My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori*.
-- Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
*Translated: "It is sweet and fitting to die for the homeland."
On 11th November, we remember the men who gave up their lives to win wars for those in power. Remembrance Day started as an annual event after the First World War (28th July, 1914- 11the November, 1918) more than a hundred years ago, in memory of soldiers — some of who were lost in the battle grounds, whose remains never got back to their families. Some of these men who fought were from countries that were subservient to colonial powers who started the war and some, like the soldier-poet, Wilfred Owen, were from conquering nations.
This was much before atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Eventually, a nuclear armistice was declared. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), an internationally acknowledged apostle of peace, had an opinion on this: “‘The very frightfulness of the atom bomb will not force non-violence on the world? If all nations are armed with the atom bomb, they will refrain from using it as it will mean absolute destruction for all concerned?’ I am of the opinion that it will not.” Has this nuclear armistice made the world more peaceful? And if so, what is the quality of peace that has been wrought by drumming fears of annihilation in human hearts? Could the ‘fakir…striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace’ be right after all?
Here we have collected a few stories and poems around ongoing conflicts and wars which stretch to the present day, some old and some new… some even written by men who faced battle…
The Traveller in Time: An interview with Sybil Pretious who has lived through history in six countries and travelled to forty — she has participated in the first democratic elections in an apartheid-worn South Africa and is from a time when Rhodesia was the name for Zimbabwe. Click here to read.
Ratnottama Sengupta, who has edited an encyclopaedia on culture and is a renowned arts journalist, gives us the role ‘kanthas’ (hand-embroidered mats, made of old rags) played in India’s freedom struggle. Click here to read.
The man on the radio said that the war was over. He said that we won. He said it with such elation it seemed we had won the World Cup in a game of cricket. Young boys and men on the bus rejoiced much the same way.
It never made much sense to me, claiming to win a war one never fought, or a game one never played; rejoicing over the win as though it was born out of one’s own blood and sweat. I certainly did not rejoice. I did not fight the war; I ran from it. Well, as far as the government was concerned, I did not desert the army. They would not hunt me down and drag me to court. But I did run, and I knew it; soon, everyone would.
I walked through the paddy fields and past the ponds blanketed in water hyacinths. The driver boy of a cycle van had offered me a ride home. I refused; not because he was a familiar face, but because I decided that I did not deserve it. I was a quitter. Quitters do not deserve free rides. Although at the time I scored the voluntary retirement citing domestic and personal reasons, during the hiatus between the attack and the war, I did not think that I was a quitter. I knew that it was only a matter of time before the war broke out, but I was confident and I had my priorities set. In all my years in the field, I successfully anticipated enemy movements, but I failed to anticipate the guilt and the regret that would engulf me after the initial euphoric relief would wear off.
My wife opened the door. I could tell by the look on her face that she was not expecting me. The war was over, but I could not have been home so soon. She was confused, but she was happy. My little one had made her way into the seventh grade, and my parents were frailer than I had last seen them. I looked at their smiling faces and realized that the guilt and the regret were merely a late reaction to my friend. I was right where I wanted to be — home.
“You’ll regret this,” my friend had said.
But I did not argue because he was not there, riding shotgun in the patrol jeep when the vehicle sped into the boulder on the side of the road; he was not there when I discovered the blood and brains of the driver spattered across my uniform; and he certainly was not there when I realized that the driver was not supposed to die that afternoon. We had to change our vehicle at the last minute. Our right-hand drive jeep had malfunctioned as soon as we left the base; so, we returned and switched it for a left-hand drive one, something the shooter had no notion of. As I washed my uniform at the base that evening, I longed to hold my daughter in my arms, embrace my wife, and see my parents. I knew that the attack would trigger the war, and I knew that I had to run before it started.
It has been months since I came home. My wife rarely looks me in the eye anymore. She hides away from the neighbours and keeps to herself within the four walls of the house. I can understand why. And I should feel the guilt and the regret I had started to feel when I was walking through the paddy fields, but I do not; not since I attended the funeral of my friend who had warned me that I would regret my choice; not since I saw his inconsolable widow and his helpless little girl pretending to look brave. I did not join the army to become a forgettable martyr; I joined because I needed a job; because I needed to feed my old parents; because I needed to impress the family of the girl I loved and wished to marry. I am not a hero; I am just a man, a coward with priorities. And my wife will simply have to make peace with that.
Tejaswinee Roychowdhury is a lawyer with an LL.M. in Business Law, who finds catharsis through the written word. Her words have appeared in the Kitaab magazine among others.
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