May 27, 2020
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Last Journey Home

Grief and pride bind the families who have lost their brave sons to war

Last Journey Home

Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose
But young men think it is, and we were young.
-A.E. Housman

They'd promised their families they'd come back. They more than kept their word. Went as mere men. Came back as heroes. In coffins.

Rifleman Yogendra Singh, 23, of Rajputana Rifles was looking forward to coming home. It had been a long journey. From grinding poverty, from that kutcha brick house in Johragaon near Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh to the proud certitude of this uniformed self- assuredness in Kargil. Now there was much to look forward to: a future, a bride this June 30 when he would return home to the admiring gaze of his peers. To marry in style, build that pucca house... That June 7 morning at Kupwara he walked up to fellow rifleman and village neighbour Joginder Singh-"Tell me if you want to send anything home. I'm going soon." Next day, at 3.30 am, Joginder and he were part of a patrol stalking militants in the Kupwara forests. The early morning calm was shattered by a hail of machine-gun fire. Joginder saw Yogendra eerily lit up by the muzzle flashes, spin and fall. He took seven bullets in his chest and side even as he fired back at the flash. By the time they brought him down the mountain, he was dead. So was his future. And the hopes of a desperately poor family whose sole moral and financial anchor he'd been over the last two years. June 10. En route to Aligarh, Joginder, escorting Yogendra on his last journey home, is numb, dazed. "He wanted to carry something for me. Now I'm carrying him home...," he trails off.

Vijaypal Singh, 23, a jawan in the Jat Regiment, too had travelled a long way from hot, dusty Dhakon Ki Dhani, a hamlet of 250 people in Rajasthan's Jhunjhunu district, to cold Kashmir. He'd studied hard at the local primary school, fought fond parents tooth and nail to grant him permission to shift home base to his aunt's home in nearby Nawalgarh to study in the higher secondary school. How else could he hope to accomplish that childhood dream of becoming an armyman like the dashing uncle who was both role model and mentor? When he qualified for the army two years ago, he proudly walked up to his stunned parents, announcing he was a working man now. "I'll be back, Father," he'd assured the gentle Navrang Singh just three months ago. "I need to tutor Ranjit for his army entrance course. Then both us brothers will walk together in uniform. Won't you be a proud man then?" On June 12 at 7.30 in the morning, Vijaypal, stationed at a post 10 km from the LoC, was returning enemy fire when a hand grenade tore his head apart. Also the hopes of a family that doted on him, had come to depend on him. "Main barah ki subah phone karta raha," sobs the shattered Navrang, "ghanti bajti rahi. Mujhe kya maloom tha woh sab baat kar chuka tha?" (I kept calling him on 12th morning, the phone kept ringing. How was I to know he was through with all conversation?) Inside the house one can hear the raw animal cries of his 18-year-old widow, Sarita. "Phool si ladki hai," whispers Navrang, "kya hoga iska?" (She's like a delicate flower.What will become of her?)

Kya Hoga Iska? It's a question that echoes everywhere. In the lives of all survivors the war and its destruction have touched. What will become of them? Stray state governments announce relief packages. Philanthropists, corporates offer financial salves. Everything seems like meagre recompense. How much currency will restore life to life? In the cynical world we live in today these unsung heroes are a people economically marginalised, historically unsung. Mere numbers on lists, carvings on concrete scrolls that no one reads in public parks, memorial spaces. And yet these are people who uphold the very burden of nationhood. Stoically, gracefully, with a belief in the higher value, a larger life. These are men that deserve the dignity of grace and national gratitude.

