Monday, August 14, 2017

Mother Beyond the Border by Muhammad Nasrullah Khan

At the India-Pakistan border a natural disaster decimates the enemy, and during the ceasefire that follows Major Jaswant lectures his men on humanity; by Muhammad Nasrullah Khan.

At the top of Siachin glacier, sitting outside of their igloos, Indian army officers and soldiers measured the depths of their patriotism with sacks of frozen enemy corpses. The sun didn't foster life there, gasoline did. They lived in a world where the only recourse was vengeance, fueled by an insatiable lust for blood.

Major Jaswant despised these games and had his sights set on retirement. He had dozens of subordinates, but he preferred the company of Lieutenant Sharma and Lieutenant Arun. They made him feel young.

From their position atop the glacier, Jaswant and his two comrades watched a contingent of Pakistani soldiers. The sun brightened the ice and the Indian soldiers relaxed as minutes of ceasefire stretched into hours.

The stench of death clung to the freezing winds and they reveled in it.

An avalanche had buried over a thousand Pakistani soldiers. This was a rare reprieve - no bugle calls and no march. The three could see their enemies, digging corpse after corpse out of the packed snow.

"It is a pity the ice killed them before my rifle punched a hole in their lungs. How wonderful it is to see the gutted enemy, without spotting scope," Arun said.

Jaswant's subordinates believed the avalanche was divine intervention, proving that God did wear an Indian uniform.

Filled with mirth, Arun was the youngest of the three - just 19 years old and fascinated by the sights of war. Sharma tapped him on the shoulder and began a quiet, yet enthusiastic dance. His rifle high above his head in celebration.

Jaswant remained silent, focused on his own thoughts.

"Come celebrate with us, sir?" Arun beckoned Jaswant, in an attempt to lift Jaswant's spirits.

Working not to sigh, Jaswant turned with his somber expression. "I don't celebrate death, even when it is my enemies."

Sharma and Arun looked at each other. The battlefield wasn't a place for warm hearts; it was a place for warm bullets. Pity for the enemy from a senior officer was beyond their understanding.

"Sir, they don't want us alive." Arun frowned. "Our green jackets have turned black from the smoke of kerosene oil; we don't live here to love Pakistan."

"God, being God, saved his people, the Indians, and killed the enemy," Sharma added with another wave of his rifle.

"God is no country's soldier," Jaswant reprimanded them. "Don't enlist Him in this war! You think they are so godless?"

He leaned against a tent pylon. "You pray to Him to sentence their soldiers to the fiercest furnaces in hell. They pray to Him to reward their dead with the most royal palaces in heaven."

He sat down and rubbed his hands over his face. "So, who will God listen to? If this fight is decisive and the earth becomes worth living for it - well and good. If not, God save mankind!"

Arun flushed red, his lips flattening with anger. He scoffed and kicked an ice chip.

Jaswant wasn't moved by his temper. He waved the insubordination off with a sad shake of his head, and wished he could just walk away and leave it there.

Jaswant touched the scar on his hand from an old wound and looked out into the distance. "I once heard a foreign correspondent's comment about our war. He said it was like 'two deaf men fighting over a radio.' He could not have spoken more wisely. Nature takes centuries in making and we take minutes in destroying.

"There is no justification for this hate. You, or a Pakistani soldier, feel you are being loyal to your fatherland. We all are fools, making son-less mothers with every man we kill. War feeds the cycle of war. We link hands and dance around piles of slaughtered Pakistanis, and Pakistanis do the same.

"I have seen and delivered death many times in my twenty years as a soldier," Jaswant continued.

"The screams of dying friends challenge my sanity. War, for me, is a long and dark night." He gazed across at the shabby figures of Pakistani soldiers sorting their dead.

Sharma's face glowed with admiration, imagining the many lives the veteran had stolen.

"All the same, our nation is proud of your success," said Sharma. " Your bravery saved our country."

Jaswant rubbed his forehead. "I am ashamed of what you admire in me. My country will tell of the things I've done, but I can't tell my children of them. How can I tell them I killed a man just because I met him at the border?"

Jaswant smiled sadly. "Let me tell you a story. We have a reprieve, at least for the night, and I think it is important for you to understand."

"Yes, sir," Sharma said. He and Arun shared a smile as both looked at the Pakistani soldiers still laboring through the corpses.

"Many years ago, I was stationed at Wahga Border - a hostile border you know. The fighting was brutal, and the desert's harsh conditions were as much a struggle as the incursions. The desert is a cunning fox. We lost as many soldiers to the immortal sands as we did to enemy fire."

