About Wings of Silence
One was born with the Midas touch. The other was born deaf.
One was the winner his father wanted. The other was the black sheep.
One was loved by all. The other was a loner.
One loved life. The other yearned for death.
Two brothers. Two lives.
Saurav Sethi, teenage prodigy and future tennis star in the making, watches his elder brother Raj fight a losing battle in life. But father Akshay Sethi turns a blind eye, letting his elder son spiral into the depths of depression.
Saurav challenges destiny and prepares to give Raj a life he deserves, but will his life-changing decision see Raj’s seemingly impossible dream of running the marathon in the 1980 Olympics come to life? Or will it completely devastate the family to a point of no return? Set against a turbulent time during the cold war between the US and the USSR, the Sethi brothers embark on a roller coaster ride that will push their courage and grit beyond all known limits.
About the Author
Bangalore-born Shriram Iyer, a management professional based in Melbourne, Australia, has authored several short stories, theatre scripts and screenplays for short films. Silver-medalist under the Shankar’s International Award in 1996 given by the President of India, Shriram is also a professional singer who has to his credit an Indian pop album, Is Dhundh Mein, (released in 2007 by well-known singer Shankar Mahadevan) as well as over 400 concerts in India, Australia, New Zealand and USA. Wings of Silence is his debut novel
"An unyielding story of love, relationships and hope in a time marked by war and hostility. The relationship which the two brothers share is in itself a moment of triumph." - Lipi Mehta, Editor, dfuse.in
"A spellbinding story...the real winner in this exhilarating but tender tale is unconditional brotherly love that Shriram Iyer describes in mesmerizing and elegant prose." - Oswald Pereira, Bestselling Author, The Newsroom Mafia
Excerpt from Wings of Silence
Akshay Sethi opened his eyes and looked around. It took a while to adjust to the dark, but he knew where he was. He recognised the unshaven, unkempt men around him but that was barely any consolation. This was a far cry from the relative comfort of the barracks or base camp or even his home in Jaipur.This was where Pakistan held most of the prisoners of war.
A thickly-bearded man opened the tent, allowing the calming glow of the moon and the gentle breeze to sneak in. He rudely slipped four plates inside, that clattered across the uneven soil, and left. The men in the tent leapt onto the food like hungry wolves. There wasn’t enough for everyone; Akshay watched haplessly as every morsel of food disappeared from the plates. He had been without food or water for twenty-four hours now.
He closed his eyes and his thoughts wandered away to the previous day’s events that had led him to the situation he was in. The squadron he led was on a covert mission, responsible for bombing key military targets in Pakistan, when his fighter separated from the rest of the squadron. The next moment, he was surrounded by three enemy fighter planes.
Akshay skilfully managed to create a collision between two of those, causing both planes to nosedive straight to the ground, fumes emanating from their rear ends. However, the inevitable happened; his plane succumbed to the steady onslaught of gunfire from the third fighter. His aircraft plummeted hopelessly but he ejected out in time only to land right into the heart of a Pakistani base camp, sixty-eight kilometres from the Indian border.
Three weeks passed in the camp as Akshay Sethi defeated exhaustion, hunger and humiliation. Several forms of torture, physical and mental, had failed to break him. If anything, they made his resolve stronger. The resolve to be free, to be united with his wife and sons.
Then, on a moonless night, Akshay devised a plan to escape along with three fellow prisoners. At the last moment, the plan went haywire and two of the group were shot dead. But Akshay, along with the fourth prisoner, managed to escape, jumping the fence with Pakistani guards in hot pursuit. Bullets sprayed from behind and one buried itself deep into his right leg.
But an unyielding Akshay ran for six hours, stealing moments to tie up his bleeding leg with a scrap of his uniform, all the way across the border into the safe hands of his own army.
When our lanky postman, ever-clad in Khakhi from head to toe, parked his bicycle by the steel gate that bordered our house in Jaipur, little did he know that the innocuous-looking envelope he carried in his hands was a ticket to a life I never saw coming.
The celebrations of the previous night had meant that I went to bed two hours past midnight – a record until then – for, being hosts of that grand party, Papa and Ma didn’t exactly chase me into bed.
