I would see him frequently during my childhood years, sometimes at the local Gurudwara, clad in a Patka (the smaller alternative of the traditional Sikh turban, usually worn by children) which made him look funny. Middle aged people like him would mostly avoid this fiasco, more out of their sake of reputation rather than any religious qualm. He didn’t talk much to anybody and always had a blank expression on his face. His clothes were often loose and dirty, you wouldn’t want to go near him in normal circumstances. The public gatherings at the Gurudwara had him as the most popular topic in their gossip sessions. They complained about his ‘indecent’ dressing style, his temper issues (as whenever words came out of his mouth, they resulted in verbal brawls). They even considered banning him from entering the premises but technically god’s home should be open to ‘one and all’.
Whenever we played cricket in our community park, one shot in the wrong direction would mean that the ball would be in a territory of no return i.e. his balcony. I still wonder why he wouldn’t give them back! Moreover what could an old man (he looked fifty, if not less) like him do with a heap of tennis balls? But he lived alone, looked hideous and our parents had warned us to stay away from the ‘weird’ uncle who lives right next to the park
As my childhood got feebly destroyed in piles of books, classes, detentions and examinations, I saw less of him until he completely disappeared from action. He would sometimes be seen by my father during his morning walk sessions. Dad would complain about how the man was arrogant, aloof and lost in his own world. I didn’t see him at the Gurudwara anymore and as had grapevine had it, he had developed a drinking problem and was ‘rotting’ himself to death.
My next rendezvous with him happened when I was a 12th grade student. I was given a plea petition by my father that I had to get signed from all the house owners of our society. I remember getting an eerie feeling as I stood at his doorstep. He opened the door with his trademark blank expression.
“What?” he roared.
“Umm sir! Actually..I..I had to get this petition signed by all society members?” I reluctantly said.
He examined the petition and sipped his peg of whisky. He asked me if I wanted some too but I declined, for the sake of appearing modest although I really wanted to share a whisky and give the old man a piece of my mind. I glanced through his house in general and quite contrary to what I thought, it was a very neat and well kept place, phenomenal for someone who lived alone. I saw medallions, posters of the Indian army, rifles hanging on the wall, huge bottles of Scotch and Rum and a wonderful picture. It was of an army officer clad in a green army suit with a matching bottle green turban, showcasing pride and honour through his badges and impeccable uniform and an expression which radiated the fearlessness of a messiah. The picture was framed so perfectly that it could only signify the discipline and perfectionist attitude that only an army officer could possess. But whose picture was this?
“Umm..sir! P..Please don’t mind me asking! Whose picture is that?” I said. In a flash, his dead expression changed to a slight curve across his lips. He signaled me to go have a closer look at the picture.
When I saw the picture, I got startled. My eyes couldn’t believe what they had seen. It was his picture. The same man who we called names and thought was weird; he was a respectable army officer. Below the picture read ‘Maj. Jasjit Singh Sheirgill, 1990-2003’’. I looked at the picture again and re-examined the person sitting on the chair ahead. Although they looked the same but even an amateur could conclude were very different people. What had happened to this man? Why did he leave army services? Why was he so anti-social? Where was his family? Why was he ruining his life? Just looking at one picture had ignited a spree of questions in my head and I had to come to terms with this man’s story.
He struggled to sign the petition with his left hand. Baffled, I asked him if he was a lefty. He lifted his right arm up and it was sans the hand. I was shocked. I had million questions to ask but the words could not escape my mouth.
“I lost it in the war, it doesn’t hurt!” He tried to smile and gestured me to the door. I got up to leave.
I made up my mind to look forward into this man’s story. He was making me curious to the point of no return.
I started going for early morning walks with dad so that I could chat him up a little if I happened to see him. I purposely threw tennis balls in his balcony and made the daring move to go see him, greet him and try to start a small conversation. He would at first not open the door at all and on rare occasions that he did, he asked me to fetch the ball from his balcony and then ‘get lost’. But I didn’t give up so soon, I made sure that a good share of my pocket money was wasted on tennis balls.
Not surprisingly, he grew skeptical. I once rang his doorbell hoping that he would not bother opening the door or paying heed. To my surprise, he came out of his balcony with bloodshot eyes and signaled me to come up. I was scared, my legs were shaking. What if I got hit and beaten up? Or worse, what if he shot me with the rifle guns which were on display in his lobby? Or would he let my parents know of the stupidity that I was up to? I reached inside and he ordered me to sit with his gesture. I obediently followed.
“What is your problem child? I have been noticing the mischief you have been doing? What do you want from me?”
“Umm..sir..I’m sorry..I am…actually sir..umm.. I am curious about you. I want to know your story!” I tried reprimanding myself mentally for the cowardly manner I spoke in, but his presence was frightening.
He asked me to focus on my examinations and not waste time on people like him. He then took me by my arm and threw me out of his house and asked me not to see him again. My shoulders drooped, and I started walking back to my house.
Just as I started to walk out from his gate,I heard a loud roar. It was his voice! I looked back.
“Hey chap! I will be going for a walk in the community park tomorrow evening; you can join me if you want.” I was exhilarated.
