At sundown, we would go for walks along the road that went from the airmen’s quarters toward Central School. It was a quiet road back then, when we lived there for a brief while in 1971. The streetlights beside the road would have just been lit, a chill in the air as daylight faded from the sky.

“Can you get the quilts out of the trunk?” I asked Charu’s father. “I think we will need them this winter.”


“Is your woolen scarf in the trunk?” I asked. “I haven’t seen it since our posting here.”

He did not respond. I looked up at him, and he was gazing at the dark hills of Devlali in the distance.

“Mira says the view from the hills is magnificent,” I said. “They went there on a picnic.”

He was still silent.

“Perhaps we too could go on a picnic,” I said. “After the winter?”

“I think war will start soon,” he said. “There was an air battle.”

The possibility of war had often come up in the news on the radio. Our neighbor to the east, then called East Pakistan, was fighting for independence from West Pakistani rule. East and West Pakistan were physically separated by India, and it felt inevitable that India would be dragged into the conflict. But I had not heard of the air battle.

“Will you have to go to the war?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It is possible.”


The war began a few days later, on a Friday evening, with simultaneous air attacks on our airbases and radar installations all along the western border. The Prime Minister delivered a radio address at midnight. She spoke of the grave peril the nation faced. She called for national unity, for fortitude. And for sacrifice.

There was danger of air attacks at night. A blackout order was issued, and the lights by the road were turned off. Charu’s father brought home sheets of thick blackout paper, and I cut them to fit over the windows of our quarters. Even then, we kept the lights off at night, using only the kerosene lantern and some candles.

In our front room, the tuning light of the radio glowed in the dark. Two green bands of light danced back and forth, becoming larger and drawing closer to each other when there was a strong radio signal, and becoming smaller and moving away from each other when the signal was weak.

When we went for our walk, the quarters around us were dark with only occasional stray lights. There was no moon that night, and the sky was covered with stars. The lights along the roadways between the quarters were off, and the paths felt unfamiliar in the dark. Sweater-clad children played outside even at this hour, a game of hide-and-seek.

“That is a good game to play during a blackout,” said Charu’s father with a laugh.

“Are they going to send you to war?” I asked.

“I don’t know yet,” he said. “But there is no need to worry. Even if something were to happen to me …”



“Don’t say it. It is bad luck.”

“We should be prepared for the possibility.”

“Why did you have to be a soldier?”

“What else would I be?”

“Why can you not do something else?” I said. “Something safe.”

He did not reply, and we kept walking.

“I expect I should be promoted to Flight Sergeant soon,” he said after some time. “It is too late to apply for a commission. To become an officer. But still, it is a good job. And there will be a pension.”

I did not say anything. We walked till we reached the outskirts of the airmen’s quarters. We continued walking along the road, toward the officers’ quarters.

“This is a good place to live,” he said, looking at the dark hills to our left, silhouetted against the starlit sky. “I hear there are vineyards coming up nearby. New houses are being built.”

“It is pleasant here,” I agreed.

“We could live near the vineyards,” he said. “After our children are grown and I have retired. We could grow our own grapes.”


“Yes. Children,” he said. “I don’t think it is too late.”

We were close now to the officers’ quarters. They were larger than airmen’s quarters, with gardens in the front and back. One of them seemed to have ignored the blackout order, with lights shining from almost every window.

“I am going to report them,” said Charu’s father. “Let me get the quarter number.”

“Don’t,” I said. “What if they see you?”

We walked past the officers’ quarters and stopped beside the road to examine the stars and the land faintly illuminated by starlight. In the calm of the night, I could almost forget that war was raging not far away. I looked up at Charu’s father. He was looking at me, and the stars were reflected in his eyes.

“Your eyes have stars,” he whispered.


At the back of our quarters, we had a little garden. A papaya plant grew on one side with its crown of large leaves. There was a croton plant with long ribbed leaves in shades of orange and yellow and brown. We grew white radishes that winter, and they grew well, with bright green leaves and long, fleshy roots. The papaya and croton plants were already there when we moved in, but they had been neglected and were just withered stalks. I thought they were dead and was surprised when they sprouted new leaves after Charu’s father began tending to them.

“Roses would grow well here,” he had said.

“Why don’t you plant some,” I said. “There is space for one or two bushes.”

He was silent for a moment, then he said, “We grew roses when I was a little boy. Every day when I came home from school, I used to run to them. To see how many flowers were in bloom, which buds were ready to open, the flowers beginning to wilt. They were roses of a deep true pink. Then one day I came home and the rose branches had been cut. They were lying scattered on the ground, and their leaves were shriveled. There were only short stubs left in the ground. I gathered the branches in my hands, oblivious to the thorns, and ran to my father. ‘Someone has destroyed our roses,’ I cried. ‘We pruned them today,’ he said. ‘They have to be pruned.’

