I heard this tale over twenty years ago. I guess the effect it had on me is evident that I remember it so well, even now. Truth be told, it comes back to me every now and then. There is more than one message in it; and every time you look at it with a new perspective, you find something new shining out of it. It’s like opening the Bible or the Gita to find answers. Or maybe it’s all in my head.

Though I call it a story, it is a real incident. There are two boys involved; I have never met the first, I barely know the second. The story was narrated to me by a person who knew both of them well. It does not matter if every single thing about this story is not true.

So, this boy, let’s call him K, completed his school and got his admission to the National Defence Academy. Naturally, there was a lot of celebration in the neighbourhood for the soldier-hero-in-the-making. When the time came, K said goodbye to his friends and family and went off to join.

Anyone who knows anything about Defence knows that the training at NDA is by no means easy. It’s gruelling and brutal and bordering on cruel, and it takes nerves of steel to survive. How can it not be so? – the kids will soon be sent to a place where kindness and love become mere memories. A lot of young men and women who enthusiastically join, hoping to serve Bharat Mata, soon decide that they can also serve her by working in corporate offices or by participating in sports, and quit. The honour and the glory were all great in theory and in pictures, but were not for them. The Academy leaves its doors open to allow them to run. They don’t need deserters. Better they run now than later, at the battlefield.

It wasn’t long before K ran back home.

The second character of the story, let’s call him Z, was a year or two younger to K. It so happened that he was also keen on NDA. After K returned and shared the harsh, inhuman routines at the NDA to every excruciating detail (he must have naturally exaggerated it a little, I am guessing, so that people won’t consider him a weakling), the neighbourhood was shocked to learn that Z wanted to join too. His parents pleaded with him to reconsider. Z was a quiet and gentle boy but he could be firm when he wanted to. Seeing his determination, his parents reluctantly gave their consent.

K went through a host of emotions when he heard the news. On the one hand, Z was his friend, and he wanted to stand by his decision; on the other, he had never quite gotten over the fact that he could not survive NDA. He suspected that people laughed behind his back for his cowardice. He could imagine the comparisons the society would make now that Z was headed that way too. He prayed that Z would not get the selection, but he did. Under pressure from these thoughts, K behaved just the way any teenager would. While Z was busy making his preparations to join the Academy, he strolled over and said, “I don’t think you would last much at the NDA. Life is too tough and you would run away just as I did. Maybe even earlier.”

Z stiffened, smiled and went on with his packing.

After Z joined, his parents got one letter every week from him. Each letter had the thickness of a newspaper – he wrote pages and pages about his experiences, the brutality, the unkindness, the ragging, every bit of it. I suspect his mother shed a few tears on reading these. She might even have asked him to drop it and return. But he wrote, “I know. I want to run away. But if I run now, it will only prove that K was right, and that I am just as weak as he said I was. I will stay. I can take this.” He wrote this several times, in several letters.

Every time he wanted to vent, he wrote to his parents. Every time his resolve weakened, he thought of K and that gave him the strength to face one more day. As weeks passed, the size of the letters began to decrease. He began to complain less. (I doubt if K would ever have imagined the power his words held. In fact, Z might have given up just as easily if it were not for him.)

Z never quit. He battled the most trying years of NDA and beyond, clinging to his determination to prove K wrong. Today he is an officer in the Indian Air Force, serving somewhere in North India.

I wonder if he recalls any of this. But every single time I hear his name, I remember this story.