The orange ball looked down benignly from the horizon as its golden hues kissed the ground. The trees danced gently to the breeze. The gigantic verdant field was a sight for sore eyes.
Two figures ran barefoot on the field as if running for their lives
“Stop, I can’t run anymore,” the eleven-year-old boy panted.
“Coward,” the girl, who was of the same age, looked back and taunted. “Say that you give up, and I will stop.”
“Never,” he retorted and increased his pace.
The two ran faster and further and would have continued for long but for an uprooted branch that came in the girl’s path. By the time she noticed, it was already under her foot, and she slipped. The boy collided with her falling figure and came down.
The two lay flat on their backs, looking at the brown sky that stretched above them.
“I didn’t want our race to end,” Hima said after a pause. “I so love running every day.”
“So do I,” Vikas echoed. “You are getting faster with each day. Pretty soon, you will leave everyone in the village behind. You don’t need me to as your running mate anymore.”
“I do. I always will,” Hima said firmly.
The chirping sounds of birds in their nests was music to their ears.
“Let’s go,” Vikas got up after some time. “There is work to do at home.”
“I hate all the housework that Ma expects me to do.” Hima got up with reluctance. The two ambled back.
“Why are girls expected to help with household chores all the time?” Hima continued. “Whenever I open my books to study, Ma invariably calls me for something or the other.”
“The helping hand will prepare you for marriage.” Vikas’s eyes twinkled.
“Would you not marry me if I don’t do housework?” she asked.
Vikas threw a sideways glance at her. “I don’t know if our parents will agree to our marriage,” he said.
“Let’s run away then,” Hima replied.
Vikas laughed. “That head of yours is full of run and race. If we make something of ourselves and get away from this place, we will be free from all the customs and traditions. Our future lies in our hands.”
“You are right,” Hima said. “Promise me that where ever you go, you will take me with you. And where ever I go, you will be there.”
“Pucca promise,” he replied.
“I don’t want to leave,” sixteen-year-old Hima lamented in the evening, after their usual run.
“Why? Your parents were about to stop your studies. You won’t reach anywhere by racing with me in this out of the world place. This coach from the city seems to be a good person. Not only will he train you in his academy but also sponsor your education. You have got a golden opportunity to escape from this place,” Vikas reasoned.
“Why don’t you come to Delhi with me?” Hima pleaded.
“I don’t want to be an athlete. You know that I am passionate about joining the Armed Forces. In fact, I will leave for the National Defence Academy in Pune in a few months. So, don’t hold your dreams hostage to me.”
“You will leave me?” Hima was incredulous.
“I didn’t say that. Is our love so tenuous that it will fray at the first barrier? In this age of technology, mobile phones and emails, why do we need to be in the same place to be with each other? Have some faith in me.” Vikas sounded mature for his age.
“You are making it sound so easy.”
“It is not easy, Hima. But it is not as difficult as you think. We will be in touch every day. I will come and meet you whenever I get a chance from Pune. After both of us make it in our careers, we will get married and stay together. It is a matter of time and patience.”
Hima nudged closer to Vikas and held his hands.
Vikas nearly stroked Hima’s lovely knee-length hair but restrained himself. He didn’t want to make it more difficult for either of them. Half of him wished Hima to stay with him forever, but he had revealed only the other half to his beloved.
“Care for a race, one last time?” he asked her. “Let’s run away, as fast as we can, till we reach our homes. I will beat you before you leave this place.”
“Not a chance,” Hima said, getting up. Her eyes, wistful a minute back, were shining now. “And, this isn’t the last time.”
“I am still getting used to running with shoes,” Hima said on the phone. “It feels strange even after six months.”
“You have been running without them for sixteen years. Give yourself time,” Vikas replied. He paused before continuing nonchalantly, “ Some news for you. I have got through the NDA. Will be travelling to Pune next week.”
“Oh My God,” Hima jumped in her small room. “I am so excited.”
“I can hear that,” Vikas laughed. “Wish me luck.”