And then began the spree of long lasting discussions between him and me. He would tell me about his days in the N.D.A and I would tell him about my boring accounts tuitions. He would talk of all the places he was posted in during his tenure and his heroics in the war of Kargil, and how he guided a battalion of troops for two months at a stretch in the biting cold and lead them to victory. That was also where he lost his right hand in a grenade explosion.
“Those months were very painful for me as a man, that even when I reminisce about the time, I am startled how I braved through it. Physically I was broken. I was thirty eight and my deterioration phase had begun. I felt tired, cold and excruciating pain. It takes a while for your body to get used to not having a hand.” He lifted his right arm to show it to me.
All the fear and disrespect accumulated in my heart for him had melted away. I could only look at him with high gratitude and regard. He was a man who had served the country when all I cared about was missing school and sleeping till late afternoon. Honestly, I felt a little ashamed as well.
I would spend as much time as I could with him. I would help him clean his house, go grocery-shopping with him and he would tell me more about his life as an army man. He would explain all the ranks of the army and their importance and how he couldn’t fulfill his dream of being a General because of being out of the service for his disability. He would tell me the benefits of adopting the disciplined way of life and having an army man’s attitude towards life in general. I would ask him about his family and their whereabouts but he would often dodge the question or go eerie silent during the conversation. But we bonded well and I looked forward to meeting him as frequently I could.
One day as I got out of my usual hideous routine of strenuous accounts cum economics tuitions, my phone had three missed calls, all from him! This was quite unusual as I was the one calling him often and looking for ways I could spend more time with him. Concerned, I called him back. He said he wanted me to show up for dinner at his place that evening and commanded me to be on time. I told my parents that I was going for a movie with a friend and dressed as decently as I could and reached his place at 8 PM sharp, the exact time of the rendezvous. As he opened the door, I was frozen open-jawed by the astonishment.
He was wearing his army uniform, impeccably complimented by his badges and medals. His green turban was neatly tied and had a hint of red towards its finishing end. His mustache was rolled into a handlebar style and his smile made him look elegant. It was then I realized the reason why women go so gaga and swoon over army-men. It’s their charisma which is complemented by the sparkle in their eye radiating an inclination towards discipline they carry themselves with. That makes all the difference! It was as if the person I had seen in the framed picture when I visited his house for the first time had walked out of it.
I complimented him on his uniform and asked him what was so special about that day that he was wearing it.
“It’s the last time I’d ever be wearing this uniform today!” He said with a smile escaping his lips. It was still baffling yet quite unusual for me as I felt I was meeting a new persona of him which hadn’t been exposed to before.
When I asked him why he said that, my question was ignored and he went on talking. He asked me if I wanted a drink and even before I replied, he made me one. One drink became two and then we lost count. He kept on explaining how glad he felt that day and how all his worries were going to end the next day. I didn’t understand why he said that, but was happy for him anyway. He had prepared dinner all by himself that night and I still crave his delicious chicken curry I ate that day. After barging on the food, he gave me some ice cream and poured himself another drink. Just having him sit by my side was prestige for me.
Taking my cue from his intoxicated state, I decided to shoot the question about his family again. Quite contrary to what I had imagined, the plan worked. He had started speaking already.
“I had a wife. We were both married when we were 18. We had no children. We were fully devoted to each other. During my tenure in Kargil, she remained back home in Saharanpur, where we were posted at that time. She had third stage ovarian cancer and chances of her survival were bleak. Since we weren’t allowed to call from our army hideout telephones, I hiked ten kilometers to a tea stall PCO every few days to call her and ask her about her health. We even celebrated our twentieth marriage anniversary on the phone, talking to each other and I felt ashamed of not being with her when she needed my assistance the most. Physically, I knew I had an enemy to fight against and my country to fight for. Emotionally, I was fighting a bigger and even more brutal war within myself. But I strengthened by telling myself, that as an officer of the Indian army and my country always came first. I did manage to meet her before her operation, which had more chances of failure than success. She looked at me sans the right hand and said she was proud of me and how I fought for the country. But my fight wasn’t over, I had to fight more. Fight till I brought her back to life! But this wasn’t the case; I had been victorious only in the physical war. The operation wasn’t successful. I lost the only family I had. And you can guess the rest which followed. But I am not sad, I believe she is in a much better place!”
I was out of words. The more pages I flipped through this man’s story, the more respect accumulated in my heart for him. By the true definition of the word, he was a fighter. And he had fought enough, that’s the reason why he had become so bitter towards life and people that he didn’t care about getting their acceptance or validation. Every action of his which I had witnessed since my younger days started to make sense.
“I’m so sorry for your wife sir!” is all I could come up with.
“Don’t be! We are going to re-unite very soon!” He said with a smile of content.
He steered the conversation back to normal by narrating funny instances from his army days and we talked till midnight until he just closed his eyes and lay on the sofa. I asked him if he was alright and he said he was fine. He looked tired so I thought it would be a wise idea to let him sleep and go back home. I put a blanket over him and he asked me to close the main door of the house before I left.
“Goodnight sir! Thank you for the awesome dinner. I will come to see you tomorrow evening. Take care!”
“You are not going to see me tomorrow.” He replied, half asleep.
The next morning I found out that Major Jasjit Singh Sheirgill had left for his heavenly abode. I was glad that he had begun his search for, in his words a ‘better place’ with the zeal of an Indian army officer.