The Collaborator

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I bring you another one from my journals. This incident also centers in the period of war with Pakistan in 1965. Refer: My Sister Makes A Wish!

We were well into a full-fledged war with Pakistan. And placed where we were; close to an important main road and the railway line that was coming under fire. It was unnerving. Take a seat and come with me to a town in Punjab.

 

1965

It was all about location. We were between two prime targets, the GT Road and the railway line, both of which were the main transit lines for military equipment, troops etc. to reach the northern borders where the fighting was fiercely on. And as mentioned in my earlier post, we weren’t too far from the Air Force base.

For some time we were sitting ducks for stray bombs that missed the target. I didn’t know whether I should applaud or cry… a miss was good for the country but bad for us! Then the bombs began to fall farther away from us but closer to the targets. Fortunately, none caused any major damage.

But this story is not about the fighting. It’s about another side of a war.

One house away from ours lived an elderly couple. The gentleman was known by his sobriquet, Mr. Major. I never learned what his real name was. In fact, I wonder if anyone even remembered it. He liked to be called Major which wasn’t his name, but his rank in the Salvation Army! I’m not sure if anyone ever ‘retires’ from the SA, but he was no longer an active member.

He and his wife, a soft-spoken little lady, lived a quiet life in a small house. They had a patch of green in the front, where they grew flowers and a vegetable patch behind, where he grew amazingly huge snake gourds among other vegetables.

We never met them socially. However, there were cordial exchanges now and then over their garden hedge and our boundary wall. A vacant plot separated our houses.

When the war broke out, the authorities solicited security measures through citizen awareness and participation. Daddy and Uncle Johnny were a part of this special group. They had to inform the people in our residential area about certain things, like how to observe total blackout, and what the “shoot at sight” order meant. This was when we met him and his wife for the first time. 

I remember the day Daddy and Uncle returned from a meeting with the authorities in charge of vigilance, security, law, and order. Both looked serious. Along with a few others, they had been given the authority to challenge suspicious persons and shoot-at-sight, if necessary.

Daddy and uncle had defense service backgrounds, they owned firearms too; including the Carbine; a semi-automatic rifle. So they gave the authority to shoot-at-sight to them.

For the first time, we saw the rifles coming out for a purpose other than ‘shikaar’. It was unnerving. I watched as they checked the rifles and counted the ammunition.

“Will you really shoot a man?” I asked Johnny uncle who had been a gunner on INS Betwa, a Type 41 Leopard-class Frigate; had seen action against the Portuguese in the liberation of Goa, and was a crack-shot in this family that loved shikaar.

“Yes, Bina, if he doesn’t come clean. In war, we shoot the enemy. But you don’t worry your head about it. We’re here and you are safe. Nothing will happen.” He had spoken too soon.

Something did happen.

From then on, Uncle took up position, every night, on the roof of our house with the carbine. Our house had an elevated structure on the roof and this provided a better and farther view of the terrain around us. Sandbags had been placed around as fortification. Daddy patroled the boundary of the two houses; ours and my grandparents’. He carried a 202 rifle. Grandma would also be with him. She refused to get into the trench even when an air attack was on. Except for one occasion (read here)My Sister Makes A Wish!, I never saw either of them in the trench. A few nights passed without incident. Just as I began to relax, it happened.

One night, I heard Uncle loudly challenging someone. I rushed out of the house only to be hastily sent back with stern orders to get inside and stay in and away from the windows and doors. Uncle informed Daddy and Grandma that there was someone in the field behind our house with a lighted cigarette. It was a dark night, and the glow was bright and clearly visible.

He called out a warning. No response.

“If you don’t come out,” he shouted again, “I’m going to shoot.”

There was still no movement or response. As Uncle prepared to shoot, Grandma intervened.

“Wait!” she shouted, “Give him another warning.” 

“I’m counting to three, you have been warned.” He began a slow count… “One… two… ”

NO,” bellowed a voice. A dark shadowy figure rose from the field.

“Raise your hands. Who are you?” shouted Daddy, his rifle cocked and ready.

“Major.”

“Get out here, you bloody S&*%#. And keep your hands up,” swore Uncle.

While Daddy kept his rifle aimed at Major, Uncle made his way down from his lookout post on the roof. By the time Major had walked to a few meters from the rear boundary wall of our house, he was down and ready for him.

Major begged and pleaded with both the men who weren’t satisfied with his explanation of what he was doing in the field with a lighted cigarette when it was a blackout. Twice, Uncle lost his cool and raised the rifle. Twice, Grandma asked him to wait and make doubly sure that he was doing the right thing.

