The road east from Jaisalmer leads, famously, to Pokhran. Actually the bombs -- yes, those bombs -- went off 10 km short of Pokhran town, near the village of Khetolai. Today the most prominent features of Khetolai are the three cellphone towers just outside the village. We drive past them and in, right up to a small store where a few young men stand about. Two emerge to speak to us.
They tell us there are no more STD booths here. Since everyone has cellphones, "voh dhandha khatam ho gaya hai."
But of course that's just idle chitchat. We're not here to make a call, after all. So they also tell us there's no way we'll get to see the spot itself. The Army, they say, has cordoned it off. There's firing going on there now, they say. Firing, meaning firing practice. So much for our dreams of peering at a crater in the ground.
Their mention of firing takes my mind back half an hour. We have stopped in the dusty village of Dholiya, at a roadside remembrance of Gunner Sukhram Vishnoi. The plaque tells us that he was killed in Baramulla on October 31 2003, by "dushman ki golibar" ("firing by the enemy"). This is the first of many memorials we see as we drive. But it turns out to be the only one we see that is to a soldier killed that way. By the enemy.
Down the road from the sun-baked memorial to Sukhram Vishnoi, we see a sign for an Air Force "range". Though the range is some distance from the road, we can see rusting tanks and other assorted hulks of metal, obviously targets for firing. Near the sign is a small white structure, with this inscription on it:
- In memory of Chandrakant Vhanmani of 90 Armed Regiment, 10-4-62 to 22-9-95, who left for his heavenly abode in an unfortunate accident during firing. May God protect and keep safe all those who come here for firing.
This might be Memorial Highway, this tar strip that stretches past the site of that great symbol of national achievement, India's experiment with nuclear bombs. And several of those memorials are to men killed in our own firing.
Two days before I came here, I finally saw the film everyone's been talking about for weeks, Rang de Basanti. The story revolves, of course, around the death of a young Air Force pilot in a MiG accident. This is, of course, what really happened to Abhijit Gadgil. Here in Rajasthan so soon after seeing the film, I can't help thinking of him. Because he was stationed on a base in this state when, in September
2001, his MiG-21 dove nose first into the sand just seconds after take-off. When I first heard about him, and later when I saw Basanti, and after that when I see these memorials to soldiers along this highway -- every time, the same thought drifts into my mind. Of all the tragedies there are in wars, that the armed forces must get
used to, the saddest must be the deaths that have nothing to do with the enemy. "Friendly fire", or the stray bullet at a firing range, or the crash of a fighter plane during training: we don't expect any of these to happen. But they do. And out of that sadness and a need to remember, we erect memorials.
Yet the irony of these memorials is that so few remember. In Khetolai, these two young men -- who must have been boys when the bombs went off in '98, whose parents were themselves children when the bombs went off in '74 -- tell us in great detail what happened both times. The Army cordoned off the village starting very early in the morning, told everyone to stay outdoors all day with their essential belongings, came through after the bombs to check if all the houses were intact and undamaged by the force of the explosions. In 1998, they tell us the village old-timers knew, from all the fuss and preparations, what was about to happen. The same fuss, after all, had been on view in 1974. (Can we see that crater? No).
They remember all that detail, some of it from an event that happened a decade before they were even born. They remember all that even though they have not gone near the craters. Yet when I ask about deaths remembered on the highway, neither the two youths nor their friends in the shop have any idea. They don't even seem aware that there is these sequence of memorials starting only a few hundred metres away.
Do we remember events and places more than we remember individuals? Does the earthshaking triumph of the nuclear blasts trump the small tragedies of soldiers killed?
Either way, two other little details emerge as we chat with the young men.
First, one tells us he has just got into the Air Force, into the "Garud Commandos." He is leaving soon for training. There is a visible pride in his face as he says this, a subtle but noticeable straightening of his back. For our part, we react to him accordingly. We reach out to shake his hand, smile approvingly, pat his shoulder,
wish him good luck, speak much more to him than to his friend ...
... who tells us -- is he almost apologetic? -- that he's about to become a teacher. No visible pride, no straightening of the back, and perhaps most telling, no reaction from us.
Why? On the way out of Khetolai, I find myself chewing on that. Why do we look differently at a man embarking on a military career than we do at a man who is going to teach?
Second, as we speak about the nuclear bombs, I ask: what do you think about them? At first, there are the usual complaints -- nobody has given us anything (what?), we should get something from the Government (exactly why?) and the like.
But then I say, no, no -- tell me what you felt about the blasts themselves. Were you happy about them?
This time, both young men straighten their backs. "Of course," says one. "We're Hindu!"