It was an afternoon of August 1944. A van full of Indian soldiers was passing through the mountainous region of Mizoram. They had to join a regiment that was camping near the Burmese border. Their commander, an English man, and his friends were in another van. While the soldiers were having a light moment, one of them, a Bengali soldier, was gazing at the hills by which they were passing. He had joined the army only six months back, while most of his fellow soldiers had been there for a longer time.
Noticing his absentmindedness, a Punjabi soldier laughed and said, “Look! We have a poet amid us.”
His companions laughed. The same soldier repeated, “Hey, Akash, what the hell are you thinking on Earth? Come on, join us. Who can say, we might not be together and sharing such a jolly moment in the future!”
“Pratap, I got a letter from my home a few hours ago,” replied an indifferent Akash.
“Oh, then, you’re thinking about your beloved?” another soldier said.
“Stop it, you rascals! Don’t make a jest of everything. I’ve got a letter from my younger brother and it’s serious. My family is perishing due to hunger. The money I send them is not enough to sustain them. Dad has lost his job at the farm because of the famine that has devastated the whole of Bengal.”
Everyone fell silent. Akash continued, “Since reading the letter I am totally broken. It has been posted almost two months back. What has happened to them in these two months?”
He paused for a moment.
“I wish I were at home,” he murmured. Nobody knew what to say. The van went through the zigzag way.
“And what could you have done, had you been at home now?” asked Hardayala, the Punjabi mate.
“Perhaps, I could have saved them. Perhaps, I could have made my father happy since he did not want me to become a soldier. Perhaps…”
“You could not have done anything there,” interrupted Pratap. “For my part, I hardly find any difference between staying home, fighting against the British, and fighting for them on the front. In every case, you have to die and you won’t get what you want.”
“Yet, Pratap, what do you think if I ask for a few days’ leave?” Akash asked despairingly.
“You are a soldier, man, you can’t avail leave at your will. Besides, you don’t completely know the British commanders yet. I know them well since I have been in this regiment for a long time. I’ll tell you about an incident. One day, I was extremely angry, because two of my fellow soldiers had to starve for two days while the English soldiers in a nearby regiment had a huge stock of food. So, it is out of the question that they would pay heed to your request. Besides, they know it very well that the rural Bengalis are starving and they would argue that it is their fate to die of hunger.”
With this last sentence, the soldiers laughed. But no one spoke anymore. The van halted before a place and the soldiers were ordered to get down.
Three days passed since Akash and his group had joined the new regiment. Yet Akash could not adapt himself there. Since the day he had received the letter he was completely upset. Day by day he was feeling isolated from all his fellow soldiers. Now that he had no family, as he feared, and now that no one sympathised with his plight, he was almost turning into a madman. He did not feel any impulse to fight for the British. He felt eternally chained to them. The only moment he was waiting, for now, was death. Was it a soldier’s life?
While sitting alone at leisure in the afternoon, he remembered what he had dreamt of last night. He had seen his dying father, old and weak, groaning for food. Hearing him crying out in his nightmare his fellow soldiers became concerned. But like many other friendly gestures, they then joked about it. Why did he join the army if he did not have enough courage? Had he been forced to? Why did he not escape and join the freedom fighters? Was it the same thing to die for freedom and die for the British as Pratap had argued? How could his companions be so detached? Why could he not be like them? He tried to think like Pratap but he felt unease. Everyone noticed his odd behaviour in the camp. Some of them began to call him a coward, madman, and rascal. He was warned for his absentmindedness during the parade. Yet how could he not rectify himself? But internally, he was torn apart. Sometimes, remembering his fellow soldiers, he was determined to change himself. But the next moment, he felt at odds with their attitude. He kept arguing with himself.
Suddenly there was a commotion. He looked back and ran towards the place behind the camp. A group of local tribal people had been caught stealing food from the camp. They were being tortured right there and they were crying like helpless children. In the darkness of the evening the thin pale figures, Akash felt, resembled his family dying of hunger. As the Commander ordered to shoot them at once, he without a moment’s hesitation, cried out –
“No, Sir! Please stop! Please don’t shoot them! Can’t you see they are starving?”
