It was dark; both, inside my mind and outside my body. It had been close to six hours since the first gunshot. Situation had only got worse since then and so had my emotions. Panic had turned into numbness. Intermittent gunshots and blasts were preventing me from forgetting what was going on.
We, about fifteen-sixteen people, different ages, different races, different casts, different religions, different genders, all were sitting congested-by-choice in a corner of a garment shop, holding hands. At the situation’s demand, no barrier prevented us from being just humans above everything else.
I wondered why it takes extreme fear to realize the most basic principle of our existence; being human. The stranger hands that we were holding in a corner of a huge shopping mall were the only hint of hope amongst all the turmoil.
‘Why the hell I couldn’t resist shopping today. Why was I here when this had to happen? Enough! This should end soon. There has to be a way out of this.’ I whispered to myself. I was terrified.
An elderly man, who was holding my hand, heard me. He smiled and said, ‘I have a daughter; nearly your age, in her mid twenties. And yes, she is as pretty as you are. Let me tell you. You, the girls, are born to shop.’
I nodded and he continued, ‘Don’t worry. This will end soon. We will be safe and out of here. Trust me and keep praying.’ Even under alarming circumstances, he had managed to sustain a smile. There was some kind of serene comfort and optimism in his eyes. His confidence strengthened my hope.
I went back to looking at the shiny floor where periodic flickers of gunshots were spreading momentarily, leaving daunting darkness to follow. It seemed like two way firing in a structured pattern.
Speculations congested my mind.
Through the little light that was thinning out on the floor, a couple of fade shadows appeared in the shop where we had taken refuge. The frequency of my heartbeats increased at the rate at which shadows lengthened deeper inside the shop, closer to us. As I struggled to figure out what to do, my palm was pressed harder by my elder father-like companion suggesting me to keep calm and mum. The chain reaction of holding hands tighter spread across the group of strangers.
The shadow started making sense as it came closer; it turned out to be a man holding a gun. Without even being asked, we froze!
I hard pressed my eyes closed. Five seconds, which felt like eternity, passed in horror wrapped numbness.
‘Let’s go! Come on.’ Words of hope brought me back to my senses.
One of the shadows had turned into an actual person. He was a commando dressed all in black holding a big gun, those AK-47 kinds. Even though there was hardly any light except for the fade yellow stream from the shop across the passage, I could see three parallel black marks under his eyes covering almost all of his face. A bandana covered his head and a sleeveless vest, most likely bullet proof, was wrapped around his chest. Few magazines seemed to have been placed in a belt like thing around his waist. And yes, again, all black. Whites of his eyes were distinctly visible amid all the black surrounding it.
‘This mall is under attack by terrorists. We are NSG commandos. We need to move; Now!’ he gave us a quick reality check.
‘Hold the next one’s hand and follow this guy.’ He pointed to another commando with a gun; keeping sharp surveillance outside the shop. He was in similar attire. All black! He must have been the other shadow. Black never seemed so pleasant to my eyes.
‘Stay as low as you can. I will cover you all from the back. And if there is any firing, listen to my instructions carefully and follow religiously. Let’s move.’ He explained the plan.
The surveillance soldier started moving cautiously. We followed with bent backs, staying low, one by one, hand in hand, prayers in the mind. I was the last in the set of strangers. The commando, with all the instructions, followed me.
Though there was no sagacity to think over the goings-on, the situation seemed no less than a movie scene; scary, thrilling and nerve wrecking.
We moved along the walls through the fire exits which lead us to the ground floor at the central section of the mall. Ground floor was a little more lit up than where we were hiding.
At a distance, I could see a few dead bodies. Floor was stained with patches of blood. Bits of broken glasses were shattered all over the place. Shoes, sandals, purses, cell phones, handbags were scattered on the ground. Humming silence was making the ambiance creepier and hair-raising. Chills flurried through my spine!
At the first gunshot, everyone must have run for their lives. Few lucky ones, like me, might have found safety and few might have failed; failed at the cost of their lives. I had never felt as helpless as I did seeing the bodies scattered like sear leaves in the fall. They were not mere human bodies; they were bundles of dreams, hopes and expectations; all wrecked.
I gathered myself and continued moving.
I could see the exit about a hundred feet away. Police, commandos, ambulances and fire trucks with twirling red and blue lights were visible even through the smoky surroundings.
The escape seemed within reach. Or was it too early?
Out of nowhere, a stream of gunshots speared right through the silence and resonated in the mall. Possibly a terrorist had opened fire from the upper floor on our back. I could see the sparks on the floor at an arm’s distance to my right where bullets hit. With closed eyes and hands on ears, I shrank myself as much as I could. My head was in the sand pit; I was an ostrich.
‘Everybody, on the floor; Now!’ The commando behind me, ordered. We obeyed without a second thought.
