The Lovers’ Burden

The mirror told the truth. Savitej was no ordinary man. Over six and a half feet tall, and consisting of two hundred pounds of pure muscle, he was touted to become one of the greatest soldiers of the Bihar Regiment, joining a Param Vir Chakra awardee and multiple Vir Chakra awardees. An exceptional marksman, a cunning strategist and a gallant leader, his booming voice and strong personality made him equally feared and revered by his battalion.

He slapped himself and muttered, “Wake up, wake up, wake up. Another day’s about to start.” He looked at all his scars, as he would, every morning. They meant nothing to him, in spite of what they made him go through. There was a pain radiating down his lower back. And for some reason, it was the only thing that mattered to him. He smirked and got dressed in his track suit, for his pre-dawn jog.

Taking his first lap around Danapur Cantonment, the pain felt more than usual. Looking around, he saw the armoured units warming up their vehicles for their daily patrols and the supply trucks arriving from Patna. The first flock of birds was taking flight and a couple of roosters were beginning to crow. All in all, it was another usual day.

Completing his jog, he returned to his bungalow. His lover was still sound asleep on their bed. He kissed his lover and sat down at his desk, to write his daily log. He winced as he sat down and murmured, “Am I getting too old for all these acrobatics?” While writing, he nodded off and fell asleep.

The sound of the bugle awakened him. He woke up with a start, and saw the mess on his diary. “Oh, not again,” he said, tearing off the ink blotted pages and tossing them into the trash. He saw his lover move in the bed, and said, “Good morning, my love. How are you this fine morning?” A high-pitched voice replied, stifling a yawn, “All good! You?”

“Never been better. The pain keeps getting worse, though.”

He was greeted with an eye-roll, followed by the usual “I told you that we didn’t have to do it last evening. But you insisted.”

He chuckled and said, “I’ll be fine. This pain is worth it. This pain is worth the sacrifices you make.”

A smile as warm as the sun outside shone at him, and his lover got up. They embraced, and he said, “Off you go to the barracks. Make sure no one gets to know.”

“Yes, Sir. See you on Saturday.”

He watched his lover jog towards the barracks. As the figure got smaller and smaller, he wondered how long they could keep it going, without being exposed. Eventually, he’d have to tell someone about the pain. He couldn’t tell the army doctors, or his peers: it would result in an immediate suspension and court-martial. He did the usual and called his sister up, and asked for medication. Hearing his symptoms, she laughed and said, “You’re forty-three, and your phase still hasn’t passed? Oh, Dear Lord.” She prescribed some pain-relievers and hung up.

Thursday, the 6th of September, was like any other day for Lt. Gen. Savitej Singh Johar. Going through files, letters, requests for leaves and go-aheads, was his bread and butter. As he leafed through the Services hockey team’s request to go out and practice in the SAI complex, he realised that he hadn’t played a good game of hockey in ages. He closed the file, and got up. ‘Let me go to Bharadwaj and see if I get into the officers’ team for the next tournament’, he thought. As he walked outside his air-conditioned office, he received a call from his sister.

Answering the call, he could hear people, on the other side, shouting in glee all around, shouting “Love Wins!” He heard his sister shout, “Go see the news immediately! Bye!” What could’ve happened, he wondered, that his sister called him up to tell him to watch the news. He went down to the lobby, where a crowd had gathered around the TV. Some were murmuring nervously, some had small smiles of relief and some had looks of immense disgust. He read the headline, and his heart almost stopped.

The headline read, “Supreme Court unanimously strikes down Section 377.” His pulse grew faster, and he felt as though the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders. His hands were trembling, and a tear came to his left eye. He had never felt relief like this in his whole life, not even when he finished at the Defence Academy. All his life, he had live in the fear of his superiors finding out, the fear of being isolated by his peers and the fear of losing the respect of his battalion.

