The square envelope lay on the carved rosewood peg table, conspicuous by its stark white look, broken only by the carefully inscribed name in black – Neha Mittal. A small card peeped from beneath, teasing Neha for attention, as she pointedly looked elsewhere, sipping on her flavourful ginger tea. It was an invite to a dinner party hosted by Major Shankar Subramaniam – Shanks, in short – to mark his 30th birthday. Shankar Subramaniam was a pediatric specialist posted to the Military Hospital at Shahbad cantonment. He was as passionate about saving lives, as he was proud of his olive green uniform and the rank pips on his shoulders.
Neha finished her tea and rose. As she started walking towards the kitchen, the telephone rang. It was her close friend and confidante, Shalini.
“Hey Neha, good morning…how are things?” Shalini’s cheerful voice rang out, instantly lifting Neha’s drooping spirits. “Achcha listen,” she continued, “I called to remind you about this evening. Rajat and I will pick you up at 7:30…would that be okay?”
“Shalu dear, you never ever forget, do you?” Neha smiled indulgently at her friend’s thoughtfulness. “But I told you…I’m not coming today. Gotta go and pick up a few things from…” Neha couldn’t finish as Shalini tore into her lame defence.
“Neha! I’m not taking no for an answer. You’re coming and that’s final!”
Shalini softened her tone marginally when she spoke next. “Neha, for god’s sake, it’s been five years now. Do you even realise that you’re actually punishing yourself…depriving Sana..,” Shalini’s imploring voice now almost dropped to a whisper, “Let go of your past, Neha. Embrace the present….welcome the future….please, my dear, now is the time!”
“Shalu, can I call you back after a while? I think I can smell the sabji burning…” Neha disconnected the phone in a hurry, feeling flustered and disoriented. Conversations like these always threw her off the hook as she found herself floating rudderless in a distant parallel universe of memories. Memories that were too precious for her, almost sacrosanct, and she took pride in preserving them, burnishing them, till they shone and blazed down on her present, leaving little scope for any fresh ray of hope or happiness to creep in.
“Mumma, look at this!” cried a chirpy little voice as a little girl rushed inside the room like a burst of sunshine, holding aloft a drawing sheet showing stick figures of a lady with a child and a man sitting in the background. For her four and a half years, Sana had a remarkably beautiful face with almond eyes and brown curly ringlets falling all across her innocent face.
“Yes sweetheart, this picture is so pretty!” Neha warmed up immediately, dismissing her earlier ruminations.
“Mumma , this is you, and this is me, and that’s Dada there at the back….we’re having a picnic…yeeaayy!” Sana pranced around for a while, and then exited the room with equal gusto to finish the colouring.
This episode with Sana, though brief and fleeting, stirred up a maelstrom of emotions in Neha’s already agitated mind. Dada…how seamlessly Sana had made her Dad an intrinsic part of all her life events…the Dad she had never met, and seen only through the translucent sheets of the plastic photo album, seemed to perpetually pep up all her fun and games. Neha’s mind, fanned by the winds of the present, involuntarily wafted to the past, to those days when life played out on a carefree turf of gay abandon and unfettered felicity.
Dhruv and Neha – best buds, comrades-in-arm, partners in crime – different monikers, but travellers, walking a common path of shared dreams and lifelong commitment. Captain Dhruv Mittal, a second generation Indian Army officer, and Neha had literally grown up together, often attended the same school (Dhruv was senior by two years), faced a similar regimen of cross-country postings and at times, let out a fervent prayer together for their fathers’ safety. Their fathers belonged to the same army unit and had served several tenures together. Of course, both Dhruv and Neha had moved to different cities to attend college but they always kept in touch through phone calls and letters. Neha, at 5’1”, with her wheatish skin tone, dimpled smile and slightly rounded frame, had black silky hair that reached her waist. She had a small, impish face and a vivacious persona that belied the vast reserves of maturity and resilience she possessed. Tall and fair Dhruv, on the other hand, sported a lethal combination of flamboyance, killer looks, and service excellence. Theirs was a match, not designed to perfection in heaven, but forged and refined through trials and tribulations on earth. Hence, it came as no surprise to anyone when they decided to get hitched. From family friends, they became a part of a large extended family and even the heavens seemed to bless their union.
