The memoir of an unknown Indian soldier

What I present to you is two stories. One is of a simple Indian soldier from a village near Mangalore, one who, according to his brother Louis, “never got into a fight with anybody”–finding himself in the most brutal war in history, World War II, and being taken prisoner by a fellow Asian army–the Japanese Army, which treats thousands of Indian prisoners with a brutality that results in higher mortality rates for them than for POWs of the Nazis. And then, after a miraculous survival, comes home to write his story, which is forgotten, perhaps scorned by his feudal superiors.

The second story is of a son discovering his father’s story even as his father is 86 years old, and feeble enough as to leave the world at anytime–and being so moved by it as to be compelled to publish it and to give it to the world. It is a story about fathers and sons, part of the universal story that will never end, and will never cease to have fascination (incidentally, there is a strong father-son theme in my novel, “The Revised Kama Sutra”–the final scene of the novel, before the Epilogue, combines reconciliation with acceptance).

From the Biographical Introduction:
It is harder for a rich man to enter Heaven than for a camel to enter the eye of a needle, or so the Bible says; but it was always pretty easy for a rich man to enter St. Aloysius College and its high school, and to escape the whipping the padres gave to the fiscally and morally unlucky. After all, the college towered over property donated by the local squire, its chapel being a magnet, every Sunday, for the town’s cream of Catholic society. My father, though not one of India’s wretched poor, was consigned by his family income to its struggling lower middle class. And often, because he had not paid his two-rupee monthly school fees on time, he was kicked out of his St. Aloysius High School classes by the Italian Jesuits who were then in charge.

From “The Torture Ship”:
Slowly and more slowly it sailed on, heading for the south, and our ordeal worsened as hours passed. Heat, suffocation, stench, thirst. We were allowed a handful (hardly two ounces) of cooked rice and a little dry fish and a cup of water twice daily. The Japanese said if we ate more in the ship, we would fall ill as we were not doing any fatigue. We did not worry much about the quantity of food. We would not have minded even if we were not given any; but with the two cups of water supplied per day, one might die of thirst. We tried to go on the deck to have a breath of fresh air for which we longed so much; but the moment we climbed up the staircase, we would be kicked down by the Japanese sentries.

From “The Second Voyage of the Torture Ship”:
Could humanity be degraded to such an extent? Could Providence be as cruel? The steamer had only one kitchen from which water was being rationed, and the two thousand men had to come one after the other, in a line, for that cup of life-preserving liquid. The rush began at 6 am. My turn came at about 10 am, after four hours of waiting, only to be met with the curt words, “Water finished!” Heavens, what was I to do until next day? Who knows? Before I could reach the front of the line, water might be exhausted again next day? Death was certain. I went round with a cup to my Indian friends, to Malays, even to Japanese, and was met with the reply “Sorry, I have very little.”

From “The Second Voyage of the Torture Ship”:
Dysentery broke out on the ship. The few latrines were being used by both unfit and fit men. In our own party of one hundred and fifty, three or four deaths occurred daily. The corpses were wrapped in a worn-out blanket and lowered into the deep ocean, unwept for and unsung. I could see hardy men prostrate with dysentery, unable to move, without any clothes. The Japanese did not pay any heed to what was going on. Dysentery spread to other holds of the ship, killing seven to eight daily. But the ship was not stopped, nor was an attempt made to evacuate the victims.

Insanitation and squalor increased. There had been cases of men dying from dysentery within a day of getting sick. Except for separate accommodation being allowed, no treatment was given to the men, and the disease spread anyway. The scene was pitiful and heart-rending. Brave, virile soldiers who would have defied anybody in battle were now helpless like babies and were groaning and rolling naked on the floor presenting a weird spectacle. I could not bear it and tears started trickling from my eyes as nothing in my life had moved me to that extent. Was this the penalty we were paying for being honest and principled?

From “Koga the Devil”:
The next day, another Japanese soldier, Koga Hugcho, was put in charge of us. I call him Koga the Devil. I still cannot forget his Satanic face nor forget his atrocities. If anyone deserves to be hanged first for the ill-treatment of prisoners, it is he. A man of about 30 years, quite well-built, with slant eyes and an ape’s mouth with a gold tooth, he looked like a mixture of Japanese and Chinese, a most unprincipled and inhumane brute. Although he said he belonged to Tokyo, I am inclined to think he was either a Taiwanese or a Manchurian. The next three months that we passed with him were the bitterest of our lives. Our daily routine was: rise at 4 am, go to the surrounding jungle and fetch two or three loads of firewood; breakfast (two spoonfuls of rice) at 5.30, off to the tapioca garden at 6 am, cut grass till 11 with half an hour’s break, return for lunch; half an hour’s break, again off to the garden, back by 4 PM; fill a fifty-five gallon drum with water and boil it ready for our master’s bath; again collect two or three loads of firewood. Thus were we kept busy from before daybreak to sunset. In addition, each of us was called upon by him to help the Japanese cook in preparing the morning food—in which case, we were required to get up at 2 am. Fire had to be lit to boil rice, curry and water. The firewood was invariably damp and gave out clouds of smoke, completely blinding our eyes. If the fire was not lighted, the Japanese cook would curse us and even beat us. Food had to be ready before daybreak so that the raiders might not notice the smoke. By now, the planes had no targets left. They would watch for any signs of smoke and let go their deadly bombs.

