An old soldier  

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Anuradha Kumar

What do old soldiers do, when too old, too weak, tired to just fight any more? Well they just retire on a handsome pension, live out happily the rest of their lives with their families in a modestly furnished flat in the suburbs, walk their dogs out, join the local clubs, in short live a life of perfect contentment. But Sudarshan was an old soldier who refused to live by these rules.

He hopped around with great agility on his one leg, watching the children at play, who pointedly ignored him. He hung around with a hangdog expression around Kaveri Bai's vegetable stall, smiling blandly at her rough banter. He would harangue and argue bitterly with the other shopkeepers over how prices were shooting up, in short he did everything to get himself noticed; though most people privately thought he was making a nuisance of himself.

He occupied the lower wing of an old lighthouse that like Sudarshan, had long outlived its usefulness. But he felt completely at ease in the dimly lit, cobweb-covered room, where the light simmered in through a skylight, so high that Sudarshan had had a special rod made to open and close it with. Everyday he would sweep away the dust that had gathered in this barrel-shaped room that had been his home since he was 'honourably' discharged from the army, after the war. Then he would hobble towards the well, and with swift, supple motions of his once-powerful arms, he would pull up the bucket, and in a similar motion, he would pour it all over himself - never once wincing however, cold the weather could be. Then he would spend the next half-hour or so, before the mirror, and his wardrobe, for Sudarshan was very keen to appear correct. Kaveri Bai, despite her busy hours, rummaging amidst the vegetables and shouting her answers at the many questions hurled at her by passing customers, always had a comment to make on Sudarshan's attire. And so, despite the other shopkeepers nudging their elbows towards one another and surreptitiously following their conversation even as they attended to their customers, Sudarshan and Kaveri Bai followed what had with the passing years, become a time-honoured routine. His hoarse cough to draw her attention, the critical way she looked over him, a veiled remark or a lazy drawl depending on her present state of mind; and the shopkeepers whispering sotto voce amongst themselves - "Is he going to propose to her today?"

And Sudarshan would try hard not to blush. He would stand his ground for a few minutes, trying hard to control his shaking rage, and then unable to hold back any longer,  he would hobble away, his back standing stiffly back, Kaveri Bai's harsh words as she subjected the evil tongues to the cutting lash of her harsh tongue following him even as he rounded the corner.

As he stood before the mirror every morning, Sudarshan would enact the scene again, but with favourable interventions of his own performance. He would see himself mouth angry words back at the idling grinning shopkeepers, that would wipe away for ever the pasty smile off their faces. Then he would turn towards Kaveri Bai, watch her blush and coyly seek to move her face within the folds of her sari and ask her," Well, woman, why don't we get married today?"

Indeed, Sudarshan wanted to marry her more than anything else in the world. From the hoarse rattling of his breath as he drew up the bucket every morning, from his breathless pants as he swept away the cobwebs and the roaches that arrived every day in fresh batches, he knew he needed a gentler, firmer hand around. And who better than Kaveri Bai?

Every day he started out on his daily jaunts to the bazaar determined to pop the question. He would tell himself the words over and over again but the smirks of all he passed, as they tried their best to maintain a straight face; the uneven cobbled, path that neatly divided the bazaar - the grocers on one side, and the clothiers on the other that made him hobble more pitifully on his thin wooden cane, and the unblinking stare that Kaveri Bai subjected him to, smothered all the words that dried at the tip of his tongue.

But the day came when Sudarshan made extra efforts over his whole appearance. His bath done, Sudarshan had carefully brushed out his moustache, making sure it curled around firmly around the edges. He then painstakingly arranged the few remaining wisps of hair carefully over his ever-expanding bronze pate and only when he had made perfectly sure that his tie matched effectively with the elaborate cravat he tucked into his neck, did he know that he was ready for the day.

He knew the look Kaveri Bai would have on her face as she took in his appearance with a piercing glance of her raven-shrewd eyes. "Oho, Sudarshan Babu, today is a special occasion, I wonder what it could be?"

And they would both hear the barely softened whisper of Kalu mama, the butcher, and "It's the anniversary of the day his wife left him

The smothered laughter that followed was interrupted  by another remark from somewhere to his left, he knew it would probably be Shankar, the fruit seller, "No, re, today he is going to be awarded by the president for his heroism in the war."

A gale of laughter would waft around him, but Sudarshan saw himself rise to the occasion. He would stand erect, his chest swelling up with noticeable pride, he would cough loudly to ensure everyone's eyes were on him and then he would announce in a rich deep baritone, "Today, happens to be my birthday."

Once he had smilingly accepted everyone's wishes, he would notice Kaveri Bai standing by herself in the corner, smiling shyly into the corner of her sari. He would hobble towards her, trying to hide his eagerness and then he would see what it was she hid, that made her stomach look suddenly big. She would show him the pearly white bouncy cauliflower she had hidden there for a surprise and say," I saved this for you , on your special day."

He would bestow his special smile at her, the one that had once made the girls swoon all over him at the annual army ball, and then say in the softest whisper, "Why don't you cook up something special for me?"

And over dinner at home, a rich meal of muttonchops and cauliflower stew and fragrant biryani, he would propose, she would stammer and finally say yes and then he would jump for joy and scoop her in his arms.

Sudarshan paused when he came to that part of his story. He looked down at his one leg, shrugged and realized that he was halfway down the familiar cobbled path towards Kaveri Bai's stall. They were all standing up now, looking at him speechlessly, Shankar allowing his mouth to fall open unselfconsciously but Sudarshan knew he had steeled himself to all this.

He saw Kaveri Bai, her face streaked a beetroot red, and having made his way to her, he announced in a high, thin voice, for he knew he was actually very nervous, "Kaveri Bai, its my birthday, I am fifty nine today."

He waited for her reaction and then the bazaar erupted with a huge explosion of laughter. They all crowded around him, thumping him on the back none too gently. Then they were singing "Happy birthday, soldier boy in a high-pitched falsetto voice that made him shiver in apprehension, for he knew that he could expect something worse to follow.

p. 2

This copy is posted as it was received. It has not been edited by TLM

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