As we celebrate the Independence Day let us also spare a thought for the men of our Defence Forces who guard our country.
Here is a sensitive and touching story about them:
A GENERAL AND HIS DAUGHTER
I’m on my way to see Kiran again. We have met only once, at her father’s house, but no other woman has left such an indelible mark in my mind as she did. In spite of the time that has elapsed, every little detail of that meeting is still fresh in my mind.
Maj. Gen. Krishna Marar, a retired Indian Army officer, and I were on his lawn in Munnar, a small hill station in Kerala’s tea country, sipping whiskey and soda and watching a full moon rise over the mountains. After a while I followed the general’s sidewise glance and saw a tall young lady standing a few paces away. She was in a dark-blue silk sari.
“Kiran, my only child,” the general removed the pipe he was smoking from his mouth and introduced us. “Mr. Samuel Mathai is a writer.”
I stood up chivalrously and said, “Hello, Kiran.”
She came forward with great poise, giving me a charming smile. After making her cosy on a cane chair she addressed me, “I’ve never met an author before. What do you write?”
“Well,” I replied, “articles mostly. A few short stories. This time it’s a novel.”
“That’s great,” Kiran responded enthusiastically. “Of late Indian authors have been doing very well.”
“Do you like novels?”
“Yes. The better ones.”
“She reads a great deal,” the general pitched in.
“What’s your novel about?” Kiran asked. And, looking at the moon, added, “Not one of those moonlight and roses stuff, I hope.”
I laughed and answered, “Oh, no. Romance isn’t my genre. It’s about a young army officer.”
“That’s interesting. A war story?”
“Not really. There’s some action of course. But it’s mostly about the young man’s life. His loves and his hopes. The sacrifices. The pitfalls.”
Kiran nodded. “War,” she said, “is a terrible business. Think of people dying, getting maimed. The misery endured by their families.”
“But it’s a fact of life.”
“You don’t seem to like war novels.”
“Some are great. All Quiet on the Western Front, Across the Black Waters. Naked and the Dead was good too, but rather raw for me.”
“You’re nursing your drink” My host’s statement was almost a command. I smiled and took a sip.
Kiran was staring at the horizon, lost in thought. Her shoulder length hair that was parted on the side shimmered in the moonlight.
“Actually,” I said, “I came to consult your father on certain aspects of the book. I’d sent him a copy of the manuscript in advance.”
Kiran nodded and turning to her father asked, “How’s it, daddy?”
Gen. Marar took a quick puff on the pipe. “Good,” he answered. “In fact, very good, I would say. But some corrections and polishing are required. After all, it’s only an initial draft.”
Kiran had a serious expression now. “But a general’s view alone,” she said to me, “wouldn’t give sufficient dimension to a story about soldiers. You should know about the junior officers and the jawans. They are the army, really.”
“All generals were junior officers once,” my host said.
“Okay, daddy,” Kiran responded, laughing.
“You’re right,” I concurred with her. “I’ve covered that as well. In fact, a great deal of research has been done.”
“Good,” Kiran approved. “That’s essential. But what about soldiers’ wives, like me? They form a silent force behind every army.”
Did I feel a tinge of disappointment that she was married? I wasn’t sure. “That’s an area,” I admitted, “I haven’t really looked into. Thanks for the suggestion.”
“My husband, Maj. Mohan Nair….”She stopped abruptly and looked with concern at her father who had choked on his pipe and gone into a fit of coughing. “Daddy, you’re smoking too much these days. Are you alright?”
The general took out a handkerchief, removed his spectacles and wiped his brows. His face was flushed and his eyes blinked. He smiled with some effort and nodded.
After a few seconds Kiran asked me, “Where was I?”
“Your husband,” I reminded her.
“Oh, yes,” she said with a smile, “Before retiring, daddy was his Div. Commander. That’s how we met, at a garden party on a moonlit night like this.” She paused and a faraway look came into her eyes. "He’s coming on leave next month," she added.
Mist was beginning to rise from the valley in soft, woolly streamers. It floated past us in the gentle breeze.