"One night, on a routine patrol, I stopped to pee and missed my comrades in the dark. All I could see was the bleak night as the darkness sneered at me. I walked for hours with no sign of my men or our outpost. I was the desert's prey, off-track, exposed, and hungry."

Jaswant reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a cigarette. He lit it, allowing his situation to fully sink into his comrades' heads. Then he continued, his voice gaining richness. "I stumbled on through the harsh wasteland for half a night, a day, and then into the night. The desert seemed to burrow in between my bones, turning everything to stone and calcium. Finally, I wandered into a small village and there I lost consciousness."

Caught up in the story, Arun and Sharma's eyes widened.

"I opened my eyes to a sight both comforting and worrisome. It was not the desert, but the inside of a cool dark small mud house. An old woman with white hair, bleached from the sun, stood in front of me with a crook in her spine. My tongue was swollen and as rough as sandpaper. With an effort, I asked. 'Where am I... Where is this?'

"Peace... you are in my house, my son.' She caressed my forehead. Her words were a balm to my fears. 'You are my guest,' she added. Her voice was soothing in the cool dark of her simple home."

Jaswant took a drag from his cigarette. "I did my best to stand, but my legs wobbled and I dropped down back on the bed. I struggled to understand her motives. Two kind eyes stared at me. The woman squirmed, her chair squeaking in rhythm with her old bones. The orange light of the oil lamp reflected off her face, highlighting the shadows and the deepening wrinkles that etched into her features. She leaned forward. Her hands on my forehead were cool considering the hot war that was raging close to her village.

"The fever still ails you. You frightened me. I thought you were dead when I found you on my doorstep,' she chucked sadly."

Jaswant fiddled with his pistol, then continued.

"I'd heard stories of our captured soldiers being tied behind trucks and dragged until there was nothing left. I had to get out of there.

"I said to the old woman, 'I have to go back to my post... My fellow soldiers probably think I've deserted.'

"'The desert will kill you,' the woman admonished. 'Your uniform is drying. I washed it. You were exposed to a sandstorm, and you veered from the safe embrace of your lands. Perhaps even as we speak, death spreads its arm in a waiting embrace for you outside.'

"I understood the threat she was trying to paint in my mind. If I left without my uniform, I might be shot by my own people. If I left with it, I might be shot by Pakistani soldiers.

"She rose from the chair saying, 'I'll bring you some food and water. Enjoy your respite here. You are no soldier while you are my guest.'

Jaswant glanced across the valley where the body retrieval was ongoing. He nodded to his young friends and continued his story.

"But no soldier can have peace-of-mind without his fingers wrapped around his trigger, so I looked for my rifle, my ever faithful.

"The old lady noticed my searching eyes. 'What you need is rest, not your weapon. I will give it back when you regain your health. You need food.' She exited the room and I heard the rattle of pots and dishes in the kitchen."

Jaswant lit another cigarette. The smoke curled up around his two fellows.

"I was in Pakistan. Our world is filled with corruption, fear, selfishness and betrayal, and I thought she was biding her time, waiting for the Pakistani soldiers to come and claim me as their reward.

"I struggled to reach my weapon, which lay on a table in the far corner of the room. It seemed so far, but somehow, staggering on my weak legs, I reached it. The wood of its stock was smooth, comforting and familiar. It was as though I regained a lost limb.

"When she returned to the room, the weapon didn't change the kindness in her tone, or the pity shining from the depths of her dark eyes.

"Uncomfortable receiving her pity, I asked, 'How many people live in this home?

"Without fear, she replied, 'This small home is my mansion. I live alone.'

"Looking down and running fingers over the shirt, I asked. 'So whose shirt is this?'

"'It once belonged to my son,' she replied with a touch of sadness. Don't worry, he won't be collecting it from you. He is dead,'

"I bowed my head.

"'My house was once filled with sons, flooded with the joy of a bustling household. Seven during the good days! But, I have lost them all.'

"The weight of the sympathy in my heart and the weight of the rifle were too much for me. I had to drop one, and I chose the rifle. Her grief drew me closer. I felt her warm breath close to my face, I struggled to breathe the number: Seven.

"'Seven? And... and all dead? That's terrible... how... did it happen?'

"'Let me keep that story to myself. Perhaps I will tell you some other time. Now, it's time for you to eat something'. She raised the plate cover, and the delicious fragrance of fresh bread and cooked vegetables wafted into the air. Such a lovely meal from the hands of my enemy.

