It was there that Rudra Singh Oberoi found her an hour later. He was shocked to see her at the border. He had imagined her far away from Srinagar by now. He thought the Singhanias had left by now and so had not even gone to their rented house.
Embassy business had required him to leave for Punjab immediately and now he was to deliver a letter to Brigadier-General Khanna who was at the front of the battle lines.
He had been walking towards the border where many wounded were being treated. One of the wounded was explaining to the lady who was holding a glass of water to his lips that today’s fighting had been a desperate and deadly battle.
The lady was Swara.
Rudra (shouting) : SWARA!
Swara : RUDRA! You’re here.
She rushed into his arms.
Swara : I was so worried. Why didn’t you call?
He held her by the shoulders and shook her none too gently.
Rudra : Why didn’t I call? What the hell are you still doing here? And what do you think you’re doing at the border?
Swara : You told me you would come back and then we would go home together.
Rudra (shaking his head in frustration) : But Swara! Don’t you have any sense? If I was delayed, Shouldn’t you have left with the Singhanias? Who are you staying with here?
Swara : They are here too. They are waiting for news of Captain Rohan Singhania. Besides, There are no available choppers or cars to take us safely. The citizens are on house arrest. I’ll go mad, Rudra. I cannot stay at home and do nothing. But I can stay here and help the wounded. I know it sounds very dramatic and filmy but it’s also true. Please let me stay.
Rudra : I’m going to be murdered. Shivaay, Omkara and Ragini are going to kill me.
Swara (scoffing) : You know that if Ragini was here, She’ll be fighting to go there and shoot everybody off.
Rudra chuckled, then nodded his head.
Rudra : I have to give this letter to Brigadier-General Khanna. Once I return, We both will return home somehow. Is that alright?
Swara : Where are you going to go deliver the letter?
Rudra : To the battlefront.
Swara (paling) : Bhaiya! NO!
He pulled her into his arms for a quick, rough hug.
Rudra : Don’t worry, My sister. I am not going to battle. I shall come back soon.
Swara (nodding uncertainly) : All the best, Rudra. I will wait.
Through the border gates behind her two cartloads of wounded were rumbling. There was the sudden stench of blood in the air, stronger than before.
She turned away, distracted, without saying farewell, and he walked off south through the gates.
Rudra (thinking) : My precious sister. When did she get so mature?
He was damned proud of Swara, out on the streets as she was tending the wounded instead of cowering inside the house.
It was a few hours after that when Sanskaar found Swara in the same place. By that time a steady trickle of wounded had arrived, some of them severely injured. There were surgeons on the spot, doing what they could to deal with the worst of the wounds, plying their dreadful trade in makeshift tents. There were many others, mostly women there too, cleansing wounds, bandaging the less serious ones, offering water and whatever comfort they could to the others.
It had been clear to Sanskaar as soon as he heard the guns that within a few hours the press of wounded would present the city with a huge problem, quite beyond the power of the volunteers gathered at the gates to deal with.
What was needed was some organization—a list of houses and their occupants both able and willing to accommodate the wounded, a way of directing wounded, surgeons, and nurses to those houses, and a way of supplying them with all that would be needed.
There were doubtless numerous other people setting about such organization. But there was no way of coordinating the efforts of them all. He could only do his part. He gathered together as many willing acquaintances as he could find, and together they did what they could, knocking on house doors up one side of each street and down the other, calling on apothecaries and grocers and anyone else who could possibly sell them supplies for a thousand wounded and more, and making endless lists.
He knew that Delhi was sending in more and more supplies each day, but the rains and the heavy gunfire made it seem too little, too late.
Finally they were ready to approach the border gates and set up a station whose purpose would be to direct bearers of the wounded to homes where they would find clean beds and food and water and a roof over their heads, and where they would be tended by kindhearted nurses and physicians.
There were all too few of those last two, of course, but one could only do one’s best.
One young lady was bent over what appeared to be a pile of blo*dy rags on the ground. The pile of rags turned out to be a young private covered with mud and blood, his right leg blown away from the knee down. Her hair was bound up in a blood-and dirt-smeared nurse’s cap. Her dress was creased and dirty and liberally streaked with blood. She was murmuring soft words to the lad as she cleaned his face with a wet cloth. He was in line—a long line—for a surgeon’s care.
And then she stood up and passed the back of her wrist over her eyes in a weary gesture.
Good Lord! He suddenly stood rooted to the spot. She was Swara Singh Oberoi.
He hurried toward her and cupped one of her elbows with his hand.
Swara (looking up in surprise) : Mr Maheshwari?
Sanskaar : You are still here?
Swara : Clearly.
But she said it without any hostility or malice. Sanskaar couldn’t believe his eyes.
Sanskaar : How are you still here? Didn’t the Singhanias take you back? Did Rudra not?
Swara gave the same answer she had given to Rudra.
Swara : Once Rudra returns, We both shall leave for Kolkata.
Sanskaar : And what do you think you’re doing here at the borders?
Swara (smiling sadly) : There is so much to do, Mr Maheshwari. Shouldn’t I help as much as I can for my country?
At that moment he realized that she was indeed a woman through and through—a woman with a tender heart and the strength and courage to go with it. He had known almost from the start of their acquaintance that she was no simpering idiot, but now he had incontrovertible proof.
Today, at this moment, she looked more beautiful than she had on any previous occasion.
