The short story, 'Arms of Comfort' was also ran in Washington Bangla Radio website
“The north east of India should no longer be a playground for Indian army and the self-styled freedom fighters or whatever name they are known today,” chuckled Capt. Devkant Basu as he hung up the telephone.
The land-line telephone calls have minimized to rarity these days so much that the receiver carried some dust on it. Dusting off the black telephone set and the table, he thought it was over 20 years now since he had left Nagaland. “Jantrikata amader grash korchche (The machines and the machine age are eating up all our time),” he remembered his father often saying in chaste Bangla as he was reflecting upon the use of mobile handsets during last 10 years in his life. The land-line phone is hardly in use these days.
Captain Dev, as he was known during regiment days had served with The Hill Rifles, the famous anti-insurgency crack force --- also known as the friend of the hill people. He had given up the military boots after a combing operation around Akuluto region – an insurgents infected pocket in rural Nagaland. The excess committed by his jawans with the latent support of superiors in the force had left him disturbed. He knew, he could not continue in the same force yet again.
Despite being the protectors and friends of the frontiers for over 100 years, he was aghast when his unit had to carry out a series of indiscriminate raids, torturing and intimidating innocent tribals – including embarrassing women and children. His immediate superiors supervising the operation and the government both in the state and in Delhi had given message trying to reinforce that they wanted to allow Akuluto to bleed to teach the supporters of militancy a lesson!
Capt. Dev had since his voluntary retirement taken up several movements for the welfare of the forces personnel and the civilians in states like Manipur, Nagaland and Jammu and Kashmir. But his social work is actually easier said than done.
These days, at least Capt. Dev knew, it has become fashionable to speak about human rights and demand revocation of controversial legislations like the Armed Forces Special Power Act.
Under AFPSA, many think, states like Nagaland and Manipur, reflect a violent society and the armed forces only cannibalizing their role.
There are hundreds of human right activists and as many NGOs these days who make a living by attacking the armed forces and the so called draconian laws that give them unbridled power.
Capt. Dev had always tried to be reasonable while taking up issues and always focused on both sides. Consequently, he is thus disliked by both the camps often -- activists as well as the armed forces. However, he always thought a microscopic section would admire his sincerity and objectivity.
He was getting ready for a visit to Nagaland and neighbouring Manipur in the far off northeast India. The mission will be to enlist on the spot reports so that the civil society leaders in Delhi can argue and take up well the demand for revocation of the Armed Forces Special Power Act. A noted Gandhian from Maharashtra has already announced a front in the national capital in support of the demand. By August 15, the Gandhian has also threatened to sit in a week-long dharna, the sit-in-protest.
The flight was via a brief stopover in Kolkata. As the small Indian Airlines aircraft was about to land in Dimapur airstrip, in close proximity to the Hill Rifles Training Centre complex; his memories flashed about olden days.
He recalled some anecdotes – some friends – some good and a few not so good ones.
One thing he did not like those days was the double standard of the local police. Many a times; Hill Rifles jawans of the intelligence unit would gather volumes of information after working long hours through days, questioning 100 old local suspects and accomplices in and around villages but police would hardly reciprocate on those by arresting members of the banned insurgent group.
The flight to Dimapur was occasionally bumpy due to inclement weather. The sari-clad visibly aging airhostess served him some snacks and coffee.
Suddenly he remembered about his friend Ramola Christine, a police officer with a difference. Unlike many in her department, Christine was sincere and objective. Despite being a local tribal, she did not mix her professional duty with her being a Naga. So was Capt. Dev, a thorough professional.
This mental wavelength had brought them together. They often worked jointly on a few missions and produced successful results.
They also exchanged books along with notes about movement about some top underground leaders.
Within days of their acquaintance, Capt. Dev knew that Christine had a good network of local informers and that often proved vitally helpful for Capt Dev and his unit.
But he has not heard from her for ages. For first few years, since he quit Nagaland and the force, they spoke over phone, exchanged Christmas cards and even once in a blue moon dropped letters. But slowly all faded.
The Naga insurgency and the missions for military men like Capt Dev to crack the spinal cord of militancy, the local population’s support, was like a fertile land --- unexplored in more ways than one!
It was also a murky pond where everyone tried to be fishermen – fishing out of the troubled waters, as the time-tested saying goes.
Besides being a sincere and also a hard worker who could give up weekend breaks for “good assignments”, Christine was also a stubborn sort of lady.
Stubbornness ran deep in her vein, Capt. Dev had told her many times as Christine would often report to him about fights with her bosses – men bosses – in a typical patriarchal society of the Nagas.
But Christine was much of an independent mindset who refused to be slapped into obeisance just because her bosses or the political masters of the day desired so.
Even years after he left Nagaland, Capt Dev knew Ramola Christine was not married. She had written her about adopting a small boy, Dadiram, a Nepali lad – whom she had first hired as a helping hand for her domestic chores.
The thought about Dadiram made Capt Dev slightly optimistic. At least he can help him know more about Christine. But he also did not know much about Dadiram other than his first name and that he was serving as a police informer. Long years after his secondary-level Class X11 – education, Dadiram had employed himself as a police informer, Christine had written to him long back.
Thus, immediately after landing at Dimapur, as he was joined by a former police officer, Limatoshi – the first thing Capt Dev wanted to know was about Dadiram. Some how he thought, to hit upon any discussion all of a sudden about a local woman would not go too well.
Limatoshi was the local representative of Capt Dev’s NGO in Nagaland. He had planned for a week-long tour of interiors of Nagaland where in army operations had been carried out recently even as there have been fierce armed group clashes.