Walking back to his office, he dialled the barracks and ordered them to tell Brigadier Agrawal report to his office. He was told that Brigadier Agrawal was arrested by the military police, a quarter of an hour ago. Before they could tell him the reason for the arrest, there was a sharp rap on his door. Disconnecting the call, he barked, “Come in.” The door opened, and four military police officers walked in.

He smiled at the officers, and said, “Ah, yes, boys, how may I help you?” He recognised them all, they had all served under him, at one point. None of them smiled back; on the contrary, their faces revealed apologetic expressions. He couldn’t understand why. His smile disappeared, and he said, “What’s wrong, boys?” The shortest of them, Officer Mishra, said, “Lieutenant General Savitej Singh Johar, you are under arrest for violating Section 46(a) of the Army Act, 1950 as reported by Brigadier Lohith Agrawal, with video proof. He was arrested twenty minutes ago, after he showed a certain video to his bunkmates, as a reaction to the news. You, sir, are part of it and named explicitly in it.”

His joy turned into fear, his elation turned into anger and his newfound throne of safety crumbled into a pile of dust. He stood up and bellowed, his voice breaking, “Are you out of your minds? Did you not see the news?”

“Indeed, sir. Acts of homosexual intercourse are not permitted in the Armed Forces. Please come with us.”

Savitej sank into this chair. His mind went blank. His limbs grew cold. His muscles stiffened. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he could hold no longer. The pain his back was at its worst. He remembered all his lovers: the times they had spent, how he held them, how he kissed them and the times they had become one. As the officers handcuffed him, and took him away, he could see people coming out of their offices, and looking at him in shock and awe. And that’s when he realised: Everything had changed and everything was the same.

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My Green Uniform

The drive from the airport had never felt so long. My green uniform had never weighed me down, my beret had never felt so heavy. The cab came to a halt outside that white door that I knew so well. While walking up to the door, I went back two days in time.

“USS Stennis, this is Lightning 1, Scooter. We are 59 miles Southwest of Bravo Seven. Holding Flight Level 250, speed 635 knots. Lightning 2, Redwood, is 0.5 miles out, 9 o’clock. Out.”
“Lightning 1 and 2, USS Stennis November Juliet Charlie Sierra, roger. Descend to Flight Level 200, speed 595 knots. You are 104 miles Northwest of Stennis. Turn left to 170, and expect next heading shortly.”
“USS Stennis, Lightning 2, Redwood. Descending to Flight Level 200, speed down to 595 knots. Turning left heading 170, Lightning 1 and 2.”

Ending the radio call, Redwood turned around and looked at me. Speaking into the radio, he said, “Well, Bill, one last routine patrol over the Bering Sea. In two days, a new life awaits. Amanda is a really good place to settle isn’t it?”
“Yeah, of course, Jeff. It’s small, calm and is one close-knit neighbourhood. The school district is well recommended, and it’ll be great for Britt and Max. And Columbus is just an hour away. We can get the best of both worlds.”
“Let’s get these babies around for one last time.”

The Alaskan skies were cloudy, as one would expect on an afternoon in August. Flying over storm clouds was breathtakingly beautiful, every time. Below the clouds, rain and sleet lashed on the coasts of Alaska; above the clouds, there was a region of absolute calm, and light winds. The dark clouds, in their abstract shapes and unique patterns, looked like places one could only dream of.

Our radar screens were empty except for a couple of commercial jetliners flying above us, and all flight parameters were normal. Jeff’s voice came into my headset. “Remember that time over Spratly? Where those Chinese fighters chased us for 200 miles?”
I laughed and replied, “Yeah, and we were flying at half our maximum speed.”
“Oh and the time when those German fellas were trying to outdo us at RIAT? They got a good taste of our afterburners.”
“What about that time when those drunk Aussies tried to convince us that cricket was better than baseball?”
“Who in their right minds plants three sticks of wood on the ground?”
“Well, we can blame the Brits for that.”

