The War Is here
The letter burns like hot coals against my bottom. Why couldn’t I have just waited?
As soon as she leaves the room, I slowly lift myself off of my bed and reach below the covers to grab my letter. I rip it open with all my might, prayers hanging loosely from my lips.
I already know what it is but I’m hoping I’m wrong. I’m hoping there’s a mistake. I’m hoping someone else’s name is written on the inside. I’m hoping it’s a ‘How are you?’ card. I’m hoping for anything apart from a deployment letter.
Here’s how it is, I am a CFN in the army. I have 11 months of work and one month off- if I were speaking loosely that is. I’ve never come home on the same months for leave. My wife has seen more surprises than our soldiers do on the battlefield. I live for the times I can hear her squeal when the first thing she sees is my bag on the concrete patio whilst I pay off my auto driver outside the gate.
Today is day 14 of my one month leave. It is 1962 and guess what? Hell has broken lose- We are at war.
I read the letter again. And again. I’m mindlessly reading the words without fully absorbing when and where I have to be. But as I’m reading it, a recent memory crops up.
The vegetable vendor opposite the temple had said something. He was yelling something that sounded ….. Chinese. I press the letter against my forehead and think back, was he talking about the war? What was it? Had she heard it? If she did, she’s already expecting this letter. What was it?
Standing there, trying to remember something from the recent past, I’m suddenly aware of my heart beating. My carotids beg for release and my temples and fingertips and my eyelids are all making themselves known. Little beads of perspiration dot my forehead and nose. My lips are quivering.
Another holiday celebrated through writing letters?
The last time there was a war, I was getting married. The last time there was a war, I had left my newly wed wife at home and gone to the borders, not knowing if I’d come back. I remember the night I left.
She was standing by the gate, our relatives by the door. A young girl of 22 with a very petite frame. Although she had very striking features, that particular night her features blended with the dark as she stood with her head bent low.
We didn’t know each other then. I had seen her a couple of times before and turned away. And as for her side of the story, she knew I was a rich landlord’s son. She was the second of nine kids, a mature school teacher with a smart mouth. Yet, our first conversation was barely a minute long and there we were being set up for a lifetime.
As I stood looking at this stranger’s face the night I first left as a husband, a feeling of despair washed over me. I’ve only ever felt that twice before in my life. The night my mother breathed her last and the afternoon that my radio shrieked my best friends name, a call to pay last respects.
But as my new wife and I stood, separated by a rusting iron gate, under a stream of silver moonlight, that strong feeling returned. I hated it. Not knowing what one does, I left.
I left her without a goodbye. I left her without a look back. I left her without a promise of my return.
Today, years from then, I stand with another deployment letter in hand. That same almost alien feeling stirs inside of me.
My eyes fall on the Christmas card by her sindhur box on the dresser. My stomach churns but I make a bee line towards it. I pick up the card and look at her lovely face. She’s adorned with gold jewellery. The time that we had gotten married, gold was scarce and no one was selling or buying.
In the mantap, I had a wife next to me with little to almost no gold on her wedding day. Being someone that never cared for it since I grew up with seven brothers and two sisters, of which my two sisters were 8 and 10, I didn’t know a girl had to have gold on her wedding day. Later on in the night, I had overheard my aunties by the sink talking about how bare my new wife looked. I stayed for the entire conversation against my will.
In my monthly letters to this new acquaintance I was supposed to spend the rest of my life with, I’d write and promise her that I would bring gold to make up for the day she couldn’t wear any.
I see now, in the Christmas card, she’s picked out her favourite pieces. I smile and put my letter below the card. Atop the two, I close her sindhur box and use it as weight.
I dress up for my everyday walk to the temple and walk out before she can see it or we’d have to address the situation. It’s best this way. We deal with it ourselves before our goodbyes.
As I’m rounding the corner to the temple, before I can see the vegetable vendor, I hear him. He’s still screaming at the top of his lungs
‘Zhou Enlai bye bye’
The war is here.
Author’s note: This post is in reference with the Indo-China war of 1962 and a little story inspired from a couple I know from a tiny town called Vijarpet, Coorg.