tika for Jung Bahadur - 3
Jung Bahadur shut his eyes and rubbed his hand over his close-cropped skull, the granite face showing its age. The director looked worried. Was the old guy going to freak out again, as he had the first time when he froze in front of the camera? Was he suffering from that thing the director had read about, was it in Time magazine, called post trauma stress or something that Vietnam vets and others who’d been in combat situations were supposed to have? What must it do to you to see people die violently in front of you, to kill someone yourself? Let alone kill someone, the director had never in his adult life even struck a blow in anger. And this man had watched how many people die, killed how many himself? Thirty? Forty? A hundred? More?
What did it do to you? What must it do to you? To shoot a man and see what had been living flesh turn into a bundle of inert rags. To stick a knife or a bayonet into someone, feel the elastic resistance of another body bound to you by an umbilical cord of steel, see the face of your enemy alive with hate and fear and rage, a mirror of your own face, suddenly become an empty mask. It was an act of inconceivable intimacy, a bonding that went far beyond the transient coupling of sex. Killing was forever. How did you live with it? The director did not know. He did not even know if he wanted to know.
Shall we start again? said Jung Bahadur.
I want to start again, Tara said to her parents. It was six months after the cremation, after Jung Bahadur had left. I want to start my life again, away from here, Tara said. Her father hadn’t said a word. He turned his back and walked into the hut. Tara knew they would not see each other again.
Her mother had pleaded, wept. Then she had looked at the parting in Tara’s hair. For six months Tara had worn a sindoor of funeral ash. Today, the parting was bright vermilion. From a widow before her wedding, she had become everyman’s bride. Her mother placed her hand on Tara’s head. Then she too went into their house. Tara liked to think, as she walked down the path that led away from the village, that they watched her from the window as she went to meet what waited for her out there.
He kept to himself. That’s what the other men and the officers always said when asked about him. He kept to himself, had no friends, no one who could claim to be close to him. He was isolate, sufficient to himself. He trained hard, square frame filling with muscle, looked after his equipment and weapons, particularly the long curved knife which became his battle emblem after the day of the hill and the machine gun post, for which they gave him the big medal.
After that he became more remote than ever. Never unfriendly or sullen, indeed quick to help new recruits learn the ropes. But always detached, marked out to be separate, in search of something different from what other men sought. Not glory, nor fame, nor honour. Though he had all these, after they gave him the big medal.
Some said it was his own death that he searched for. Nothing else could explain the risks he took in battle, time and again. Not out of bravado, or recklessness, but a cold, contained ferocity that turned him into an embodiment of death, the keening cry of the berserker, the knife slicing the sky.
Eternal warrior, man who could not die, they said. Unable to die himself, he was cursed forever to find young men to die in his stead, they said. But never to his face. The old hands would point him out to the young recruits. You see him, he’s the one youheard about, the one no one can kill. The young men, little more than boys dressed up in their new, stiff uniforms like children about to play some game of make-believe, would stare at him in awe. And when they in turn became seasoned veterans, they would point him out to the recruits, the next seasonal crop of young men. Without knowing it, without wanting it, he became legend.
They said he could not die because he had never been with a woman. If, like other men, he sought comfort in the arms of a woman he would be robbed of the magic that protected him, made him invulnerable, they said, but never to his face.
They said that once, many years ago, some of the men had been given local leave after an action. They had drunk rum, and for once he had joined them. Someone had suggested a house of women. They had gone, he with them. That was the story. Just that, nothing more. No one knew anyone who knew anyone who knew more about it. But that story, strangely enough, was probably the beginning of the other story about him, that he’d never been with a woman. Anyway, those were the stories. Those were the legend.
There was another legend, this one about a woman. No one knew her name. Some said she had no name. But all the young men who came to be made into soldiers knew of her. They said she had known more men, more soldiers, than any woman ever before. They said that though her story was as old as the story of the mountains where she came from, she herself remained ageless, born again and again through the young girls she found and trained in the arts of being a woman. Before you go into battle, the old hands would tell the recruits, always go to her, she’s there, waiting for you, waiting for you in any of the girls you go to, and when you do, when you go to any girl, you go to her, always her.
That was the legend of the woman, as there was the legend of the man. The soldier, broad and weathered as a rock, striding tirelessly through the mountains and the valleys, seeking out the small villages — like a sightless priest who tells by feel, one by one, the beads of an unending rosary — to find the young men who’d follow him from their homes and farms to the far-off fields of battle yet to be, of bugles waiting to play. The woman, ever-changing and changeless as a flowing stream, searching forever for the young girls who’d leave behind their enclosed lives to come with her to where the men would always find them, the men who came to find them before going to kill and to die.
Two stories, two legends. Did they ever meet, become one?
You must have met, the director said. Earlier, he had asked the same question of the woman. You must have met, out there, he’d said, his hand a vague gesture of the world outside the village and the mountains. She’d smiled at him, that same smile that made him feel more unsure of what he was saying, or doing, or understanding, than he usually was. I don’t know; it’s so difficult to tell who you meet and who you don’t, out there, she’d said, imitating his gesture. People and things are not the same, out there, she’d said, smiling. Smiling at what? At him, at this bloody film he was trying to make in this godforsaken place — but my God, what a story it was, wasn’t it? What had she been smiling at? Some secret, out in plain sight, which she knew but he didn’t, and would never learn?