Cruising at 20000 feet, so many memories floated past me, in my seventeen years as a fighter pilot. My training times at West Point, my first flight, my first combat injury, extended stays in so many different countries, and how can I forget my first failed attempt to land on an aircraft carrier. I recalled becoming friends with Jeff, long talks in our bunks, goofing around in bars and rec rooms, Jeff’s marriage to Shanice, watching toddler Max run around the house, meeting Linda, our first date, driving to Vegas at 2 A.M. to get married, the first time I took Brittany in my arms and surprising them on Christmas Eve. Now we were going to start a whole new chapter in our lives, and we’d finally be with our families, and be neighbours.  

“Lightning 1 and 2, USS Stennis, descend to 10000 feet, speed 540 knots. You are 64 miles East of Stennis. Turn left heading 270.”
“USS Stennis, Lightning 1, Scooter. Descending to 10000 feet, speed down to 540 knots. Turn left heading 270, Lightning 1 and 2.”

We pulled into a dive, and flew into the clouds. The winds were howling, rain and ice splattered on my windshield. It felt like I was looking into the void. Everything around me was black, except for the tiny light on Jeff’s aircraft. The lower we descended, the stronger the winds became. The turbulence made it nearly impossible to hold the aircraft still.

“Lightning 1 and 2, USS Stennis, you have two Fulcrums at your 6 o’clock position, 5 miles. Increase speed to 600 knots.”
“USS Stennis, Lightning 2, Redwood. Speed up to 600 knots.”

Whilst we were fighting the wind, we had failed to notice two Russian Mig-35 “Fulcrum” fighter aircraft appear out of nowhere. From the worry in the controller’s voice, it seemed that they were onto something. We increased our speed, and our pursuers did the same. The controller made repeated calls to the aircraft to identify themselves, but no such transmission was received.

The storm worsened. The winds were pushing us off our course; our fuel reserves depleting fast. The aircraft carrier, USS John C. Stennis, was in sight. We decreased our speed for landing, the Fulcrums slowed down as well. It was a very risky ploy, attempting to land while being pursued, but it had to be done.

“Unidentified aircraft, this is USS John C. Stennis. This is your final call to respond. We will open fire, I repeat, we will open fire. This is your final call to respond.”
“Jeff, you align for the runway. The Sparrows will get a clear shot that way.”
“Roger. See you in the hangar, pal.”

I pulled off to the left, and I heard the sound of anti-aircraft guns. The Sparrows had opened fire. I looked back and saw the Fulcrums break off from their formation. One of them took a hit, and went down. The other was on my tail.

“Lightning 2, cleared to land.”
Jeff was aligned to land, and he had slowed down. I circled over the ship, trying to shake off my pursuer. All off a sudden, it took a steep dive, towards the left. The Sparrows opened fire, but it kept flying through the sky lit up by the exploding shells. What happened next, is still a blur.

My pursuer opened fire at Lightning 2, and it exploded, about five hundred feet from the ship. The my engine sounded distant; the radio transmissions, incoherent. My hands were numb over the control yoke, my eyes taking instrument readings like a robot. Before I could change my course, the Fulcrum took a hit and went up in flames. I managed to bring down my landing gear, and turned around, preparing to land.

“Lightning 1, do you copy? You are cleared to land.”
“Cleared to land, Lightning 1.”

I managed to land, for one last time. I climbed out, and walked across the rain-washed deck. Many deck crew and air crew, said comforting words and embraced me. I didn’t talk to a single soul, I didn’t consume a single morsel of food and I didn’t get a single wink of sleep.

The moment kept playing in my head, in a loop. It felt like a part of me had been separated and cast into oblivion. It seemed like forever when gave me that last thumbs-up, that last grin and those last words. I couldn’t believe that he wasn’t here. We’d been through everything together. I thought of Shanice and Max. And then, it hit me. I would be the Casualty Notification Officer, and I’d have to break the news to them.

