09 May 2013

The General's Exercise

Retired General Joginder Singh opened his eyes on March 12th, 2013. He’d closed them almost six years ago. As expected, it set of a chain of events, starting with the nurse in his room dashing to alert the on duty doctor, and culminated in a primly dressed lawyer sitting in front of him, brimming with excitement.

“Good morning General,” Ranvir Kapoor said reverently. It’d been far too long since he’d uttered those words.

The general, wearing a mask that silently pumped oxygen into his body, nodded his head, too tired to utter the reply. He was still weak.

Ranvir Kapoor adjusted the set of papers resting on his lap, and thought about the best way to breach the topic. “General,” he started carefully, “the doctors couldn’t give me a definite answer about whether you’ve regained…full memory?”

Beneath the plastic mask a slight smile formed. The 62 year old General could remember everything vividly.

It was about ten years ago, during a weekend in March, that he’d first got the idea. His wife was animatedly describing the behavior of their two year old grandson when something she said struck a chord with Joginder.

“It seems within a few more months Balu will be able to read letters!” Mrs. Singh exclaimed, as though her grandson was the first in India to achieve the feat. She continued dicing carrots as she spoke, the knife occasionally hovering dangerously close to her finger. “I can’t wait for him to grow up, Jogi. Imagine, by the time he’s four or five, we could give him all of Rahul’s story books to read. The little boy will have so many stories to discover!”

The last words out of her mouth immediately triggered an image in Joginder’s mind, one that lingered for a whole minute till she asked him to pass the bottle of vinegar. By the time his wife had set the table for dinner, the idea had almost fully formed in his mind. As she tossed two chapattis into his plate, he decided to share it with his wife.

“Preeti,” he intoned in a deep, thoughtful voice which his wife knew was always set aside for serious talks. “You know that I’m due for duty in the north east in a week’s time.” It was a statement, not a question, and one which always saddened Preeti Singh. She nodded quietly.

“It’ll be a risky business,” Joginder continued, “There’s no saying what the Maoists will be up to this time. You know all of that, of course. But I was thinking, Preeti,” he said hesitantly, not sure how to explain the idea that had gripped him. He decided to narrate the memory that’d been triggered in his mind instead.

“You remember when I was posted at the border for the 71’ war?” He asked. Preeti nodded her head. They’d only been married for a few years then, and she’d spent the nights crying herself to sleep. “Well, I’ve already told you that I was hit by a land mine. Was knocked unconscious for almost a day, and spent over a week being treated on by over worked army doctors. Now here’s the incident that I haven’t told you. My battalion office Kushwant Singh was a very thick friend of mine. He came to visit me once I was shifted to the recovery tent for recuperation. And do you know what he brought me?”

“A box of barfis?” Preeti asked, smiling. She knew how much her husband loved barfis.

Joginder laughed with his mouth half filled with chapatti. “How well you know me! Yes, he did have a box of barfis with him. But more importantly, Preeti,” he said, leaning forward, “he had a stack of newspapers. It was the best present I could have imagined.”

He paused, and observed his wife’s confused face. “You see,” he continued, “Manchester United was competing in the League Cup at that time, and I’d missed their quarter final match, along with two league matches. So when the stack of newspapers were presented to me, I could catch up with what’d happened, one day at a time!”

Joginder Singh’s eyes gleamed with excitement that his wife didn’t share. She wouldn’t be able to understand the way it felt, flipping open a crisp newspaper, reading the headlines for the first time and taking in the news as though it had just happened. It allowed Joginder Singh, tied down to a cot in a tent in Jammu, to enjoy the news that occurred over a week’s time, within a span of a day. Rustling the pages until he reached the sports section, a satisfied smile had emerged on the young army officer’s face as he read the latest updates of a football team he’d supported since the day his father returned from a visit to London with wide eyed descriptions of the hallowed Old Trafford. The nurses milling around the tent, heard his exclaims and yells of despair as he discovered a new day’s news every hour, and they envied the luxury he’d been afforded. It felt as though the whistle in Old Trafford only blew as and when Joginder Singh reached out for the day’s copy of Times of India. In an odd way, he could control time, lingering next to the side table with a look of anticipation at the day’s headlines printed across the day’s newspaper.

“So Preeti, I was thinking that in case, god forbid, anything was to happen to me,” Joginder proposed, mentally congratulating himself on having the idea a mere week before departing for duty. “I want to experience that feeling all over again. It’ll be the only bright side to being injured,” he said with a wry smile.

