As a kid, ambulances always fascinated me. I surmise that was because of the lights and siren sounds they had, the way they were treated when on the road where other vehicles would make way for its passage. I caught on the fascination at an age where I was too little to think of why ambulances had those lights and sirens, why they got priority on the road. I probably came to know that at a later age. But the fascination stuck, even though I assimilated the purpose of the urgency. My mother used to tell me that whenever they took me to a toy shop, ambulance fire engine toy replicas were inevitably my first choice. Strange things to like when I look back. But you have to understand, back then not everything was wrapped around societal etiquette. When you are that age, you can love anything and hate anything, neither of which would seem logical. That is the way it is.
I had wanted to sit in the back of the ambulance as it began its somber sojourn from the airport. But it wasn’t possible, I was to show them the way.
Me and Jai were of the same age. We had studies in the same school till plus two. I wouldn’t categorize us as best buddies. Yes, I was friends with Jai but we didn’t belong in the same circle. While both of us did not bring home any academic laurels in our periodic report cards, I was a notorious member of the village naughty children gangs while Jai was someone who was more of a silent type. I was considered by the elder folk as somewhat of a headache, my presence in most cases was a precursor of some mischievous activity in the near future. On the other hand, Jai was a different breed. He was silent and pleasant and was generally friends with most children in the area. There were circumstances when he had come to our rescue. Like in the case when five of us stole toddy from Chandran’s toddy shop and were caught in the act of consuming it, Jai pleaded with Chandran to let us off the hook, vouching for us that we would never steal from anyone. Or when I gave a love letter to carpenter Raman’s daughter when we were in tenth grade and it unsurprisingly came in the know of Raman, Jai talked to Raman to cool things down. And so on went the stories.
As I mentioned, Jai and I were friends, not the thickest of buddies but friends nonetheless. Things took a turn for the better when we were in plus two. Both of us did not know what to do for future. Our academic records did not hold much promise that we could get an admission for any professional degree course and we had started thinking about what to do next. It was Jai who broached the idea of joining the army. The more he talked about it, the more I was convinced that army was a good prospect. There were no army men from our village, so it would help get an image makeover, to get us respected in the village. An additional incentive at least for me was the booze on offer. Army, I had heard, was quite generous in serving up booze to its rank and file and that certainly was a swing factor in my decision. Not to mention all the pluses and perks of a government job.
And so, a handful of us prepared for the Army recruitment. Three of us managed to clear the physicals and get offers from the army when they came for recruitment in the state. As luck would have it, me and Jai got posted to the same battalion. It was certainly good to have a known face to bank upon - the training period was tough and sapping and we depended a lot on each other to get through that. And that it when the bond of friendship between me and Jai was strengthened. Being of the same battalion, we got our postings together. We were posted in different parts of the country and the two eggheads from a remote corner of India got to see the soul and essence of the length and breadth of India. We also developed a pattern when taking our annual vacations - we tried to space them up so that one of us would be home every half year or so. That way, even though we went home only once every 12 to 18 months, from our village perspective, any one of us would be home every 6 to 8 months.
Time passed, as it always does. Both of us married, had kids. When I would go home for my vacations, along with all the luggage for me and my family, it was an unwritten rule to carry one box full of stuff for Jai’s wife and daughter. And vice versa when he went home for his vacations. And when everything was going well, came the war. Historians of futurity may judge it with a different set of views but for us as soldiers, we were taught to obey orders coming from higher up, not question them. Our regiment, as was the case with a lot of regiments, was sent to the international border. Our battalion was posted at the front-line - we were the first line of defence for India. When you are in a war, your psyche is very different from what you experience during peacetime. The adrenaline levels are pumped up and you need that to cope up with the death and destruction you see happening in front of you. You know that you and your colleagues are responsible for creating that havoc directly or indirectly and you need to convince yourself that you are doing the right thing.
And that is when it happened. The eighteenth day of our deployment on the international border. That is when a shell fired from the enemy forces hit one of our front-line command posts manned by Jai and another colleague. Death was instant, I later came to know. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the news. Yes, we are soldiers and we are “used to” seeing a colleague waving hello at us one day and coming back inside a body bag the next. No matter how trained you are, no matter how much of the army psyche you have assimilated, you cannot quite get “used to” some things.
The body of Jai lie wrapped in a white cloth in the back compartment of the ambulance. As I directed the driver to make the final turn into the road which led to Jai’s house, I could see the crowd afar that had gathered around the compound of Jai’s house.