Sohail Rauf is an engineer by profession and has a PhD degree in wireless communication from the University of Southampton, UK. He is currently teaching inan undergrad institute in Pakistan. His favourite authors / poets include John Steinbeck, George Orwell, Robert Frost and Abdullah Hussain. His poem has been published in the First Edition (http://www.firsteditionpublishing.co.uk), an Urdu short story has been accepted by the Funoon and an English story is expected to appear in the Muse India (http://www.museindia.com) soon.
The more Kashif looked at the Special Services Group soldier, the more certain he grew that he too wanted to be a commando.
“Is he braver than the US Marines?” Kashif asked his father who sat on his right.
Papa whispered, “No doubt. But we need to watch the passing-out parade quietly; we might be disturbing others.” The guests’ enclosures were filling up as people took their seats. Despite being adorned with Pakistan’s and the Army’s flags and placards, the parade ground in front of them looked vast and empty in anticipation of the cadets who were to march in soon. Behind the parade ground, the cadets’ mess building looked grand in its camouflage paint.
They had been sitting for hours, it seemed to Kashif, waiting for the parade to begin, when the commandos had quietly taken their positions at various points in the guest enclosures—precisely determined positions as if on a battlefield, Kashif noted. After the rigmarole of the security checks and frequent intervals of waiting between each check, Kashif had become impatient.
“Thank your Mama, son; she’s a VIP. We’ve gotten away with far fewer security checks than many others,” Papa said when they had taken their seats. Mama, who sat on Kashif’s left, smiled at him.
“Are you alright? You look uneasy? The same old stories of the government-versus-army cold war worrying you?” Papa asked Mama, as he reached out across Kashif and patted her arm. Noticing Kashif’s quizzical looks, she said to him, “Let’s enjoy your brother’s passing-out parade.”
But Kashif was more interested in the commando who had positioned himself between the VVIP and VIP enclosures on the stair just below the one on which Kashif and his family took their seats. Dressed in olive-green camouflage army uniform, shining black DMS shoes shin-high with the trousers tucked into them, dark glasses and red beret set at a rakish angle, the commando symbolized everything the boy dreamed of: power, chutzpah, grace, precision, authority.
A thin microphone stayed centimeters away from his mustached lips; a shining walkie-talkie set, which crackled and burped sometimes, was strapped on his chest. A pistol adorned his right hip and a small dagger could be seen on his calf, just above the DMS shoes, whenever he turned his left side towards Kashif. The jewel in the crown, though, was the automatic rifle that might have been nothing more than a shiny toy when left on its own, but in the commando’s capable hands, it looked like a deadly machine.
Kashif’s brother, Faisal, who was graduating today, had told him that there were two types of cadets in the academy: the proper ones, who did the right thing, at the right time, wore the right uniform and never deviated from what was expected of them, and those who fell short of this mark of perfection. This man was a proper soldier, thought Kashif. He radiated the impression that he had been honed for his job with utmost efficiency. And what was his job here?
“He is here for the security of the chief guest,” Papa whispered, barely audible above an officer’s welcome address emanating from the loudspeakers.
“And who is the chief guest?”
“The Prime Minister. But don’t tell anyone; it’s supposed to be top secret. We know, thanks to your Mama.”
The parade marched in to enthused clapping from the guests, dressed in khaki and white with green berets on their heads and rifles at their sides. The cadets’ feet synchronized with the military band, its soldiers dressed in splendid, brightly coloured uniforms. They were playing what Kashif recognized as the tune of a famous military song. The cadets took their positions in nicely organized formations and stood to attention, so amazingly still that except for the flags swaying in the gentle breeze, the parade-ground appeared to Kashif an artist’s masterpiece of still life. He tried to spot Faisal in the cadets’ formations but could not.
As the Prime Minister walked on to the dais, dressed traditionally in a sherwani, everyone rose to their feet. The cadets welcomed the Prime Minister with a beautifully-coordinated salute of their rifles and swords to the loud and rhythmic beat of the drum playing the national anthem. The Prime Minister responded to the salute by placing his hand on his chest. Then, with the parade commander by his side, the Prime Minister reviewed the parade as he slow-marched in front of the cadet formations, the cadets standing still like statues and the band playing the slow beat of a national song.
Bored, Kashif focused his attention back to his commando who, all this while, had stood alert, his feet slightly apart, hands on the rifle, eyes watchful behind the glasses. Doesn’t he get tired? Kashif wondered.
Then the trophies were awarded to the top cadets: One by one, various cadets’ names were announced; each cadet marched stiffly towards the chief guest who handed the trophy amid loud claps. Kashif was disappointed Faisal did not get any award.
A cadet fell in the rear ranks, the rattle barely audible as his rifle too hit the ground. The routine of the parade continued, even as three cadets rushed in with a stretcher, quietly picked up the fallen cadet from the ground and carried him away. Not many people would have noticed what happened, Kashif gauged.
“The cadets must be feeling the heat,” Papa whispered into Kashif’s ear, adding, “They practice for that sort of casualty too, I’m sure,”
“The Army is good at cover-up jobs,” Mama smiled as she whispered to Papa.
