November 11, 2006

My colleague Kadar

N Kunju of New Delhi is the first prize winner in the just concluded Citizens for Peace/Indian Express essay competition, on the theme "Not People Like Us: A Citizen's Dilemma". This is his essay.

***

My colleague Kadar

We, Abdul Kadar and I, joined the army in June 1947. 17-year old freshers from a school in a small town in Kerala, we were walking along a crowded Madras street in search of a job. Clad in dhoti and shirt, we walked bare-foot on the semi-molten asphalt road while the sun blazed above. We entered offices, invariably to be turned down with regret. They all wanted experienced persons, well dressed and with good personality. How could we have had experience when no one was ready to employ us for the first time? As for personality, there we were, lean and emaciated, dressed as rustics.

It was while roaming around the city, looking at signboards of business establishments, that we saw the army recruiting office. We were not very hopeful of being accepted, because our idea of a soldier was not what we were at that time. Anyway a trial costs nothing, said Kadar, and we ventured in.

The recruiting office was overflowing with young men in different states of undress. Interviews, written test, physical endurance test, medical test, all were going on at a hectic pace. Men in uniform, the recruiting staff, shouted orders and led the candidates from one room to another.

Viewing the scene, we were thoroughly disheartened. We compared the physique of the men around us with ours and were overcome with self-pity. We saw strong healthy-looking youngsters being rejected.

Nevertheless, we approached a man in uniform who looked at us with pity wrapped in scorn. Anyway, he asked for our educational certificates and we gave him our secondary school leaving certificates. That changed his attitude, as if the certificate was a magic wand. He showed sudden interest and took us to an officer who made us fill up forms. We underwent medical tests. Both of us were underweight, but the medical officer said that weight could be made up in a few days. Matriculates were scarce in those days and we were recruited as "sepoy clerks". We were given some cash and the required papers and were taken in a truck to Madras railway station where a military special train was waiting for us. We were told our destination was Ferozpore, Punjab, and representatives of the training centre would receive us there.

After a week's journey through different regions, the train reached Ferozpore and we were welcomed by the staff of the army training centre. The training centre is the nursery of the army. Here recruits enter as babies who know nothing. You are retrained: to sit, stand and walk military-style. We were issued with uniforms and equipment and allotted a cot and a wooden box in the big barracks accommodating some 50 men.

India is said to be a symbol of unity in diversity. But in the Indian army, the diversities dissolve into unity. Here recruits enter the barracks as Punjabis, Maharashtrians, Bengalis, Tamilians, Telugus, Malayalis, etc. After training, they come out as Indians, speaking simple Hindi, relishing rice and roti equally, at ease in a dhoti or in a pair of pyjamas. Out they come marching in step, swinging arms, looking straight. Differences of short and tall, dark and fair, do not interfere with their measured steps. Differences of caste and creed, religion and region do not mar the geometrically correct rank and file formation. Integration becomes ingrained in their existence.

As mentioned earlier, we joined the army in June 1947. And within two months India became independent. Years later, when I boasted about it to a friend, he said the British did the wise thing; they could not have controlled the country with soldiers like me!

However, on the threshold of her freedom, India thought of us new recruits differently. Within weeks of our reaching the training centre in Ferozpur, communal riots broke out all over the North. Violence erupted in the town. We, who had never touched a weapon till then, were issued rifles and were converted into a 'peace keeping force'.

We marched along the streets, rifles slung on our shoulders, sending the fear of God into the minds of communal miscreants. No one knew the reality - that we were week-old babies in the Army, that our oversize jungle hats concealed faces on which hair had hardly appeared, that we did not know how to load the rifle or fire a shot. But the deception worked well.

Houses were burning and the streets were strewn with dead bodies. Men killed each other, often strangers. Like all insanities, communal madness too had no rationale.

After the man-made calamity, came nature's fury. Ferozpur was flooded. Some of us recruits were taken to the river Sutlej to repair the embankments. But the waters were swifter than we were; we had to run all the way back to the barracks with the floodwaters following us. And then we had to run from there to a safer place, collecting rifles and ammunition.

It was a gruelling march of some four miles. My friend Abdul Kadar and I carried our rifles on our shoulders and an ammunition box between us. The box was very heavy and I felt my arm coming off its socket. On the way we found a number of ammunition boxes abandoned in the bushes on the roadside. We had not been given any receipt for the box, nor would anyone have remembered that we were entrusted with it. I was tempted to abandon it.

"Let us throw this into the bush. No one is watching," I told Kadar.