After spending the first couple of years at a picturesque hill base near Pune, Neha and Dhruv moved to Shahbad Cantonment in Haryana. Dhruv and Neha’s first year at Shahbad was buoyed by fairy tale moments – the long, late night walks along the boulevard under the canopy of gulmohar trees, the post-dinner ice cream dates at the lone ice cream parlour in the Cantt. (guilty pleasures, Neha called them), the exhilarating weekend bike trips to the nearby mountains (their secret ‘refresh and recharge’ mantra), and the frenetic shopping jaunts before every theme-based social event (when Neha had to beg, plead, blackmail or threaten Dhruv to accompany her). Life was truly on a roll and the young couple couldn’t be happier!
The spring of 1999 brought happy tidings as Neha and Dhruv announced their first pregnancy. But their blissful universe was soon threatened by the dark, ominous clouds of the Kargil conflict. Dhruv had to proceed to the combat zone along with his battalion. In an age of the old world landline telephones, communication was limited, mostly delayed, and strictly censored. And then, one rainy afternoon in June, came the news of Captain Dhruv Mittal’s ultimate sacrifice for the nation. The enemy camp was lobbing grenades and Captain Dhruv fell while providing cover to his comrade.
When the coffin arrived wrapped in the tricolour, several people advised Neha against taking a look at Dhruv’s body, that is, whatever little was left of him. But Neha went ahead and proved to be a true martyr widow, maintaining a steely exterior that betrayed no emotion other than determination and courage.
“I couldn’t afford to wash down Dhruv’s martyrdom in a barrage of tears….his sacrifice is meant to be revered and remembered with pride,” she had later confided in Shalini.
Neha’s life lay shattered in smithereens and she had no intention of picking up the pieces. Heartfelt eulogies poured in, the entire defence fraternity rallied around her and offered unstinted support in every way. She always found herself surrounded by friends and family. And in the midst of all this, she felt a crippling loneliness, a deafening silence that threatened to suck her into a vortex of unimaginable misery and heartache. But whenever she felt she could bear the pain no more, little Sana would start kicking her tiny feet and arms, stretch, yawn and frolic inside her water bubble, reminding Neha that she was nurturing a living, breathing vestige of Dhruv within her.
Neha decided to stay on in Shahbad at a rented facility – the kaleidoscope of memories that she and Dhruv together had crafted so lovingly, was too precious to be abandoned. Besides, she would always have close friends to fall back on – Shahbad was their unit headquarters and it kept rotating the unit officers at regular intervals.
Once Sana arrived, Neha was too caught up with her motherly duties to let her thoughts wander much. Her parents and in-laws had taken turns to support her wholeheartedly during the first one year. As Sana started achieving her milestones – the first toothless grin, the first rollover, the first fall (and the shocked bawling thereafter!), the first independent steps (and the sense of triumph) –Neha felt, for the first time in so many months, that her emptiness had gently started ebbing away, and that, she had again found some purpose and direction in life. She made it a point to include Dhruv in all the stories she narrated to Sana so that for the little girl, Dada became a very familiar figure though a faceless one. And she was too young to identify him from the photographs that they had of him. When Sana joined playschool, Neha took up a teaching position at the Army Public School there. Their old friend Major Rajat Aneja and his wife Shalini had come back to Shahbad for their second tenure. After what seemed aeons, Neha suddenly felt a mild trickle of happiness and sunshine dribbling over her sapless, insipid life ….small mercies, as they say!
If there was anything that Neha had learnt in her 32 years, it was this that when you thought life couldn’t surprise you any further, it sent fresh vagaries and capricious meanders your way, and then once again you were left looking for a roadmap! Little Sana was gradually finding her groove in the playschool and as if on cue, a slew of minor health scares started following her doggedly. A fall from the slide and bruised knees, a bout of vomiting, mild pneumonia…each time Sana felt unwell, Neha would leave all other work and rush to the paediatrician at the Military hospital.
“But Ma’am, your daughter just needs a dressing with bandage and ointments. It’s a minor cut, nothing else….I’ll fix it right away,” the duty nurse at the hospital would try to reason with Neha.
“No, thank you, but I really need to meet the Child Specialist here, just to make sure my baby is all right. Please put my name in the wait list,” Neha would insist.
