[Note: On the eve of World War 1, the Indian Army expanded from 155,000 men to around 1.27 million, providing 10 percent of the British Empire’s total military strength. Of these, 827,000 served as combatants and more than 74,000 lost their lives. Their contribution to decisive early battles led to the failure of Germany’s plan for a quick thrust into France, ensuring instead that the war became a long-drawn affair which the superior material resources of the Anglo-American and French powers could eventually win. These battles were mostly fought in the Ypres Salient and at Neuve Chapelle.
About 60 per cent of those recruited came from Punjab, both Muslims and Sikhs. They were paid a monthly salary of 11 rupees. Most separated their political duty to serve the Empire from their personal feelings, aware that they were treated less-than-fairly by a colonial regime that paid little attention to their religious sensitivities. What was deeply traumatic for them, however, was the surreal experience of industrial-age warfare. Their more erudite Anglophone counterparts left behind moving testimonies of the powerlessness that soldiers would experience when coming under artillery fire from an unseen enemy. For the simple jawan, recruited from hardy peasant stock in another climate, however, the combination of cultural disorientation and physical danger posed on the battlefields of Belgium and northern France must have numbed the senses. In spite of tremendous hardship, the Indian Corps won 13,000 medals for gallantry, including 12 Victoria Crosses.]
USNE KAHA THA (She had said it)
(Originally by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri. Translated from Hindi by Madhavi Mahadevan)
Residents of big cities who have been blistered from the tongue lashings and hardened by the abuses from ekka drivers should apply the balm that is the sweet speech of the bamboo- cart drivers of Amritsar – this is our appeal. Whereas an ekka driver on the city’s wide roads thrashes the horse with his whip and, with his insults, establishes his intimate knowledge of the animal’s grandmother, or, pitying the pedestrians for not having eyes in their heads, rides roughshod over their toes, all the while bemoaning his fate, the man of his fraternity in Amritsar will negotiate the narrow, convoluted alleys with endless patience. He will politely address those on foot: save yourself, khalsaji; move aside bhai ji; just hold on, lalaji; watch out, Badshah. All this in the thick of a crowd made up of white turbans, mules, ducks, hawkers, sugarcane sellers and porters. It would be a wonder if anybody had to shift an inch without being respectfully addressed as ji or sahib. If an old lady totters while crossing his path, the bamboo- cart driver will speak to her thus: You deserve to live long. You are fortunate that your children and grandchildren love you. Why do you want to die under the wheels of my cart? Let me pass!
In the midst of these bamboo- cart drivers, a boy and a girl first met at a shop in the chowk. From his long hair and her loose fitting pyjamas, it appeared that they were both Sikh. He had come to buy fresh curd for his uncle’s hair wash and she was there to purchase wadi, sundried lentil paste balls, for the kitchen. They waited while the shopkeeper wrangled with a customer who insisted on counting every piece of raw papad in the one seer he had just bought.
-Where’s your home?
-In Maghre. And yours?
-In Manjhe. Where do you live here?
-At Attar Singh’s. He’s my maternal uncle.
-I’m also staying with my maternal uncle. His house is in Guru Bazaar.
The shopkeeper then attended to these two. Collecting their purchases they set out together. After a while, the boy asked her, ‘Teri kudhmai ho gayi?’ Is your engagement ceremony over?
The girl frowned. ‘Dhatt!’ she said and ran off, leaving the boy to stare after her.
They would run into each other every second or third day at the vegetable shop or at the milkman’s. This went on for a month. On two or three occasions, the boy asked her the same question: Teri kudhmai ho gayi? And she gave the same answer. Dhatt! Then one day, he teasingly asked her again, and this time, she said, Yes, it’s over.
-Yesterday. Don’t you see this silk embroidered shawl?
The boy headed home. En route he pushed another boy into the gutter, destroyed a hawker’s day’s worth of earnings, hurled a stone at a dog, poured milk over a vegetable seller’s cauliflowers and jostled an old vaishnav woman just returning from a purifying bath – she called him blind – before he finally made it home.
‘Ram, Ram! What kind of a war is this! The bones are stiff from being cooped for days and nights in the trenches. It is ten times colder than Ludhiana, rains and snows constantly. Up to our calves in the slush. Can’t see the enemy, but every hour or so, there’s an ear drum shattering explosion, the trench shakes, the ground beneath our feet shifts. If we can manage to save ourselves from these bombs, we might even be able to fight. Had heard of the earthquakes in Nagarkot, but there are at least twenty-five such upheavals here every day. If the tip of a turban or an elbow emerges from the bunker, it is shot off. No one knows whether the blighters are – in the mud or hiding behind the grass.’
