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The Promise

"Papa, why is Mama crying?" Aniket asked his father Raj Singh.

"Son, I have to go back on duty." Raj Singh was a major in the Indian Army.

"But Papa, you came back just yesterday after more than six months."

"Can't help it Ani. I got the message this morning from the head quarters."

"Where do you have to go?"

"Pakistani intruders have invaded Kargil. I have to go there."

"Where is Kargil, Papa?"

"It is to the extreme north of the country - on the Indo-Pak border. We have been taken by surprise and have to fight back."

"When will you come back?"

"I can't say beta. It might take a few weeks...or a few months...or..."

"But Papa, you have to be here on 4th July."

"Why son?"

"Come on Papa, don't tell me you have forgotten my birthday. I am going to be ten this year. And you promised me a brand new bike."

"I am really sorry Ani. I completely forgot." Raj Singh pulled his son close and hugged him. "I'll definitely be back for your birthday."

"Promise," Ani held out his hand.

"Promise," his father took his hand in his and shook it.

*    *    *

That was a month ago. The last month had gone by in a haze of images - cold, bitter and hard. Raj Singh's regiment had been in the thick of battle for the last ten days. They had met with partial success but had also paid a heavy price for it. The enemy was firmly entrenched in bunkers on top of the mountain. The intruders were better clothed, better equipped and had the distinct advantage of height. All this had made them seemingly unassailable at first. However, braving the icy cold conditions and inching up the steep gradient, Raj Singh and his brave men had made strike after strike. They had captured two peaks and lost twelve men. Today was the final assault on the most crucial of enemy stations - Point 3443.

The intrepid soldiers moved forward groping for footholds. It was pitch dark and all around there was an inky blankness. The enemy perched on top was firing every few minutes. Raj Singh was sure the intruders had little idea of their whereabouts. They were just firing blindly in the hope of striking.

"Huqum Singh, Sukhbir, Haneef you come with me. We'll circle the peak and try to attack them from behind. Vikram you take the rest and go ahead," Raj Singh barked his orders and set off followed by his men. They knew they had to be extremely careful in circling the peak - one small miss and they would fall in the gorge below.

As they moved ahead, Raj Singh noticed there was a lull in firing.

"I think they assume that we have given up for the night," he whispered to Haneef. "This is the ideal time. Let us try to reach the top as fast as possible."

They started crawling up. Just as they reached the top they saw shadows looming ahead. The intruders had not relaxed, rather they had been waiting for Raj Singh and his men to come up.

Realising they had been trapped Raj Singh yelled,"Fire."

The booming of the guns shattered the stillness of the night. Silhouetted against the light of the marching gun fire he could make out at least twenty intruders. As he rolled on the ground firing away he hoped Vikram and his men would soon reach. From the corner of his eyes he saw Haneef gun down three men and then collapse as three bullets hit him. Raj Singh fired and as usual he was bang on target. Two intruders came hurtling down the slopes and fell into the gorge below. Just then he heard shots from the other side and he realised with relief that Vikram and his men had reached. But he knew even this wouldn't be enough. From inside the bunkers the intruders seemed to be crawling out like ants. Raj Singh and his men were outnumbered 1 to 5. Shouting words of encouragement he continued moving.

The next half an hour was like a scene from the numerous war movies he had seen as a child. Everything seemed to be happening all at once. The gun fire ricocheting, shouts of triumph, shrieks of pain it was like a crazy nightmare. Suddenly a bullet ripped into his shoulder almost tearing it apart. But Raj Singh was oblivious to the pain. His only concern was to annihilate the enemy and capture the peak. The enemy caught between the two squads was taken by surprise. The confusion made the intruders sitting ducks for sometime. Raj Singh and his men capitalised on that. But soon the intruders regained their composure and fought back.

After a few minutes there was complete silence on the other side. Captain Vikram and his men had probably died fighting. Raj Singh could see neither Huqum Singh nor Sukhbir. He was all alone.

He looked towards the bunker. Five shadows were moving towards him stealthily. He knew the minute he fired they would know his position and finish him in an instant. He had to distract them. He looked around. Just beside him was a body of an intruder. He lifted it and with great difficulty crawled under it. The body was heavy and it needed a great effort to raise it. But Raj Singh knew this was the only way he had hope of getting at the enemy. He also had to be careful. Any movement and that would be the end of Major Raj Singh. He would love dying for his country but not like this with his mission accomplished.