An earthquake would have struggled to wake me up in those days but Papa’s booming voice made the strongest of jolts hide its face in shame. I promptly sat up and squeezed the sleep out of my eyes. Last night had been a special one; Papa had received the country’s highest award for bravery in battle, as the President of India had put it. But why was he so worked up the next morning? I tied the string of my pyjamas and walked into the living room. The clock chimed; it was eleven am.
“Go back to sleep. You don’t have school today,” said Ma, the moment she saw me. She gently pushed me back into my room and locked the door.
I slipped under my blanket again and stared at the little strands of hair on my pillow. They didn’t scare me anymore for Ma had assured me that I was not going bald at ten. It was normal to find a few strands because we slept on it, she had politely explained. My eyes drifted to the intricate artwork on the pillow, designed by Ma. The popularity of her expertise in embroidery and knitting, which I took for granted, had grown throughout our colony. Each pillowcase, bed sheet, duvet, table cloth, sofa cushion and wall hanging in our house had the fruits of Ma’s creativity strewn all over.
The rays of the sun broke through but sleep had long deserted me. I thought about the other boy who lived in the same house as me. For a moment, I wondered what he was doing in his bedroom that was next to mine. He must have been asleep, I decided. There was no way he would have heard any of Papa’s words outside.
I splashed my face with cold water, thinking how none of us had ever seen him smile. Or cry. Not even in a photograph. Ma told me once that he was the first person I’d fixed my eyes upon when I was born. We have an old, grainy, black-and-white photograph where he is holding my hand. I was barely two years old then. The only person smiling in the photograph is me.
I applied the toothpaste neatly on my brush the way Papa had taught me when I was a kid. As I brushed my teeth, I thought of Papa. His voice was always loud, especially when angry, but far less scary than those dreadful days when I thought I would never hear him again. ‘Missing in Action’ was what the smartly-dressed Air Force pilot had said about him when he had knocked on our door about a year ago, at the peak of war.
That war. The haunting memories of which refuse to fade away. The early days weren’t bad though. In fact, they were fun. We wouldn’t go to school and Ma treated us with sumptuous food almost daily. Her cooking never takes a backseat no matter how worried she is. But when Papa went missing, it did. For, she feared the worst, like the rest of us.
While the warring sides fought bitterly, we constantly faced blackouts and heard war sirens. The sounds of gunshots and bombs became a fixture of our background noise. Whenever a bomb went off, the three of us would huddle in the basement. Both my brother and I would cling to Ma and I would tell her repeatedly how scared I was. No doubt he felt scared too, but he could not say it.
We had a light blue map of the world adorning a wall in our living room, hanging above the Victorian style couches. Once, years before the war, I scribbled his name with a black permanent marker at the spot where the North Pole was located and mine, Saurav, at the South Pole. That Papa had yelled but let me off with a stern warning was fortunate. I now realise that I was not off the mark at all. My brother and I were indeed poles apart.
Little did I know then that the name written at the top of the map would later bring me to one of the toughest crossroads of my life. Raj Sethi.
Just the previous day, I had clapped hard when the name of Squadron Leader Akshay Sethi was announced. My father had promptly got on his feet to accept the Veer Chakra from the President of India.
He returned with the honour and settled into the seat next to mine. Amidst the ambush of congratulations, I caught him taking deep breaths in between broad grins acknowledging his achievement to others, betraying the wide gamut of emotions he was going through. After all, he would never fly in combat again.
He looked at me and said, “Remember, Saurav, there are only two types of people in this world - winners and losers. You and I are winners.” I had heard it for the first time and, before I knew, I had begun to categorise everyone I met into those two boxes, the way Papa did.
About twenty of Papa’s colleagues, with families, visited home after the awards for the celebrations that would run long into the night. The men gathered in the study, closing the door on the world outside, and sat around the round table, enjoying drinks and celebrating Papa’s medal. A gathering such us this was strictly out of bounds for us kids. Women busied themselves with preparing the dinner while my friends wanted to play Monopoly, my favourite board game. I recalled to my horror that I had left the game in the study. As I did in similar situations, I went to my mother in the kitchen.