‘Lahna Singh, just three more days to go. We’ve already spent four in the trenches. When relief arrives there’s a seven-day break for you. We’ll kill a goat, eat our belly’s fill and get a sound sleep in that French lady’s garden, on the velvety green lawn. She showers us with fruit and milk; even though we say it a thousand times, she will not take money from us; tells us that we are kings who have come to save her country.’
‘For the last four days, I have not had a wink of sleep. Without exercise, a horse suffers, as does a soldier –without a fight. I wish they would tell me to fix a bayonet on my rifle and march ahead. If I don’t return without killing six or seven Germans, let me never have the good fortune of bowing my head before Darbar Sahib. These scoundrels, seeing our tanks and bayonets, beg for mercy, but after dark, they fire shells, each weighing at least thirty munn. Remember our last attack? Did not leave a single German alive within a four mile- radius. The general ordered us to return, or else…’
‘Or else you would have reached Berlin, eh?’ Subedar Hazara Singh smiled. ‘Wars are not overseen by jamadars and naiks. The senior officers have to think ahead. The front is three miles long. If we break through on one side what will happen to the rest of it?’
‘You are right, Subedar ji,’ Lahna Singh said. ‘But what does one do? This cold has entered our bones, the sun doesn’t show up and water keeps on seeping in from the sides of the bunker as if the streams of the pond in Chamba are flowing into it. One attack would warm us up.’
‘Restless fellow, get up and add some coal to the sigri. Vazira, take four men and tip the water out of the bunker with buckets. Maha Singh, it is evening now, time to change the guard at the entrance.’ After giving instructions, the subedar went on his rounds of the trench.
Vazira was the comedian of the unit. Pouring out the muddy water, he said, ‘Look, I’ve become a padha. Here’s a libation to the dead king of Germany.’ Everyone laughed; the clouds of depression vanished.
Lahna Singh said: ‘Imagine that you are watering the melons in your fields. Nowhere in Punjab will you get water so rich in nutrients.’
‘Yes, what a great country this is. Sheer heaven. After the war, I’m going to ask the government to grant me ten gunas of land here so that I can plant an orchard.’
‘Will your wife join you, or is that white mem who gives you milk…?’
‘Shut up. The people here have no shame.’
‘Different countries have differing customs. I have never been able to make her understand that Sikhs do not smoke. She insists on offering me a cigarette. Tries to place it on my lips, when I refuse she thinks that that the king is annoyed and will not fight for her country.
‘How is Bodh Singh now?’ Vazira asked.
‘Better,’ replied Lahna.
‘As if I don’t know what’s going on! Every night, you give him your blankets and sit by the sigri. You also do his guard duty. You give him the wooden planks to sleep on, while you lie in the wet mud. Don’t you fall ill now. This isn’t cold, it’s death. And those who die of pneumonia are not given lands next to the canal by the government.’
‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll die by the channel in Bulel. My head will be on my brother Keerat Singh’s lap and the shade of the mango tree I planted will be over me.’
Vazir Singh scowled. ‘Why this talk of death and dying? Let the Germans and Turks die
… What do you say, brothers?’ He burst into song.
Who would have imagined that those upright Sikhs, bearded and married, would sing such a bawdy song? The entire
bunker resounded with their singing. The soldiers felt refreshed as if they had enjoyed four days of rest and recreation.
It is late night. Total silence. Bodh Singh is asleep on a bed made of three biscuit tins placed end- to- end. Two blankets below him and two of Lahna Singh’s blankets and an overcoat to cover him. Lahna Singh is on guard duty. His eyes shift from the opening of the bunker to Bodh Singh’s thin frame. Bodh Singh groans.
‘What is it? What do you want, Bodha?’
Lahna Singh held up the cup of water to Bodha’s mouth. ‘How are you feeling now?’ he asked.
Bodh Singh sipped a little water. ‘I’m shivering. It feels as if an electric current is running through my entire body. My teeth are rattling.’
‘Wear my jersey.’
‘What about you?’
‘I have the sigri. It’s so warm that I’m sweating.’
‘I’m not going to wear it. For the last four days, you’ve…’
‘Oh, I’ve just remembered that I have another woolen jersey. It came just today. The memsahibs are knitting pullovers in Vilayat and sending them to us. May the Guru bless them.’ Saying this, Lahna removed his great coat and started taking of his jersey.