"After I finished, she recounted how she found me almost lifeless at her door and how, disregarding her unease, she had taken me in. Despite how touching her story was, I knew that not everyone could be as kind as she.

"'How many houses are in this village?' I asked.

"'The houses are not close here,' she said. 'Many people have left, seeking greener and calmer pastures, the war has sucked the life out of our village. It was once a village robust with life before the fighting erupted. My relatives are still on your side despite the ocean of blood and hate that washes the frontier. Sometimes, we still swim through it to see each other when the guns stop firing long enough.' I could feel the sorrow that darkened her eyes.

"'People... people still move across the boundary?' I asked. ' Only ghosts can cross it. It is our job to maintain the sovereign purity of our nation by making sure nothing muddies it.'

"'Don't worry.' She winked and her dark eyes twinkled. 'I doubt I'll be a ghost anytime soon. Soldiers are foreigners, unfamiliar with the danger and weather of the desert. You can fight against humans, but not against the desert sands.'

"She glanced out a window and said, 'The hour grows late. I must tend to the animals, herd them into their pens for the night. You are your own nanny now, take care of yourself. God willing, I should return just after sunset.'

"She walked out and several minutes later the front door lock snapped into place. Food restored my energy. I reached the window, and caught sight of her walking towards the sparse fields hugging the edge of the desert. In the distance, Pakistani posts rose from the ground like giant trees guarding the border. I could hardly imagine the border being so close. A line drawn with the blood of our sons, stood just a handful of kilometers from where I lay.

"A hurricane of doubt raged at the trust that grew for that woman. It was not easy to cross the border, especially on my own. I was too weak. I was at the mercy of her conscience; whether she saved me or sold me. I was her enemy by religion, nationality, and logic."

"Jaswant flicked the burnt-out cigarette to the ground, and came out of his reverie for a while.

"She stayed true to her word, and returned by sunset.

"As I regained my strength, her generous and compassionate heart tore down my doubt. Her unconditional love formed threads, sewing us close. I stayed there for a week, and every day my doubts faded.

"Each time the air raid siren on the posts rang out, sweat burst on my skin. Of course, I used to hear it when I was in my post in India, but hearing it from the other side of the divide was agony. The sound cursed me for reaping kindness where I had sown hate.

"Late one afternoon, there was a knock on her door. I ran to the back of the house and clutched my rifle. Sweat ran down my forehead as I waited. But she returned, alone.

"'Who were they?' I couldn't help but feel like I had betrayed the woman with my fear.

"'Don't worry, son,' she said, patting my arm,' Pakistani soldiers routinely stop for information. It is standard practice here at the border.'

"I swallowed hard to squeeze out the strength to ask her, 'But... but it was... I mean it was safest for you to tell them about me.'

"She smiled and tears welled in my eyes. Her voice soothed my troubles. 'No, son, you are not my enemy, you are my guest.' She chuckled as she saw me battle with my words.

"Every two days, Pakistani soldiers would come knocking at her door, but her smiles, soft bows, and soothing voice soon sent them on their way again.

"My country had shoveled so much hate for these people down my throat, yet that good soul had risked her life and her home, and for no benefit. This was a woman who saw the human in me before the Indian. She was my mother, living in a land that I ravaged. She had a heart not bound by flags or patriotism, but with love and compassion for others. I wish we all could see through her eyes.

"A week later, she informed me it was time for me to cross the border and return to India. She prepared me to move that night.

"We tumbled out into the desert, mother and son, Pakistani and Indian. The dark laughed and hissed. We hiked into the murky stretch of desert. Her body was old, but the mother in her was young, and she trudged alongside me in the vague night. Pakistani military outposts came into view. For her years, Mother was agile and had a fortitude many men would envy. The years weighing on her back wouldn't allow her to run. We crawled past on our bellies, alternating our journey between walking and creeping, so as not to be spotted by Pakistanis.

"Even in the danger that infused the border, she stayed by my side. She was seeing me to safety, at the possible cost of her own.

"She signaled me to sit and wait. I caught my breath. The flat featureless desert stretched out before us, from where we hid. Pakistani soldiers dotted the land, patrolling this stretch of the border. Even so close to homeland, escaping felt like an unattainable goal.

"'You can't cross now,' she said, looking up to read the skies. 'We will wait here for the most appropriate time. While you wait...' She brought out my army uniform from her bag, '...time for you to change into your uniform.'

"She studied the skies, and as if she could read the weather, 'There will be a sand storm. That is your best chance to make it through.'