He released her elbow and cupped her cheek.
Sanskaar : Go. Help! They need you.
Swara beamed at him, her tired features lighting up. She turned and went to help a woman who had been grazed by a bullet. Sanskaar worked there too for a number of hours—he lost track of just how many.
He wrote down the names of the wounded, the dead, the ones with simple injuries, the ones who needed immediate medical help and separated them into lists.
He found himself offering water and comfort to many scared soldiers. Finally, he noticed that dusk was beginning to settle in. Saket came and offered to help for a while and Sanskaar set both hands on his hips and stretched his back and rolled his shoulder muscles. It was strange how quickly one’s eyes and ears could become accustomed to such sights and sounds and one’s nose to such smells. It had not even occurred to him after the first few moments to feel squeamish.
He found Swara sitting with some of the wounded and cracking small jokes to cheer them up. He went there and helped her stand.
Sanskaar (gently) : Why don’t we call it a day? Come, Shona! Let me drop you back home.
Swara shook her head and her features began to crumple.
Swara : Rudra hasn’t returned yet. Nor do we have any other news. Are they safe?
Sanskaar (firmly) : Swara!
Swara stopped and looked at him. It was the first time he had said her name so purposefully.
Sanskaar : You need to calm down. You need to rest. Come on. You will feel good after some tea or soup.
Swara sighed and nodded.
Swara : That would be heaven. But Please, Don’t make me go back to the Singhanias. They’re already so worried and it will do nothing to ease me. Mrs Raichand has few wounded in her house. She has allowed the wounded to be treated there. I would like to go and help.
She tipped her head from side to side as she spoke, and half closed her eyes.
Sanskaar set his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face away from him. He massaged her shoulders and neck muscles with his thumbs and fingers until she sighed and dropped her head forward.
Sanskaar took her hand in his and kissed them softly. He offered her his arm and she took it. It was difficult now to remember how she had looked to him the first time he set eyes on her—breathtakingly lovely but haughty and aristocratic too. She had looked to him rather like a spoiled child. It was shameful to remember that he had sought an acquaintance with her only because she was Shivaay’s sister—as if she could not possibly have any identity of her own.
Sanskaar (thinking) : What a fool I was.
Sanskaar : We shall go to Mrs Raichand’s house. Then I will go and tell the Singhanias that you’re there. Or will you call them?
Swara (ruefully) : I haven’t brought my phone. It’s there at home. But I probably could call my number.
Sanskaar : It’s no matter. I will go and inform them. Don’t worry about it. Go and rest now, Shona.
Swara nodded gratefully.
Swara : In case you get to know about Rudra.. Or the others?
Sanskaar : I will tell you immediately.
Sanskaar went to the Singhania’s house and informed Mrs Singhania about Swara’s whereabouts who, in her distress and worry for her children had not noticed Swara’s disappearance at all.
Sanskaar (thinking as he left from their house) : How can she forget her responsibility? Poor Swara! Pata nahi Rudra kahan hai? She needs to go back home. Back to safety.
He thought of going back to the border and inquiring about Rudra. Just as he reached the borders, He saw a man being carried on a stretcher.
Sanskaar (approaching them) : Excuse me. Do you need help?
Rohan (groaning) : Sanskaar Maheshwari? Is that you?
Sanskaar looked in surprise at Rohan Singhania on the stretcher.
Sanskaar : Are you alright?
Rohan (gritting his teeth) : I’ll be fine. A bullet in my thigh. These men are taking me home. Mom will call for a doctor who will take care of me.
Sanskaar : What about the battle?
Rohan : It’s ended. Both the sides have agreed to retreat. The governments have reached some conclusion. Vaise… That’s too bad. I would have destroyed that army if I hadn’t been shot.
Sanskaar resisted the urge to roll his eyes and smiled slightly at the man.
Sanskaar : That’s wonderful, Captain Rohan. Your mother will be very happy to see you safe. How are the others? General Raichand? Rudra Singh Oberoi?
Rohan (surpised) : General Raichand is just fine. He’s still overseeing everything there. Rudra, Swara’s brother? He’s not a soldier. Why would he be in the midst of action?
Sanskaar shook his head.
Sanskaar : No matter. You go rest now, Captain. Thank you.
He ran over to Mrs. Raichand’s house.
A maid answered his knock on the door. He could see even before he stepped inside that every available space was being used for the wounded. There were three cots in the small hallway alone.
Swara herself came hurrying out of an inner room less than a minute after the maid had disappeared. She was looking drawn and tired, but she had washed her face and brushed her hair and still bore herself with proud, upright hauteur.
Sanskaar (before Swara could ask anything) : The war is over. Captain Rohan is injured but he’s at home now and the doctor is treating him.
He watched her eyes grow huge and her teeth clamp onto her lower lip. Then she hurried toward him, stepping around one cot as she came, held out her hands to him, and stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.
Swara : Thank you so much, Mr Maheshwari. To come here so late in the night to tell me. Rudra?
Sanskaar (in a regretful voice) : I haven’t had any news about him still.
Swara’s eyes dimmed and she shivered. Sanskaar put his arms around her.
Sanskaar : Don’t panic. He’ll be back soon.
Swara nodded her head slowly, then called for Mrs Raichand, who came with a hopeful look, her hands in a position of prayer.
Sanskaar : Mrs Raichand, Your husband is safe. Peace has been restored. All is well.