You must have met, the director said now. Jung Bahadur shook his head. We never met, not out there, he said. We couldn’t meet, we mustn’t meet, you see, not out there, he said. And then he said it again, We couldn’t meet, not out there. And said it once again, like earlier he’d said, He fell, it was an accident, over and over, so that even if no one else did, he himself could believe it. We never met, out there, he said. Never.
The smell of rum strong on him, he opened the door and the light from the single naked bulb burning in the corridor fell into the room where the woman lay. The dim glow cast blue shadows, like the still waters of a pool, that reached up to dapple her body, the taut roundness of flesh, the cleft of her sex, the dark stream of her hair flowing down her shoulders. His throat was constricted, burning with the liquor he’d drunk. His head was spinning, the roaring in his ears the voice of the silver spring that fell into the pool, bubbling, the paleness of her body as she slid through the waters of the shadows towards him, the eyes that looked into his, expressionless, no not her eyes, the eyes of another, eyes that haunted his sleep, from which he could not hide, inescapable, and he cried out, a hoarse inarticulate sound. He flung his arm across his face and ran, through the open door, down the corridor, down the steps.
The girl at the door watched him stumble down the stairs and she wondered who he was, and why he had come to her and why he had fled.
The smell of the cheap liquor he’d drunk strong on him, he opened the door and the light from the corridor entered the room where she lay. The glow cast shadows like water that bathed her body, the dark sheen of her hair. His throat was tight, choking down the sour bile of fear. His head spun, the roaring in his ears a flood tide as her pale body slid through the shadows towards him, her eyes looking into his, expressionless, as she said to him: Is that why you killed him, so that you could come to me? He cried out in confusion and she saw this wasn’t him, who she’d waited for all these years with loathing and fear and pity, but just a boy, frightened because this was his first time with a woman.
She led him into the room, to the bed, and held him as his shivering stopped and his breath was hoarse against her face, and she wondered what his name was and where he came from, as she did with all the uncountable boys who’d come to her before him, to lose themselves and their fears in the forgiveness of her arms.
So that’s your big story then, is it? asked the journalist. His glass was empty. He wondered if the director would buy him another drink. Probably not, the stingy bastard. Yes, that’s my story, said the director. He ignored the other’s empty glass. Well, so did they finally meet again, I mean meet again here, in the real world, not out there? asked the journalist, his hand indicating a universe beyond the one they knew and understood. Your Eternal Soldier in exile and his lady love who became a whore, or should I say The Whore? The director shook his head. The journalist thought it might be because he’d used the word ‘whore’. Maybe he should have said Mary Magdalene. Christ. Touchy buggers, these filmwallahs.
The point is not if they met here, but that they did meet again back there, said the director with the same hand movement the journalist had used. And of course they did meet again back there, at the tika ceremony that I filmed. Amazing, man, it was really amazing. The ultimate rite of forgiveness and redemption from guilt. That’s the big story. You must come and see it, my film. It’s being screened on Friday, at the Centre, said the director.
Sure thing, said the journalist. Fat fucking chance, he thought, wasting a Friday evening with a bunch of artsy-fartsy jholawalla JNU psuedos discussing the Ethical Roots of Primitivism or the Primitivism of Ethical Roots, and not one bugger among them able or willing to buy a hardworking, thirsty journo a drink. Sod them. And sod his Big Frigging Story, thought the journalist, watching the director walk out of the bar of the Press Club. Forgiveness and redemption. Bullshit.
From the window, Tara watched the director and his crew walk down the path that led away from the village, the path that she and Jung Bahadur had separately taken so many years ago, in another lifetime. The path that both had retraced, coming back to the village they had left so long ago to go into the world, and then to return to where they had started, having sought and perhaps found what they had gone looking for out there.
The director walked gingerly down the steep track, his city dweller’s footing lacking confidence on the loose stones. He was very unsure, that one, thought Tara, watching. But then, as she’d long learnt, all men were, even those who hid it well, or perhaps those were the most unsure of all.
But one thing the young man was sure of was that he’d got what he thought was a big story, as he called it. Tara had heard him use the words repeatedly to the cameraman, sometimes to himself. She had enough of a smattering of English to understand what the words meant.
He sees our lives, Jung Bahadur’s and mine, as a story, a fable, she thought. But why not? That was as good a way as any other of looking at everyone’s lives. Fables that we create so that we can tell each other who we are, and why.
And the young director thought he had captured their fable, their story, Jung Bahadur’s and hers. How excited he’d been that morning when, at the appointed hour, Jung Bahadur had emerged from his hut, in full uniform, the rows of medals on his chest, the knife in its sheath at his hip. The television camera had tracked him as he walked with measured step, neither fast nor slow, down the length of the village to her house, where she waited for him, the sindoor in her hair a streak of blood.
The hungry eye of the camera had taken it all in, the climax of their story, the culmination of two narratives finally brought together. How excited the director had been, how eager to capture every movement and nuance of the simple ceremony. Their story, now become his big story.
Tara smiled. How little he knew, how little he saw. Though it was there for all to see who could or would. The real story, whose ending — or was it beginning, renewed year after year like the circle of the seasons? — took place when Jung Bahadur knelt and laid the great curved knife at her feet, and she reached across and put the tika of benediction on the forehead of her brother.
Jug Suraiya, best-known as a humour writer and satirist, is Style Editor of ‘The Times of India’. He lives in Delhi