The Soldier (Sipahi)
It is hard to travel alone in the hills. I had to walk for two or three days, but I met up with a soldier on the way who made the journey pass easily.
First he asked me, “Hey, young man, where are you headed?” shouting rudely at me from behind in a familiar tone. I turned to look back and saw a soldier in uniform coming up quickly with short, fast strides. I remembered the many things I had heard about the rough, cruel nature of military men and so I simply replied, “Ilam,” in the hope that this would shake him off’. But by then he had already caught up with me.
“Aha!” he said casually, and as he grinned a gold tooth glittered, “I’m on my way there too. Now we shall keep each other company all day, shall we not, my brother?”
He wore a black coat, an army cap, and khaki trousers. In his coat pocket there glittered the clip of a cheap fountain pen. A Queen Anne watch was strapped to his wrist and was visible whenever he lifted his arm—he had a habit of raising his hands as he spoke. Around his throat he had tied a large red kerchief.
“I’m a soldier, but you, if the Lord does not deceive me, must be a student. Am I right?”
I smiled and confirmed that this was true.
“I can always tell who a person is, and what he does, from the clothes he wears and the way he speaks. I swear I’ve never been mistaken, at least in this. I can’t really read or write. Well, I can sign my name each month and get through the Ramayana: that much I’ve learned in the barracks. But if I’d studied any harder I’d have turned out thin and pale, like you!”
I began to enjoy his talk. He spoke with familiarity to everyone we met on the path, saying, “Where are you off to then?”
People were nervous of his military appearance and gave him no reply. On encountering an older woman, he would address her as “mother-in-law” and enquire after the well-being of her daughters: “How is your little girl? Tell me won’t you, oh mother-in-law of whom I’m so fond?”
He had no wish to know about me. He didn’t have enough time to tell me everything about himself, so how could he even inquire?
“I’m stationed at Quetta. I’ve been there a long time. I do have a wife, but she’s back here in the hills, and she’s sickly and good for nothing. But we’ve had two children, all the same. I haven’t been home for ages, and I don’t even want to go either. She’ll have gone off with someone else by now, and my sons will have turned into rogues. Well, the little one seemed bright enough and I really hoped to educate him. But who could be bothered? My father didn’t educate me, and I’m quite content. I found myself a wife in Quetta, too. Wherever you go you should have what you want.”
I was really enjoying listening to the soldier because he spoke openly and concealed nothing from me. What was there for him to hide, anyway? Like the serious student I was, I asked, “But what is life in the army like for you people?”
“What’s that you say? I swear to you, you know, we don’t have the problems you have. Even our officer tells us to enjoy ourselves; he was the one who gave me leave to come here. Recently, there’s been talk of war, and so I’ve come to train new recruits. I’ve already caught six, and that’s the truth. If you become a soldier, you get to rinse out your mouth with milk. You get to keep the goat’s horns as your trophy. I’m hardly trapping them; I’m doing them a favor. Our country’s in need of soldiers.” He puffed out cigarette smoke. “If you die in battle, you go straight to Heaven.” His face was as grave as that of a man reciting from the scriptures.
The journey was passing by easily because of his interesting talk. Some girls were on their way home from cutting fodder, and they were coming toward us. The soldier winked and said, “Wait now, I’ll tease them.” He went ahead and greeted them and then said something to them that I couldn’t hear. They all clucked their tongues in disgust and hurried away, but one threw her load of grass down onto the ground right there. With her hands on her hips and her whole body shaking, she cursed him roundly and showed him her teeth. My soldier friend laughed, clutching his stomach, and turned to me and declared, “What a fearsome woman! I’m sure she curses her husband like this. I’d swear to it, you know!”
So we walked on together. “It’s very hard to understand these girls. Once, one of them got me in her clutches. Yes …. “he sighed. Then he looked as stern as a stone statue, and his legs moved like automatic machines. Straight up ahead, the yellow sun was sinking behind a hill. With great curiosity, I asked, “Well, what happened?”
“Yes, as I was saying. 1, too, loved a girl once; I don’t know how it happened. I had spent a lot of time laughing and playing with her and then one day, a Sunday, I found myself beginning to love her. That day was my day off, and as soon as it got dark I hurried to her house.” He began to pant. “That day, she was wearing a blue gown, the wretch. She looked very pretty that day.”