Preeti Singh, who’d spent years learning to cope with the troubles that came with being married to an army officer, couldn’t help but chuckle. Her husband’s enthusiasm about the proposed idea made him look like an excitedly school boy. She realized she’d miss it soon.

“Okay dear,” she said in her gently, motherly tone. “Is there anything I can do to help you?”

Joginder thought about it, and realized a better man to approach would be his long time lawyer. The fellow, who’d just finished perfecting the general’s new will, smiled in bemusement on hearing the plan.

“So you want me,” he said loudly, hoping he’d understood it right, “to collect every day’s newspaper when you’re on duty. And should you be injured and hospitalized, I should deliver the set of newspapers to you once you’re fit and recuperated?”

The general sipped the cup of tea placed in front of him by Kapoor’s secretary. His mind was flooding with ideas. He was trying to remember that week in Jammu, hoping to be able to replicate all the conditions that’d made his recovery so pleasurable.

“The world’s changed a lot since 71’,” he said pensively, and the lawyer could see he was busy thinking. “I’ll need to take all the right precautions if this little exercise is to work,” he said, taping his fingers against the lawyer’s desk.

Ranvir Kapoor suppressed a smile. The general already referred to his idea as an exercise, he mused. It was almost as if he’d be disappointed if he wasn’t injured while on duty.

The rest of the evening was spent in spelling out all the conditions that were to be complied with in the case of the general being hospitalized for two days or more. Ranvir Kapoor listed them down in typical legal style, and promised to himself undertake the task of ensuring the exercise was carried out, should the need, god forbid, ever arise.

Little did the two men shaking hands before parting that evening know just how keen fate was to indulge the General’s little whim. Four months later, a stray bullet fired from a Maoist rifle lodged itself in Joginder Singh’s chest, almost killing him. The decorated army man was immediately shifted to a military hospital, where doctors quietly told Mrs. Singh that the prognosis wasn’t positive. The general wouldn’t outlive the weekend. But the sturdy veteran of two major wars had a body that could defy half a dozen doctors and one fatal bullet. Though he lay in a coma, his heart continued beating day after day.

Ranvir Kapoor, now with a sad smile on his face, decided to undertake the responsibility that had been entrusted to him, and set out to diligently collect a copy of every day’s newspaper…

The lawyer, with wisps of white hair in his forehead betraying the passage of six years, decided to read out the document that Joginder Singh had drawn up along with him a long time ago.

“General, as per your wishes, I’ve instructed the hospital staff at this private hospital to make sure that you are not disturbed for the next four months, except during specified times, and that too only for administering medicines. They are, under no circumstances, allowed to communicate with you, in order to avoid the possibility of leaking information which you may not be aware of yet. There shall be no television or radio in your room, and this room has, upon request, been sound proofed.”

He paused to check that the General was listening.

“Go on,” the old man said feebly.

“Now, I’ll read out the routine that I’ve formulated for you. If there is anything you’d like to change in it, let me know. Every day you’ll be provided with 18 newspapers. Since you’ll need a minimum of 6 hours of sleep, you’ll get a fresh newspaper every hour that you’re awake. Is that fine?”

The General thought of how much he would enjoy the exercise. “Yes, that’s perfect.”

“That makes it 126 papers in a week,” the lawyer continued, running his finger through the text. “And every two weeks or so, you’ll get an extra newspaper, just to make the calculations match. In four months’ time, you should be done with almost six years’ worth of information. Any question?”

The general took a deep breath and softly asked. “When do I start?”

Ranvir Kapoor smiled and said, “In half an hour General. Before I hand you your first newspaper, the doctor has a few things he’d like to discuss with you.” He got up and walked towards the door. “Doctor, please come in,” he said, opening the door wide.

A tall, hefty man in a white coat entered the room, beaming widely at the general. “I’ve been waiting six years to have a talk with you, General,” he said jovially. Pulling up a chair next to the bed, he sat down and assumed a more serious tone.

