It was all about location. We were between two prime targets, namely the GT Road and the railway line, both of which were main transit lines for military equipment, troops etc to reach the northern borders where the fighting was fiercely on. For some time we were sitting ducks for stray bombs that wouldn’t hit the target. I didn’t know whether I should applaud or cry...a miss was good for the country but bad for us! Then the bombs began to fall farther away from us but closer to the targets, fortunately none caused any major damages.
Mr Major lived one house away from us. I never learnt what his real name was. In fact I wonder if any one even remembered it. He liked to be called Major, which wasn’t his given name, but his rank in the salvation Army. I’m not sure if one ever “retires” from the SA, but he was no longer an active member. He and his wife lived a quiet life in a small white house with a patch of green in front, where flowers grew and a vegetable patch behind, where he grew amazingly huge snake gourds among other veggies. We never communicated with them. But with the war on and security measures being solicited through citizen awareness and participation, Daddy and uncle had to inform the people around our residential area about certain things. Besides strict observance of total black-out, there had also been issued “shoot at sight” orders by the authorities. This was when we got to actually meet with him and his wife.
I remember the day Daddy and uncle returned from a meeting with the officials, in-charge of vigilance, security, law and order. They looked serious and thoughtful. Authority was given to certain citizens to challenge suspicious persons and shoot-at-sight if deemed necessary. Since our home housed a good collection of weapons including the carbine, a semi-automatic rifle, and Daddy and uncle had defence backgrounds this authority, for our area, was given to them. For the first time we saw the rifles coming out for a purpose other than ‘shikaar’. It was unnerving. I watched as the rifles were checked and ammunition was counted and kept out.
“Will you really shoot a man?” I asked my uncle, who was the crack-shot in this family of shikaaris.
“Yes ‘Bina,’ if he doesn’t come clean. In war we shoot the enemy. But you don’t worry your head about it. We’re here and you are safe. Nothing will happen.” He had spoken too soon.
Something did happen.
From then on uncle took up his position every night on the roof of the house with the carbine, and Daddy would patrol the boundary. Grandma would also be with him. She refused to get into the trench even when an air attack was on. Except for one occasion, I never saw either of them in the trench. One night, I heard uncle loudly challenging someone. I rushed out of the house only to be sent back, with stern orders to get inside and stay in. My uncle informed my father and Grandma that there was someone in the field directly behind our rear boundary wall with a lighted cigarette. It seems the glow was very visible in the dark. Daddy also challenged the person but there was no response. Then uncle gave the warning.
“If you don’t come out I’m going to shoot.” There was still no movement or response. As uncle prepared to shoot, Grandma intervened.
“Wait,” shouted Grandma. “Give him a second warning.”
“I’m counting to three, you have been warned.” He began counting.... “One........two.......”
“No,” bellowed a voice. A dark, shadowy figure rose from the field.
“Raise your hands. Who are you?” shouted Daddy, his rifle cocked and ready.
“Get out here you bloody S&*^%#. And keep your hands up,” swore uncle.
By the time Major had walked to a couple of metres from the wall, uncle was down and ready for him.
Major begged and pleaded with both the men who weren’t satisfied with his explanation of what he was doing in the field with a lighted cigarette. Twice uncle lost his cool and raised the rifle. Twice my grandmother asked him to wait and make absolutely sure that he was doing the right thing. Major had said that he had gone to the field to answer the call of nature. This reason fell flat as their house had an attached toilet. He explained this away with the excuse that his wife was in the bathroom and he had an upset tummy. He kept crying and giving all kinds of silly reasons for not answering when challenged. If it hadn’t been for Grandma, he would have been shot that night. But he went home alive. Daddy and uncle were not convinced that he was innocent; Grandma was not convinced that he was guilty. The jury was divided 2:1. She kept telling her sons that rural folk are different from city people. They react differently, think differently and this was a unique situation where one couldn’t expect them to fully comprehend the emergency conditions and the implications of their actions. One should not judge them by a city yardstick she cautioned.
They resumed their positions on the roof and at the boundary wall. The next instant gunshots filled the air as bullets whizzed through the air, barely missing uncle. He retaliated with a few shots. There was a shout and a heavy silence descended. Before anyone could gather their wits, the siren went off and planes zoomed through a night sky that was dotted with red blobs of tracers and sporadic glows of anti-aircraft fire. That was a tense night, the biggest concern being for the security of the family.
We had encountered saboteurs!
When had they landed, where had they landed? Speculation was that it would have been either before Major was spotted in the field or while he was being questioned. Uncle was convinced he had hit one of them. In the morning, a reconnaissance of the place from where the men had fired at us, revealed tracks of four people and signs that someone or something might have been dragged. This incident was reported to the police but nothing about Major was mentioned. He had the benefit of the doubt.
As the events of the night were analysed it became clear that the saboteurs knew where to shoot. They knew that the more dangerous weapon was on the roof. Slowly the truth began to sink in. Later on we were informed anonymously that Major was a non-smoker and his wife wasn’t at home that night he was caught in the field. We were shocked to learn that on a previous night saboteurs had landed quite close to our residential area. But it was too late. Major had disappeared and the house remained closed for a long time.
GT Road........The Grand Trunk Road (commonly abbreviated to GT Road) is one of South Asia's oldest and longest major roads. For several centuries, it has linked the eastern and western regions of the Indian subcontinent, running from Bengal, across north India, into Peshawar in Pakistan. Today the Grand Trunk Road remains a continuum that covers a distance of over 2,500 km Within India, the major portion of the road – the stretch between Kanpur and Kolkata – is known as NH 2 (National Highway - 2), the stretch between Kanpur and Delhi is called NH-91 (National Highway - 91), and that between Delhi and Wagah, at the border with Pakistan, is known as NH-1. Between Delhi to Muzaffarnagar is National Highway 58 which further goes to Dehra doon.
Bina...........uncle called me by this name. He pronounced it with a short vowel sound.