A story based on the end of a world war II soldier by Kamaleswar Barua in Assamese, translated by Bikash K. Bhattacharya
This is a translation of the narrative “Uehara” from Kamaleswar Barua’s Ei Ran Ei Jivan , a collection of narratives published in Assamese in 1968 based on “true events and characters” the author had encountered while serving as a military engineer in the British Indian Army in the Second World War.
Kamaleswar Barua is a relatively lesser-known figure in Assamese literature. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Calcutta in 1932, Barua joined the British Indian Army as an engineer serving in the Naga hills, Manipur and Burma. Attached to engineering field companies, he saw combat in some of the fiercest battles fought in the region in the course of the Second World War. He rose to the rank of major. After the war, Barua earned a master’s degree in City Planning from the University of California, Berkley, in 1951.
Barua was an active member of Assamese literary clubs and reading groups like the Mukul Sangha, a club formed in January 1945 in Shillong, the then capital of Assam. It was in the weekly meetings of Mukul Sangha that Barua shared his personal accounts of the war before turning them into written narratives. Uehara’s story was also first told to a small audience of Assamese litterateurs who encouraged Barua to publish it . However, the project took a backseat for a long time and Barua finally published an anthology of nine narratives, “based on characters he’d encountered during the war”, in 1968. Titled Ei Ran Ei Jivan—which translates as “This War, This Life” or as “Now War, Now Life”—the anthology’s fourth narrative is “Uehara”.
What makes the anthology interesting is the novelty of the genre. The author terms it “a collection of kahini (narratives) about a few wartime characters.” The standard word for short story in Assamese is galpa, while the word kahini doesn’t refer to a specific literary genre. A kahini could be fictional, but it could also be a true historical account. The generic instability notwithstanding, Barua declares in the preface to the anthology, “The names of the characters have been fictionalised unless they’re historically well-known people. I’ve strived to remain true to the characters as best as I could as I’d known and witnessed them.” The preface makes it amply clear that the kahinis Barua tells us are a specific type of wartime memoir narratives rather than autobiographical short stories.
While Barua’s “Uehara” remains a little-known, obscure work, the most prominent literary artefact in Assamese depicting the Japanese in the Second World War in northeast India is Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya’s short story ‘Agyaat Japani Xainik’ (An Unknown Japanese Soldier) . However, “Uehara” is probably the only work in Assamese that depicts an actual historical encounter between an Assamese native serving the Raj and an Imperial Japanese Army soldier. Barua’s narrative not only portrays an empathetic picture of the mortally wounded Japanese soldier, which is rare in the region’s Second World War literature, but also evokes Pan-Asianism .
The original text, by Barua, didn’t contain any notes in it. The endnotes, referenced to academic works for driving home the broader historical context, or for the purposes of clarification, have been added by the translator.
July, 1944. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Imphal, the capital of the Kingdom of Manipur, was completely encircled by the Imperial Japanese Army. The only way out of Imphal was via air . The city had been maintaining contact with the outside world through Koirengei airport. The plains of Imphal were surrounded on all sides by circular formations of Japanese troops. The city of Imphal and the Allied troops and war equipment it hosted, had been under siege for three months. During this period, there had been several fights between Allied soldiers and Japanese troops just outside the city centre of Imphal. The Japanese suffered huge losses. Many Japanese soldiers were captured and kept as prisoners of war (POW) by the Allied forces. Those who died were buried in temporary graves. The wounded Japanese soldiers were treated in Allied military hospitals and despatched to POW camps in Imphal. Starvation and sleeplessness had taken a toll on their war-weary, scarred bodies. The medical treatment they received was far from satisfactory. Shortage of doctors, nurses as well as medical supplies made it difficult to meet the requirements of the wounded Allied soldiers .In such a dire situation, it was only natural that the Allied forces fell short when it came to providing medical care to the wounded enemy soldiers, the Japanese POWs. As a result, the tally of dead soldiers increased by the day.
I had been undergoing treatment at a hospital in the besieged city of Imphal. I was gradually recovering from an intermediate risk surgery. Wounded soldiers from the frontline were arriving at the hospital all the time. By then, I’d been well acquainted with the horrors of war. The scenes were indescribable. It appeared as if lives and limbs of men had little value. I’d become accustomed to the sight of countless wounded soldiers, without limbs or a portion of the face, being brought to the hospital on stretchers. This war was necessary in order to establish peace and freedom, especially individual freedom, they said!