“I never had the heart to grow roses after that,” finished Charu’s father. “But perhaps someday.”


At dawn, I drew a long white radish from the ground. It was cold in my hand as I grated it and mixed it with salt and spices and stuffed it between rolled-out squares of oiled wheat dough. I pan-fried them over the roaring blue flames of our three-legged kerosene stove, and we ate them with salted curds for breakfast.

Then Charu’s father left for work on his bicycle. As I stood outside our quarters, the road was full of airmen in khaki uniforms cycling to work in the early morning light. When I went back to the kitchen, the smell of hot dough lingered, along with sharp radish and the comforting warm scent of spices all mixed together in the air.

Charu’s father came home a little earlier than usual that afternoon. Even before he dismounted the bicycle, he was nodding and saying yes, he had received war orders.

“No,” I said. “No.”

“I have to leave tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? Why so soon?”

“It is war,” he said. “The truck will come early in the morning for those who are leaving.”

“But there is no time to prepare. No time even to pack your things.”

“The Air Force will provide what we need,” he said. “I can only take a few things.”

That evening, we prepared for his departure. He went outside and checked the blackout coverings on all the windows.

“When I return, perhaps I will plant those roses after all,” he said, looking at our garden.

He opened the black-painted iron trunk and took out the quilt for me to use when it got colder. I looked under other clothes in the trunk, and there at the bottom was his white woolen scarf. I pulled it out of the trunk.

“Take the scarf with you,” I said.

“I don’t think I will need it.”

“Take it. It may be useful.”

“If you say so.”

“When will you be back?”

“Everyone expects this to be a short war,” he said. “Perhaps I will be back soon.”

“I have never lived alone.”

“It is likely only for a few days,” he said. “And here in the camp you are not alone. I have spoken with Bagchi. He will help you while I am gone.”

The Bagchis lived just a few quarters away.

“Nothing needs to change,” he continued. “We don’t even have to stop the newspaper delivery. Keep the papers for me and I will read them when I am back.”

“I am afraid,” I said. “So afraid of what may happen.”

“You are a soldier’s wife,” he said. “You must be brave.”

“Will you write to me?” I asked. “Tell me how you are? Mira could read me your letters.”

“Let us see,” he said. “I may not be able to send letters from where I am going.”

Later, we sat by the radio in the dark, listening to the war news. The radio signal was strong. The two green bands of the tuning light were almost touching in the middle, and the sound was clear.

We hardly slept that night and were up at dawn. That morning, I felt unaccountably shy and awkward, as if I were with a stranger, and could hardly bring myself to say anything to him. He too seemed lost in thought, and we ate breakfast in silence.

Then all too soon, the time was gone and a khaki-green truck was outside our quarters. Some other airmen also going to war were already in the back of the truck, sitting on its long bench seats. They were laughing and talking in loud voices. The tailboard had been lowered, and Charu’s father was climbing into the truck when I remembered his scarf. I ran back into our quarters to get it, but by the time I came out, the tailboard was up and the truck was ready to leave. I held out the scarf to him, but he just shook his head and waved to me. Then the truck was gone.


That night, I listened alone to news of the war on the radio. I was tired by the time I went to bed, but I could not fall asleep. I turned from side to side, willing myself to relax. But every time I reached the edge of sleep, I would see Charu’s father in the back of the truck as it drove away. And I would jolt awake.

Eventually, I must have slept. When I woke, it was dark and still. The clock by the bed showed that it was past 2 a.m. I went to the front room, turned on the radio, and waited for it to warm up. I moved the tuning dial, searching for news, but there was nothing on the radio at this hour—only static, and the green tuning light was weak. I went back to bed, pulled up the quilt, and finally fell asleep. But I woke again while it was still dark and could not keep my eyes closed for long.

In the morning, I felt listless and slow. I was grating a radish when the sharp smell rising from it made me nauseous and I threw it away. I felt ill for most of the day and could hardly eat anything.


The end of the year was drawing near, and the days were getting colder. Late one evening, Mira came to visit. She was a slender woman with prominent brown eyes and wavy black hair in a long plait. On her wrists she wore bangles of red glass touched with gold. We were sitting in the front room, and I had closed the outer door but still it was cold in the room.

“Are you well?” she asked. “You look ill.”

“I am worried about my husband,” I said. “I cannot sleep at night. I don’t feel like eating anything.”

