I really liked the idea of an older brother coming home from war and explaining to a little brother what he did there.
“Go to sleep, Venkat.”
“I just wanted to ask you a question.”
Venkat’s voice sailed gracefully down from the top-bunk above me. It quivered with his eight-year old curiosity but had a way of hanging in the air, demanding response.
“Go to sleep, Venkat.”
I don’t want to talk.
“Ever since you got back, I’ve been wondering…”
He wouldn’t let me sleep until I gave in. I think I was like that when I was his age, too. “Wondering what, Venkat?”
That was a long time ago, though.
I could hear him take a breath, summoning all of his courage, before asking me this: “Did you ever kill anybody… You know… Out there?”
I rolled to my side, pulling my blanket over my shoulder. Maybe I won’t have to answer him. “Why do you want to know a thing like that, Venkat?”
“Well, when you came back, no one seemed to want to ask you…”
“Well, I talked to Prito Suhani, down the street and when his brother…”
“Yeah, when his brother Lachu Suhani came back from Kashmir, like you, he told everybody he himself killed three enemy soldiers and shot down a Blitz Bomber with a rifle.”
“Well, when you didn’t say, everyone assumed you hadn’t killed anybody. Prito Suhani told me it’s cause you were probably a coward or something…”
“I’m not a coward, Venkat.”
“So you killed some enemy soldiers?”
“Oh.” I don’t think he liked the idea of his older brother having ended someone’s life as much he wanted to.
A cricket outside the window filled the room with it’s rhythmic harmony, as though it was counting the beats until Venkat had the courage to ask his next question: “How’d it happen, Ranjit?”
“Go to sleep, Venkat.”
The cricket began again, this time louder, harsher, like a miniature buzz-saw. How could I tell Venkat? The night was getting cooler so I pulled the blanket tighter against my body. I adjusted the pillow beneath my head, so I could sit up a little.
The cricket grew quiet. The sound of Venkat’s breathing slowed as well.
“What… Ranjit?” He was half asleep, his voice slow as though in a trance.
“I was a cook. You know that, right? That I was a cook for the Army?”
“Well, we were in Kargil. I don’t remember the name of the village. I never got the hang of pronouncing it anyway. Well, we found an old restaurant in this little village that seemed to have avoided being bombed rather well. The officers got a couple of us to see if we could get some hot food together for the units we had there and they turned the rest of the restaurant into a makeshift command center.
“In the store room of the restaurant, I found some vegetables in plastic bins that would be good for some stews, I got a sack of potatoes from a tank driver named Swamy from Tamil Nadu, I got some meat from the supply chief, and someone even got us some beer… We were going to have a great meal. It’s the third best thing you can ask for after soldiering for so long.”
From a daze, still half-asleep, Venkat asked innocently, “What’re the first two?”
“A warm bed and a beautiful woman.”
“So, I got the potatoes peeled and Babu, one of the guys I was with, got the steaks going and we were boiling this and that and it was like old music, but instead of hearing it, you could smell it. I imagined you could smell it for miles. I remember joking to Babu, ‘Our enemy gonna smell this all the way in the mountains surrounding us and think to himself, ‘If those Indian’s are eating that well on the front, we’re done for.’’
“In the back of this little restaurant was a big spout hand pump. I was going to wash the potatoes back there. I hauled the basket of peeled potatoes out there when Babu called me back into the kitchen. He wanted to know what kinds of herbs we should be cooking the meat in. Of course I told him we should cook it in all the basil and garlic we could find. So, the potatoes went on the back burner while we tried to rustle up as many fixins for the meat as we could want.
“It was like a treasure hunt".
“So, we get that done and I go back out to wash the potatoes…”
I didn’t even notice that I had stopped talking. Venkat reminded me with, “Then what happened, Ranjit?”
“I went back out to wash the potatoes and there was a man standing there…”
He was a battered soldier… A enemy soldier. His uniform was in tatters; he must’ve been living in the wooded forest for the last week since our forces had moved through the village. I knew he was hungry, he had a raw potato in his mouth and he was devouring it… It took him a moment to notice me. I’d pulled my pistol from my hip, slowly… He didn’t notice until I had it leveled on him.
“If I spoke Urdu I would have asked him if he wanted to stay and eat with us, but the only common language we spoke were the rules of engagement".
“He went for his gun…
“I fired twice and caught him in the chest and guts.”
I swallowed hard.
“Babu came out to see what the gunshots were about. After him, a couple of officers came, too. I think I was in a shock. I couldn’t understand why they were patting me on the back.
“I ended a man’s life. A poor, hungry man who risked death simply to feed himself and I’d killed him in cold-blood. And I was getting a pat on the back. It didn’t—doesn’t—make sense.”
It still hurts.
I close my eyes.
“Please, don’t tell Mom or Dad.”