Yogendra, Vijaypal, Dayachand Jakhar, Linkon Pradhan, Bidya Nand Singh, Arvind Kumar Pandey, Ganesh Yadav, Kewalanand Dwivedi, Eknath Khairnar, Dhondiba Desai, Singoor Kuttappa Medappa, Naik R. Kamraj, Puran Singh, Nirmal Singh, Kaleshar Kom, C.N. Mayonr... Across the length and breadth of the nation the battered, broken bodies of the braves are coming home. Over a 140 of them at last count. Median age 19 to 35. There's an eerie similarity in the choreography of lament. The grim-faced army officers receiving the coffins, draped in the tricolour, the carriage to the army parade ground, the set-jawed shok shastra farewell salute by steely soldiers. The silent sorrow of upraised guns, slowly brought, barrel downward, to the ground, left arm tautly extended to the right before retracking, the holding of palm to chest, the sudden dropping of head, the 30-second hushed silence, then the regulation rajnigandha and marigold wreaths from the army and air chiefs, the general officer commanding, fellow officers, the battalion, before the body escorted by a comrade begins its last journey home. Wreathed in white, the colour of the pure; kesariya, the colour and insignia of the brave. Now across mountains, now across rivers, plains. The lines of pain criss-cross the entire nation.

I follow one such journey. Follow the splinters of destruction to where they will ultimately land. In jawans' homes and hearths. Destroying hopes. Shattering lives. Those shards travel far and lodge deep. Not one. Many lives, longings are snuffed out in that blinding flash. Many connecting threads cruelly and abruptly snapped leaving survivors floundering. Theirs is the festering sorrow. Theirs is the burden to painfully execute the business of unfinished lives.

Yogendra's body is received with due honours at Delhi airport on a sultry Thursday, June 10. After the solemn shok shastra ceremony at the Parade Ground we accompany the van carrying his body to Johragaon. En route a drip drunk villager who we stop to seek directions from gratuitously picks up a fight, showers abuse, even fisticuffs, on the hapless Joginder, even as villagers scurry to break up the fight. "These are the people for whom we risk our lives," says a sardonic Joginder. "How could I retaliate on an occasion like this?" Dust swirls on the kutcha road that winds 20-odd km into this village, home to 80 families. There's no electricity. Through the pitch black we hear an eerie howling. The primal sound of community mourning. As the van grinds to a halt, grieving relatives claw at its door, craving a look at the coffin which accompanying jawans offload. Yogendra's father Niranjan Singh, a tall, gaunt man with eyes like a desert passes out at the sight of the coffin. Three sisters weep hysterically while half-crazed mother Moorti clutches the coffin's wooden edge repeating, "Beta, tu to baraat la raha tha.Yeh teri baraat hai?" (Son, is this the wedding party you promised to bring here?)

Morning blazes down on the sorry plains. It's a poor village. The ground is unyielding, crops meagre. Niranjan, the sickly father, tends his 20-odd bighas somehow. Yogendra's salary was the family's sole support. The lifeline to a better future for the soldier's teenage brother Kishen. Two years into his tenure in the army it's all over for Yogendra and his family. As the 1,000-strong crowd from here and neighbouring villages await the arrival of the army detachment from Mathura that will offer the final salute, the body is taken out of the casket. The mother's anguished screams rend the air; brother Kishen literally writhes in pain at the sight of the broken, swollen body of his once handsome brother. The village sarpanch admonishes the inconsolable Moorti: "Quiet. Stop weeping. Don't you know sons are born to Kshatranis only so they can be sacrificed in war?"

In the panchayat courtyard where vips-local MP Shiela Gautam, a local legislator, DM Kishen Singh Atoria and SP Prabhat Joshi-wait for the funeral to commence, a bitter but muted dogfight breaks out between the politicians. Gautam has quietly assured villagers upon arrival that the kutcha road leading to the village would be upgraded, named after Yogendra. The mla asks her to make a public announcement. "I shan't," she bristles. "I don't see the need to lie about what's yet to happen." Visiting army jawans, subedar majors from nearby Mathura mutter sardonically-"Politicians never change, do they?" Capt (retd) Jagrup Singh, a septuagenarian, approaches me. "I knew the boy. He looked up to me," he says as he produces a letter Yogendra wrote him just before leaving for Kashmir. "Main har cheez ke liye dil se taiyaar hoon. Ma ko bolna kshatriya ka dharam nibhane ja raha hoon." (I'm ready for anything. Tell mother I'm going to observe the dharma of a kshatriya.)

