Friday, March 7, 2008

Unknown destination

by KParthasarathi Friday, March 07, 2008
Umapathi who alighted in the small station hardly had any baggage. He looked around fifty five years and appeared well built with strong sinews of muscle. There was some urgency in his stride and walked briskly in the hot sun towards the village of his younger days. It was about nine kilometers away. With eager expectations of his reunion with his family and at the same time assailed by doubts about their well being during his long absence, he was virtually running. He did not wait for the infrequent bus that he knew of.

It seemed to him that he left only the other day despite the intervening thirty long years since he left his village. He had joined the army when he was twenty five and soon went to the front to fight a war. One day he was not to be seen. None knew what happened to him. They presumed he must have been captured by enemy forces or killed. They were also not sure about it. The nearest kin was informed that he was untraceable.Umapathi had left behind a young wife of twenty three with two young children. There was no way of communicating his capture to the Indian army. He was not allowed to write. He was interned in a cell for prisoners condemned to death in a prison in the remote part of the country.
There were talks repeatedly of his being sent to gallows but nothing happened. He behaved well and assisted the jail authorities in several small ways. He gave up hopes of being set free that he nursed in the initial years. He reconciled himself to his misery. He had no inkling that he would be released suddenly one fine morning. He was not aware of the efforts of human rights activists outside the prison walls to save prisoners like him.
When at last he reached his village, he found it a strange and a new place. There were modern buildings, a bazaar, two and three wheelers with people busily engaged in different activities. There was not a single known face. Only the temple and the small tank opposite to it were familiar and served as a land mark to his small house. When he saw in its place a two storied building, he was surprised and shocked. With a gnawing worry deep in the heart, he asked an old man on the steps of the tank whether he was aware of the whereabouts of Umapathi’s family. He did not know about whom Umapathi was talking. When he told him that Umapathi had joined the army three decades back and left his young wife Valli with two children behind, the old man scratched his head and asked him”Are you talking about the sepoy Uma? Don’t you know he died in the war long time back? Who are you anyway?” Umapathi replied that he was his friend and interested in meeting his family. The old man said that she and her children are living in that new building adjacent to the temple. She waited for him for ten years and her parents had died in the meanwhile. She was leading a very difficult life. It was then the owner of the provision store who had lost his wife took pity on her and married her. They have two children of their own.Umapathi asked “Did she agree to marry him readily?” The old man said that she was not willing initially as she nursed a hope Uma may return some day. It was only after the elders in the village persuaded her to marry him for the sake of her children convincing her that there was no prospect of her husband ever returning, she relented. He added that her second husband is a nice person and affectionate to her children through Umapathi.They are all studying in colleges and school. She is happy after leading a miserable and uncertain life for several years. He asked”Are you meeting them now? Her husband would leave for the store only in the evening and should be available now.” Umapathi replied that he would meet them shortly after buying some sweets.
He quietly returned to the station with a heavy heart. He didn’t know what to do. He sat on a bench at the empty station for hours till the station master nudged him telling that the train was expected any moment and asked him where he wanted to go for him to issue the ticket. When he replied with vacant eyes ”Anywhere”, the station master looked at him quizzically unable to comprehend.

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