It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up. He was gone. And, soon, this bedroom, the house in whose eastern corner it sat, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well. It was the strangest feeling ever. Namandeep had left home to join the Independence struggle. Though he was a member of INC, he did not quite agree with Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence. He felt Azad Hind Sena was our best bet to gain Independence. While Gandhi’s Quit India movement was gaining popularity amongst the masses, Namandeep decided to join the Azad Hind Sena. Subash was also a friend, philosopher and guide to Namandeep.
Last night, Suhasini had gone to drop Namandeep at the railway station.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”, Suhasini had asked Namandeep.
“More than ever”, Namandeep had replied spontaneously.
“Who would look after papaji ?”
“Promise me. You would. I am not sure when I would return. I am not sure if I would ever return” Namandeep had got emotional.
“I would look after papaji. He is like a father to me.”, Suhasini had promised.
“We are very close to winning our freedom. Its now or never. Generations after generations we served the British Raj. This is my chance to wipe out the tag of Gaddar on our family. Papaji may still work for the Raj but not me anymore”. Suhasini could sense his determination.
Namandeep Sahu belonged to the elite Sahu family from Lucknow. His father, Sohandeep Sahu was a lawyer by profession and a good friend of Motilal Nehru. Motilal’s son Jawaharlal was Namandeep’s classmate at the London Law School. Subash, Sarojini, Lakshmi were some of the high profile guests who would come to meet Namandeep and would sometimes stay at his place. Whether it was Gandhi or Subash, the masses had picked up their side. The freedom struggle would soon intensify.
As thoughts raced thru her mind, she saw an old man with white beard entering the room. He was wearing a white kurta and Pajama. Though his eyes looked tired, they were shinning and beaming with joy to see me up.
“You would be ?” , Suhasini questioned.
“ohh. You must be papaji. Namandeep told me about you”, Suhasini jumped with joy to meet her would-be father-in-law. This was the first time she was meeting him.
She was about to get up and touch his feet as is the custom in India; the old man interrupted.
“It’s alright. You are still weak and you need rest. Please don’t strain yourself”
“Papaji, I must say that you look just like Namandeep. When he grows old, he would look just like you. He has got the same eyes, voice and height”, Suhasini said.
Just then another old guy with a beard and round spectacles entered the room with a lathi in his hand.
“You look familiar” Suhasini said looking at the old man.
“You can call be baba”, the old man replied.
“Babaji, you look very much like Subash Bose. Are you his papa? You are a day late else you could have given a letter to Namandeep who would be meeting Subash soon in Burma” Suhasini remarked.
Before Babaji could answer, papaji broke down into tears and was inconsolable for a moment.
“What is it ? Is something wrong ? I remember vaguely that there was a blast at the railway station yesterday and then I went blank. Is Namandeep alright ? I beg please tell me he is fine. Without him I cannot live”, Suhasini pleaded before the two men.
“He is alright. Do not worry about him.” papaji said wiping his tears.
“Then bring him here. I want to see him” Suhasini pleaded again. The two men looked at each other helplessly.
“He would be back in a day or two. I assure you. In the meantime, you get some strength”, papaji answered gathering some courage.
“Can you please get me a newspaper ? I want to know more about the blast yesterday”, Suhasini requested papaji.
“uummm. Ahhh. Not now. You need rest. Doctor would be upset if they see you reading. You need complete bed rest”, papaji said in an unconvincing tone. Suhasini could sense something was not right. She could only hope that Namandeep was safe and unharmed in this blast.
“Papaji, one more thing. Just before Namandeep left for Burma, we sold this house and donated the money to Azad Hind Sena. This would help the cause of freedom struggle to a some extent. We have to vacate this house and move to a smaller dwelling.” Suhasini said in a low tone.
“Don’t worry about it. I am sure we can sort this out after Namandeep returns”, Papaji replied
These words brought joy on Suhasini’s face. She was sure that Namandeep was alive else papaji would not have said those words.
“Papaji, Babaji. One last request before you go. Can you please tell me what really happened at the station yesterday?”
The two old men looked at each other. Papaji pulled a chair and sat down next to the bed.
“Britishers were transporting arms & ammunition in one of the bogie to the Burma Border to combat the Azad Hind Sena. Few revolutionaries got this news and planned their journey in the same train. Plan was to loot the arms en-route. The plan did not materialize and the Britishers got the names of the revolutionaries. In the gun battle that ensued at the station, there was a big blast and hundreds were killed” papaji stopped. There was silence in the room; a rather disturbing one.
“Then ?” Suhasini could take the silence no longer.
“You were injured. As per the eye witnesses, a rod flew and hit you on your head, making you unconscious. Do you feel the pain ?” papaji inquired.
“No. Did Namandeep get injured? Where is he now? Please bring him here. I am choking here. Need some air. Please take me outside ” She cried.
Papaji obliged. The two old men helped her stand up on her feet.
“I have no strength to standup. It was a strange feeling. It seemed I haven’t used my feet for a long time.”, Suhasini thought to herself.
As she walked to the Garden, she saw a newspaper lying on one of the chairs.
“I will sit there” she said pointing to one of the chairs.
“Can I get a cup of coffee” She requested.
“Sure. I will ask Suramma to make you one” Papaji said leaving for the kitchen.
“Suramma ? Who is that ? Maybe the maid from Papaji’s house” Suhasini wondered but it did not matter any more.
She picked up “The Times of India” from the nearby chair but it looked a little different. The font, the design looked different but it was not a matter of concern. She read the headlines; it read ” Prime minister Indira Gandhi assassinated by her bodyguards”.
“Indira Gandhi born as Indira Priyadarshini Nehru was assassinated by her bodyguards at ……… ” Suhasini stopped reading with a combined feeling of shock and terror. The photo displayed in the newspaper was not the sweet Indira Nehru she knew.
“What’s happening to me ? Am I going mad” She thought.
She looked around and the mango tree looked bigger and fuller. It was fully grown and was a huge tree now.
She turned the pages and checked the date on the newspaper.
“1st Nov 1984 ?” She was taken aback.
“Papaji ? Is this some kind of joke ?” She asked papaji who just came out with a cup of coffee.
Tears rolled down Papaji’s cheeks.
“I am not papaji. I am Namandeep. You have been in a coma for about 50 years now. I never gave up the hope that one day you would be back and we can start our life together. Today, I am the happiest man. There were only two goals in my life; one was freedom for our country and second was to marry you. I am glad that my second goal would fructify now.”
Just then babaji came and she looked at him.
“Subash ?” she questioned. Babaji nodded his head in affirmation.
“They call me Gumnani Baba these days”, he replied with a smile.
The whole afternoon, Suhasini spent her time in the garden with Namandeep. At times, tears rolled over her cheeks. Fifty years was a long time and she wanted to atleast live those moments through his experiences. Realizing that one has lost 50 years in a matter to 5 minutes was a huge loss.
She looked up at the mango tree and the sky beyond. Indeed, it has been a long long time ………..