To Geeta, Jung Bahadur had always been special. He was actually a very ordinary looking soldier ' small and stout, with tiny beaded eyes and no one ever gave him a second glance. But Geeta called him Jung Bahadur, and to her he was as brave as her soldier-father, who remained away for long periods, keeping constant vigil on the nation's borders.
Her father's rare visits home were occasions that Geeta looked forward to with bated breath and unconcealed joy. It was on one of these visits, that Geeta handed Jung Bahadur over to her father, just before he left. He was an awesome looking Lt. Col. with a twirling Rajput moustache and a deep sonorous voice but, to her he had seemed tense and pre-occupied. Only after constant cajoling did he reveal the orders he had received to move to the front, to the glacier posts. Geeta had chewed her lip and pondered. Then she had held out Jung Bahadur to her father, insisting that he take him along.
Lt. Colonel Sanjay Kumar commanded an entire battalion and immense awe and respect as well. But he had a father's heart. He had merely ruffled little Geeta's hair and had set off, having carefully packed the soldier in his convenient holdall.
At the front, there was no time for memories. Only when Sanjay Kumar was alone in his bunker that, quick, sharp images of home would flit by. And he would look at his framed Geeta and smile at Jung Bahadur, who stood stoically by, high on the makeshift table.
Jung Bahadur became popular in no time at all. The soldiers would seat him by them and spin songs and jokes around Jung Bahadur every time they set up camp, all through that long, arduous winter. The exercise of setting up camp was repeated every day, in grim silence and in absolute secrecy. The enemy could always be lurking near.
At all times, Sanjay Kumar was aware of the thin line that separated his men from danger, even death. Thus far, their movements had proceeded without any hindrance. At every step, they had managed to outwit the enemy. It seemed they were lucky, but suspicions first dawned on Sanjay Kumar after a strange incident one night.
That night, he noticed one of his guards fighting away sleep, desperately trying to keep his head falling on to his chest. The Lt. Col. gruffly ordered the man to bed, and took over the post himself. Almost on a quirk, he placed Jung Bahadur on the machine gunners' seat, even placing his eye to the muzzle, and they sat together with the silence enveloping them.
He must have dozed off, for he rose with the sound of something falling. Hurriedly he shook himself awake, and saw Jung Bahadur lying slumped over the machine gun. It was a still night, and there was no breeze. And then he noticed a gleam of light in the valley down below. It flashed once and then twice; then it flickered and was gone, but he knew at once that something was amiss and raised the alarm.
A long search and a few hours later, some infiltrators were indeed apprehended at the border. The Lt. Col was praised for his quick thinking, but looking back, he realized that he owed it to another soldier's presence of mind. Since then the Lt. Col. had travelled with Jung Bahadur in his backpack, who studiously ignored the amused smiles on the soldiers' faces as they pointed him out, his head peeping out of the bag.
A week later an urgent message crackled over the wireless. They were to move to post 1075, high in the mountains, overlooking the glacier, to check possible enemy movements. Stubbing out any giveaways of their stay, the soldiers quickly took their places in the vehicles, ready to leave. The unit was to move ahead steadily along the path by the gorge, before climbing up the mountains to the post. Sanjay Kumar was the last to clamber aboard, plopping himself next to the driver in front.
The engines revved to life and the vehicles moved ahead, along the narrow road, the only moving objects for miles around. They had not gone very far, before the Lt. Col. on an impulse reached into his backpack, and realized that he had left Jung Bahadur behind. For long seconds, he mulled, but it was the sudden picture of his daughter insisting that he take Jung Bahadur along, flashing across his mind, that decided the issue. He ordered the vehicles to turn back and return the way they had come.
Jung Bahadur was found, after a hurried search, in the bushes, where he had rolled over as the men packed up at a frenetic pace. He lay there, dirty and mangled with the old familiar quizzical air still about him. Once again he was safely ensconced in the Lt. Col.'s backpack and the unit readied to leave again.
The Lt. Col., anxious to make up for lost time ordered the vehicles to move fast, to reach the post before dark. They had barely advanced a few kilometres ahead, when the Lt.Col. noticed a dark plume of smoke rising into the sky, ominous and very threatening. By his map, he realized with a start that the smoke emanated from a bridge, not very far away, the sole link to the road, going up into the mountain posts.
As the vehicles cautiously rounded nearer the bridge, a frantic clamour of activity enveloped them. Excited villagers rumbled about with their frightened flocks of sheep and goats. Soon the reason for the ado became clear, as the mangled remains of a bridge, blown apart by a remote bomb, lay strewn amidst the rocks and boulders.
The vehicles slammed to a halt. One of the onlookers walked up and in tones still full of the recent shock, narrated the entire chain of events - how even as some of them were halfway across the bridge, it had erupted, with a loud blast and a flash of red lightning. In seconds there was nothing left of the bridge, only the half-charred remains of its iron skeleton, and everywhere else the purple haze of smoke that spread across and down the valley.
The soldiers were silent. They knew only too well that the bomb had been intended for them and that the half-hour delay had providentially saved them. Some, with hindsight would say later that it was the presence or even absence for some time from the front of Jung Bahadur that saved them.