Major had said that he had gone to the field to answer the call of nature! This reason fell flat as their house had an attached toilet. He explained this away with the excuse that his wife was in the bathroom and he had an upset tummy. He kept crying and giving all kinds of silly reasons for not answering when challenged. He was lucky that Grandma was there.

If it hadn’t been for her, he would have been shot that night. But he went home alive. Daddy and Uncle were not convinced that he was innocent; Grandma was not convinced that he was guilty. The jury was divided 2:1.

She kept telling her sons that rural folks differ from city people. They react differently, think differently, and this was a unique situation where one couldn’t expect them to fully comprehend the emergency conditions and the implications of their actions. One should not judge them by a city yardstick, she cautioned.

They resumed their positions on the roof and at the rear boundary wall. But Uncle was on high alert. He suspected something was very wrong. The night wore on. All was quiet. Suddenly, gunshots filled the air as bullets whizzed through the air, barely missing Uncle. He was ever alert and retaliated with a few shots. There was a cry of pain; he had hit someone. The attack stopped as suddenly as it had started. There was the sound of feet thudding through the field.

A heavy silence descended. Before anyone could gather their wits, the siren went off and planes zoomed through a night sky that was dotted with red blobs of tracers and the glow of the sporadic anti-aircraft fire. That was a tense night; the biggest concern being, the security of the family.

We had encountered saboteurs!

When had they landed? Where had they landed? Speculation was that it would have been either before Major was spotted in the field or while he was being questioned. Uncle was sure he had hit one of them.

In the morning, a reconnaissance of the place from where the men had fired at us revealed the tracks of four people and signs that someone or something had been dragged. This incident was reported to the police but nothing about Major was mentioned. He had the benefit of the doubt.

As the events of the night were analyzed with police inputs collected from the inspection of the area, it became clear that the saboteurs knew where to shoot. They knew that the more dangerous weapon was on the roof and the lookout provided a better view of the area. Also, the ‘something’ that was dragged was a body. The police had found a bloody trail too. This gave Uncle and Daddy some consolation.

Slowly, some other truths began to trickle in.

We were informed through anonymous sources that Major was a non-smoker and his wife wasn’t at home that night he was caught in the field. In fact, she hadn’t been home since the war broke out. Also, this wasn’t the first time he had gone into the fields with a lighted cigarette. He used different locations. We were shocked to learn that on a previous night, saboteurs had landed quite close to our residential area.

But it was too late. This information was of no use to us. Major had disappeared, and the house remained closed for a long time. They had been private people, and no one knew where their roots lay; family, friends and general information was nil. The police found no clues to their whereabouts.

Grandma felt awful… not because she had saved a traitor, but that her intuition had been so off the mark! Each one had their own takeaways from this incident. She’d keep saying, “How could I have been so wrong in my judgment of character? Mere ko bewakoof bana diya us Major ne aur uski aurat bhi!”

Mine was the intense fear coupled with a sharp sense of adventure. I had clutched my baby brother close while I munched my way through a bottle of dry fruit that my mother had kept in a makeshift shelter in our half-built house. (it was under construction when the war broke out).

My fear manifested itself when I slept, in nightmares. I’d run around wildly shouting things like, “They’re coming… the bombers are coming!” Or “Look… look the sky is full of bombs. They’re falling!”  Then, Grandma would catch hold of me and gently take me to her bed, all the while soothing me with soft talk. That always calmed me down. In the morning, I’d have no recollection of it and would not believe that I had done that in the night! 🙂

Holding my brother protectively made me brave; I forgot my own fear. Eating… I don’t know how that helped!!

When a ceasefire was declared, I welcomed it with mixed feelings. A big relief, no doubt, but now, I’d have to go to school!

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Glossary:

Shikaar…. hunting

Shikaari... hunter 

Bina… Uncle called me by this name. He pronounced ‘i’ with a short vowel sound.

Mere ko bewakoof bana diya us Major ne aur uski aurat bhi!”… The Major and his wife made a fool of me!

GT Road…The Grand Trunk Road (commonly abbreviated to GT Road) is one of South Asia’s oldest and longest major roads. For several centuries, it has linked the eastern and Western regions of the Indian subcontinent, running from Bengal, across north India, into Peshawar in Pakistan. Today, the Grand Trunk remains a continuum that covers a distance of over 2,500 km. Within India, the major portion of the road – the stretch between Kanpur and Kolkata – is known as NH 2 (National Highway 2),  the stretch between Kanpur and Delhi is called NH-91, and that between Delhi and Wagah, at the border with Pakistan, is known as NH-1. Between Delhi and Muzaffarnagar is National Highway 58 which further goes to Dehradoon.