Tell Her Everything
The father and son were already strapped, anaesthetised, all ready. They wore white robes that stretched to their feet. They could have been two men waiting for their favourite hairdresser or masseuse. I tried to imagine the words they might have exchanged in the morning. Who gave whom support? Who was the stronger of the two? What words did they say to the family before leaving? Did they have breakfast before setting off? What did the son say to his mother? What did the father say to his wife? And what did the mother say to the son? Did anyone grieve, chant a dirge?
Quite suddenly, I thought of Abbu, who’d started taking driving lessons back home in Saharanpur. I shrugged him off and started for the duo. Bright light lit up every little corner and crevice in the hall, as if it were one of those day-and-night cricket matches that had started lately. It was too bright. I’d have to change the lights near my patients, I decided. The staff here still hadn’t understood we needed beams, not floodlights. It had already been a few months since the arrangement was formalised. Fools. And for god’s sake, why was it freezing? In all fairness, not too many locals were obsessed with ice-cold air-conditioning; it was often the overseas staff who, probably scared by visions of being baked into a chapatti, turned the knobs to max whenever they got a chance. I’d become much better at handling the chill after I discovered how cosy I felt in my light leather jacket.
Didn’t someone say the mind is its own place, it can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven, or something like that? I remember trying hard but I just couldn’t keep my father from my mind. He had this uncanny ability to get into my head at the strangest of times. Thank god, he hadn’t become a speaking ghost. Ammi hadn’t been too happy with his decision to learn to drive. “Son, even with the driver, he insists on crawling. It takes us more than an hour to get vegetables from Khanna Market next door. If he starts driving, I’ll have to put a gas stove in the car itself,” she’d said to me. Luckily, things hadn’t yet come to a head; many months into his lessons at Sharma’s Excellent Driving Institute, Abbu was still struggling with the ABC of it.
Anyhow, I gave up trying to expel him, and walked on. The Great Judge and a few other officials sat on curved sofas by the wall. Two large men stood on either side of the man who wanted to be known as a great jurist of his time. This was not the first time I’d be watched while supervising the performance, but it was the first time I had a VIP in the audience. There was a tea set on the table by the sofa. It was the colour of silver, or made of silver. I know that sounds like a cliché, but trust me, Sara, it’s true. I saw it. And I wanted a cuppa too, but didn’t ask. The judge’s robe had wide gold-and-black piping on the margins. He wore a sleek dark headdress, and his beard glimmered in the white light. I thought he exuded authority and grace. An elegant rosary was wrapped around his wrist, I saw it. Near the papers sat a PDA. I’d just seen these on cable TV, for god’s sake, and he or one of his assistants already had one.
I set to work after tuning down the lights, switching off anything that shone directly into my eyes. At first, however, I was once again stalled by indecision, as the assistants waited for my directions: do we go for the father or the son first? Maybe I was more anxious than usual because of the judge and the others. I have to say the Director never worried me. He was never intrusive and rarely talked during the procedures, if at all. After all, I was doing his work. He would just watch. Later, he didn’t even come to many of the ops. And I must say, Sara, I’d be a bit disappointed. He was always nice to me, right until the end.
Anyhow, I decided to work on the father first, just in case there was a miraculous, last-minute change of heart in the judge. Or a phone call from a higher authority. Like in films. But you see, my dear, films are films and real life is real life. So, I went into auto-mode and had the Great Judge’s orders executed. Or the orders of the hospital director who was also the town’s ruler.
I had no choice, Sara, which is the simple and absolute truth. It was my job. Maybe because it was the first procedure in front of the watchful eyes of an important man, or perhaps because Abbu kept knocking inside my head and I really wanted him to back off, I asked one of the paras to pick up the excised things and briefly display them for the judge and the director. I don’t know why I did that. I still don’t. I have scratched my head, my memory, my heart, for years and I still don’t. In all probability, I never will.
I do, however, clearly remember that I felt cold immediately afterwards. I’d probably broken into a sweat, or the chill of the ACs had seeped through my clothes. I saw my knuckles had turned white. I didn’t speak to anyone.
If I’d told Sara all this when she was younger, she might not have taken it well. Asked questions I’d have no answers to. Now, it’s a different matter altogether. We are both adults.
Excerpted from Tell Her Everything, Mirza Waheed, Context.
India, Empire and First World War Culture
Jogen Sen’s glasses, Mall Singh’s voice, Kishan Devi’s letter and Mir Mast’s diary are not just fresh and tantalising sources but open up new ways of “reading” – and writing – life, and particularly colonial lives, in times of war. At an immediate level, they confront us with the role of the sensuous, the material and the contingent: they force us to weave together a narrative of fugitive fragments, the flotsam, jetsam and lagan of life wrecked by war; they point to the importance of relicts as zones of contact between warm life and historical violence.
They not only congeal time but also conceal processes of care: the fragility of the glasses, the wavering of the voice, the childish scrawl across the page, the crinkliness of the postcard are in many ways the hand-prints of war in the act of writing its own violent life – its peculiar mode of communication – as it impacts human lives and reduces them to piecemeal narratives; they are the archives of touch and intimacy.
Moreoever, at a historical level, they acquire an altogether new importance as source-material the moment we step outside the Western world. If there has been a powerful material turn within cultural studies in recent years, some of its greatest yields have been in the field of colonial history; increasing use is made of ephemera, from calendar art to songs, in South Asian history, while Africanists have emphasised the importance of oral archives.
These materials present us with what the anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards has called “raw histories”. In a context where most of the colonial soldiers were non-literate and did not leave behind the abundance of diaries, journals, poems or memoirs that build up European war memory, it is necessary, I argue, to go beyond the solely textual to these other kinds of evidence – material, visual, oral – and establish a dialogue between them.
Each has its ineluctable form to which we must attend; moreover, one fragment may change its meaning when considered alongside another. It is their cumulative power as well as their poignancy and serendipitous survival that help us recreate the texture of the past.
India, Empire, and First World Culture: Writing, Images, and Songs examines the experiences of people from undivided India (comprising present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar (formerly Burma)) – both soldiers and civilians, men and women, sepoys, labourers, lascars, orderlies, doctors, politicians and intellectuals – in the First World War and the way such experiences were represented in a variety of forms: testimonial, political, visual, aural and literary.
Excerpted from India, Empire, and First World Culture: Writing, Images, and Songs, Santanu Das, Cambridge University Press.