They watched the man swathed in a cloak, gingerly climbing up the steep path, sometimes ducking behind boulders, approaching secretively as the sun was sinking fast. They were quite used to the golden, scarlet hues of the setting sun brightening up the clear blue skies, before it vanished like a magician, whirling all the glorious colours, under its cloak!
But the children were not used to adults, coming to their remote village, perched atop the high Himalayan mountain, with verdant forests of Pine, Fir and Maple blanketing the steep slopes, keeping them hidden from strangers. Yet the men had slowly but steadily been declining in numbers.
As they kept watching Afroz, thought it right to inform his mom, who would know what to do. He ran full speed, telling the others to stay hidden, cause the encroacher had a gun slung on his back.
As Zareen was getting ready to put the frugal evening meal together for her four children and herself, she was taken aback to see Afroz running in haste. ‘Be careful! You will get hurt my dear!’ she cautioned. ‘Ammi, there is a stranger coming up from the trail behind the village! He seems to be hiding, from someone.’ She froze! Not again!
Soon the stranger reached the outskirts of the village. His map was perfect, the instructions accurate. They needed to recruit more people. He slowly made his way to the house of the ‘Mukhia’ shifting his gun to the other shoulder. He could feel the pricks of dozens of eyes but could see no one. This was a hostile situation, his training kicked in and he was prepared for the worst. He knocked on the door that stood ajar, not in welcome, but because it did not perceive any danger.
The wise, old Mukhia Shabeer Shah, himself came to the door, as the women of the house were busy preparing the evening meal, getting the cattle into the pen, and attending to the hundred and one chores clamouring for their attention. ‘Salam-alekum’ he said smartly, raising his hand to the forehead respectfully. ‘Walekum- Salam,’ he responded, ‘Who is it? Where are you from? What do you want?’ He caught a glimpse of the kohl rimmed, dark eyes, and the subtly hidden gun, his senses were zinging. The stranger walked in, brimming with confidence, subtly threatening the older, frail man knowing there was none to stop him. ‘ Ah! Chacha, I have come from across the border, I was given the directions by Suleiman, your nephew. He drew an accurate map too. He sends his salaam to you, Chachiji and his siblings!’
‘I am quite tired after my long trek across these treacherous mountains, keeping out of sight of the Indian Army. They seem to be on every hill now, like the sheep.’ He laughed raucously.
Silently the old man led him inside, as he closed the door. He showed the stranger to his own room, to rest. His body may have aged but his mind was still young. He rushed to the back of the house, asking the women to gather in the kitchen. As slowly as he could whisper, he informed them of the arrival of the Mujahideen.
‘Oh!’ ‘Ahhh!’ ‘Hai Allah!’ ‘Boohoo…’ ‘What will happen now?’ he was surrounded with a cacophony, albeit in hushed tones. ‘We have to be brave, alert and none of you girls will come in front of him, except for you Begum.’ ‘He will ask for food, so give him my share… and keep the children away, he has a gun.’
Blustering, faltering, stammering the lady of the house along with her two grown up daughters got busy, while the youngest girl Malala went to round up her younger siblings, hustling them to the kitchen, and spreading the word among other children too.
The youngest daughter of the house she was very popular with the village children. Together they could be seen tending to their flocks, climbing trees, swimming in the mountain streams, and collecting wild fruits. Sometimes an elder would narrate old lore sitting around a fire, imbibing in them values, and rejoicing in the victory of good over evil.
Afroz had observed all the goings on from behind the closed windows of his ramshackle home. Though in need of repairs, like many others in their village, it protected the against the fury of Nature, keeping them warm and protected. But against armed men, he wondered what could the thick four walls do?
The tired stranger, comfortable in the knowledge of having roused fear in his host, made himself comfortable, falling asleep in the comfortable warm bed, as soon as his head touched the pillow, and his tired limbs could stretch.
Next morning, as the sun peeped over the far mountain peak, the birds went about chattering, twittering, creating their usual ruckus, while silence loomed over the picturesque village.