‘Are you telling the truth?’
‘Yes, of course.’
Bodha protested, but Lahna insisted and helped him slip on the jersey. Wearing only a coarse shirt and and the overcoat he stood guard near the entrance. The story about the knitted pullover from England was just that, a story.
Half an hour later, some called from outside the bunker, ‘Subedar Hazara Singh!’
‘Who? Oh, Lieutenant sahib! Yes, sir!’ The subedar stood to attention and saluted his superior officer.
‘Look, we have to attack immediately. About a mile away in the eastern corner, there is a German bunker. No more than fifty Germans. Move under the trees. There will be two or three turnings. I have placed fifteen soldiers at one of them. Leave ten men here. Seize the trench and stay there till further orders. I will remain here.’
Everyone got ready in silence. Bodha threw off his blanket, but Lahna Singh stopped him. However, when he stepped forward, the subedar, Bodh Singh’s father, pointed a finger towards his son. Lahna understood, he did not protest. An argument started about who would be staying back; no one wanted to. The subedar managed to persuade ten men to remain in the bunker and marched off with the rest.
The lieutenant sahib stood next to the sigri. He took out a cigarette and lit it. After ten minutes, he offered a cigarette to Lahna. ‘Go ahead, have one yourself.’
In the blinking of an eye, Lahna caught on. Keeping his face deadpan, he extended his hand. In the glow from the sigri he saw the lieutenant’s face, his hair. He was taken aback. How had the sahib’s sideburns vanished in just one day, to be replaced by a prisoner- style close-crop? Perhaps the sahib had been drunk when he got the opportunity to have a haircut. Lahna wanted to probe further. The lieutenant had been in the regiment for five years.
‘Tell me, sahib, when will we return to Hindustan?’
‘After the war is over. Why? Don’t you like this country?’
‘No, sahib. The hunting here isn’t the same as back home. Don’t you remember, after the battle exercise last year we went to Jagadhari on a shikaar?
‘Yes, I remember.’
‘The time you rode a donkey and your khansama Abdulla stayed back to offer water at a temple.’
‘Of course…The rascal!’
‘And that nilgai came out suddenly. I’d never seen a creature so big. And your bullet entered its shoulder and came out through the side. It’s a pleasure to hunt with an officer who is such a fine shot. Did the head of that nilgai come back from Shimla? You had said it would be mounted on the wall in the officers’ mess.’
‘Yes, it came back, but I had it sent to Vilayat.’
‘The antlers were huge. At least two feet?’
‘That’s right, Lahna Singh. Two feet, four inches…You haven’t smoked your cigarette?
‘I’ll just go and get a match.’
Lahna Singh entered the bunker, knocking against someone in the dark. ‘Who is it? Vazir Singh?’
‘Yes, Lahna. What’s the problem? You could have let me doze for a little longer.’
‘Wake up. Judgment Day has arrived, and it’s wearing the uniform of the lieutenant sahib.’
‘He’s either been killed or taken prisoner. That is a German wearing his uniform. The subedar did not see his face clearly. But I did, and I chatted with him, as well. Bastard speaks fluent Urdu, but it’s the bookish type. And he offered me a cigarette.’
‘We’re dead. It’s a hoax. The subedar and the other men will be wandering about in the slush, and this trench will be attacked. And there, they too will be attacked in the open. Do one thing: follow the tracks of the paltan. They wouldn’t have gone too far. Tell the subedar to return immediately. The news about the enemy bunker was false. Leave from the back. Don’t make a sound. And hurry!
‘But the order was to –
‘To hell with the order! The order is what I, Jamadar Lahna Singh, the senior most officer here, am giving you. And now I’ll sort out this lieutenant sahib.’
‘But there are only eight of you here.’
‘Not eight, ten lakh. A single Akali Sikh is equal to a lakh and a quarter men. Now go.’
Lahna Singh returned to the entrance of bunker, but stayed hidden in the shadow of the wall. He watched the lieutenant sahib. The man had taken three explosives out of his pocket, each the size of a wood apple and had pushed them into the mud wall at three different places, connecting them with a wire. At the end of the wire was a ball of thread which he placed near the sigri. Moving to the bunker’s opening, he was about to set a match to the fuse when Lahna Singh fell upon him, hitting his elbow with the butt of his rifle. The sahib dropped the matchstick. Lahna Singh hit him again, this time on the neck. Crying, ‘Ach mein gott, the officer collapsed. Lahna Singh pulled out the three bombs from the wall and flung them out of the bunker. Dragging the sahib to the sigri, he searched through his pockets, found three or four envelopes and a diary. He shoved these into his own pocket.
