“Amma,” saying that word pained him.
She looked at him, “ai manika?” Her jewel that was what he was. When her life had shattered into tiny shards, it was Ranju’s existence that had kept her alive. His face that smile that brightened her day. His crooked teeth, lying haphazardly. So like his father, he was.
“I’m going to the stream. For a swim,” he said, a towel in his hand.
“Be careful. May the blessings of the Triple Gem be with you.” Those words. Always said before he left home. Did they protect him? Were those the words that somehow made the bullets miss his heart?
On the way to the stream, a man on a bicycle stopped to talk with him. He was middle aged, most probably a farmer.
“Ah Puthey. Are you alright now?” He must have heard of the ‘episode’ which is what Ranju called his losing of consciousness. Those damn emotions and memories. They kept flashing in his mind and he just couldn’t get rid of them. Just went it seemed like he could, someone or the other would remind him.
“I’m okay Maama. Just the heat and whatnot.”
The man went off and Ranju was back alone with his thoughts.
He remembered Sunil, young, scared, gun in hand. He had wanted to get married. He was in love with a girl who had promised to wait for him. Sunil always carried a picture of her, she was pretty and most of the soldiers envied Sunil. He wrote to her quite often. When they realized the war was ending, that it the government was taking an ‘all or nothing’ approach, Sunil had been unable to hide his excitement. Very few soldiers knew the joy of marrying someone they loved. Some never got married, most got married to someone their families found for them. It was only after marriage that love bloomed.
After victory was in their hands, the soldiers had left for home. Sunil had invited them all for his wedding, although a date was still to be set. A week later, Ranju, who was still in the camp, had received a call from Sunil’s mother.
“Ane puthey, you don’t know what happened na,” it was obvious that she was trying not to cry.
“What, Amme? Is Sunil okay?”
“Aiyo no, Ranju Puthey. That girl, she… was run over by a lorry. Dead, right there. Sunil couldn’t do anything, just stood there. While…”
The silence seemed suffocating. Ranju then asked the question, to which the answer he feared.
“Sunil?” He couldn’t voice his thoughts. Was Sunil alright? Alive?
“He walks around like a ghost. We constantly watch over him. He tried to end it all too. He keeps saying her name.”
So that’s what was in store for Sunil. A man who bravely fought in the war. He had loved that girl unconditionally. And finally, that love had killed him in ways the war couldn’t.
The war had made men out of boys. But it had taken away their souls too. They couldn’t afford to love. Yet, Sunil had loved. And he had lost. What the war couldn’t take from him, a girl had. It all boiled down to death. Whether it was the death of someone you love, or a stranger, death scarred you.
Ranju sat at the edge of the steam, the tiny waves licking his muddy feet. He lit a cigarette. He couldn’t smoke at home, his mother didn’t like it. He thought of his life as the cigarette slowly burned. He winced as he saw his life as if he was flipping through a photograph album.
A chubby baby, a thin nappy pinned around him lower body. A boy, hair combed to the side, a crisp white shirt, and blue shorts, a new school bag on his back. A teenager, slight hints of facial hair, lanky and handsome, in his white school trousers and shirt. A young man in shorts and a tshirt, posing for the camera with friends, hair messy and uncombed. Finally a soldier in uniform, looking ten years older, hair cut short, a determined look on his face.
He threw away the cigarette butt and waded into the water. When it was deep enough he plunged in, and held his breath.
He saw his friends and family, alive and dead. His father, that distant man. His school friends, living their usual boring lives. Friends and brother he met in the line of duty. Some were alive, some were dead. Their blood would forever stain his hands, even if he hadn’t killed them. He had killed, and nothing could convince him otherwise.
He felt the cool water strain against his nostrils. He wanted to breathe in the water, knowing it would kill him. He imagined the pain as the water filled his lungs, as life left his body. Pain reveals. But pain also snatches life from you. And as the pain gathers, there’s less of you. You become less human. As he was about to take that much needed breath, but the image of his mother and her last words, “may the blessings of the triple gem be with you” echoed through his mind. He pushed himself up and let the crisp air of the day fill his lungs.
Yes, True Heroes (which I haven’t named yet) ends here. I felt that there was no use in keeping the story going. There were a few more scenes I had in my mind, but the story needed to end. Its for all the Ranju’s, broken men and women, who were the result of the war. I hope we never see another war again, at least not on our sun-kissed island.