The world & words of warriors

Feathers. Isn’t it interesting that we see them in both — arrows and pens, arguably the first two long-range weapons that extended the range of the individual who wielded them?

While it took three or more vanes or feathers to make the fletching that gave stability to the arrow, just one feather made a quill and enabled the mind to focus on thoughts enough to express them with the expectation of a degree of longevity.

For as long as there have been wars, there have been discussions/debates/disputes about them — accounts of soldiers who fought, officers who led them, the victors and the vanquished, all make for a colourful spectrum of literature that has a definite niche of its own, even as it feeds the need among a broader audience to know more about that ultimate engagement that too often results in death and destruction.

While the debate about whether war is fundamental to human nature or a product of circumstances is an old and unresolved one, however, the actions of individuals faced with life and death situations that take them far beyond what they have experienced so far can be fascinating. Polemology or the study of war is an ancient and honoured pursuit.

India has a long tradition of war literature. Parts of the Vedas, the Puranas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita and the Arthshastra refer to war, its physical and moral dimensions, and weapons.

Many folk songs feature the distress of the damsel whose husband or loved one has gone into battle. Prithviraj Raso, an epic poem written by Chand Bardai (1149 – c. 1200), is considered to be of the first works in the history of Hindi literature which has accounts of war. Ramdhari Singh Dinkar and Subhadra Kumari Chauhan have written some of the epic Veer Ras poems.

The havoc caused, especially in Punjab, by the eager Indian princes drafting able-bodied men for World War I led to empty homes and literature of longing, expressed in folk songs, poems and prose in Punjabi and Urdu.

There have been other accounts and serious studies of war in various languages, including in English, which are more widely seen, discussed and feted than those in regional languages.

Chandigarh has one of the largest concentrations of veterans in India, and it is only fitting that it has become the venue of the Military Literature Festival. Preceded by the carnival that served a broader audience, the festival has an impressive line-up of speakers and will thus become the focal point of much discussion during and after the sessions.

The disciplined and distant world of the armed forces becomes intelligible through interaction with soldier-scholars. Indeed, the felicity with which some of them wield the pen may come as a bit of a surprise for those who have not previously interacted with them.

The mass movement of soldiers to faraway lands had to impact them in various ways. The exposure showed the Indian soldier that he was not inferior to any, in fact, often he vanquished his counterparts. No doubt, they were part of the British Indian army which served the British Empire, but they had their own minds, and once they left the Indian shores, many spread out. Indeed, 90 per cent of the members of the Ghadar Party, established in 1913 to overthrow the “English Raj”, were Sikhs from Punjab — half of them Army veterans.

Indian soldiers returned from wars, including the World Wars with battle scars and bright ideas that illuminated their quest for freedom against the colonial yoke. As they served their motherland, they gained more, and thus have more to share with us and teach us.

This article by Roopinder Singh was published in a special supplement of The Tribune on December 7, 2018, to mark the Military Literature Festival in Chandigarh.

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