"I should have been overjoyed to return to my homeland, but I was reluctant to leave my new mother. Our bonds had grown strong in my short stay with her.

"'Earlier on when I was sick, you told me your seven sons died. Please, tell me how?'

"The glow on her face faded. 'This monstrous border ate my sons. Before India was severed into India and Pakistan, life shone here. But the partition destroyed our little paradise as the locusts of guns devoured our village.

"Life became hard and uncaring. We struggled for survival. My husband and eldest son started a business transporting goods to the other side of the frontier. The business was risky. Both were executed.' I could feel her silent tears.

"'Did we kill all of your sons? Taking her hand between both of mine, whips of regret flogged my conscience

"'No. Some were killed by your army, others by my own.'

"My mouth dried. I wanted so badly to comfort her, but I couldn't find the words. Instead, I said, 'But the partition was your people's dream. We didn't want to divide the great India.'

"A sad smile sprang to life and faded. 'Yes, it was our demand, but once the partitioning starts, it never ends. After religion, we are further divided into poor and rich, different castes, and languages. And then people have to pay the price for decisions not made by them, but made for them.'

"I mustered the strength to speak. 'Surely, life is hard for you now, and the war craves heroes. Why didn't you make yourself one by offering me to the Pakistani army?'

"'No loss could be greater than losing my sons. Should I betray other mothers, my sisters-at-arms, for some uncivilized revenge?'

"Here I was at the war front being lectured on civility by an old woman well behind modern civilization. The tears besieged my eyes as silence crept between us one more time.

"The sandstorm she had predicted soon came. 'Go,' she kissed my forehead and said, 'Be safe. Your land awaits.' I shook my head, wiped the tears from my eyes, and kissed her gnarled hands.

"As I ran for the border, I could hear her prayers, which were of another religion, asking her God to protect me. I sobbed as I ran.

"Her prayers were answered. As the years passed, I continued to fight, as most of us continue our jobs despite hating them. I sat like a stray dog at butcher's shop without chains, waiting for the butcher's end of the day offer. Many of us have these invisible chains and like that dog, are just waiting for a small piece of rusted meat."

"But all the heat of this war has not evaporated those teardrops from my heart. The kiss she planted blossomed into a love for humanity that surpasses uniform and borders.

"We, both Indians and Pakistanis, teach history stuffed with loathing to our children. Hatred has plagued us and assassins become heroes. War is, in fact, a black eye in our history, but we present it as something marvelous. It's damn childish. We are isolating our generation. Our leaders are piling this hatred into a throne for governments. Who will tell this story of a mother who belongs to all, who lives beyond the border and, I believe, on both sides? The mother who gave birth to children to be slaughtered, but still believed in life and love.

"Only later I did realize I was the son of two mothers, the one who gave birth to the boy who grew into the soldier, and the one who gave birth to the man who grew from the soldier."

Jaswant looked at his two colleagues. "Now, can you see the folly of this war? Do you understand that any medal you get from war is not a reward? It's a scar to remind you how many sons you have separated from their mothers."

Heavy silence captured them. Their eyes strayed down to the Pakistani soldiers, still immersed in digging out their dead.

“Nature has collapsed the glacier, but the walls around men's hearts are harder to crumble," Jaswant said, staring again at the Pakistani soldiers. A tear dropped from his eyes and became a part of the frozen ground.

6 comments:

  1. Beautifully written and sobering. I was going to say, very appropriate in this time but it will always be very appropriate. There is so much in this story, not least the vivid characterisations and language. First class.
    Mike McC

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  2. I agree with Mike, and it is particularly relevant on the anniversary of the Indian sub-continent's independence from British colonial rule. Seeds are sown .... Very many thanks for an important and skilfully written story, Ceinwen

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  3. Another sort of war story. We shouldn’t assume that everyone in uniform has a single-minded purpose of killing as many of the enemy as possible. It’s interesting to speculate on how the major got his perspective. Certainly, his time (especially when wounded and quite vulnerable) with the old woman helped, but there must have been a seed of introspection and common sense in him, otherwise he would not have grown from that experience.

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  4. I read this story, like the story of the German pilot who escorted the crippled American bomber to the English Channel, and wondered why we continue to fight against one another. Why does it take a near death experience to see our common humanity? Very nicely done.

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  5. Thank you very much for encouraging comments, Dear All!

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  6. Strong and elegant language to describe the desert and the mother - the mother of us all. The story within the story is compelling, and even the story within the story within the story - who would have thought such a construction could build such a powerful piece?
    B r o o k e

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