The news on the television is of the bombing in Baghdad. I came out of the bedroom this morning and saw my wife watching the news with tears in her eyes. My wife is five months pregnant and, in ways that I can only imagine, she is aware of just how much life is precious and also vulnerable. And yet, I know that she and I, sitting in a suburban house in America, are shielded from the real news of the war that is being waged in our name. There was a retired colonel of the US Marine Corps on CNN last night; he smiled, and even chuckled, as he described the bombs falling on Iraq. A brave woman called in –the show was Larry King Live — and said that she found the colonel’s behaviour obscene. We are watching the bared fangs of the killers. Not one of the reports have described what has happened so far to the innocent men and women and children who deserved neither Saddam Hussein nor George Bush.
There is much that is hidden from us, and it makes us feel isolated and helpless.
I would like to see the Iraqi women on television. We should know what a pregnant woman in Baghdad was feeling when the bombs were dropping around her. That must have been the thought, I decided for myself, that was making my wife cry. Once I started thinking of that, it occurred to me that I would like to know what the thoughts were of the wives and girlfriends of the American and British soldiers who have died.
I have no experience of war but I have met many widows. Today, as I watch the strangely disembodied spectacle of war on my screen, smoke rising in surreal shades in a landscape devoid of all human presence, I return to the memories of my meetings.
In a village called Kukurwar, about three hours’ drive from my hometown Patna, I met Munni Devi, the widow of Sepoy Hardeo Prasad who was killed in Batalik during the Kargil war. Hardeo was a soldier in the 1 Bihar Regiment and his wife showed me his large, framed picture taken when he was a part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Somalia. He was a tall, well-built man with dark skin and a light moustache, and in the photograph he wore the blue UN cap and a blue turtleneck under his camouflage jacket. Behind him was the Somalian photo studio’s painted backdrop. It showed a garden and a house with a TV aerial and, further in the distance, a row of mountain peaks on which the artist has added a layer of white snow. Next to this picture was another glass frame with a one dollar bill pasted inside it. Hardeo had brought the dollar note back with him from Somalia in 1994.
Munni and I were sitting in the small brick house that was built with the compensation money that the government had given her. The room was not very large, it had just enough space for four chairs. There was a doorway to my right and we could hear Hindi songs being played on a loudspeaker in the distance. Now and then, I could glimpse a hen walking outside with five or six tiny chicks that had been coloured a bright green by the owner.
It was a winter morning and Munni, slight and barefoot, with only a thick shawl wrapped over her sari, continued to shiver as she spoke to me. When her hand shook, I would look away, concentrating my gaze at the picture of a smiling child in the Magadh Automobile calendar hanging on the wall behind her head.
Munni was 28 years old. She had three children, two daughters and a little son who was six months old when his father died. Her education had stopped at high school. At my request, Munni began to tell me about the different places where her husband had served with the army. First it was northeast India, mostly Assam, and then Somalia, before he was sent to Kashmir from where he had returned with some saffron and dreamed of trading in it. (Hardeo had begun to say to Munni, “Money is the only VIP”. Munni looked up at me when she used the English term ‘VIP’.) Hardeo had left home for Kargil on 21 May 1999 at the conclusion of a two-month leave.
He was dead less than a month later. While he had been home, Munni said, he did not do much. She said, “He would listen to the radio”. I suddenly remembered that the 1 Bihar Regiment had been involved in the war from the start: the first army casualty on the Indian side had been Major Saravanan who had been killed on 29 May at Point 4268 — and his body was among the last to be recovered in the war when his regiment captured the hill, on the night of 6 July, where he had died months earlier. While Munni and I talked, Hardeo’s old father came and sat in the room. He did not say anything to me, and several minutes later, when I looked at him, I could not decide if his eyes were old and watery or indeed he was crying.
Munni said that they would listen to the radio all the time to get news of the war going on in Kargil, and it was through the news bulletin that they first heard of Hardeo’s death. There was some confusion, however, because the radio had mentioned the wrong village, even though it had got the name and the regiment right. Then, the sub-divisional magistrate came and gave her the news in person. Munni had been sitting outside her hut. The brick house, she reminded me, had not yet been built. The officer said, “Is this Hardeo Prasad’s house? He has been martyred”.
Munni said, “I had been unhappy for the previous day or two. I had been crying for an hour. I was not surprised when the man came. I did not move from where I had been sitting outside the house”.
At night, at two in the morning, soldiers in an army truck brought Hardeo’s body wrapped in the national flag. The body, Munni said, had turned completely black, and, as if putting a half-question to me, she said, “The enemy had used some poisonous substance, perhaps”. Munni said that the district officials had said to her that they would have to wait till Bihar’s chief minister, Rabri Devi, came to the funeral with her husband.