 

I knocked at the door of Shanice’s house. I hadn’t mustered up the courage to tell Linda, let alone Shanice. My years of training and experience had never prepared me for something like this. I heard Max shout, “I’ll get the door, Mom!” My mind went blank. Max opened the door and shouted in glee, “Mom, its Uncle Bill! He’s back!” I tried to smile at him, and ruffled his hair. Max was a fine twelve year old. His brown hair, pointy nose and green eyes, resembled Jeff a lot. Shanice came to the doorway with a wide smile, and noticed my green uniform. A look of horror as sudden replaced her smile, and her eyes became moist. She gasped, “No!” and ran into the house. I was barely holding back tears, myself.

Max hadn’t understood what was going on. I told him, choking up, “Let’s go inside, bud. We need to talk.”
We went into their living room, and I sat Max down on the sofa. “What’s going on, Uncle Bill? Why is Mum crying?”
I didn’t know how to start. I didn’t know what to say.
“Uncle Bill, where is Dad?”
“Max, two days ago, we flew our last mission. Two Russian planes gave us a chase. We killed off both, but Jeff…”
I couldn’t go on any longer. I broke into tears. Max was absolutely still. I couldn’t bear to look him in the eyes anymore.
“Dad’s dead?”

I must’ve nodded, because Max ran out of the room. I could hear Shanice sobbing in the dining room.

I got up, and saw a picture of Jeff and myself on the mantelpiece. It was taken back when we were cadets at West Point. I looked at his smiling face, and a single tear fell on my green uniform. And I said, “I’m sorry, Jeff. I’m so sorry.”

 

My Mistress

The evening was calm, and there was a light breeze. I sat by the small door, patiently. Time was moving slowly. Seconds turned into minutes, minutes turned into hours.  It seemed like forever that my mistress had walked out the door. Before she’d left, she told me, “Be patient. I’ll be back soon.” For me, soon was never soon enough.

My mistress was amazing. She took care of me, made my food, took me to different places and introduced me to a lot of people. She was always patient with me, and she was never angry with me. She pampered me a lot, which made many of my friends jealous.

I had nothing to do. I’d taken a walk around the house, had an interesting conversation with the neighbours through the fence and I’d even taken a run in the garden. Now, I was exhausted. I was hungry, but there was no food. I was thirsty, but water was beyond my reach. I had never felt so alone.

Suddenly, I heard a car arrive outside the main door. I was elated. My mistress was back home! My excitement grew as I heard her footsteps on the path to the door. As the door swung open, I jumped on her. Even though this had happened before, she was startled. She said, “Oh, oh, oh, take it easy, take it easy. I’ve just been gone five minutes!”

I followed her to the kitchen, where she gave me a delicious meal: chicken and vegetables. She gave me some water, and I’d never felt so much at ease. She made something for herself, and plopped herself on the sofa opposite the TV. I jumped onto the sofa and curled up beside her. She was watching some show on TV, about some people who were fighting other people. I don’t get the point of it, but I watch it with her, anyway.

All of a sudden, her phone rang. She picked it up, and began shouting. I feel very uncomfortable when people shout. She understood my discomfort and got up. She walked towards her bedroom, and I went after her, after a while. However, she shut the door on my face. Saddened, I walked back to the sofa, and lay down on it.

The evening turned to night, but my mistress was still shouting. Then, it stopped. Everything was silent and calm. She came out of her room, crying. I ran at her, and tried to cheer her up, but she brushed past me. She told me, through sobs, “I’ve had enough of this w-world, Bruno. I’ve-I’ve tried to be a nice person, but n-no one cares. They a-always want to p-pull me down, no matter w-what I do. I’m done.” I didn’t understand what she meant by that.

I followed her to the weird room, where she kept odd things like mops, ropes and buckets. She took out a very thick rope, and took a chair from the dining table, and went to her bedroom. She turned on the little lamp on her desk, and started to write something on a piece of paper. I sat on the bed and waited for her to finish writing. She was still sniffling; the crying seemed to have stopped.

She finished writing, and turned off the little lamp. I got up from the bed, but she told me to keep sitting. She turned on the main light of the room. She picked up the rope, and made some weird kind of loop with it. She placed her chair under the fan, got up on it and tied the rope-loop thing to one of the blades of the fan. She pulled the rope, a couple of times, with her hands. It stayed still.