Through the night, word had spread about the stranger to each of the twenty households. The few men, who toiled hard on the fields to produce food for all of them, tired to the core were asked to quietly vanish into the woods. The young girls and boys were clearly instructed to stay out of sight and keep the younger children away too. The wise Mukhiya gave his instructions without stepping out or meeting anyone.
As the stranger stepped out, now emboldened without any checks, or resistance; well fed and well rested, he wondered at the silence, but with his mind occupied with his next step, he brushed the thought aside.
The children watched from behind closed doors and windows, as he sauntered to the edge of the forest and seemed to be busy noting things in a diary. When he walked back at mid-day, looking forward to a hearty meal, he happened to come across Afroz, who was just taking his sheep to the meadow farther away.
‘Salaam Walekum!’ the stranger said.
‘Walekum – salaam!’ said the boy nervously. ‘I have not seen anyone in this village, do you have no people here?’ Silence!
‘Ok, here I have something for you,’ he said as he pulled out a chocolate wrapped in glittering foil. ‘I have more for your friends too!’
Afroz looked at it carefully, fascinated by the aroma, unwrapped it and put it gingerly in his mouth. It was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted. The creamy chocolate melted in his mouth, leaving a trail of sweet glory as he relished each drop slowly trickling down his throat, taking him to Heaven. Well, someone who gave such gifts, could not be all bad, he thought. That was the beginning of a long tryst with the stranger.
The chocolate trail secured the trust of the innocent village lad and soon he was listening to stories of atrocities committed against his ‘new friend and his family’. His sympathy only increased!
One day the man said he would be leaving. He asked young Afroz, if he wanted to earn enough money to remove all the hardships of his family and be able to get chocolates for all his friends. The unsuspecting, brainwashed child agreed without hesitation. He was promised the world, in exchange of leaving his rustic life for a more adventurous one.
Without realizing it he was recruited. One early morning, while it was still dark two shadows could be seen melting into the forest path down from the village. Few heard the laments of a heartbroken mother when she realised her son was lost.
After a treacherous trek over many days, which reduced the young boy to tears many a times not just because of the difficulties of the terrain, they reached a clearing in the pine woods, dotted with neat tents and a training ground akin to that of any military force.
He was shocked to see hundreds of boys like him. There was a sudden change in the stranger. He became rough and harsh like the other grown ups around. They were pushed through brutal rigorous training schedules physically and emotionally. Their childlike innocence soon vanished. Their eyes bore a steely cold look. Soon vestiges of humanity, sympathy and empathy had been replaced with cold hatred, fear and loyalty to their ‘handlers’ alone.
For the few who tried to escape, there was merciless beatings and worse, their screams could have melted hearts of stone, but not the men around, the perpetrators of the heinous activities.
The day soon came when Afroz and the other boys were taken to the field. They were given rifles to shoot people, innocent people, and to make good their escape. The praises heaped on them for a change, puffed up their chests, made them feel good. This carried on till one day as he was escaping after a mission, he saw a poster of his only friend, being praised as a martyr. He did not know he was dead. That jolted him, reminded him of love, brotherhood, and duty.
Soon his handler, took him to meet the Commander of their camp. Outwardly he maintained his poise and calm, but a storm raged within.
The Commander welcomed him and lavished praise on him in front of all the important looking men present. He was asked to go back to his village and bring back more boys. They were convinced his village was filled with worthy soldiers like him, worthy to fight for the cause and make their families rich and comfortable, while earning laurels for their own self. Stunned, he looked from the Commander to his handler and back again. Mumbling and nodding, he turned to leave, when the Commander called him to accept his gift. He was handed a thick wad of currency notes and a packet full of chocolates.
With trembling hands, he accepted the same and slowly left the tent, eyes streaming, heart bleeding. The chocolates, that had lured him like bait into the trap. He hated them.
All through that journey, he kept thinking of his first trek. He wondered when and how did his life change. How come he never even realized the slow stealthy onslaught of change. His soul and conscience were busy conversing, and all he could be, was silent and listen, though his heart wanted to shout and scream.
