August 19, 1999
Basuni, Kashmir, India, 1 km from the Line of Control.
“What do we name him?” Afreen smiled at the baby wriggling beside her. My heart skipped a beat as I looked at my progeny and his mother glowing with happiness. Childbirth was tough on Afreen – she battled bravely for fifteen hours before our bundle of joy decided to come out and meet us.
I knelt beside her and kissed her forehead tenderly. I moved to pick up the baby when Afreen held my wrist, shook her head and said rather sternly
“Don’t touch him when you still have a weapon on you”.
I whipped out my Glock 17 and placed it on the floor. The baby was making cooing noises as I picked him and held him for the first time. All my worries and fears went flying away from my system as I looked into his eyes. I felt peaceful for the first time in a long while.
“Afreen, did you notice he has your blue eyes? He even has a mole above his right eyebrow – just like you.”
Afreen smiled radiantly at us. “So, what about a name? I don’t mind a Hindu name, but it would make life very difficult for me and the baby.”
“What’s in Urdu for peace?”
“Aman.” Her eyes glistened.
Aman opened his tiny eyes and smiled at me.
September 4, 1999
My handheld radio crackled into life, ‘…can you hear me? Come in, Major…’
It was time for me to depart. I hated that I had to leave the girl I loved dearly and our wonderful creation in this ticking time-bomb of a place. I had been reassigned and word in the grapevine was it had almost everything to do with my relationship with Afreen. I wanted to shout that she belongs to our country as well, but I knew what their response would be
‘She and her ilk do not think so’
No one knew Afreen – neither my colleagues nor her own people. But I did. Not that it made an iota of difference. I even contemplated leaving the Army and opening a small grocery store in Basuni with Afreen. But it would have killed my father – a retired Brigadier, who had fought in the Indo – Pak war of 1965 and 1971.
Afreen was feeding the baby. Aman was clutching a tiny rattle in his hands even as he was drinking milk. It was a cheap, plastic rattle I had purchased from a small shop nearby. In a land decimated by wars and cross-border conflicts, even cheap toys were a luxury.
With a heavy heart, teary eyes and a promise to return to them as soon as possible, I turned my back on Afreen and little Aman, picked up my gear and made my way to the barracks. My transport was waiting to ferry me away from my love.
December 15, 2002
“Are you sure? No one survived?” I sifted through the rubble, desperately hoping to find some evidence that would debunk my fears.
“No, Major. Nothing survived the shelling. Houses three streets away are in ruins.” My colleague had the decency to look downcast.
I dropped to my knees with a thud, ignoring the pain created by skin and bones making contact with the unforgiving stones. Through the corner of my eye, I noticed something shining among the blackened bricks and stones. I scrambled towards it, fearing the worst. My brain was screaming turn around but my limbs moved on their own volition.
An animalistic roar escaped from the depths of my heart as I started pounding the cursed earth. My palms and wrists started bleeding and some dark corner of my mind welcomed the pain. My fist went numb, gripping the broken rattle.
January 22, 2017
Srinagar, Kashmir, India
“Let the fuckers come. What will they do at most? Hurl stones? Molotovs? Few sneaky shots? Bastards. We can annihilate them”, I popped a wad of chewing gum into my mouth. My second in command grinned in approval. These so-called protests by hurling stones and raising slogans would get these idiots nowhere. The insurgents had resorted to paying the common man and woman to form a shield behind which they could hide and attack like the cowards they were.
Fifteen years had passed since that fateful day. I had tanked in my career. Not that I gave a damn. I have been court-martialled than anyone I have known or even heard of. I have been demoted and then promoted many times that even a computer might get confused. But one thing that hasn’t changed is my dedication towards my country and my colleagues.
But this was my last rodeo. I was looking forward to my retirement and the loneliness and resentment and the whiskey-fueled nights that would come as a package with it. Couple more months here in Kashmir and I would say goodbye forever to this beautiful hell. I handed my rifle to the soldier standing nearby, closed my eyes and stretched my hands and back to work the kinks out.
“Major, I think we have hit the jackpot today. ‘The baby’ is here among the crowd”, Lieutenant Munir Khan proclaimed suddenly triggering a frenzy of excitement in the barracks.
‘The Baby’ was the nickname we had assigned to the leader of the extremist wing of insurgents. He was a very secretive character, who only a few had the opportunity to glimpse upon. We wanted him and wanted him bad. For ‘The Baby’ to venture out amongst the protesting parade, spelled nothing but trouble.
I snatched a pair of binoculars from Khan and zoomed in towards the crowd.
“Over there, Major, next to the kid wearing the hideous T-Shirt. The one with a black shirt and a turban…”
I scanned the crowd briefly and spotted the hideous Grateful Dead T-Shirt and focused on his neighbor. He had his back turned towards us, possibly to avoid identification. The Baby was not joining his fellow protestors in raising slogans, but from his countenance, I was able to deduce that he was surveying the proceedings, ready to raise hell.
“Give me my rifle. I’m taking the little fucker down.”
I picked up my Heckler & Koch PSG 1, got into position and focused on The Baby through the Hensoldt ZF 6×42 PSG 1 scope. I tracked him from bottom-up – I wanted a head shot. He was of slender build but his arms were sinewy. He was quite young, maybe in his late teens. I waited for him to turn around. I wanted to look into his eyes and then put a bullet in between them. I relaxed my breathing, closed my eyes, then opened them and slackened my grip. This was my ritual before taking a kill shot. I would not miss.
“Look at that Major. Most of them are kids. There’s no peace here, anymore”, Munir Khan lamented.
“Stay sharp, Gentlemen. Any time now”, I fixed the center of the illuminated reticle on The Baby’s forehead.
The Baby turned. I traced a faint, sinister smile on his lips. I tracked the crosshair up and gazed into his brilliant blue eyes – the beautiful eyes of an ice-cold killer. A mole was prominent above his right eyebrow.
I wish I could elaborate what my eyes saw, what my mind processed and what my heart felt at that very moment, but it would never be possible. My hand moved on its own volition to my chest pocket and traced the faint outline of the invaluable cheap trinket in it.
I wiped away a stray tear, exhaled deeply and squeezed the trigger as gently as I could. As the bullet sped on its way, I strangely realized, I was at peace.