Strange place to find family, a cemetery. Stranger yet in Imphal, a city where I’m in no position to find anything, least of all history of my own.
Imphal is not a place many Indians visit. I owe this meeting to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which maintains the cemetery, one of six in this remote part of India. Their London office informed me of its location, and I received the exact coordinates of row and number from the cemetery attendant, who was now jogging towards me across the humid lawn carrying a shoe-brush.
I crouched down to scrub grit from the plaque at the head of the grave. Brass letters rose to a shine against black iron:
King George V’s Own Bengal
Sappers and Miners
Below that an epitaph:
He lived as he died, everybody’s friend.
May his beloved soul rest in peace
I’d never seen his real name in writing before. He was my grandmother’s brother, and among family he was spoken of as Bobby, though even that was rare. In fact, we’d almost forgotten that Bobby existed at all. Certainly none of us ever expected to stand at his grave.
Bobby grew up in Calicut on the Malabar Coast, part of its tiny community of Parsis, or Indian Zoroastrians. I knew that he had trained to be an engineer, and in 1942 had taken a commission in the British Indian Army. He had gone to war with the Bengal Sappers’ 2nd Field Company. Two years later, he had evidently run out of luck near Imphal.
When the family received the letter carrying news of his death, it was the third letter of its kind in as many years. His sisters had both had their husbands die in service in the preceding years; Nurgesh, my grandmother, lost her husband a month before their child was born. The war wiped out the young men of the family, and the decades after wiped clean the memory of them. I was nearly 30 before I learnt about my family’s losses, when it slipped out as a wisp of anecdote over dinner. By then my grandmother was gone, along with anyone else who might have told me about the war abroad and the private apocalypse at home.
I began to dig around this gap in family memory, and straight away I dropped to the bottom of a deeper pit: a lapse in remembering the war, not just by my family but by my entire country. The largest all-volunteer army in the second world war was India’s, but no public memory remains of those men and women, their lives at war or their deaths. There is no monument and no Memorial Day, and there’s no notion at all of the dilemma they faced, fighting for the Empire at the very hour that their countrymen fought to be rid of it.
The heroes of India’s freedom struggle spent most of the war years in jail, refusing to endorse India’s involvement. From among the soldiery, the only admitted heroes are the members of the Indian National Army, led by Subhash Chandra Bose and armed by Japan against the British Empire. Forty thousand men served in the INA; 2.5m in the British Indian Army. Yet the experience of the latter has sunk with all hands. Between the closing chapter of imperial history and the first volume of the national record, we let drop the page that had Indians fighting on both sides.
In the family home, the trunks burped dust when they were forced open, but they produced no more than a few sepia portraits of soft-featured young men, their hair waxed and moustaches bayonet-sharp in readiness for adventure. There were no letters, no movement orders; nothing that would tell me why Bobby had chosen to fight, or where he had served, or who had chosen his epitaph, and what it might mean to be a soldier at war and yet be everybody’s friend.
Into this silence arrived an email, a reply from the War Graves Commission. In it, Casualty Enquiries suggested I might visit the grave of Godrej Mugaseth, the man I hadn’t expected to find, in Imphal, a place I had never expected to go.
Imphal is the capital city of Manipur, one of the seven states in the wizened limb of northeastern India, where the border with Myanmar crawls through hills as steep as in a child’s drawing. In school, we had memorised the names “Manipur” and “Imphal”, and we learnt to plot them on a map of the country, though most of the states here are so tiny that a circle pencilled in to mark the capital also served to mark the state. Thereafter, most Indians typically absorb three facts about the region: that people there have narrow eyes and look like they’re Chinese; that the largest of the states is territorially claimed by China; and that the other six states are not quite emotionally wed to the Union either, a point made clear by separatist militias that have fought the army and government there for 30 years.
To supplement my education, I had the benefit of a Lonely Planet guidebook, 2007 edition. From its 1,236 pages, Manipur receives less than a quarter-page. It is noted that one can go to Imphal to see “what is supposedly the world’s tallest topiary bush”, but that the state is “really too risky to even contemplate visiting”.
