“Dad, do you know that once Muhammad Ali, the American boxing legend was denied service in a restaurant because of the colour of his skin? Not just that… he was abused and racist slurs were flung at that sporting sensation… on that man who had won an Olympic Gold Medal for his country. He had felt so demeaned by that incident, that he cast his Gold Medal into the Ohio River. What a shame!”
Colonel Anirudh Sharma sensed a dash of rage in his teenage son’s emotions as Dhruv shared his discovery with him. Discussing news and related facts was a favourite pastime of the father and son duo. This one was triggered by the news of the unfortunate death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis cops and the ensuing demonstrations by the Black Lives Matter Movement. Dhruv’s curiosity to know more about racism had led him to read the autobiography of the boxer.
“Do you think Ali’s action of consigning the coveted medal to the riverbed was justified?” Dhruv sought his dad’s opinion but wouldn’t allow him to speak. “Forget Muhammad Ali… what do you think about our own sportspersons, social activists and veterans, who congregate at Jantar Mantar at the drop of a hat, and show eagerness to return their awards and medals?” The boy took in a lungful of air and carried on, “I feel, Ali acted on impulse, and in isolation; our people do it in groups; with forethought and elaborate planning. Unlike Ali, many people who do so, appear to do it more for optics than for a genuine cause.”
Anirudh wasn’t sure of how to respond, because he thought there weren’t straight answers to Dhruv’s questions. It wasn’t a case of black or white; there were the grey areas. In any case, he wasn’t inclined to club the armed forces with the social activists. For him, the armed forces were a different breed. Period. “Son, um uhm…,” he cleared his throat to buy time to organise a few thoughts before presenting them.
The Colonel himself was a decorated officer in that he was a Kirti Chakra awardee. The peace time gallantry award was conferred on him in recognition of his selfless service under perilous circumstances. As a company commander, he had led a raid on a terrorist camp on the mountain slopes in Poonch District. In daring close-quarters-combat he had killed three infiltrators and captured two others. His left eye was damaged by a shrapnel when a grenade exploded by his side. It left him with a partial loss of vision. He also broke his femur as he fought the terrorists. The surgeon’s effort to fully restore his leg was in vain. As a result, although he could stand erect, there was difficulty in walking and running. He had developed a perceptible limp. That notwithstanding, he felt fighting fit and could do everything which a Shape One officer could do. But the medical authorities opined otherwise; they declared him fit only for desk jobs. On promotion to the rank of a full colonel, he sought premature retirement from the Indian Army. He was averse to the idea of performing staff duties in low medical category.
An impatient and enraged Dhruv kept shooting arrows, the last one of which pierced deep and caused Anirudh anguish. “Dad, you never seem to take a stand. Okay! Tell me, what would you do in a similar situation?”
The father took a minute too long to muster words to express his yet-to-be-organised thoughts.
“Dhruv! Papa! Where are you both? Enough of your meaningless dialogue. Please stop it now. Will you? I am ready with sweet corn soup, pasta and garlic bread. Dhruv, please come and help me lay the table for dinner.” That was Sushma calling from the kitchen. Her intervention naturally relegated the discourse to a position of lesser importance. It got pushed further back––to another day in the future––when after dinner, the father and son got engrossed in watching the telecast of the highlights of the second day’s play of the first cricket test match between India and England. That notwithstanding, Dhruv’s parting shot had flagged off a train of thoughts in Anirudh’s mind. Little did he know that he would recall this conversation with the youngster with a sense of déjà vu the very next morning.
The day started rather early for the veteran. He had been invited as one of the guests of honour at a function organised by the Delhi Chapter of Social Cause Group at the India Habitat Centre (IHC) as a part of a series of events to felicitate war veterans. He left home early with enough cushion time to cater for the usual traffic snarls on the way and, equally importantly, to find a vacant parking slot at the IHC, which again was a time-consuming activity on certain days. It turned out to be one of those good days; the traffic density on the elevated Barapullah Road was low. It was an unusually hassle-free drive. He reached the IHC comfortably––fifteen minutes ahead of his planned arrival.
He parked his car opposite the gate behind the IHC Complex and was organising his thoughts for the felicitation function when an ivory white Range Rover screeched to a halt inches away from him. Nonplussed, he looked up to find a tattered Tricolour clinging on to a corroded brass flag staff attached to the side of the vehicle. Three men in crisp white khadi kurta and pyjamas stepped out and walked up to him. They were giants with shaven heads, each stood about six feet above the ground and must have weighed in excess of 90 kilos. Maybe, a hundred. Their biceps were struggling to get out of their rolled-up sleeves. Their looks could have easily won them roles in any Ramlila––of course, on Ravan’s side. The man who appeared to be the leader, donned a thick gold chain half hidden in the folds of the meaty dark skin of his neck. Without introduction and with faked politeness he asked Anirudh to remove his car to create space for their SUV.
Anirudh narrowed his eyes and contorted his brow to show doubt. Meanwhile, the driver who had until then been sitting at the wheel and honking, stepped out of the monster SUV. The limp Tricolour fluttered once as he banged the door and began walking towards his colleagues. The pot-bellied driver with a greatly displaced centre of gravity seemed to have inveigled his 48-inch girth into a pair of 42-inch Levi’s jeans. The hulk took small, measured steps like a pregnant duck to join up with his cronies.
