He was the only boy in a class with five women. He was 22, the rest of us were almost 40. He had joined the class a month late and was only going to be with us for 2 months. His name was Meghnad.
A quiet unassuming boy, who had just graduated and joined our French class. All of us had joined the class to learn a new language as a hobby. He, however, had a purpose. When our teacher introduced him to the class on his first day, she had said, “This is Meghnad. He is going to join the French Foreign Legion!” We had silently looked at him from head to toe.
This skinny, quiet, gentle-looking boy and the notorious infamous French Foreign Legion?!! Somehow things didn’t quite match. We thought this being his first day, the rude shock of being stuck with five women who were, individually, almost twice his age must have turned him mute. We told each other, soon he would be himself and show us his loud boisterous strong side – the one fit for his desired future.
Through the 8 weeks that followed, Meghnad remained his quiet self, silently mouthing a hello and goodbye with a sweet smile (although his body steadily got more muscular and solid). During class, he would sit with us and take down copious notes, fumble through pronunciation with us when we read aloud and shyly join us for a cup of coffee after class. A thorough gentleman, he would quickly pull up chairs for us and help clear the table. Never contributing to our conversations unless it was to answer a question directed to him, he would sit with us waiting politely till everyone was ready to leave. Whenever we informed him of the next lesson over whatsapp, he would reply with full sentences comprising perfect spelling and flawless punctuation. A refreshing change from what we encountered from others his age.
Very slowly, he started opening up and by the 7thweek, he actually laughed out loud! One day he announced, “I’m leaving next week. My visa and tickets have come through.” Now it was our turn to be shocked into a stunned worried silence.
This boy did not seem to have a noisy boisterous full-of-attitude side to him at all. How was he going to cope with what he was getting into… guns, landmines, fire, bullets, blood, troops crawling through ditches, helping civilians in some of the world’s most troubled places? We simply could not figure out what had made him choose this career path.
We finally asked him. His reply disturbed us. He was an armed forces “pedigree”. Several generations had served our country through their presence in the army or navy or air force. He had tried his luck in all three places and not got through because he was underweight. Now he had turned 22 and was overage. But his family was keen that he continue the tradition of fighting for the weak and protecting them. Hence, this career choice.
What struck us was his calm demeanor as he explained this. No trace of fear, regret, anger or sadness in his voice or his eyes to give away whatever he may have been feeling. Not even a trace of remorse by way of words like “I actually wanted to become…”
Suddenly we felt grateful for having had this boy as our classmate for 2 months. To have met someone his age, who had such a sweet calming presence, a level head on his shoulders and such a peaceful acceptance of what was to come. Without any of us realizing it, Meghnad had become a little brother to us, one we all felt fiercely protective about.
Most of all, I felt a flood of gratitude towards my parents. In our country, where boys are generally allowed to pursue their dreams, and girls are expected to put their career on the backburner in order to be married off at the appropriate age, my parents had swam against the tide.
As I looked at Meghnad, about to fly abroad to fulfill his family’s tradition probably at the cost of his own dream, I couldn’t help but say and feel thanks for my sister and me being allowed to not only choose the offbeat careers we wanted but also to choose when we wanted to get married – if we wanted to marry. I felt grateful for never having been told to be home before 7 or asked why we worked on teams with a majority of men on them. Never were we expected to skip work to attend a family function, or told to compromise on the job because they weren’t comfortable with the thought of us travelling alone to unknown places. Whenever we expressed regret at not being able to give them time, we were given assurance, “there’s plenty of time for us to enjoy together. Right now, you’re getting a chance to do something out of the box. Do it!”
I’m sure the world has given them a good amount of grief over this – and continues to, but my parents never let any of the taunts or jibes touch us. We always came home (still do!) to smiling faces and laughter. Yes, like every family, we have our ups and downs, arguments, misunderstandings, disagreements on certain issues. But we are given freedom in the true sense.
The day before he left, we gave Meghnad a small send-off party. All of us got teary-eyed, including Meghnad (a true brave heart, he did not shy away from showing us his tears!). As we watched him walk away, all of us had a prayer on our lips for his safety. I had a bigger prayer of thanks for the freedom I enjoyed. And an even bigger prayer, that someday Meghnad would enjoy the same freedom.
Note: “This is a true story is of a real person the writer spent time with, but the name Meghnad is fictional owing to the fierce secrecy of identity that is a prerequisite of the French Foreign Legion.”
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