The cold December
Notorious for its chilling winds, the ultimate month has been harsher this time — claiming the lives of our beloved Bipin Rawat and 14 Nagaland civilians
TS Eliot famously wrote that "April is the cruellest month" in the dreary landscape of his Wasteland. Just as one was wondering if summer and November would continue like overstaying guests, December arrived with a whiff of chill in the air that would have made Eliot rewrite his famous words and conclude that indeed December is the cruellest month of all. Even as the festivities of the past few months tapered off to welcome the new season of cheer, suddenly we are left with little to cheer about.
Two tragic incidents in two different corners of the country descended on us much like the cold dreary fog of winter in the first few days of December. The shock of the deaths of 14 civilians and one soldier in a remote district of Nagaland in an alleged case of mistaken identity was still reverberating around us when came the news of a Chopper crash in a foggy and forested gorge somewhere in Tamil Nadu, which claimed the lives of India's senior most Defence officer, his wife and eleven other service personnel.
Winter often mingles joy with sorrow more than any other season. When else can you witness merry-making crowds of young and old alike, dancing and singing their way through streets where the homeless huddle around small bonfires and cardboard shacks, trying to find that extra warmth in tattered sweaters and blankets? In many parts of Delhi, you will see dogs and other pets better-protected than street children against the cold thanks to NGOs and well-off owners.
We all begin life in a leaky boat and there is no plugging the leak, but as we sail on, different, and sometimes hidden hands, provide us the means to cross wave after wave till that last shore where all voyages end. En voyage some boats, like the Titanic, collide with unseen icebergs to bring the journey to an unexpected and untimely end.
The two national tragedies our country has faced with the onset of winter bring to us the fateful certainty that all journeys must end ultimately with the only uncertainty being when and how.
The tragedy in Nagaland is an ongoing one, stitching yet another sad pattern into the patchwork of violence that has long plagued a region living under the shadow of the gun. Having worked there for many years, and indeed belonging to the region, I can only reiterate that if NE insurgency has not been quelled after decades of hard and unforgiving fighting from both sides, it only follows that no amounts of special powers — unbridled or otherwise — given to one party is going to resolve the issue soon. The recent initiatives to frame a peaceful agreement that provides an honourable resolution within the Indian Constitution is the only way forward and we should not allow the guns to speak louder than words. Christmas is a special time for the Northeast, and particularly so for Nagaland. The people from the rest of India must share the sorrow that has descended on the green hills of Mon district, like we do when tragedies nearer home hit us.
As news and images of the helicopter catastrophe in Tamil Nadu emerged on our TV screens, one was once again reminded of the price that our soldiers and their families pay — both in peace and in war. It is not always easy for non-Military families to understand the poise, will, courage and mental strength that these families possess. The tragedy has brought all these qualities for us to see and admire in circumstances no one wanted. Army wives, like their sisters in arms in the Navy and the Air Force, learn early into their initiation to smile and be graceful, converse with equal ease, both in clubs and welfare meets with families of regimental soldiers and all the time be ready for the unthinkable. Unlike civilians, a soldier is always on duty, combating adverse living conditions, long absences from family life, loneliness in remote locations during peace, and of course, trudging the lonely path of war during conflict. Amidst all this, it is the wife who handles and manages the home front. I have memories of my mother undertaking a journey from Agartala to Chail in the 70's with me and my younger brother, all alone, for our admission in the Military school there. For the uninitiated, Agartala lies in the Northeast on the western border of Bangladesh and Chail is near Shimla. It was a long and arduous journey by train and road over a few days but my Mom handled TTs, vendors and bus conductors with an ease and determination which only a life in the rugged army posts of the NE could have provided her. My father fought three wars and one can imagine the courage she and other wives must have gathered around them as they bid farewell to their husbands from the Dogra Regimental Centre in Meerut in 1965. I was barely two years old and my elder brother five years. Earlier in 1962, I was not even born when she saw him off to the front. During 1971 we were living in Delhi and I remember my mother late at night listening to the news as war raged in the eastern front where my father was posted. All four brothers were by that time old enough to understand that a war was on, and dad was in the thick of it. But my mom went about the business of taking care of us as if all was well.
Mrs Rawat came from that tough tribe of army wives who always walk not behind but beside their husbands. Her demise in the crash leaves us wondering that we have perhaps not given due attention to the strong women who live in cantonments fighting the same wars as their soldier husbands. Think of Mrs Lidder as she spoke about Brig Lidder. "...give him a smiling farewell... I am a soldier's wife..."
And the next time you hear the term "Army Brats", recall the Brigadier's teenage daughter remembering him with a maturity and courage most of us will never have.
December has always been a cold month. And now it is cold-hearted as well.
Views expressed are personal