Originally published as 'Writing Home' in The Little Magazine,
& in International Gallerie, http://www.gallerie.net/issue10/story1.html
Bombay, October 12, 1999
Dear Feroza and Shehnaaz,
I came home today from Pune. Had to stop there after Kargil and Delhi, before I could get the leave to come home. The kids seem younger since I left, though Rohan is taller and Aditi actually manages to finish her sentences. They say on the mountains, you age decades in a few months.
Somehow I could not make eye contact with the watchman. He was so happy to see me, he asked me if I had been with the same battalion as the young soldier whose wife was on TV saluting his hearse, and the other one who had lost his leg. It was not that he considered them to be heroes. He says rather harshly that battle is for men who have nothing constructive to occupy themselves with. He does not venerate army men, but I can tell he likes me. I said to him, I just need a cup of tea right now, that’s all. He must have known something was wrong but he respects privacy. He’s not one to ramble on if you stay uncommunicative. I wonder if he ever dreams about any other job. He is a good watchman, but I imagine sometimes that he would have made a fine leader. I think it’s that caste business that we Hindus are so caught up in. You know, I married my wife from the same side of the river and the same caste and all that. I happen to be much older than she is but that was not cause for concern – that I was twenty years her senior and away most of the time.
The other day the newspapers carried a story about villagers who killed a man and woman for eloping because they were not of the same caste. I wonder sometimes if it’s worth all the effort, you know, running after people with machetes and sticks when there’s so much to do, so much to learn. I thought I would join the army and experience the world. When I fought at twenty-one against China, in 1962, my white canvas Bata shoes (the one’s school children are made to wear for P.T.) gave way. At one point we were at 18,500 feet. I think you should be appropriately dressed when you travel the world.
You can look at the pictures I have sent you - my wife Aarti and the kids. Rohan is fifteen, Aditi is two and a half. She was a surprise. We always wanted a girl. But I am pretty old now. Never mind, I look forward to my retired life, where I can be a normal father and give Aditi time and energy, something Rohan never did receive from me. He is a sweet child. Likes to paint. I hope he will be an artist. It’s a nice thought.
I try to be gentle and romantic when I am at home but it isn’t easy when you have been apart from a woman for so long, when you have been living off condensed milk cans and wonder why the tea at home is so phikka. I work at shutting out the culture shock. But a civilian’s life hits me every time.
You may say that he’s writing all this to humanize his killings, to come to terms with his sins, to ask for forgiveness. I wish it were that simple. I will be sixty. It’s easy to sentimentalize the wars, but I fought in four of them. While India made her destiny, whatever that destiny was for each of her billion-odd people, I trained to defend it. It was an interesting defense because I think people are so quick to judge, to simplify, to make enemies, to slot. Perhaps they should only allow fifty-year-old academics and ex-servicemen to be politicians and legislators, and this should be a random selection so that in the end even if you are choosing bad apples you haven’t chosen an entire rotten stock. Oh, yes, I was saying, it was an interesting defense. We were fighting off invasions into our territory, we didn’t appear to be the aggressors. But I am not sure if just who we are is aggressor enough, because there is something oddly despicable about us sometimes, the good ones and the bad ones. Sorry, I rambled off… It is interesting because it is especially at the time of war, (when everything should be simple, you know, bad against good, and so forth), that the real gray areas raise their heads and yet, to act, you cannot be in a gray area at all, you have to take a polar position. Then you become a traitor or a patriot, and god forbid one of us decides to be the former and opposes war.
I think that is why I am writing. Because it will be easy for you and your family and your children’s children to see your husband and son as a martyr who died for his country; to hate me as the enemy. Especially since I am alive and have children and there seems so much hope for us in India where life only gets better for many people, where we are ‘progressing’ so to speak, even if it is a material progress that the self appointed spiritualists despise.
But that would be a disservice to your children. I hope that like my child, Rohan, they prefer to be artists. Artists can be so much more compelling than soldiers. Many artists, (some can be horrible people, I hear), live in the gray areas like I do but they never touch the extremes of evil and good like I do, murderer, again and again, patriot too, each time.
