Review by Manjula Lal, free-lance journalist and author of In search of Ram Rajya: A Journey through UP politics; That’s News to Me: A presswallah’s journey and other books
This book reminds us of what India was as a nation and asks where the country is going. It recreates with loving detail the lives of girls only half a century back, their struggle just to be allowed to go to school and college, only to be pushed into marriage before their dreams and aspirations crystallized. When such a girl gets married to an Air Force officer who goes missing in the 1971 war, the cocoon in which she was raised is shown to be a hollow shell, for the big bad world out there is much more uncaring and callous than she knew. If an officer becomes a casualty of war, it seems as if only the family cares about bringing them back, and the government is apathetic. This is a compelling story of human resilience in the face of extreme deprivation, reminding us in this day of connectivity and relative prosperity how phenomenal are the gains of civilization, and how little armed forces personnel (and their families) get in return for the hardship and peril they face. It shows us how impenetrable the border between two countries can be, despite shared language and racial characteristics. It surprises us with a solution based on subterfuge which is far removed from the heroism expected of soldiers, and reminds us that all’s fair in love and war – another good reason to regard war as abhorrent. It urges us to love our families and treat women with respect and care, for they are the repository of our culture. And of course, it is about love that transcends all boundaries and warms the cockles of our hearts.
A must-read, and a must-keep for future generations.
When a soldier goes Missing in Action, only families seem to care. A fiction based on this searing fact
This work of fiction is based on facts – in fact, it was inspired by the author’s meetings with families of defence personnel who went missing in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. It was propelled by her anguish she felt on learning that neither of the neighbouring countries’ governments paid much heed to the pleas of the families that their beloved sons were languishing in Pakistan jails.
The protagonist is one such wife, who lives like a widow yet believes that her husband, a pilot with the Indian Air Force, will come home one day. Anita’s childhood is recreated with loving detail, giving today’s reader a glimpse of what life was like in the old days. As in:
Minister Indira Gandhi had announced that every village would have at least one television set so all villagers could get together and watch in a community hall. The villagers had asked the pradhan (headman) to send an application to the state government. But since Shikha’s family had allowed everyone who wanted to watch the Sunday movie, no one really cared much. Shikha’s father Babu Ram would take out the television on the verandah of the house and open the main door. People would bring their own mats to sit on, while children would just sit on the bare ground. There would be pindrop silence in the village when the film was on. Only the occasional moo of a hungry cow or the bark of stray dogs could be heard till 10 pm when the film ended.
It would also amaze the present generation how hard girls had to fight to go to college, especially in rural Punjab. The spectre of marriage hung over every girl’s head right from her teenage years, as if their lives would only start once they were hitched to a man, which seems ironical when they became widowed at an early age, either due to disease or war. Young girls would barely know what the real world outside their homes was like before being plunged headlong into events beyond their control. It happens, in this book, with three girls who are the best of friends but whose inchoate dreams are shattered as they sink into lives of quiet despair and emotional deprivation.
The book tries not to demonise Pakistan in the usual cliched way that an enemy country is usually described. There is a couple on the other side who helps Anita’s daughter in her quest (see extract). However, the descriptions of life in Pakistan are close to the bone, especially in the way a woman wandering around alone is treated. The inevitable happens, but it happens in a place where human rights are supposed to be protected, not violated.
However, the real aim of the author is to hit out at the indifferent attitude of the politicians and military bureaucracy. There is a lecherous army officer who is not squeamish about propositioning a pregnant woman. There is an association of ex-servicemen formed to trace 54 missing defence personnel of the Bangladesh war. But it does seem that there is an astonishing gap in understanding between the armed forces and people in general. The former are prepared to sacrifice even their lives to defend the borders but society does not spare even a thought for the families of those who go Missing in Action. If the book bridges this gap, it would be a worthwhile reward for such a heartfelt enterprise.
1971: A War Story
by Dr Neelam Batra-Verma
A pilot goes missing somewhere over enemy territory during the 1971 war. For survival, he joins a band of nomads who steal for a living. Back in India, his wife waits endlessly for his return, firm in her belief that he is only Missing in Action. As the pilot makes vain attempts to cross the border multiple times for 28 years, his daughter, whose very existence he is unaware of, resolves to bring him home. Who will finally seize the initiative and cross the border to attempt a daring rescue? Full of surprising twists and turns, this is a story of love and hate, of the human cost of war and the apathy of governments about the lives of armed forces personnel and the lives hanging in limbo when a loved one goes missing.