April 23, 2005

At home with the bodies

I mentioned earlier that I was shortlisted for the Outlook/Picador nonfiction prize in 2001. Below is the essay I submitted then. Some of what's in here appears in different forms in my other blog entries.

(I came second in 2002, and won the prize this year -- those essays another time. Besides, Outlook is supposed to publish my winning essay and that has not happened yet).


At Home With The Bodies

"Pakistan is venal," she said to me one morning during the Kargil war, words I feel sure were spoken many times through those weeks -- "Pakistan is venal, but we are not." That day, we woke to news that Pakistan returned to us six Indian soldiers' bodies, all badly mutilated. A sick, gruesome thing to do; and wherever you looked, it caused outrage, thick and free-flowing. My friend was angry, greatly depressed too. She could not understand brutality that destroyed men like this, even in a war.

And who could understand it? What possesses people who do such things to others? What was achieved except revulsion and rage? Except six families shattered?

Yet this was war, and war pushes men into some ghastly deeds. In his devastating memoir With The Old Breed, Eugene Sledge writes of the American campaigns on Pacific Ocean islands during World War II. A young Marine who fought the Japanese long, hard and bitter in those campaigns, Sledge had ample cause to hate the men of the East. Nevertheless, he also describes, in detail that's unsparingly revolting to read, atrocities his own colleagues committed. When I read his book, I remembered my friend. I remembered our conversation, India's war, and those six ruined families.

After a battle on Peleliu island, a Marine came up dragging what Sledge assumed was a Japanese corpse. Only, the man wasn't dead. He "had been wounded severely in the back", writes Sledge, "and couldn't move his arms." The Marine sat down with his wounded Jap. Took out his kabar, his Marine knife. Began ... but here, in full, are Sledge's own words about this incident:
    The Japanese's mouth glowed with huge gold-crowned teeth, and his captor wanted them. He put the point of his kabar on the base of a tooth and hit the handle with the palm of his hand. Because the Japanese was kicking his feet and thrashing about, the knife point glanced off the tooth and sank deeply into the victim's mouth. The Marine cursed him and with a slash cut his cheeks open to each ear. He put his foot on the sufferer's lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out of the soldier's mouth. He made a gurgling noise and thrashed wildly. I shouted, "Put the man out of his misery." All I got for an answer was a cussing out. Another Marine ran up, put a bullet in the enemy soldier's brain and ended his agony. The scavenger grumbled and continued extracting his prizes undisturbed.

    Such was the incredible cruelty that decent men could commit when reduced to a brutish existence in their fight for survival amid the violent death, terror, tension, fatigue and filth that was the infantryman's war.

What happened to that Marine on Peleliu? What happened to the family of a gold-toothed Japanese soldier who died so horribly on a flyspeck of a Pacific island? What happened to the families of six Indian soldiers mutilated by war in Kargil?

Searching for some kind of answer to that last question, I made a long trip in a rattletrap Maruti with a take-no-prisoners driver. And through many bumpy, frightening, but always beautiful Himachal miles, through several hours spent in a house in a crowded Himachal town, Sledge and his colleague and those glowing Japanese teeth -- it wasn't a human being the Marine went to work on, just lumps of gold, now isn't that the truth? -- turned slow circles at the back of my mind. For this was the home of the Kalias, and the elder son of this home led five men on a patrol in Kargil in early May of 1999, and they were the first Army personnel to detect the Pakistani intrusion in the area, and they all returned from the war soon after, mutilated and dead.

And I had come here to meet this young man's parents.

A nation and its far-flung children rose in horrified anger when it heard what happened to Saurabh Kalia and his men. In a real sense, this incident defined us during Kargil. Never before had we been so fervent about a war, so sure that right was on our side; never before had we hated Pakistan so much. And it was the deaths of these men, what happened to them in death, that crystallised those feelings for us.

Saurabh's father, Dr NK Kalia, told me that over a million people have signed an appeal seeking justice for the six soldiers. Nearly 42,000 letters and bits of email have poured in expressing sympathy and support, and "we do not have a count of telephone calls coming from every corner of the world."

All this, because when Saurabh came home to his parents, his body had cigarette burns on it, his bones had been broken, as had his teeth, his ears had been pierced, his lips were cut, his nose chipped, his skull fractured and his eyes removed.

I could barely stomach reading these details in a letter Dr Kalia had written to explain his son's death. I could barely listen as this middle-aged couple, this utterly ordinary Indian mother and father in their ordinary Himachali home, spoke to me of what their son looked like in death and how they have had to come to terms with it.

What happened to Saurabh Kalia was nauseating. But if it was that, the entire tragedy was also inexplicable, and it remains so today. If you are willing to look, he left behind some searching questions. If you are willing to think about them, they will gnaw at you, as they gnaw at his parents. For there seem to be no answers, only questions, and that's a hard place to be for parents, for a nation, bereaved so brutally.

