“If you are a dreamer come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hoper, a pray-er, a magic-bean-buyer,
If you’re a pretender come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin,
They say, ‘if wishes were horses beggars would ride.’ Not always, I say. Getting a wish sometimes isn’t quite the “beggar’s horse ride.”
My sister made a wish… and she got it! It all started as a game and became a terrifying reality. But I must start at the beginning.
Daddy had decided to put in his papers and take an early, premature retirement. Premature it was; he was only forty-five and had a long way to go. But his heart was set on dedicating his time totally to evangelism.
So in 1965, he left the service and we moved to his hometown in Punjab. He was going home; we were going to Never Land! Of course, the descriptions differed in each of our minds. I am not sure what Never Land signified for my siblings, for me, it was rich in every way: experiences, adventure, fantasy, challenges, and fun.
My eldest sister didn’t fancy it much I guess because as soon as she completed her Senior Cambridge, she came to the “village” from the boarding school in the hills, and dashed off to Delhi to train as a nurse. Daddy wanted her to join the college in Ludhiana and get her Bachelor’s degree. She didn’t want to stay in Punjab. She had mummy’s support and she joined her nurse’s training course in a hospital in the capital city.
This left four of us kids (my younger brother had arrived by then) with Grandpa, Grandma, Mummy, Daddy, the cattle; cow and buffalo, chickens, rabbits and a dog named Tommy; fruit trees, open spaces, and rolling fields around us.
It was a marvelous new life for my elder brother and me because we had no school to attend (the new session and admissions would start in two months), and we spent the whole day exploring the surroundings. Shooting at pigeons and whatever flew or ran or crawled with our catapults!
I don’t remember how my elder sister spent most of her time, but there were rare occasions when she would join us to spend the afternoons in our treetop getaway. We would carry up some books, a few munchies with lemonade, and while away the lazy afternoons swaying gently in our hammocks that were way up the tree! We had to climb up a ladder placed against the trunk of the Tali tree to get to the hammocks.
Looking back, I admit, it was dicey! Climbing from the ladder into a swaying hammock more than eight feet from the ground wasn’t safe. I was barely ten years old then. Anyway, life was different then. Kids played and survived many outdoor games and activities; things parents wouldn’t allow their kids to do now.
To get back to the story, on one such rare day, the three of us were sitting around in the vegetable garden behind our house and sharing our wildest dreams, wishes, and fantasies. As we tried to outdo ourselves in our imaginings; she blurted out that she would love to see two planes right above us in active combat. My brother and I guffawed. We knew she was right off her track because she wasn’t into these sorts of imaginings. She was very ‘girlie-girlie’ and didn’t dream of such stuff. Besides, we were not at war with anyone. However, we agreed that she had indeed outdone us in ‘bizarre’.
Not much later, we heard the roar of planes and looked up. It wasn’t unusual to see these fighter planes in practice sorties, as the Air Force base wasn’t far in airspace terms. There were two Gnats chasing a plane we couldn’t identify. It was bigger than the Gnats. My brother and I were intrigued. By then, they were almost over us and he yelled.
“It’s an attack! Run! That’s a Pakistani plane. Look at the insignia.”
It happened in the twinkling of an eye. Before we could even digest what he was saying. The air was rent with staccato gunshots. I ran and hid behind a Jasmine bush nearby and watched. The other two stood transfixed and watched. There was a dogfight raging in the sky above us.
I can recall the feeling even today. It was all in the extreme… the fear, the excitement, and the amazement. Then, in front of our eyes, the Pakistani plane took a fatal shot and burst into flames. It careened wildly and began a wobbly descent, thankfully, away from ‘our’ airspace and crashed in a field close to where we were.
Our yelling had brought out my uncle who was on one of his breaks between joining ship again. He wouldn’t believe us because by then the plane had gone down, but the trail of black smoke convinced him. He ran out with the others who appeared from nowhere in an instant. We followed; my brother and I.
I was slower and lagged behind. My uncle who was way ahead, saw me coming and stopped me at a distance. All I saw was the plane burning with huge, angry flames, and a mob shouting and yelling curses and abuses at the dead pilot. It was a terrible sight. But not as terrible as what was to follow. We were at war with Pakistan.
I peered at my sister, later that night, when we were huddled in the trench and our town lay trembling as some flak from attacks on the Air Force base and the G.T highway strayed and fell around us. She smiled wanly. I knew she was thinking what I was thinking but I had to say it.
“Couldn’t you wish for something better,” I shouted to be heard through the cotton plugs in her ears.
She wouldn’t reply. Her teeth were clenched on the handkerchief in her mouth. I stuffed mine back into my mouth as Daddy yelled a warning. A bomb exploded two-hundred and fifty meters away.
This was just the beginning…