Just then we began to climb steeply. “Wait, I’ll go and buy a couple of sugarcanes. Going uphill is easier if you’ve a stick to lean on, and when you get to the top you can suck it and it refreshes you. Isn’t that a good idea?” He went off and returned with two sugarcanes. Giving one to me, he went on talking, “But that girl really deceived me. She went off with a captain. Her pretty clothes attracted him, but I assure you she won’t stick with that old captain. She enjoys flitting around, that pretty girl.” A light breeze swept his last sentence away.
I was pondering over this and I made no comment. Seeing me quiet,
he laughed, “I bet you a bottle of raksi you’re thinking about your’ wife. Aren’t you now? Tell me the truth!…”
I didn’t answer him. Then after a while, I said, “Tell me, brother soldier, how do you go into battle? All the bombs, bullets, death—I can’t even imagine such a dreadful thing.”
He laughed scornfully and slapped me on the shoulder, “It’s no place for a soft man like you. But I swear to you, I enjoy myself in battle.”
Talking like this, we came to a place where we could spend the night. There were still two hours of daylight left, but the hills to the west had already covered the sun, and darkness was falling quickly to the, sound of cascading waters.
“Now I can’t go on,” I said. “It’s time to look for somewhere to stay.”
“Don’t worry about that. I know every stone here; it’s where my forefathers came from. Come, I’ll take you to a shop; I know the old woman who owns it. There was a time when men sat all around her, my father among them. Her shop did very well then. But nowadays no one even casts her a glance from a blind eye. I swear to you, if it wasn’t for her daughter, I wouldn’t go there now either.”
As he spoke we came to the shop. It was old and built of timber that had rotted in the rains. The front of the building had subsided, and so people had to stoop down before they could enter.
We went inside. The smoke that filled the room made the pale light of a solitary oil lamp even dimmer. And because my eyes were heavy with fatigue, the scene inside seemed almost unreal. Two hillsmen were drinking tea and eating pieces of stale old bread. They talked loudly and slapped the table from time to time. I saw a fire burning in one corner, with a teakettle placed above it: this was the cause of the smoke. To one side, there was an odd, shelved cupboard with a broken glass front. Inside it I could see an old Lily biscuit tin, an empty box that had contained orange pekoe tea, and a few glasses. A fat old woman sat with her elbows on the table, listening intently to the men’s conversation. Occasionally, she would say a few words, and from time to time she laughed out loud.
The soldier entered the room ahead of me, and as soon as she saw him the woman stood up. Looking him up and down, she said, “Hey, what are you doing here? Have you lost your way?”
“No, I’m not lost! Where’s that daughter of yours?” Waving his hands, he began to pace up and down as if he owned the place.
“She’s out, but she’s due home soon. I thought you had forgotten us.”
At that moment, a plumpish young woman came into the room and said carelessly, “Let him forget! Why should anyone spare a thought for us?” She wore a dirty print skirt and the black smudge of her cheeks was visible, even through the gloom. Above her skirt, a piece of dirty cloth was tied around her waist. She was not especially pretty, but no doubt she had the natural attractiveness of youth.
When he saw her, the soldier skipped over to her. “Oh, you won’t believe me, but it’s you that draws me back here again. Who could possibly forget you? As soon as ! arrived, I asked your mother about you. And then you turned up in person. Tell me, what oath should I swear?”
“Enough, enough! Don’t say anything more. You say a lot of things when you’re in my sight, but afterward…” She went into another small room and the soldier hurried after her. Inside that room, she lit a lamp and lay down on a mat. The soldier sat down in the doorway and began to talk.
“Tell me then,” she said, “what have you brought for me?”
I was feeling drowsy, so I paid little attention to their conversation. But they were still talking much later on, even when everyone else had eaten and gone to bed. The woman told him to bring her a framed Indian mirror when he returned next time. The soldier replied that he wouldn’t just bring her a mirror but a dress as well, made from twenty hands of printed cotton. I was tired and I quickly fell fast asleep.
Early the next morning, the soldier shook me awake. There were still two hours to go before sunrise, and it was very cold outside. A chilly wind blew down between the ranges, and the sound of the river nearby was loud. No one else was up, and the cocks had just begun to crow. The hills all around were dark and silent and treeless because it became very cold in that place. I got up, rubbing my eyes.
“Little master,” said the soldier, “I bid you farewell. We go different ways from here.” He shook me by the shoulders until they hurt. I felt quite sorry; I had begun to grow fond of him, but he cared for no one. He strode off down his path, I stood there watching him go.
Many times I have seen stone memorials to soldiers killed in battle. But this was the only chance I ever had to meet a soldier in the flesh.
(from B. Koirala  1968; also included in Katha Kusum  1981)
Taken from Himalayan voices By Michael James Hutt.