“Twenty years after the opening shots of the Bosnian War were fired, former Bosnian Serb military commander, Ratko Mladic, is finally being tried by a United Nations War Crimes tribunal in the Hague, on 11 charges of crimes against humanity”        

The words of the 8pm CBS Evening news anchor, Scott Pelley’s words seemed to fade out, while and another voice dovetailed in, his voice. His. Arjun Das’s. It said…“……I have this insane urge to hold you in my arms…”

Just a few meters away, in the hall, Sukumar sat sprawled in front of the TV as a 1995 video of Mladic flashed on, showing him inspecting a crack unit of the Serbian Army Special Forces, ‘the Scorpions’, on a rain-swept hillside just outside the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, on the eve of the massacre.

Sukumar had his laptop open as usual, his fingers paused, to take in the news video. He turned and looked at Nandini who’d just dropped the soup spoon in the plate of pasta she’d prepared for Dharam. Her son was already seated, waiting.

“Mom! There’s soup all over my pasta!”

Damn! The tremor in her hands passed. She took a deep breath, steadied herself and started preparing a fresh helping.

As she ladled the pasta, Nandini raced back again, to the first time Arjun had unfriended her. Their first interaction, two months prior. He’d unfriended her just an hour after she’d accepted his invite. She was baffled and messaged him,” Hi, it’s your business of course but it’ll be nice to know why you unfriended me…”

“Hello”, came the reply, in measured tones,”I unfriended you because there’s just nothing on your page. No info, no wall, no photos, no friends list. You have friended me but denied me access to virtually everything. It’s demeaning and frankly, I don’t have time for this. This won’t work, thank you and good bye”.

Nonetheless, Nandini realized that her FB settings needed to be reconfigured. She decided to reach out once again, a trait he later came to adore in her. She hurriedly replied,”So sorry about that. I didn’t know my settings were that way. Have fixed it now.” She sent him back an invitation without ado. He accepted.

In the beginning she’d been reserved, hesitant about talking of herself. He was just an unknown strange man who wrote outrageously funny notes that made her burst into laughter. As the days went by though, the levee she’d hurriedly constructed, seemed to look like it was made with cotton candy. It soon started to dissolve. She began to be excited every time she saw his message waiting when she logged in. Oh, he had this wonderful old-world graciousness and oodles of charm and he made her feel so so good.

“Mom!…do you mind not staring into space with a spoonful of pasta, also in space? How about dropping it back to earth and my plate?”

Sukumar looked up..“If Mladic is actually pronounced Mladich, why can’t they just step up and add the ‘h’ to their names, for Christ’s sakes?” A top-knotch software brain, he couldn’t stand anything with hidden tones. Everything had to be either black or white for Sukumar Vittal Shyamrao. Zeros and ones. “Life, simplified,” would be the title of his book if he ever chose to write it. Painfully shy, perpetually immersed in solving knotty software issues, Nandini felt lucky if he said more than two words at the dinner table. Sometimes, when he suddenly broke into Telugu, that was a sign he was moved by something and maybe wanted to talk.

“What did he do?” Nandini was referring to Mladic in a desperate bid to stop her mind from sliding back into that crevasse which had suffocated her a minute ago and caused the soup spoon to slip from her fingers. Please, Sukumar, keep talking. Don’t stop. I don’t want to be alone with him anymore.

“What did he do?” Sukumar again, “He slaughtered eight thousand men, women and children in one night in a small picturesque mountain town in Bosnia. Right after he’d given the UN peacekeepers his word the day before that he wouldn’t go in. Mladic is the father of the term, ‘ethnic cleansing’.”

“1995…hmmm…let’s see now, where was I then…” Dharam began, trying to establish his whereabouts at the time, almost 18 years ago, while shovelling pasta into his mouth. He was going to be 8 next March.

“You were a doddering old Mongolian sheperd with two billy goats and a horse, who’d just been to see his married daughter in Ulan Bator, darling,” Nandini wanted to play along. She smiled, rose, went over and engulfed him in one of those comprehensive all-season squeezes that only mothers can impart.

“Ugh,” Nandini made a mock grimace as she held her son tight,”Correction, you can’t be the sheperd, you must be one of the goats. You smell like them. To the showers right after supper, billy goat, and I won’t take no for an answer.”

Later, as she rinsed the dishes, Dharam and his Ipod having retired for the night, she heard the TV being turned off and felt the armchair in the hall creak. Slippered footsteps flopped up to her and stopped right next.

“Here, let me dry them”. Sukumar took a wash cloth and reached for a plate. Nandini turned. The man standing next to her was tall, crew-cut, clean. A mild shadow of a beard covered his lower jaw. He looked solid, simple, honest, wholesome. Just as he’d been, the first time they’d met. She reached up and laid her head on his chest, the sobs breaking out, shaking her whole being. He dropped the cloth on the counter and just as her body went limp, he drew her up to him fiercely, till she was on the tips of her toes, her breath gasping upon his cheeks.

She tried to open her mouth, to speak through her sobs. To tell him. Everything. But he laid a finger gently on her lips with a ‘ssshhh’. Holding her close, by her shoulders, he placed one arm just below the round of her buttocks, lifting her off the floor effortlessly, while at the same time he advanced purposefully toward the stairs.

“Welcome back, darling,” he whispered.