The ward next to the one I was staying at was reserved for the wounded enemy soldiers. Armed sentries guarded the ward all the time. This was where I met Uehara, an Imperial Japanese Army officer who’d sustained severe combat wounds in his chest. The angel of death appeared to be calling him. Uehara expressed his desire to share his last words with a fellow Asian.
Following the order of the commanding officer of the hospital, a British interpreter with knowledge of the Japanese language accompanied me to Uehara’s bed. I sat on a chair close to his bed and the interpreter sat beside me. As Uehara started to speak in Japanese, the interpreter translated his words into English for me.
Uehara was from a small village located on the outskirts of the city of Nagasaki. He was born to a family of farmers. He studied Japanese language, mathematics, geography and Japanese history in the village school. He started assisting his father in farm work since he was sixteen. They had a small plot of land. They cultivated paddy twice a year, and on a separate plot of land, they planted soy bean and vegetables. They had a cow, a few pigs and a flock of roosters and hens. And they had a small but neat wooden house where the four members of the family—Uehara, his parents and his sister—lived. They also had a small garden consisting of a few cherry trees and chrysanthemums. The blossoming of the cherry flowers in the month of May would bring a joy-filled atmosphere to the family. Although their garden was small, they had different colours of chrysanthemums that decorated the courtyard. Uehara’s sister would take care of the garden. The Ueharas would not earn much but they had a stable and happy life sustained by whatever income they would gain from their farm.
But destiny would not tolerate the peaceful life of the Ueharas. Things would take a sharp turn, and dark clouds of misfortune hung in the heavens.
December, 1941. Japan bombed Pearl Harbour, and the President of the United States of America declared war on the Empire of Japan. The young men of Japan either volunteered for, or drafted to, the Imperial Japanese forces. Uehara was one of them. Having undergone training in Tokyo, he was recruited to the Imperial Guards Division of the Japanese Army where he rose to the rank of officer. While serving in Tokyo, he met Yuzuki, a military nurse.
Yuzuki had a round face, a bright pair of eyes and beautiful black hair tied to the back of her head. Uehara was enamoured of her spritely and empathetic behaviour. They fell in love and got married. As the newlywed couple was nurturing dreams about their future, Uehara’s regiment was ordered to Burma . With teary eyes, Uehara and Yuzuki took leave from each other at the Tokyo airport.
Uehara was hopeful. He had unwavering faith in the Mikado  and that Japan would emerge victorious in the war. And once the war was over, Uehara would settle down with Yuzuki somewhere in a quiet corner of Nagasaki or Tokyo in a small house with a courtyard and a garden of cherry trees that would offer a nice view of daybreak on the seashore. There they would raise a small family. This youthful determination kept Uehara and Yuzuki going even in separation.
In the jungles of Burma, Uehara’s regiment kept advancing—capturing town after town, Hakha, Falam, Tedim—on their way to Imphal in Manipur. Along with other Japanese troops, his regiment also took part in the siege of Imphal. One day, during the Battle of Imphal, artillery shells hit his chest, severely wounding him. Once he regained consciousness, Uehara found himself in the Allied military hospital. The days that followed were very painful for him. The doctors, despite their efforts, could not stop the bleeding from the wound. Although war essentially entails killing enemy troops, the rules of war also dictate that one is responsible for providing medical care to enemy soldiers wounded in combat. That said, many wounded soldiers are left in the battlefield to die.
When Uehara was narrating his story through the interpreter, I could not understand his language. But I could feel a sense of calm in his voice. I felt that he had a gentle heart that bore no hatred towards anyone. I tried to figure out what could have been the source of his power: Was it in his Japanese culture? Or, was it in his love for Yuzuki?
Uehara politely asked me to take custody of a few articles he’d with him: a blood-stained silk handkerchief in which both Uehara and Yuzuki’s names were inscribed in Japanese characters, a gift from Yuzuki, he said; an incomplete letter to Yuzuki; a flag of Japan with a blazing morning sun on it ; and a sword. He requested me as a fellow Asian to keep these items so that I could return them to his wife, Yuzuki if someday I got such an opportunity. He then handed me a note containing Yuzuki’s address in Japan. I took the items from Uehara and came back to my ward with a heavy heart tormented by sombre thoughts. Alas, this is human life! This is how all the dreams and desires come to an end. The next day, I was told, Uehara passed away.
After the end of the war, my peripatetic life once took me to Tokyo. Needless to mention that I took along with me the items Uehara had entrusted in my custody. With the help of the Indian embassy in Tokyo, I informed Yuzuki about my visit and one afternoon I knocked at her door. Yuzuki and her mother greeted me into their small wooden house. The house consisted of only one large room. There were two floor looms on one side of the room while the other side had a raised wooden sitting arrangement. On the wall was a scroll inscribed with Japanese characters. A framed photo of Uehara in military uniform was placed in the middle of the scroll.
