War stories don’t age. Because the world remembers courage shown by those who were brave and not the horrors that made men cowards. “What does a war do to a man?”- enquired Athṛ as he read those lines with his old man. He knew he was asking it from the right person but he was unsure if he was asking the right question. But the old man nevertheless understood the young boy’s dilemma. Still, he did not straightaway reply to him. He was wise enough not to. That is what war does to a man. It makes him sadder, but wiser. After much thought he said “I lost a lot in wars. Most of the men worry about the time it takes out of their lives. But I do not long for that. I have nothing but years left by me today; years and you. But I also lost my son to it and him I can’t bring back. What war has done to me is that it has kept me hanging. Hanging to hope that one day it will stop taking things away from me. It is sad, but I still live.” Athṛ blinked. In a flash he went through everything he had just been told and exclaimed why he could not understand it. The old man shrugged him off his trance and brought him back to his age of teens. He told Athṛ that while he may read alongside him, for all of the written word was for all ages, he need not worry about understanding everything. Because he knew that wisdom would come when all those words culminated into meaning and those meanings could only come to him with years.
“It’s your time to go and play with your friends. These are wonderful years and you must learn the reason why. For if you don’t, you will long for them when you have to shoulder responsibilities, and that would be a life spent in nostalgia”. The boy understood and ran out to play. He met his friends at their ground and tried to tell them what he had learnt that day. But they seemed least interested. What mattered to them most was why Athṛ was always late to play. “You take the most time to the hill so it gets dark when we return. You must try to get a head start so that we don’t have to suffer.” It could have come as a rebuke to anyone else but not to Athṛ. He knew how much they loved him and how much he loved them back. He also knew that they were not reprimanding him but saying what constituted the tease-talk of their boyhood, the whole “Get up you weakling” and “Did you get hurt you baby girl?” routine. Much like every day, the boys chatted on their way to the beginning of the hill and then set their feet to the climb. Much like every day, Athṛ was the last to scale it and reached just about when the sun was setting. They did this at all times because they loved doing it; because they loved the way the rays of the setting sun fell on their skin making it white to yellow to red and finally dark with the promise of bringing back the white yet again the next day; because they loved how in spite of all their knowledge, the world never fails to make them feel like a speck of sand in a desert; and especially because it gave them the warmth of witnessing true friendship in a world of coldness and chaos.
The sun came back as it had promised. The boys reached school, some place they wouldn’t be meeting again a few months forth. But it was closed. Of course they rejoiced but wondered as to what made the ever-so-regular headmaster grant them a free holiday. It wasn’t a festival for sure; it was a calamity. As the army officials marched in, the news spread throughout the city: War had been declared yet again. It had been but 6 years since the last bloodshed and people had still not recovered from it. Those who had been given the reigns to rule were set to bring doom for their people. The enemy, as the case rarely is, was although a noble one. It soon got established that the war was waged not by the enemy but by them only. They were all being led by a few to their destruction. As the wise men sat to discuss it, they found that it may possibly be the end that they have dreaded for so long but also it could be an end to this war they had fought for generations and survived; that maybe good times will come again under the noble rule. But at what cost?
Soon, they knew the answer. The armies had called for mass forcible recruitment of young men who could fight in the war. It was a state of pandemonium. The sun again dawned and the old man knew what was happening. He could not but cry at the sight of Athṛ leaving for the army camp along with his friends. He knew he wouldn’t come back. As for Athṛ, most of his questions were answered in that precise moment when he touched his old man’s hand for the last time. He knew, the man would not live to see the next sunrise.
As the old man returned to his home after paying obeisance to all places of his motherland that he gave his life for, the life which he was about to end that day, he lit the last light of his life and in the dark shadows clearing out, he saw Athṛ. He was back; THEY were back. Athṛ was declared physically unfit for a disease he did not remember the name he was told of. Both men stood stunned. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.