In the field where he'll be cremated Yogendra is lain on the ground. His frail grandfather totters up, squats next to him, strokes his hair and moans: "Arrey mera bahadur baccha." Tears flow down grizzled cheeks. Gently, he's led away. The soldiers offer shok shastra salute, guns fire thrice in the air. The funeral is over. Not Moorti and Niranjan's despair.

At Jhunjhunu the following week, I arrive two days after Vijaypal's funeral to meet his family. We meet him though. As we walk across an empty field marked by a lush tamarind tree, a tiny school building at its edge, a white heap of ash catches our eye. "That's Vijaypal," says Hemaram, our village guide, quietly. Thousands came to say farewell the day before. Now he lies alone under the sky. "We'll take the remains to Hardwar tomorrow," says the guide. As if on cue his cousin Birju walks past with a picture of Vijaypal he's taking to Nawalgarh to make copies of. It's quiet. Empty field, gentle breeze; at our feet crumpled wreaths, stray bones peeking out of the waste. Pitiful remains of the babyfaced lad that smiles out of that picture The lad who loved football, books, the outdoors and the army.

A boy of seven summers stands staring at the pyre. I walk up to him. "Do you know who died here?" "No," he answers truthfully. "Do you know what he did?" "No," he nods again. "Do you know he's a war hero?" "No," he replies, then rapidly: "He's Navrang Dada's son.My father said he died. Lots of people came. The army fired guns here." He's young. Knowledge has come. Wisdom soon will. Then hopefully understanding of the sacrifice of "Navrang Dada's son" at whose funeral "the army came to fire guns".

A brisk five-minute walk across the fields and I'm with Navrang. It's a Biblical scene. Thirty-odd craggy faced, copper-hued men in white sit still, stoic, under a tree that faintly rustles the stillness. "I'm sorry about your son. He was a brave man who's done you proud," I murmur to Navrang, touching his shoulder lightly. His reaction throws me, coming as it does from a man who belongs to a proud and reticent community which doesn't exhibit emotion easily. The presence of the stranger unplugs a bottled grief. He clutches my knee, buries his head in it and heaves. Dry, muffled sobs rack his body. The assemblage watches impassively as he pours out his pain. "Main dekhta tha. Teenon bacche kilol karte rahte the. Kabhi uncha nahin bola main bacchon se. Bacchey so rahe hote to hum dono kahtey thhe inhey sone do, hum kaam kar lenge. Yeh ladka hamesha kahta 'naheen bapu tu baith main kar loonga kaam'. Bhagwan ka diya tha. Bhagwan ke paas gaya." (I'd watch my three kids play and feel happy. My wife and I would work, let them sleep. This boy would always say 'let me do the work'. He was God's child. Now God's taken him away.) Dhannaram, a villager and ex-serviceman, with five sons in the army, two serving in Kashmir, consoles him. "Desh ka tha. Desh ke liye gaya. Shaant ho." (Take heart. He belonged to the nation. Now he's sacrificed to it.) Navrang is inconsolable. "Desh ka kaam to kara. Mujhe to rula gaya." (He brought glory to the nation. But he's left me weeping.) Even as he speaks a wild cry shatters the quiet. Doctors are trying to put a drip into Vijaypal's 18-year-old widow Sarita who hasn't eaten or drunk for the last three days. "Kya kare bichari," moans Navrang. Bacchi to hai." (What can the poor thing do? She's just a child.)

