Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Memoirs of a dear friend - Vivek

Vivek Sanyal was my class mate through many years in School. I stayed in RK Puram, and he, close by in Munirka. We became friends.

When School finished, we parted ways, each one anxious of what lay ahead in life. And in that keenness to look forward to the future, most of us forgot to say our 'good byes' and forgot to promise each other to keep in touch....

Thirty one year later we reunited. And now while the faces were the same, the reunion was all about rediscovering each other.

Vivek went to the Armed Forces Medical College, and became a Doctor.He completed his 'tour of duty' in the five years that he served in the Indian Army.

I discovered that Vivek was also a good story teller. One of the stories - part of his memoirs of his life back then in the 'fauj' particularly struck me as very 'absorbing'. With Vivek's permission I am reproducing it right here - on my blog.

So here it is - a short story titled "Long Ago" by Captain (Retd) Dr. Vivek Sanyal :

"October 1991. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, had sent 5 Divisions into Punjab ... the combined Corp HQs was in Jullundur ... I was the RMO ( Regimental Medical Officer) of 12 Sikh ( 12th Battalion of the Sikh Regiment ) which was stationed at a Tehsil called Garshankar in Hoshiarpur District.

Mission was to 1. Cordon & Search' the villages in & around the area; 2. Arrest, confine, interrogate, nuetralise or eliminate all & any terrorists that were heard of, found, suspected intercepted; and 3. Establish trust of the local civilian population towards the Congress Government. Long term plans were to disinfest the whole state so that there could be free-n-fair Elections in Feb 1992 ( which ultimately did take place )

Towards this endeavour, I was required to hold Medical Camps at various villages, which were to be 'set-up' by 10:00 hours.and continue until 17:00 hours. Every 'patient' was searched, frisked, interrogated as well. But I generally gave treatment, free medicines, medical counselling, health education lectures to school children, referred seriously ill patients to the Civil Hospital; in "deserving cases" ( read - those cases which would give the Army/Govt mileage in popularity ) even sent them for comprehensive treatment to Military Hospitals.

Each Medical Camp required mobilization @ 4:00am in the morning, travelling 25-50kms to the designated village, establishing camp, going through the whole day, and the wrapping up the whole set-up by 19:00 hours & returning to our Battalion HQs by 21:00-

22:00 hours. Exhaustion demanded a serious drinking session to reset the organism to 'Alive-again' mode ! Altogether, we held about 9 camps in 2 months. Everywhere, we went, we had an incredible escort of troops, armed to the teeth with extreme armament, to be prepared for organized ambushes by those merciless "kharkoos" as the terrorists were called in local dialect. Heavy-machines guns, grenade launchers, mortars were rife ...we officers were issued Semi-Automatic Carbines & personal side-arms (German-made 9mm Luger Automatics)

In the 2 months that I spent there, we had 2 minor skirmishes & 1 major one ...in which they blew up the last 2 trucks in our fast moving convoy. 6 men were killed. So one can imagine the innate tensions in everybody's mind. Death & destruction was a possibility ... all the time ... for anyone.

And it was in this setting, that I found myself having some serious communication gap speaking to the populace in Punjabi. Especially the old men, women & children. And she was a local, but convent educated, married to a Captain in the Artillery, whose unit was posted in the Eastern Sector, ahead of New Jalpaiguri ...for 8 months already. She & her 4 yr old daughter were staying with her her father, who was a 'jathedar' in the local Gurudwara. I have no remote idea how she ended up being my interpreter, translator secretary, nurse, chaperone & liason officer ... who sent her, how did she qualify .... no idea at all ! Do I need to mention that she was very attractive; that she was pretty too ...and that we had this instant, intense chemistry ?

In the very 1st Medical Camp, she set my lunch out at an uneducated elderly village widow's house ... served me every item unobtrusively, while simultaneously translating for me, when I was charming the 60-year old widow. Her chunni didnt cover her head ... in fact her mid-back length hair was free, and brushed my face & arms when she served the food. She poured water from a jug so I could wash my hands. She handed me the towel so I could dry my hands. I never knew it was 16:30 hours until she sent my orderly to call me aside to have tea in my jeep. She didnt even look at me, when she handed me a plate of Marie biscuits to dip ino the tea. Later, while wrapping-up the camp, I saw my Senior Nursing Assistant telling her the details of our equipment, how it all was packed, what all went into my 'Doctor's Bag' !

Every camp thereafter, my clinic was impeccably arranged & organised ... the basin never ran out of water when I needed to wash my hands. Old women came to the clinic b'cos they had 'heard' that I was a 'kind, caring & able' doctor. A farmer's daughter had a large abscess in her private parts. She helped me drain it, though I noticed her sweating & trying to control her nausea at the sight of the lesion & smell of the pus. She was trembling when I hacked off the gangrenous finger of a young man, whose finger had got caught in a threshing machine. I never figured out, how or when, amidst all that she arranged for the best 'Sarson-da -Saag & Makki-di-Roti' I ever had, to be served on the back-seat of my jeep parked right behind my clinic.

