“Baba, I’m going home for lunch”, Gopi gave this clarion-call to his father Jaidev who was sitting in the March sun and enjoying the play cards with others in the street. Jaidev who had spent most part of his life in this street as a shopkeeper now was a little bit unburdened since his only son Gopi had grown up enough to take care of the shop. The only duty Jaidev is expected to perform nowadays is to open the shop in the morning before Gopi comes from home, and once again take care of the shop counter at lunch time when Gopi goes home for lunch and brings his father’s meal on his way back from home. After taking his lunch, Jaidev usually takes a nap before he rejoins his playmates in the street. Now when Gopi summoned him, he knew at once what he was to do. He left the company of card players and came to the counter of his shop. Gopi took the tiffin-box from under the counter and left for home. While Jaidev was adjusting himself to attend to an expected customer, Qutabi, his long-time next-shop neighbour called out, “Jaidev, did you read today’s paper? The police killed three terrorists hiding in a house in Beghumpur. Many houses too were gutted. Four civilians were also killed in the encounter.”
“Yes, I read it. Brother, these terrorists have made our life a living hell. All business is virtually dead. We hardly have customers even in the peak season. The only ones we have are the local poor folk coming for bare essentials. No tourist now turns up in our valley. Only because of these terrorists. They even have made the routine life full of miseries. I wish these terrorists be hounded till the last like mad dogs.” Jaidev became agitated while saying so and he banged the counter with his trembling fist.
“You are right, Jaidev. But why should innocent civilians suffer in this fight between the police and the terrorists. Why can’t the government come out open-heartedly and talk to these people about their grievances. It seems both of the parties are fighting each other out blindly and furiously like buffaloes. I doubt the death of civilians serve any purpose there. But ironically it is the civilians who suffer the most”, said Qutabi sulkily.
“Bhai Qutabi, this is the price of peace. This country is our mother and she demands blood and sacrifice from her children. Someone has to pay it. This time the people of Beghumpur paid it.” Jaidev unfolded his wisdom. “Moreover, the Chief Minister Sahib himself visited that village and announced compensation. In the circumstances like ours, what else better can be done?” After sometime, Gopi returned and put the tiffin on the counter for his father. Jaidev took it into a corner, opened it and swallowed his meal. Soon afterwards he, instead of taking a nap, joined his playmates in the street. Gopi utilized this opportunity to stretch himself on the counter itself for a quick nap because no customer was expected at that time. Gopi was a bit tired too because of his late night sessions with his friends. Since he has become the father of a son and started thinking himself old enough to ignore his own father’s dictates, he has started staying out late into night. Whenever his wife tried to scare him in the name of his father, he has not hesitated in lifting his hand on her. Very soon she was made silent. Nobody told Jaidev explicitly about Gopi’s recent adventures. Nonetheless, his experienced eyes sensed the trouble in the house. Indirectly he tried to persuade Gopi to mend his ways but to no avail. Nowadays Jaidev is on the lookout for an opportunity to talk to his son on this matter. After all, he knows where such habits can lead a family to. He does not want to take any more risk now. Whenever he begins to think like this, the innocent faces of his daughter-in-law and his grandson begin to float before his eyes.
At seven in the evening, Gopi left the shop as usual to go for dinner. Earlier Jaidev too used to go home by nine for the night. But since burglars had broken into shops and the police lay clueless, he and some other shopkeepers decided to stay back in their shops during the night as well. Gopi would stay at home but supply him his supper by nine at night. Evening time was the busiest one for a shopkeeper like Jaidev. Obviously, Jaidev was busy with customers today also. When he noticed the wall-clock, it was quarter to ten already. And Gopi was still nowhere. Jaidev worried—Gopi must have drunk again and quarreled with his wife Santosh. He thought of going home. But he could not move. Qutabi who had also begun to stay back at shop for the night understood Jaidev’s dilemma. He brought his own tiffin there in Jaidev’s shop and offered him to share supper with him. After the initial inhibition, Jaidev ate with Qutabi. They talked about stray issues for a while and then went to bed. Jaidev lay on his bed thinking—“Gopi is going beyond limits. I must do something; otherwise it will be too late. I’ll talk to him in the morning”. Then in an attempt to deceive his doubting conscience, he shut his eyes.
