He was ‘Missing In Action’ for five years.
A Prisoner of War of the Japanese during World War II.
My husband’s grandfather was a doctor in the Army, held captive in the jungles of Malaya by the Japanese. At the end of the War, when Japan lost, he was freed along with the other POWs.
A letter arrived at his home in Dehra Dun saying he was coming home. It was astonishing – and hard to believe – after five years of not knowing whether he was even alive, almost given up for dead.
When he stepped off the train three weeks later to the cheers of a huge crowd in Morinda, Punjab, he was so weak and unsteady he could hardly stand. A little boy ran up to him and clung to his knees like a limpet. He had never seen the child before; it was his youngest son, Surinder, born 21 days after he left for the War. The other little children, a boy and two girls, were now 15, 13 and 10. They stood shyly to the side with their mother, away from the throng of men surrounding their father, and gazed at him in wonder. I see the same look in my mother-in-law’s eyes when she recounts this story about her father.
Knowing all this, and even about the torture inflicted on his father in Malaya, his son Surinder went on to join the Indian Army and retired as a Brigadier. He is now in his seventies and still looks every inch a soldier.
What is it about their homeland that makes people feel so strongly? Why do people want to serve in the Army and protect their countries? Why does pride stir in our hearts when we see our national flag flutter in the breeze at the top of a flagpole?
About a month ago we were at the Wagah border between India and Pakistan. It was 4 o’ clock, when Beating the Retreat happens, when the flags of both countries are ceremonially lowered.
There was a large crowd of Indians on our side and a sizeable crowd of Pakistanis on the other side of the gate. Everybody was cheering: ‘Hindustan zindabad!’ echoed by ‘Pakistan zindabad!’ from across the border. I couldn’t help wishing Partition had never happened. After all, we had been one people for eons – Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.
The countries of the subcontinent are like nuclear families that have split off from a large joint family under acrimonious circumstances. The families continue to meet on festival days to exchange prasad and sweets, just to see each others’ faces, and keep lines of communication open, hoping for better days when they can love and trust each other again. A little ruefulness is inevitable, especially when they think of their shared past, and the trust that meant you didn’t always have to be armed and vigilant, the way it is with India and Pakistan now.