“My wishes are always with you. Go for your dream, soldier.”
“Thank you, Madame. Talk to you soon. Bye.”
Hima visualised Vikas’s handsome face in the Olive-Green Army uniform and smiled.
“Parade, stand at ease.” The commanding voice reverberated in the ground through the haze. Dawn had not yet dawned, but the two hundred plus NDA cadets had been up for an hour for their physical drills and manoeuvres.
“Those who arrived late for the morning PT, come forward. You know who you are, don’t let me shame you,” the instructor bellowed.
Five people came to the front with straight faces, their heads held high. Vikas was one of them.
“You were only five seconds late, Vikas,” the instructor said to his best student. “You may go back to your place.”
“Late is late, Sir. The margin of error is not an excuse,” he replied.
“Is it because the punishment is a reward for you? I know running gives you a high.”
Vikas’s lips widened a little.
“All of you will run five times around this five-kilometre long training ground,” the stern voice decreed. “No walking, mind you, else the punishment will double. Raise your rifles above your heads and run for your lives. Don’t make the rest of us wait long for our breakfast. Go.”
Vikas was off as soon as the last word was out of his commander’s mouth. He barely felt the weight of his rifle. The haze cleared with every step as he left the world behind. The image of Hima entered his conscience, making him run even faster.
Others had barely started with their third-round when Vikas completed his fifth, to the loud cheers of fellow cadets. He would have continued but for the restraining whistle of the instructor.
Lt. Vikas, at ease, now,” he commanded.
“Is there anyone on this planet who runs faster than you?” the commander fondly asked.
“There is, Sir,” Vikas broke into a grin. “She will be the National Champion soon.”
“I qualified for the Olympics,” the twenty-year-old said on the phone. “Coach said I am the youngest one in India’s track and field history to achieve the feat.”
“Congratulations,” Vikas said over the Whatsapp video. “But you don’t sound too enthused. What’s wrong?”
“I will need to leave for the training camp with the rest of the contingent soon. I won’t be here next week to meet you in Delhi en route your way to Kupwara.” Hima teared up.
“I see.” Vikas hoped that his face didn’t reflect his disappointment. They hadn’t met since Hima had left the village four years ago. Even though they had grown up speaking and Whatsapping over the phone nearly every day, the distance barrier was beginning to pinch.
“Stay focused, Hima. You have broken every national record. The time has come for your name to enter in the international annals.”
“But I want to meet you. Our commitments always conflict with each other. We are starcrossed.”
“Fate will tire someday. Please stop crying; you look ugly with those puffy red eyes.”
Hima continued to sob.
“I had thought of giving this to you next week during our meeting,” Vikas said mysteriously, “but will have to do this virtually now.” He raised his other hand to reveal a gold ring.
Hima’s eyes widened.
Vikas bent down on one knee, with the ring on one hand and the phone on the other.
“Will you marry me, Hima?” he asked solemnly.
Hima’s hands went to her mouth.
“Ohh yes, Yessss,” she screamed. Her shouts echoed through the dorm.
“This ring awaits your finger, Ms Hima.” Vikas wiped the tiny tear that had made its way to his eye. “I will put it on your finger only after you win a gold medal.”
“I will run for my life in the Olympics.” Hima was all smiles.
Hima ran like a woman possessed. The world had taken notice of this lanky Indian athlete at the outset of the female track and field events. 100m, 200 m, 400m, 800m, 4*100m and the 4*400m relay- she had surpassed her personal best in all to consistently outperform her peers and reach the finals. India had a real chance to come out on top in all these events.
Hima took her position for the 100 metre final as billions of Indians watched with bated breath.
“Alpha to Bravo. Alpha to Bravo. Over.” Vikas’s field phone buzzed. He glanced away from his mobile to answer the call of duty. He had prayed to see at least one of Hima’s finals during the counter-insurgency operations. That seemed unlikely now.
“Bravo to Alpha. Bravo to Alpha. Over,” Vikas yelled into the phone as Hima started her run.
