It is the dawn of the 1960's. Meena is married to Anand, an army officer, and lives with him at an army cantonment in the verdant hills of Dharamshala. But their life together turns upside down when the unit is suddenly called to resist the Chinese in the North East. Anand goes to war and never returns. There is no news of him, nor is his body found. Has he been killed? Did he abscond from the battlefield? Was he captured alive?
As her family and friends prepare her for the worst, Meena remains staunch in her belief that Anand would have fought like a brave soldier and would be safe somewhere, and would return to her some day.
Weeks turn into months and the months into years. Another man enters her life, but Meena is not ready for this relationship, convinced that Anand will come back. She clings to her dreams, and her most precious possession, an old Tibetan prayer wheel, becomes her talisman of hope and happiness. She knows that it had brought her happiness once, and it would again show its magical powers.
This is the story of a soldier's pride and courage on the battlefield and of a woman's faith and commitment; the story of tireless waiting and endless believing. Told with deep sensitivity, understanding and gentle humour, this story of Meena and the two men who love her moves to a heartrending climax. When the wheel turns, only Destiny knows who will be at the top…
Malathi Ramachandran is a graduate in English Literature and post graduate in Mass Communication who started off as a copywriter in advertising, writing catch lines for diverse products and services. The transition from ad writer to story writer was gradual as she freelanced and experimented with the gamut of genres from newspaper middles to travel features to fiction.
Malathi's short stories have been published in anthologies, magazines and websites. Two of her stories have won prizes in British Council-Unisun Short Fiction contests. The Wheel Turned is her first foray into full length fiction.
He was right. It was like entering a chapter in medieval Indian history. The swift foreign cars and buses of New Delhi had suddenly disappeared. In their place were horse-drawn tongas, cycle rickshaws and hand-carts. The roads had shrunk to the width of a back lane, and the predominantly Muslim population of Old Delhi made the pedestrian traffic a sea of bobbing black burkhas and embroidered caps. Amma had shied off from the outing, claiming tiredness. Early morning, she had beckoned to Meena from her bed, “I think I will just take a little rest today. That poor boy has taken so much trouble for us, at least you go with him today.” She paused and Meena could see her pondering on the propriety of the whole thing. “He’s a very decent boy of course, but, why don’t you ask Naina and Sonal to accompany you ? They have their holidays, and may enjoy the outing.” When Kamini heard of the new plan, she called the girls enthusiastically. “Come, Naina! Sonal! Remember how much you loved the Red Fort last year when you went with Chacha’s family? Well, you’re going there today!” Sonal made a face and whispered something into Naina’s ear. But calm, stoical Naina only looked impassive and agreed to the plan without a word. When Pradeep arrived, he was surprised to see his new teenage guests. “Well, well, well! So I’m going to be the lucky man driving around a bevy of beauties today, is it?” he asked, setting off the girls into a giggly mood. They sat in the back seat and after the ice was broken with a few well-chosen one-liners of Pradeep’s, they leaned over the front seat and started to chatter. Meena sank thankfully into her world of reverie, dreamily watching the city zipping past. It was fascinating how the scene changed dramatically as they entered the old city. As they inched along the road, Meena exclaimed aloud. On one side, the walls of the Red Fort appeared, then slowly, the huge, sandstone fortress loomed up over the scene like an extant God of War. It sat arrogantly, confident of its glory even after four centuries, looking across the road at the Jama Masjid and down Chandni Chowk, the quintessential bazar street. At the Red Fort, satiated with history, and more than a little tired, Meena at last sank down on a stone seat, looking around for Pradeep and the girls. “So, was it worth all the trouble?” He seemed to be watching her every move, for he suddenly appeared at her side and sat down on the bench beside her. “Hmm, yes! It’s just wonderful. The whole place reeks of History. I’m a history student, you know,” she smiled impishly. “You don’t say!” He sat back and threw his arm over the back of the bench. “That reminds me, how are the studies going?” “Not very well, I’m afraid.” she said ruefully. “Actually, I’m busy with a small school where I help out, so that leaves hardly any time for my books.” “Tell me about it,” his face was alit