"Allah is watching," said Kadar coolly. This enraged me. There I was, dog-tired and in pain. And he was involving God in my continued torture.

"I can't carry it anymore," I hissed.

"Okay," he said, as coolly as ever. "Give me the box. I will carry it."

Kadar lifted the box on his shoulder, and started walking as if nothing had happened. He was, in fact, weaker than me. I could see his suffering.

"I am sorry," I said and caught hold of one end of the box. We carried it silently all the way.

While we deposited our rifles and the box in the store, many others did not. The discrepancy, of course, would be written off as a loss in the floods.

Thanks to Kadar, I was spared the agony of having to carry a discrepancy in my conscience throughout life.

Those were turbulent times. People were shaken, mentally and physically. They were uprooted en masse. A number of Muslim soldiers, especially from the North, were opting for their promised land, Pakistan. For those who had their homes in areas that went to Pakistan, the choice was not difficult. But for Muslims whose homes were in the Indian part of the subcontinent, it was difficult to decide. Religion tugged at their roots. But socio-cultural affinity tempted them to be rooted in India.

I jokingly asked Kadar which country he would opt for. I knew he would not go to Pakistan, leaving his home in Malabar for a strange land with a different culture and language. I was only teasing him. But his answer surprised me.

"I will go to the country of Muslims."

"What, you fool?" I asked. "Why should you leave your home and dear ones in Calicut and go to a place where no one will recognise you? Why don't you stay in Hindustan?"

"Because I don't want to live in Hindustan. I want to be in the land of Muslims," he said with no trace of humour in his voice.

Strange, I thought. The fellow had not shown any special affinity to religion till then. In fact, no one would have known he was a Muslim but for his name.

After two days, he was called to the Training Centre Headquarters to give his option in writing. When he came back, I again questioned him: "Which country you have opted for?"

"The country of Muslims," he repeated as before.

"Pakistan?"

"No."

"Hindustan?"

"No."

"What? Are you joking?"

"There was no Hindustan in the form of an option."

"So?"

"I opted for India which is the Motherland of Muslims too."

I believe it was from Abdul Kadar that I learnt the basics of secularism.

In 1947, we had never heard the phrase "national integration". Nor did we know much about secularism. Perhaps these lofty ideals were not named then. But in those few weeks when India was in the ecstasy of her newly-won freedom and the agony of partition, we, a few hundred army recruits coming from different parts of British India, integrated into a secular national force to pass out as the first breed of soldiers of free India.

12 comments:

Chetan said...

What a fantastic and heartwarming essay. Thanks, Dilip, for sharing!

Anirudh said...

This is fantastic.

Jai Nair said...

Super-duper killer story calculated to win the prize. Oozing syrupy secularism like a punctured over-ripe mango.

If I wrote a story that ends by saying "I want to go to the country of Hindus, India!", guess where would that leave Citizens for Peace? Citizens Seriously Pissed.

Cute endings apart, here's a news update: a Kerala Muslim bloke emigrated to Karachi after the 1971 Indo-Pak war. 35 years later, his son visits Mysore, and sets up a base in the city: to scope out places to bomb in Mysore and Bangalore.

Moral of the story? Not all muslims are traitors. Not all Muslims are super -duper secularists either.Most people know this, and it's time the clowns at Indian Express knew it as well.

Sidhusaaheb said...

I sincerely hope that the Indian Army always remains the secular force that it always has been.

Meanwhile, if Mr. Jai Nair were to write a story and the Hindu protagonist had to choose the country he wanted to go to, I suppose he would be given two options:

a) India
b) India

The story could have been analogous, however, if a Muslim living in Pakistan were writing it about a Hindu friend of his who chose to live on in Pakistan after partition and hence taught him a lesson in secularism.

Let's say a Pakistani newspaper organised a similar contest (say 'The Dawn') and the said story won a prize...

I suppose some one with a Muslim name (instead of Jai Nair) would then have been posting a comment about "The clowns at The Dawn..."

They are all quite similar really, aren't they?

Anonymous said...

I think Jai does have a point. If you care to think about it, such stories - either showing "Hindu-Muslim togetherness" or demonstrating the "patriotism" of Muslim citizens - have always been published in the English language press. This was the case even in the middle of butchery like the one in Gujarat.

More than Hindus, I suspect it is Muslims who are going to be annoyed by such stories. Remember we are now in the 60th year of our independence. There is a time and place for such "heartwarming" stories and I would argue that that time is long past. Its publication now only serves to raise the question (again) whether muslims in fact are truly patriotic citizens of India. This might not be what the author intended, but that is what it does.