The nurse understood – Neha had become a familiar face at the hospital for the past few years now, starting with her delivery. Her desperate efforts to play the perfect mom (and dad) to Sana were not lost on others. And thus began her encounters with Major Shankar Subramaniam, a paediatrician, whose love for his work went beyond the immediate call of duty. Shanks was witty and a master of repartee but in a quiet, subdued manner. Standing tall at 5’11”, Shanks sported a sunburnt, sinewy structure, not conventionally handsome, yet having a certain raw appeal and an endearing affability. He exuded an air of easy confidence and dependability which were so necessary in his line of work. He got along with Sana in no time, exchanging kiddish stories and jokes, while all the time making sure that his tender patient was put completely at ease. And strangely, noticing Sana’s comfort level with him, Neha also unconsciously started seeking him out from among the other on-duty doctors, whenever Sana had a medical condition.
Major Shankar knew about Dhruv (Major Rajat was his very good friend). He was always careful to maintain the required distance and decorum while talking with Neha, never trying to invade her personal space or make any awkward remark. But somewhere, he realised, he was getting increasingly drawn towards Neha. He felt so comfortable talking to her, discussing things with her, and laying her apprehensions about Sana to rest. They had met a few times informally at get-togethers hosted by common friends. Secretly he started admiring Neha for her inner strength, grace and her naturally compassionate nature. On her part, Neha found him an unpretentious, easy-going and mature person. Strangely, her feelings seemed to find an ally in little Sana. One day, she drew a family picture where the man -her Dada – had a stethoscope dangling around his neck. Neha was flummoxed, but dismissed it as a childish whim!
Once Shankar was laid up with a stomach infection and Neha got news from Shalini. She immediately sent across some light, home-cooked food for three days in a row.
“Ma’am, please don’t bother, I’ll eat at the Officers’ Mess, I’ll be fine,” Shankar had protested.
“Oh, come on Shanks, don’t I know how you crave for some soul food when you have a wayward tummy!” Neha had laughed it off casually. But she regularly enquired about his health and felt immensely relieved when he was finally back on his two feet.
Minor incidents like these gradually brought Shankar and Neha closer. Shankar’s restrained and undemonstrative nature was so different from Dhruv’s exuberance and flair that Neha felt intrigued, though she was loathe to admit it. Before long, Shanks admitted his feelings for Neha to Rajat and Shalini and requested them to intervene.
When Neha heard this, she flew into a rage.
“Shalu, how could you even imagine I would say ‘yes’?! Dhruv’s presence, his memories, are way too precious…they haunt me all the time. How could you think I would replace him in my heart with someone else? NO WAY!! Please go and tell him right away!”
Shalini persisted but Neha refused to listen to the voice of reason. Crestfallen, the couple left and informed Shankar, secretly hoping for a way out. Shankar decided to invite Neha to his birthday bash and broach the subject there, in a private moment.
As the night progressed and the wine flowed, Shankar managed to draw Neha into the lawn outside. A strong breeze was blowing, throwing Neha’s tresses into stunning disarray.
“Neha, I know it is difficult for you to agree,” began Shankar, conspicuously dropping the ‘Ma’am’, “but isn’t life all about moving on? Dhruv will be there with us all the time, at every step…all I’m asking you is to give life another chance, to give yourself another shot at happiness. Believe me, it’s going to work out fine!”
For Neha, it was a duel between her emotions and her conscience.
“And what if it doesn’t, Shanks? I can’t handle another heartbreak…I’m so tired, Shanks.” The tears flowed freely as Neha spoke, “Little Sana is my raison d’etre, I can spend my entire life with her. Besides, I’m a widow with a child, and slightly older than you. We belong to different communities…what will your parents say?”
At that moment, Neha looked so fragile, so vulnerable, Shankar wanted to scoop her up in his robust arms. Instead, he took her hands in his and said, “Not sure if you noticed, Neha, but Sana and I have become best buddies now. And my parents are a fun couple, not boring like me. They’ll love to have you within the family, so don’t worry. I’ll call them tonight.”
As they stood there, hand in hand, a light drizzle descended. Neha closed her eyes, soaking in the petrichor, letting the cool breeze and the raindrops wash over her.
“Aaah, April showers….Amma says they are heaven’s way of blessing us….funny that it should happen now,” Shankar chuckled as he and Neha ran inside for cover.
Author’s Note: This story has not been inspired by the recent blockbuster Uri but by what the author and her family experienced and witnessed during the Kargil conflict – up, close and personal – including the pregnancy and the location. Only, the name Shahbad is fictitious, for obvious reasons. But God be praised, they were spared the tragedy mentioned here, and the events thereafter, naturally.
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