On the train, an engineer on the bunk below spoke of his eight years in the northeast: “My one friend went for business to Manipur. On the second day itself he got kidnapped, and they left him in a field with nothing but his underwear.”
The truth about Manipur, never quick to dawn on the wider world, is that it is no longer very dangerous at all. The state is still heavily militarised, and special laws provide immunity to the Indian troops there, which made rape and summary killings frequent until a few years ago. The insurgency has been broken, however, and Imphal runs more on the habits than the anticipation of violence.
A non-official curfew sets in at 6pm. By 8pm the city is a hunched, motionless creature, its thousand eyes blinking from sullen glow to pitch dark as the power supply goes on and off. Most of Manipur receives four hours of electricity a day, so even the idea of a power outage is Imphal’s privilege. Similarly, in Imphal you can buy fuel through the week, but some days you’ll need to purchase it from the elderly women squatting behind plastic bottles of diesel in front of the locked-up pumps. Amid heroic terrain and subtropical bounty, Imphal is a hot, dispirited hump of brick and concrete. The prettiest thing there is still the war cemetery, with its trackless lawns, effusive candy-bright perennials, and the swift action taken to shoo away junkies.
Indeed, the last time the world paid much attention to Imphal was when Bobby arrived here. A tangled line between Imphal and Kohima, the capital of the neighbouring state of Nagaland, was the ultimate extent of the Japanese advance across Asia. The battle for Kohima was as desperate as any in the war, and although seldom remembered, it was as fateful as Tobruk or Normandy. When the Emperor’s army was repelled from the two towns in the summer of 1944, it began the great rollback that concluded with Japanese surrender.
Two days in Imphal had left me as eager as any Japanese conscript to leave. From the cemetery, it wasn’t hard to find the Manipur Mountaineering and Trekking Association: its climbing wall, pronged out above surrounding roofs like a crooked antenna, was the only apparent architectural effort in that part of town. The MMTA was still developing its programme for tourists, as there were none, but it did have a car headed to a camp where local mountaineers were training to summit Everest. The next morning, I marched behind them up to the hill of Laimaton, climbing through dripping forest and across breezy alpine pasture.
Near the top, I had to spend a minute crumpled on the grass. When I rose, my guide Surjit pointed out a web of shallow gutters in the hillside, all clogged with forest litter. “Japanese trench,” Surjit said. “Trench for men. There, for horse. There, trench for gun.” I squatted down inside one, bobbing my head over the edge, and imagined a column of advancing Gurkha Rifles – or a platoon of Bengal Sappers, lifting mines from the tall grass. But the game grew old quickly; the drama and the dread of war were buried under too many seasons of soggy leaf-drop. Then Surjit pointed again.
Where Laimaton banked up, a granite rock-face, wet from a rain shower, shone in the morning glare like a beaten iron shield. On it was carved a samurai sword, 6ft high, inside a crude circle like the rising sun. It was an Imperial banner, left by some departing soldier, undiminished by 70 monsoons – or by the spray of bullet-holes added when British troops retook the hill.
Surjit could tell me little about the sword. To him it was less a mystical relic than a natural feature of the landscape, one he did his best to protect from the rural quarryists whose chisels spiked the air like far-off, disordered birdsong. To me it was something else: at the furthest and most frayed edge of the country, decorated not with wreaths but a lace of lichens and scratchy lantana, at last a monument to Bobby’s war.
The next afternoon, the sword was real. It materialised, laid across a woman’s palms, in the lakeside town of Moirang. Though I’d never heard of Moirang, its history is famous by local standards, which means it has its own crummy government museum. It is thought to be the spot where the national flag was first raised on Indian soil, by a brigade of INA soldiers advancing with the Japanese 33rd Division. Manipuri activists had slipped down here to join the INA; after Independence some became successful in state politics, which is the fact principally celebrated by the museum. War ordnance has also been dumped in cabinets, where it rusts into ferrous cauliflowers.