In Lucknow, jawan Keolanand Dwivedi's widow Kamala, frail and gaunt, lies as if turned to stone in her Command hospital bed. Body broken with disease; spirit by life's vicissitudes. Married at 17, widowed at 27. Keolanand, of the 15th Battalion, Kumaon Regiment, died at Kargil on June 6 of bullet wounds sustained while he surprised and took on five infiltrators in their hideout. Four days later his corpse is en route to Lucknow where he'll be cremated. Kamala waits for her husband, oblivious of the presence of her kids Hemant, seven, and Tilak, three-and-a-half, who scamper around unaware of the misfortune that's befallen them. His uncle Bhuvan Chandra Joshi fights back tears. "He was posted here in Lucknow this past year. Came to me on May 28 just before he left. Asked me to take care of his family if something happened to him. I said please say auspicious things before you leave. It's difficult to believe he's gone." Life promises to be grim for his sheltered, frail widow, educated only up to class eight. Three in the afternoon. Keolanand's body is laid out for cremation. A brutal scene follows. In deference to age-old custom, Kamala's neatly-tied hair is uncoiled, her mangalsutra removed, bangles broken, bindi wiped off by a clutch of women. For the first time in three days Kamala sends up a cry to the heavens. It's an animal sound. As ancient as pain.

It's a scene that repeats itself in a multitude of homes across the country. At Bagdogra airport an apprehensive Naik Ananda Pradhan waits to escort the body of his mate Rifleman Linkon Pradhan of the Gorkha Rifles home to Sukhiyapukhuri in Darjeeling. Informing colleagues' kin of tragedy is not a happy prospect. Linkon, in his 20s, died on June 8 while assaulting Tiger Hills at Kargil. Two bullets in the chest put paid to a brave life. As also the lives of a 20-year-old wife of two years, a year-old son, schoolteacher father Harinarayan, brother Alanja, 16. People silently offer akhadas (silk scarves) as the cortege winds its long way from Bagdogra via Kurseong and Ghoom. Moved women stand and sob silently for the brave stranger. As they descend the last eight kms into Linkon's valley home, Pradhan and company encounter Linkon's brother Alanja. The shell-shocked teenager turns hysterical, shouts, screams like one deranged even as villagers huddle to console him.

Halfway down the valley, tears streaming down his face, a disbelieving Harinarayan awaits the body of his son. "Is it really him?" and is only silenced when Pradhan rattles off his identification number. Later at home the coffin is opened to prepare the body for the last rites. The mother howls, reels in shock at the sight of her son's bloated body. In a corner his young wife, infant in lap, cries uncontrollably. Scribes present, feeling their presence a voyeuristic intrusion, gently retreat. One poignant image endures. As one scribe made his way out a young woman, 20-odd, called out hesitantly. "Are you coming from Kashmir?" she asks, confusion writ large on her face. "My husband's serving there. Just wondered if you had any news," she trails off before disappearing abruptly. Shot in the dark query. Desperately seeking news that would reassure. Somehow. Anyhow.

Hope shattered for the family of 22-year-old Sepoy Dhondiba Desai who died in a mine blast at Kargil this May 25. The 8th Battalion, Madras Regiment officer from Vadagaun, Karnataka, where every other family has a jawan in the army, was supporting his family comprising his parents, two brothers and a sister. Two acres of land was meagre holding for a large family to eke a living from. Dhondiba's helping hand enabled them to acquire more land, a colour TV, helped them hope for a college education for his matriculate brother Prabhakar. "What'll we do now?" wails his mother Anandibai. Eknath Khairnar, 36, the jawan from the 8th Mountain Division who died early on in the fighting in Kargil, has left his impoverished family at Devghat near Nashik equally devastated. His wife of four years, a son barely an year old, face an uncertain future. Yet his aged parents are resolute, say they're proud of their son who died for the nation.

Jawans' families across the country responded similarly. Crowds roared at Vijaypal's funeral. "Sarhad par ab baj hi chuka hai nagaada shaitan ka/Nakshe par se naam hata do paapi Pakistan ka." In Vijaypal's Jhunjhunu district-renowned for sending the maximum number of soldiers to the army-tempers and morale are peaking. At Vijaypal's 250-people village which alone accounts for 11 serving, five retired soldiers, the retired men are raring to go. "Take me back in the army and I'll teach those Pakistanis a lesson they will not forget," storms ex-havaldar Mahavir Singh of 17 Grenadiers. Not unlike retd capt Jagrup Singh of Johragaon who says determinedly-"Soldiers never retire.Once a soldier, always a soldier.

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