As I fought the urge to doze off, my thoughts were diverted to my life before army. My parents were from a small mountain village in Garhwal region but I lived almost all my life in Pune where my father worked in a small factory. I was the younger of two children, my sister was 5 years older and a second mother to me. Living so far away from our native place, we didn't have many people who shared most of our festivals, language or food habits, but we adjusted somehow. I was born there, so it wasn't any difficult for me unlike my parents. My father often spoke of settling back in his village after retirement and living off his share of farm back there. Considering that he had two brothers, I doubted that our whole family could survive on that. Although I liked the mountains, school wok and distance prohibited me from visiting often. So inspite of having pahadi ( पहाड़ी ) genes inside me, I hardly had any exposure to mountains. During my annual visits, I was a source of amusement to my cousins and temporary playmates in the village who could run up hilly paths without any trouble while I huffed and puffed my way much behind them. I wasn't fat or unfit, but it was just too difficult for a plains dweller like me
With time, these visits got shorter and more rare as school and other stuff took it's toll. Things changed a bit when my sister got married to a armyman from our village when I was 16. I visited the village after a long time for the wedding ceremony and observed the simple but hard life of people there. It was not like we lived a life of luxury ourselves, but you had to be strong as well as hard working to live in a mountain village. At first, I wondered if my sister could adjust to the new life as she was as clueless about living in mountains as I was. But later I realised that she'll be living with her husband wherever he was posted which happened to be in Rajsthan during the first year of their marriage. Things changed for me too as I finished school and enrolled in to a college for my graduation.
It was during the 3rd year of their marriage when tragedy struck. My brother-in-law stepped on a land mine while on a routine border patrol and got severely injured. I took leave from college and visited him in the military hospital in Delhi along with my parents. By the time we reached there, doctors had already amputated his left leg just above the knee. He had sustained injuries elsewhere too and most of his body was wrapped in bandages and plaster. His left arm was broken in three places, four ribs were fractured and had shrapnel wounds all over the body. Although my sister's in-laws were there, my mother stayed with my sister to help her through while I and father came back after a few days. My college and his work couldn't wait. Even after returning, I couldn't stop thinking about my brother-in-law. His discharge from army was certain, he had lost more than half of his left leg and even with therapy and an artificial limb he'd never be able to walk as well he used to. I wondered how he would manage to move around in his village with an artificial leg. Army did gave him some monetary compensation, but was it enough considering that he wasn't even 30 at that time ? He wasn't that well educated or sophisticated to land a job in either private or government sector easily. Working in his family farms wouldn't be an easy job either. They had a baby girl just about an year before that. What was her future in such a situation ?
It took 4 months for him in hospital to recover from his injuries after which he was discharged and fitted with an artificial leg. Training to use it and therapy took almost as long. He was finally able to go back home 9 months after the incident. Slowly he recovered and started to move around on his own with help of a walking stick. He also bought some land from the money that he had received from the army and started to work in the fields trying to rebuild his life. Although he couldn't wok the way he used to earlier, it was still something. His strength and power of will never ceased to amaze me.
Life went on as usual for me in the meanwhile. I had appeared for my final year exams and was waiting for the results when I faced the worst day of my life. An out of control truck rammed the cab my parents were traveling in, killing them both on the spot. I was completely numb from the shock and hardly knew what was going on around me. My sister and brother-in-law rushed in as soon as they heard the news and after rituals were over and done with, took me with them to their home. It was a good change for me and I slowly started to recover from the grief. My uncles from my father's side lived in the same village but I had only limited contact with them. They tried to help in their own ways and slowly things started to get back on track again. We didn't have any property of our own in Pune except for some basic household possessions. My father's meager salary hardly allowed for any luxuries or even a house of our own. Only property we had was the partial ownership of ancestral farmland in the village which was tilled by my uncles jointly. They generously offered to take me in, but it was obvious even to me that eking out a living just by land wouldn't be enough. Besides they had children of their own. I needed a job fast.
