Son of a Hindi professor and an officer in the Indian Army, he has the mind of an explorer and heart of a poet. Anonymous to everyone, he is exceedingly familiar to his readers through his moving, comforting verses. One quiet afternoon, he recounts his touching story to The Tilak Chronicle. Excerpts:
You have been exposed to literature and poetry since a young age, thanks to your mother. When did you start writing on your own?
Very early in my childhood. My classmates recognised my talent and would ask me to write love letters for their girlfriends. I didn’t mind doing that for a cold drink or a bun tikki (laughs). However, most of my teachers did not encourage me; one of them didn’t think much of writing in Hindi. I can’t give up on my language, that’s what I grew up with. I read and wrote more in Hindi than in English till I joined the Army.
Who encouraged you to write?
No one. Some renowned astrologer told my mother about me, “this boy will either become a scientist or a writer”. My mother had seen the literary circles, and she discouraged me from being a writer, pushing me towards science instead. That’s because as a poet, if you are not in Bollywood, you do not get much respect. Your literary circle is literally a small circle – you might be respected there but not much beyond that.
After 12th standard, I wanted to pursue English or Hindi Honours, or at least geography or geology, but she insisted that I take up science as nobody in the family then was a science graduate. I finally pursued a B.Sc with zoology, botany and chemistry.
How did your childhood contribute to your poetry and stories?
My town had a protective but inclusive environment. People of all sorts, ranging from military generals and professors all the way to drivers and maidservants, lived together and everyone’s children played together. This taught me to understand the issues and mindsets of diverse people. The mountains and forests I spent my entire childhood exploring helped me develop curiosity.
I particularly remember our landlord who was such a superb storyteller and had such a fiery imagination that had he written down his stories, no one would have read Jim Corbett. His stories were so spellbinding that even if you had to take a leak, you would hold on as long as possible, not wanting to miss any detail. There were no video games back then and we had winter holidays for three months, so these stories created an enriching environment for my imagination.
What sustained your interest in poetry and literature?
The Army. When you go on the field as a young officer, you live with your men, and you can talk to them only about the things they can relate to. Where do you take everything else that is beyond them? Experiences such as patrolling operations, combat operations, acting in a manner you, as an individual, wouldn’t – these define you. As a soldier, you deal with loneliness, and for me, that is where poetry kicks in.
Once, we walked continuously for seven days through a thick North Eastern jungle and reached a village where we settled down for the night. It was dark when a tall, handsome guy walked into the village. We had recently learnt how to identify subtle signs of hostile individuals. He seemed to fit those, so we caught hold of him, started questioning him, and asked around the entire village if anyone knew him.
Nobody did. Moreover, he remained stubbornly mum, deflected all our questions and ran cover stories – further signs of hostility. We hit him but he did not yield; finally, next morning we left with him in our captivity. We must have walked some 10-odd kilometres when an old woman came running towards him, hugged and kissed him and thanked us profusely. He was her mentally challenged son. Feeling guilty, we admitted to her that we had beaten him up. She retorted, “sure you beat him up, but you brought him back! He is safe, not dead, and that’s what matters”. I could not discuss what I felt with my men, so I wrote a poem on this instead.
There’s a very human side to every conflict and as a youngster, it’s difficult to draw the fine line between empathy and cowardice. Most don’t get it.
Bravery is not killing your enemy; it is killing that part of yourself which knows that you are killing someone who is doing the same job as yours.
Of course, you learn as you grow and when you lead, your troops understand your mindset, but as a youngster, you have to deal with it yourself and poetry helps.
Your profession and the environment in which you trained are not always sensitive to the finer things in life. How do you balance them with your poetic self?
The training breaks you down completely – for months, you are sleeping just 2-3 hours each day and running at least 10-12 kilometres. At the same time, you are homesick, and the bonds you build around you are very volatile because the person you trust today might leave you tomorrow. It rebuilds you into something entirely different. You might become reckless or sensitive or smart or a survivalist.
For me, the physical stress wasn’t much; I was born in the mountains of Uttarakhand, walked five kilometres to school every day, and was also into mountaineering and karate. I could also handle the difficulty level of the academic part. To keep the writer alive in me, I joined a writing club. My instructor started a magazine and I used to write articles in it, not only because I loved it but also because it meant sitting in an AC room which was a big thing.