On reaching the spot, he tried to reason out and convince Anirudh to concede what he called their request. He must have done a masters, if not a doctorate, in the art of wrapping a threat in polite gentlemanly language. Anirudh was immune to intimidation of any kind. Let alone acceding to their request, he displayed utter indifference––an act which did not go well with those men. One of them, who was chewing paan, pointed at the big white letters: A-R-M-Y, displayed prominently on Anirudh’s windscreen and said, “Aap faujiyon ko to janata ke pratinidhiyon ka samman karna chahiye.” (At least, you men in military uniform must respect the representatives of the people). That turned out to be a vain attempt at taming the unbending officer and extracting obeisance from him.
The nerves at Anirudh’s temples began twitching when the four blocked his path. Tempers flared further when an uncompliant Anirudh adjusted his red regimental tie and said, “Please make way, I am in a hurry.” Then, in a flash, he recalled and revised his Krav Maga lessons. His instinct told him; he might need his unarmed-combat skills in the very next instant. He felt confident of taking on the four goons together, physically. In his calculation, the crooked schnooks he was dealing with were far less agile and far less harmful than the armed terrorists he had despatched to hell in the Poonch encounter. The only thing playing on Anirudh’s mind in that instant was the possibility of his lounge suit getting sullied; since a scuffle seemed imminent. He did not want to appear dishevelled in the Auditorium where he was going to be honoured publicly.
Divine intervention prevented a nasty situation from getting nastier. A car parked next to Anirudh’s moved out leaving a slot vacant. Grudgingly, the people’s representatives drove their monster into it. Of the four men, the one chewing paan seemed most rankled by the peaceful outcome of the tussle for those few square feet of no-man’s-land. He stared at Anirudh as if to commit the officer’s face to his memory to settle the score later.
If looks could kill, Anirudh would have been a dead man.
Stein Auditorium was filled to capacity. People were awaiting Shri Shatrujit Sahay, the honourable Minister of State for Defence; popular patriotic Hindi song tunes were playing in the background. Colonel Anirudh Sharma was welcomed by one of the organisers and led to his seat in the front row by a young usher draped in shining white silk saree with Tricolour borders. Incense sticks burning in the four corners filled the hall with the aroma of sandalwood and added to the solemnness of the occasion. The Minister arrived on time and the proceedings commenced, and moved on with clockwork precision.
Shri Sahay had served in the Territorial Army and was a veteran paratrooper. When he did speak, words flowed from his heart. The Honourable Minister showered lavish praise on the Armed Forces in general, and the three officers, in particular. “We acknowledge with gratitude your acts of sacrifice and devotion to duty… your love for the country….” His diction was perfect; he also recited poetic verses written by Shri Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’. Three war veterans were felicitated in a well-coordinated ceremony; Colonel Anirudh Sharma was one of them.
Despite the minister’s stirring speech, Colonel Anirudh’s mind slunk off to the parking lot, revisiting the unsavoury incident of a half hour ago.
Hardly had he uttered that expletive under his breath, when an announcement drew his attention, “We now welcome Colonel Anirudh Sharma, Kirti Chakra, to the podium to say a few words.”
A man in clean white khadi kurta and pyjama came and stood smiling by Anirudh’s side to escort him to the podium. Anirudh recognised the man. He was one of the goons who’d argued with him in the parking area. Paan juice was still oozing out of the corners of his mouth.
Anirudh gave him a blank look when their eyes met. Through the rest of the programme, he saw the men in khadi floating around the VIP. One of them handed over a silver salver to the Minister to be presented to Anirudh.
“Janata ke pratinidhi (representatives of the people)… how can the followers be so different from their leader,” Anirudh looked at the Minister and his men, and wondered. For a split second, a sad smirk appeared on his lips and vanished.
Time flew. Soon everyone stood up to recite the National Anthem and it was all over.
Back in the parking area, Anirudh was enraged to see the shining brass Army crest fitted on his car’s bumper, smeared with dirt. A fuse blew in his head when a closer inspection revealed that it was a familiar dirty red colour. He looked around to inflict appropriate punishment on the likely culprit. The tsunami in his head subsided instantly because he found that the 4-Wheel Drive monster with the tattered tricolour had departed.
“A people’s representative will continue to stand on his own two feet and serve the people,” Anirudh regretted as he wiped clean the brass insignia and drove out.
Muhammed Ali, racist slurs, Olympic Gold Medal, Ohio River… the men in white khadi, Shri Shatrujit Sahay’s speech, the smeared Army crest… the questions posed by Dhruv––Anirudh’s mind kept perambulating those thoughts as he drove home slowly. The behaviour of the men in khadi dominated all other thoughts. “Does India deserve the Army it has? Like Ali, should I consign my insignia to the Yamuna-bed and be done with my past?” Unpleasantness stewed in Anirudh’s head as his car entered the Barapullah Road.
His chain of thoughts snapped when he was hailed to a stop by a lady standing by a parked car with flashing hazard lights. She looked hassled.
“Sir, my car has flamed out. I need to get a can of petrol from the nearest petrol pump. Can you please help me reach there?” She said in one breath when Anirudh rolled down his window.
She was in her mid-thirties. As she settled in the seat and belted up, she said something, which dowsed the fire raging in the veteran’s head and reset his thought process. “Sir, I have been calling my friends for assistance for almost an hour. Even though they were not in a position to reach me soon enough, I couldn’t dare seek help from any passing vehicle.” She continued, “You know, it is so difficult to trust strangers after the Nirbhaya case…. I felt so relieved when I saw ‘A-R-M-Y’ on your windscreen and the shining brass crest on the bumper of your car.”