She got down from the chair, and came towards me. Her hands were trembling. Her eyes were red. She started crying again. She said to me, “Bruno, you lovely, beautiful dog, I love you. I’m going to sleep.” She kissed me on the nose, and I licked her face, as I always did, before she went to sleep. I didn’t understand why she started crying, on looking at me. She always smiled when she saw me!

She went back to the chair, climbed onto it and put on loop thing around her neck. Her whole body was trembling, and the chair was trembling too. She looked around at me and said, “Bye-bye, Bruno.” She kicked the chair away with her foot. The chair hit the wall and caused a loud noise, and I was startled. I jumped off the bed sniffed the chair. I began to roam around the motionless body of my sleeping mistress, hanging from the fan.

It was an odd position to sleep in, I thought. Usually she just went to sleep in the bed, with me! But, whatever. She was tired, and she’s gone to sleep. She could’ve turned the light off before she slept, but that wasn’t an issue. I curled up under her shadow, closed my eyes, and said, “Goodnight, mistress. See you tomorrow morning.”

 

Bright Red

He stood on a long, white, sandy beach, away from the hubbub of civilisation. The sparkling blue ocean lay ahead, graciously licking the soft beach with its cool, calm water. The celebrations of the previous night had rendered the beach somewhat dirty, but its clean aura still washed over his senses, and it reminded him of the night before.

The bar was the busiest place that evening, with the bartenders drowning in a deluge of orders from the guests. Sitting with his favourite drink, he looked around and thought about the vast number of people he knew. Everybody seemed so insignificant and passive to him. As his thoughts washed over him, he caught a whiff of a strong feminine musk amidst the intoxicating vapours of alcohol.

He wasn’t the only one, though. All around the bar, the conversations got quieter, and people swirled around to find the source of the smell. A lady was walking down the bar, her shoes clacking with every step on the wooden floor. Adorned in a dress of red, matched with rubies for earrings, a rose corsage and bright red lips, she smiled like the morning sun at all those looking at her. Occupying the only empty seat beside him, she ordered a drink, and looked at him warmheartedly.

Initially lost for words, he gathered his wits, and started a small conversation with her. As the words and the drinks flowed, it slowly transitioned into an exchange littered with amorous statements and light humour. Following the little laughs exchanged after a particularly humorous joke, their eyes met. His brown eyes, and her grey ones. She gave him a smile and grasped his right hand. His heart beat grew faster, and he could also feel her pulse rising.

It was that moment, when they rose and embraced, and she whispered something into his ears, rather seductively. She bade him farewell, with a peck on his left cheek, leaving an outline of her bright red lips. He stood there, transfixed, looking at her retreating figure, in anticipation of what was to follow.

The beach was completely deserted, save for one white and blue umbrella, which created a cool region of darkness. Under the umbrella, lay a lone figure, which prompted him to proceed forward. On edging closer, he saw a naked woman lying on one of the two mats. Her skin was smooth as silk, and her tan was a beautiful light brown. The woman from the previous night looked up, on hearing his footsteps and motioned him to occupy the mat beside hers.

Lying down on the mat beside, he held her hand. The conversation was loud, over the din of the ocean, but there was a certain indescribable beauty about it, that kept both of them at great ease. Keeping the conversation going, they kept drawing closer to one another, a little bit at a time.

He brushed her night-black hair aside, and took a deep look into her soft, grey eyes. He could feel the adrenaline rushing through his body, as he leaned in towards her, and looked at her warm smile. All of sudden, he noticed that her front teeth were larger and sharper than what they ought to have been. His excitement turned to fear, and he tried to pull away. Her grasp, however, was steel-hard, and like a cheetah, she jumped on top of him, and sunk her teeth into his chest. Multiple times.

In his dying moments, he looked up and saw her, the lady of the previous night, on top of him, with her bright red lips.

