Rachna Bisht Rawat’s ‘Insomnia’ is an engaging collection of tales about the Indian Army

Author Rachna Bisht Rawat with her golden retriever, Hukum   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

‘Stop him’, she said hoarsely. ‘I have seen those shoes before.’

The lines end the chilling Home Alone, a story in Rachna Bisht Rawat’s latest book Insomnia. It places the revered bond of an Army officer, his family and his buddy (referred to as batman, sahayak or Man Friday over the years) under a different spotlight, one that is often hidden behind the hedgerows that line the prim and proper world of cantonments.

With tales such as these, Rawat steps away from her four previous books on the Indian Army that celebrate the soldier’s derring-do in the nation’s many wars. She instead turns the focus on human emotions — love, compassion, camaraderie, horror and trauma — that pepper the life of men and women in uniform and lifts the veil on their little-known personal lives.

Rawat, a former journalist, Harry Brittain fellow and winner of the Commonwealth Press Quarterly’s Rolls Royce Award wrote many of these stories when she was a young Army wife living in the sleepy border town of Ferozepur a decade ago. “These stories came much before my published books,” says Rawat over phone from Delhi. “I wrote sitting in my garden, near a bamboo thicket, the strains of the Gurbani wafting over the mustard fields. This year during lockdown, with only Hukum, my golden retriever, for company, I wrote a few more. They helped me get over the sadness I encountered when interviewing families for my previous book, Kargil.”

Rawat comes from sturdy Army stock. Daughter, sister and wife of Army officers, she has had “men in olive-green around for a lifetime, walking all over my carpet and my heart, with their dirty DMS boots, driving me insane with their unpredictable lives, and melting me completely with a salute and a smile.”

The real picture

But in the 17 stories in Insomnia (published by Penguin), Rawat portrays an emotive picture of the lives of soldiers, their families and their brotherhood — “stories which only could be written by someone closely related to the Army,” says former Chief of Army Staff General VP Malik in the book.

Rawat, however, says that in writing about what war poet Wilfred Owen calls “the pity of war”, she has laid bare hidden facets of Army life.

“Life in cantonments remains unchanged. Time stops here, the ethos is the same; so my stories written then will resonate even now. Although fictionalised, some of the stories are loosely based on real events. In writing about PTSD, murder, human rights violations and the horrors of war, I have not won brownie points with some in the Army fraternity. For my previous books, I had to get requisite permissions. This book, I wrote with my hands untied.”

Insomnia: Army Stories published by Penguin

Insomnia: Army Stories published by Penguin   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The stories are vintage Rawat. Sprinkled with equal measures of hope and horror, her lucid prose tells it as it is. But to get to this reality, a different register is used. There are heroes in ferocious combat assaults fighting the enemy while also fighting for the version of the truth that will be in the official records; a retired general who is haunted by voices of dead men; the emotional connection of enemy soldiers in freezing Siachen; the dark secret of a Major operating incognito in Kashmir; the surprise heading towards the all-male bastion of 13 Para; the spirits a child at Landsdowne Military Hospital converses with while she awaits brain surgery; and a speeding bullet on an ordinary day that changes the course of an extraordinary life.

There are also a couple based on her own experiences; Munni Mausi that won a commendation for the 2008 Commonwealth Short Story Competition is a bitter-sweet tale of love, longing and loss.

There are the landscapes that Rawat conjures — the mind-numbing freeze of the Greater Himalayas, the nimbus grey of Northeast India’s skies, dinner nights in teak-panelled messes, the officer as an unwilling tourist in Bangkok — and has down pat.

And there is the mythic heft. In a country where, often, it is the heroism of these men that is highlighted, Rawat sidesteps undue triumphalism and shows them as boys next door, warts and all, trying to stay sane and human in difficult circumstances. This anthology should be read by anyone keen to know what lies beneath the Olive Green.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 7:44:45 AM |

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