‘I didn’t mean to tear apart his earlobe!’ I said to my cousin.
‘Oh comeon! You continuously hit him right on his ear!’ He said, reminding me that it was me who was in trouble, yet again.
‘So, what do we do now?’ I asked my cousin who was equally terrified.
‘Let’s go to Nowshera I say, without telling anyone. There would be no way for them to know we are there. Dada doesn’t have a telephone at his home’, he said.
It was a good plan that made absolute sense but the matter was not that serious to be reported to the police. You are bound to have fist fights when you are a teenager. I was sixteen years old, my cousin was fifteen. We had gotten into an argument with a boy in the neighborhood and it turned serious. We ended up having a fist fight with the guy and in the rush of the moment, one of my punches landed right on to the other boy’s ear and tore apart his earlobe. We fled the scene after looking at the blood oozing out of the torn skin.
The boy’s mother had reached my home before me to complain about the incident to my parents and was shouting at the top of her lungs to report the matter to police. A police lock up was the last thing on our minds as a consequence of a small fist fight. Yes, I mentioned small fist fights because such fights were part of my everyday life during my teenage years. Such incidents were never reported to police those days.
Murders were reported though. One of the boys I knew murdered a boy from the next street in a fit of anger by inserting a sharp knife in his stomach. The boy who was attacked reached his home and went straight to the bathroom to try and stop the blood flow. Teenagers. My friend is in jail since then, the judgment is yet to be delivered.
Anyhow, in order to escape the highly possible beating by the police, we decided to flee to our grandfather’s home in Nowshera, which was at about five hours distance from Jammu by road. The last bus to the village left at 4:00 pm every day which we missed by a margin of ten minutes. We were stuck between choosing to go back home and get beaten by the police or to take the next bus on that route and get out of the city.
My cousin was adamant to get on to any bus that was due next, no matter if it dropped us at the half way. His new plan was to spend a night at the last stop of the next bus, get on to the first bus in the morning and reach Nowshera. Leaving Jammu was our top most priority, reaching the village was not.
We boarded a bus that was going till Sunderbani, which was the mid-point in our journey. It was dark by the time we reached Sunderbani. Nowshera was still forty five kilometers ahead. We discussed and concluded that we had two options. We could either walk through the night to reach Nowshera by early morning, or we could rest through the night and take the first bus in the morning that would make us reach Nowshera by probably the same time as walking would. For many, it could have been a tricky situation, but for me it was the one and only chance to have a dark adventure. Yes, we decided to walk through the night.
We began to walk on the hilly roads as the blue sky first turned grey and then black with sparkling stars spread all across it. It was a clear night. The silence of the journey was disturbed by an occasional vehicle, probably the people who were going to their homes in the nearby hills and then it all turned silent. I had heard stories about these roads. Night traffic was not allowed in this part of the state, not even for the army. The Pakistan border was at the visible distance from any hilltop and the attempts of infiltration and hunting of terrorists by the army patrol was routine. For a brief moment, I felt scared of being shot down either by an Indian soldier or a Pakistani militant but my attention was diverted by my cousin who was worried about what would we tell our grandfather about our sudden and uninformed visit.
‘We can wait till afternoon tomorrow and then go there. We could tell him we boarded the first bus from Jammu’, I said in a flat tone.
‘And what if he got to know we are lying? What if someone from Jammu already informed him that we are missing?’
‘Dada is an ex-army man, he will take care of everything.’
That seemed to convince him that everything was going to be alright. We followed the bends and curves of the road around multiple small hills of the mountain range of Dhauladhar for two hours and by 10 pm, we reached a place which was inhabited by people. There was a dhaba on the roadside and the menu was painted in blue colour on a road sign. The mere reading of Indian cuisines watered our mouths and we decided to have dinner.
After finishing dinner and resting for half hour, we were in no mood to walk further. All we wanted was a warm cozy bed to sleep. I requested the dhaba owner to let us sleep there for the night. The dhaba owner had already been eyeing us suspiciously. Obviously he knew everyone in the area and we were the outsiders. He asked us several question to make sure we were not Pakistani militants.
‘Where are you headed to?’ he asked.
‘Nowshera, my grandfather lives there.’
‘What does he do?’
‘He is a retired army man’, I answered.
‘Which army? Indian or Pakistani?’
‘Indian army sir! What are you talking about? He is a retired Subedaar’, I put extra pressure on the word Subedaar.
‘What is his name?’
‘Subedaar Harnam Singh’, I said.
I have always taken pride in telling my grandfather’s name to people. I felt something out of ordinary while taking his name. I feel a sudden rush of energy whenever I utter his name. I wasn’t close to him or anything, and he didn’t carry himself like an army man anymore. He lived like a normal human and carried no pride in being from the Indian army. But yet, I loved his name. I made sure whenever I took his name, I prefix it with his army designation, Subedaar. I don’t know whether the dhaba owner sensed the pride in my voice as I uttered my grandfather’s name, but he didn’t ask any more questions.
‘You cannot stay here. We don’t allow strangers to sleep among us and even if I wanted to, I don’t have an extra bed’, he said.
I gave a disappointing look to my cousin and signaled him to start walking.
‘But you can find shelter in the school over there’, he pointed out across the road. There were a couple of concrete buildings in the fields.
