I have mixed feelings about director Christopher Nolan’s films – I loved Insomnia and The Dark Knight but hate his dystopian films, like Interstellar where nothing green seems fated to survive. So it was without any great expectations that I went for the night show of Dunkirk. The film had been running for a while, and when I went to the theatre the cavernous hall was nearly empty – only a handful of young people were present.
The background score was insistent and half an hour in, I felt my nerves jangling. Was it the hobnailed boots pounding on cobbled pathways, the adrenaline-pumped audible heart of the young actor beating rapidly, the staccato harshness of gunfire, the waves crashing and receding? I don’t remember being so affected by the music of any other film recently, it ratcheted up the tension to a nail-biting pitch.
Something strange was happening to me. Gripped by the stories unfolding in such grim reality, I was simultaneously free-falling back into the past, back to my childhood and summer holidays at my Didima or grandmother’s house, where time was slow like honey. It was as though every ascending note of the pounding music pushed me further back in time – a strange sense of déjà vu overtook me, as I appeared to know exactly what would befall the soldiers on the screen.
I looked around the hall surreptitiously. Most of the audience was munching calmly on their popcorn, my young son was sitting beside me, checking messages on his phone. No one had noticed that I was travelling back in time.
Summer holiday afternoons were convivially female and reserved for reading in Dida’s bedroom. We would all lie down replete and drowsy with what can best be described as a gargantuan repast of rice and fish. My mother and grandmother on the high ornate bed, and my unmarried aunt, my sister and I on cool madurs or reed mats spread on the marble floor. Since my grandmother was a published Bengali poet, most of the books in the house were in Bengali, apart from the leather-bound classics that belonged to my grandfather, who loved Forster and Chekov. For light reading there was a huge collection of Commando comics, which belonged to my mother’s younger brother.
Each volume of those comics had been purchased through the late 1960s and 1970s. My uncle had taken the trouble to bind them into sets of four. The binding in blue and white stripes, was too tight – as is often the case – and made it difficult to read the inner edge of the comic.
My uncle worked in another city, so he had no idea that every afternoon his female relatives aged nine to 33 travelled back to World War II, all thanks to his collection of comic books. The stories were already quite old, and perhaps that’s why my convent school friends, preoccupied with Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew, seemed largely unaware of them. I suppose it was also a strange past time given that there were practically no women characters in the comics, just as there were none in the film Dunkirk.
“Achtung Attack!” and “Gott in Himmel” were the first German phrases I ever learnt, as I flipped through the sepia-toned pages on those afternoons. Commando comics were small – about five by seven inches in size, had realistic black and white artwork and resembled a precursor to the graphic novels of today. The stories were told completely from the British point of view, and the characters were patriotic to the point of jingoism. I still remember my shock, when a neighbour named his little pup Jerry – the title was entirely suitable for a Dachshund, or perhaps the dog named after the cartoon mouse – but all I could imagine was the cruel and icy Nazi from the comics, snarling “Die schweinhund!” as he shot a young soldier named Tommy, (who fell to his death groaning, “AARGHH!” in a darkened font). Schweinhund, incidentally, means pig-dog in German.
During the interval of Dunkirk, I turned eagerly to my son, “Remember Commando comics? The dog-fights between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe were exactly the same!”
But of course he didn’t remember. His reading didn’t touch remotely on the Great Wars, it was dominated by wizards and mythological creatures inhabiting a fantasy world. Dunkirk made me realise that those comics were so well-researched that they ignited an interest in military history even in a pacifist like me. Patton tanks, the Battle of the Bulge, Normandy Landings, the Mole in the film, I knew them so very well. In fact, when my son murmured that he thought the Mole referred to a spy, I shook my head impatiently at him.
Unlike my son’s, my childhood heroes belonged in the real world, burdened with military gear, rifles, fatigue, hunger and extreme hardship. I wished I could give the comics to my son, but Dida’s house had long been sold. A hospital stood in place of the sprawling colonial bungalow, my uncle had passed away tragically early, and undoubtedly, his treasured comics had been sold to the kabadiwallah.
Dunkirk the film was almost over, and I recited Winston Churchill’s most stirring speech almost verbatim in that dark hall: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender!”
My voice grew louder and louder, until it rang out in the hall.
“Calm down Ma, it was 70 years ago!” admonished my embarrassed son. People were staring.
Selina Sen is the author of Zoon (Tranquebar), A Mirror Greens In Spring, and Gardening in Urban India (DK, Penguin Random House).