He positioned himself with his back facing mine to cover us. He opened fire in return.
I was entirely enveloped by his broad physique and mountain high courage. He had not let us out of his protection shield even for a moment. With his confident commands and postures through the dark, he had continuously helped us stay calm and positive to believe ‘everything is going to be fine’.
‘Start crawling on your knees and elbows.’ He instructed us. Fire exchange was still on and had gotten more frequent.
Slowly and steadily, we were inching closer to the escape.
‘Aaahhh!’ he exclaimed loudly enough for me to hear.
I paused and turned back. He was standing right in between me and from where the firing was sparking on the upper floor. He was hit by a bullet on his left shoulder.
Is he ok? How do I check if he is fine? What should I do?
Dismissing all my doubts, fighting his pain with the power of his will, he continued returning fire until the other side went silent.
‘Get up and run; quick, everyone!’ He ordered. His left shoulder was bleeding profusely. He had pressed it with his right hand.
We ran the hardest of our lives to exit the building. Immediately as we stepped out, policemen covered us and took us near an ambulance to the safety. We were asked to go through medical checkup to see if anyone was injured.
Meanwhile, a couple of nurses brought the injured commando, the one with the instructions, on a stretcher. He was on the verge of fainting.
For the first time since he had come to our rescue, his face was clearly visible. And…. bells chorused in my mind.
It was him!!!
‘Excuse me. Hi! I want to see the commando who was injured in the mall attack two days back.’ With a bouquet of flowers and a bag full of fruits, I inquired.
The security personnel guarding the special medical ward stared at me like no pretty girl ever came to visit a hurt soldier. If that was true, it was utterly unjust. They deserved some gorgeous visitors, it could help them recover faster, I guessed. I had come to do my bit; this was my way of social service.
‘Which commando do you want to see? There were five who got injured that night.’ The guard said.
‘I don’t know. The one with all the instructions, I guess?’ I could not dig out any other clue about his identity from the other night.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, they all looked the same in that dress. But I will recognize him by his face. Can I go, check myself?’
‘Ma’m, I am not allowed to let strangers visit the commandos. How do you know him?’
‘I’m…. I am… umm…. Friend! I’m his friend.’ I tried to make up a relationship.
‘And, you don’t know your friend’s name?!’ he said with a nod of tilted head. He was smart. Oh yes, being smart was part of his job.
‘See, I am not actually so friendly friend, you know!” I fake laughed, flaunty gestures topped it up.
‘Hunh?’ Now, guard’s suspicion was fair.
“Actually, he saved my life the other night. And I know him from before that night too. We have met earlier. Trust me. This is just a gratitude visit for what he did there for me, and for the rest of survivors. Please let me in. Please?’
‘Ok.’ He said and asked a lady constable to frisk me for any suspicious owning before letting me in.
I entered the ward that was equipped with moderate facilities. Ten beds were placed; five to my right and five to the left. I walked in the middle as if it was a ramp. Walking the ramp was my profession anyway and I loved it.
All necks in the ward, turned to me; widened eyes, open jawed smiles included. My knee high, sleeveless, flowery pink frock, casually tangled hair and a bright smile seemed to be working as a catalyst to the treatment of brave soldiers admitted in the ward. I was happy, I could help.
As I passed by each bed looking for my hero, I noticed soldiers with bandages on heads, legs, arms and even eyes. The scary night flashed back.
I was looking for the one with bandage on left shoulder. I found him taking a nap on the last bed to my right.
He was sleeping topless with a white bed sheet covering him till abdomen. Bandage on his shoulder running through a broad, toned chest helped him win few more brownie points from me. I knew it was not the right time to express, but…yes, he looked delicious.
I pulled a stool and sat quietly by his bed. Medicines had occupied most of the space on the top of the table next to his bed. I rearranged the medicines to make some space and placed the bag full of fruits and the bouquet full of flowers on the crammed table top. The plastic wrapper around the flowers made enough sound to make him open eyes.
‘Hi’ I said with a smile. ‘You probably won’t recognize me. But we have met earlier, twice.’ I took a pause and asked, ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Hmm, Not too good yet but I will be fine. Thanks for caring…Tanya!’ he said.
‘You……. remember me!!!’ I almost jumped with the joy.
‘You remember me????’ I repeated, with a question mark this time.
‘Yes Miss Tanya Sharma. I remember you. I remember our matrimonial meeting two months back. I remember your rejection. I also remember your preference to marry a model just like yourself or under the worst case scenario, a businessman. I remember you didn’t know what a National Security Guard was nor were you keen to know because apparently you were not interested in a security guard, I guess.’
I was speechless and mortified. My head faced down.
‘Hey, don’t feel bad. I am not saying this to humiliate you nor am I judging you. In fact, I appreciate it. You have the right to make choices for your life. But, on the other hand, do you know what else I remember?’
