MEAT, MURGA, PRISONERS OF WAR AND A REPRIEVE
My father had a penchant for shoes. He looked after them like a priest. On Sundays, he would arrange them like soldiers on drill in the verandah of the hut in which we were living in Meerut. I was on my first leave from the Gurkha battalion in Sikkim. My company was deployed on the peaks to the east of Jelep La, the pass leading into Tibet through which George Mallory and the early Everest expeditions had passed onto Rhombuck Glacier to climb Everest from the north route.
We sat polishing boots. Make and mend parade he used to call it.
“Bring your housewife and check all your buttons and trouser hems on a Sunday. Gods day for rest and repair”.
I was just happy to feel the warm sun of the Indian plains, play on my skin. Just happy to drink clean water. Sitting at Tibet’s door, we drank the tarn water that was lugged up in jerricans by the Gorkhas. It smelt of kerosene and fungus forever, and roof of one’s mouth had a peculiar after taste for months afterwards.
“Papa, I will tackle your boots, hoe your vegetable patch, wash the clothes… but please let’s get back to your 1971 experience.” It was hard to get him to speak of that time. He was shortly due to retire, just aged fifty and a major.
“What’s there to talk of war. It’s best forgotten.” He would clamp shut most of the times to my entreaties. Then, in an attempt to wriggle out of narrating his war experience, he would try to change the subject. “How did you come? Assam Courier or Tin Sukhia Express?” He asked.
“Yes, I was lucky,” I replied.“I got a direct lift from the Brigade Major in his Jonga from Kupup to Siliguri. Now tell me about Bangladesh.” I looked at my father steadily, while applying the brush to a venerable pair of Flex DMS boots. He finally opened
up. And this is his story…
Ceaseless, onward pushing war was a chaotic time. I suffered from rheumatism from sleeping under trucks and in the open. Sleep was a blessing, usually, there was too little of it. I was the minion of the brigade headquarters—running around doing all odd jobs.
Our camp was on the move every day, following the shadow of the advance. You don’t know what is happening when it is happening. Afterwards, it is a hell of a job to find out what happened. Our progress was slow, the enemy was dug in and forewarned, everywhere. It was all a sort of blind man’s buff. They tell you that the enemy is a dog, you have to throw a rock and he will scoot with his tail curled between its legs. But it’s not like that ever. The enemy always fights and often he fights like a tiger.
The strange thing in war is that you rarely see the enemy. He is inside the ground. There is only the earth, the trees, the folds of the land, the distant blue-green groves and the rivulets and ponds.
It’s only when the man next to you stalls mid-step and flounders, the life leaving him like a silent gust of air. In that moment of agony, surprise and stony amazement, you know that the war is on you. The soldiers lie silent, no more a living force. In the empty air, death is shooting at you, silent and final at 800 metres per second. Not one death but death by the thousands are in the air to meet your section or platoon. All war is an expedition of a section or a platoon.
When he spoke, I understood why he was reticent to speak of war. Who more than a soldier hates war. It seals his soul like a wax seal if he is a human, a father, a son, a brother, a lover, a friend. There was a long pause. I don’t know what the Grecian nosed man sat thinking. The hair had receded from his temples and made his long face look longer. With age, his big eyes looked dwindled and the strong wide marble carved chin, calm and at times morose. I hated the grimness. One hates to see one’s parents grim with the struggles of life.
He resumed after a long pause in which he had drawn a thick curtain over some things. I knew he had done a mental audit.
The brigade headquarters was, to a casual observer, a circus of confusion. Too many things went on at the same time. But it was always around the large map and the chattering radio sets that people clustered with furrowed brows, trying to make some sense of what was happening. The blue pins kept moving slowly eastwards. One afternoon, I stood on the verge of our camp.
The sun was out and there was no sound of a battle going on further ahead. Silence reined and I stood to wonder at the utter moment of soundless calm. Then the dim drone of a one-ton vehicle in low gear erupted the silence. It was still far off, but it seemed to be heading towards us. I went to the perimeter guard. It halted at a distance and a man jumped out. The little truck was covered with fresh-cut banana leaves. The man looked familiar. Short and compact with a mongoloid face. And in an instant I recognised him. He was from my own battalion.
The Naga JCO grinned and greeted me in a customary manner. “Tagra Raho, shaab”, he said and added, “Sheeyo (CO) Sahab sends you greetings and this”. He gave me a canvas bag whose mouth was tied with a leather shoelace. “Meat and Rum,” he said.
A jawan jumped out and unhooked the tailboard. It fell with a clang. He pulled a rope and four terrified and frozen men whose hands were tied up, tumbled out of the little truck.
“Shaab, our boys have been telling them they will make meat of these Pakistanis and eat them up.”
The Nagas grinned widely and grimaced at the bewildered prisoners. They were in torn rags of khakhi and were tied with a long rope.
“Chalegaa Shaab.” the Nagas saluted and the one-ton ground back towards Hilli where the battalion was entangled in the fighting. They wanted to be back with their battalion before dark.