“4 targets holed up inside the temple at the main market. Go and encounter. Over.” It was a command.
“Copy that. Over and Out.” Vikas ceased the live streaming on his mobile and pushed Hima’s thoughts to the back of his mind. The soldiers of the company he was commanding at Kupwara stood alert for his orders.
“We are going to circle the temple at the main market from all sides. Four of us will enter the temple, and I will be at the front,” Vikas said. “The rest of you will provide cover fire to us to enter.” The battle strategies were drawn.
Tens of thousands of miles away, Hima fell exhausted to the ground. Tears streamed down her face as the enormity of her achievement sunk in. She had secured her first medal, that too of the Golden hue. She wanted to shout in joy but restrained herself. There were more medals to be won for the country.
The guns were silent as the bravehearts moved in the temple’s main compound, cautious not to make a sound. The wall opposite had various streaks of red interspersed with the coat of white. The body of one of the terrorists lay on the compound. Vikas’s eyes fell on the deity, and he silently begged forgiveness for coming inside the sanctum sanctorum in his shoes, arms and ammunition in tow.
“Can’t find the fourth one anywhere,” a deputy whispered to Vikas. They had just neutralised the third terrorist.
POP. A gunshot reverberated from the back. Vikas spotted a tall man venturing out from the well-concealed door of the temple. The troops outside fired, but the terrorist ran furiously to escape.
Without much ado, Vikas followed him.
The deserted streets with downed shutters provided little resistance to the terrorist who seemed to have great stamina. Vikas was the only one to be able to keep pace with him.
“I won’t let you escape the jaws of death today,” Vikas muttered under his breath as he negotiated his way through a dozen unmanned check posts to reach National Highway 701 that connected Kupwara to Srinagar. He neither heard the heavy vehicles nor noticed the bystanders as his eyes remained fixed on his prey.
The insurgent finally appeared to tire. A day without food and water started to take its toll as the hot sun scorched his back. His run turned into a saunter, and eventually, he sank to the ground. He had banked on his stamina to escape, but this young Indian Officer was indefatigable.
“Got you,” Vikas said in triumph as his legs touched that of the fallen man. The victor and the vanquished stared at each other.
“Which terror group do you belong to? How many of you are here?”
The terrorist put a finger to his lips, indicating they were sealed.
Vikas put his rifle in the fallen man’s chest and pulled the trigger.
Two shots rang out in the air.
Thousands of spectators felt the goosebumps as ‘Jana Gana Mana’ played out in the stadium, in another part of the world. An Indian girl had finished at the top of the podium in four track and field events.
“Well done, Beta. Hope you will keep up with your blistering pace and bring more glories to the nation,” the Prime Minister said.
“I don’t know what else to do,” Hima said with folded hands at the ramparts of the Red Fort. She was being felicitated for her Olympics’ exploits on India’s independence day.
She ambled back to her seat, not hearing the cheers that rang out at the call of her name.
“Now honourable Prime Minister will bestow gallantry awards to those who laid their lives in the service of our nation,” a voice boomed from the loudspeaker.
Hima’s eyes went to her hands. They were devoid of any ornaments.
There would be no ring in her fourth finger, ever.
“Captain Vikas Bhargava awarded the Vishist Sena Medal for single-handedly felling four militants. He got martyred in the line of duty.” The crowd stood up in respect as Vikas’s parents gathered the medal from the PM.
“Bloody cowards,” Hima mumbled under her breath, her fists clenched. “They shot him from behind.”
The first bullet had pierced the terrorist’s heart, dispatching him to netherland. The second one had hit Vikas’s neck, paralysing him to the ground.
Hima imagined the considerable effort it must have taken for Vikas to take out the cellphone from his pocket. “I love you, Hima,” he had Whatsapped before embracing death with wide-open eyes.
Hima looked up at the clear sky. Her eyes were dry and steady.
“Don’t run away from there,” she whispered. “I challenge you to a race in heaven whenever I join you there.”
The sun shone bright as the Universe smiled at her in delight.
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