I would rather be grateful for stories showing Muslims exercising their rights as full citizens of this country - and their struggles in this regard - rather than being recipients of such stories which do little for them other than make the non-Muslim readers "feel good."

If there are Muslim readers of this blog, we would all be grateful for their opinions.

B said...

I cannot comment on this essay being 'calculated' to win the prize, but this seems to be definitely topical for the contest (see eg. Vinod Dua's comment here ), and well written (which is not wrong to aim for when writing!).

I dont see a patriotic angle here. Kadar had a choice and he made it. But there is a strain of melancholy in the choices being offered and made. (Does choosing a country to live or deciding to join the army make one patriotic?)

"the diversities dissolve into unity" ... "Differences of short and tall, dark and fair"... "Differences of caste and creed, religion and region do not mar ..."

"Integration becomes ingrained in their existence."

Given all this unity and integration talk Kadar still says,
"I will go to the country of Muslims."
and as a couterpoint also says,
"There was no Hindustan in the form of an option."

This perhaps defines the motherland to be mentioned later.

What is the author's view on religion? The author says:
"sending the fear of God into the minds of communal miscreants."
He also later thinks,
"This enraged me...And he was involving God in my continued torture." But still asks, humourously of course, which country he would pick.

There are also some carefully chosen words to describe the circumstances then.
"never touched a weapon till then, were issued rifles". "ecstasy of ... freedom and the agony of partition".
"coming from different parts of British India, integrated into a secular national force to..."

is it any different now?

This probably describes our state of mind too when we try to define "secular" or other such ideals. So what exactly is secularism?

Jai Nair said...

"Meanwhile, if Mr. Jai Nair were to write a story and the Hindu protagonist had to choose the country he wanted to go to..."

Friendly advice, dear brother: if you want to make a valid point, compare facts with facts; don't compare facts with conjecture.

Meanwhile, tell us more about the secular nature of the Paki army. Do they have temples and churches in the barracks?

Jai Nair said...

"More than Hindus, I suspect it is Muslims who are going to be annoyed by such stories."

The good-samaritan Muslim is a standard feature of Bollywood flicks. Why don't we ever see in Hindi films a bad Muslim who is a gangster, an extortionist, and a fanatic who tries to bomb the city but is caught by the Hindu police officer hero and gets bashed up?

"I would rather be grateful for stories showing Muslims exercising their rights as full citizens of this country"

Good idea. Here is my suggestion for a story:

Corrupt government officials raid a Muslim school partly funded by the government. They try to intimidate the mullah or whoever is running the school claiming he is not following some rules. The idea is to extract bribes. These are all uppercaste Hindu officers, you see. But the mullah bravely stands his ground and tells the officials he is exercising his rights as a Muslim by wangling govt funds but teaching whatever he wants to and admitting whoever he wants to. He quotes the constitution and relevant laws. He is not compelled to hire dalits by law, says he, and he whsitles, and low and behold, lots and lots of dalit teachers troop into the room and fill it up! Flabergasted, officials retreat.

This won't be a heart-warming story, but this sure will portray the "struggles" of Muslims accurately.

The story of a poor old Muslim man who encouters impediments (again, maybe from corrupt uppercaste Hindu officers) in exercising his right to access to Hajj funds to go on pilgrimage is another good idea. Needless to add, the old man fights back, and like Forrest Gump, gets to meet the President.

Anonymous said...

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Aqua said...

Thank you for sharing this Dilip

a really heartwarming piece!

Truman said...

Dilip, this was great. Thanks for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

Dilip: Here is an alternative suggestion for this prize- I think I came up with it last year as well.

Ask people to put forth a specific proposal for achieving unity in diversity or some such. It could be community based activity or some sort of Blank Noise awareness generation activity. Something that they, as a citizen could carry out It need not be very ambitious but it must have concrete results. Perhaps they can make their current municipal school better by tying it with the local private school. Perhaps they will conduct an exhibition of photographs. Get a group of slumdwellers to interact with the neighbouring building. Conduct a lecture series to residents. Write. I don't know. But in this proposal, they state how they are goig to achieve this objective (reducing the Us vs Them for example) in a concrete and measurable way. They should also say what funds they need for this project. One of the conditions should be that it is amateur - in other words, professioal journalists, NGOs etc cannot compete. It must be a citizen initiative.

And then award them some money to actually carry it this proposal.

In a year, six months whatever, ask them to present the results of their work. What they learnt etc etc etc. How they would sustain this project.

n!