“I’m not sure your lawyer has briefed you on your health. You’ve been in a deep coma for six years, thanks to a nasty bullet that almost threatened to leave you brain dead, General. All of us here are thankful to God Almighty for handing you back to us in a stable condition. But there are still a few precautions that we need to take. Firstly, I’m aware of the little –”, he paused, searching for the right word. “–exercise that you’ve set up for yourself. But let me warn you, that under no circumstances are you allowed to excite yourself. Reading about the various changes that’ve taken place all over the world over the past few years at a single stretch can, in my opinion, shake the foundations of a man. Especially,” he chuckled, “what’s been happening in Ame–“

The lawyer coughed loudly at this point and glared at the doctor. “Oh sorry,” the man in the white coat said apologetically, realizing the conditions he’d agreed to before entering the room. He was not supposed to make any references to any event that happened in the past six years. “Well, I guess I’d better leave before I ruin anything for you,” he said with a sheepish smile.

After he left, the lawyer asked if there was anything else the General wanted to clarify. “Nothing, now leave me alone with my newspapers,” Joginder Singh said gruffly. “Let me find out what the damn Americans have been up to.”

It was a marvelous exercise, executed in the most precise manner possible. Every morning, at precisely 6, the retired General would wake up and find a copy of ‘the day’s’ Times of India on the side table. Bless Ranvir’s soul, he thought, the paper was crisp and fresh, as though a paper boy had just tossed it into his room. Savoring the whole exercise, Joginder slowly rustled through the pages, reading the headlines with a mixture of curiosity and excitement.

Petrol prices had gone up again, he thought, shaking his head in disappointment. The Lok Sabha was a mess, with nothing happening the whole day. The calls for the Prime Minister’s resignation were increasing. Good old India and its delightful problems, mused the general. After finishing with the editorial section, he turned his attention towards the sports page. Ah, his beloved Manchester United had won the game against Everton. He read the match summary carefully, pausing to picture the excitement that would’ve taken place on the pitch. By the time the nurse entered the room with his breakfast, Joginder Singh was in a buoyant mood.

“Hullo nurse!” he greeted her jovially. “Place the tray here and fetch me the next newspaper, please! Quick, I need to know if rotten Chelsea wins their match as well!”

By the end of the day, Joginder Singh found himself secretly being thankful for the six yearlong break he’d taken from the outside world. He realized how crazy the thought would have sounded, and imagined the emotions that his poor wife would have been subjected to over the course of the years. But in the end, it all turned out well, didn’t it, he reasoned. Besides, in four months’ time, she’d visit and accompany him home. Ranvir Kapoor had asked twice if he was sure he wanted to remain isolated for four whole months. On account of the day he’d had, Joginder was pretty sure he made the right decision by saying yes.

Over the course of the next two weeks, Joginder could understand what the doctor had meant by his comment. Reading 18 days’ worth of newspapers in a single day gave him a unique perspective on the events that were unfolding all over the world. He saw how important issues like a mammoth scandal like the 2G spectrum quickly erupted as a national issue and almost immediately dissolved from the pages without leaving a mark. He’d never realized how fickle the mind of his countrymen had been. While the world quickly changed thanks to new technological innovations, certain ideologies and habits remained the same. The only saving grace from all this disappointment was the constant entertainment his favorite club provided him.

Joginder quickly formed a habit of slowly pacing around the room after reading a newspaper – the doctor had encouraged him to undertake this light form of exercise – thinking about the upcoming match that Manchester United would be playing. He’d form expectations, predict score lines, brace himself and then settle down to reading the next day’s copy. More often than not, he’d let out a yell as he turned over to the sports section, overjoyed at seeing his predictions come true.

Thankfully, the first few pages of the newspaper had enough material to distract the General on days when a certain Wayne Rooney and his comrades weren’t at their best. The civil war in Syria was escalating, while an oil spill in the Atlantic Ocean was threatening to spiral into a full blown environmental crisis. But the best piece of news the General read was a small column on the Nations’ page.

Seven unidentified saucers spotted over night sky in Madhya Pradesh, the headline screamed. Joginder sat up in his bed and went through the article carefully. “Ha, who would have thought,” he said aloud, chuckling in amusement. The nurse in the room was busy laying out his lunch. “After all these years, even Indians have started claiming UFO sightings. How the world has changed.”

He glanced at the nurse, and felt slightly disappointed by her expression. It was one of disinterest. It’s a bloody giveaway, he thought grumpily. Sure enough, the next hour he read a front page story about possible U.F.O. sightings cited in villages across the country. The reporter excitedly claimed that they may be on the threshold of an encounter with extra-terrestrials.