I tugged at her sari but soon realised how tough it is to gain a woman’s attention when she is in the midst of an intense gossip session.
“Ma, I left my Monopoly in the study room. Can I please go in and get it now?” I almost hollered.
“Saurav, we can’t be disturbing Papa and his friends. You know how it is with him. Rules are rules,” she declared, without even looking at me. I needed to push harder. “Maaa, puhleeze!” I begged loudly, threatening to break into an unstoppable whine. The chatter in the kitchen stopped but Ma was relentless. She had decided to ignore my tantrum, and instead directed her attention on the onions sizzling in the pan.
Now was the time to resort to the tactic that came in handy when all else failed. I innocently blinked my eyelids and interlocked my hands in front of my chest, prayer-like.
“Aww, poor boy. Go get him his board game, Sharada,” said Ma’s friend, Mala. She turned to me with a reassuring smile and pinched my cheeks in affection, propelling all the women present to follow suit.
“Okay, okay,” Ma finally gave in. “Mala, please look after the stove,” she said and walked briskly towards the study room, gesturing me to follow her. I smiled devilishly to myself.
She told me to wait outside the study.
She opened the door slightly. A strong whiff of alcohol floated out and engulfed me. I then heard Papa’s deep voice.
“This is the lowest point of my life, being booted out of the Air Force like this. That is my life, my passion.” He sounded drunk yet coherent. Clinking of glasses filled the background.
“Look at the bright side, Akshay. You’ve just received an award that every Air Force pilot dreams of. Most of them – if they are fortunate enough – receive it posthumously,” said Uncle Mohan, who sounded more sober than Papa.
I was quite fond of Uncle Mohan. He was Papa’s best friend and favourite colleague in the Air Force. I remember what Uncle Mohan told me often, “When your father speaks, people listen.”
“Mohan, it’s easy for you to say,” Papa mused, staring at his glass filled up to a quarter. “You are still flying fighter planes for the nation. There is nothing else I’d rather do. And you know that.”
Before I could hear and watch more, Ma had hurried out of the room with my board game, flustered.
She thrust the box into my hands and snapped, “Never ask me to do this again! The room was filledwith men, and I felt completely out of place. Now go play with your friends and don’t bother me.”
I gleefully accepted the game.
“Wait, Saurav,” Ma stopped me in my tracks. “Where’s Raj?”
“I don’t know. He doesn’t like to play with us. He must be in his room as usual,” I explained quickly and scampered off, avoiding any further questions.
On my way to the living room, I caught Raj from the corner of my eye. He was walking down the stairs. It was too late to pretend I had not seen him.
Reluctantly, I asked him if he wanted to join us, hoping he would say no as he always did; talking to him in sign language in front of my friends and hearinghow strange they found him embarrassed me to no end. But Raj nodded a yes. To my instant relief, we had enough players which meant Raj could not play. He duly disappeared back into his room, which was exactly what I had wanted.
During our game, Mohit, my school-mate, asked me, “So, if your brother is deaf, why is it that he does not even talk?”
To me, the answer was obvious. Even though Raj was born with normal vocal cords, the lack of an aural feedback prevented coherent speech right from birth.
I asked him in return, “Do you know, word for word, what you just said, Mohit?”
“Well, I heard myself say it.”
“Precisely. Now roll the dice and focus on the game.”
But that was only part of the reason. Since Raj was comfortable in communicating only in sign language, we rarely heard his voice. He used to occasionally groan and sigh earlier but even that stopped completely as people around him laughed endlessly.
Papa’s words kept ringing in my ears as I played Monopoly. Even though I did not fully understand what he’d said, I retained every single word, replaying it several times over in my head. Unknown to me then, the war, his permanent leg injury and the aftermath had sowed the seeds of bitterness in my father.
Ma went to the gate to haggle with the vegetable-vendor while Papa watered the plants in the verandah. I tried my best to hide my curiosity and, to buy time, picked up the unopened newspaper lying on the couch. I went straight to the sports page. India had lost again to the West Indies. But I had little interest as my ears strained to hear what Ma and Papa discussed outside. Instinct told me it was something very important.