In Moirang I had asked to meet anybody very old, and was brought by mid-morning before Oinam Mani Singh. Of course he remembered the invasion, he said, as he pleated a white cloth around his legs and waist; he’d barely survived it. For five weeks, his family lay in a dugout in the forest, while he would swim across Loktak Lake, under shelling, to retrieve from hidden stores of rice. Mani Singh made a gesture, and at the door, his wife lifted something down from the lintel: their “samurai sword”, really a Japanese officer’s sabre, now a family heirloom.
She also fished out a book of smudged type, which related the story of Koireng Singh, one of the rebels “due to [whose] support the INA and the Imperial Japanese army could liberate two-thirds of Manipur and the whole of Nagaland from the clutches of British imperialism”. The rest of the book hailed wartime Moirang as the “advanced headquarters of the Provisional Govt of free India”; a strange thing to read in what may still be the least free part of the country.
I would discover that in Manipur and Nagaland, anybody old enough remembers the war. In every village, war memory is the oldest of all living memory; thus it has a status approaching legend, and is still related in tones of amazement. In Shirui, when the planes began crossing overhead, they thought the sound was bees, but seeing none, were mystified. At the Khankui Caves, after Japanese stragglers took refuge in the deep caverns, British soldiers pulled off their uniforms and pursued them naked, so their skin would be visible to each other in the darkness. Everywhere, roads were laid. Trees reverberated with the engines of lorry convoys. Advancing Japanese columns stole the livestock, yet sometimes a soldier let you taste fish that came out of a metal box. Metal had been rare to the tribes – now it fell deadly from the sky.
Folklore has it that the Japanese gave Manipur the name “Takane No Hana”, or “the flower on lofty heights”: a thing for which you reach but cannot grasp. Every empire that reached for Manipur has left it manhandled but never truly held. Now it is India’s turn to try. In Imphal, the road named after Mahatma Gandhi, usually a city’s main promenade, was a stub of tarred ground connecting two market streets. A statue of the Great Soul was fenced into a triangular park; he was short, pale and blurred in detail, as if carved from a bar of soap. A line of Imphal residents stood in the sun nearby, queuing all day long to use the city’s one functional ATM and pick up “Gandhis” – Indian banknotes – for which they had better use.
It’s not easy being the father of the nation in a place that may want to quit the nation. In Ukhrul, near the border with Nagaland, the statue of Gandhi in the town square had been decapitated. An embarrassed town council had swaddled his body in sacking, but his feet were still visible, as was a quote on the pedestal: “Whenever you are confronted with an opponent conquer him with love.”
Ukhrul has a single road that runs along a ridge; the town slopes away to the left and right, and the gaps between houses flash impossible views of the giant green chest of hills across the valley. I stayed here awhile, hiking in the mornings, then hitting the town to scour the shops for medicine for diarrhoea. One afternoon, a man hurtled out at me from the shade of a pharmacist’s shop. He wore a floppy hat and his face seemed wrinkled less by age than by the exertion of his gleeful, non-stop grimacing. He talked in a gale of pidgin English, Hindi and Nagamese, from which I could snatch some sense – he too had seen the war – though it was really too hot an hour for indulging an affable old loon. I backed away, apologetic. His face fell. I halted. My mind performed a delicate calculation of faith against fatigue and funds, and then we were speeding in a taxi to his village.
Our driver, Freddy, was a pastor in his thirties, with sidelines in a taxi service and managing a local metal band. Alert and curious about his passengers, Freddy offered to act as interpreter. At once the man in the hat grew coherent and calm, and so we discovered that Yangmasho Shishak didn’t just live through the second world war. The war lived through him.
In April 1944, when the 4th Mahratta Light Infantry rolled into Ukhrul to form the defending line, they recruited a Naga tribal boy as a runner. Shishak, just 14 years old, carried messages between outposts, until one day he was captured by an enemy patrol. He was brought before General Iwaichi Fujiwara, the head of intelligence of the 31st Division, and one of the rare Japanese commanders whom history credits with seeing the strategic profits of empathy and restraint. After the surrender of Singapore, he had negotiated with prisoners of war and raised the first brigade of the INA. Now, instead of having Shishak shot, Fujiwara asked if the boy would run messages for him.