‘That building, where the bulb is turned on, is the primary school. The principal lives in the next house. Go and tell him that I sent you, he will allow you to sleep in any of the classrooms. But, I think you will have to leave early in the morning. The school opens at 7’o clock’, he informed everything quicker than I could register. I thanked him multiple times and we began to walk through the fields towards the school.
‘He’s a good man’, my cousin said.
‘I hope the principal is a better one’, I said and walked ahead on the muddy path which appeared white under the moonlight.
We reached the cluster of small buildings and stood outside the gate of the primary school.
‘He said the principal lives in the next house’, my cousin reminded me.
‘Yes, the next house, but he didn’t mention whether it was the right next house or the left next.’
‘Don’t tell me we have to go back again to ask him!’ We turned towards the dhaba and saw the last of the bulbs switching off.
‘No, we can’t go back.’
‘So, which house should we knock? The right one or the left one?’ he asked.
I stood there for a while and considered my options. I figured that even if we knock at the wrong house, they should guide us to the right one. Therefore, I walked to the right next house. There was no fencing to the house. I slowly walked up to the door and knocked softly. Nothing happened. I knocked again, a little hard at this time. No response. I was still wondered what to do next when a man roared from the inside of the house, ‘Who the hell is out there? I have a gun and I will shoot all of you down!’
It is needless to say that we were terrified to our deaths. I could only manage to apologize, ‘Sorry sir! We are very sorry!’
The window next to the door opened in ever so slightly and I saw a Sikh man, pointing his rifle at me. In a split second, my heart reached the maximum threshold of pounding and hit hard against my chest bones. It felt as if it would burst out of my chest at any moment.
‘Who are you?’ the man asked in anger, hurling his gun forward.
‘Sir, we are students, visiting our grandfather’s bus. We missed the last village’, I uttered in sheer horror of getting shot.
‘What bus? What village?’
I became aware of my stupidity and corrected my words, “Grandfather’s village. We missed the last bus. We are students, sir. The dhaba owner sent us here saying that principal of the village will let us sleep in the night.”
‘Principal of the school’, my cousin whispered.
‘Principal of the school, sir, the primary school’ I corrected myself again.
He looked at us for eternity and finally said in a lowered tone, ‘This is not the principal’s house kids.’
I exhaled a heavy breath and said, ‘We are sorry sir, extremely sorry.’ I turned and began to walk out.
‘Stop! Both of you!’ He ordered, we stood rooted in our feet.
Next moment, I heard the door opening. We turned and saw the man had come out with his wife. They both looked at us and chuckled at each other.
‘You could get killed, you fools. This is not a safe area to roam around in the night. What were you thinking? Where are you from? How did you end up in this village?’
I made up a quick story about an urgency to reach Nowshera and missing the last bus from Jammu. The man believed it but not enough to let us in to his house. He gave us the sleeping cots, beddings and blankets and told us to sleep outside the main door.
‘I am a soldier in the Indian Army and I know that one mistake can cost you your life. But, you boys need to understand it, so tonight you will sleep outside. It is risky, but that is how you will be grateful to be alive, stop taking your lives for granted and put it in unnecessary risks.’
For us, it was relaxing and terrifying at the same time. The man and his wife went in and closed the doors, they let the window open. I think the man looked at us through the window for some time.
‘What do we do now?’ My cousin asked.
‘But, there could be militants roaming through the village in the night!’
We discussed the tricky situation we were in. There were beds for us, we were sleepy and there was the risk of getting killed during the night. We came up with a solution. We carried the beds to the roof of the house. Reason being, if the army or the militants were to trespass this house, they would not bother checking the roof. I heard a giggle while going upstairs. I took it as an indication that we made the right decision, finally.
He woke us up quite early in the morning.
‘The first bus to your village leaves at 6, it is 5 already. You guys better get fresh and eat something’, he said and showed us the way to a small water spring that flowed at a distance.
The man had a son and a daughter. His daughter accompanied us to the water spring where we got fresh and had a quick dip in the cold water. When we got back, we were served paranthas with homemade butter. I felt humbled and almost shared the true story of ending up in a situation like this but the sight of him pointing his gun at me made me think otherwise.
We finished our breakfast and got the bus on time. We reached the village and stayed there for two weeks until we were 100% sure that there was no police case registered against us. While going back to Jammu, the bus passed that village and I spotted the house where we stayed that night.
I spotted that house every time I visited my grand-father after that. The last time I visited him was in 2012, six months before his death. Many times, I thought of visiting that house again and check if that Sikh man recognizes me. He might have and if he had, what would I tell him?
If I tell him that everything I told him about myself that night was not the complete truth, would he help a stranger again in his life? If I tell him that I stopped lying after that night and have faced the consequences of my good or bad deeds by being truthful to myself and the people associated with me, will it make any difference in his life?
I think sometimes it is all about learning from others, without judging them on the scale of right or wrong. I didn’t visit him because he didn’t deserve to doubt his decision. He provided us shelter that night because he decided to and he would have helped anyone in such a situation because he was a good man, as good as one could be. Same could be said for the dhaba owner as well. People who have not been corrupted by the world remain honest to their own calling and always follow it. Such people are rare to find these days. I am glad to be able to know two in a single day all those years ago. I have not learnt anything from the school curriculum about life as much as I have learnt from my experiences with strangers.
I believe I was meant to tear apart an earlobe so that I could meet those two good men.