(c) J. Singh, 2018 The artist gets ready for the role he is about to
(c) J. Singh, 2016
When she was born, her parents named her Sifat Kaur. As babies come, she was exceptionally beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that everyone doted on her, from friends and family to strangers who happened to catch a glimpse of her radiant face.
“What a cute baby,” everyone said, echoing the same sentiments over and over again as they fawned over her.
She had big, almond shaped eyes and long eyelashes. Her small face, soft skin, and silky black hair gave her a look that captivated the hearts and imagination of everyone who laid eyes on her.
Sifat grew up fast and strong. She showed aptitude beyond her biological age, and began walking and talking before the average child. She was tall, and learned quickly. She would get bored fast with the normal puzzles and activities for her age. She liked the challenge of figuring out the next, more complex thing. She rapidly advanced in her cognition and vocabulary. Her parents were delighted at her progress and development, and watched in awe as her perception and
competence grew in leaps and bounds.
Sifat’s uncles and aunts who came to visit always talked about what a captivating beauty she was.
“She’s a darling beauty,” they would say.
But she didn’t hear these accolades from her parents, who chose their words with care when speaking with her. Rather than echo the sentiments of all the relatives who talked of marriage to a fine prince (or at least a very, very rich and accomplished businessman — or perhaps a lawyer, doctor, or executive manager), Sifat’s parents focused their conversation on her future and her happiness.
“You can do anything you want, anything that makes your heart happy, whatever it is that fulfills you,” her mother and father would lovingly say to her. “And we will support you in your choice, whatever you choose.”
“Can I be a scientist?” she would innocently ask.
“Of course,” her parents would immediately reply.
“What about an engineer?” she would wonder.
“Yes, definitely!” they would say enthusiastically.
“Mmmm, how about an astronaut?” by this time she would be enjoying this little game.
“And you’ll fly into space! Whoooooosh!”
“I think I would like to be President.”
“You’d be a wonderful President!”
“Or, maybe, a teacher, like Aya’s Mommy.”
“You would be a great teacher! Teachers do very, very important work.”
And so, as her parents taught her, the possibilities for Sifat were endless, and the future was wide open. There were no limitations.
Sifat placed a great deal of trust in her father and mother’s wisdom, and that worked to her great benefit. She largely ignored the messages from society, popular culture and the media. She took after her mother, forming her own conclusions about what things meant. She valued having her own experiences to draw from and her ability to decide on her own about what she thought of
things, instead of being told what to believe and think. She grew up with an internal resilience and strength that could only be classified as extremely rare in that day and age. She relied upon her own internal compass to guide her, and as such, she always had the confidence to deal with any situation that she found herself in, no matter how unique or different it was from what she knew.
Her aunt, Manjit Kaur, however, had a different mindset. Whenever she came to visit, she talked of the future as if it was already written.
For her, roles and expectations were fixed, and the fate of a girl was already sealed by the time she was born.
“Of course you have to marry,” she would say emphatically and dramatically, “and soon! Sifat, you will have to find a boy who is really smart to keep up with you. You are so, so intelligent! Maybe a doctor. I know the Bedi’s, their son is doing his residency in Chicago. I should put you in touch with them.”
“But Aunty, I haven’t even finished college yet,” Sifat would say, laughing.
“Girls age very fast, my dear,” Manjit Kaur would reply, chiding Sifat, “you can’t wait for too long and still think that there will be good boys available. These days, they are being snatched up so fast! I mean, just last week that boy Sandeep got married! Who would have thought, he was such a good catch, and now look. He’s a neurosurgeon, just think how lucky the girl is, hmm?”
“You should find a good boy, a doctor or a businessman, someone accomplished, and you should settle down, and start a family.”
“I do want to have a family someday, but right now? I mean, aren’t my studies important?”
“Yes, yes, sure, yes, studies are very important as well, yes. We all have to study, yes.”
And so the conversations went, with the subtle and at times not so subtle message that Sifat should follow the pre-existing formula for her life’s path, leading to the presumptive bliss and happiness that everyone sought. Her aunt Manjit would often emphasize the importance of the prescriptive formula, but couldn’t explain how or why it would supposedly manifest such joy and fulfillment for her.
Eventually, Sifat left home to attend college. The day of her departure was a bittersweet moment for her parents, who had nurtured her and raised her with so much tenderness and love since the day she was born. They both stood with tears in their eyes as they hugged her and repeatedly asked her to promise to keep in touch and inform them immediately if she was in need of anything, and then they hugged her some more and cried and waved goodbye. And hugged her again before walking away sadly. She followed them down the hall and into the elevator, out of
the dormitory and to their car. She bid them a tearful farewell, and promised that she would keep in touch every day.
She kept her promise. No matter how busy her studies got, she always somehow managed to find time for a quick phone call, or text message, or video chat. She kept in constant contact with her parents, sharing photographs and videos of her college life. Some photos were with friends, although most of them were of her alone. Her mother deeply appreciated her efforts, and always gave her blessing to Sifat whenever they communicated.
Sifat had an uncanny ability to learn and master any subject very rapidly. She was a quick study. She had incredible focus, and would pick up new concepts and paradigms within minutes. If you were teaching her something, you’d never have to repeat yourself. The rate at which she absorbed and learned new material was astonishing. Even her college professors were impressed, and many of them gave her extra-credit assignments to see how far she could push. She did them all, and showed no signs of abating.