The dignitaries arrived by helicopter and the chief minister offered a few words of support to Munni. She also gave her a cheque. Months later, Munni said, women in the village would comment that she had got a house and a television after her husband died. This hurt her, Munni said. She would rather have her husband back.
I asked Munni if she knew how her husband was killed. He was hiding near a hill with an officer, she said. They were being shot at and he was hurt in the right arm. The officer said to him that they should get medical aid but Hardeo said that he was okay. Munni said, “After two-three hours, he began to suffer a bit”.
Four men from his regiment carried Hardeo to the place where medical aid was available. He asked for a drink of water. He told them about his family and then he said that he would not live.
When Munni had finished speaking, I stayed silent. She had kept her head bent and hardly ever looked at me when she spoke. I had noticed that the parting in her hair was bare. As is customary for a widow, there was no sindoor in the parting. When I asked her what was it that Hardeo wrote most often to her in his letters, she quietly got up and walked out of the room. When she came back, she had a few letters in her hand.
The first letter I read was actually written not by Hardeo but by Munni herself. It was in broken Hindi, and began “My dear husband …” The other two letters had been written by Hardeo and they were dated about eight-nine months before his death. They inquired about Munni’s health and then instructed her to take care of the children. Both were addressed “Dear mother of Manisha …”. Manisha was their elder daughter.
Hardeo signed his name in English with some flourish. That signature and the address were the only words he wrote in English. I reopened Munni’s letter. I was embarrassed to read it in front of her, but I went ahead anyway. I thought that her way of addressing Hardeo was much more playful. “Priya Patiji, Namaste, Namaste”. (Dear Husband, my greetings, my greetings.)
Her letter mentioned that Hardeo had been a more regular correspondent; she had simply not had the time to write to him more frequently. Manisha was staying at her maternal uncle’s house; she was attending school in Jehanabad town. Munni wanted Hardeo to come home for the chatth festival, and if he got leave, he was to inform her in advance.
Munni had also written, “What else can I write? You know what a family is like. And for a wife it is the husband who gives happiness. The wife’s happiness is not there without you. What can I do when this is written in my fate?” Then there was mention of the potatoes that had been harvested, and the rice that had been threshed. There was mention of loneliness here but also a hint about some tension in the wider family. I thought of one of Hardeo’s letter, in which he had scribbled in the postscript, “Do not fret too much and whatever people might say or do in the house, you should not utter a word in response. Okay. Ta-ta”.
Hardeo’s younger brother, Vinod, a pleasant, unemployed man, had come and sat down on the ground near me. He was holding a yellow sheet of paper in his hand. When he gave it to me, I saw that it was a rather bombastically worded tribute to Hardeo on his first death anniversary observed only a few months earlier. The tribute ended with a declaration in Hindi: “By being a soldier and by assuming command, you have taught the young men of your village that it is not only Kargil and Kashmir but also Lahore and Islamabad where the Indian tricolour will fly. For the peace of your soul, the District Development Forum takes this solemn oath”.
Tea and sweets had been brought for me on a small stainless steel tray. I said to Munni that I would quickly drink the tea and leave. She brought me an album of photographs. There were only a handful of pictures in the book. A few of them showed Hardeo in Somalia, and in one picture he was standing in front of a temple in Bhutan.
There were photographs from the funeral, including one of Hardeo’s body washed and laid out on the ground with a brown cloth wrapped around the torso. The hands of the villagers were propping up the head and shoulders for the photograph.
There was one picture of Hardeo and Munni together. It had been taken during their happier days. It said “Prabhat Studio” in the bottom corner. Munni was difficult to recognise in the photograph: she wore her hair open on the side, and her clothes were new and bright. She appeared amused as she looked at the camera. I asked Munni if I could take a picture of her. She solemnly took down the framed photograph of Hardeo in Somalia, and then posed for me with her eyes fixed on the ground between us.
I wanted to ask Munni something before I left. I asked her if she would have anything to say to a woman in Pakistan who was also a war widow like her. Munni said, “Why should I say anything to the one who took away my husband?”
“But the women, the widows, they were not fighting. They did not take away Hardeo”, I said. But Munni shook her head. She would not relent. Maybe she was right, maybe she was not.
Maybe the fault lay in my fantasies. I was dreaming of a dialogue between all those who had suffered from war’s injustice. I still hold on to that dream. I cannot help feeling that Munni was the war’s double victim. She had lost her husband, and she had lost a link to the broader world which shared her suffering.
As I look at the television screen today — from where all signs of life have been banished, as if there were no human beings in Iraq — I wonder whether a woman sitting afraid in Baghdad knows that there is another woman, in a small town in suburban America, shedding tears for her. It is not much, but it would take away, for a moment, the horrible isolation we all feel amidst this violence.