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In search of the dead

“I came at last, love you.”

— J. Cowell, Woodford Green, U.K.

Cowell’s dear one has been dead for over 70 years now. Lying at rest in the faraway Delhi War Cemetery, off Air Force Station Naraina. A cemetery hardly known to the average Delhiite, even to many living in the Delhi Cantonment area within which it quietly exists.

Taking a cue from the note — dated 2011 — that I find on the cemetery visitors’ book, I look around for the grave. Reading the visitors’ book in a war memorial can do that to you really.

But finding one particular headstone among the 1,150 placed in rows on a searing May day is easier said than done. I give up after some time.

But in the process, I spot something that I have never seen in a war cemetery, not in Kanchanaburi (Thailand), not even in Kohima (Nagaland), two of the largest World War II cemeteries in this part of the world that have graves of those who fell fighting for the British Commonwealth. The impressively maintained cemetery — run by the UK. Government’s Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the National Capital since 1951 — has the grave of a female soldier. Named Maureen, from Women Auxillary Services, she would have been one of the many young women who joined the Second World War effort — including Queen Elizabeth, then aged 19, who worked as a driver and a mechanic.

I can’t know what was Maureen’s job in the Services; the gravestone doesn’t say anything. But Salman, an employee at the cemetery, says, “She was from The Netherlands.”

Lying under the flowering Gulmohar trees forming ample canopies here and there, on manicured lawns with five gardeners in attendance to tend the grass, the flowers, the shrubs, with butterflies fluttering about even on a Delhi summer day, the graves give you more than a moment of calm, of concord. Also prod you to spare a thought for the terrible deaths their occupants must have met.

In the middle of the graves stands a tall cross and a huge stone podium where, says Salman, “wreaths are placed in memory of all the dead on the second Saturday of November by the British High Commission. Wreaths for the Christian heroes are placed by the cross, those for the Muslim heroes by the podium. There are no graves of Hindu soldiers here because their bodies were cremated.” This aside, Salman receives calls throughout the year from various parts of the world requesting him to lay a wreath on some grave or the other by their families.

Walking around the place, I spot a huge book kept in a metal box on one side of the towering entrance. It lists the name of all those 25,000 servicemen of the forces of undivided India who died during the Second World War. Facing it is the Delhi 1914-18 Memorial, commemorating 153 casualties buried in the Meerut Cantonment where graves could no longer be maintained. The graves of the Second World War soldiers here were collated from cantonment cemeteries across North India, say of Allahabad, Kanpur, Dehradun and Lucknow, to give them a permanent place. A similar cemetery is in Karachi.

Two neat rows of gravestones line the entrance, 99 in all. “Those were moved here from Nicholson Cemetery in Kashmere Gate in 1951. They are of the First World War,” says Sukhdev Singh, the oldest employee at the cemetery. Singh has been a gardener there for 36 years; a few months later would come his retirement day. Doing the same job for nearly four decades would certainly make him feel awkward when he returns to his village in district Ludhiana, he says. Do they get visitors, you ask him. “Rarely a local visitor, sometimes some tourist, most times families of the dead or when functions are held by the Commission,” he replies. No wonder I am the lone visitor.

Walking some more, reading the names and their regiments on the tombstones, I stumble upon another gardener, Jammanlal. He has been at the cemetery for 28 years. So how does it feel tending the dead? “I only know that after I am gone, I will not be looked after like this, because I never fought a war,” he says.

Long after I walk back the one km stretch to reach Ring Road after slipping under the gate of a railway crossing which seems to be closed most part of the day, I think of Jammanlal’s words. Even if he had fought for India, would he have got a manicured lawn to lie below? A visitor’s book for his own to remember him and write, “I came at last, love you”? We can certainly do better in remembering our soldiers.


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Printable version | Oct 13, 2021 7:16:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/In-search-of-the-dead/article11634637.ece

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