As the time for her graduation approached, relatives — aunt Manjit in particular — again began talking in earnest about finding a suitable partner, getting married, having children, and raising a family. All her uncles and aunts were on the lookout for an appropriate spouse for her, and the topic would dominate all their conversations with her.
“What kind of guy do you want?” they would ask bluntly, embarrassing her without even realizing it.
“Do you want someone from India or someone who grew up here?”
“Do you prefer a lawyer or a doctor?”
“You want someone taller than you, of course, right? But not too tall?”
“Do you like someone very educated or just with a Masters degree is ok?”
“You like guys who are more outgoing or more quiet?”
“Should he be able to cook? I mean, is that important?”
She soon grew weary of these questions and eventually settled on the strategy of just shrugging and saying that she would accept whoever her parents chose for her. This had the intended effect of redirecting all the attention to her parents, and gave her some breathing room.
Just about the time when Sifat was graduating, the unthinkable happened and the simmering tensions that had been broiling on the world’s political stage finally erupted into open declarations of war. Two neighboring nations that had been bitter foes for decades couldn’t extricate themselves out of their fiery political rhetoric, and they unwittingly descended into a spiral of allegations and threats that resulted in preparations for war on both sides.
As they began amassing their respective armies at the border, the world’s governments pleaded with them, and urged the leaders of both these two nations to exercise restraint and consider the costs of war. Unfortunately, their advice went unheeded.
The conflict began soon after, and it was so incendiary that it spread like wildfire, engulfing the entire region in its flames. Neighboring countries allied themselves on one or the other side, and eventually joined in the fighting by sending in their troops for reinforcement or as a demonstration of support.
Meanwhile, in a different part of the world, in a different region, an insurgency created civil war and plunged the country into chaos. Displaced and disillusioned youth joined roaming warlords who conquered territory as their primary objective, pillaging and murdering innocent civilians and leaving a trail of corpses in their wake. The concept of borders and central governments was gone. There was no rule of law anymore. It was now the rule of the gun.
Multiple flash-points of violence inevitably coalesced and soon, the entire world was involved in armed military conflict. The next great world war had begun.
There was chaos and destruction everywhere. No country or kingdom was spared. All felt the terrible wounds and scars of battle. It was a prolonged and complicated war, with ever mounting casualties.
In one such battlefield, which had once been a thriving city of commerce and trade but was now reduced to rubble, there was still fierce fighting happening daily. The days and nights were punctuated with the sounds of explosions, desperate shouting, and rapid bursts of gunfire. For a great many number of soldiers, this was to be their last stand.
Another dawn, and another onslaught by enemy forces. They stormed into what was left of the main square, firing indiscriminately as they charged. Their onslaught was compelling and irresistible. The smoke had barely cleared when another wave poured in, this time with tanks. They began firing at the main buildings that were still somewhat standing, while also destroying the surrounding buildings along with any soldiers who happened to be concealed within. They were determined to take this city, due in no small part to its significant strategic importance.
From a high vantage point, hidden in the clock tower, a sniper assessed the extreme urgency of the situation and began firing rounds in quick succession. If the enemy continued their barrage at this rate, they would soon have control of the city. They had to be stopped at any cost. It was time to act.
As the bullets flew silently through the air and found their targets, one by one, enemy soldiers quietly fell and crumpled to the ground. At first, they didn’t know what was happening. But they quickly realized that they had to take cover and search for the source of the mysterious attack. It wasn’t long before their entire focus had shifted to reveal the hidden sniper.
The sniper knew that there was a window of a only few minutes before they would discover her location and attack the clock tower. She doubled her efforts, her fingers burning from loading the rounds into the rifle chamber. She was efficient, picking targets intelligently and firing with accuracy and precision, killing two, sometimes three men with a single shot. In the fight against time, she was rapidly whittling down the enemy numbers. And yet, she knew that this was her final battle.
Her lips moved silently as she worked, reciting verses that were hundreds of years old, penned down in another age, but as real and relevant today as the very air she breathed.
The enemy soldier who stood at the far intersection was gesticulating wildly, screaming at the top of his lungs and pointing. At the clock tower. At her. She set her sights on him. But the tanks had caught notice, and their main guns began to ratchet up slowly and take aim towards the clock tower. She had been discovered. It was now only a matter of mere moments.
Overhead, she could hear the scream of aircraft. Reinforcements were on the way. But would they reach in time?
Calmly, she took aim at the screaming soldier and fired. He immediately tumbled to the ground, his shrieking silenced forever. Two tanks had their main guns fixed on her position. They appeared to be inert, not doing anything, but she knew that inside, they were frantically loading their weapons. There was no time left. She re-loaded her rifle and took aim at the closest one.
The morning sunshine was bright and clear in the cloudless, blue sky, and the cool fresh breeze blew gently through the leaves in the trees. The visitors walked gingerly across the freshly cut green grass to their seats, and the clear
running water of the stream nearby made soothing, soft sounds. The man in the crisp uniform stood up at the podium, and with a heaviness in his voice, began
“Today we pause to remember Specialist Sifat Kaur, who made the ultimate sacrifice for this nation, indeed for liberty for all the people of the world. We honor her sacrifice, and applaud her courage and bravery. Her life was cut short on a distant battlefield, so that we may live in peace and enjoy freedom from tyranny and oppression. On behalf of a grateful nation, we salute her and pledge that we will never forget...”