Vantage point

Saturday, December 14, 2002

Here, read this -

I don�t know why I am writing all this today. It will probably never be published in the newspaper anyway. This is not the cold-fact type copy that they like us to file. This deals with emotions. And we reporters are supposed to be above emotions. The objectivity is further enhanced by the belief that we pretty much know all there is to know about human nature and nothing could truly shock us. However sometimes we experience things in our life that radically alter such beliefs. These are the times when we meet people with such remarkable personalities that it leaves one wondering if God broke the mould when he created this mind. This is the story of one such personality.

I met Vimal as I was on a routine visit to Camp X in March this year to collect some information about a recent attack in the region. Now Camp X is not its real name, but that is how I will refer to this Indian Army camp somewhere in Jammu and Kashmir. I had been waiting outside the Colonel�s office tent waiting for him to come and brief me about the terrorist activities. Now, the Colonel and I had a kind of a rapport and we discussed many things other than the work-related stuff. During one such conversation, he had told me about his obsession with roses. He had a beautiful rose garden just outside his office which always sported a very fresh look. What surprised me was that tending to the roses in the garden was a young man who obviously was not a Kashmiri, and who was not dressed in a way that some might associate with a gardener in India. I thought of calling out to him and asking him something about himself, when I saw the Colonel hurrying towards the office.

�Sorry to keep you waiting, Fazal� said the Colonel as he led me into the tent. Tea was sent for and he started telling me about the latest attack. A jeep carrying 4 soldiers had been attacked by 2 men with assault rifles. Both men were killed, but a jawaan lost his life in the process. The two men looked Kashmiri but apparently were not from any of the surrounding villages. They were probably Pakistanis in search of shahadat (martyrdom) in the Colonel�s opinion.

�Colonel, what makes these boys embrace shahadat so eagerly? Why do they want to waste their lives like this?� I asked.

�They are either driven by the cause or extremely religious, Fazal� the Colonel tried to explain.

�Yes, I guess that is the difference between us and the normal Pakistani today. There, youngsters can still be brainwashed into laying their lives down for a cause which is futile and meaningless. We Indians are not na�ve enough to die for somebody else�s idea of justice.� I said.

�That is true. I don�t think any civilian in India would do this. We are not insecure, nor are we stupid.�

This discussion was interrupted by a phone call, following which the Colonel started talking about some other details of the attack. He had to then rush out again and he shook my hand warmly as he was leaving, inviting me to visit them soon. Suddenly I remembered something else I wanted to ask him.

�Colonel, who is that well dressed man taking care of your roses?� I asked.

�Oh him, he is Vimal. Well, he is the biggest pain I�ve had in the wrong place in ages. One of the most difficult situations I have faced.�

I was puzzled. The Colonel elaborated about Vimal and I was amazed as I heard what he was telling me. Vimal was a 28-year old software engineer. When he was younger, he had tried to get into the army, but had been rejected due to his myopia. Vimal had always wanted to be in the defence forces and had worked very hard for it. However when he could not get through, he forgot about it and became a software engineer. However after working in the industry for 6 years, he realised that something was amiss. He wanted to experience army life.

That is what brought Vimal to Camp X. He had shown up on a chilly afternoon in the last week of December last year.

He told an officer at the gate �I am here because I think I was born to serve the country�s army. If you think I am not good enough to lead or fight, consider me an odd jobs boy, a cook, anything. Just let me be a part of this.�

The officer had brusquely laughed him off. But Vimal refused to leave. He waited outside the camp for days in the biting cold, praying that he be let to meet the Colonel. Finally someone took pity on him as they took a shivering Vimal to a confused Colonel.

�Who are you? What exactly do you want?� the Colonel quizzed him.

Vimal said he just wanted to help, in whatever way possible. He had worked in software and earned a decent amount of money during the dotcom boom, so he did not need any money in exchange for his work. He just wanted to be a part of the Camp for some time. It could be a period as short as a month or a year. Vimal told the Colonel about his failed efforts to get into the army as a soldier or an officer in his early days. He begged the Colonel to let him stay since without this, his life would be incomplete.

Now having some new person work on the camp without any background check is a big security hazard, but the Colonel trusted his judgement. He said he would let Vimal do small odd jobs in the Camp under the condition that Vimal stayed outside the camp during the night. Vimal agreed. Since then Vimal had been sincerely working for the Indian army in Camp X. He was rarely told any strategically important work. He usually helped the cook in the mess, cleaned vehicles or worked in the Colonel�s rose garden. He was of course thoroughly frisked before he entered and left the camp.

Vimal was on oddity in the camp, dressed in imported jeans and shiny shoes. He used to stay with an old man in the village and paid him quite a hefty amount as rent. Initially the soldiers were taken aback by the Colonel�s decision to give a civilian free access to the Camp. But sooner or later everyone become convinced of how earnest and truthful Vimal was. I was convinced too.

I spoke to him for a long time about his education, his job, and his decision to leave it all, like some modern day Gautam Buddha. He seemed to hail from an affluent family in Bangalore and he said his family was not really happy with his decision. However they believed it was a temporary thing and he would be back soon. Vimal however smiled and told me that they were going to be disappointed. It was not temporary, and this was his life now.

At this point, I felt like something was missing from the Vimal story. No, I did not think he was a terrorist working under cover or a spy for some other country. He seemed like an honest patriotic fellow. But I still couldn�t help wondering what was missing. The jigsaw was not complete.

I left that day and didn�t return to Camp X for a few weeks. I had been sent to Chandigarh for a while and was also doing lesser field work. The next time I met Vimal was in the summer, just after the Kaluchak attack in which the families of many army-men were slain by terrorists. I walked into the camp after being frisked at the gate, and I saw Vimal talking to someone near the Colonel�s tent. There was a great deal of discussion going on between that man and Vimal, from what I could see. The man�s back was towards me and I could not see his face. All I saw was Vimal�s animated face trying to make a point. Now wanting to intrude, I did not go closer to them.

However when the man turned to go, I recognized him instantly. I knew him! I had met him in Delhi 3 years ago under very different circumstances. What did this man have to do with Vimal? The man was hurrying towards the back entrance and was out of the camp before I could realise it. Vimal stood transfixed. I went near him and asked him.

�Are you OK?� I asked.

�Yeah I am fine� he replied rubbing his forehead with his hands.

�Who was that man?� my next query..

�That�s my father.�

And suddenly the last piece of the jigsaw became visible to me. I realised what was the reason behind Vimals� strange resolution. If the man was who I thought it was, and if he was Vimal�s father, then things became a lot easier. I wondered if I should tell the Colonel what I had discovered by accident.

to be continued