by J. Rohr
People clamoring with joy, though blood fueled this freedom. I hear the guns between their applause. The happiest shouts stir echoes of agony. Tormented by the promise of complete fulfillment, I drift through this happiness with a thorn in my eye—the stabbing past.
I’ve waited decades for time to dull the memories. It only seems to’ve sharpened them, finding new ways to snag and tear. With the celebration at hand, it’s all razor wire these days. Watching my granddaughter running with her friends—so happy—she inadvertently takes me back.
We ran out of the jungle, bursting out into the open, no cover in sight. My lungs burned, but I ignored the ache. Bullets have a way of making such things trivial. We headed straight for the skimmers by the riverbank. Ranveer shouted something. I couldn’t hear him over the roar of Japanese machineguns. I looked over. He exploded into a spray of red mist, torn into pieces by fifty caliber guns.
The sight froze Virat.
“Keep running!” I shouted.
I don’t know if he heard me. Whirring filled the air. A grenade thudded into the mud near Virat’s feet. I looked away. I heard the explosion. I didn’t need to see to know what happened.
Again, came that terrible whir—the sound of airborne infantry. Strapped into shoulder mounted propellers, they leapt over the trees, a quick strike force peppering us with lethal hail. I jumped onto a skimmer trying not to think about them.
Punching the starter button, I gritted my teeth, “Come on, come on.”
The engine struggled to turn over. I swore, pressed the started and held it as if that’d make the machine work. It refused.
Shahid jumped on a nearby skimmer. His started on the first try. He called to me.
“Dhruv, get on!”
I hesitated. Skimmers aren’t designed for more than one rider. A propeller engine with a seat, they’re meant for suicidal speed. I started to get off.
A shower of bullets ripped into Shahid. They plinked into the metal skimmer then ignited the fuel tank. The explosion knocked me off my ride.
Ears ringing, I looked around. The whole world seemed to be blood and fire. I felt something warm running down my face. Touching a cheek, my palm came away covered in crimson. I didn’t know if it belonged to me, or Shahid.
The ground shook. Mud quivered like trembling gelatin. It wouldn’t be long before an advancing Japanese mekanikaru division arrived. Bipedal walking artillery meant to hammer us out of existence. We didn’t have the firepower to hold this position, yet our orders told us to while the British retreated.
Several skimmers launched, zipping down the Irrawaddy River. Not enough for the whole platoon—every man for himself. Two of my compatriots fought over one until a grenade blew them apart.
I got back on mine and prayed, saying the first thing that came to mind.
“Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya.”
This time the engine coughed to life. It growled, and I cranked the throttle. The skimmer took off. It felt like it might rip my hands off, leaving me behind as it launched forward going zero to seventy in a matter of seconds.
I heard someone shouting — “Wait!” — and I drowned out the cry by revving the engine.
The other skimmers stayed low, zipping across the surface of the river. I pulled up, preferring to go high. The gambit paid off as the first line of mekanikaru emerged. Trampling trees, they immediately spit shells at my fleeing comrades.
Several blew to bits before the rest managed to climb out of range. I circled, giving them a chance to catch up. Then we headed for the rendezvous point. I didn’t look down, and I certainly didn’t look back.
“Your orders were to hold that ground,” said Lt. General Felix Osborne.
He shook his head like a disappointed parent.
“Those orders were suicide, sir,” I said.
“Are you talking back?” Felix addressed Major Dolby sitting nearby. “Is he talking back?”
“I believe he is,” Dolby replied. Puffing on a pipe he added, “He isn’t wrong, though, if you’ll pardon me saying so, sir.”
“Theirs not to make reply, hm?” Felix frowned. “Not to reason why but do and die.”
“‘Not though the soldier knew someone had blundered.’” I said, adding the bit of Tennyson’s poem the Lt. General left out.
Dolby stifled a laugh. Felix frowned then shook his head.
“Someone did blunder,” he said. “What’s your name lad?”
“Dhruv,” I replied. “Corporal Dhruv Vishvamitra.”
Felix pointed to a seat. I took it. He leaned back in his chair. His sunburnt face suggested a recent arrival, someone still adapting to India. Yet, his eyes told of a steely determination not to be trifled with.
“This whole bloody business is wearing me thin Corporal,” he sighed. “I fought in the first world war, when everything was steam driven, and I thought we learned our lesson.” He shivered, shaking off some haunting memory, “I don’t like the orders I have to give, but I don’t give them lightly. Every second the Japanese are delayed gives us a chance to regroup, strike back hard.”