with interest. Within minutes, she was discussing the school, Rosie, the children, Jaya, their backgrounds. She skirted mention of Thomas uncle, just referring to him as Appa’s old friend. For a man who talked so much, Pradeep was a very good listener. His eyes never left her face as she talked, in fact she got the strange feeling he was not so interested in the words as in her expressions. Suddenly, she stopped. Looked around in a puzzled way, then at him. “Where are the girls? I haven’t seen them for quite some time.” “I sent them to have ice-creams outside. How about one for you?” He grinned invitingly. About to refuse politely, she changed her mind and smiled back. “Why not?” When they returned, Kamini had a message for Meena. “One Major Raman called while you were out,” she said. “He said you don’t know him, but apparently he knew Anand. He would like to come over to meet you and personally offer his congratulations on Anand’s award.” Meena looked surprised. “Meet me? That’s nice of him, but…” Pradeep spoke from behind her shoulder, “I know of Raman. He’s in the Headquarters and has been coordinating with the unit on all these arrangements. Seems a decent chap.” He looked at Meena, then Kamini, “Shall I give him a call and ask him here this evening?” Both nodded in unison. Major Raman arrived at sharp seven thirty. He was of medium build and nondescript personality, but when he spoke in his warm, deep voice, everyone listened. He talked of his short association with Anand and how well the two men had got on together; their adventures together in the survival course, the hopes and dreams they had shared over evening drinks. “A fine young man,” he told Meena unnecessarily. She looked at him with shining eyes. There was a short silence. Amma spoke up at last. “Where are you from, Raman?” she asked “Coimbatore, madam,” he replied. She chuckled in delight. “Our town! And your father’s name?” As details of Raman’s family came out, voice decibels rose in the room. “Of course, we know him!” “You are related to my sister’s sister-in-law!” “Oh madam, what a coincidence!” “No, no, it’s all fate, we had to meet, son. Why didn’t you bring your wife?” “Umm, madam, I’m not married, yet.” “What, a handsome young man like you?” In the middle of a general laugh, Meena caught Pradeep’s expression. He looked faintly annoyed, then clearing his throat, spoke for the first time, to Meena. “So, that makes you both practically cousins, I think?” Amma shook her head playfully, “No, son, he’s just a distant relation of my sister, but of course, very much family!” Pradeep looked at Raman pointedly. “I am leaving now, can I drop you anywhere?” Kamini and she stayed up most of the night talking after the girls had bid them a reluctant good night. At last they could speak what was in their hearts. Kamini broke down and sobbed while speaking of her husband. It had been too sudden. To think, the war was already over, and he was coming back home, when the accident happened. “I would have accepted it if he had been killed in action, but this is too cruel of the Almighty, it’s too much to bear!” Meena wept with her for what might have been, what should have been. Later, she poured out all her news to Kamini. Anna’s wedding, that had gone off well, and the new sister-in-law who seemed very sensible. The absence of Anand’s parents at the ceremony, and how it had signified their cutting of ties with her. “They obviously feel their only link with me is through Anand,” she explained, “so when he comes back…” she trailed off and sat looking at her hands. There was a long silence. Then Kamini leaned forward and lifted Meena’s chin with one finger. She looked into her eyes with compassion. “Meena, do you trust me?” Meena nodded. “Then I will talk to you from my heart. Meena, Anand has been missing for over a year now. I know it’s very difficult, no it’s almost impossible, to mourn someone of whose death you are not sure. But he may never come back. Never. Do you understand? You are young. You cannot spend the rest of your life waiting for him to walk in at the front door.” She paused, “Meena, you have to accept it, you have to let him go, don’t hold his soul back. Let him go in peace. Mourn him, cry for him, grieve your heart out, but accept it. That’s the only way to keep your sanity. You’ve got to carry on living, you’ve got your whole life in front of you.” Meena’s jaw had tightened under Kamini’s finger till the muscles stood out. Her eyes were darting around as she felt a panic attack coming on. Sensing the younger girl’s emotions, Kamini hugged her and whispered, “It’s alright, Meena, it’s alright to cry, come take it all out…” Meena wriggled out of her arms and smiled into her face, a strange smile. “But I don’t want to cry, I know he’s not dead, why should I cry? I am so proud of him, why should I cry? Tell me, tell me?”
