Deafening gunshots were being fired all around. Our ears stop functioning after a good run in the war. From overwork. There are too many noises and to stay alive, you need to hear them all. “A cat’s ears”, my father used to bellow - “You ought to have a cat’s ears and a cat’s feet”- he never bothered with trivialities like cats had paws and not feet. Big men never bother with trivialities. They are too busy with other things. Like making money. Or spending money. Or spending money to make more money. The platoon was hiding behind an array of small trees, right below the valley. Our position was far from strategic. Having said that, I prefer this over being at the river bed with bullets through our throats.
Back in the Capital, the Premier was having a peaceful day. The Premier was a man of action. Well-built and broad shouldered – he was a heavy-headed man with a broad trunk. He was different from your run of the mill army major. He rarely raised his voice, looked anyone in the eye. Confidence has many forms but in his case, it had taken on a real comic avatar. You wouldn’t notice the man if he’d walked around wearing a simple peasant’s clothes. He was well read, as was apparent from the few words that he happened to utter, as and only when necessary- but no one had ever seen him read. He loved his game of Poker. He was a real risk taker, our Premier. He read the game well, knew his cards and played the man. Rumours run that he had made a man fold a four of a kind.
The enemy ranks were moving up the valley, and they clearly outnumbered us. Like a herd to a man. In a war, contrary to what you may have been led to believe- a lot of silly things matter. Though it seems fancy- patriotism and love for your country was the least important of them. On an individual level- all that matters is how badly you want to live. No motivational poster can explain that to you. How badly do you want to keep breathing? Can you live on – bearing to look at that stumped knee cap? A broken shoulder bone that will never heal? A head full of horrors that will never let you sleep in peace? An overworked ear that keeps hearing things? Can you fit all that into your normal life- and how much of your normal life have you forgotten? On a macro level- from the view point of a general – a man who sees the helmet-heads of a thousand odd soldiers- it is about how cruel you can get. Not just towards the enemy, but also towards your own men. Men, who are willing to take on the devil and be the devil themselves.
We were patiently waiting for our orders and keeping a close look at the approaching army. It was very evident that we couldn’t open fire any time soon. One – it’ll take away our element of surprise. And two - we couldn’t afford to miss. At all. There were no options to get back with more ammunition, and none of us were in a state to withstand an all-out attack. Our best chance laid on concealing our numbers, waiting for them to pass and gathering as much information as possible. On their strength, weapons, speed of progress- anything. If we acted cautiously, the data could save a lot of lives- including our own.
An Ace of Diamonds and a Nine of Clubs. The Premier hated playing against the ministers. None of them played well, which made it worse – he felt horrible even if he lost a single round. Poker is a funny game. Oftentimes the wise get fooled. That’s why he loved the game in the first place. To him, it was an analogy for life. How ridiculously things could work against you, if the wrong card turns up at the wrong time. There were two aces in the flop - he started slowly, drawing in as much money as possible. A second three turned next and he splashed the pot with chips, trying to drive out all the players. Most of them folded, but two took his call asking the dealer to turn the river card. Another spade and he knew one of them had a flush. Annoyance and anger. He had the bad hand on the table. He seethed and bit his tongue.
“Sir, a battalion is moving up and marching towards the fort. We have our platoon stationed slightly to the west. However they are spent and are too small to resist.”
The Premier looked up, and took a few seconds to gather his thoughts. He took a chip of thousand and placed it on his Club Nine, and flicked open the other- the Ace for everyone to see. “Raise Thousand”. The ministers were visibly confused- his bluffs were hard to read. He played as if he had a winning full house. It’s all about that funny confidence.
“Sir, if we could wait for the platoo…”
“Sir, but they are too …”
He remained quiet. And waited for the fear to cut short the retort. He gulped, walked out muttering agitatedly into the transmitter.
Out there in the valley, I just heard a raspy man’s voice commanding us to go forth and kill a few hundred men. If only the Premier cared if his only son was too tired to listen to all the sounds around him. Taking in a deep breath, I walked out gun in hand. To death.
“Sir, the platoon got wiped out.”
“Hmm…” he pretended as though he hadn’t heard, and turned to the players, “Are you calling, or not?” The man in the tweed coat thought for a second, and threw in his thousand.
The Premier sighed and stood up.
“Rough day” he said to no one in particular and walked away.
Sketch By: Ashna Panesar