I understood, though it never seemed to be British soldiers holding the line. I wondered why they expected the Indian troops to happily die for them. Yet, although it felt strange fighting for the British, the Japanese didn’t appear to be the lesser of two evils. Anyone could tell India would only be trading one occupying force for another. When I heard rumors about atrocities the Japanese committed against the Arakanese and Rohingya, I didn’t know if they were true, but the possibility made me hesitant to find out.
My grandfather might say, “Dhruv, better to avoid a snake thinking it’s poisonous than let it bite and die knowing.”
So, I joined the Assam Rifles. In India’s oldest paramilitary force, I at least felt like I fought for my people. That naïve notion, along with several others, soon died. After all, here I sat in a British officer’s tent, having to pretend we fought for the same things.
“If we were better equipped, we could’ve fought back,” I said.
“But everything that could go went with the retreat,” Dolby said.
“We wouldn’t’ve needed much, sir,” I said.
Felix cocked an eyebrow, “Go on.”
I laid it out for him. Standard infantry weapons, rifles and such, didn’t do much against mekanikaru; however, it depended where one shot. Rifle fire to the legs of bipedal artillery can damage the hydraulics making it immobile. The cannon still fires, but the artillery unit is stuck in place.
The more I went on the more I realized I had been fighting this war too long. What I knew didn’t come from hypothetical ruminations inspired by design schematics. I saw the machines at their best and worst; walked through muck made of mud and ground up people; smelt the stink of burnt skin and diesel fumes. I knew the crunch of a soldier stomped on by a walker, and how looking away to avoid the sight of the bloody smear, I saw the joint assembly, and realized a rocket there would blow off the whole mechanical limb.
“All the armor is designed for a frontal assault,” I said, leaving out certain gory details. “Infantry is on the ground to prevent anyone coming in from behind.”
“Tactically,” Dolby chimed in. “It sounds like a war elephant.”
I nodded, “And if you know the elephant is coming, you wait for it to walk by.”
“Then strike from behind,” Felix smiled. “I think I know just what to do with you Corporal. Though, in a way, I may still be punishing you.”
The rain arrived sooner than expected. It fell in thick sheets. Slowly feeling more amphibious, we waited amidst the brush. A column of Type 4 Chi-Nu Spiders marched along the road, hurrying before the monsoon made the way impassible. The steady downpour softened the dirt road. Already their metal legs stomped deeper and deeper with each step. Engines strained to pull free from the sucking mud.
As the line came to a bend, coiling uphill, I signaled. Akshay set off the charges. The hillside erupted, and the whole road collapsed into a thick mudslide. The walking tanks tumbled downhill. Some panicked, firing off lines of machinegun fire. They shot holes in the sky. Most of the accompanying foot soldiers died in the blast. Any left alive, the mudslide finished off one way or another. All the while, we waited in patient silence.
As soon as the mudslide slowed, I gave another signal. The platoon advanced. We emerged from the brush. We waited beside the mess of metal and mud. Anyone who emerged from the ruined Spiders we shot. Only three came out. The rest—it didn’t matter. We’d done the job.
Watching a hand stop moving, everything below the wrist under mud, I gestured all too casually, and we slipped back into the darkness.
“How many is that?” Akshay asked as we walked through the montane forest.
“Not enough,” I replied before adding with a sigh. “Too many.”
We made our way through the tangled jungle to a deep valley. Resting on a cool ridge, rather than melting in the humid valley below, we waited for radio contact. Meanwhile, the rain never stopped.
Explosions in the distance drew our attention.
“Take a look boss?” Kayaan asked.
He jutted a thumb at a nearby tree. It seemed he wanted to climb it, take a look around with field glasses. Eying the boy, he didn’t look old enough to shave.
I shook my head, “It’s just artillery spitting at one another. One last barrage before the season ends. No one’s fighting now that the monsoon’s started.”
Kayaan looked deflated. Only three years between us, yet I felt centuries old in comparison. I envied his enthusiasm.
“Don’t worry,” I said, patting his shoulder. “There’s more to come.”
He smiled. I tried to fake a grin. If I managed, it’s only because the rain helped hide my face.
I never saw much of my country growing up. Part of me wondered if I’d ever see much of the world. In the two years since Lt. General Osborne assigned me to V-Force, I saw parts of the North-East, spent a month along the Sittang River, and now I knew what the Chin Hills in Burma looked like. That is to say, I knew what these places looked like with a soldier’s eyes.
Never mind the lush broadleaves. Trees become places to hide to evade mekanikaru divisions. Rivers aren’t sleek, cool murky flows. They’re liquid tracks to cover with slicks of flammable fluid, ignited as supply boats meander along; that airborne infantry can leap across, bank to bank, with a propeller assisted hop.
PFC Kumar used to say, “Boss, you’re missing out on what’s here.”
Then he might toss some bit of poetry, usually his own. That is, until a Japanese soldier in powered armor ripped him in half. Kayaan took his place shortly after. I doubted the boy would last very long.
