by Vikram Kapur
At school I felt I had certain bragging rights, thanks to my dad. Other dads were businessmen or accountants or bureaucrats or corporate executives; the kind that made their living in tedious offices pushing paper. My dad was an army officer who lived a life of adventure and heroism, grappling with the nation’s enemies in the freezing Himalayas or the burning deserts of Rajasthan. This was long before the army’s prestige had been sullied by housing scams and atrocities in Kashmir, long before it was made to look silly by an ugly public spat about an army chief’s age.
Dad had a chest loaded with medals. To my considerable chagrin, he never shared how he had earned them. I was dying for the stories - of how he captured an enemy position singlehanded, or blew up enemy tanks, or fought off a group of enemy soldiers armed to the teeth… Stuff that flowed right out of the Commando comics I devoured as a kid or Bollywood war movies celebrating Indian heroism. But Dad kept mum about his work. Instead, he’d ask me about how I was getting on at school, or take the family out for a movie, or watch cricket.
During my fifteenth year, however, I nailed him down on the subject. I had a school project to do on war, and who better to tell me about it than him? Seeing he wasn’t going to fend me off this time, he disappeared into his room and returned with a book. "Read this," he said."This will tell you all you need to know about war."
The book was Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
Some books are meant to be experienced. That is one of them. I experienced it in one sitting that afternoon. I began with a sense of expectation, even excitement. Before long, my mood changed to wide-eyed shock. Then came anger, revulsion, and finally tears, the kind that freeze in your eyes in the face of unspeakable horror. Yet I remained transfixed, unable to put the book down until the final word. By the time I was finished, I felt I had come as close to enlightenment as a book can possibly bring you.
Until that moment, my ideas of war were shaped by Bollywood war movies which romanticised it by wrapping it in ideals of glory, honour and patriotic duty. Even a film about a losing war, such as Chetan Anand’s 1964 hit Haqeeqat about the Indo-Chinese conflict of 1962, depicted the death of soldiers as noble sacrifice. The closest anything I knew came to exploring the dark side of war was Dev Anand’s 1961 film about World War II, Hum Dono, where one of the leading characters loses a leg during a firefight. Yet even there, the horror of the disability paled in the happy ending.
All Quiet on the Western Front hit me like a bucket of freezing water because Remarque pulled no punches. For an opening act, he delivered a gut-wrenching episode where the death of seventy comrades due to shelling is not seen as a tragedy. Rather, it is a “bit of luck” because the cook-sergeant, unaware of the casualties, arrives with enough bread, sausage and tobacco for a company of hundred and fifty men, in other words double rations for the eighty that survived the shelling. Not even five pages into the book and I was in a world where human life was cheaper than bread, sausage and tobacco. Over the next few pages, it became cheaper still, its value outstripped by a pair of good boots. A young soldier named Kemmerich is dying. Yet all his friend Muller can think of is how to get his hands on the fine pair of boots that Kemmerich himself took from a dead man. Later, when Muller is killed, the same boots pass on to the novel’s narrator, Paul Baumer.
I was fifteen. Baumer and his friends were just three years older than me when they were sucked into the war. One observation of Baumer’s made the hair stand on the back of my neck while knots tightened in my chest and stomach: “We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and now we had to shoot it to pieces.”
Reading that book changed the trajectory of my life. Before it, I had flirted with the idea of following my dad into the army. Any such notion now disappeared. I no longer saw war as glorious. Rather, I associated it with a state that brought out the beast in humans and wanted nothing to do with it.
After reading All Quiet on the Western Front, I never revisited the subject of war with my dad. Over the years, though, a character from the book named Kantorek became the source of a longstanding joke between us. Kantorek is the boys’ schoolmaster. Baumer and his comrades see him as a revered elder. He, in turn, plays with their naïve minds by lecturing them on patriotic duty. Even though he virtually hurls the boys into the cataclysm, he does not voluntarily enlist as a soldier himself. He is happy to watch from the sidelines and play the war’s raucous cheerleader.
As tensions with Pakistan ebbed and flowed in the nineties and the new millennium, from time to time, the TV screen would fill up with a legion of Kantoreks. He could be a dhoti-clad neta playing the patriotic card, or a Bollywood director looking to cash in by wrapping war in shades of honour and patriotic duty, or a TV anchor desperate to boost ratings through chest-thumping jingoism. Each time we encountered an incarnation, Dad and I would smile at each other and intone, “Another Kantorek.”
It was in his waning years that Dad finally opened up about his war experience. With faraway eyes, he recalled friends who had perished. As he spoke, his voice would waver and eyes glitter with tears. Towards the end, as he lay unconscious in his deathbed, a frail figure punctured by IV tubes, he relived his experience of the fighting in his delirious rambling. The time when a sniper’s bullet missed him by inches, the nightmarish existence inside a trench with shells falling all round, the desperate fear in a combat zone. That was when I learnt that All Quiet on the Western Front was not just a book for him. It was a testament to the truth he had lived. The revelation filled me with contradictory emotions. On the one hand, there was the sadness at what he went through; on the other the gratitude that I only got to experience all of it through a book.
Vikram Kapur is a writer and associate professor at Shiv Nadar University. His website is www.vikramkapur.com.
Updated Date: Jun 16, 2013 10:50 AM