I was getting more depressed when my b-i-l noticed it and asked me about it. He started taking me along to the farm to divert my mind. It was only then that I observed him closely for the first time. He had been really different in our previous meetings. First was during the wedding, a person hardly looks like a human being in an Indian wedding. Second time was when he was wrapped in bandages in hospital. Hardly normal on both occasions. So it was only after I had been living in his home for a few days, I realised what kind of a person he really was. Like most pahadi people, he woke up at th crack of dawn and performed pooja after bathing. After breakfast, he left for his fields nearby and sometimes came back for lunch or at other times it was carried to him. He did a lot of work himself but had hired some labourers to do the manual work which was no longer possible for him. He'd have needed labourers anyway even if he was totally fit. He came back home in the evening sometimes accompanied by a few friends and they had long chats, a lot of time over drinks which extended till sundown. He rarely if ever watched TV and went to bed early. In between, he found time to play with his daughter and help her with whatever little schoolwork the primary school entailed. Overall, a pretty normal life. Once over dinner, he told me that this was the life he actually wanted after retirement. Then laughed over the fact that the retirement had come too soon. I wondered if there was some regret in that laugh.
He was not only cheerful and happy with his life, but also was much fitter than me. Even with his artificial leg, he could walk faster than me even on inclined rocky paths on mountains as I struggled to keep up with him. Although he carried his walking stick all the time, it's use was down to a bare minimum. It wasn't like he was completely fit. He had suffered some hearing loss in one ear and his left arm and ribs were still not 100% healed. According to doctors, he needed therapy for full recovery. But that meant leaving his home and fields for 2-3 weeks every 3-4 months and live in a hospital 100s of KMs away. He once said to his wife who kept pestering him to go for the therapy, "I've had enough of those fancy doctors making me walk in water, do silly exercises and what not. All I need is weekly massage from the village barber and I'll be fine." He never complained about the pain and discomfort to anyone though. He patiently taught me the basics of farming, tending to animals and lots of related stuff. With him, I started to get over my depression but the question of what to do with my life was still there. One day while working on the farm, he was telling me an anecdote about his life in the army when I hesitantly asked if I could join the army.
His expression grew a bit serious at the question and he thought for a while before replying. " I've thought about suggesting you to join the army, but you know what happened to me. Sure, there are lots of good things about the army, but theres always the chance of things happening." He grew silent for a few seconds then said, "Do you want that risk " ?
"Tell me one thing that's really safe . My parents died just like that while traveling in a taxi. You can't really control such things." I replied.
"You've started talking like an old philosopher" he sighed. "Have you talked with your sister yet ?"
I shook my head to which he replied, "Your sister loves you more as a son than a brother. Although we were virtual strangers before, I too have grown to love you like a younger brother. You don't have to do anything under the assumption that you are a burden to us. If you want to study more, sit in a competitive exam, anything you want, I'll be happy to support you. You can go to Delhi, Pune whatever place you like for your studies. I'll be even more happy if you stay here with us and help me with farming. I already have more land than I could manage anyway. "
I didn't know what to say so I kept quiet. Observing my silence, he asked me to think about it and we went back to our work. He must've told my sister about our conversation. She came to me next day and repeated whatever he had said, but in a more womanish way. But she didn't seem too enthusiastic about me joining the army.
After a few days, I came to know about an army recruitment camp about to be held near our village. I made up my mind and announced my decision to join the army as we were all having dinner in kitchen. On hearing this, my sister dropped everything she was doing and walked away from the kitchen with teary eyes. He nodded once at me and then left to look for her. I went to bed soon after but couldn't sleep. Next morning everything went on as if nothing had happened. Once in the fields, he called me over for a talk and told me about his conversation with my sister. At first she had opposed but reluctantly acquiesced. Then he said that I needed to improve my stamina in order to increase the chances of getting recruited and from that day, I was supposed to train for the physical test instead of working on the farm. So, my initial training began right there and then. He made me run laps around the field, do chin ups and push ups till I dropped and much more. When I reached home that evening, covered with even more dust and dirtier than usual, my niece laughed at me. Sister didn't say anything. Slowly I started gaining strength and stamina needed to pass physical exam but I was always worried if I'll be able to pass competing against rest of the locals.
Soon, the army setup their recruitment camp in a village not very far from ours. I took the overcrowded bus and attended the camp along with thousands of other young men who had gathered from perhaps hundreds of villages. Luckily, I cleared all the physical and written exams and was shortlisted . My brother-in-law who didn't care to leave his farm even for his physio-therapy, came to see me off till Delhi as I left for my training in Mhow. Although he had prepared me for it, the training was still hard, mentally as well as physically. But somehow I managed to keep my wits around me. After completion of training, I was assigned as a Rifleman in Garwhal Rifles, same regiment as my brother-in-law. Even my sister who seemed unusually pensive ever since I declared my decision of joining army seemed happy when I broke the news to her.