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How World War II gripped our family
The mementos of the much feared, loved and respected 'Desert Fox', Rommel are still prized possessions in our family. The British decorated Mama also, for this incident! Seldom does it happen that a soldier is honored by both sides of the battle lines! When Rommel died (or was forced to commit suicide), Not only the German nation, but Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister also paid him rich tribute in the British Parliament.
I was just six and the year was 1939. The place was Cawnpore, United Provinces, now known as Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Our small town family routine was placid, with its small joys and sorrows, which the entire neighbourhood shared. But the gradual rumblings of war clouds in distant Europe added a certain animation to the small talk of my elders.

Now, instead of idle curiosity about distant affairs, I could sense some foreboding in their talks. Before the family realised, the distant war had spread its long arm and gripped our family. Bade Mama was recruited as an army doctor in the Royal Armed Medical Corps, and he had to report to the Army Hospital in the cantonment.

My elders’ forebodings started materialising earlier than anyone expected. Troop trains had been announced and all newly recruited soldiers and officers were to report at the specified railway stations, to leave for the front. No one knew which war theatre they were headed for. If they were asked to board the Bombay bound train, then they would be boarding ships in Bombay heading for Aden, and then on to Libya or another African warfront. More than this nobody could guess.

The news of date of arrival of the troop train in Cawnpore spread like wildfire. For Nani it was already the end of the world. Relatives and folks from our village started arriving by train and bullock carts. They parked themselves on the road or in our courtyard. The whole place had a funereal air about it. I could not understand the mood and the nonstop crying. I was so proud that my handsome, uniformed Bade Mama was going to the front, and he would send me stamps for my album, from many exotic lands.

The time to leave for the railway station had come. The touching of feet of many elders and the village folk and hugging and crying went on and on. Finally, my uniformed Bade Mama escorted by his two uncles, started walking out, with red tilak applied by his crying mother, aunts, sisters and cousins. What a sight for this six year old!

His steel trunk and one hold-all were loaded on to the horse drawn tonga by our washerwoman’s son. A cavalcade of tongas started moving towards the station. Finally, we were there. This was the first time in this episode that I really got frightened. We were near the station now, and it appeared as if the entire country has come to bid good bye to its war-bound sons. There was no space to move forward.

I started having butterflies in my stomach. Finally, the army jawans took over and brought some semblance of order to the scene. Only Mama knew the bogie and the seat number, so he started leading the way. Everyone else followed. For a while all crying had stopped. Having located his compartment, he placed his luggage inside and came out. One by one, every one was holding his hands and mumbling something or the other. Two ladies were holding my wailing Nani.

All the platforms, in fact, the entire station was one sea of surging humanity. Every soldier had his near and dear ones and fellow villagers, all shoving to be close to him. “Ja ke khat jaroor likhna! Nahi to taar jaroor bhejana!” was the universal refrain. Just then the train conductor blew his whistle. Mama hurriedly hugged all of us, but Nani would not let him go. All soldiers had gone in.

Everyone was crying. On the contrary, I was so happy to see my Mama the way he looked. And I knew that he would send me postage stamps. Then the second whistle blew. The crowd started sending up all sorts up oohs and aahs. Some were loudly reciting Hanuman Chalisa. I knew my mother would also be chanting under her breath. With the third whistle the train started chugging out and all hell broke loose. Those on the platform would not let go of the hands of those who were departing. They started running with the train.

A sort of gloom descended on our household, particularly for my Nani. Soon letters from Mama started arriving, but the envelopes looked strange. When the first such letter came and Nani saw the strange look of the envelope, she started wailing. She thought the letter had brought tidings of her son’s death on the battle field. It was mutilated and also stamped ‘Censored’. A part of a page was scissored off. Any sentence which would give any clue to the whereabouts of Bade Mama’s division, or how the Allies were faring, were blacked out. So, only lines regarding his welfare, and his enquiries about different members of the family, were left for us to read.

The lack of real news about Bade Mama and his whereabouts was stifling everyone. Nani wanted to know how much that new magic box, the radio would cost. By now all our rooms had been wired. We had heard about this modern wonder, from which emanated voices and sounds from remote corners of the world. But none of us had seen it as yet. After many visits by my younger Mama to the market, the radio finally arrived. This Victorian piece of furniture was kept in our drawing room on an equally Victorian table. When not in use, it was covered by a tablecloth of elaborate embroidery.

Now, we could tune into All India Radio and get all the news from the different battle fronts. We could also listen to famous singers of those days, like Pankaj Mullick and K.L. Sahgal. Our neighbours would shout from their balconies, asking us to raise the volume, so that they too could hear the radio.

Much later, we would also clandestinely hear Netaji Subash Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Radio. Listening to enemy broadcasts meant instant imprisonment. Nevertheless, our elders would be charged up, when Netaji himself used to speak and urge his countrymen to take up arms against the British.

Later, through newspapers and movies, names like Tobruk, Benghazi, Tripoli, El Amein, Wavell, the Eighth Army, and the 'Desert Fox' Rommel became household words for our family. Once in the North African desert, Gen. Rommel came incognito in a white flagged vehicle to meet the wounded German prisoners of war, and my uncle took him around. He was the camp commandant.

While leaving, Rommel identified himself and said that he was happy at the way his wounded countrymen were being treated. In gratitude, he gave Mama his personal pistol and compass - absolutely essential survival tools in that hostile desert. These mementos of the much feared, loved and respected 'Desert Fox', Rommel are still prized possessions in our family.

The British decorated Mama also, for this incident! Seldom does it happen that a soldier is honored by both sides of the battle lines! When Rommel died (or was forced to commit suicide), Not only the German nation, but Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister also paid him rich tribute in the British Parliament.

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