She was so proud of him, she stood straight, her throat tight and closed, her chest heaving convulsively to hold the bubbling emotions down. The citation for Anand’s award was being read in front of the Chief of Army Staff at the Army Day Parade, as she stood before him in a simple cream silk sari and brown shawl. No colourful clothes, she had been briefed, she was supposed to be bereaved. No ornaments, no lipstick, no hairdo. She was to sustain the image of a grieving widow before the public. She had smiled inside, secretly amused by the officer-in-charge who professed to know more about Anand than she did. But she complied with the directions just to play along with them. The pale cream silk with a narrow border of embroidered tiny brown and peach motifs was set off perfectly by an off-white sweater and a brown shawl borrowed from Kamini Bhatt. They had reached well in time and were seated in the second row when the Commander’s arrival was announced by the crash of presenting arms and the stirring call of bugles. Awed by his impressive stride and the jangling medallions on his breast, she craned her neck to see him walking up and down the ranks, reviewing the parade. She tried to ignore Pradeep sitting on her left, feeling certain that he was watching her reactions in amusement, and would probably joke about it later. She had been taken aback to see him in full dress uniform, coming to pick them up in an official car. The sobriety of the occasion had hit her then, and she sat back silently between Amma and Kamini at the back of the car, concentrating her mind on the significance of the ceremony they were going to attend. Major Raman sat with them, a silent and sensitive spectator of this momentous event. As she was escorted up to the podium, the silence was deafening. The general stood before her, resplendent in his uniform and peak cap. Her eyes rooted on the third button of his shirt, then the megaphone began to boom. “Captain Anand of 9/2 Gorkha regiment has been awarded the Vir Chakra as a recognition of his exemplary bravery, leadership and fighting skills in the battle of Tse Jong in the NEFA sector in October 1962...” Meena bowed her head as a feeling of grief washed over her. The Vir Chakra. The nation’s recognition of a soldier’s courage and action in the face of extreme battle conditions. It was awarded to her husband. Glory for a day. But tomorrow, life will go on as usual for the rest of the nation. The sun will rise and set, politicians will continue to bicker for petty power, people will marry, have children. But our life is altered forever. He fought for the motherland, but nothing has changed. His blood has been shed in vain… “On 10th October, 1962, Captain Anand and a company of hundred men were holding the peak of Karpola 2, when the adjoining mountain of Tse Jong was attacked by the Chinese forces. The Indian post at Tse Jong consisted of only 25 men and was inadequate to ward off the attack…” I will never tire of hearing this tale. Someday, our children and then our grandchildren will hear it as their bedtime story… “…Captain Anand and his men put up such a good fight that the enemy forces were forced to retract. But they returned later in the day in greater numbers…” Was he prepared for the second attack? Did he know they could never make it this time? What did you think of, Anand? “…when it was obvious that the enemy would crush them, he ordered his men to withdraw, but stayed on, warding them off till his jawans were safely out of range…” Meena head came up, her chin lifted with overwhelming pride. My brave man. You have done the right thing for your country, for your regiment, for your loved ones. You did the right thing. It could not have been any other way. I can live with your absence, knowing you fought for what was dearest to your heart. Not me, not our life. But glory to your men, and to your land. The burst of applause seemed to come like a natural extension of her thoughts, her feelings. She stepped forward and received the medal with both hands, even as the voice spoke on. “Captain Anand’s whereabouts remain unknown till today. His award is accepted on his behalf by his wife, Mrs Meena Anand.” She walked back, escorted by the jawan, and was vaguely aware of Pradeep coming out of their row to guide her to the seat. He seemed to sense the change in her, the lifted chin, the straighter back, the clearer eye. He put out a hand to steady her as she moved down the aisle. Feeling his hand on her elbow, she turned briefly to indicate that she could manage. Then a strange thing happened. His hand closed warmly, tightly over her upper arm in the most possessive, protective sensation she had ever experienced. Before she could react, it was released. She sank shakily, down in her seat and stared unseeingly at the ranks of men standing in parade on the field in front of them. Saying goodbye to Delhi was like leaving a part of her behind. She had come here, her heart aching with her loss, torn with longings. But those moments on the podium, listening to Anand’s citation, had changed the ethos forever. Acceptance had come, bringing with it, pride and yes, joy. She felt transformed into a new being. Anand had followed his conscience and given himself to his country. She knew all her foolish dreams of him running away from the battlefield were wrong. He would never, never do that. To die with bullets on his back was not the mark of a true soldier. Even if I never see him again, I’ll still be glad. That he made the supreme sacrifice, went the only way he would like to go. But I know I’ll see him again. Because he still lives, I know it, he knows it…