Reading the next hour’s paper, Joginder realized a flaw in his exercise. In normal circumstances, he would have spent the whole day discussing about the news of possible extra-terrestrial sightings with his friends, propounding various theories that ranged from military experiment to mass hysteria. Sadly, all such possibilities were lost since the following day’s newspaper squashed any thought of excitement the General would have harbored. There were no mention of UFOs, and just like the scandals, rape cases and serial fasts that briefly gripped the country, it had vanished from the nation’s conscience.

“Why so gloomy, General?” the doctor asked as he conducted his weekly checkup. Joginder Singh sighed softly. “I’m not sure I’m fully enjoying this little exercise of mine, doctor. I’ve realized there’s nothing exciting happening that can hold my attention for more than a week’s time.”

“Well, in that case I guess there’s something I can do to cheer you up. There’s an officer from the Intelligence Bureau who met me in my office this morning. It seems he wants to interview you, if you’re up for it.”

The general’s face light up with curiosity. “The IB?” He asked. “Why would they want to interview me?”

“Well, he wasn’t in a position to divulge too much information to me, but what he said was you’d be a man with important secrets. Secrets gained during your time battling Pakistan. You were one of the chief commanders in the Kargil War, I understand?”

“Yes, I was. Did quite a bit to hammer those Pakis back to their side of the border,” the General said proudly. It cheered him up to think back to those courageous times spent on the battlefield. But there was a question that was presently bothering him.

“Why would the Intelligence Bureau want to interview me on my time in Kargil? Is everything alright?”

He realized the spot he’d put the doctor in. Eyeing the date on the newspaper laying on the side table, the doctor gave a wry smile. “You wouldn’t want me to ruin your exercise for you, would you General?”

“I’d allow you to if it was a matter of national importance,” said Joginder, his patriotism kicking in.

The doctor chuckled. “A typical army man, aren’t you sir? Don’t worry, there’s nothing that important going on. I guess it’s just a routine interview they’re conducting. Part of a –”, he tried remembering the words, “–Intelligence Review or something of that sort.”

“Alright, I’ll grant the interview, it’ll probably distract me from the rotten run of form Manchester United are going through anyway,” the General said, glancing at the newspaper by his side with disdain.

A series of interviews of half hour duration were scheduled for the next one week. Since the General wasn’t in the best physical condition, it’d been advised that he take the interviews in a slow and methodical manner.

The officer from the Intelligence Bureau was a smart, energetic man, who had a set of questions prepared. Most of them were enquiries about Joginder Singh’s position and command duties during the Kargil War.

“All of these are available in my records,” he complained after having to remember details of incidents that occurred over a decade ago.

“I know General, but this is part of the protocol that we’re following,” the officer replied.

The third week of the General’s exercise was in many ways a negative experience. There was nothing of any importance in the papers, and Manchester United’s form in the new season left a lot to be desired. Thankfully, the interviews with the IB officer retained some form of excitement.

The officer posed a specific question about the chain of incidents that occurred in Kargil, and the General, who by now had warmed up to the officer, set out to narrate in great detail. Once the story was over, he mentioned how he’d managed to make a make shift grenade thanks to his father’s teachings.

“You see, officer, my father had served in the British Army as a commander, and it was during his time in London that he’d learned the arm of manufacturing grenades. It was a British friend of him that taught him the technique. Funnily enough, the teachings happened after the two of them attended the league match at Old Trafford. My father had no interest in football at that time, you see, but his buddy forced him to attend the match with him. And that single match – my father always reminded me – made him a lifelong fan. Manchester United were down two goals against Nottingham Forest, when a certain player from United, I guess his name was Hanlon, drove forward from the left side of pitch, past six defenders and – ”

Suddenly the General stopped, a look of surprise showing on his face. The officer, who hadn’t been paying attention, wondered if his expression had reflected his thought.

“Excuse me for a minute,” Joginder said suddenly, turning towards the side table and pulling up the copy of Times of India. He turned to the last page and read it for a minute. Folding the paper, he looked at the IB officer with a perplexed look on his face.

“Where were we?” he asked absentmindedly.

Even the nurse noticed that the General seemed confused the next day. He sat in his bed, anxiously waiting for the next hour’s newspaper, and immediately turning over to the sports section once it was handed to him. He’d read the page quickly, fold it up without a word, and look even more perplexed.

This went on for the next two days, during which he began to form reservations about the questions that the IB officer were posing to him. It was almost an interrogation of the General’s actions in the Kargil war, as though the Intelligence Bureau couldn’t believe that the army veteran had been capable of leading fighting off the Pakistani invasion.