During fatigue, if Koga thought our speed was not up to his expectations, he would beat us with sticks, fists, and kicks. He said that Indians, like the British, were lazy and were not fit to live. They knew only to enjoy. That is why they were being defeated. He told us the Allied Navy had been completely annihilated near Formosa and in the Philippines. Land fighting was going on in the latter place, and the Japanese were winning. There was no chance of our returning to India. We would remain there in New Britain and cultivate tapioca.

In the evenings, even in heavy rain, the Japanese made us boil water for their bath. This was almost an impossibility as the fireplace and firewood became wet. But there was no argument with our masters.

Our hut was more like a pandal[16]. Even in a light rain, water trickled inside. It was infested with rats, mosquitoes, ants, lizards and snakes. Had the Japanese given us half a day’s rest, we could have improved it, but even on our so called holidays, they made us collect coconuts and extract oil for them!

I had a relapse of malaria. Koga allowed me rest as long as my temperature was on; but as soon as he felt my forehead cool, he would ask me to work. To make matters worse, an ulcer appeared on my right foot. The wound broadened, giving out pus and a horrible smell. The leg swelled, and I could not walk. No arrangement was made for dressing the wound. Not even a piece of linen was given. I tore my langoti[17], dressed the ulcer in filthy water from the nullah, and bandaged it in a dirty rag. Flies swarmed around the wound. Blood trickled down sometimes. The Japanese saw this, but were not moved with compassion. Koga said it was a trifling thing and asked me to go on fatigue. I could only walk with the help of crutches. Other Japanese who saw me on the way thought I deserved rest.

Owing to agonizing pain, my temperature did not subside. I and the four others requested Koga to shoot us as it was better to die than to remain as their prisoners. He jokingly gave us shovels and spades, asking us to prepare our own graves so that we might be shot the next morning.

Basanta was the one most cruelly mistreated. For some trifling offence, he was tied with live battery wires; and when the unfortunate man cried for mercy, all the Japanese laughed. He fell down. They kicked him and made him get up, again tying him up with the torturing wires. Besides Basanta, there was another Sikh, Kartar Singh, with us. Koga ordered them to shave off their beards as, according to them, the beards made them ill. For disobeying him, they were beaten.

One day, Basanta was standing by. Koga, like a dog, came upon him and passed urine on him. On another occasion, Basanta was spat upon.

We again pleaded with Koga to shoot us all. He warned us not to repeat this request. We were their prisoners and must obey them. Even the British General Percival was being ordered about by a Japanese soldier. We had been defeated in the war and must not speak anything out of the way.

From “Fathers and Sons—A Tale of Literature, Reinvention, and Redemption”:
But there was another, non-literary duty to be performed before I could feel some degree of liberation from that powerful sense of incompleteness in my relationship with my father. Dr. Arunachalam’s gesture of touching my father’s feet, repeated later by another Mangalorean I greatly respect, Konkani musician, composer, and impresario Eric Ozario, had haunted me. Because, having been an individualistic, city-raised Christian too cut off from my culture and even from my Indian Christian village roots, I had never touched my father’s feet. Back in America, I feared that I would never forgive myself if my father passed away from this world without my ever having touched his feet, while others—no doubt my brothers, kindred souls, and cosmic, Brahmanic extensions of myself—had done so.

In October 1998, ten months later, I arrived in a monsoon-lashed Mangalore and dashed home from the airport, heading directly for my father’s bedroom. He didn’t come out to greet me as he usually did, for he was weaker than before, slowly losing his once-solid grip on the world. I walked right in and hugged his frail frame, paused a few seconds, and then bent my once-proud body and touched his feet.

From “Killing to Eat: or Calling Upon the Japanese to Face their Dark Side”:
And though I believe all of us have within us a dark side, and that in a profound sense we are also the Other, it is also important, in the illusory everyday world that we call Reality, that we append the stories of the weak and the voiceless to the histories written by the mighty and the once-mighty, and that each us of register our horror, our personal footnote, to the Official and often Sanitized Communal History. Any lingering doubts I may have had about the title disappeared after I met Roger Mansell, an American war historian who had been examining the Japanese record in World War II. Mansell was horrified by the lack of remorse in a recent Japanese compendium of World War II recollections called Senso. He explained that American G.I.s had been cannibalized simply as an act of demoralization; these acts had nothing to do with the nutritional needs of the Japanese. So I decided to retain the title for this second, public edition, even allowing in a moment of optimism that the book might receive attention in Japan and persuade the Japanese to confront and admit to their widely observed racism and start a national campaign to tackle it, making it less possible for a future Pico Iyer to say, “In Japan, an Indian is the lowest of the low.”

Besides, why should it be so hard for the Japanese to issue an apology to all the Indians who were so abused and manipulated, and to their children and descendants? Will not that hasten the process of healing and forgiveness?

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