"Is it really him?"
It's a scene that repeats itself in a multitude of homes across the country. At Bagdogra airport an apprehensive Naik Ananda Pradhan waits to escort the body of his mate Rifleman Linkon Pradhan of the Gorkha Rifles home to Sukhiyapukhuri in Darjeeling. Informing colleagues' kin of tragedy is not a happy prospect. Linkon, in his 20s, died on June 8 while assaulting Tiger Hills at Kargil. Two bullets in the chest put paid to a brave life. As also the lives of a 20-year-old wife of two years, a year-old son, schoolteacher father Harinarayan, brother Alanja, 16. People silently offer akhadas (silk scarves) as the cortege winds its long way from Bagdogra via Kurseong and Ghoom. Moved women stand and sob silently for the brave stranger. As they descend the last eight kms into Linkon's valley home, Pradhan and company encounter Linkon's brother Alanja. The shell-shocked teenager turns hysterical, shouts, screams like one deranged even as villagers huddle to console him.
Halfway down the valley, tears streaming down his face, a disbelieving Harinarayan awaits the body of his son. "Is it really him?" and is only silenced when Pradhan rattles off his identification number. Later at home the coffin is opened to prepare the body for the last rites. The mother howls, reels in shock at the sight of her son's bloated body. In a corner his young wife, infant in lap, cries uncontrollably. Scribes present, feeling their presence a voyeuristic intrusion, gently retreat. One poignant image endures. As one scribe made his way out a young woman, 20-odd, called out hesitantly. "Are you coming from Kashmir?" she asks, confusion writ large on her face. "My husband's serving there. Just wondered if you had any news," she trails off before disappearing abruptly. Shot in the dark query. Desperately seeking news that would reassure. Somehow. Anyhow.
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