The two women slept on the wooden floor. They cooked in the small kitchen in an extended corner of the room. Yuzuki and her mother received me very warmly. Following the Japanese custom, I’d taken off my shoes before entering the house. It was no exaggeration to say that at that time Japan was under the occupation of the United States of America. Items manufactured in Japan at that time were labelled with the phrase ‘made in Occupied Japan’. The Japanese people had learned to speak English. Yuzuki too could speak English. So I didn’t face any difficulty in communicating with her. The two women were happy to receive me. I gave Yuzuki the items Uehara had left with me. She held each of the items close to her bosom and then placed carefully on a cloth spread on a wooden table. Her face radiated with satisfaction. I saw on her face a sense of determination and self-conviction rather than signs of past trauma. The two women then brought tea and bowls of rice and boiled fish. We had dinner together. I felt like an emissary bringing greetings and news from Uehara. I spent several hours in their company. I took leave from them at about nine in the evening. On the way, I noticed the bright and tender moon in the sky. The cherry flowers were shining under the pale moonlight and I could see ripples on the waters of a nearby lake. The ripening apples on the apple trees that I passed by looked astonishingly fresh. The earth is so beautiful! The people are so good!
 Kamaleswar Barua, Ei Ran Ei Jivan (Guwahati: Kamaleswar Barua, 1968), p. 23.
 Preface to Ei Ran Ei Jivan.
 The short story first appeared in the seventh volume of the Assamese literary magazine Jayanti in 1943-44.
 Pan-Asianism is an idea, movement, and ideology based on an assumed cultural and ethnic commonality of Asians. It assumes the existence of common political and economic interests and of a shared destiny which necessitate a union of Asian peoples or countries to realize common aims. For more on Pan-Asianism see Sven Saaler and Christopher W. A. Szpilman (Eds.), Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History, 1850-1920, Volume 1 (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011).
 Although the author here states that Imphal remained cut off by the Imperial Japanese Army till July, 1944, the British Indian forces succeeded in opening the Imphal-Kohima road on 22 June, 1944, thus ending the three-month long siege of Imphal. See Raghu Karnad, The Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War (New Delhi: Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, 2015), p.209.
 General Sir George J. Giffard’s despatch submitted to the British Secretary of State for War on operations in Burma and Northeast India, 16 November 1943 to 22 June, 1944, mentioned the “decided shortage of medical officers, and a serious shortage of nurses and nursing personnel, though there has been no general shortage of hospital accommodation.” See John Grehan and Martin Mace, The Battle for Burma 1943-1954: From Kohima & Imphal through to Victory, (South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2015), p.115.
 Imperial Guards Division of the Japanese Army didn’t take part in the siege of Imphal and they primarily fought in Malaya, Singapore and China. However, it was not impossible that certain officers from Imperial Guards Division were deployed to the Japanese Fifteenth Army that laid siege in Imphal. In fact, during the invasion of Burma, the Fifteenth Army was commanded by General Shojiro Iida, who had previously commanded the Imperial Guards Division in the China Theatre of the war. See Peter S. Crosthwaite A Bowl of Rice Too Far: The Burma Campaign of the Japanese Fifteenth Army (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College monograph, 2016), p. 27.
 Mikado (御門) is a term commonly used in English and other foreign language writings to refer to the Emperor of Japan. However, the term originally meant not only the Sovereign, but also his palace, the court and even the State, and therefore is misleading when applied only for the Emperor. The native Japanese instead use the term Tennō (天皇) for their emperor. See Kanʼichi Asakawa, The Early Institutional Life of Japan: A Study in the Reform of 645 A.D. (Tokyo: Shueisha, 1903).
 Perhaps it was a yosegaki hinomaru, a “good luck” flag gifted to Japanese servicemen deployed into battle. For more on yosegaki hinomaru see Michael A. Bortner, Imperial Japanese Good Luck Flags and One-Thousand Stitch Belts (Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2008).
Bikash K. Bhattacharya is a graduate student of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin from fall 2023. He is a bilingual author writing in English and Assamese. His works have appeared in Journal of Global Indigeneity, The Indian Express and Border Criminologies among others.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles
2 replies on “Uehara by Kamaleswar Barua”
What a touching story! Soulfully translated. Also, an important chapter of wartime history. Thankyou for publishing an overlooked gem.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for reading it & thanks to the translator who has been kind enough to share this piece with us.