I saw Papa follow Ma, waving a sheet of paper in his right hand, and talk to her furiously. He followed her into the kitchenwhere their voices reduced to a murmur.
Despite having left the Air Force, my father could never break out of his disciplinarian mould and always continued to be the strict father that we always knew him to be. He still combed his dark, thick hair so neatly that not a single strand dared disobey its positioning. Fair-skinned, a neatly trimmed moustache, he dressed as neatly as ever, ironing his shirts so meticulously that they appeared brand new every time. Tardiness and indiscipline were simply not acceptable. He did everything at a fixed time, be it going to bed, waking up, or eating his meals. Achievement was all that mattered to Papa, the only yardstick he used to measure a human being.
That Raj was born completely deaf, and incapable of speech as a result, had been a blow to my father's pride since Raj’s birth. Ironically, he was born with the biggest pair of ears that anyone had ever seen, quite similar to those of an elephant.
Papa had decided to fight destiny when the time came to admit Raj to school.
“Why don’t we send Raj to the Oral School behind the old Mughal fort? Mala said that they train a lot of deaf kids to talk, since you are so keen he does so,” Ma asked Papa on the way to school. We sat huddled in a black autorickshaw, and I strained to hear them in between the rubber toot for a horn and jarring Hindi music. Raj and I were sandwiched between our differing parents, water bottles hung over our shoulders.
“He’ll talk just like we do. This I’ll ensure no matter what. But he needs to study with people like Saurav. Only then will he be like the rest of us. I want to keep him in the same school as Saurav.”
“Please talk to Dr. Gopal Ji about hearing aids,” reminded Ma once again.
Papa did that. He consulted Dr. Gopal, an ENT surgeon. He told us flatly that hearing aids could not help a person as profoundly deaf as Raj.
For an intelligent man, Papa missed a lot when it came to Raj; there was no interpreter in our classes and Raj was all at sea, struggling to grasp things that he could only see.
Two years after him, I was born, with all the essential functions in place. Luckily for Papa, I took to winning quite naturally. With the same complexion as my father and with alarming intelligence for a kindergarten kid who could perform complex additions with consummate ease, Papa saw me as the rightful extension to his legacy. I, of course, enjoyed being at pole position.
I remember how on Diwali, when I was five, Ma shared photographs of me and Raj. Her friends who had gathered around the glass table gushed and squealed over the cute faces I made in those photos; Raj did not get a single mention.
That was also the night when I’d almost lost my hand. Feeling majestic with all the adulation, I proceeded to burst firecrackers in the front yard. Raj was scared of firecrackers and preferred watching me run riot with them. The sounds meant nothing to him, obviously, but going by his intense stares, it seemed he liked the colourful display of the milder fireworks.
One such milder one, a flowerpot, refused to respond when I lit it. Ever the persistent one, I went closer when it exploded. For a few split seconds, I felt nothing. Then a searing pain shot through my right hand. I clutched it with my left hand and ran wildly down the long street, screaming in excruciation, kicking up the dry dust from the edges of the road. As I would know a few years later, I had run perilously close to other fireworks fizzing around, zipping past people, stray cows and dogs, and knocking the fruit basket off a vendor, and had finally tripped over a stubbornly immovable goat in the middle of the road. Raj had immediately set after me. He had grabbed me from the road and brought a bleeding, burning, crying and kicking me back home. My hand had suffered severe burns that healed in more than six weeks. Raj was meticulous in his elder brother role; he ensured I did not play cricket all this time. He would also cover my hand with a cloth whenever we went out on the dusty roads.
Once I recovered, I was back to terrorising the local bowlers. Our galli team had been ousted from every street in the locality, thanks to our uncanny ability to smash even the strongest window. Soon we had no choice but to play in the public park. During a match, I picked up a fight with Raghu, a local bowler, who insisted I was out when I knew I wasn’t. While we argued, he threw the pointed end of a cricket stump at me and missed. Raj, who had been watching us play, immediately ran in and tried to diffuse the situation. Raghu pushed him away roughly and grabbed my legs. I kicked up a heap of dust, traded blows with him and we fought like enraged bulls till the elders in the park separated us.