If the bodies were so badly mutilated, why did Pakistan not just throw them away? Why even bother to hand them over? Was that country unaware of the opprobrium and outrage that would result? Why did India not make an immediate and loud fuss right there at the border? Why whisk the six dead soldiers away for a closed-door post-mortem in Delhi?

And the mystifying -- there's no other way to describe them -- official reactions to Saurabh Kalia's death only make matters more inexplicable.

Among Dr Kalia's piles of mail are letters from External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, Defence Minister George Fernandes, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Army's Director General (Organization & Personnel) Lt. General HS Bagga. I mention these letters not for the eminence of the men who wrote them, but for the eloquence of the words they use to describe Saurabh: "martyr", "valiant son" and "hero of Kargil" are just some. Jaswant Singh had the richest tributes:
    Captain Saurabh Kalia made the supreme sacrifice in the defense of our Motherland. He displayed great valour, courage and determination in the pursuit of his goal to push out the Pakistani forces that had intruded into our territory. History will record Captain Kalia's deeds in golden letters and his name will be a beacon for many generations not only for officers and men of the Armed Forces, but for all Indians. As a father, you have been blessed to have such a gallant son.

On record, in black and white: these are unequivocal acknowledgements of the valour of the son of this Himachali home. For a sorrowing family, they must have come as some small solace.

And so I find it hard to comprehend the peculiar reality Saurabh's parents must grapple with: Captain Kalia is conspicuously missing from the long list of Kargil veterans awarded decorations. So are his patrol-mates. For these Indian heroes, there is no Param Vir Chakra, no Vishisht Seva Medal, not even a Mentioned-In-Dispatches. Nothing. "History will record Captain Kalia's deeds in golden letters," but India is unwilling to honour him. We were so moved by his courage, so revulsed by the violation of the man's body, so loud in condemning a "venal" Pakistan. But India remains unwilling to honour him.


In its October 2 [2000] cover story, Outlook magazine has one answer to that. For Kalia and his men were from the 4 Jat Regiment and Outlook's report tells us:

    [The] 3 Punjab, 4 Jat and 16 Grenadiers [regiments] took the brunt of the battle in the first month ... And yet none of these three units received a single gallantry award ... [T]his discrimination prompted Lt. Gen. H.B. Kala, the then Western Army Commander, to write to [Army Chief] Gen. Malik. Kala [complained] that his own 4 Jat Regiment had been ignored for the gallantry awards. ... [T]he vice-chief, Lt. Gen. Chandrashekhar, [replied] saying that there was no question of decorating these battalions or the men and the army would punish them for failing to detect intruders in Kargil.

"Punish them." Think of it.

Presumably the vice-chief meant the intruders were detected later than they should have been. Still, think of it. Saurabh Kalia's patrol stumbled upon the intruders whom thousands of other Indian soldiers then fought for ten weeks to throw out. They paid for that discovery with their lives, with the barbarism that found them in turn. Some of the country's most exalted men said some exalted things in praise of this Saurabh Kalia. Now his own Army chooses to "punish" him for his pain.

In this soldier's home, I sat eating a sumptuous lunch that, in a happier time, he might have joined me at. I sat surrounded by flowers and portraits and innumerable tributes to him. I sat there, and the thought came to me that this "punishment" was about the most mindlessly perverse thing I had ever run into.

Unless, of course, you count his mutilation. Unless you count the war itself. For perversity of every kind is an ancient tradition in war, and our war in Kashmir is no exception.

So as I rode homeward from that house in Himachal, our continuing enmity with Pakistan slowly crowded all else out of my thoughts. It didn't help that when you travel in Himachal, Army convoys regularly rumble past. They just seemed to punctuate the depressing questions, ever more questions, that bubbled up.

Just why did this family lose their son? Why do we send some of our finest young men into this cauldron of "violent death, terror, tension, fatigue and filth"? Why have we been doing it for half a century? When will it end? Is outrage reserved only for those who torture during a war? Or should we also turn it towards the men -- Indian and Pakistani alike -- who keep peace so distant that brave soldiers are lost to that cauldron daily? Who urge us to define ourselves by how much hatred we direct across the border? Who rouse us to such lock-stepped hostility that a favourite chimera, the machinations of the "foreign hand", can blind us to all that is shameful within our own countries?

I know, as I write, that some would say I must not ask such questions. For they "undermine" the country. It is "unpatriotic" to raise them at a time when our soldiers are fighting and dying for the "glory" of the motherland.

At war in the Pacific, Eugene Sledge had frequent thoughts about just such "glory." There was the time he saw a fellow Marine standing over the body of a Japanese officer killed on Okinawa. The Marine

    held his rifle ... with both hands and slowly and mechanically moved it up and down like a plunger. I winced each time it came down with a sickening thud into the gory mass. Brains and blood were splattered all over [his] rifle [and clothes]. ... Replete with violence, shock, blood, gore and suffering, this was the type of incident that should be witnessed by anyone who has any delusions about the glory of war.