After a while, the sahib recovered consciousness. Lahna Singh laughed. ‘How do you feel now, lieutenant sahib? Today, I have learnt several new things. I have learnt that a Sikh smokes a cigarette, that there are nilgai in Jagadhari district that have antlers two feet four inches tall. I have also come to know that a Muslim khansama offers water at a Hindu temple and that our lieutenant sahib rides a donkey. But tell me, where did you learn to speak such good Urdu? Our lieutenant sahib cannot say five words without adding “damn.” ’
Lahna had not checked the trouser pockets of the lieutenant. Pretending that he was cold, the lieutenant pushed his hands into his pockets.
Lahna continued talking: ‘Clever though you are, Lahna of Manjha has spent several years with the lieutenant sahib. Conning him isn’t so easy. Three months ago, a Turkish maulvi came to my village. He handed out amulets and charms to the women who were desperate to have babies and medicine to the children who were unwell. He would place a cot for himself under the chaudhri’s banyan and smoke a hookah while telling us that the Germans were very knowledgeable, they had studied the Vedas and figured out how to make aircrafts. They don’t kill cows. If they were to come to Hindustan, they would stop cow slaughter. He would advise the shopkeepers to withdraw their savings from the post office; the British raj was on its way out. Even the post master, Polhuram, got frightened by the talk. I grabbed the mullah by his beard and threw him out of the village saying, Don’t you dare step in here again.’
The sahib fired the weapon from inside his pocket. The bullet struck Lahna on his thigh. Lahna fired two shots from his Henry Martini and blew the lieutenant’s head apart. Hearing the gun shots, the others came running.
Bodha shouted, ‘What is it?’
Lahna told him that a stray dog had come into the trench and he had shot at it. To the others he told the facts. They began to prepare for the attack. Lahna tore his turban in two and tied the strips on the wound. It was a flesh wound, after a while the bleeding stopped.
Seventy screaming Germans descended on the trench. The Sikhs quelled the first attack. The second, as well. But they were only eight. Climbing over their dead comrades the Germans kept on coming. Suddenly, a cry was heard: Wahe guruji da khalsa, wahe guruji di fateh. A barrage of bullets was let loose on the Germans. At the crucial moment, they found themselves caught in the middle of fire from two sides. Hazara’s Singhs jawans rained bullets from the back. In front were Lahna Singh’s men and their bayonets. Finally, they had to deal with bayonets from both sides.
A final cry went up: Here comes the army of the Akal Sikhs! Wahe guruji da khalsa, wahe guruji di fateh. Sat Sri Akal purush. And it was over. Sixty-three Germans dead or wounded. Fifteen Sikhs dead. A bullet had gone through Subedar Hazara Singh’s shoulder. One had pierced Lahna Singh’s ribcage. He filled the wound with the wet mud in the bunker and tied the remaining strip of his turban very tight just below the wound. Nobody was aware that Lahna had sustained a second, more serious, injury.
The moon rose, its glow of the kind that inspired Sanskrit poets to create the word kshayee to describe it. There was a light breeze, what the poet Banabhatt would have described as dantvinopadeshacharya. Vazira was relating how huge clumps of earth had stuck to his boots as he’d run following the subedar sahib. The subedar saw the papers that Lahna had taken off the lieutenant and praised him for his quick thinking. ‘If it hadn’t been for you, we were all dead today.’
The sounds of the fighting had reached the men in a trench three miles to the right. They had called up the base in the rear. Two doctors and two ambulances from the field hospital nearby had been dispatched. The wounded were given first aid and put in one ambulance; the other vehicle took away the dead bodies. The subedar tried to see that Lahna’s wound , too, got medical attention, but Lahna fobbed him off saying that it was minor and could wait till the morning. Bodha Singh was delirious with high fever. He was made to lie in the ambulance. The subedar was not willing to leave Lahna behind. Seeing this, Lahna said to him: ‘For Bodha’s sake and for the subedarni, I beg you, please go in the vehicle.’
‘Send another vehicle for me. Anyway, one will be coming shortly for the German dead. My condition isn’t so bad. Don’t you see that I’m on my feet? Besides, Vazira is here with me.’
‘All right, but –
‘Bodha is in the ambulance. You, too, must get in. Oh, do listen. If you write to the subedarni, please send her my regards. And when you go home, tell her that I did as she said.’