At last, the day began its much delayed routine. Shutters were thrown open; counters were pushed forward; streets were swept and sprinkled over with fresh waters; incenses were kindled; prayers were chanted with one eye on the deity while the other on the street for the customers. But Jaidev’s both eyes were looking for Gopi only. Still he did not turn up even after seven o’clock his usual time every morning. At last, the worried old man left the shop under Qutabi’s charge and after a few steps in the street disappeared in the smoke rising from the smouldering garbage. While approaching the home he was getting angrier at Gopi’s negligence of his duty towards the family. He turned into his lane to find the front door of his home still closed. He feared Gopi might have fought bitterly with Santosh at night, and that is why she had not risen from bed out of her anger. He knocked at the door. Nobody opened it. He knocked again and put his ear to the door to listen to any movement inside. But nothing stirred up. He knocked the third time. This time the door opened slowly. But there was nobody in front of him. He realized immediately it must be his grandson Somu who usually played such tricks with his grandfather: He would open the gate and hide himself behind one of the doors only to scare the old man. Presently Jaidev forgot about his son and his deeds. There flickered a faint smile on his face. He stepped inside, closed the door behind him and suddenly turned back to surprise Somu. . . but Somu was not there. Instead a gunman with covered face put his gun on Jaidev neck and ordered him to go in without making any mischief. When Jaidev was pushed inside the small courtyard, he found two other gunmen taking breakfast there in front of the kitchen. Santosh was serving them. Gopi and Somu were tied to the pillar near the kitchen. It was more than enough for Jaidev to sense what calamity his family was face to face with. He looked at Somu who was hanging half conscious against the pillar. Gopi was bleeding near his right cheek. Santosh was terrified. One of the gunmen tried to assure Jaidev threateningly that no harm would be done to his family if he did as directed. They were to stay there before they move to their destination at night.
The air was still and tense attending painfully to the housewife’s agitated handling of kitchenware. The gunmen asked her to serve breakfast to the old man too. Santosh brought a platter for him. But he did not even touch it. However it was of little concern for the gunmen. Suddenly a siren resounded in the street. Perhaps nobody but Somu lost time to interpret the message encoded in that sound. To deprive everybody the benefit of doubt a loudspeaker echoed the Army’s command to the hiding terrorists to surrender or face the consequences. The house was surrounded by the Salvation Army from all directions and it was impatient to attack it. After some deliberation the terrorists decided to send the old Jaidev to mediate in this matter. The door opened, Jaidev stepped out and it closed behind him immediately. He found his hopes lying dressed up in front of him in the street. Obviously he did not turn back. Rather with his hands up in the air he moved towards a glittering young Commander. Tens of his soldiers had taken position on the ground and in the windows of the neighbouring houses. Jaidev entreated the Commander to let the terrorists escape safely from his home; otherwise they will kill all his family members. But the Commander was dutifully determined. Without listening to Jaidev’s piteous pleas, he began to count One . . . Two . . . Three . . . . . . Seven . . . . and Ten. Without waiting for another second, he commanded: ‘FIRE’. His brave men opened the mouths of their deadly firearms and showered bullets on the house from all sides. Bullets began to come out of the windows of the house also. Amidst this shootout, the house caught fire. After some time the front door opened. One by one five human bodies rushed out with hands up in the air and simply got killed. Now one way firing was vying with the burning house.
Getting satisfied with the display of their skill at shooting or having run out of ammunition, nobody knew, they ceased the firing and entered the gutted house. They searched the hothouse threadbare but found nothing except a charred sprout near the pillar. The Salvation Army collected the dead bodies as its trophy and left the venue with flying colours. People came out from their houses on the street to wait for the official announcements of rewards, promotions and compensation. Jaidev moved towards his house, gathered some ash in his hands and looked at it. His tears began to flow into the ash in his hands. It was the earth, his motherland—now soaked in tears, perhaps waiting to be sown afresh. Was Jaidev ready for it?