Not much glory there. Nearer home, six men died in bloody horror on our border, but it is anti-national to ask why they died. The six are deliberately overlooked for military awards, but true patriots will not question that strangely dissonant note from the Kargil victory trumpets. Well inside our borders, men die screaming deaths in police custody, but it is a slap to our national well being to mention such homegrown brutality in the same breath as torture from across the Line of Control.

This is what patriotism has come to mean to us. This unwillingness to air doubts, or let them be aired. This deliberate, unquestioned hatred of Pakistan, coupled with a complacent certainty of our moral superiority. This steady, unstinted, rah-rah fervour over the endless, wearying, blood-sucking war we fight with Pakistan. No matter how many of our uniformed youth die. Nor how sickeningly. Nor how miserably they live on the frontlines. We pretend there is "glory" in what they do and think that gives us the right to demand enormous sacrifices from them.

But does it really?

The lesson Sledge learned in the Pacific, the one we can learn from the tragedy that overwhelmed the Kalia family, is this: there is nothing glorious about war. There is nothing glorious about this one war we have fought for half a century, that we are no closer to resolving than when we began.

What happened to those six men on patrol outraged us, as it should have. Nevertheless, this is war. As you read this, there are "decent men" fighting fiercely all along our border. As you read this, decent men are witnessing and committing and falling victim to incomprehensible brutality there. War does that. As it did in Kalinga, as it did in Chechnya, as it did on that flyspeck in the Pacific, as it always has done.

And it seems to me that as long as we in this part of the world -- Indian or Pakistani -- keep war going with our neighbour, it will bring us more perversity and more incredible cruelty. More mangled bodies. War cannot be waged without all that.

Now that is the horror that will have to outrage us some day.


Anonymous said...

Very nice column. You make a serious point about the brutality of the war and how it brings out the worst, and some time the best, in human beings.

Kartik said...

Once again,

As Albert Einstein said (and I'm afraid I paraphrase again) - "Blind faith and passion channeled into the word patriotism is the most deadly waste in this world... " ...

Think about it... its all too much to comprehend ... and yet, Dilip's previous post (Roshomon on the Border) wouldn't be here either if it weren't for this animosity, this narrow identification that is forced upon us ...

And frankly, what did people DO to dserve the kind of treatment mentioned in this writeup? Can we follow a kind of "humanism", where above all life is held sacred?

Not in this world no...

Anonymous said...

There aint nothing glorious about war, but self-flagellation is a different thing all toghether.

Ah glorious, wonderful martyrdom of public self-flagelleation. Oh the spectacle, the elation. (So my psychology degree does come into play)

And the whines... "Why? Why? Whhhyyyyyyyyyyyy????????????? y-o-y?"

The blind can't see Dilip. (oh, you snickered.. didn't you?)


wise donkey said...

agree with ur post.

Anonymous said...

Why are wars fought?
Why do Mothers lose their sons?
Why do Fathers lose their sons?
Why do Sisters lose their brothers?
Why do Brothers lose brothers?
Why do Wives lose Husbands?
Why do Buddies lose their Buddies?
Why do we have wars?
Does not history teach anything because we are condemed to repeat things over and over again if we do not learn from the Past....

Visit any of the WW II War Memorials and what do you find there the youth of a generation lost all in the average age group of 15-17.......But all wars end on a negotiation table....so why not respect each human and have relationships that are based on respect for Human Lives. Otherwise the circle of Wars shall continue.....No Soldier wants war

Walk up in Leh to the war memorials and you get to read of the Deeds of the soldiers who have fought for the safety of the nation ....so there was blood on each inch of the soil ......after having made so many sacrifices.......we have to give the impression to our neighbours that we will be your best friend....but on the basis of mutual respect...India needs to wake up firstly respect its Defence Services and give them the best and empower them to strike when the situation demands ....India has always delt with folks with kid gloves.

The Glove needs to be taken of the fist when required and the Iron Fist is meant to strike

Anonymous said...

Hi Dilip,

I have been searching the net, combing it, and maybe outdoing myself in the process, only to find something that makes sense in the case of Saurabh Kalia who met his end in the most unspeakable pain. I am a doctor and above all I am a human being who has seen and also endured physical pain. I still can not even imagine what those young boys went through and most of all I find it even tougher to make sense out of it.

I find it difficult to even breath at night sometimes when I think about the goriness and the sheer beasty nature of the crime commited against a fellow human, even at war.

Did they feel anything at all after a certain period fo time? I hope not. I think at this point it would be foolish to ask, did they suffer much ... I dont think its an appropriate question, why they suffered the most!! I hope that their souls find peace, what a way to go...

Truth is, its me who finds it difficult to come to terms with the cruelty of the torture.

May the perpetrators of this crime find themselves helpless in their hour of need. May these godless subhumans suffer as they made our boys suffer. May they never get what they need and want. May they beg God for mercy at the brink of their helplessness and may they remember their crimes and the boys who suffered at their hands and ask them their forgiveness just before they die.