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BURNT TO A CRISP

BURNT TO A CRISP

10 mins 8.9K 10 mins 8.9K

“Mummy, I am hungry.” is the constant refrain heard at home on all days. The clamor for more food, tasty snacks increase whenever the climate becomes inclement. Even Major. Shraddha’s husband, a fitness freak, Lt Col. Vinod would start asking for good, old and tasty traditional snacks. Digestive biscuits be damned, onion pakoras and chiwda would rule the roost.

Major. Shraddha, was in the kitchen of her new house. Serving the Indian Army and her nation as a doctor, with her infantry officer husband, a veteran of many insurgency operations – Lt Col. Vinod, they had recently moved into their temporary accommodation in one of the small cantonments, that dot the North Indian countryside.

Shraddha tried to avoid feeding bakery products or packaged foodstuffs, and aided by her cook, she would contrive to create tasty and healthy food for her sons. Their school had sent a message in the beginning of the academic year, to avoid ready- to-eat/packaged food, instead to give the children, plenty of fresh fruits and green vegetables.

She made great efforts at baking and providing tasty, sumptuous meals in spite of her busy schedule.

Being a holiday, and at home, she was relaxed enough to attempt a different menu for dinner. She had put together the ingredients to make a pineapple cake. Though, her husband had been called away for a special operation in the field area, she had prepared sandwiches, channa and fruit salad for dinner. She planned to make hot puris, for the kids in the evening. However intermittently, she was called by the hospital in regard to the patients admitted under her care.

Her husband was on duty with another Army unit, in the same cantonment. Cordon and search operations were going on in a thickly populated part of the small town, near the cantonment they were living in. The unit had moved under the cover of darkness, the previous night, after getting last minute information regarding the movements and crossing over, of a huge gang of terrorists from across the border.

The unit had almost tracked down the location of the hidden terrorists. But none were sighted. With the curfew on, the daylight had aided in searching. The terrorists had apparently created a warren of hidden passages under the houses, from where they moved easily as soon as the army personnel entered that street.

Exhausted and tired, Lt Col. Vinod was leading the troops, through rabbit holes of houses and streets. The food rations had been exhausted in the morning. Waiting was a nail biting experience, and they were all tense.

On reaching the mid-section of the row, they decided to sit it out in a house. They were constantly monitoring the outside and the ends of the roads from the viewing spot.

The residents of the house did not seem scared or even worried. They appeared to accept their fate in calmness. Though they had been complaining that the soldiers had dirtied their rooms, they were not in a position to drive them out. The sun was slowly setting; the chill was creeping into the bones.

The family members of the house had started a discussion; it seemed that the head of the family, Imran, a middle aged man was instructing his wife, Naseem, to prepare food for the “guests” and she was refusing to do so.

Imran, walked up to Lt Col. Vinod and spoke to him in a mixture of English and Dogri, “It’s my son, Jawad’s fifth birthday, today. My family wants to celebrate the occasion, I want to send my wife, Naseem, to the oven house to make some food- naan and curry, I want Jawad, to feel that he has had enjoyable birthday, it’s in your hands, kindly permit her to go and make some food for all of you and make some food.”

Hearing this, Lt Col. Vinod was reminded of his own sons, and agreed to allow the lady to cook a special meal for her young child. After all, the higher authorities had told the Army officers, repeatedly, to maintain cordial relations and a softer approach with the local population.

To be on the safer side, he sent his junior commissioned officer, along with Naseem into the kitchen. There was a huge oven, which the locals used for baking bread. The houses in the street shared the oven. The oven stood in the centre of the village and could be accessed by all. Since the whole street had been taken over the previous night by the army men, the oven had not been lit.

Aided by her husband, Naseem mixed the dough for bread and also marinated the meat which had been procured the previous day.

With the risen dough and marinated meat in her wicker basket, Naseem moved to the oven house.

Earlier Imran, had walked across to the oven house and started the fire, stacking logs of wood and sawdust, under the oven. The JCO accompanying Naseem had kept an eagle eye through the window on Imran, but he had been instructed to stay with Naseem, so he decided to walk by her to the oven. Just when they were reaching the oven house, a loud shot was heard and a bullet pierced the JCO’s leg. He fell over, bleeding and in pain. Seeing this, Naseem screamed and ran back into her house.

Hearing the commotion, Lt Col. Vinod led his soldiers out of the house to secure their comrade and locate the shooter. They encircled the fallen soldier, aiming at the surrounding houses and the rooftops searching for the shooter who had hit their buddy. They pulled their wounded man to safety.

Meanwhile, the other soldiers fanned out to all the houses located on either side of the oven house. The ladies in the row were making an eerie howling sound, transcending all the walls. The soldiers were banging open the doors and asking the people inside to surrender the hidden snipers. The children added to the commotion by squalling and crying. They seemed genuinely frightened, of the sudden movements and activities in the street.

Back at home, Shraddha was baking the pineapple cake in her oven and had got her sons and their friends around the living room; they were playing on the X-box. A wonderful smell of vanilla and pineapple permeated the living room. A few kids were playing football in the garden.

