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Fifty years after 1971 Indo-Pak war, a daughter remembers

🔴 Ameeta Mulla Wattal writes: Captain Mahender Nath Mulla was martyred when the INS Khukri sank

Written by Ameeta Mulla Wattal |
Updated: December 9, 2021 3:28:25 pm
The 14-day war changed the lives of millions and created a new nation. For me, 50 years have passed like the beat of a metronome, bringing back a flood of memories, which have not dimmed over time. (C R Sasikumar)

India is commemorating the 50th anniversary of its victory in the 1971 war against Pakistan. My father, Captain Mahendra Nath Mulla (MVC, IN), was martyred in the war and awarded the Mahavir Chakra posthumously.

Certain panegyrists of war believe that without a periodical bleeding, we cannot justify a nation’s strength. But war wastes a nation’s wealth, creates orphans, widows and affects generations to come. The survivors’ stories never make history. It is the grand narrative of national success and the achievements of a few that frequently submerge the narratives of small folk.

The 14-day war changed the lives of millions and created a new nation. For me, 50 years have passed like the beat of a metronome, bringing back a flood of memories, which have not dimmed over time.

My sister and I had come home from school for the winter vacation. We used to play war games with tin sailors and paper boats, which if broken could always be put together again. The anti-aircraft guns that opened up on the night of December 5 were, for us, an enchanting display of bright fireworks, which we watched with glee from the balconies of Navy Nagar in Bombay.

It was this innocence that was torn apart on the night of December 9, 1971. This real-life battle had no exits. Five decades have rolled by, and we have all been involved in the journey of growing up; our household was of women — my mother, my younger sister and I.

I remember my sister’s reaction to the news of the sinking of the INS Khukri.  She was merely a child of 11. She took the news with silent calm, her eyes not leaving my mother’s face. She would get up every day and lay out my father’s uniform and attach his medals and epaulettes with such intense care that I felt her faith alone would bring him back. She would answer every doorbell and telephone call with the firm conviction that it would be our father at the door or at the other end of the line.

Veeru (as he was affectionately called) was a man of deep faith. He accepted religion as a part of his being, but he never let it prejudice him. He believed that an understanding of different faiths was important because all of them preached the innate goodness of mankind. He believed that there was no text that could automatically sort out ethical dilemmas for us in a world where interpretations were ambiguous and awareness was incomplete.

I remember once being influenced by a religious pamphlet titled “Soldiers of God”, in which there was a line that read, “make a sacrifice and save a sinner”. I righteously went about putting this into practice. One day my father noticed me refusing something he knew I was particularly fond of, with an expression of pained tragedy. He asked me why and I replied, “Sacrificing”. He smiled and said, “Never call your best actions a sacrifice.”

He was a voracious reader, and encouraged us to read. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was the first book that I received from him at the age of eight, inscribed with the words. “To my dear daughter. To thine own self be true and the rest follows as the night the day, then thou can’t be false to any man.” Six months before his death, on my 13th birthday he wrote to me at school, “These are the formative years of your life. Your sole aim should be to imbibe knowledge, develop sensitivity, awareness and curiosity. Let your mind wander in the realm of fantasy and fancy. It will help in developing your imagination and understanding of life, love and laughter. For those who fritter away this precious time, learning is always beyond their grasp.”

In a letter that I wrote to him, I complained about the severity of life at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Simla, where I studied, I wrote that the food was not even fit for worms. He replied, “My dear worm, I am glad to learn that the food is fit for you. You should be thankful that in a country where millions of people are grappling with hunger and starvation, you still have the privilege of two meals a day.” He was also happy to be told that there were no frequent outings to the Mall and I was kept “far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”.

Most children have a lifetime with their parents, I had only 14 years.  Yet my father taught me all the games that I play, the songs that I sing and the stories that I relate to my students. Whenever I challenged him on a particular word, not only would he show it to me in a dictionary, but he would also give me its etymology.  He once explained that the reason why any progressive language was alive was because it borrowed freely from other languages without fear of losing its own identity, a principle which could be applied to life as well.

My father also had a histrionic talent. At the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, he played the role of a villain. He was so successful in his portrayal that the children in the neighbourhood used to disperse the moment they saw him coming.

He believed that we were natural actors.  From childhood, we instinctively use pretend play in order to make sense of the world.  We imitate words and actions, observe and respond to the environment, create situations and assume roles.  We interact with peers and bring our stories to life. We respond to each other’s dramas.  In other words, we arrive in the world with the basic skills of being actors, playwrights, designers, directors and even audiences.

Well read, well-travelled and well informed, my father fervently believed in the tenets of truth, duty and honour, which have largely taken a backseat. To him the greatest teachers were those who opened eyes, ears, hearts with trust and love because he felt that there was no place for exclusivism in the world.

On December 9, 1971, when his ship was struck by a torpedo and started to sink, he spared no effort in getting as many sailors and officers to the safety of the lifeboats and the sea. I suppose he saw himself as the master of a ship, nurtured by the traditions of the service that he had joined that trained him never to abandon his men.

I imagine him now striding purposefully through the vast void of space. His words reach out to me. “Let not your dreams be transformed into nightmares”.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 9, 2021 under the title ‘Remains of the war’. The writer is chairperson and executive director, education, DLF Foundation Schools and Scholarship Programmes

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