Climbing into the vehicle, the subedar held Lahna’s hand in his own. ‘What letter? We’ll go home together. You can tell it to your subedarni in your own words. What did she say?’
‘Now, do get in…Write my message to the subedarni. And when you meet her, say it to her.’
As soon as the ambulances left, Lahna lay down. ‘Vazira, give me a drink of water,’ he said. ‘And release my cummerbund. It’s completely soaked.’
A little before death arrives, the memory becomes crystal clear. Episodes from one’s life present themselves before one’s eyes, their colours sharp and bright. The mist of time vanishes.
Lahna Sigh is twelve. He is on a visit to his maternal uncle in Amritsar. At the curd seller’s, at the vegetable vendor’s, wherever he goes, he meets an eight-year-old girl. When he asks her, Is your engagement over? she replies “Dhatt” and runs away. One day, he asked her the question in the same teasing manner and she said Yes, it was over yesterday. Don’t you see this new embroidered shawl? On hearing these words Lahna had felt a sorrow, he had felt an inexpressible anger. Why had he felt that way?
‘Vazira Singh, give me a drink of water.’
Twenty-five years passed. Lahna Singh was a jamadaar in 77 Rifles. He no longer thought of the eight-year-old girl. Had he ever met her, or not? He had gone home on a week’s leave to attend a court case about a piece of land when he received a letter from the regiment, informing him that the troops were leaving for the front; he must return immediately. He also received a letter from the subedar saying that he and his son Bodha Singh were going to the front as well. While heading back to the regiment, come via our village, it said. We’ll go back together. The village was on his way and the subedar was very fond of him. He did as asked.
When it was time to leave, the subedar emerged from his house and said, ‘ Lahna, the subedarni knows you, she wants to speak to you. Go in and meet her.’ Lahna went in. The subedarni knows me? Since when? The subedar’s family had never stayed in the regimental quarters. At the threshold, he called out his greetings and heard a blessing in reply. He waited. She came to the door.
‘Do you recognize me?’
‘Teri kudhmai ho gayi? – Dhatt! – Haan, kal ho gayi. – Amritsar.’
The turmoil of conflicting emotions dragged him back to consciousness. He turned to the other side. The wound in his ribs began to bleed again.
‘Vazira, a drink of water…. Usne kaha tha.’ She had said it.
The dream goes on… The subedarni is saying, ‘I recognized you immediately. I want you to do something for me. I am so ill-fated. The government awarded him a medal for bravery and a plot of land in Lyallpur. Now the time has come to prove his loyalty. Why didn’t the government raise a paltan of women, so that I, too, could have gone with Subedarji? I have a son, and he joined the army a year ago. There were four sons born to me after him, but none survived.’ The subedarni began to weep. ‘How unlucky I am! Do you remember that day at the curd-seller’s when a tongawallah’s horse went berserk? You saved my life that day, braving the kicks of the horse, lifted me and placed me on the shop’s verandah. Look after these two the way you took care of me that day, I beg of you. I spread my aanchal before you.’
Still weeping, the subedarni went inside. Lahna’s eyes were moist as well. Wiping them, he left.
‘Vazira, water… Usne kaha tha.’
Vazira sits with Lahna’s head on his lap. When Lahna asks for water, he offers it.
Lahna was quiet for a while, nearly half an hour. Then he asked, ‘Who is it? Keerat Singh?’
Vazira understood. After a moment, he said, ‘Yes.’
‘Brother, raise my head a little. Place it on your thigh.’
Vazira did as he was told.
‘That is much better. Give me some water… This Ashadh there will be plenty of mangoes on the tree. You and your nephew must sit right here and enjoy them. Your nephew is as old as this tree. I planted it the month he was born.’
Vazir Singh’s tears flow.
A few days later, people read it in the newspapers: France and Belgium, 68th list. Died of wounds in the battlefield. 77 Sikh Rifles. Jamadar Lahna Singh.
About the author
Pandit Chandradhar Sharma Guleri ( 1883- 1922) was born on 7th July in Jaipur, into a family of scholars originally hailing from the village Guler in Kangra. His father was the royal astrologer in the court of the Maharaja of Jaipur. He graduated from Allahabad University and, for 15 years, headed the department of Sanskrit at Mayo College, Ajmer. Later he was on the faculty of the Banaras Hindu University. He was fluent in several languages: Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Hindi. Usne Kaha tha was written in 1915. In 1960 it was made into a film, produced by Bimal Roy, starring Sunil Dutt, Nanda, Durga Khote and Indrani Mukherji.