RAM RAM SHAAB!
(A real life story, loosely based on a true incident that my Father, an ex infantry man, narrated to me many years ago. Despite what he shared, I believe, spirits never harm humans).
Read on ….
The storm was coming. I could make out. It was hardly 7:00pm. But the dark thick clouds had already wrapped themselves around the snow peaked mountains surrounding the scenic Tukla valley in East Sikkim. The dark, cold night was deadly quiet. Not a soul was outside except those on duty. They too were stuck to their respective posts.
Our pickets were all in different directions and the closest of them was a little more than a kilometers walk. Owing to the difficult terrain and snow covered path, even on good days, it used to take us almost an hour to reach the Officer’s Mess which was the largest bunker in the area and the most comfortable of all.
The others had already started having their dinner. After all, they had to return to their respective pickets before they got caught in the storm. The Jawans had been ordered to be ready with their powerful torches and accompany each officer. Orders had been directly passed by the CO (commanding officer), to not venture out alone during the night. Especially during stormy weathers. One could easily get lost.
Why isn’t Qureshi here as yet? I thought impatiently.
‘Hey PP, why haven’t you finished your drink yet?’ Major Pratap Singh enquired. He had already finished his soup. I noticed.
‘‘Sir, just coming…, waiting for Captain Qureshi.’ He must be already on his way,’ I replied with a tentative smile.
‘Hmm… Do hurry up. Yours is the furthest,’ he said referring to my picket. He did not seem very pleased.
After all, being the second – in - command, he was responsible for our safety and well being. While I was mulling whether to ditch Qureshi or not and absently sipping my glass of whisky, I saw him walk in.
‘Good evening, sir,’ the booming voice announced Qureshi's arrival to one and all.
‘How are you old chap? And why so late? All OK?’ Major Pratap Singh asked somewhat tersely.
‘Sir, the visibility is extremely low. And the route er…you know is extremely slippery. That slowed me down,’ he responded tentatively. After all, the others had also walked and yet managed to reach on time.
‘Okay, finish your drink fast. And join us,’ Major Singh ordered not wanting to get into an argument with Qureshi.
‘Sure, sir. In a minute,’ Visibly relaxed, he walked towards the small bar where I was waiting for him.
‘Hi PP! Thanks for waiting.’ He almost sounded jovial. I marveled how he managed to keep himself so guilt free.
‘Hell of a day man..! Nothing seems to be going right for me,’ he said softly without a hint of regret in his voice.
‘Hmm, I know. Let’s finish up fast. I don’t want to be on the wrong side with him,’ I said quietly pointing towards Major Pratap Singh who seemed to be already engrossed in his food.
Major Singh did not like his officers to report in late for meals. And Qureshi was invariably the last one to arrive. He had been pointed out the same on several occasions. But to the extreme displeasure of his seniors, had not shown any interest in improving himself. We all knew the matter would go to the CO, Colonel Aman Bajaj, sooner or later. But Qureshi on his part remained unmoved.
‘Oh! You worry too much,’ Qureshi responded with a wave of his hand.
‘You are gone for sure boss! You are in over your head.’ I said trying to instill some fear in him.
Qureshi just shrugged as he ordered his drink. ‘Give me a large one,’ he directed the bar man before turning towards me.
‘Que sera sera...’ He said with a wink as a wicked smile played on his lips.
We quickly finished our dinner. Most of the other Officers had already left. I could see Qureshi was slightly drunk. The old monk, for once, had hit him.
‘Do you want me to come with you tonight?’ I asked him.
'What rubbish! I will be fine. Good night PP. Sweet dreams,’ he smiled looking foolishly at me. I knew it was no use arguing with him in that state. Besides he was in good hands. We parted ways.
The walk back to my bunker would be tough, I knew. The wind was extremely strong and visibility absolutely nil by now. I could not even see my own hands clearly. Not a soul was outside except the sentries in their respective guard points. The whole atmosphere had an eerie feeling.
I wish I could be near the sigri and my warm quilt as soon as possible. I thought to myself as I slowly followed my Sahayek who was leading the way.
The shrill sound of the sentry whistles followed by the sudden switching on of the powerful searchlights piercing through the dense night sky rudely pulled me back to reality.
'Sikander, just see what is the matter?' I asked my Sahayak immediately. He came back in matter of minutes.
'Sir, lagta hai mine field ke paas kuch hua hai. Awaaz wahin se aa rahee hain.' (Sir, it seems like something has happened near the mine field. The voices seem to be coming from that direction). He responded excitedly.
‘What?’ I was alert. This was not at all good news.
‘Let’s go and check,’ I told Sikandar. We hurried as fast as we could towards the area we all knew, was covered with mines. It was a cordoned off area. All the Jawans and Officers were well informed about it. No one was allowed near it at any cost.
I could see the crowd, once I neared the spot. Half of the night sentries on duty were there.
To my surprise I heard Qureshi’s loud voice blasting the night Havaldar on duty.
‘What happened?’ I asked him without preamble, as soon as I reached him.
‘Oh. I am trying to understand that myself,’ he replied looking pale and extremely vexed.
‘I was walking through the mine field! Can you believe that? I was having a nice little bloody walk … towards my death!’ he said excitedly.
‘...I don’t know who was detailed for me today? My own Sahayak was nowhere in sight. And suddenly that weird looking chap appeared…’ Qureshi took a pause here as if trying to recollect the exact chain of events.
‘…he just said, Ram Ram Shaab! Chaliye..., (Salutations Sir, please follow me). I never checked, thinking he must have come for me. The others had left already.’ This was the first time that I saw Qureshi looking so disturbed. It did not suit his personality. He was a fearless man and nothing could destroy his jovial mood. But today it had, I could see.
‘….His torch was quite weak,’ he continued, ‘but I did not pay much heed then and followed him, till I noticed we were not walking on our regular path. And the bloody idiot was walking so fast. Soon the torch light grew faint. Within minutes he just vanished,' Qureshi paused again.
I could make out he was still shaken. But like all the others I did not want him to stop now. All of us needed some answers. We waited for him to finish.
‘It was only,’ he continued quietly, ‘when I heard the whistles and saw the flash lights that I realized; I was in the midst of the bloody mine field. He was planning to get us both killed. Thank God, I heard the whistles and stopped on my track.’ Qureshi ended looking a little less distressed.
The night Havaldar was the first one to break the silence.
‘Saheb but your regular Sahayak is waiting for you at the Mess.’ He informed us that you had left on your own. That is why we switched on the searchlights and spotted you so soon. There was no one else detailed for you,’ he said with a solemn face.
‘Then who was he?’ I asked him looking as baffled as Qureshi.
The Havaldar cleared his throat as if trying to decide whether to go on or not.
You know something Havaldar Sharma? I probed gently.
That was all he needed.
‘…Err…sir, there is a story in these parts that a Gorkha Jawan used to live in a village, not so far from this place. He was killed in a mine blast during the war. From then on, it is rumored that his restless soul guides people into to the mine field and then disappears, leaving them stranded inside it in the dark.’ He ended quietly.
A chill ran down my spine. ‘Hmm.’ I barely managed to nod my head and gave Qureshi a sideway glance who also seemed to have turned into stone.
Qureshi and I decided to go to my bunker for the night after all.
(Even after several attempts, the man who took Captain Qureshi inside the mine field could never be traced).