The radio crackled. The operator took the orders. Once relayed to me, I led us out of the jungle. But never home.
“All these machines, yet we can’t stop the rain,” Dolby remarked with a smile. “Nature’s the one thing we can’t tame, eh?”
I nodded, while he ordered porters to place his desk in a different spot. He liked his tent arranged a certain way. I once heard him go on about something called feng shui, a practice picked up during his time in Singapore, but I didn’t pay much attention then. His cultural acquisitions, tidbits harvested throughout the British empire, meant little to me. Though I sometimes wondered what parts of India he called his own. He certainly liked the women.
“I worry about it if we ever do,” I said. “Tame nature that is.”
Dolby agreed. He went to a small table. Filling two crystal glasses from a matching decanter, he offered me a whiskey.
“I knew you weren’t a mooslim,” he remarked.
Still, my mother would not approve of me drinking. She wouldn’t approve of me killing either. Yet, being a soldier—I took a sip. It burned, conjuring thoughts of flamethrowers. One day, along the Sittang, we lost five men in the streams of marching torches. Avoiding sight of the charred corpses, I realized we needed to shoot the tanks on their backs. It could’ve been worse if I hadn’t.
“As if such things matter,” Dolby interrupted the grim recollection.
“They matter,” I said. “Maybe not the way people think but they do.”
“Well, Allah forgive us,” he clinked my glass. “Times of war and such.”
The hum of a diesel generator started, and soon a small fan began blowing. Dolby immediately stepped in front of the flowing air. Delighted by the artificial breeze, he thanked Christ.
“This heat will be the death of me.”
Recalling Maanveesh, covered in fire crawling frantically for the river, I said, “What did you call us in for?”
“Besides a little R&R?” Dolby said. “Which you’ve certainly earned.”
He consulted a folder on his desk. Tapping a page, he smiled, shaking his head as if pleasantly surprised.
“Did you know you’ve got an award waiting? A British Empire Medal.”
“Lt. General Osborne mentioned that,” I said, not including that he related it a year ago after sending my platoon behind enemy lines.
Some conjoined mission with Kachin Rangers recruited by US OSS Detachment 101. R-7 helicopters dumped us deep in Japanese territory to carry out guerilla tactics. Half of us died, but we completed the mission. The Japanese remained distracted while British forces moved to more strategic locations.
The war was supposed to end soon after. It didn’t. I had yet to see the medal.
“General Osborne, actually, now,” Dolby cocked an eyebrow, waiting for a reaction I never expressed. “In any event, after you’ve rested, you and your boys are on the move.”
“Where to now?” I downed my drink.
That made me smile. Imphal at least put me in India. I could get back to pretending I fought for my country.
My granddaughter is so innocent. Her laughter scrubs my soul, though I must confess, I keep a few stains. They inspired me once. In a way, they still do. Then to rage, now to joy. Whatever price I paid I did so she could smile. The British used to call India a jewel in their imperial crown. That gem belongs to my granddaughter now. But what I’ve done so she could own it, I’ll never share with her.
We harvested from the dead. Whatever rounds they didn’t fire we made use of. Girish catches a sniper’s bullet with his face; his rations are given to the living. Never mind about grenades, the Japanese are close enough whatever they toss we can throw right back. Except for Rakesh—blown apart arm back about to throw. His boots survived, and after removing his feet, we gave them to a private with holes in his. Bulletproof plates off heavy infantry, stripped and strapped on; we attack.
Kayaan went to the trouble of scraping off a sode-jirushi painted on a shoulder plate. He repainted it with an Aum. I thought about doing something similar, marking mine with a red trident for Shiva, but I lost sight of the point. I doubted the Japanese even knew our gods, let alone their symbols.
A jemadar claims he saw a rakshasa creeping through the killing field. He said he saw the tusked demon eating the dead. Squatted over corpses, it tore off chunks of flesh and ate. Akshay says it was just a Japanese soldier, probably starving. I don’t know which would be worse, the supernatural or this new normal.
Black columns of smoke filled the air. The sky obscured, phosphorous flares and flamethrowers lit the night. Time stretched into a decadal day. I kept thinking we’ll be here forever even if we manage to survive. There’s no future here, only the constant now filled by screams, explosions, and gunfire. Yet, I slept. At peace in the nightmare, thinking this is who I am now.
Every day someone died. They didn’t always go quietly. We heard them, sometimes for hours, calling for help. Occasionally, one of us tried to recover the fallen, and we lost both in the process. Sometimes we heard agonized cries in Japanese. Whenever I did, I tried not to listen. It made them human, and I preferred the faceless wrapped in body armor and gas masks.
