Since her husband departed Fatima had braced herself for the loneliness that was to come. She didn’t complain about it—she knew that it was hers alone. Old photo albums, letters, gifts, prayers—these were mute companions that helped her move on from one sunrise to the next.
One such time, as she sat looking through some old photos, Haider her first born and a colonel in the Indian army, stood behind her peering over her shoulder. Fatima passed her fingers over a black and white picture of her sister, Nilofer.
Niloo had demeaned the family by marrying an actor. The family had vehemently disapproved of the alliance and cut off all ties with her. Since Niloo’s husband Faiz was a Pakistani, she migrated to Pakistan. Even when she had written to Fatima upon reaching Pakistan, the latter had been too angry to reply. This had happened several decades ago and no one had cared to keep contact with the couple.
“Niloo aunty?” asked Haider. Fatima nodded.
She had told her children about Niloo so that they would always remember to uphold family honor.
“Haider, can you take me to meet her?”
“Ammi what’s wrong? Aren’t you happy here?”
“No I’m very happy, but I miss Niloo. Who knows how many years I have?”
Haider was a gentle and affectionate son and Fatima loved him dearly. She had cried when he told her that he had been selected to join the Indian military academy. But she got used to the idea and was even proud of his being in the army. As he turned to leave the room, Fatima offered a silent prayer for his well-being.
Haider managed to secure some vacation time but it took a lot of running around to get clearance from the ministry of defense. He made reservations aboard the “Samjhauta Express” to take them to Pakistan. Literally meaning “train of compromise,” the name sounded somewhat hollow in the face of the severe hostilities between the two countries. Yet the train did carry Fatima and Haider to the “other side” for a compromise between the estranged sisters.
It was quite a task to track down Niloo and Faiz as Fatima only had sketchy details of their whereabouts from the only tattered letter that she had written. After five days of running around, Haider returned to the hotel and told Fatima that he’d finally traced her sister. Tears rolled down Fatima’s cheeks.
“Ammi I hope these are tears of joy,” said Haider hugging his mother.
“You know Haider when one is young, one sees life through a veil. But when one becomes old and looks back, everything looks different because then there is no veil and things become clear.”
“Maybe Ammi, I don’t know. I’ll have to wait to grow old I suppose.”
“You know, when Niloo married Faiz I was furious with her. Family, society honor—these, I believed, were ideals to die for. But now I look back and find them to be mere words. I lost my sister to them.”
“Ammi … if you want to be with your sister, you’ll have to start packing right away,” said Haider in an effort to distract his mother from painful memories.
Not long after, Fatima and her son were at their destination. Ever since her wedding day Fatima had not felt so many butterflies in her stomach as she did when Haider asked her to ring the doorbell of her sister’s house. A tall, lean man with closely cropped hair and a bushy moustache opened the door. He wore a pathan suit that hung loosely on him.
“Yes?” the man looked quizzically at the mother and son. And Fatima rattled off in one breath, “I’m Fatima, this is my son, Haider. We have come from India to meet my sister Nilofer and her husband Faiz. Do they live here?”
“Fatima aunty?” the man at the door looked in disbelief.
“Yes,” said Haider.
“I’m … I’m … Ammi … Fatima Aunty has come from India to meet you,” the man was in complete confusion.
A younger version of Fatima walked slowly into the room, with absolute disbelief on her face, like her son. She was shaking uncontrollably. Words were lost for sometime; they were not required anyway. The sisters were locked in an embrace, tears wetting each other’s shoulders. And finally when the emotions settled down, introductions were made.
Niloo and Faiz had a son and three daughters. It was Niloo’s son Nasir who had opened the door. He was a major in the Pakistan army. Niloo’s daughters were married and well settled. During the next couple of days Nasir and Haider sat for hours discussing politics, army, family etc.
As for Niloo and Fatima, they unfurled years of childhood and separation in conversations that were as long as the nights. This catching up with each other’s lives kept going for almost a week until late one night, around 1.30 a.m., Faiz first heard the doorbell and then the door rattle. Nasir, too, must have heard it at the same time because both father and son reached the door at the same time. Five men in combat uniforms stood outside.
“Yes?” Nasir asked.
“I’m Lt. Shaukat Rizvi sir. Is Col. Haider Khan of the Indian army staying with you sir?
“Yes, he’s my first cousin and is here to visit us.”
“I’m sorry sir, I have orders to arrest you both. You for giving him shelter and him for being under the suspicion of spying,” the lieutenant looked apologetic.
“What? That’s ridiculous!” said Nasir in disbelief.
Meanwhile Haider had woken up and was standing behind Nasir with Fatima and Niloo besides him. They all heard the young lieutenant.
“Allah … Haider what’s all this about? Why … oh Haider,” Fatima clung to her son.
“Ammi don’t worry. Everything will be all right,” Haider had been apprised of this possibility by the ministry of defense. As a rule army officers are not allowed to travel to an enemy country but an exception was made in Haider’s case as he had close relatives there.
“Nasir, let’s go to the headquarters and find out the details,” said Haider calmly. He did not want his mother and aunt to become more upset.
“Ammi we’ll be back soon,” said Nasir as they left with the soldiers.