I looked at the prisoners who sat silently on their haunches in the dust. The sound of the departing truck disappeared into the far void. Then I took them into my custody. Sometime later, a havildar from the brigade camp came with some sepoys. They wore circular bowl-shaped helmets and the chinstraps hung loose like plaits.
“Ram Ram sahib,” he said, touching his rifle with his right palm. “The Brigade Major sahib has asked for the kaidis (prisoners)”.
The prisoners sat cowering, staring at the dusty ground. Mud caked their faces and their clothes hung torn upon their scrawny wiry bodies. They didn’t look like West Pakistanis.
“Which is your unit?”I asked the man closest to me, in a smattering of pidgin Bengali that I was trying to pick up. He glared back at me, defiant and uncomprehending.
“Which is your unit?”I asked again. He shook his head. The guard havildar walked up to the man and kicked him hard in the chest. The reinforced toe of the heavy ammunition boot caught bone and I heard a crunch.
“Saala, haraami. The sahib is asking you something. Answer him.”
The man folded up, his chest had crumpled. He held his chest and curled up in the sand, whimpering and sobbing.
“Don’t do it again. Why did you have to kick this man?” I looked sternly at the havildar. He stepped aside silent, scorning me with his burning black-eyed gaze.
“Sahib I came to take the prisoners if sahib permits I go. The BM sahib is waiting.”
The BM was leaning over a map sheet upon a field table. A spectacled, clerk like man stood next to him in civil clothes. The BM looked up from the map, his head furrowed as the prisoners filed in.
“Ghosh babu, please carry on.” he motioned to the man in black horn-rimmed glasses. The interrogator picked up a clipboard and started questioning. The prisoners spoke reluctantly, not divulging any useful information. After a fruitless quarter of an hour, he went to confer with the BM. There was a whispered exchange. The BM dipped a table bell and a soldier appeared. The BM waved his hand in a circular motion.
Soon a few sepoys came in. They were huge and looked very menacing. Their very presence was enough to break the will of the prisoners. Ghosh babu’s pencil flew on paper rapidly scribbling. His eyes beamed as useful intelligence dribbled out from the dry and wincing mouths of the prisoners.
The BM returned after half an hour. The interrogator went to the BM. They conferred in undertones. The prisoners lay pinned on the ground and palpitated after the ordeal. They could not reveal anything more of military value.
The guards led them out. The BM called me and said
“They are razakaars. Take them to the river and scare the hell out of them, before letting them go”.
The river was about a mile away. We got in a truck and drove. Then got down a furlong or two from the river, till the truck couldn’t go any further.
“Get moving,” a sepoy poked his bayonet in the back of a prisoner. The prisoners started shuffling. They moved slowly, trying to lengthen the time.
“God, god, god, god, god,” they started chanting the name of their god softly, but the fear was palpable in their voice. A puddle of water came in their path. The leading man stepped onto the grass verge nimbly, avoiding it. The prisoners followed the leading man. Every few seconds one of them would look over his shoulders and look at me with beseeching eyes. Then finding no answering mercy, he would turn his head and start chanting his god’s name.
“Dadaa, daada, maafi, maafi,” the oldest of the prisoners broke ranks and ran and fell at my feet. He started banging his head on my boots. I could understand what he was saying. He said he loved life, he had children. He didn’t want to die.
“Shut up and start moving,” the guard havildar came and pulled him by the scruff. “You break file and next time I will run my bayonet through you”.
Goaded with bayonets, the prisoners moved like goats for slaughter.
The riverfront appeared. It curled silver-grey in the gathering evening. Dusk was approaching and lengthened shadows of the trees fell into our path. Just the right time to finish the job. Soon it would be dark.
The bank rose in front of us. We all climbed the bank and the river lay fast and swift-flowing at our feet.
“Hukum Singh, line them upright at the edge of the bank.
Right above the flowing water,” I ordered.
The prisoners sat quiet and still and started saying their prayers. I waited and told the detachment to wait. It was a surreal scene, but the prisoners had perhaps resigned themselves to their fate. They knelt and started praying.
I chose that moment to fire the complete magazine of my sten gun in the ground near me. The heavy snub-nosed nine-millimetre bullets tore the ground as they hit. I fired a second long burst and emptied the thirty round magazine.
The prisoners lay unmoving on the ground, their fingers clawing the earth, till they realised that they had not been hit! Then one of them lifted his head and murmured “dada, dada, ” surprised to find himself alive. The rest soon followed suit.
I pointed up the bank with the barrel of my sten gun. “Runaway all of you and don’t get caught by the Indian army again”. It was war and there was no time for gentle humanity. The prisoners got up and looked at me incredulously. I pointed upriver. They darted away into the dark like hares.
Ashok Ahlawat spends his spare time pursuing obscure stories and experiences of Indian Armed Forces personnel. At present, he is pursuing battle stories arising out of the wintry battlefields of the 1971 Indo Pak war.
He is the son of an Infantry officer, Lt Col Chotu Ram, SM, Who fought in the Liberation War as a 2 Lt in 1971