Much of my early childhood was spent in Sainik School Bhubneswar and then in Bangalore Military School, where my father headed the Zoology Departments. I can’t remember much of Sainik School, but memories of Bangalore are very vividly clear. I was hardly five then.
Besides teaching Biology, my Dad was also house master, which meant he was a mentor and warden to a certain ‘house’ of students. He was a popular teacher, and students who wanted to talk with him were often in and out of the house. I was a little kid, and these cadets who I called ‘bhaiya’ would have fun talking to me, teasing me or pulling my pigtails.
One distinct memory surfaced tonight. We were woken up one night by some people. Apparently, two students under Dad’s supervision, who were on their way home for their vacation, had had a serious accident. They were probably standing near the gates of the train, when they had accidentally slipped onto the railway tracks. One escaped with lots of bruises, but the other student had a number of serious injuries. He was admitted in the military hospital on campus, where he took a couple of months to recover.
Every day my parents would pay him visits in the hospital. I often accompanied them, dressed in my frocks. Food would be sent from my house daily. It was scary to see this Bhaiya. His arms and legs would be in big white bandages and hung up in the air. Tubes of fluid would go in and out of him. For the first few days he wouldn’t respond and appeared to be very sleepy. But slowly he made recovery. And then he would catch my eye.
I remember always looking at him with trepidation, wondering how painful those bandages and tubes might be. And suddenly he would smile at me. Trying to make me feel less scared. Thinking of it now, he might have been fifteen or sixteen himself, but he would go out of the way to acknowledge me and speak to me, despite the pain that he was obviously in. As the days passed, he improved and we became friends. He and his classmates would often chat with me, and I looked forward to the hospital visits.
When he was discharged from hospital, he came home to thank my parents, before leaving for home. He didn’t forget to get me a doll with the pocket money he might have saved. I was always in awe of how brave he was.
I don’t know this Bhaiya’s name. But in an old album at home, there is a black and white photograph of some school boys smartly dressed in the Military School uniform. Around one face, I see a circle, and my neat handwriting in pencil. Khatri Bhaiya, I have written. Maybe Khatri was his last name. I have no clue.
Today, when I saw Wing Commander Abhinandan on television, it was like seeing Khatri Bhaiya all over again. I was so overwhelmed that there was this inexplicable urge to give him a hug. Who knows how he must be aching inside, and yet his fortitude and stoicism revealed nothing on his face. Sometimes some strangers touch you so much, that they feel much more than family. Or maybe he just showed us the meaning of belonging to the family that is India. Proud, humbled and deeply indebted that human beings such as Abhinandan exist, and they show us the meaning of courage and dignity, despite the distress they are in.