But that was not to be. Nasir was kept under custody for three nights and eventually let go with a warning, after an intervention from his commanding officer. As for Haider, he had no one to plead for him in this alien land. Nasir’s plea fell on deaf ears. As luck would have it, a flag meeting was scheduled to be held soon. In a flag meeting every few weeks, officers from both countries hold a conference at the border. Nasir was ordered to attend the conference. After the conference, while everyone was having tea, Nasir got engaged in conversation with an officer from the Indian army and stealthily told him about Haider. He gave him details of Haider’s regiment and unit. The surprised officer assured him that he would report the matter to the Indian army.
Meanwhile Faiz had a difficult time consoling the sisters, each blaming herself for what had befallen Haider.
After two weeks in prison, Haider was released. Word had got to his unit. The Indian government had lashed out at the Pakistan army through the media, pressurizing the Pakistan government to release the innocent officer. As the world looked on, the government had no choice but to release the “prisoner.” Two weeks after his arrest, an unshaved, disheveled and lean Haider returned home.
“We are going back tomorrow,” said Fatima, scared and guilty for her son’s condition. Two days later mother and son bid farewell. Tears flowed shamelessly; the sisters were parting again. Not many words were required; they would be inadequate.
“May Allah protect you Fatima. Write to me.”
“This time I will, Niloo,” Fatima had made samjhauta with her sister.
One year after Fatima had visited her sister, war broke out in Kargil.
It started in the early days of May, when patrols sent into the mountains started disappearing, indicating that something was amiss. An infantry unit was ordered to evict the intruders, with reports of only 8-10 of them being there. The troops had to climb Tololing, a naked mountain at 16000ft., which had no cover. Besides the temperature was a freezing 10-11 degrees. The Pakistanis had stealthily built bunkers with iron girders and corrugated roofs over a period of time and had accumulated there in large numbers. Due to the hostile terrain the Indians could not get a view of the Pakistani activity from their positions.
“Operation Vijay” was launched on May 26. Plans and strategies were drawn and 90 volunteers led by Col. Haider Khan were assembled for the first real assault. Khan’s unit had a 115-year long history of valor. Their tradition did not allow them to come back defeated from the battlefield. Havalder Yashvir Singh said to Khan, “sahib jitne hain utne hi lautenge.” Letters were written and kept ready to be delivered to the families in case they did not make it.
The H hour was 1830 hrs. June 12.
Col. Haider Khan led his men to the war cry, “Raja Ram Chandra ki jai.” A fierce battle ensued, which ended with soldiers from both sides engaged in hand-to-hand combat.
“Haider,” cried a feeble voice.
“Nasir?” Haider could not believe his eyes. He had not recognized Nasir as the latter was well camouflaged. But it was too late. One of Haider’s soldiers had swiftly embedded a knife between Nasir’s ribs. He fell muttering “Pakistan zindabad.” Haider was numb. But he had a war to fight and win.
At 4:10 a.m. the wireless crackled the news that Tololing was won. But it was at a heavy cost, with two officers and seven jawans killed that night; Havaldar Yashvir Singh was amongst them. The war went on for almost three months from 26 May to 18 July, with both sides suffering heavy casualties.
In the history of independent India the battle of Kargil will be remembered as the fiercest and most valiant operations conducted by the army. “Operation Vijay” will be written in gold in the annals of history. For his sustained display of most conspicuous bravery and leadership of the highest order, Col. Haider Khan was awarded the Param Vir Chakra.
But soon after Kargil, Haider sent in his papers and resigned. “I’ve had enough of killing Ammi. I’m tired now and need to rest,” he told his mother. Perhaps he was growing old, he thought, because the words from his academy days seemed to have lost their intensity: the safety, honor and welfare of your country come first; always and every time. He felt that fighting could only shed blood, not solve problems. He would not use blood to wipe off problems anymore. Perhaps the veil had gone up and he could see clearly now.
Fatima shuddered, on one hand she’d lost a nephew and on the other her son had returned safely from the war. “Poor Niloo,” she thought. “She’s lost her only son.” She began writing a letter several times, but she could not get beyond the first line; she wasn’t sure what the right words were. She was afraid that Niloo would misconstrue her words.
Fatima didn’t write to Niloo, but silently grieved for her loss. She immersed herself in prayer despite all of Haider’s efforts to draw her out.
The Samjhauta Express was stopped when the Kargil war broke out and there seemed little hope of it being started again. Fatima knew she would never see Niloo again but the desire would not abate. It burned, it hurt, it weakened her till it threatened to consume her. And then Niloo’s letter came.
Dear Fatima apa,
I hope that by the grace of Allah you are in good health. Nasir’s death has left me shattered. I understand how much it must have affected you and why you were unable to write to me. But apa Allah is the lord and master, he has the right to give and take at his will. We are helpless in matters of death and birth.
More than any time in my life, this is the time that I have missed you the most. I now understand what it means to lose a loved one; I understand your anger, which arose from your immense love for me, when I chose to marry Faiz and come away to Pakistan. Allah has punished me by taking away Nasir and making me feel the same way as you had felt when I left you.
But I promise that if life does not desert me soon I will come home to you my dear sister. Till then I pray to Allah to protect you,
The next morning Haider found his mother still tucked in bed as he had left her the previous night, with the letter pressed close to her chest. After many days a heavenly peace had replaced the ashen look that she’d been wearing since the war.