Every night we needed to waste precious fuel cranking up the electric missive. Reports sent to headquarters, where officers like General Osborne considered what to do with us next. They kept promising relief is on the way. I knew not to believe it until I saw it. Yet we obeyed their orders which always arrived the same: “Hold Kohima Ridge.”
Meanwhile, the Japanese proved to be relentless, though it seemed they attacked less often with each passing day. Powered armor assaults seen less and less. The mekanikaru stopped stomping through the trenches. Clockwork diesel samurai sputtered and stalled along the shattered ridge. Some froze with swords raised; our soldiers spared by dry gas tanks. Meanwhile, the samurai’s sashimono rippled in the breeze. Battle flags that seemed to be waving, calling the Japanese to fight. Yet, none heeded the call.
“They’re low on supplies,” Akshay suggested. “The Brits must’ve cut them off.”
“While the Japanese focus on us.”
“We made it this far,” he slapped me on the back. “We can hold out.”
I wanted to ask him to what end, but I learned to keep such thoughts to myself. I didn’t want to poison the platoon. They thought of this as all worthwhile.
Perhaps that’s why, after overhearing us, Kayaan leapt up out of the trench.
“India forever!” he shouted, waving our flag.
Morale sailed high. The others cheered him on. Some joined him. I thought of Icarus, and sure enough, a spray of machine gun fire kicked Kayaan back into the trench.
Three-inch holes in the boy’s belly, I held his head in my lap and lied, “You’ll be okay.”
He gripped my hand, gargling blood as he tried to speak. Unable to say anything, I spoke for him, “India forever.”
He smiled as he died. I stroked his cheek, petting his thin beard, and something inside me stirred… she must never know.
Standing proudly on the battlefield, days since fighting stopped, General Osborne grinned.
“30?” he said. “Dhruv how in God’s name did you pull that off?”
“I can’t say,” I tell him shaking my head.
It’s not modesty. I don’t entirely recall what happened. One minute I knelt in the trench, holding Kayaan, and the next, I charged into the Japanese trench.
They didn’t react. Perhaps it seemed too strange for a solitary soldier to be attacking. Then I dove in amongst them. I exhausted what few rounds I possessed, picked up a belt fed shotgun then tore into the lot.
“I’m just lucky Akshay led the platoon after me,” I said.
“Luck?” Dolby chuckled. “It’s a goddamn miracle you made it out in one piece.”
I smashed a Japanese man to death with a helmet. He didn’t have all his teeth. I noticed as he cried out — “Iie!” — right before I crushed his skull. We took the trench, advancing the line a few dozen feet.
“Either way, good job,” Felix said.
He extended a hand. I shook it. His grip lingered as he waited for me to thank him for the compliment. I stayed silent.
“You’ll get another medal, I’m sure,” Dolby said.
I nodded, trying not to think about standing knee deep in the dead. General Osborne mentioned something about the Japanese line being broken. The British would soon be linking with Indian forces. The final push driving the Japanese out of India lay right around the corner. While he spoke, I kept wondering how that soldier lost his teeth.
The sky filled with airships. Great steel ribbed zeppelins, airplane squadrons, and a titanic air fortress, British banners streaming from the undercarriages. Diesel fumes staining the blue sky. I’ll always wonder where these were weeks ago when they could’ve really helped us. Supposedly en route. In any case, they arrived eventually, proclaiming the land reclaimed from Japan for Britain.
“I say, what’ll you do when the war’s over, eh Dhruv?” General Felix asked.
“I just want to go home.”
It sounded so simple. Yet, I knew it’d be a long road. Thankfully, fighting for England, I learned how to wage a war. Even then I began planning. The guerilla nightmare the English raised turned against them. This war; living through the hell at Imphal, it would only the beginning for me. With the Japanese gone, I could turn my attention toward the British.
“Daada!” my granddaughter calls for me.
Sighing, I put the past away. Although, it’s never entirely gone. Lost there, I can’t smile for her. Not honestly. Seeing her running over, arms wide, she only knows now.
Someday she’ll hear the stories. Not from me, but someone will tell her. However, for now, she’s too young for the burden of truth.
“How’re you my dear?” I say, scooping her up.
My back aches. A combination of British shrapnel and age. Yet, I could carry her for days.
“Look,” she says pointing down the street.
The ceremony is starting. Flags are unfurling. From every window, off every balcony, the Indian flag flowing freely. Some unroll from rooftops almost down to the street. The people cheer now the same as they did all those years ago. And holding this smiling, sweet child, I know any price was worth it. This is our home.
J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history and wandering the city at odd hours. In order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life he writes the blog www.honestyisnotcontagious.com and makes music in the band Beerfinger. He currently writes articles for Horror Obsessive and 25YL Media. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH