Monday, 15 September 2014

When wars don’t matter

 In my bookshelf rests an old file. The contents inside the file include typed papers, letters, some photocopies of articles taken from military digests and old newspapers cuttings. To sum in one sentence ‘the file contains story material of a soldier who fought in Malaya during World War II.’

Our desires to narrate occurrences and events, clear misunderstandings, mention some undisclosed facts lead us to write our experiences. The guiding principle for every writer is to be discovered by the stories he writes. My grandfather must have been led by the same purpose to have believed his experiences in Malaya as a soldier and then as a POW would make a good story to be shared with others. Life was full of upheavals and happenings and he never got a chance to write a book he intended to share with others.

He used to sit on his desk and write without ever lifting his head up if one was to come inside his study.  In those days you could hire a typist and he found one in the local bazaarone who never managed to get the spellings of his name right. Afterwards bundles of typed papers he distributed to his daughters and sons for proofreading. Few days later they would return the papers and complained of their inability to make it read like a story and not a report. The papers never went to a printing press or desk of editor but rather they lay forgotten in a shelf along with his other numerous filesmostly records of the small gypsum factory he owned.

When you express the intention to become a writer it is amusing how the relatives are the first ones to remind you they saw the budding writer in you anyway. In one of my trips to Pakistan this file was thrust in my hands and on my return journey to England I sat in the plane recalling the hopes attached to my ability to write his story by the old comrades and officers who knew him. I have yet to decipher how I build a momentum to a story which starts in Singapore where he was sent soon after he left the military academy in Dehradun to the time he was planning to escape the Japanese prison camp on the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. There are too many angles to the story, lots of facts to be verified and many loose and unexplainable ends to be put together. I struggle to envision the fear in his mind when a Japanese soldier rested the gun on his temple and was about to pull the trigger if it had not been for another Japanese officer who was passing by and stopped the soldier from firing the shothe wanted grandfather’s assistance to translate some maps written in English. I cannot fathom what inspired him to read the entire works of Shakespeare during his solitary confinement in the camp. Nor can I understand his emotions when he discovered, after leaving the prison camp that his father died a broken-hearted man. The Japanese severed all forms of communications for him and he could not write letters back home when he refused to do the Japanese drills. His father assuming he had been killed in action became ill and could not survive the emotional strain.

In all the human drama surrounded by the harsh world of war and strife there is one story which stands out for me. The English and Indian officers left to fend for their own lives came to form special bonds. Some kept in touch through writing letters long after the war was over. In 1971 the direct military confrontation between India and Pakistan led to a full fledge war. It was a year before my youngest uncle graduated from the Pakistan military academy. He became a POW during the war and was sent to a camp in India. With no forms of communications existent between the two countries the only source of information was the BBC radio for the families concerned about the welfare of soldiers and officers fighting far away from home. The news of a scuffle between Indian officers and Pakistani soldiers in a prison camp sent a wave of panic and apprehension. There was no way to ascertain who was alive and who was dead. The uncertainty worsened the frail health of my grandmother who had to be put on medication. My aunts and uncles recall the agony of seeing their mother every day becoming weak from the added concern of not knowing if her son was alive or dead. The scenario must have flooded memories of the war in Malaya because it was from the past grandfather dug out an old connection. Colonel Web an English officer who passed his retirement days in Essex was the company commander of his military unit in Malaya. A telegram was sent to him requesting his assistance in finding out about my uncle’s state. The wait was crucial but a telegram did arrive from England. Colonel Web sent a letter to General Jagjit Singh Aurora, another officer who was also stationed in Malaya during the war days and was serving as the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army. He confirmed Colonel Web that my uncle was safe and well in a prison camp.

 Three soldiers from different backgrounds separated by circumstances of war and ideology did not uphold their differences when the matter was to build bridges for the sake of compassion and humanity. We need individuals like Jagjit Singh Aurora and Colonel Web who made it possible for us to believe our differences have no place to foster humanity.   

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