I could not write regularly back then, but it enabled me to look at the training from a poetic point of view. For instance, when we had to make some presentations, people usually narrated certain war incidences and that too in a very systematic, factual way, however, I used some creative liberty and told stories with a personal touch and insight.
A story I once told was of an old woman in my town. Her father died fighting the 1962 war, she lost her husband to the 1971 war, and her son died in the Sri Lanka operations. Coincidentally, the economy wasn’t performing well, and the Army wasn’t considered to be a lucrative career, so hardly anyone joined in, but people mocked her as ‘the cursed one’ who ‘drove’ people away from the Army. When I returned as an officer, she hailed me, smiled and said, “I am free from the curse now”. The next morning, she was found dead.
It’s a true story but put into a different narrative which is entirely from my point of view. There’s also a personal element in it – my nani (maternal grandmother) was a war widow.
How did your experiences in the Army impact your writing?
The Army made me discover emotions of people at all levels – even of the enemies – and gave me a larger perspective. I learnt, for instance, to develop trust through food.
First thing I would do wherever I went was to go to someone’s – anyone’s – place, sit in their kitchen, and eat along with them. This establishes a connection because when you eat at someone’s place, they are very defenceless about it. You can fake emotions, but you can’t fake food, so walking into someone’s home and breaking bread with them helps you understand them.
Then there is also the difference between experiences in the North East and J&K. North East has a very humane environment. The pace of operations is slow and mostly of peacekeeping. You interact with insurgent groups directly. When you aren’t fighting, you can sit down with most of the guys – NACN, PLA, KELO (not ULFA though) – talk to them, know their families and develop friendships. Here, you grow up as a mature, human officer who trusts, because the secret password of the North East is ‘trust’.
They are a different breed of people, the North Easterners. They have ethics. When our officer was ambushed by the NACN, they wrote to his wife saying that her husband fought well. They honoured one of our hawaldars because he did not let them capture the dead bodies of fellow soldiers.
We were once fighting an armed group and we went to visit the leader in the dead of the night. He wasn’t home but his wife was, and just like the Army tradition, she served us coffee. To her, it did not matter whether we were from the Indian Army or the insurgent group: she was as perfect a hostess as any soldier’s wife would be.
I once went to a phone booth to make a call; the man standing outside clicked his heels and saluted me. I asked him which unit he was from on which he said, “I am from the Naga Army, sir. I know you are the commanding officer here, and I am on leave.”
In J&K, comparatively, it is a more hostile environment. The prolonged presence of terror has made the people bitter and resentful. North Eastern people learnt to tolerate, grow together, learn, have faith, build bonds, but those in J&K cannot relate to all this.
Problems arise when officers cross over from J&K to the North East and vice versa. The one who comes from J&K is in an overly aggressive mindset, but that’s not how things work in the North East. The one who comes from the North East is operating on a different plane altogether and doesn’t have the overly aggressive mindset.
Overtime, these experiences enable you to express boldly. I have been very transparent in what I write. Someone must show the mirror to the Army and its not always a bad picture. If something’s right, it’s right, if something’s not, it’s not.
For the writer in me, it’s not about J&K or the North East. The human experiences, stories, the everyday characters, the small things which the Army does to bring a positive change in the lives of the locals (and which are not recognised) such as smiling at someone at the checkpoint or taking the locals on a yatra, these things speak to me and reflect in my writing.
In high pressure situations, poetry does not stop, it changes. Poetry is the right of a reader, so it cannot stop – even a blank piece of paper is poetry.
If you would not be in the Army, would you be a poet, or a lyricist in Bollywood?
No, I want to do some honest writing, not specifically for Bollywood. If entrusted with a project, I would definitely take it, but I would not make commercial compromises. That’s just not me.
( Follow his work here – https://bit.ly/2q1GiuA , https://bit.ly/2WrBVVv )
Gauri Noolkar-Oak is a transboundary water conflicts researcher and has studied river basins in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. She is also the Founder of Lokmaanya.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.