“How did this happen?” was the first question Papa asked when we returned home. I was looking at the floor, ashamed. Raj stood steady, staring at the towering inferno in front of us. Finally I ventured, “One of them hit Raj...I tried to save him.” I lied shamelessly.
For a minute, Papa remained silent. Then he lowered his face to mine. “That was very noble. But Raj is old enough to take care of himself and so are you. In the real world you are on your own. Each man to his own. Always remember that,” he declared.
I was buried in the paper’s sports page when Ma shook me. “Your Uncle, Prakash, has asked about you in his letter.” A letter? Something in it had caused the uproar. My suspicions were confirmed when Papa and Ma talked about the letter incessantly over dinner. Finally, Papa appeased my curiosity as he read out the letter to me post dinner while Ma used sign language to convey the contents to Raj.
“Our mother Janaki is growing old and wishes to spend time with you, Sharada and the kids. Using my contacts, I can get you a smooth and quick entry into the US. I will arrange for everything; you need not worry at all.
In other news, your precious little angel, Sheela, has been accepted into a law firm. Also, both Kamala and I have enrolled Ekta into one of the finest schools here.
Please let me know how you want to proceed with your move to the US and I will do the needful.
Papa spent a major part of the next few weeks convincing Ma about his brother’s suggestion. Even though he was usually the decision-maker, this was a big one and required Ma’s opinion and support.
Nobody asked for our opinions. Raj did not offer one. But I prayed hard hoping Papa and Ma loved India enough to stay back.
My grandfather Rajveer Sethi had been a freedom fighter. A popular and influential man, he had led his life on the principles of Mahatma Gandhi. In a rally against the British, he had sustained fatal injuries to the head. After his death and shortly after the birth of my Aunt Sheela, my grandmother Janaki, whom we all lovingly called Dadi,single-handedly raised her three children: my father Akshay, her eldest son; Prakash; and her youngest child Sheela. Aunt Sheela, being the youngest and the only girl, was doted upon by her two brothers who were always very protective of her. When Uncle Prakash got an opportunity to move to the US six years ago, he took Aunt Sheela with him. After a year, he also arranged for Janaki Dadi to stay there, permanently.
Ever since the letter had arrived, I would come from school only to hear Papa and Ma deliberate about the decision and analyse each aspect of the move.
“What about the kids’ schooling?” Ma asked as the pressure cooker blew its whistle.
“Prakash has arranged for that.”
“What about Raj?”
“What about him? He studied in Saurav’s school here; he will do the same there. What is there to talk about?”
“The kids have friends here.”
“Sharada, Prakash’s daughter Ekta is Raj’s age. She will be good company for them to start with.”
I was not sure about that. I hardly knew my cousin. I had made great friends here and I really did not want to leave them.
As two weeks passed, things had reached a decisive point. Papa and Ma had answered each other’s questions and concerns with the help of Uncle Prakash.
“Our entire family is now settled in the US. What am I going to do here? We don’t have any close relations left in this place. Sharada, you were the only daughter of your parents and they are no more,” I heard Papa say to Ma, who was about to give birth to yet another woollen sweater.
“I’m no longer bound by the armed forces. So this is the right time to move and be closer to them, don’t you think? The kids will have access to a great future,” continued Papa to Ma who, to my surprise, was nodding her head in strong agreement now. Uncle Prakash had successfully implanted his suggestion into my parents’ heads.
Papa wrote a letter back to his brother, asking him to do the needful. Soon we found ourselves preparing to settle into our new lives in the US. It was a big move for all of us that brought with it mixed emotions. Mine carried only disappointment and bitterness.
“Ma, don’t you all love India enough?” was my last attempt.
“We do, Saurav. But we’ll love America too. Why don’t you want to go there anyway? They have McDonald’s, flashy cars, big houses. It’s also a very clean country.”
“But I’ve heard Americans don’t play cricket. I don’t want to go there. Puhleeze!” I begged, giving her my best puppy look again.
This time, however, it had no effect on my unrelenting mother and I was duly told to help pack our belongings. Within months, we were boarding a flight to the US, to the place that eventually redefined all our lives in ways we had never imagined.