Josna Rege

160. Dogfight

In 1960s, Childhood, India, Stories on September 28, 2012 at 11:33 am

dogfight (Illustrator: Sam Weber)

I was eleven when India and Pakistan fought their second war over Kashmir, the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, which lasted for five weeks and took thousands of lives before the UN mandated a ceasefire. My mother had also been eleven when the Second World War broke out; its duration of more than five years interrupted her education and brought her childhood to an abrupt end. Like many other children, she was wrenched from her family in a mass evacuation from London and billeted with a succession of foster families. Even after she returned, the bombs pounded away at the city night after night and she remembers going to the air-raid shelters and direct hits that killed friends and neighbors. By contrast, war was like a game to me, something that brought excitement to our quiet lives on the IIT campus in Kharagpur and created a feeling of community while it lasted. I remember the sense of self-importance drummed up at the meetings of women and children as we learned how to tape up and black out the windows and to perform simple first aid. Suddenly everyone was civic-minded. Married women were even donating their gold jewelry to the war effort.

A few more memories stand out from that time. Living in West Bengal, we were not terribly far from the border with East Pakistan (later to become Bangladesh), close enough to receive Pakistani radio broadcasts as well as Indian ones. On All-India Radio, we heard again and again the slogan, “Kashmir is an integral part of India,” along with reports on the numbers of losses to both sides. Always, I noted, there were more enemy losses than Indian ones. Imagine my 11-year-old’s surprise when I heard the crackling Pakistani radio broadcast pronouncing with equal certainty that Kashmir was an integral part of Pakistan and reporting considerably more Indian losses and fewer Pakistani ones for the same time period.

There was a lone Muslim student in our class at St. Agnes’ School in Kharagpur. Poor girl, surrounded by whispers that her father was a spy for Pakistan. It never occurred to me to support her or to protect her from those rumors. We kept going to school for the duration of the war, but one day at tiffin-time we witnessed something so surreal that I still find it hard to believe that it actually happened: a dogfight between IAF and PAF fighter planes just above the maidan adjoining our school playground. We stared in disbelief as one of the planes sustained a direct hit and, stricken, begin to tip and trail smoke. The next day it was confirmed that the plane—the Pakistani one, as it turned out—had crashed, killing the pilot as well. People had already stripped it bare, taking home critical parts and accessories as war trophies, and the authorities had to issue orders for them to be returned.

In the aftermath of the crash, still more rumors circulated, reaching even the ears of us children. The United States had not been particularly friendly to India since Independence, particularly during the Cold War era, because of Nehru’s socialist leanings and willingness to take aid from whichever superpower was willing to offer it, notably the Soviet Union. In the black-and-white formulations of the 1950s and 1960s where one had to be in one camp or the other, India’s very nonalignment made it suspect. The U.S. had been providing military aid to Pakistan for years, but in this war, so we had heard, it had assured India that it would prevent Pakistan from using American arms. Nevertheless, the people who swarmed over the downed PAF fighter plane reported that it was American, along with everything in it, even down to the pilot’s gloves.

I was not old enough to understand much that was going on, but that air battle, fought right over our school playground as if it were a spectacle designed for our entertainment, helped to confirm my view that war is a bloody dogfight. Each side insists that its cause is just and honorable but in the end, the only ones who profit are the arms suppliers.

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  1. That must have been some tense time for adults in your family! It was interesting to see that in all the childhood impressions you stored about the Indo-Pak war, the fact that you never took the side of the Muslim girl in your class stood out for you. It’s always the case, isn’t it? History is always colored by personal viewpoint.

    It reminds me of something I read in a book about writing: Don’t write about the death of any dog. While that definitely has an impact on the reader, it won’t have the same effect as when you write about the death of *your* dog.

    • Thank you for both these thoughts, Hema. I’m sure the adults in the family experienced that war very differently. It never occurred to me until I was writing this story that I had not thought twice about the feelings of my Muslim classmate. Children can be so heartless and self-centered (much like adults in that respect, I suppose). On the other hand, I have often thought about the fact that both the Indian and Pakistani radio stations proclaimed that Kashmir was “an integral part” of their respective countries, and that experience almost certainly helped to shape my adult views on nationalism.

      And yes, about writing: I sometimes wonder whether these pieces are too personal; but then, with comments such as yours, I realize that it is precisely because I draw on personal experience that readers identify with them–and in turn, relate them to their own.

  2. As usual, Jojo, you hit the nail on the head! War is the worst on the innocent who ‘get in the way”

    • Too true, Marianne. Ostensibly wars are fought in the name of “the people,” and yet the ones who make the decision to go to war are hardly ever the ones whose lives are put on the line. And I read in A Short History of Bombing (a fascinating book) that in modern times wars have increasingly targeted civilians rather than combatants.

  3. This reminds me of the movie “Hope & Glory,” about London during the war. All I remember about it is that, at least in the beginning, it was all a great lark for the little boys. Also makes me think of that Italian movie, whose name I forget, about a father and son in a concentration camp, where the father pretends the whole thing is a lot of fun so that the little boy never understands what’s going on. It was a really popular movie, starred a comedian (Roberto Begnini??). Got great reviews, but I didn’t like it at all. Treacly and creepy, I thought.

    • I didn’t see Hope and Glory, Sarah. I remember that my mother did, and told me that she didn’t like it, I think because the sheltered little boy’s experience was so very different from her own, particularly because of the class difference between them. (I suppose I was similarly sheltered during the Indo-Pak War of 1967.) Someone had recommended the movie to her because they thought she’d enjoy and identify with it, but instead she was annoyed. I resisted seeing Life is Beautiful for the reasons that you mention–somehow the main character put me off. Of course, everyone’s experience of war is different, and people have to do what they need to survive, or to help others survive.

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