The morning of December 16, 1971 in Alwar, Rajasthan was no different from any other day in our life, until the phone rang.
My mother Laxmi (25 years old at the time), my brother (seven years old) and I (almost six) were sitting in the living room with my Nana’s large common family. I am (maternal grandfather). Morning prayers had just been said.
The army’s message over the phone was devastating. My father, Major Hamir Singh, was missing. The war was over and his body had not been found. According to military standards, he was therefore classified as “Missing in Action”.
My mother collapsed and burst into tears. We couldn’t understand what was said, but seeing our mother cry, my brother and I started to cry too.
A few days later, a soldier came to the house to hand over my father’s personal belongings. The news he shared was even worse.
We had not heard from our father since December 14, 1971. His colleagues who had returned from the battle had last seen the seriously wounded major involved in a clinch with the Pakistanis. There had been no news from him for nearly a month, and most of his battalion believed he was dead, as did many of his fellow officers and men.
Although the news was terrible, the mother refused to believe that her husband was gone and she faced life stoically as was expected of a warrior’s wife.
Caring for two hyperactive children was difficult, but she was more than up to the task. Concerned about our well-being, she managed to isolate my brother and me from her inner turmoil. For us, everything seemed normal.
However, in the loneliness of the night, with her children deeply asleep, I can only imagine the demons she may have faced.
At only 25 years old, she was a young and beautiful woman with an immense joie de vivre. For this vivacious and vibrant mother of two, the prospect of spending the rest of her life without her husband would have been truly daunting.
At that time, Rajput widows led a sad and difficult life. Relegated to the dark recesses of their homes, they were seen as a bad omen. It was forbidden to disguise oneself, to wear bright and cheerful colors or ornaments of any kind. They were not expected to join in on any festivities or celebrations and have to mourn their husbands for the rest of their lives.
My mother’s parents and siblings did their best to keep her from negative thoughts. They would keep her engaged in normal activities and take her to social events. But wherever she went, she invariably became the topic of conversation. She would hear muffled comments about her misfortune. But the brave lady would never collapse in front of her children, parents or loved ones. Instead, she resigned herself to crying silently until late at night.
The uncertainty about her husband remained for almost 45 days, until the beginning of February 72, when she received the most wonderful news by a postcard from her husband. He had written from a hospital in Pakistan, where he was now a POW (PoW).
Although delighted, what worried her now was the extent of her injuries and whether he would ever be repatriated. It was a well-known fact that not all prisoners of war from previous wars had returned.
The uncertainty of these few months negatively affected my mother. She lost part of her social nature and became somewhat wary. From a jovial and gentle person, she switched to religion and to this day she spends many hours in prayer. Asthma and related conditions took their toll on a strong and healthy woman.
Barely six years old at the start of the war, I have very few memories of this difficult period. We had just returned to India after spending almost three years in Nigeria, where my father had been an instructor at the Nigerian Defense Academy. I had spoken my first words in Nigeria and since our teachers at the school were British the only language I spoke or understood was English. The first victim of our father’s absence was therefore our education.
Being a policeman Nana I am was stationed in small towns in Rajasthan like Dholpur and Jaisalmer, where education was rudimentary. From a great school introduction to a British run school in Nigeria, we were pushed into schools where we couldn’t understand a word of what the teachers were teaching. Our British accent stood out clearly among the children, making us the butt of jokes and ridicule.
My brother was almost eight at the time, and my father’s absence affected him more than I did. He missed our father and sometimes had nightmares at night to the detriment of my mother.
My paternal grandfather, Major General Kalyan Singh, who had just retired, was an equally worried father. During World War II he was captured by the Germans in North Africa while fighting Rommel’s army. After spending a lot of time in an Italian POW camp, he saw how difficult survival can be. In addition, helping his young daughter-in-law cope and raise his two young children was an immediate concern of him. A veteran who had fought in many wars, he never imagined he would have to fight another battle after his retirement.
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My father was repatriated to India on December 1, 1972. In my opinion, he is the most affected person in his experience. Usually calm, he rarely loses his cool but on the rare occasions he does, the trigger is hard to predict. On such occasions he is an entirely different person, shaking and shaking with anger.
Fortunately, such occasions are rare. We believe that in the last 50 years he has healed somewhat. Having obtained a Vir Chakra, he is now a legend within the Regiment of Grenadiers.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is rarely mentioned in India. After reading about it later in life, I now realize that my dad has been silently suffering from PTSD since December 1971.
Today my brother and I are in the service of generals, leading happy and fulfilling lives. My son is about to become the fifth generation of our family in the military. That we came out of such a terrible experience unscathed, all credit goes to our parents.
It’s been 50 years and as they say ‘all’s well that ends well!’ But we know that for our parents it is true, but only on the surface.
What our parents endured we will never forget until the day we die.
Major General Vijay Singh is the author of POW 1971: A Soldier’s Account of the Heroic Battle of Daruchhian published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2021. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.
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