking and semi-classical Indian music.

***

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***

Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Hatred and Mass Violence: Lessons from History”, edited by Navras J. Aafreedi, Presidency University, Kolkata, India.

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