From Kosovo, With Love

“My knowledge of Western countries is limited, but I do not think that they wake up in the morning to the sound of heavy guns, and the screams of people running for their lives.

Hello, my name is Jana Thaqi, and I am sixteen years old. I live with my family in a tiny village in Kosovo. Or whatever remains of it. My father, Aleksandar, used to a run a little shop selling things you might need every day; a convenience store. My mother, Vlada, used to be a milkmaid in Mr. Hoxha’s farm, just outside the village. My little brother, Filip, would play football, with his little friends, all day. My older sister, Petra, works in Pristina.

Before all the bad things happened, I used to wake up every morning to the chirping of plovers, with sunlight coming through my window. I would get dressed, eat my breakfast with my family and walk to school, half an hour away, at the bottom of the hill. I loved my school. All my friends were very nice; so were my teachers.

Mrs. Mehmeti, my history teacher, was an intelligent woman, and knew a lot about the world. She would tell us about faraway places, like Russia, England, America and India. She would also tell us about what was happening, and how the outsiders, were not good people, and they wanted to make our country, theirs.

On many days, we saw policemen in our village, with big guns and big vehicles. They would go into some houses, take away the man of the house for questioning, and he would never come back. At night, we lived in fear of the knock on the door, and the cry of “Police!”

One bright, sunny morning, as I was leaving my house, I heard a whistling noise. There was a huge sound of an explosion, which came from the bottom of the hill. Everybody on the street looked around at each other. There was another explosion, and then another. Mr. Mehmeti came running up the hill and he was shouting, “Hide! Hide! They are here! They have a helicopter too! Hide!” Everyone started running everywhere, looking for places to hide. I held Filip’s hand and we ran back to our house.

My father and mother returned soon, and locked the door from inside. We all sat under the table, praying to God, that nothing happens to us. The sound of the explosions drew closer, and from an open window, in the room, the only thing we could see was dust. Sometimes, we could hear the firing of guns, the shouts of soldiers to move ahead and the odd whistling noise. Once or twice we heard a very loud noise, as if something was flying over us.

This went on all through the morning, and it stopped in the early afternoon. The layer of dust cleared, and the afternoon Sun was visible. My father waited for one and a half hour, before opening the door, and stepping out to see what had happened. It seemed that a lot of people had come out onto the streets. And at that moment, the loud noise of the flying machine returned, with the sound of gunfire.

Through the open window, I saw my father look at us for one last time, before he fell and was consumed by dust. I was too shocked to move; my mother was crying and screaming. My head stopped working, and my senses went numb. I could see the outlines of people running outside, screaming and shouting, but I could not understand anything. Grief washed over me, and I couldn’t hold it in, anymore. My tears fell, just like I’d seen my father fall in front of me.

We stayed inside, grieving, till it was dark, too scared to come out, because the flying thing was still over our heads. We left the house at 7.30 to look for my father. The worst sight greeted us. The road was filled with bodies of men and boys, here and there, their clothes soaked in blood, and arms and legs full of holes. Everyone was clutching the bodies of their now lifeless fathers, mothers, siblings and children, and weeping uncontrollably.

I could not bear the sight, and I rushed into my house and into my room. I had to write this down. If someone ever found this, will get to know what really happ…..”

“What’s wrong? Why did you stop?” enquired the officer of the Human Rights Watch.

“That’s all what’s written here, sir. May I leave now?”

“Yes, Petra. Good job with the translation of the diary. Report back tomorrow at 8 o’clock in the morning. We have to travel to the village, and speak to the locals. You will be translating for me. You may leave now.”

“Okay, sir. May I keep this little diary with me?”

“Alright. Do not lose it. It is of vital importance, do you understand?”

“Yes, sir. Good night.”

“Good night.”

Petra Thaqi, exited the office of the Human Rights Watch, clutching the little diary. She held it to her chest, and tears came automatically.

Baba. Nënë. Jana. Filip. Më mungon. Me mungon shume.
(Father. Mother. Jana. Filip. I miss you. I miss you a lot.)