He got under the body and adjusted himself in such a way that only the snout of his rifle would be visible from above and that too only in the light of the gunfire. He waited with bated breath. The soldier moved forward stealthily. When they were within striking range he fired - one, two, three shots and then the fourth one. He watched them slump. Two bullets thudded into the body which covered Raj Singh. The fifth man realising where his enemy was shot at him. The bullets whizzed past. He couldn't see the soldier. He seemed to have disappeared. Cautiously he dislodged the body and stood up. Just then a shadow lunged at him. As Raj Singh stepped back the bayonet of the intruders's rifle pierced his arm. He went sprawling with his assailant on top. He lashed out with his rifle and caught the enemy on his head. As he staggered back Raj Sigh thrust his bayonet into the assailant's stomach. There was a long agonising shriek and his opponent slumped forward. Raj Singh didn't have the strength to even withdraw his rifle. He just collapsed.

He didn't know how long he stayed like that. After what seemed an eternity he tried getting up and fell in a heap instantly. He then decided to crawl towards the bunker which was a hundred feet away. As he slowly inched forward he looked around for sign of any movement. Finally on reaching the bunker he removed a slender four inch long wooden stick from his trouser pocket. He took out a tiny Indian flag and struck it on the ground. He raised his hand in salute and with 'Jai Hind' on his lips collapsed.

*    *    *

Aniket's mother Kavita was listening to the evening news on Star TV. Her favourite newscaster Prannoy Roy was reading the news.

"We have just received an update on the situation in Kargil. The Rajputana Rifles have captured Point - 3443. However, in that process eight of our brave soldiers have laid down their lives. The martyrs who were led by Major Raj Singh killed more than thirty five enemy intruders and sacrificed their lives for their country....."

Kavita felt her body turn icy cold and she started shivering. ' couldn't be...this couldn't' happen to Raj'. She started sobbing uncontrollably.

"Mama what happened, please tell me..." Aniket was shaking her. She stared at him, red eyed unable to speak.

*    *    *

"Mama there is some mistake," Aniket was telling her. It was past midnight. They had been listening to the evening news bulletin. Kavita had telephoned the head quarters. It was true. Although they had not located his body it was clear that he had died. All the other bodies had been found except his. His body had most likely fallen into the gorge below the treacherous peak. That is why they had not announced that the brave Major was missing in action but had declared him dead.

Aniket refused to believe that his father was dead.

"They haven't recovered his....his.. body, Mama that means he is alive. Don't forget he promised that he would come on my birthday. Papa never breaks his promise. Tomorrow is 4th July and he will definitely come. Papa is an Indian soldier and our soldiers always keep their word."

Kavita pulled him close and hugged him tears streaming down her face. How she wished her son's words would come true.

*    *    *

On 4th July Aniket woke up early and got dressed. His Papa would be coming today and he wanted to be ready to receive him. Kavita watched him silently unable to stem her flow of tears.In the last twenty four hours condolence messages had been pouring in from all over the country. Raj Singh had become a national hero. The capture of Point 3443 was a decisive step, the first major breakthrough the Indian forces had made since the intrusion.

The whole day Aniket kept looking out of the window. By evening sadness, like the lengthening shadows of the day, started creeping across his face. At eleven he dozed off by the window sill out of sheer exhaustion. He didn't know how long he slept. He suddenly woke up with a start. Someone had rung the door bell. He dashed out of his room towards the front door and yanked it open. Outside in the dark he could see a tall figure in the shadows. The night sky was cloudy. But Aniket needed neither the moon nor the stars to recognise his father.

"Papa," he screamed rushing forward and hugging him. Raj Singh bend down and kissed his face. But he didn't enclose him in a bear hug as he always did. Aniket looked up and it was then that he noticed. Papa's both arms were in a sling.

*    *    *

Ten minutes later the three of them were sitting in the living room. Aniket was on his father's lap and Kavita near his feet looking up at him. The army jeep which had come to drop Raj Singh had been sent away.

"After hoisting the little flag I passed out. I don't remember how long I lay there. I think it was the pain in my shoulders which woke me. I started crawling down slowly. I knew it was impossible for me to reach the base camp on my own. I only wanted to try staying alive till the army patrol reached me. As I inched forward I lost balance and slid down. I thought I was gone. I was heading straight for the gorge. Fortunately I landed on the thick branches of tree which was growing outward from a ledge. The tree broke my fall. I managed to crawl on to the ledge. I lay there on the tiny ledge, 8000 feet above the ground, close to twenty four hours. I could feel the life ebb out slowly. I had accomplished my mission. We had captured Point 3443 but I would probably fail in keeping my word to my son. I knew I had to fight death... till the very last...after all how could I break my promise to my little Field Marshal waiting for me at home....

I was luckily spotted by an aircraft patrolling above and rescued. At the base camp I told everyone to keep the fact that I was alive a secret. I wanted to see the sparkle in your eyes and the expressions of delight on your face when both of you saw me standing before you."

"I had given up hope, but Aniket hadn't. He was sure his Papa would keep his promise," Kavita said.

Aniket threw his arms around his Papa and Raj Singh kissed his tear stained face.