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Shyam 's Story > Chapters > Growing Up

How World War II Gripped our Family 

Date Range: 1939 To 1945   Comments: 0 Views: 397
Attachments: Yes [1 Images]    

I was just six and the year was 1939. The place was Cawnpore (now Kanpur), India. Our family was presided by my widowed Nani (granny), and she was very proud of her eldest son, who was a much-respected doctor of the locality. My Bade Mama (eldest uncle) was the only earning member in the family, with a large extended family to support. Our small town family routine was placid, with its small joys and sorrows, which the entire neighborhood shared. But the gradual rumblings of war clouds in distant Europe added a certain animation to the small talk of my elders. There was something definitely afoot, because my two younger uncles would often cycle off to gather news, and I started hearing words like Hitler, Poland, Czechoslovakia and bombings! From our balcony they would yell the news they had gathered, to the neighbors, standing in their own balconies. Of course, next morning they would read it all in the National Herald and the Pioneer. Now instead of idle curiosity about distant affairs, I could sense some foreboding in their talks. Before the family realized, the distant war had spread its long arm and gripped our family. Bade Mama was recruited as an army doctor in the Royal Armed Medical Corps, and he had to report to the Army Hospital in the cantonment. Nani was beyond herself. Female relatives and neighbors always surrounded her. They took turns to console her or cry along with her. The first day when Bade Mama wore his Captain's uniform, I felt so proud of him. He was a tall and a handsome man. Many prospective fathers-in-law had their eyes on him. Now their prey was as good as gone. Every day Bade Mama would cycle in his uniform to the cantonment. When it was too hot, he would take a horse-drawn tonga. Each evening when he returned, my Nani was busy preparing his favourite snacks. If there were male guests at home, then Mama would also bring out a whiskey half-bottle, and regale everyone with news about the ways of the army and life in the cantonment. Particularly the mess dances and the pretty high-heeled white ladies sauntering about with their parasols! None of this amused my Nani, as she was apprehensive about the ways of the army. The army had taken her son away from a cozy practice next door, to the distant cantonment and God knows what to expect next! Nani's forebodings started materializing earlier than anyone expected. Troop trains had been announced and all newly recruited soldiers and officers were to report at the specified railway stations, to leave for the front. No one knew which war theatre they were headed for. If they were asked to board the Bombay bound train, then they would be boarding ships in Bombay heading for Aden, and then on to Libya or another African warfront. More than this nobody could guess. The news of date of arrival of the troop train in Cawnpore spread like wildfire. For Nani it was already the end of the world. Relatives and folks from our village started arriving by train and bullock carts. They parked themselves on the road or in our courtyard. The whole place had a funereal air about it. I could not understand the mood and the nonstop crying. I was so proud that my uniformed Bade Mama was going to the front, and he would send me stamps for my album, from many exotic lands. The morning of day of departure was a grim affair. My Nani, grandaunts, mother and my aunt had not slept and were crying and fasting. For the rest, now or earlier there was no letting up on eating and drinking. No Kayastha event can be without good heavy food and choicest of pickles, no matter what the tragedy ahead. As the time for leaving for the station neared the wailing increased. Our family panditji was propitiating the gods and made Bade Mama do all sorts of mumbo jumbo, to seek his safe return. Apart from my Mama's safety, Nani also used to cry at the thought of his returning from the war with a foreign wife, for she knew her son well. Fear of war at one end and of a foreign daughter-in-law at the other end! After touching of feet of many elders and village folk and hugging and crying it was now time to leave. Finally, my uniformed Bade Mama escorted by his two uncles, started walking out, with red tilak applied by his crying mother, aunts, sisters and cousins. What a sight for this six year old! His steel trunk and one hold-all were loaded on to the horse drawn tonga by our washerwoman's son. A cavalcade of tongas started moving towards the station. Finally we were there. This was the first time in this episode that I really got frightened. We were near the station now, and it appeared as if the entire country has come to bid good-bye to its war-bound sons. There was no space to move forward. I started having butterflies in my stomach. Finally, the army jawans took over and brought some semblance of order to the scene. Only Mama knew the bogie and the seat number, so he started leading the way. Everyone else followed. For a while all crying had stopped. Having located his compartment, he placed his luggage inside and came out. One by one, every one was holding his hands and mumbling something or the other. Two ladies were holding my wailing Nani. My Choti Nani (granny's younger sister) was holding my hands in that mêlée. All the platforms, in fact, the entire station was one sea of surging humanity. Every soldier had his near and dear ones and fellow villagers, all shoving to be close to him. " Do write or send us a telegram" was the universal refrain. Just then the train conductor blew his whistle. Mama hurriedly hugged all of us, but Nani would not let him go. All soldiers had gone in. Every one was crying. Choti Nani, who was holding my hand, sternly looked at me. "Arrre, everyone is crying and only you are not crying! Aren't you ashamed of yourself? What will the onlookers think? What a shame, you are not sad at your Mama's departure!' She was clearly unhappy at my non-crying. On the contrary, I was so happy to see my Mama, the way he looked. And I knew that he would send me stamps. Then the second whistle blew. The crowd started sending up all sorts up oohs and aahs. Some were shouting loudly 'Jai Bajrangbali!' I knew my mother would be reciting her mantra invoking Hanuman, under her breath. She always did, when in sorrow. Before I knew, there was a big hurting thump on my back. "Cry, you rascal, cry! The train is leaving." and my Choti Nani kept on hitting me hard and it hurt. The entire humanity was wailing, except me. How shameful! I did not understand the fuss. With great disapproval written over her face, she said, " You are a very bad boy." With the third whistle, the train started chugging out and all hell broke loose. Those on the platform would not let go of the hands of those who were departing. They started running with the train. Even I started crying, for Choti Nani hit me so hard that I could not bear it any more. Thus I bade a tearful farewell to my Mama, not out of sorrow, but because Choti Nani's kept spanking me real good. We returned home, as if from a funeral and Choti Nani repeatedly complained to my mother and Nani, that I had not shed a single tear at the station. Both my Nani and mother were ashamed. I could not look them in the eye. But once my Mama settled down to his medical chores on the battlefront, stamps for me from most exotic countries started coming. Stamps of Aden, Libya, Egypt, Eritrea, Palestine, Cyprus, Greece and Italy. At Huddard School nobody had a stamp album like mine. Not a bad show for such a bad boy, who refused to cry! Later, through newspapers and movies, names like Tobruk, Benghazi, Tripoli, El Amein, Wavell, the Eighth Army, and the 'Desert Fox' Rommel became household words for our family. Once in the North African desert, Gen. Rommel came incognito in a white flagged vehicle to meet the wounded German prisoners of war, and my uncle took him around. He was the camp commandant. While leaving, Rommel identified himself and said that he was happy at the way his wounded countrymen were being treated. In gratitude, he gave Mama his personal pistol and compass - absolutely essential survival tools in that hostile desert. These mementos of the much feared, loved and respected 'Desert Fox', Rommel are still prized possessions in our family. The British decorated Mama also, for this incident! Seldom does it happen that a soldier is honored by both sides of the battle lines! When Rommel died (or was forced to commit suicide), Not only the German nation, but Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister also paid him rich tribute.

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