You may ask if I am demanding you to forgive me. No, Feroza, it is not forgiveness that I want for killing your son, please don’t misunderstand. I am asking for much more, I am asking that in some small way civil society in Pakistan comes to understand that I really don’t want to go on killing. It is more a plea for mercy. Have mercy on me. I didn’t ask to be the gate-keeper of the Kashmir valley. I’ve never had the feeling Kashmir belonged to anyone but itself. Why are we imposing our nationalisms on a piece of land that is only swaying from one side to the other because it cannot protect itself?
How do I know so much about you, you may ask, how do you seem to be able to talk to us as though you have known us all your life when this is only your first letter to us?
The answer is a memory. The watchman, he’s eighty-two now, used to be the watchman of our little building, Pil Court, from the time he was twenty four. He was born in 1917. He used to talk about the Muslim family that lived in my flat, overlooking the railway tracks, the kindest people he ever knew; they were charitable, spoke to him in their shudh Urdu, making him feel like a courtier. The men were ‘army’ like me but they chose to live in civilian quarters because they had this extended family and each was closer to the other. They left Pil Court during Partition. You know, he told me, I once said to Feroza bai, now I know why people turn to Islam, it is to give everyone equal respect, then no one feels lesser when they are with you. She laughed and told me, “If you are in India, it’s better to be Hindu. Hindus don’t treat everyone as equal, but it’s better to be one step higher in their ladder.” I guess, Feroza, your husband and your family must have had many aspirations for an equal society in Pakistan.
The watchman also told me that Feroza bai had just had her son, Farukh. He was a baby when they left for Karachi. The most beautiful child he had seen, and so happy. He talked so much about Farukh. I think part of him feels he was a god father to that child because he says you allowed him to push the pram and even hold the baby, something that would mortify my wife, Aarti.
When I read Farukh’s name on his dog tag in Kargil I was curious if it was the same child grown up. We sent Farukh’s body back to the Pakistan side and I inquired some more about him from a Pakistani POW, who happened to know Farukh well. I was right about who he was and the POW told me your family’s address. It is a strange thought, you know, that I sleep in your bed, Feroza. And you sleep in my ancestral home in Karachi. You see, Sea Wind, 9-B New Queen’s Road, was where my mother gave birth to me in 1941, in Karachi. Like many Hindu Sindhi families we left everything behind to catch the train to India. And you gave your fully furnished house in Bombay with the sound of the trains going past, a sound I came to find difficult to sleep without, to a man who then sold it to my grandfather.
I heard you were pregnant, Shehnaaz. I wish you luck and every one of God’s blessings. I never saw my father you know, after 1947. He was on the train that followed ours from Pakistan. We were on the last train that came back to India safe. The one that came after, there were only corpses.
I don’t like it that it appeared to be in my blood or my fate or my religion or my country to avenge my father’s death. I don’t like that feeling of being controlled by fate. I have been. I have come full circle. Today, I will go down and tell the watchman about Farukh. I think he should know. I hope he tells his people and they tell theirs. If only the word would spread fast, but that’s the irony of it all, that the good stories always find a way to end quietly and the bad ones, they fly. Too many years of death and propaganda. But how can I take on the whole wide world? I can only act for myself.
I am counting on you.
Brigadier Jeri Mansukhani
The Brigadier’s letter never reached the women. It was intercepted and he was brought before a Court of Inquiry. But his son, Rohan, had read it before he sent it. Rohan vowed that one day he would visit his ancestral home in Karachi in Pakistan and read out the letter his father had written, from his memory. For the moment, all civilian movement between India and Pakistan has been frozen.
Independent India has had five armed conflicts since 1947: The expulsion of armed intruders in Kashmir, 1948; the Indo China War, 1962; the Indo Pak War, 1965; the Indo Pak War, 1972 over Bangladesh’s secessionism; and the Kargil War between India and Pakistan, May 26, 1999 – July 14, 1999.
phikka - bland or not sweet
P.T. - Physical Training
shudh – pure
Published as 'Writing Home' in The Little Magazine,
& in International Gallerie, http://www.gallerie.net/issue10/story1.html