It was a visual titillation; an emotional treat; and a perceptional thrill, for everyone congregated there. Havildar Gabbar Singh too stood at ease beside the concrete column with a canopy of toughened glass that housed the eternal flame dedicated to martyrs, surveying the parade of fresh recruits preceding their formal conscription into the Indian Army. Twenty two years ago, he had been one among those energetic and earnest youngsters still in their teens. That day had made him gratified and proud. The period that followed leading up to the present had made him wise. Circumspect acceptance had replaced reckless enthusiasm; his awareness of himself had extended beyond his physical self; life offered a new meaning to the exercise of living.
A strange twist of providence had caused Indian filmdom to immortalize his name even before he was born, albeit in a contentious fashion. For a great majority of Indians worldwide, the name 'Gabbar' would bring immediately to mind only the rugged, bearded, and malicious face of a bandit character of a blockbuster movie. While one dictionary listed a number of meanings for this word with negative behavioral connotations, there were a few significations that denoted positive social tendencies as well. As human propensity is generally towards negativity, Gabbar may have been troubled by what people associated his name and hence himself, with. The dawn of wisdom would certainly have expanded the domain of concordance in the context of associativity and diminished the intensity of the umbrage that this apparent anomaly generated. His friendly, calm countenance and gentle voice, when not issuing official orders to his subordinates, too must have contributed to this phenomenon.
The band played the regimental tune, as the recruits marched past the reviewing officer whose visage conveyed general approval of the solemn proceedings that adhered to expected meticulousness. Involuntarily, Gabbar started to mumble the lyrics in an undertone. The inspiring words of the regimental theme song ascribed to a celebrated poet of yesteryears, had always aided him during challenging moments of his occupational pursuits. In fact, these were the very words that spurred him into action on that fateful day while on duty in a militancy infested area of Kashmir Valley. It was the 6th of February 2004, a dark, snowy, and chillingly cold winter evening setting an ominous stage for what was to follow.
A convoy of eighteen army vehicles transporting a contingent of four dozen troops from the theater of action close to the Line of Control, trundled along a narrow weather-beaten road towards the safety of their base camp, that was about fifty kilometers away. Negotiating the damaged roads that the unmerciful climatic conditions dispensed unrelentingly, overwhelming constant attempts by teams of dedicated repairmen to keep the transportation arteries in a usable state, was compounded by the threat of terrorist ambushes from unexpected quarters. The transit routine involved checking every stretch to be traversed for improvised explosive devices embedded along the path. This caused to greatly limit the pace of movement and render it highly arduous and dangerous.
It was during one such investigative pause that the probable threat transformed into a potentially devastating certainty. Terrorists had concealed themselves well at a sharp road-bend among the snow-lined foliage of the thick undergrowth lining the path. As the soldiers completed their explosive-detection-routine and were returning to their vehicles, there was a fusillade of bullets licking their heels. Havildar Gabbar had ventured the farthest and hence was the last to take cover behind the lead vehicle. Though he made it to his intended destination unscathed sprinting backwards, two bullets ricocheted off the vehicle's side and hit him in the stomach. He collapsed. As was his wont in such situations, he involuntarily hummed the regimental tune in an undertone, through clenched teeth, reassuring himself that all will be well soon. The soldiers successfully subdued the challenge from the enemy and rushed their injured colleague to the command hospital.
Gabbar's premonition about his injury, wasn't wrong. There was only an intriguing twist to it. He lay anesthetized on the operating table awaiting surgery to remove the bullets embedded in his body when the doctors concluded that disturbing them will adversely affect his spine, paralyzing him. The only option open to him was to carry the bullets for life and hope they never got dislodged on their own while he lived. He took this medically imposed condition in his stride, thoroughly realizing for the first time, the physical and emotional travails of his late father, an ex-serviceman, who had lost both his legs to frostbite and resulting gangrene in the line of duty in the Himalayan heights. The army supported his recovery, as it always did with anyone of their own. However, Havildar Gabbar Singh was declared unfit for active duty any longer entailing - to his utter disappointment - the greatly diminished probability of further promotions, and of being engaged in assignments involving combat. Even the inspiring words of the regimental theme song could not dispel the depression that overtook him for a time following this incidence.
Being assigned to a benign officer in a capacity equivalent to that of a personal assistant, provided the despondent man just the kind of emotional support that he required to overcome this pessimism. The period of his sentimental recovery witnessed his evaluation of a host of perspectives in the context of his service record, served conditions, claims or denials of responsibilities to actions and consequences.
His friend's point of view on what was due to him from society, the administration, and the institution, would at times appear quite legitimate. The friend's surmise followed one logical line of thought that whether or not Gabbar was involved in a decision making capacity or been confronted face-to-face by the enemy, the fact that he was injured in a recorded encounter made him eligible for a citation at least.
His superior officer, though sympathetic about his enforced disability, reminded him that the conditions of his conscription only ensured certain privileges offered in return for the unquestioning loyalty of the employee. The privileges offered did not include citations for being dutiful.
Though not overly devout, Gabbar nevertheless would periodically seek the advice of the head of a religious grouping at his village. The old headman had told him that destiny directs events and every event happens for a purpose whose consequences none can fathom.
Time expanding his perceptional horizon, Gabbar realized that truth lay hidden somewhere in between these points of view. He had been true to the vow that he had taken long ago and that made him feel sufficiently worthy of being alive. For him, that seemed good enough.