The road to Dhaka 

The Indian Army held a farewell parade after the liberation of Bangladesh and final withdrawal of troops, at the Dacca stadium on March 12, 1972 where the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took the salute.

The Indian Army held a farewell parade after the liberation of Bangladesh and final withdrawal of troops, at the Dacca stadium on March 12, 1972 where the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took the salute. | Photo Credit: HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Remembrance is a great military virtue. Whether it is regimental day when old officers share weepy plaudits of the Sikh soldiers they commanded, the Gnat on display that has earned its place in the centre of the squadron mess for bringing down enemy Sabre jets, or the undying esprit de corps, the Indian armed forces know how to do it.

Their stories from the numerous wars and counter-insurgency operations have often been relegated only to unit records, but once in a while a book recording all this gleans through the cracks. Here’s a list of fiction and non-fiction books that celebrates the Indian soldier, sailor and airman in the 51st year of the third Indo-Pak War.

Documenting stories of war

In 1971: Charge of the Gorkhas (Penguin), Rachna Bisht Rawat unearths stories of the strange bonds that war forges. As the distance between the extraordinary generation that fought the war that created Bangladesh and a generation that struggles to remember it widens, she tells the story with a sense of urgency, given that the men who fought it are now in the evening of their lives. Through a series of interviews and constructed action sequences , Rachna throws light on some of the well-known and not-so-well-known battles in riveting prose. A quaint tale that will stay with you is ‘A Strange Gift’, the one that Capt. Dr. David Masilamani received for Christmas from the soldiers of the 10 Sikh Light Infantry. But it is the stories of the prisoners of war (POW) — their loves, loss and the sense of no closure for their families as time ticks — that Rachna tells both poetically and poignantly.

On POWs, the seminal work to read is Chander Suta Dogra’s Missing in Action: The Prisoners Who Never Came Back (HarperCollins). Deeply researched, it looks at an oft neglected aspect of war, one that outlives the glory of victory. Dogra looks at men who disappeared in enemy territory while on daring missions between 1965 and 1971. “The wars ended but for their next of kin, the battle had just begun,” she writes, painstakingly constructing the stories of 83 men believed missing in action.

Some of the stories of POWs ended well, although the road to happiness was strewn with courage, devilry and impeccable planning to attempt the great escape. Dhirendra S. Jafa’s Death Wasn’t Painful: Stories of Indian Fighter Pilots from the 1971 War (Sage) is the account of an Indian fighter pilot taken as a POW and lodged in a Rawalpindi camp. He was with a group of 12 pilots who had been shot down, beaten and deprived of food and medical assistance. Yet, they had built bonds with their captors, discussing Partition, dictatorship, democracy, their common past and separate futures. The declaration that they were POW ensured that they headed home over the course of two years, and the photographs of their homecoming in Delhi’s Palam is enough to stir the spirit.

Four Miles to Freedom (Penguin Random House India) by Canadian writer Faith Johnston is a gripping read, recounting the escape from Rawalpindi of Indian POWs, Flt Lt Dilip Parulkar, Malvinder Singh Grewal and Harish Singhji. Sometimes amusing, sometimes chilling, the book recounts how eight men helped them escape and the wild journey they make traversing the North West Frontier via Jamrud and Peshawar to Landi Kotal near the Khyber, in disguise.

Of bonds made and unmade

The story of how Major Ian Cardozo stepped on a landmine in the final days of the war, amputated his own leg , asked his batman to bury it, and then was operated upon by a Pakistani doctor who had been taken as a POW has found its way into the annals of Indian military history. 1971: Stories of Grit and Glory from The Indo-Pak War (Penguin) is Cardozo’s telling of the war: he is a remarkable scene setter with his sketches adding an old-world flavour to the book. Like a battlefield tour guide he draws the reader’s attention to the bravery of both sides throwing the spotlight on the last khukri attack in modern military history and a legendary map that now hangs at the United Service Institution . In these pages you read of men who slashed their way through tropical jungles, enemy lines and in Cardozo’s case, his own leg now buried in the mud of a forgotten field.

Cactus Country (Roli), Manohar Malgonkar’s saga of valour, shifting loyalties, love and loss takes the novel to the other side. It is the story of Aslam Chisti, a Pakistani officer taken prisoner by Bangladeshi guerrillas.

Then, he falls in love with a Bengali princess in whose house he is placed under house arrest. Malgonkar’s win is his charming descriptive prose, describing the beauty of Bangladesh — its flood plains swollen both by the monsoon and the bloodshed— with as much fervour as he does Aslam’s love.

Stories of loss and love

The House on Mall Road (Penguin) is Mohyna Srinivasan’s tribute to the steel core that lies at the heart of every fauji family. Parvati, the protagonist of the novel, loses her mother and grandmother on a night of bombing while her father, an Army officer deployed in Kashmir, also goes missing. When she returns to her house on 169, The Mall, 20 years later, its walls bent with the weight of history, she rediscovers a nostalgic past and a web of lies that changes her present.

When Anuja Chauhan’s Baaz (HarperCollins) opens, India is still a young republic and the dashing Flying Officer Ishaan ‘Baaz’ Faujdar is still a child. How he goes from a boy who swam with buffalos in a slime pond, to flying Gnats in the Battle of Boyra, while falling in love with the posh Tehmina Dadyseth is told in Anuja’s trademark language.

Behind all the funny escapades that underline the couple’s class divide lies a story of a war hero that leaves you wanting more, long after the last bullet has been fired, and the last page turned.

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2022 2:26:56 am |