Band of Brothers

Siblings from another mother saved the day on a long, arduous journey

By Nandini Thapa  


Illustration By Siddhant Jumde

I was going to visit my aunt, posted at the military hospital in Missamari, Assam, in my final year of junior college. The year was 2001.

I was travelling from Goa, where I lived, via Mumbai to Guwahati. Due to the heavy Mumbai traffic and an overcrowded platform, I missed my train. Never one to give up easily, I got a ticket on a general compartment of the Guwahati Express that was about to leave Dadar station. Running across the platform I jumped on to the moving train. It helped that I was in jeans and was carrying only a backpack.

Passengers were packed into the compartment like sardines. Not an inch of space was empty--even the floor under the berths was taken. I managed to park myself in a cramped space between the carriage door and the toilet. It was horribly uncomfortable and smelly. Each time someone wanted to get to the toilet, I had to give way, by moving aside. Tired of shuffling around, I was on the verge of tears, after doing this for three or four hours. I had no idea how I would survive the three-day journey without a reserved seat. I cursed myself for taking the train on an impulse.

As I started looking for another space to squeeze myself into, a group of Army jawans on the other end of the compartment offered me an entire upper berth to myself. Five of them were heading home--to Assam and beyond--for a break. Calling me 'sister', they put me at ease immediately. Waking me up the next morning, they even got me a cup of tea. As we chatted, I got to know them and learnt about their life in the Army. Pintu, one of the soldiers, seemed like an elder brother
to me. When the train stopped at the Patna Junction station, pandemonium ensued and two burly men jumped up and parked themselves beside me. Within minutes they came down, thanks to my new-found brothers, absolute angels in disguise.

We reached Guwahati in the wee hours of the fifth day (the journey was extended, due to huge delays en route). The first bus to Tezpur, where I was headed, was at 6 a.m. I had bid goodbye to four of my brothers before we reached Guwahati and thanked them profusely before they went their way. Only Pintu, who was going to Tezpur, stayed back at the station to take the bus with me. "Sister, why don't you sleep? I will wake you up when the bus arrives," he said, as he laid out his military green sleeping bag. I fell sleep while he kept watch.

As we got into the bus, he invited me to visit his home, not far away from Missamari. When we arrived after a six-hour journey, we were warmly greeted by his family. His mother boiled water over firewood for us to freshen up. Pintu's sister Pinky took a shine to me and insisted I meet her friends, which I happily did. After a sumptuous home-cooked meal of chicken, made in honour of Pintu's homecoming and my surprise visit, it was time to leave for Missamari.

Pintu dragged out his late father's old Vespa and after a few good kicks it sputtered to life. I hugged his mother and sister and left. I rode pillion, and the bumpy road made me break into nervous giggles. Pintu was amused no end at this.

We finally reached my aunt's hospital and as I asked for her, Pintu bid me farewell. I hugged him and thanked him for his kindness. We promised each other we would meet again.

That Christmas I sent four greeting cards to my brothers (three of them were in Siachen) and got replies in inland letters--all of them asking after me and inviting me to their weddings. Pintu and I kept in touch on the phone. Though we have never met again, we have exchanged several letters. In his last letter, around 2005, I learnt he too was being dispatched to Siachen. I think of him often, and know someday I shall go to Tezpur again and find my brave brother, the soldier with a golden heart.