“Shut up, you mad, rascal!” roared the Commander. “If you harbour sympathy for them, go, die with them!”
“Sir, I think, we do not have to kill them. They are not our enemies. We can punish them otherwise,” said Akash calmly. Before he could finish the rest of his words, Pratap and two other soldiers held him back as per the Commander’s order.
“Don’t cross your boundary. It’s my order and it must be carried out,” cried the Commander. “Hey, you” he shouted at the soldiers standing like a firing squad, “What are you waiting for? Fire!”
The machine guns rattled. The crying, helpless creatures fell to the ground.
When the Colonel of the regiment heard the machine guns he came out. As he saw the dead bodies, he smiled from the corner of his eyes and congratulated the Commander for a job “well done.” On hearing about Akash’s intervention, he was furious.
“Is that right, Mr Akash?” he laughed out loud. “He ought to be rewarded for his sympathetic heart, isn’t it, Commander? I order him, right away, to carry all the dead bodies off to the far end of the hillside. Right away!”
There was a pin-drop silence among the soldiers. “Yes, Sir!” Akash responded in a trembling voice as he saluted. Trying his best to hide his anger and pain, he slowly walked to the dead bodies.
At this point in time, an announcement was made.
“There is an intelligence report that the Japanese soldiers will be invading India through the borders of Mizoram. So, before they can make a breakthrough, the British regiment must fire at them. All the soldiers of this regiment are ordered to assemble and march up to the Burmese borders before dawn.”
The soldiers started to go back to the tents for refreshment and rest. The Colonel and the Commander too walked back smiling over some unknown joke.
It was midnight. Outside the soldiers’ camp, Akash was sitting alone in the darkness as it was his turn to guard the camp. Almost all others were resting. A few others from now, they would have to march up to the borders. Yet, he felt extreme unease. Before his eyes, innocent people had been shot mercilessly. And he had himself carried the bodies off to the hillside. He could still feel the dead cold hands. A strange tremor passed through his nerves. He did not know how but somehow it was that he felt some affinity with the dead people. They resembled the hungry skeletal beings walking on the streets of Bengal, helpless, weak and dying. He began to writhe in pain and anger. He felt hatred against himself and guilty for fighting for the Englishmen. As if he had a sudden revelation. Everything was hostile to his existence, he thought. He did not love the people he fought for, nor did he hate the enemy. None of his fellow soldiers felt like him. They were fully devoted to the Englishmen. None of them had their family devastated by famine. None of them knew how it felt to die of hunger.
Gazing at the open sky, full of stars, he was losing himself in deep thought. Beside him were the camps where the soldiers were taking rest. In front of him, in the East, were standing the mountainous ranges. Beyond that, he could see the Burmese borders demarcated by hills and dense forests. And over all these was shining the waning moon of the bright fortnight. And amidst all these, he imagined the corpses of the tribal people emerging from the hillside. They line one after another before him. Some of them had their necks tied with rope, and some of them were dismembered. The despairing faces were trembling in pain and hunger. In spite of their physical deformities, the figures seem to him crying out in trembling voices,
“Shame! Shame! Shame!”
Their cries echoed through the whole universe, Akash felt. He then saw the vision of a skeletal old man coming out of the darkness, groaning. The face of the old man resembled that of his father.
“No…!” cried the painful, trembling voice of the Bengali soldier. He could wait no more. It was the moment to take revenge. Ah! The selfish inhuman apes! They had no right to live any longer. He took the rifle in his hand and walked slowly and cautiously towards the place where the Commander and the Colonel were resting. Looking at them from behind the camp, he burst into anger. He paused for a moment to gather himself. His hands trembled as he aimed his rifles at the two Englishmen lying at a distance. Then the rifle barked. Twice. Its aim was perfect.
He began to run away madly. Behind him, the machine guns rattled. But no danger could touch him anymore. He ran and ran through the hills and the trees, beyond all danger, all shame.
It was dawn when he came to himself. He looked back. He could see the vast rocks and woods lying around him. He slowed his pace as he came to the bend of a stream. He sat on it and took a handful of water. The stream of water began to expand in a circle of waves. He washed his face. At a distance, a nightingale began to sing. He heaved a sigh of relief.
Issue 107 (Jan-Feb 2023)