Posted by on Feb 11, 2012 in Short Story, Uncategorized | 0 comments

I met Navrang Patil in a BSF camp in North Bengal. “ Ehan baqaida achha khana banta hai,” (good food is made here following the rules of cooking ) quipped Patil as he took me into their make-shift thatched kitchen. His zest for life was infectious and the smell of fresh chapatis entered my nostrils and stirred up my appetite. Life at the camp was hard, as hard as the brown edges of the earthen oven.
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The hardened edges of the oven. The men were hardened too, living on the edge all the time. Patil showed me a ten-by-ten pit dug on earth and protected by another two-feet-deep moat. “We lie here at night when on duty,” he said. This was a device to keep the snakes away, I was told.

But that Assistant Commandant of the BSF slogging away at the remote border outpost at Gobrabil must have been more interested in the stars last night while he lay on that square piece of earth. Snakes were far from his mind. The arrangement of the stars were like those cone-shaped pillars marking the border – so angled that if you followed the indicated direction , you could be sure of reaching the next pillar. The earth was dark. So was the sky. The pillars of the Bangla border were calling the stars. The pillars on earth served a purpose – of alienating people. The stars served no purpose, or did they?

People on both sides of the border lived like brothers speaking the same language, eating the same rice and stealing each other’s cattle. The boys had an easy task most of the time. They fired in the air. The blank fires destroyed the peace but only for a while. What pained Navrang most was that they never touched the people’s lives.
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The earth was fertile on both sides of the border. Navrang was more a foreigner there than those people on the other side of the border. He spoke a little Bengali but disliked rice. He liked the villagers. His enthusiasm for everything around him impressed his peers. The new recruits looked upon him as demi-god. They appreciated the fire within him.

The misery of the villagers appalled Navrang. Whenever he entered the villages, leaving his jeep in open fields in search of eggs or the odd chicken, naked children swarmed over his jeep like hungry ants attacking a morsel of mithai. Too many people and too little room, he thought; far too many than in his native village. There’s poverty over there too, but this was worse. This was hell. The filth, the dirt, the thick black mud, the stench.

The fire within the man swelled. He was telling me that only the previous year, the small neighbouring village was destroyed by fire before his eyes. “We could rescue all the villagers except a poor bewa,”said Navrang. She was caught in the blaze.

Navrang knew the old woman well. Amina was her name. But her neighbours called her ‘bewa’ since she was a widow. She had none to look after her. She had a few hens and sold eggs to the jawans. What intrigued Patil most was that the woman’s son died in fighting somewhere in Leh. “My son never returned,” the old lady once wept to him. She showed him too a faded telegraphic message from the border.

As the fire engulfed the village and spread rapidly Navrang stood helpless. It didn’t rain for quite some months and the ponds dried out. The straw roofs were blazing and the huts collapsed one after the other. When the fire subsided the charred remains of the old widow were found in one corner of her narrow verandah near the mud oven. Perhaps she was preparing her mid-day meal, Navrang thought. What remained of the village then were meaningless black square earthen blocks – traces of the foundations in places where the huts were once. Some women wailed in one corner. The men, bare-chested and wearing lungis, stood with grim faces, trying to take in the sordid reality. Five months’ hard labour went in vain. Only the granaries, now black mounds of nonsense stood like phantoms to recount the harsh tale. The charred remains bestirred Navrang. “Had I been a big oven, I could have held all the fire within me relieving their agony,” Navrang told me.

I knew that night after night Navrang watched the stars with sleepless eyes because he had nothing else to do. Perhaps he looked at those luminous fiery objects for far too long. A few months later on a hot and blazy May afternoon as the sun spit fire, I accidentally came across Navrang on a Siliguri-bound train. I couldn’t recognise him at first. He asked for the matchbox. And as he lighted the cigarette, something within me leapt up. I looked for that missing sparkle in his eyes. “I have left my job for good,” he said. “What was I doing there? Only blank fire, meaningless fire!”

My head burnt. The lonely BSF officer sat in front of me, limp and lifeless. His long fingers quivered on his knees. Where was the fire within? Or did the fire consume him, I thought. Perhaps the fighter in Navrang couldn’t control the fire.