Suddenly, Shraddha heard the ambulance siren, “Oh my god! Not now!” she thought. She picked up her mobile and called the hospital.

“Good evening madam”, her nursing assistant said, “Yes we have a casualty- a burns case of 70% is being airlifted from Tehramulla, civilian casualty. A JCO too has been shot in the chest. Madam, please do come at once, the transport will be at your doorstep any time now.”

Shraddha ran to her bedroom, changed into her working clothes and went to the door; the jeep reached just as she stepped out. The kids came running to her, she told them, “There is an urgent call from the hospital-darlings, I shall be back in an hour, keep playing and I will fix you dinner when I return.”

She got into the vehicle beside the driver, and he sped across the colony with the sirens blaring. As they were reaching the hospital, the helicopter descended in the helicopter pad nearby. The patients were shifted from the air ambulance, to another one which sped across the road and was brought into the emergency area. Shraddha activated the emergency response team. The nursing assistants, transferred the patients from the vehicle, to the stretchers and moved them swiftly into the hospital-burns ward and the Operation theatre. Shraddha injected the burns patient with morphine, and examined his burns. Oh! it was awful! He had been burnt badly indeed!

She instructed the junior doctors, to start the dressing and moved to the operation theatre, to retrieve the bullet from the chest of the injured JCO.

In Tehramulla, Lt Col. Vinod and his men were boarding their vehicles. Their search and cordon exercise had been successful! Initially, they had been despondent, their search for the terrorists in the houses on either side of the oven house are seemed futile. And the locals were making a racket, almost impossible for them to hear any other noise.

Lt Col. Vinod knew it was a strategy of the locals, to divert attention and hide any unseemly noises;it helped the hidden terrorists to escape without being discovered by the soldiers.

While the search was going on, suddenly an eerie sound was heard, like a banshee wailing- the door to the oven house flew open and a man on fire ran out, his hair and clothes were on fire, he was screaming in pain.

To remain hidden, this man had climbed inside the giant oven in the oven house and hidden there. It was to protect him, that his partner had shot the soldier approaching the oven house, along with the local lady. He had not known that the wood oven was going to be used that night, and that Imran would start the fire underneath the giant oven.

When the flames had leapt into the main compartment of the oven, his clothes and hair had caught fire, his shouts had been unheeded, it had been overpowered by the racket his compatriots in the street had been making. He had had no choice, but to try and open the door which had been a difficult job. Finally, he had thrown it open-perhaps it was too late. He ran out, screaming for help. He had been literally burnt to a crisp in the oven.

Lt Col. Vinod and his men ran to cover the burning body, with a thick blanket they grabbed from one of the locals. Swathing him up in the blanket, Lt Col. Vinod rolled him on the ground. The poor guy, had been burnt badly. Another soldier wasted no time in radioing ahead for the helicopter ambulance, to airlift the poor chap to the nearest hospital. Meanwhile some soldiers, traced the sniper who had shot their comrade, they disarmed him and bundled him into their waiting vehicle, to take to their unit for further interrogation and information.

Having done all they could for the wounded terrorist, two soldiers knelt quietly, close to their fallen comrade and checked his pulse. Surprise! surprise! There was a feeble pulse beating; they created a temporary stretcher-for their man and for the terrorist. With alacrity, both were taken to an open area, where a helicopter could land and transport them to the nearest field hospital.

The helicopter’s whirring sound was heard after twenty minutes. The men stood out in the open looking upwards, it was nearly five in the evening, and a few minutes of day light were left. Soon they sighted the whirly bird at a distance.

The men hailed the helicopter, using a white and red flag. It landed in the open field with a thud, stirring up a huge cloud of dust. The men moved with the stretchers, one after the other into the helicopter. After securing the wounded men inside the helicopter, they quickly debarked, leaving the injured to the care of the nursing assistants and the doctor in the helicopter.

They moved to the vehicles, a four-tonner and the major’s jeep.They climbed into their vehicles, and began their journey home to the safe confines of the cantonment. As always, the men were quiet, deep in thought, dirty and tired, covered with grime and blackened on contact with the burnt terrorist. Still they were thanking God, for a safe return once again.

After covering a distance of eighty kilometers, in a couple of hours, Lt Col. Vinod saw his house at a distance, warm, lit up by lights. Music and laughter was heard, even from outside. Life goes on, the sound indicated even when you leave a site of gory and death.

He walked in to shouts of “Papa aah gaye!”(Daddy’s come!)

His younger son ran to him and hugged him, the elder one swiftly embraced him from the back, shouting “Papa paps!”

Shraddha came out, whisking a wet towel in the air, she was stunned to see her husband-all dark and covered with soot, but then she too had black smudges on her face and hands.

She was transfixed-her husband raised his eyebrows – a silent question-“What happened?”

She replied quietly-“The cake got burnt to a crisp, I forgot to put the timer on, and had left to attend to a burns case and a bullet injury in the hospital.”

Lt Col. Vinod walked to his wife, with his younger son in his arms, with his other hand, he encased her with one hand and said, “Jhaley hain tho kya hua-zinda hain na khane ke liye!”(No matter it is burnt we are alive to eat it.)


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