On a recent train journey I sat beside a smiling man with a boyish face. I ignored him the way I ignore every other co-passenger. This time I read Laura Lippman's Baltimore Blues while he asked me questions like "Where are you getting down?", "What time will this train reach that station?", "What do you do?". To not come across as overly rude I too asked him what he did.
He spoke only in Hindi. Apart from being a bad listener, my aptitude for Hindi is governed by Bala Bharati Bhaag II/III. He didn't seem to mind and did most of the talking even though I was restricted to listening, nodding, and replying in staccato yeses, noes and sorrys.
He is the only child of a family that lives on farming. Few people know that kirana and general stores are the best places to get applications for Amry recruitment. Five years ago he was recruited into the Army during the second year of his Intermediate. After one year of training he has been posted all over the map from Rajasthan to Delhi to Hyderabad to Chennai. It is common for them to be rotated across units all over the country. That's alright. They have good facilities and food in all the units.
His unit, wherever it may be, is his home now. They have a total of 3 months holidays annually in the form of CLs and ALs, but several of them are taken away for some special duty or the other. That's alright. For each of these days, their pay is doubled and added to their PF accounts. It is good money. Senior hawaldaars make up to 25000INR as salary.
He hasn't seen his parents this whole year, and when he decided to go now his superior wanted him to instead go on an assignment of some ammunition transport. He strongly resisted, talked to the unit commanding officer, and was finally allowed to take lave. Before anybody changed their minds, he immediately reached the railway station without luggage, bought a ticket for the first available train, and got into it. He did not even buy sweets for the family and the kids in the neighborhood. That's alright. He will buy some sweets after reaching there.
His family now never knows in advance when he is returning home. His dad will joke that he is returning only after they have made the harvest, Soya this year, after all the hard work has been done. For one month, he will eat his mom's food and sleep. He will play in the fields, but five years of continuously wearing shoes made his feet extremely delicate and now a tiniest twig can cut them. He will first have to wear slippers and harden the feet. Throughout the vacation he will keep his mobile switched off, as there are some duties which can't be declined. If the unit calls home, his parents will tell them that he is sick. He will miss his girl friend. That's alright.
There is one other friend who joined CRPF when he joined Army. With their haphazard vacations, they rarely get to meet now. There was one other friend from Chennai, a driver in Army. Once in the Valley, where there are narrow roads which are wide enough for only a single jeep, that friend along with another person accidentally plunged into the Valley, into a river which takes everything into Pakistan.
They have these huge vehicles in Army which burn like five litres of Diesel per kilometre. Some drivers steal Diesel and make a lot of money. Everybody knows but nobody says anything about it. Why would they when their superior officer doesn't? They don't ask questions in Army.
Sometimes they get orders to fire 300 shells. They don't know why. Each Bofors shell costs more than a lakh rupees. 300 shells in a day! That's a lot of noise despite the special earplugs they wear. And they have to run. Today it takes fifteen minutes for a precise reply in the form of another shell to come across the border. In these fifteen minutes they have to run, set up the gun again, and be ready to fire. It is not fun. He was there. South is safer.
Almost everybody who survives stays for at least fifteen years. No one can quit Army easily. Those back home might whisper that he chickened out. More than that, he feels good serving the country, having a purpose in life.
He looked content.
He didn't avail the defence quota because he was in a rush. So when it was time to sleep I suggested him to sleep on the floor laying a few newspapers on it. He woke up by 0430 hrs the next morning. Before getting down I told him to enjoy his vacation and to be safe. He smiled and wished my family the best.