But the talk about Dadiram had left Limatoshi surprised. Personally, he did not know much about Capt Dev. They had interacted twice during seminars and conferences in Delhi. Limatoshi had offered to carry the NGO’s flag in Nagaland and was easily accommodated as regional coordinator.
Limatoshi had heard about Dadiram as a police informer but did not have any information off hand. He requested Capt Dev for sometime and promised to get back to the hotel room with some information by evening.
In his hotel room, Capt Dev dragged out his survey papers from the suitcase, gave them a quick glance and ran through the list of questionnaire quickly.
He also glanced through local news papers and did some stray surfing over his laptop on the internet.
By evening Limatoshi came along into his room with a lanky young man.
He is Dadiram, you were looking for, said Limatoshi thinking he has able to please Capt Dev.
The young man was still giving a curious look at Capt Dev. “I am just an informer Sir …… I don’t know these guys much,” he seemed to cry fearing the stranger but a well-built officer like man could be an intelligence sleuth and could apprehend him.
“Calm down” – ordered Capt Dev and then he turned towards Limatoshi and thanked him profusely for doing a quick job.
To his utter surprise, Capt Dev glanced towards Dadiram yet again and strangely felt the spark of connections with Christine. Nothing is permanent except transition, he read somewhere and that’s the life. Minutes before he was sad, clueless on how to find his lost friend Christine, but the sight of Dadiram gave him hopes.
He was unmindful and even clueless to an extent about what was going on in the minds of Dadiram and even Limatoshi.
To squeeze out some moments of privacy with Dadiram, Capt Dev than handed over his survey related papers to Limatoshi and also a dairy. “Please study these papers carefully; we have to start some interviews by tomorrow morning itself. I want you to be well versed with our project,” he told Limatoshi.
Within minutes, Capt Dev was alone in the room with Dadiram even as the latter was extremely baffled and looked clueless.
Capt Dev looked healthier and obviously better-fed and more happy than Dadiram though the Captain knew he had nothing much to cheer about in personal life. Dadiram was apparently in one of his best outfits – a neatly ironed pair of jeans and a brown open-necked shirt. But his shoes were dusty and the material a bad substitute for leather. Informers, as everywhere, must not be paid well, Capt Dev thought for a while.
From his vast experience, he knew that life for most police and military informers was often dreadful and how they still discharged their duties and generally remained law abiding.
“So Dadiram….,” Capt Dev threw up his right hand to shake hands with him.
“Yes sir,” he said rather sheepishly shaking the hands with the shy of a timid man still not sure of himself.
“Kab sey yeh kar rahe ho (Since when you are providing information to police)? asked Capt Dev.
“Quite a few years now sir,” he chuckled.
“What about Ramola Christine? Where’s she?” the question came a shocker for Dadiram. He was virtually sweating, more in surprise than fear – thought Capt Dev.
He repeated the question again.
The reply had left Capt Dev shell-shocked.
It is for last 6 years, Christine is in jail convicted of indiscipline while in uniform and also a co-accused in murder of two senior police officers.
“How could she do it ….,” he screamed.
“You are right sir…. She has been framed,” asserted Dadiram, a more confident man now as if for long he has been wanting for someone who too would believe that Ramola Christine was innocent and say it openly.
Dadiram then said he could arrange a meeting for Capt Dev with Christine. She would like it; he said adding that Christine has not met many friends for long.
“I have heard a lot about you from her,” Dadiram said before leaving the room and promising to arrange the meeting at the earliest.
The next morning Capt Dev woke up to rural fresh air, cocks crowing and birds chirping. He loved the birds in these hills. These flying creatures elucidate life’s desire for freedom – eternal freedom.
Suddenly the thought about last night’s meeting with Dadiram made him happy. He remembered the reason of the meeting and felt the excitement about his possible meeting with Christine.
Guided by Dadiram, Capt Dev walked towards the designated place in the prison where he could meet Christine.
It was a small room with few wooden benches and roughly maintained tables. A tiny counter was cut out signifying that it was probably a canteen for the lower ranking prison staff. The green paint on the walls was peeling.
Christine was sitting in one corner with a naked bulb in the cob web hanging overhead. The atmosphere was dark, enough to give a vibration of depression.
“Do you recognize me?” Capt Dev asked modestly.
Christine gave a vague smile, trying to brave through the circumstances she was today.
The contrast was palpable. Capt Dev pictured the past days - her powerful breasts above a firm abdomen. All that beauty is lost somewhere. But she still drew Capt Dev’s attention, he presumed.
“I did not know all these …. Not that I could have helped much. But may be I could have tried,” he said trying to give her a few words of assurance that all is still not lost.
Christine gave a blank look and slowly extended her hand towards Capt Dev’s right palm resting casually on the table. She wanted to say something but a pal of gloom had already descended in the room. Her eyes were doing all the talking but the lips were shut and dried. No tears rolled by and rather Capt Dev for a while thought his own eyes were more moist than her.
But then without his knowing, Capt Dev pulled back his hand. The gesture did not miss Christine’s eyes. She knew her friend was hesitant to even touch her. After all, she is a prisoner behind the bars.
The thick air seemed to have blown over.
A lot has changed everywhere. Human life is run more by practical considerations than the emotions. Emotions are only lived momentarily. A few years means a lot of time space. Each year – 365 days and a few 366.
“You must go back to Delhi…,” she said. “You are also grown old and have a responsible life”.
Capt Dev wanted to say something. Christine waved her shivering hand preventing him from doing so. “I always longed for some arms of comfort Captain but you do not live by wishes alone”.
Her natural aggression and stubbornness, something Capt Dev knew well, surged and she set focused on her goal to go back to her cell. She gazed out towards the prison main gate as if she was directing the Captain to conduct a ‘quick march’ outside the prison walls.