She held limbs steady when I bandaged them or applied plaster. She meticulously buried all the syringes I used in deep in the soil after every camp. She held crying babies on her shoulder, when I examined them with my stethoscope. Once she arranged a table-fan wired to a lamp-post too, when she saw me sweating mid-morning. She translated all the ailments people poured out to me; she translated whatever advice I gave to each patient; she used to have a check-list of the patients who I had referred to the Civil & Military hospitals; she wiped the sweat from my brow when I was carefully excising dead skin from a severe burns injury.

And through all that, incredibly, she hardly ever looked into my eyes ! She never addressed me directly. Never stepped in my Staff's way. Maintained an impeccable decorum, absolutely above reproach, giving no chance to any of my lecherous staff to make a single disrespectful comment about her. To one-n-all, be it my staff, troops, my Commanding Officer and the patients ...she was simply 'Madam' ! She could anticipate my needs, orders & instructions. To a direct question she replied she had always wanted to be a nurse. It had been a few weeks, I didnt even know her name !

I think it was the 5th or 6th camp, when I was invited by a very dignified looking couple to have supper at their house after the camp was over. My sweet-elderly hostess lavished praise on me, wishing there were doctors like me in their area. She asked me about my origins, my education, my wife and my life in the Army. Her husband, a big-built heavily all white-moustached-bearded poured me a Double Rum-with-Soda, while the lady called out to her daughter Sonia in the kitchen, to help her lay out the table.

I almost stumbled & choked, when I saw it was her ! There was a smile hovering on her lips. All through the meal she kept telling her parents about things that happened at the camps. She knew I was watching her ... enchanted, sometimes even stuttering ... but she only had eyes for her Dad & her mum. Perfect hostess. Perfect daughter.

She came to see me to the door when I was leaving ...and then ... for the first time .. she really loooked at me. A frank, wide-eyed, intense, soul-baring look, that got me breathless ! My ears buzzing ! She was glowing ... shining ! I was afraid to hold her gaze, lest I revealed my desire. And yet, I was mesmerised. She simply shook my hand and said, "Thank you for coming, Captain !" in an unusually trembling, husky voice. And she ran back inside before I could recover.

Once, over tea, she asked, 'Is your wife very beautiful, Captain ?' Another time she asked , 'Was yours a love-marriage, Captain ?' Once while waiting for road-clearance, I began to sing a romantic song ... halfway through, I felt her still ... silent presence next to me ... and I belted out a whole bunch of songs ....all meant for her .... though I didnt even turn & look at her. As my staff joined in, I could hear her clapping to rythm.

When the local Magistrates 15 yr old daughter came to me for a toothache, she told her about how she got married, how she missed her husband, how she hated the terrorism in Punjab, how she wished she could travel with her husband ... for all practical purposes, she wasn't talking to me ... but she knew I was listening very intently to every word she spoke ! And then, she softly said, 'I wonder if all Officers in the Army are faithful to their wives when they are away from home for so long ?' And sudenly I turned .. and caught her steady meaningful gaze over the young girls shoulder .... ! Another moment when everything else around faded ... the only

reality was ... this 'magic' ... this frail, intangible, unproclaimed, beautiful ... magic ! Magic of youth calling to youth ! Of a woman glowing in a man's admiration ! Of passion held in check, of unspoken words, secret smiles & stolen glances !

After the last Camp, there was a long gap, when I made preparations to submit my papers for release from the Army. I was completing my 5 years of commissioned service soon. 2 days, before I was to leave, I visited her. When her mum let me in, I asked for her. She must have heard my voice ... I turned and heard her, before I saw ... her running down the stairs ! Her mum, took one look at her..and then at me ... and she stepped back ... and left us alone !

I gave her the bouquet of flowers, gave her the chocolates I had arranged from Jullunder specially for her ... and just looked into her eyes ! Oh I wanted to ! I needed to .... hold her, hug her, embrace her ! But I was a married man ... and she a married woman !

And we both loved our spouses ! And yet !

Finally, I said, 'Happy Birthday, Sonia-ji !'

Her surprise was a thrill. Her eyes formed the question. Her smile was brilliant. Her pleasure ... a rare gift. Then I said, "Sonia-ji, did Capt Sukhwinder ever tell you about the Doctor he met at Ladakh when he had come for his High-Altitude para-jumps ? That was also during your Birthday, right ? Did he tell you, how he and that Doctor had got drunk and chased a mountain-hare all over Leh town & finally crashed the Jeep into a Yak ? Do you know that Sukhwinder always keeps your photo in his wallet & shows it to his drinking buddies everywhere ? Well, I'll tell you this, your husband, loves you very much ... and the last time I met him, he was completely faithful to you !"

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