He was going to war, there seemed no question about it.
The man was in uniform and the woman, she had her ghunghat (veil) covering her head, while the little girl clung to the woman’s saree. I was heavily into NCC at that point in time and I knew army ranks pretty well. The soldier wore the shoulder flashes of the Paratroop Regiment. His 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.
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 two decades. 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 dick-head. This wasn’t the US and Alaska, with a like-minded and friendly Canada in the middle. This was Tom and Jerry, with Elmer Fudd in between.
Pakistan, a rogue nation by any standard, had long been a beneficiary of American largesse and it was increasingly looking like America was preparing to muck into the fray. Intelligence reports suggested that it’s 7th fleet – led by the 93000-ton super carrier, Enterprise, was steaming up the Bay of Bengal toward the East-Pakistani port of Chittagong.
As the Enterprise approached, below deck it hummed with activity. It’s compliment of F4 Phantoms and A10 Warthogs were being loaded up and primed and then lifted onto the deck by the elevators.
In 12 hours, the F4s on the Enterprise would be able to strike just about any target in India, with the help of high-flying KC-135 tankers(converted Boeing-707s that were already on station, performing figures of 8 fifteen thousand feet above).
America was getting ready to go to war with us 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.
Threatened by the American eagerness to shed blood – many time zones away from it’s own shores and it’s own people, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi placed a call to the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev and the message that Brezhnev in turn conveyed to Richard Nixon was a simple one – ‘Back off. This is not Vietnam. You go in, we go in.’
Brezhnev’s threat worked. It stopped the massive American flotilla – with it’s 60 ships, 300 combat aircraft and 10000 personnel – in it’s tracks. The US – militarily a bully, but psychologically a wimp – blinked. Faced with the threat of direct Soviet intervention, the 7th Fleet turned around and steamed back into the southern Indian Ocean. The Indian military stormed into East Pakistan and the rest is history.
Those days I was at La Martiniere, a vicious residential high school in Lucknow, north-central India. Vicious – because of it’s wolf-pack bullies. Home was Gorakhpur, a small town which was an overnight journey by train, from Lucknow. Gorakhpur was a hick town that had no reputable schools.
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 that had been left parked in a siding platform, waiting to be hitched to the Audh Tirith Mail which was scheduled to arrive just after midnight.
My father couldn’t hang around till midnight because it wasn’t safe. Late nights, bandits took over the 20km stretch of the NH29 over which he would have to pass, to get back home. Baba had to drop me off early and speed back before it got too late.
Left alone in that rail compartment, I would sit by the window for the three hours that it took for the AT Mail to arrive. The rail car would gradually begin to fill up and most times I drifted off to sleep, never feeling the bump of the coupling, never knowing when we got under way. When I woke, it would be morning and we would be passing Barabanki, a half hour ahead of Lucknow.
I remember this one time…
There I was, at my seat in the rail car parked at the siding, looking out through those window bars of the 3rd Class rail compartment. Baba had just left for the drive home. The 3rd Class was for the hoi-polloi, rough and tumble, the bunks made of plain wooden planks, the cars devoid of shock absorbers.
I felt miserable and as always, whenever I felt that way, I thought of my mother who had left home a year prior, in order to be a nun at the Ramkrishna Mission near Kolkata. I had by then passed that ‘Why me?’ stage and learned to accept it.
But I missed her terribly and suddenly, sitting there hunched, peering into the rain – my eyes filled, distorting the already rain-soaked scene outside. As a part of her penance as a nun, my mother traveled on foot from village to village in the Konnagar area, to seek alms and non-perishable food, like grain, from the merchants there, on behalf of an orphanage that the Mission ran. I wondered where she was.
Aparna Dutt – double MA, English Literature and History – out in the Indian brush. Vivacious, beautiful, charming – my mother. Sitting there in the dark, I wondered….was she all right? She had suffered a sprained ankle a few months back. It had happened when her Hawaii chappals had torn and she had tried to avoid stepping on a sharp stone on the way to Santragachi. I wondered if she was okay now. For no particular reason, I spoke out her name aloud…Mamoni..Mamoni, I miss you so.” I was alone in there, so it didn’t matter if I spoke out loud. Had it been worth it? Had she found what she was looking for?
The rail car hadn’t yet filled up. It was still early and it was pouring. The AT Mail wasn’t due for the next three 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 woman had a huge nose ring and her hands were covered up to her elbows in multicolored bangles. Standing by them was 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 to her man 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 was coupling with our car at the back of the train. I noticed that the compartment had filled up. There was another kid my age sitting next to me and his parents on the opposite side. Bunks above and below were stuffed with humans. The car was packed like sardines.
The coupling happened with a series of metallic clangs and thuds and it wasn’t long before I felt that familiar tug as we started rolling. We were on time. I noted that the downpour had stopped. Everything was stark and clear and in focus. I rubbed my eyes and looked out the window.
My eyes went to the opposite platform in reflex. Now there were just two huddled figures on it 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.