Where I grew up, I never looked up at the sky with fear, never heard whistling bombs drop from the sky, never looked into the eyes of a bomber pilot, never squinted my eyes at the lens of a drone through which a studio full of people could witness in real time my anxious hands wave and cautious feet run. The front of my house stood strong and unlittered by blasted rubble and bullet holes didn’t pockmark its smooth, spotless walls. The pipes at the back burbled at all times allowing water to flow in at my will. War, as I would later realize, takes away that will.
My peaceful youth never saw war and yet it wanted to go to war. The pull of war’s glories and thrust of heroic mythology were irresistible. The absence of the sounds and scenes of war reduced the brutality of the battles I witnessed in my imagination. I was yet to discover war cinema. My imagination too had its limitations. How could my innocent mind imagine a bullet enter the flesh creating a hole and rip the flesh burning the innards and exit the flesh, leaving a dead, burning hole?
Growing up, I always heard cool, calm voices around me unlike a child in a war zone which mostly remembers frantic shouts and nightmarish screams. I can still smell the talcum powder on my mother’s neck but a child of war, even when seated on ice near the Arctic Circle, smells blood and dust.
Sometimes, I wonder if Homer would have written the Iliad if he weren’t blind. I wonder if his blindness was added to the myth of the great battle at Troy to tell people that only blindness or death can free you from remembering the horrific scenes of a war. Mahabharata, the epic whose battles still rage in my mind, speaks of Dhritarashtra’s blindness and Sanjaya’s reportage of the battles being fought at Kurukshetra. Who can witness carnage and write an epic glorifying that carnage? Perhaps, it feels inhuman to glorify a war, and this difficulty to praise one’s own heroism characterises novels and poetry that spilled out of the pens of soldiers who wrote while resting their guns in the trenches and bunkers of the Great Wars. Perhaps, if soldiers wrote epics, such epics would be shorn of all the glamour that gives shine to ancient heroic tales.
To dismiss and to push stories away from religion and ideology creates a hollowness that is hard to fill. I grew up in a Brahmin family and the narratives of order and morality shaped my rights and wrongs even long after I could think on my own. Heroes fought for morals I was expected to uphold. Heroes fought evils I was expected to banish from my thoughts and being.
My parents, despite being my storytellers, couldn’t understand why wearing a uniform and dying a glorious death should ever matter to anybody. What began as a childhood fantasy became everyday reality when I entered high school. I took greater care to resemble my imagined, future self. I would polish my shoes to a remarkable shine and get my hair cut short to look like a cadet. My mother was proud because I would never dog-ear my books. I put my chin up when I walked and I kept my back straight when I sat.
When I read about young men joining the ISIS, I could easily recognise the words that gurgled in their ear before they picked up stolen arms for the Holy cause. It was equally easy to recognise the voices of young men who refused to leave and stood up with borrowed weapons to defend their home.
All these stories of broken children and disillusioned young men seem distant to me. The kind of war I wanted to fight was different. I wanted to wear uniforms and stand next to big bombardment guns and feel the earth shake with each firing. I wanted to climb up Tiger Hill in Kargil like young army captains who died as martyrs and returned home draped in the tricolour.
For a long time, it was hard for me to understand militants. I was afraid to ask if the same stories drove young men in different directions. Definition of fighting a war differs from the beginning of a young man’s journey as a soldier and the ending he wishes to reach – the promised martyr’s heaven or a peaceful home. A dead soldier can’t be questioned. And every soldier’s post-war home echoes with the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun for as long as the fingers that pressed the trigger twitch with gruesome memories.
No matter what inflamed these young men to grip a gun and fire it, a bullet once fired and used to kill another, always returns to haunt.