The year I joined junior college was the year of the war. It was also the year of love and my first love letter.
In high school, most of my ideas about the war were from the history books and cinema. And then, of course, there were townsfolk who had seen both the wars with China and the one with Pakistan for Bangladesh liberation pretty closely. They would talk about the wartime sirens, the blackened window panes, the blackouts and the sense of betrayal over Nehru’s speech of 1962. The heroes were romanticized and accounts of how refugees from Bangladesh battled against odds were oft-narrated tales. Somehow my young mind had made a picture of war, a picture in which protecting the motherland was of utmost duty; a picture in which human lives and their sense of belonging to a certain place was fragile. I wasn’t very good in even school sports, but would tell my friends that if there was a war I would enlist with the army (things movies do to overtly imaginative minds).
Since the Eastern Air Command of the Indian Air Force is headquartered in Shillong, there were always these impeccably dressed gentlemen at the exhibitions and fairs that would make some of us romanticize the idea of men in uniform. There were also the good Samaritans in the form of the CRPF that had bailed large sections of the Shillong population out of unpleasant situations.
But the Kargil war changed this admiration for men in uniform to something far deeper. I don’t know what I will call it today, but all those years back it was this war that had made me write my first letter of love. I was studying geography and had a fair idea of what the area around POK, Kargil, and Drass were; however I had not much information about how important the region was for us. So when the war broke out, my first reaction was, “why lose young men for barren and snow-capped mountains? Let them go. We don’t need them as much as the families need their sons.”
Things were just heating up and one evening had come with shocking information of our AIF plane being shot down in enemy territory. One of the officers was killed and another was captured. The morning newspaper came with more details, the personal lives of the officers and the affected family. As I read the paper, I wondered about why people romanticize wars. There was no glory in dying. What was the point in dying for a populace that would never remember their names and maybe later question their motives? What about the family that had lost a son, a husband, a father? All that for people who would usurp grants meant for the widows of war! All that for people who would eventually add political tags to the war!
And then as I read through there was that one picture of the officer who was captured. When I think about it today, it feels a little overly dramatic. But all those years back that picture made me feel I had known this gentleman for a while. His imprisonment felt like a personal loss, loss of a friend a loved one. And that one picture made me write my first love letter.
There was very little information available on him, and I like the rest of the nation relied on newspapers and channels. And with each passing day and the horror of what a war could do unfolded. Men kept coming back wrapped in tri colors and eventually our Shillong boy Captain Clifford Nongrum joined the list of martyrs. Young men that were in the line of duty came back in coffins, their bodies mutilated and bearing signs of unspeakable torture. There was anger and news of what India could do at the World Cup had stopped to appeal. As Devendra Prabhudesai mentions in his book, The Nice Guy Who Finished First, “Two operations were the talk of India in mid-1999. Regrettably ‘Operation Encore’ made more headlines that ‘Operation Vijay’, in the initial stages at least.”
For me, it was pure agony. I felt as though everything depended on that one moment when news of my hero’s well-being would finally arrive. And it did.
It was time for my letter to be sent. Yes. I had written a letter of love and gratitude. And I had no idea how I would send it. All I knew was the name of his Air Base. There was no internet (and even if there was, I was a technologically challenged student of humanities) and friends rallied around, got hold of telephone directories and books on geography. We had the state and pin code with us. We rushed to the Laitumkhrah Post office Shillong, and my letter was on its way.
At that time there were only the remnants of grief. There were only the obituaries that came every day. Someone was survived by old parents; someone hadn’t seen a newborn. Life moved on, the grief settled somewhere in our minds. And then that day arrived.
Two months from the day that I had sent my letter, my hero wrote back to me. He admitted he was a little startled by my letter but the letter he sent back was a moment of inspiration. A couple of friends and I started the Kargil War Widows fund in college and eventually piled up a little over a lakh and thirteen thousand rupees, and with the help of our college handed it over to the concerned authorities.
Those days patriotism or recognizing the sacrifices of the men in the armed forces was not synonymous with ‘jingoism’. For many of us bored teenagers, that were also a time to learn about the challenges the country is facing, learn not just about fundamental rights but also about duties. Maybe we could have done more for the families that lost loved ones while we debated on whether to glorify or demonize war.
Today after all these years, I still read that letter, laminated and tucked away, the letterhead still glistens proudly. The letter also reminds me of how limited our idea of human rights, grief, patriotism, and war is. But above all the letter reminds me of love, the love that inspires.
Buy Paulami Dutta Gupta's A Thousand Unspoken Words, a book based on the life of a writer.