I just about managed to just look up into his eyes. His face looked charming. His eyes were sparking even after being shot by a bullet.
‘I also remember your carefree smile, dazzling eyes and easy-go-lucky attitude. I remember how gorgeous you looked in the red suit that evening. I remember your pretty face shining as a star on a moonless night.’ He continued.
Now, I could afford to smile.
‘See, this is what I am talking about.’ He pointed at my smiling face. I couldn’t resist a blush.
‘Thanks.’ I said. ‘And I am sorry.’
‘For, somehow, demeaning what you do without even knowing about it, while actually it should be respected more than any other career. You are the real hero. I feel so embarrassed. I really do.’
‘Oh come on. It’s ok. It is not that you did it on purpose. It was just that you didn’t know and you didn’t find it important enough to know either. That is completely fine.’ He was too cool to be a tough guy. I had not anticipated him to be this easy going.
‘Hmm. Well, I have another reason to be ashamed about.’ I opened another card.
With a subtle smile, he asked, ‘Okey???’
‘I have, kind of, you know, forgotten your name.’ my head faced floor again.
‘Oh yes. I recollect now. Shaurya!’ Rewind! Glimpses from our first meeting started flashing before my eyes.
‘You signify your name so precisely, Shaurya.’ I said.
His blush wrapped smile acknowledged the admiration.
‘Shaurya, actually, I should call you Sorry-Ya’ I winked.
He raised his eyebrows in response to the worst joke he would have heard in a really long time.
‘I generally don’t know how to get out of my embarrassment zone. I say crap when I’m uncomfortable.’ I shrugged.
‘It’s ok. That’s one of the things added to the list that I love about you; your honesty.’
‘Hmm. Thanks. Well, I was one of those whom you rescued the other night from the mall. In fact, you had taken a bullet on your body that was aimed to pierce through me.’
‘I know that.’ He revealed his part.
‘You? You know that? You knew I was one of them? I thought you didn’t recognize me.’
‘We do not have time and consent to exhibit emotions when we are on a mission. I was on a task there; for a purpose, Miss.’ He winked.
‘Hmm. I’m impressed, soldier!’ I gestured a salute.
We kept looking at each other for what would have been about half a minute. Surprisingly, it did not feel awkward.
‘So, here is the actual thing, Shaurya. Firstly, once again, I am ashamed of what I said and did when we met earlier. And secondly, if you and your current relationship status allow me, I would so badly want to change my decision.’
His raised eyebrows asked me to elucidate.
‘Yes, I think, I love you. I want to marry you Shaurya. Will you? Please?’
He took a moment before responding, ‘Firstly, no need to be ashamed of what you said earlier; and secondly, why now; because I saved your life? That was part of my duty. I would have done it for anyone else. In fact, you were not the only one I rescued; Right? And tell me something. Had some other commando saved your life, would you have wished to marry him?’
‘No. See… How do I express? Shaurya, when we met for the first time, I had liked a lot of things about you. I loved your humbleness, your respect for women and of course your personality. But I was too immature to look beyond my craziness for marrying some model or a businessman. Other professions were not good enough for me; I was stupid. And now, after what happened two nights back, if your profession is the only thing to like about you, it would still be big enough for me to want to marry you. I will be proud of what you do. It would make me feel proud of myself too.’
‘Tanya, let me confess something here. You were the first and only girl I have met for the purpose for which we did. And, I fell in love with you from the word go. I really wanted it to work out but you had other plans back then. So I had to accept it.’
‘Oh, Wow! And, now? Still? Do you still want to marry me? Please?’ I had never been as nervous.
He smiled before responding, ‘Yes! I do!’
My moist eyes glittered. His smile broadened.
A moment later, with a serious face he said, ‘But…’
‘But? Why but? No but. I don’t like this but.’ I rushed in one breath.
‘Shushhh!! I want you to know few things.’ He shushed me.
‘My job is to serve nation, to stand up for every challenge that comes my way; any day, every day, any time, every time. There may be days or even months when I am away. And ya, I’m going to kill a lot of guys.’
I continued looking into his eyes.
He continued, ‘There is all the possibility that you may lose me, any day. But amongst all that, I promise to do everything to make sure your full-of-life smile remains intact, forever.’
‘You know what Shaurya? The selflessness and courage that one needs to posses, to do what you do, are unmatchable. I will be honored to be your wife. I was so senseless earlier, totally stupid. I can’t be sorry enough for that. But I want to make up for it by bringing lot of smiles to your life. And about losing you, I am sure my love will protect you.’
He held my hand and kissed.
Out of nowhere, soldiers on the other beds clapped in joy. They seemed to have followed our conversation. A few fingers-in-the-mouth whistles took the celebration to the next level. Their pain seemed to have vanished with all the love in the air.
Irony had played its part; what snatched lives from many, gifted me something to live for!