The children herding their sheep, watched the two men climbing up the trail, by the forest, in the light of the setting sun. Clouds of dust gave them away, as they slowly crept nearer. They squinted trying to identify them. Last time such a stranger had wreaked havoc.
Confidently, the younger one led the way to the house of the Mukhia. The wise man couldn’t believe his eyes… their Afroz was alive! ‘Afroz!’ he yelled as he hugged him, kissed him on the cheeks shouting, “Zareen, see who is here? God has answered your prayers.”
His eyes then fell on the other man, standing slightly behind, mocking the emotional drama, his gun now in his hands ready to fire. Afroz, stepped back and said ‘Salaam Chacha! I am on a mission. We will not be here long. As soon as my job is done, we will leave. We will meet with you and the brave boys tomorrow morning. Till then this man will be our guest, in your house.’ The cold voice, the heartless tone, froze his very heart, as Shabeer Shah watched from the corner of his eyes Zareen freeze in her tracks, listening to the same!
Hearing her father’s happy exclamations Malala too came running out, she hadn’t heard such joy in quite some time now! There he was, Afroz, her friend since they were toddlers.
The men were stunned too, as they saw an angel from Heaven descend to where they stood. The beauty of the young girl dazzled both, which was heightened in the twilight! The bewitching hour! The handler reached for her hand, to check if it was merely an illusion; when something buried deep within his heart made Afroz yell like a ferocious tiger, leaping on this intruder…
‘Stop Afroz!’ Shouted Shabeer!
‘Stop Afroz!’ Shouted Zareen!
‘Stop Afroz!’ Shouted Mallala!
‘Stop Afroz!’ Shouted the handler!
All the commands and yells fell on deaf ears. Afroz used his training well. He brought his well-trained strong fist in a chop to the throat of the unsuspecting man, who reeled back. Taking a flying leap, he landed his knee into the man’s stomach. The fury of a lost childhood compelled him to kick with all his might the representative of his assailants. The cries and laments echoed for long in the mountains and in minutes the tall burly man lay peacefully on the ground. Lifeless!
The hushed silence was witness to a tumult of emotions, as the storms raging within found their way out.
Afroz paced up and down all night, watched by all his near and dear ones, sitting around a small fire to ward off the cold, doubt and the heart wrenching story narrated by a son of their village. Begging forgiveness from his mother and the Village elders he took leave to rest and reflect.
With the breaking of dawn in the east, he seemed to have formulated a plan He needed to meet someone, before implementing it.
In a few days in the darkness predawn, a group of shadows could be seen descending down the village trail through the forests, going west. For Afroz it was a sense of déjà vu. A second take. After a few days of the difficult trek, they soon reached the edge of the camp, their destination. His friends had been well instructed. They were under no illusion of earning a fast buck or going to Heaven.
On learning of his arrival and that of the boys the Commander sent for him at once. He was overjoyed to see 6 boys along with Afroz. He wanted to meet the handler too but then thought he would catch up later. ‘Shabash! Shabash Afroz! I am proud of you! You will be honoured tonight! There will be a celebration. All the boys should learn from you. What an example you are.’
That evening as the camp members assembled for a ceremony of honour, a huge fire broke out in the kitchen. No one knew how. The men got busy trying to contain it. There was chaos in the ranks. People running helter skelter, loud screaming, panic-stricken cries and on top of that commands over a public address system, none paid heed to. No one heard the Indian Air Force fighter planes coming. It was too late when the bombs landed to wipe out the vipers nest, the terrorist training camp.
By that time Afroz and his friends were far away, as were most of the children whom Afroz had released under the confusion of the fire.
A few days later he was seen in the company of the Army Commandant, who lavished praise on the young man in front of the dignitaries and awarded him a gallantry award.
Now I believe he has taken on the onus of guarding the ‘Chakki’ the water mill in his area, because he had heard of the plans of blowing it up
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