It was the January of 1971. Bangladesh was in the throes of a nationalist struggle for independence from Pakistan and India was about to step in. This was something that had been waiting to happen for the previous 24 years. Whoever did the carving up of India during the course of it’s independence from Britain in 1947, definitely fit the sobriquet of a flaming richard-head. This wasn’t the US and Alaska, with a like-minded, friendly Canada in the middle.
America, long an ally of Pakistan, with a misplaced love for the rogue nation, an infatuation that is only now beginning to wane, was polishing it’s brass, preparing to muck into the fray, moving it’s 7th fleet up the Bay of Bengal toward the port of Chittagong.
As the 93000-ton nuclear-powered USS Enterprise steamed closer, below deck it hummed with activity. It’s compliment of F4 Phantoms and A10 Warthogs were getting loaded up and primed. In 12 hours, the Enterprise, with the help of the high-flying KC-135 tankers, would be able to strike just about any target in India.
America was getting ready to go to war with India, in order to save it’s vassal’s ass. The approaching fleet was a clear signal to India that there would be hell to pay, if it stepped in to help the rebel Mukti Bahini in what was then East Pakistan.
At that point, a single phone call from the Indian PM, Indira Gandhi to the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, stopped the American juggernaut in it’s tracks. It triggered a conversation that Brezhnev initiated with Richard Nixon on the hotline. The Soviet message was a simple one – ‘Back off. This is not Vietnam’.
It worked. The US blinked. Faced with the threat of direct Soviet intervention, the 7th Fleet turned around and steamed back into the Indian Ocean. The Indian military stormed into East Pakistan and the rest is history.
Of course, at that time I was little and I didn’t know of all these machinations that had been on. I just thought I’d give this piece a backdrop and I got carried away, as I usually do on a Friday evening, beer in hand. And to any Pakistani who may be reading this, I’m not gloating about Pakistan’s defeat in the ensuing war. The story I am about to tell must have played out at any Pakistani railway station too at that time, not any less poignant than the one that I witnessed.
I was at La Martiniere, a vicious residential high school in Lucknow, north-central India. And we lived near Gorakhpur, a small town which was an overnight journey by train, from Lucknow. Whenever vacations got over, my father would drive me to the Gorakhpur rail station around 9pm and settle me in my berth inside a lone rail car parked in a siding platform, waiting to be hitched to the Audh Tirith Mail which was scheduled just after midnight.
My father couldn’t hang around till midnight. I had to be seen off early due to security concerns. Late nights, bandits took over the 20km stretch of the NH29 over which we had to pass, to get to the train station. Baba had to drop me off early and speed back home before it got too late.
Left alone in that rail compartment, I would sit by the window, for the three, sometimes four, hours that it took for the AT Mail to arrive. Most times I drifted off to sleep, never knowing when we got under way and when I woke, we would be passing Barabanki a half hour ahead of Lucknow.
But I remember this one time…
There I was, at my seat, looking out through those window bars in the 3rd class rail compartment. The 3rd class was for the hoi-polloi, rough and tumble, the bunks made of plain wooden planks, the cars without shock absorbers.
All that discomfort however didn’t matter to a 13-year old who felt like a convict on death row, being marched off to another term at a school that was known for it’s predators. La Martiniere was really not this elite institution that it made itself out to be. It was a predatory cesspool and should have been shut down long back.
As always, whenever I felt miserable, I thought of my mother who had left us, a year prior, in order to be a nun at the Ramkrishna Mission near Kolkata. I had by then passed that ‘Why?’ stage and learned to accept it. But I missed her terribly and suddenly my eyes filled, distorting the already rain-soaked scene outside. I wondered where she was, since she traveled on foot from village to village to seek alms and non-perishable food, like grain, from the merchants there, on behalf of an orphanage that the Mission ran. I wondered if she had found what she was looking for.
The coach hadn’t yet filled up. It was still early and it was pouring. The AT Mail wasn’t due for the next 3 hours. I sat there peering through the curtain of rain drops at the dimly lit station platform on the other side. It was deserted, except for this tight little threesome – a man, a woman and a child – a little girl, maybe five or six.
The man was in uniform and the woman had her ghunghat covering her head, while the little girl clung to her saree. The jawan wore the shoulder flashes of the Paratroop Regiment. (I was heavily into NCC and I knew ranks pretty well). The soldier’s starched dark grey shirt had it’s sleeves rolled almost up to his armpits and on his muscled right arm was a tattoo of a conical prism with clouds above, the regiment insignia.
The woman had a huge nose ring and her hands were covered up to her elbows in multicolored bangles. Standing by them was a one of those huge military-issue steel trunks, with “Cpl. Dinesh Tripathi” stenciled on the side.
The soldier picked up the little girl and hugged her tightly. They rubbed noses for a while and the girl giggled as her father tickled her under her arm, at the same time. The woman huddled closer to him and looked up into his face. I would have given anything to hear what she said but I was too far. The only thing I noticed were her tears because she was constantly wiping them with the anchal of her sari.
I must have drifted off, because I suddenly awoke with a jerk when the AT Mail pulled up and we got attached to the back of the train, with a series of metallic clangs and thuds and it wasn’t long before I felt that familiar tug as we started rolling. The downpour had stopped and I looked out the window.
Now there were just two huddled figures on the station platform and they were waving. The little girl broke free and ran alongside the accelerating train for a little while, trying to catch a last glimpse of her father – as he went to war.
The tiny figure was still waving as the train cleared the station platform, took a bend, lurching over crisscrossing tracks and sped forward into the night.