rediff.com columnist Dilip D'Souza was awarded the first prize in the recent Outlook/Picador nonfiction competition for this essay:
Part I: Ride across the river
Of Sikka, I knew only his cousin, who suggested that on one of my Srinagar trips, I might go see where he had died. Well, I also knew the village nearest where the bomb went off, Sangrama in Baramulla district, and the name of his unit. Armed with this much, my plan was simple: head for Baramulla and ask.
The road beyond the three-way junction arrows across placid Kashmiri plains, through stands of trees and past fields of grain. Not my idea of scenic, so I close my eyes again and doze. Awake some indeterminate time later, look out groggily to note we are speeding through a little chai-shop town called... Sangrama. I croak to the driver, stop here stop here I want to get off!
Over biscuits I begin asking. Anyone know this man, he died in a blast around here a few years ago? Blank faces from the chai man, the STD owner, the CRPF post, the cloth seller. Soon, I realise my best option is to find my way to his unit, another 5 or 6 km down the road. A crowded minibus drops me there. Some searching questions, a patdown and a longish wait in a shed later, I'm in. I'm talking to a young major whose name isn't his name.
Here's my first clue to what it's like to be a soldier here: you don't use your real name. You don't say where your home is, your family is. For there have been times when the phone has rung in such homes and spewed threats at frightened wives and kids. It's only when the major and his friend, a younger captain, are persuaded that I am merely an itinerant writer, that I want to know something about a man still revered here -- only then do they relax and tell me about assumed names and homes. And their real names and homes.
Though by now I'm not sure what's real and what isn't.
"Oh yes, Abhimanyu Sikka," the major begins. "Yeah, I came here after his time, but I know about him. Our unit holds an Abhimanyu Sikka Memorial Cricket Tournament here every year, where local teams participate. You see, he was famous in this area, most of all among civilians. They had a name for him. Boba. In Kashmiri, that's 'mother.'"
No mere story. Talking to a local youth later that afternoon on the road outside, I ask if he knew Sikka. "Of course. Tall guy, nice guy. We all called him Boba."
I'm beginning to sense that Sikka was an unusual sort. In this place, this calling, that is almost defined by violence and virility, this man had qualities of caring enough that he was called "mother". It's not unheard of: In far-off Tamil Nadu, there is a temple to Tayumanavar ("He who became a mother too"), Shiva in the form of a mother come to help her daughter in need. In Maharashtra, the poet-saint Dnyaneshwar is often called "Dnyanoba mauli", "mother" again, for his gentle teachings on religion and philosophy. There are those venerated traditions, yes. But that a tough modern soldier, of all people, gets a name like that? He must have been unusual.
"In my CO's office," says the major, "you'll find a picture of Abhimanyu. Next to it is another picture. Those are the bastards who killed him, after we killed them. That shot, we call it 'Abhimanyu Sikka Revenged.'"
The major invites me to join him and a few other officers for lunch, typically delicious army fare. Beside me is the young captain. A smile plays on his lips as we talk about his profession. "It's hard work, sure. But you sleep at night with the satisfaction that you're doing what you were trained for." He smacks a fist into the other palm. "When we go after a terrorist, it's like the hunter and the hunted, you know?"
The look on his face is, by now, nearly wistful; the smile almost bittersweet. Like you might reminisce about first love, this athletic young man gets misty-eyed about what he does every day. "The thrill of hunting, you know? And then we shoot the fucker down."
He repeats: "Nothing like that satisfaction. Nothing like it."
I can't eat much. The food is good, I am hungry, I like this young man, I'm conscious of his sincerity, his passion, his spirit. You might say, his patriotism. But suddenly, I can't eat much.
We're on an arrow-straight road again. Another major, another assumed name, takes me another few kilometres to 'Abhimanyu Post' that he now commands, successor to Sikka. There's a picture of Sikka on the wall in the office, my first look at the man I've been tracking all day. Boba wore glasses, I note. After tea, the major and I stroll out of the post. On either side of us are smart soldiers with guns, looking this way and that in wide-eyed trigger alert, protection detail for the two of us. But protection from whom? The people they are themselves charged with protecting?
We walk below tall shady trees to the footbridge that his men built across the trickling river behind the post. This is the most tangible memorial to Sikka, this bridge named after him. A slender, spare structure that, if you want to get to the other side, saves a long walk.
Sikka himself, the major tells me, pointing, used to roam those low slopes across the river. Every day, just him and one or two men, open and frank, meeting civilians and listening to them, getting to know them. He was a fine soldier -- I remember another one, the captain with the wistful hunter's gleam -- and he saw this outreach to civilians as a vital part of his job. He did it well. He showed he cared. That's why Boba was so loved by people here.
A bridge to that other side: in this place of all places, it's a fine metaphor, and it has me humming lines from Dire Straits:
I'm a soldier of freedom in the army of man.
We are the chosen, we're the partisan.
The cause it is noble and the cause it is just;
We are ready to pay with our lives if we must.
Gonna ride across the river, deep and wide,
Ride across the river to the other side ...
What was Abhimanyu Sikka's river, I wonder. The one that trails past below the bridge? The one that runs between a soldier's life of battle and tension and killing, and the less fraught lives the rest of us lead? The one between soldiering and reaching out to the people you soldier for? The gulf that says people not like us are stupid suspect monsters, merely for being not like us?
This man they called Boba crossed those rivers, deep and wide.
And I've travelled a long way in search of something called patriotism. In Kashmir, as I've heard stories and ridden the buses and drunk my chai, my own ideas of it have taken flight to places unknown, and that's been my real journey in this sometimes beautiful, always tragic land. But here where Boba roamed, from the hints I've had of this man's life, I think I'm beginning to understand. Understand him, understand what he says to me, and even understand Dire Straits' Ride Across the River for the first time.
You reach out to the other guy, you ride across your river to the other side -- and you know what your country really means to you. You know what patriotism means to you. And so on this trip, as I pass a bike that leans against a tree, holding my breath, I know I've journeyed as far as I'm going to. It's time now to go home.
Beside the Major Sikka Memorial Bridge, a plaque carries his name, as also the new major's name -- which isn't his name. In Boba country, when you die for your country, you get your name back.