“He should be back soon,” she said.

“The news on the radio only gets worse.”

“Don’t listen to the radio,” she said. “Turn it off. The war will take its course. There is nothing we can do about it.”

“But the radio is all I have.”

“You should not be here alone, listening to the radio all day. Come spend the day with me. It will be a good change for you.”

“I don’t have the energy to do anything.”

“Go see the doctor. They may give you something to improve your appetite. Something for sleep.”

Before she left, I gathered the remaining radishes from the garden and gave them to her.


It was Sunday morning, and soon the truck would come to take the airmen to Nasik for weekly shopping. There was a knock on the front door—it was Bagchi, a short man wearing large spectacles with thick black square frames.

“Can I get anything for you from the market?” he asked.

“I don’t need anything yet,” I said.


“Perhaps some fresh vegetables,” I said. “Anything that you can get easily. Let me give you some money for the vegetables.”

“Let it be,” he said. “We shall see later.”

In the afternoon, the truck returned and Bagchi came to our quarters. I opened the front door, and he was standing outside holding a large cloth bag. He handed it to me; it was filled with vegetables and fruits. Dark orange carrots and purple yams, ripe yellow guavas and sweet limes, and large bunches of big-leafed spinach. On top of everything, there was a small box of sweets. I thought he must have brought these things to me by mistake.

“Is any of this for me?” I asked.

“It is all for you,” he said.

“This is too much,” I said. “I don’t need so many things.”

“It is nothing.” He stood outside the doorway for a minute, looking at me with his right hand on his waist and his head tilted to one side. Then he turned and walked away.


That night, there was news that other nations were going to help our opponent in the war. A fleet of their warships was coming toward our eastern and western coasts. It was being called a pincer attack on the radio. My heart raced as I heard this, and my hands went cold. How could we fight the might of these nations? The most powerful nations on Earth! I lay in bed that night, unable to sleep, my mind in an uproar.

I was up before dawn, and my first thought was to check the news. I knew there would be nothing at this hour, but even so, I turned the radio on. All I could hear was the hissing, shushing sound of static, and as I moved the tuning knob, the green light flickered weakly. I leaned closer to the radio, and through the static, suddenly, I heard my husband’s voice: “You must be strong. You are a soldier’s wife.”

He was in uniform, leaving on his bicycle in the early light. I ran after him to give him the scarf. The bicycle was moving fast, moving away from me, and I called out to him, but he did not look back. He got farther away, his figure becoming smaller and smaller until he was swallowed up in the mist.

I turned back to walk home, and the road was unfamiliar. How far had I run, I wondered. It was cold and silent, and the fog was thickening. A column of khaki-green trucks appeared out of the haze. The trucks were moving in silence, full of soldiers sitting straight-backed and still.

I woke with a start. I was sitting beside the radio, my head leaning forward.


Later that morning, Mira knocked on the door. Her hair was uncombed, and her eyes looked swollen and weary.

“Have you heard about the fleet of warships that is coming?” she asked. “What are we going to do?”

“I expect the Prime Minister is doing something,” I said.

“Was there anything on the radio?”

“No,” I said. “Let me make some tea.”

I went to the kitchen and lit the stove. I boiled water and made tea and served it in steel glasses with a plate of sweet, hard biscuits.

“Did you go to the doctor?” Mira asked as she dipped a biscuit in the hot tea and ate the softened part.

“No,” I said. “I’m well now.”

“You don’t look well to me,” she said. “Have you looked at yourself in the mirror? What will your husband think when he returns?”

“I still cannot eat or sleep.”

“This war,” she said as she sipped her tea. “I could not sleep last night.”

“It must be hard on everyone,” I said. “How are your children?”

“What do they know about war? To them it is just a game. They play outside during blackout.”

“And your husband?”

“He has extra work these days. War work. We don’t know when he may be ordered to the front,” she said. “He is under a lot of stress.”

“Tell me,” I said.

“It is just stress.” She looked into her tea.


“It is hard,” she said, still looking into her tea. “Hard on all of us.”
“You could go stay with your mother. Till the war is over.”

“I cannot just leave,” she said. “Besides, the children have school. I just hope this war ends soon.”


That evening when I switched on the radio, the tuning light was dim and there was only static no matter where I turned the dial. Then through the static, faintly, I heard my husband’s voice. I could not make out what he was saying. I leaned closer to the radio, but then I pulled away. This is madness, I thought and quickly switched the radio off. My heart was beating fast.

Many times the next day, I went to the radio. I felt tempted to turn it on but forced myself not to do so. But then I could bear it no longer. I switched the radio on. I moved the tuning dial till the static returned, along with a feeble green light.

