Fascinated by the respect the uniform commands and the urge to be one of those strong types, I joined the National Cadets Corps in my first year of college.
I was not too sure which of the three wings to choose -- the Army, Navy or the Air Force? I dreamt of flying with the birds and taking to the waters like a dolphin. But in the end I stuck to the ground.
Initially it was an appalling experience, of having to wear that heavy uniform and parade in the sun and perspire. I wanted to run away. But I also wanted to see how much more I could endure.
I got used to the parades after a while. And my love for the uniform increased as young officers driving in open jeeps went past me. I would blush, thinking how I would look in their place. At times I would frown at the security guards where I lived who wore similar uniforms. It was a disgrace, an insult to the uniform!
What I most liked about NCC was it gave me the freedom to travel, to remain away from home for days together a thing I would never have been allowed otherwise.
When the first camp was announced, I knew I would go for it and I knew that meant a scene at home. But it was a girls' camp -- safe and secure! -- and my parents were finally convinced.
At the camp, there was not as much freedom to move around as I expected. But there was compensation: I had company, the company of 700 girls from different states, speaking different languages, with different cultures and food habits. Language was no barrier. Even though we did not always understand each other, we learnt a lot from each other. It was camaraderie at its best.
I distinctly remember Puspa. She taught me the Bihu dance. She was delicate as a flower and moved with the poise of a princess. She had flawless features and an ever-smiling face.
I do not know why she took a great liking to me. She insisted on being with me though we were in different groups and were assigned rooms on different floors.
She told me about her family in the hills, about her college, her friends back home in Assam. She spoke in bits of Hindi, and English, which she was not comfortable with. One night while talking about an old friend of hers, I saw her eyes misting. She did not continue with the topic.
The next day I was asked to accompany the officer of our camp to a village nearby. Puspa was sleeping. So I left a note by her pillow, saying I would be back by evening.
The village was dusty and smelled of cow dung. The officer was there to meet the village chief, and arrange for us cadets to stay there for a day and night. I interpreted when needed, as I was fluent in English and Gujarati.
We inspected the houses where we were to stay and returned to the camp. It was evening by then. As I was hungry, I headed straight to the mess. I ate hastily and returned to the officer, who wanted me to help her with planning the logistics for the next day.
When I reached my room, I was surprised to see Puspa sitting still in a corner while the others slept. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
I took her to the terrace, where we sat in silence for some time. Was I the reason why she was crying? She said no. The silence continued. Then she broke into tears once again and told me of the friend about whom she had started to speak the night before. About how he came and went from her life like a whirlwind. She said she did not want to be too close to anyone, be it a man or woman. She said she could not bear separation. I tried to convince her we would remain friends.
The next day, a group of 250 girls went to the village. Puspa came along. We did all the possible chores a village woman does in the course of a day: dusting, cleaning, washing clothes, carrying hay, feeding and milking the cattle...
We ate traditional meals. Bajri da rotlas tasted better than pizzas after all the hard work. And in the evening, the villagers organized garba, the traditional Gujarati dance.
During the day, I went to see Puspa once. She was enjoying the village environment and that endearing smile played on her lips. I was content to see her happy.
Then the last night of the camp arrived. None of us slept. We exchanged our addresses and kept chatting. The camp had ended so fast. We didn't want to leave. Many started crying.
I was feeling a little awkward in the silence that remained between Puspa and me as we sat on the terrace. She did not speak a word after dinner. She kept weeping.
Next morning, as she was about to leave, she clung to me. I did not know what to do. Then she gave me a hug and said, "Don't you dare forget me" and turned away.
At the gate, she turned around said: Come to Assam. I smiled and she left.
For the next few years, she wrote to me regularly. She learnt Hindi to write to me. I replied, sometimes promptly, sometimes weeks after I received her mail.
I moved to a different city and did not hear from her anymore. One day while going through my belongings, I came across one of her old letters. On an impulse I wrote to her. She wrote back, enclosing a ticket to Assam.
I returned the ticket. But I am going to visit her at the end of this month. I hope she's still the same.