After reading a few more newspapers, the General grew increasingly restless. Finally, he summoned his lawyer. “Ranvir, there’s something wrong,” he said gravely, wondering if the lawyer would laugh at his complaint.

“What is it?” the lawyer asked, wondering why the veteran army man looked so troubled.

“I’m not sure, that’s the thing. But it’s certainly fishy, I tell you. I can’t explain it. At first I thought it was a mere coincidence. But no, it can’t be. Not when it’s over 20 matches, can it?”

Ranvir raised his brow in confusion. “I’m not sure I follow, General.”

The General sighed and pointed towards the stack of read newspapers next to him. “You see, my father was a great fan of Manchester United. Supported them ever since he came back from his visit to London in the late 40s’. In fact, so devoted was he that he’d narrate the score lines of some of the matches that he’d witnessed in their stadium. He even ended up by an almanac that had a record of their matches. That’s how I know for certain, Ranvir. You might think I’m going senile, but I can swear to you the matches are the same!”

“Which matches are the same?” the lawyer asked, trying his best to understand the General.

“The matches in the paper, and the matches that happened!” the General rasped conspiratorially. “At first I thought it was just a coincidence. After all, many matches have the same score line. But no, Ranvir. I can faintly remember the way some of the matches at Old Trafford turned out. My father had narrated them to me many times over in my child hood. And they are exactly how these matches are playing out! It’s unbelievable!”

The lawyer watched the General’s expression of incredulity and wondered how he would reply. “So your telling me,” he said softly, “ that the football matches that happened – ” he checked the date on the newspapers, “– more than three years ago, are the same ones that happened what, over half a century back?”

It sounded silly when it was worded that way, and the General bowed his head. “I know it sounds stupid,” he said meekly. “But it’s almost uncanny, the description of the matches and the score line. It’s almost like history repeating itself.”

“I think you’ve spent far too much time on your own, General,” the lawyer said gently, getting up to leave. “Let’s just get this exercise over with soon, or else you might end up with many more such weird thoughts.”

The general nodded his head, and leaned back in his bed. Ranvir Kapoor closed the door behind him and began walking through the corridor quickly, swearing under his breath. He signaled rudely towards the guards standing at the gate and they hurriedly made way for him.

Walking through a glass tunnel that over looked a vast area filled with burning buildings and deserted roads, the lawyer entered a large room. As expected, the nurse, the officer from the Intelligence Bureau, the doctor and several others were waiting for him anxiously.

Ranvir Kapoor swore loudly. “Get me the vermin in charge of the newspapers!” he yelled at an attendant, who scurried away immediately. Looking at the group of individuals in front of him, he snarled. “You set of fools, do you know what’s at stake here? I’ve been charged with an important mission, and there is no way I’ll tell any of you compromise it!”

He gestured towards the large map fixed to wall. “America, Britain, France, the whole of Africa and Latin America, in a measly three weeks! And with the whole of India conquered we can’t manage to get over the stupid Himalayas and into Pakistan?”

The attendant brought a meek looking bespectacled man who was shaking with fear.

“Are you the one in charge of the newspapers?” the lawyer asked. “Ye – yes commander,” the man whispered.

“You imbecile!” roared the commander. “Can’t you make up a stupid set of football matches for a general to read?”

“There are no football matches anymore, Commander,” the man said defensively.

“I know that!” roared back the commander. “But if we are to get military secrets out of that old fool in that room, you better make them up! And you better not copy matches that took place half a century ago. That fool remembers the rotten score lines as well!”

“But it’s tough, Commander,” the man protested meekly. “We don’t know the game of these humans. They have tables and points and cheer even when their team loses, as long as other teams lose. Besides, I have to come up with the whole newspaper, not just the sports sec –”

He said no more, for the Commander stepped forward and swung his arm across the man’s face. Like a sledge hammer, it tore off the man’s head and left his body writhing on the floor. The man’s arms fell away, exposing a set of tentacles. From within the man’s body, a strange set of sounds emerged, pleading the Commander to spare its life.

“Destroy the vermin,” the Commander cried. “And find me someone else who knows what these humans want to read in their papers. Now! In two weeks’ time, I better get every piece of information that old fool has to offer about Pakistan.”

Just then, there was a loud beep from the screen. “It’s the mother ship, Commander,” one of them said. The Commander readied himself to accept the call from the Mothership, presently anchored in a tiny village in Madhya Pradesh...

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