I sat by the radio late into the night, listening to static. I hoped to hear my husband, but he did not speak to me. Still, the endless sound was soothing. Instead of the harsh urgency of war news, there was only a pleasant nothingness. I slept well that night, and the morning was far gone when I woke.

From then on, I stopped listening to the news and kept the radio tuned to static. The war and its worries seemed to fade away. The static lulled my mind and carried me away to where there was no war.


A knock on the front door. It was Mira.

“Your husband should be home soon now,” she said with a smile.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Haven’t you heard?” she said. “The war is over. We won.”

“The war?” I said. “I have not been listening to the news. What happened to that fleet of warships?”

“They turned back. They said they had arrived too late,” she said. “The war ended soon after that.”

India and Pakistan had fought the war for thirteen days. It had ended with what had been Eastern Pakistan emerging as the independent nation of Bangladesh. The blackout order was canceled. The roadways between the quarters were again lit up at night. The neighbors removed blackout coverings from their windows, and their quarters glowed with warm yellow light. I thought of uncovering our windows but left the task for Charu’s father. I turned on the lights inside our quarters. I put away the candles and the lantern.

Early Sunday morning, Bagchi knocked on the door.

“Do you need anything from the bazaar?” he asked.

“Some vegetables and fruits. Whatever is the freshest,” I said. “And a kilogram of mixed sweets. My husband should be home soon.”

I gave him a cloth bag for the things and money to pay for them.


Several days passed, and Charu’s father did not return. Was he still busy with his work on the front? Was he hurt or worse? Why had I not received any news? At first, these thoughts came occasionally, but then they were constantly on my mind. I lay awake at night thinking of what may have happened to him. I thought of the times when it had seemed I was hearing him on the radio. Had I really heard him? Would I hear him again? Perhaps I would listen to the static again. Just once more.

It was late in the night when I got out of bed and went to the radio. I hoped I would hear him, that he would tell me he was well, that he was coming home. I turned the radio on. But something had changed. It did not feel as it had felt before. The static on the radio was now just meaningless noise. I listened, hoping to hear him. Then I switched off the radio. I could not sleep the rest of the night.

The next morning, I opened the front door and airmen in uniform were leaving for work on their bicycles. After some time, a truck came to take the children from the camp to Central School. When it was gone, I went to Mira’s house.

“He has not returned,” I said as soon as Mira opened the door. “I have not heard anything.”

“I suppose he is still busy at the front,” she said. “Come in and have some tea.”

“I don’t want tea,” I said. “I had asked him to write, but I have not received a single letter. Can you ask your husband if he can find out anything?”

Late the next day, she came to tell me that her husband had spoken with the Commanding Officer. The CO had promised they would contact me as soon as there was news.


It was now almost the end of the year and still Charu’s father had not returned, and I had not heard anything. My days were spent in a stupor, and I huddled into myself with my mind mostly blank. I no longer listened to the radio. Someone, perhaps Mira, perhaps Bagchi, had knocked on my door several times, but I had not answered.

Then one day, late in the evening, I heard a vehicle stopping outside our quarters. He is back, I thought, and rushed to the front door and flung it open—only to see two somber-faced men in officers’ uniforms walking toward me.

I knew then.

I asked them to come in. One of them was tall and young with a prominent Adam’s apple. The other one was older with jet-black hair combed straight back. The young officer spoke, but I already knew what he was going to say.

Afterward, he spoke of fortitude and sacrifice, of valor and heroism. He spoke of other things, but I was no longer there. I was comforting a little boy who was crying because the roses had been cut to the ground. His hands were bleeding from the thorns. Then he was a man, and I was walking with him along a road on a starlit night. And then I was running after a truck to give him the scarf, but the truck took him away before I could hand it to him.

I came to myself, and the officers were still with me. The older officer now began to speak. The young officer looked away, and his Adam’s apple was moving up and down rapidly. And again, I was gone.

Now I was at our wedding, and the groom had arrived on a white horse. How shrill and loud the music was as the wedding guests danced with raised arms. And in the distance a figure stood in bridal reds and golds. Then the officers were taking leave and walking out of the quarters, and I saw myself standing in the doorway watching them leave. The Bagchis were outside, staring at the officers and then at me. Mira was rushing to me from her quarters.

“You must be brave,” I heard him say.

“I am brave,” I said.


Some months later, Charu was born. Some say she was an unlucky child.

I don’t think so.

Vishal Markandey

Vishal lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, where he works in the technology industry. His new story, “Salim’s House,” is upcoming in The Masters Review.

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