“We should go in now,” the general said. “It’s getting chilly.”
Kiran suddenly woke up from her reverie. “No, daddy, please,” she pleaded. “It’s quite pleasant, really. Let’s sit here a little while longer.”
After a thoughtful moment Gen. Marar said, “Okay,” and poured fresh drinks.
“I could,” Kiran addressed me, “provide you some material from the wives’ angle.”
“That’s very kind of you,” I responded. “Can you go through the manuscript and send me notes? I can come back for a discussion if necessary.”
The suggestions and anecdotes she sent are still with me. I’ve acknowledged her contribution in my book.
“Oh, my!” Kiran exclaimed with a start and got up. “The baby’s crying. I have to go.”
I couldn’t hear any child cry and wondered about the invisible mechanism by which a mother could monitor her little one. I stood up to bid goodbye.
“I hope,” Kran said with a smile, “that your book turns out to be a bestseller.”
“You must send me an autographed copy.”
“I certainly will.” I did, and her well-composed letter of congratulation is carefully preserved.
“Please excuse me,” Kiran continued. “Mine’s a spoilt child. Daddy pets her too much. I suppose all grandfathers are like that. Now I have to play the piano to put her to sleep. Good night, Mr. Mathai, and good luck. See you daddy.”
I said good night and the general waved to her affectionately.
Kiran moved away quickly but gracefully. I watched till she disappeared inside the bungalow.
There was emptiness about the scene now. My host began the procedure of refilling his pipe. I sat looking at the moon, which was now clear above the Western Ghats.
A few minutes later, strains of piano drifted over to us through the open windows of the bungalow. Soft, captivating. Trained fingers caressing the keys. The notes lingered in the air.
“That’s beautiful,” I said spontaneously. “Kiran?”
Gen. Marar looked up and nodded. “She’s very good. Her music teacher used to say that she hadn’t come across any one better talented.”
“Not surprising,” I said. “The way Kiran plays is fascinating. It’s a pity - ”
“That such a gift is being wasted,” the general completed the sentence for me. “Yes, it’s sad. She even composes. But army life isn’t the best platform for a musical career.” He put the pipe to his mouth to light.
What Kiran had said about the army wives made more sense now. “Yes, I understand,” I commented.
“She practices every morning. My wife – she died two years back – and I used to look forward to those sessions. I still do. They are so soothing.”
“Where’s Kiran’s husband posted?” I asked.
“He’s been dead five years.” My host stated bluntly.
"Oh," I exclaimed, rather confused.
The general recharged his glass, pushed the bottle towards me, and continued, “Got it on an unnamed hill at the border. Officially, a peacetime casualty. It was one of those days of sporadic firing across the LoC. Half his face was blown off.”
A strange kind of heaviness permeated the atmosphere and the mood changed tangibly. The music sounded distant, hardly audible. But I could visualise Kiran at the piano – young, beautiful, talented.
I helped myself to a stiff peg.
“He was,” the general went on, “the son I didn’t have. Handsome. So full of life. And a good soldier as well. They had made an ideal couple.” He began lighting his pipe.
Mist was getting thicker and made an eerie haze in the moonlight. The mountain range could be hardly seen. The temperature had dropped and I shivered slightly.
The pipe-lighting ritual took time. Finally that was done. The old soldier let out the smoke and stared at the horizon.
The music was back. A different tune. We were quiet for a while, listening. Then the general drank more whiskey and said, almost in a whisper, “Cradle Song by Johansson Brahms. The lullaby is meant for my granddaughter. Well, a rag doll, really. The one that was Kiran’s favourite as a child. When the news about Mohan came, she lost the baby she was carrying. But her mind hasn’t accepted that.”
There was heavy silence for a few moments. Then Gen. Marar said, “She’s almost normal in everything else.”
I looked away from him towards the house. Diffused light could be seen through the glass of the front door, like a lantern marking some distant grave.
That was four years earlier. This morning’s newspaper carried Gen. Marar’s obituary, which concluded with the sentence, ‘Survived by daughter, Mrs. Kiran Nair.’