Like a tiny, speedy figure of the Indian nation, Shishak worked for both sides of the war. The forests he grew up in were shredded and incinerated in the fighting but, through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy, Shishak remembers only a time of pure glory. When the armies ultimately rolled away, leaving him to a life as a provincial schoolteacher, Shishak did not surrender his memories. Instead, he made remembrance his true vocation: he became an unknown, one-man custodian of the war in the Manipur hills.
In his own courtyard in Sangshak village, he has seen to the construction of two memorials: one to British and Indian dead, funded by British regiments, and another to the Japanese. His wood-plank house has become a museum of wartime scraps and fragments. And though nobody knows who he is in Ukhrul, let alone in Delhi, he’s spent his life sporadically in touch with British and Japanese officers who have returned to Sangshak since the war ended.
In 1972, the newspapers reported that Gen Fujiwara himself was visiting Imphal. Shishak rushed to the capital and petitioned to meet him but, of course, he was flicked away by state officials. Shishak would not give up. Having gathered that Fujiwara would travel to Kohima next, he caught a bus and got there ahead of the general. At the war cemetery he waited, and when finally the general entered, he greeted him; do you remember me, the Naga runner you made your friend?
“It has been too many years,” Fujiwara replied. “I don’t know if you are who you say you are. But – if you can recall my final words to you, then I will know.”
Shishak did not miss a beat. “You told me, ‘You are young. Continue with your studies now. Sayonara.’”
Hearing those words, Fujiwara wept.
Shishak’s trusteeship of war memory produces other sentiments besides tears. Here, in his museum, is a photograph of himself, middle-aged now, with a Captain Cowell and a Major Harrisman, singing “You Are My Sunshine”, the song they’d taught him at the camp. Here is a folder of paperwork pertaining to the Indo-Japanese Friendship Association, of which he is chairman and possibly sole member. Here are gasmasks and helmets salvaged from the forest, and grainy photos printed at an Ukhrul cyber café. Taken together, they are as true a gallery of the forgotten war as could be: built by a forgotten man who spent his life in a forgotten place, and who, at that point so remote from all memory, remained everybody’s friend.
By the time we left him, the hills had swallowed the sun, and Freddy was fretting about army checkpoints. We torqued along roads curving into the night, to Jessami and from there, like the Japanese 31st Division, west to Kohima. I had followed the war-front, a route like a great old nerve of pain and heroism, set deep in the heavy hills but leaping back to life at a touch. And in Kohima, as in Imphal, the first sight recommended to visitors was the cemetery.
Moving again between the rows, I read the headstone of every fallen farrier and fusilier. I felt a pang for the solitary East African, a black man buried amid brown men who fought yellow men at the orders of white men. Yet in truth I’d begun to feel worn out and estranged. It was my last day of travel, and there had been no sign of Bobby since the first, at his grave. Now I approached the end of the last row, where an embossed iron sign stood behind a fringe of creepers. I parted them to read it.
Erected by their comrades of 161st Indian Infantry Brigade Group in proud and undying memory of the officers and men of the following units of the 5th Indian Division who fell in the defence and relief of Kohima March to June 1944
Inscribed at the bottom:
2nd Indian Field Company KGVOS and M
Bobby had been at the siege of Kohima, just before he died. The fact of his death was all I had known, and then the place of his burial. Before I left Kohima, I learnt of his finest hour.
The second world war in India’s northeast is twice forgotten: as a time that fell between the spans of separate eras, and as a place that falls past the reach of empires. To be damned as collaborators or else as mutineers, to be everybody’s friend and nobody’s – that dilemma has been shared, murmured through the earth by the last soldiers of the Raj, who lie buried there, to the people who live there today. Now, as the gunpoint lifts away from Manipur and Nagaland, we may begin to receive that vast memory they have held in trust. It is carved on the hillsides, and hangs above doorways. In a courtyard outside Ukhrul, a man pulls his floppy hat down against the setting sun, and remembers Bobby and his brothers in arms.
Raghu Karnad, 29, is a journalist based in Delhi and Bangalore. He has worked as a reporter on the Indian magazines Outlook and Tehelka and is a former editor of Time Out Delhi.