By now the cadets were taking their oath, repeating words of a senior officer whose commanding voice emitted from the loud speakers and resonated all around the parade ground. Everyone listened in silence as the cadets vowed allegiance to the country.
It was time for the chief guest’s speech. The Prime Minister congratulated the graduating cadets and praised the Army for their service to the nation, but he sounded jittery. Leaning across Kashif, Papa whispered to Mama, “What’s wrong with him? Does he always sound hollow when he says things he does not mean?” Mama did not reply; she was looking the other way but Kashif could sense her unease.
Finally, the parade, on its way out, marched in front of the dais, flight behind flight, cadets turning their heads towards the dais to salute. Faisal led one of the flights, looking very proper and handsome, shouting his words of command like a true commander and saluting with the smart movements of his sword. Kashif and his parents clapped for him, as others did for their sons.
Mama later said that what followed was planned to be executed exactly in those moments, when people’s attention was taken up by the spectacularly loud and colourful band as it passed the dais at the tail-end of the parade. Not many people would have noticed the discordant movement on the dais: the Generals shuffling around, the Prime Minister stepping back, a General and two commandos, brothers-in-arms of Kashif’s hero, stepping very close to the Prime Minister. Audible above the band’s music—Kashif and Faisal’s favourite, which beckoned the gallant soldier to rise and prepare for martyrdom—whispers could be heard as some heads turned toward the dais.
Suddenly Mama rose to her feet. “What’s going on? What are they doing to the Prime Minister?” she shouted.
“Sit down,” Kashif’s hero said in a muffled voice as he sprang into action and advanced towards Mama, who did not listen to him but continued to shout, waving her arms at those around her as if urging them to protest. The commando stepped closer to her and with his rifle’s muzzle pushed her back. For a moment or two, the muzzle lingered around and probably touched her shoulder or breast—Kashif was not sure because it was his mother’s left side and he was sitting on her right. Stunned, his mother fell backwards into her chair and a few women’s screams rose in the enclosure. Papa placed a restraining hand on her arm.
“Everyone remain seated. No one is to get up.” The commando’s voice was firm and deliberate as he pointed his rifle in the direction of Kashif’s family.
Meanwhile the Prime Minister and the generals had left the dais, the parade and the band had marched out and an uneasy normality prevailed.
From his bed, Kashif could hear his family and the TV outside in the lounge. Someone was changing the TV channels every now and then.
“See, there’s nothing on the channels. Nothing has happened,” Papa said.
“The channels have been told to stay mum,” Mama replied, her voice fraught with anxiety.
“All the channels? No, the Army can’t do that, no matter how bossy they want to be. Anyway, why do you have to be the hero?” Papa was perhaps pacing around the lounge, as he argued with Mama. “Your male party members were wiser. Let’s suppose something did happen on the dais. Did anyone budge?”
“But why did the Army Chief have to do it?” Mama said, choking; she had been crying.
“How can you be so naïve, Shahida? I can’t believe you are in politics. I’m sure nothing actually has happened; these were pressure tactics. Doesn’t the Army use them? Don’t you know? Martial law is so old-fashioned these days, with the entire world and the media watching. Arm-twisting is the new Martial law…” He paused, then added, “Your Prime Minister was asking for it, by the way. Just look at your party’s performance. Their governance is so shambolic. The opposition and the media are calling for their heads.” Kashif could imagine Papa waving his arms energetically and his right hand landing on his left palm every now and then to emphasize a point.
“So are the Generals going to judge the government’s performance? Everyone’s performance? And who’s going to judge their performance?” Mama was angry too.
“Anyway, I am sure this was just a hoax. Your dear Prime Minister will return to office tomorrow morning. But mind you, this is Faisal’s big day. Look at him, my young lieutenant son. Let us not spoil his faith in his motherland. Oh, look! Shahida, there you are in the news…”
Everyone fell silent as they listened to a TV story about an SSG commando misbehaving with a woman member of parliament.
“I hope you are right. I hope it’s nothing,” Mama said, disregarding the news clip about the commando. “But yes, let’s celebrate. Look at him, how quiet Faisal is! The day he is commissioned, his bosses put the nation’s future to sword!”
“The sword which we are so proud of,” Faisal muttered.
“Oh, come on! Stop this melodrama! I told you it’s a hoax,” Papa said, adding, “Where is Kashif? We forgot him.”
A few moments later, his father entered Kashif’s room and switched on the light.
“Kashif! Why are you in bed? Something wrong?” Papa approached him. “Have you been crying? Oh my sweet boy, what happened? Shahida, come here…”
Mama and Faisal rushed in. Sitting down on his bed, Mama pulled Kashif towards her and held him tight in her arms.
“What happened, my boy? Are you crying for me?” Mama whispered to him, her own voice very nearly a sob, “Don’t cry, sweetheart.”
“Come on, brave boy. Don’t cry for your mother. She is brave enough,” Papa said, standing near the foot of the bed. Kashif did not say anything. He just sobbed against his mother’s bosom.