BAME Prize 2017: Words for Sounds by Arun Das

There is no word for the sound we made. Not in English, nor in Punjabi. There were at least a hundred of us, clutching onto the railings, trying not to fall into the Red Sea, emptying our stomachs of under-cooked roti.

All my life, the sea had seemed like an empty word, an echo in a conch shell. Then, a month or so ago, I had fetched upon the shores of Bombay for my first sight of a ship, my first sight of the sea and my first deployment in the British Indian army.

An Englishman had been standing on the deck, observing me. His eyes blue as the waters we sailed on. Despite the wind, his blond hair didn’t move an inch. He walked up to me and gave my shoulder a pat.

‘Don’t worry lad. These rough seas won’t last. Neither will the war,’ he said. ‘You’ll be back in your missus’ arms in a year.’

‘No missus, sahib,’ I said, trying to remember what the insignia on his uniform meant. ‘Only mother, father, brother at home, Lieutenant sahib.’

‘No girl? Promised to you and the like? Army men are in great demand in the Punjab, I hear.’

He was right. That was part of the reason Father had pushed me to join. ‘Twenty-two years and not a single marriage proposal has come for you. Go and make a man of yourself,’ he’d said. He hadn’t said anything about the generous pay, at least not until his first letter arrived, post-scripted with a demand for most of my wages.

‘No girl waiting, sahib. Maybe after the war.’ I said to the lieutenant.

‘No need to look so embarrassed, lad. I don’t have anyone waiting for me either. Maybe we’ll find ourselves someone in Africa, eh?’ He winked at me and walked away.

We had heard the buzzing of the aircraft before we saw them. I kept staring as they flew over us and only lost sight of them when someone pulled me down towards the deck. The subedar was barking out orders. Orders that made little sense. He didn’t want us to shoot. The man to my left was crying out prayers to Lord Hanuman. The one to my right was firing his gun. I lifted my own rifle up and searched the sky. I couldn’t spot them, but I tried to shoot anyway, only my rifle didn’t work. I looked around for the subedar, hoping he would tell me what to do. That was when I saw the lieutenant.

The light of the evening sun fell on his face, turning his blond hair golden. A sense of calm washed over me as I heard his voice. It was like someone had tuned the radio to the right frequency, letting his orders cut through the noise. My grip on the rifle relaxed, and I let it fall to the deck. I was about to pick it up, but the lieutenant got to it first. He inspected it before handing it back to me.

‘All you lads can learn something from this one,’ he announced as he pointed at me. ‘Kept his safety on. Knows not to waste bloody ammunition shooting at planes.’

He smiled at me and placed a hand on my shoulder, in the same way he had before. I felt my cheeks turn hot. He must have noticed, for he withdrew his hand, nodded at me and returned to his cabin.

‘These are not white men,’ I said to the subedar.

‘Doesn’t matter, does it? They are dead men,’ he said. He clamped his nose with one hand and used the other to fasten the ropes under the dead man’s shoulders. The officers said these men were Italians. To me, they looked more like our brothers from Lahore. Maybe they looked more like white men before the smoke and fire had engulfed their bodies. The subedar gave me the signal to pull. It took all the strength I had to lift the body out of the tank’s hatch. Half a day went into extricating the dead from the metal coffins. The other half went in burying them in real ones. Once the last spade of earth had been patted down, I was ordered to the lieutenant’s tent.

The lieutenant was alone, seated on a chair and smoking a cigarette. He waved me to a stool opposite.

‘You a rum man or a brandy man?’ he said.

On the parched deserts of Africa, any drink was a good drink. But I said nothing. The lieutenant produced two glasses and two bottles from the trunk next to his chair. He poured a peg from each glass and offered both of them to me. I refused.

‘Today we are just two men having a drink, lad. Two men who might not see the end of this war. Hell, we might not even see tomorrow. Humour me, lad.’ said the lieutenant.

I picked a glass and downed the liquid in one gulp. It burned down my throat like no other drink had. The second glass followed soon after. It tasted much like the first.

‘So, both then?’ said the lieutenant. His face seemed distant, like I was looking at him through the pour of heavy rain. His eyes, though, seemed bluer than before, and his smile, brighter. He told me to take as many bottles as I could carry. I thanked him for his benevolence.

‘No need for that, lad. That was courtesy of all those dead Italians.’

I could have used some of that brandy now. Or was it rum? During the battle on the hill the lieutenant had ordered me away from the fighting and put me on water duty. I must have made at least thirty runs up and down the hill, dodging mortars and machine gun fire, delivering water to dehydrated soldiers. My legs were bruised and bloody, but I was alive. Alive enough to help the men load the subedar’s body onto the funeral pyre. For a moment, as the flames licked his body, he resembled one of the men we had pulled out of the tank. Then he was just ash.

Once the funerals were done, we were awarded a trip to the house of ladies. Every man who could walk made his way there, some with arms in slings, others with bandaged foreheads. I accompanied them to the door, but refused to enter. One of the soldiers tried to physically pull me in, but tired as I was, I managed to beat him away.

I sat on the steps and unrolled a fresh batch of beedis and was about to light one when I saw the lieutenant. He was two doors down, sitting on the steps of the Englishman’s brothel, smoking a cigarette. He saw me and smiled that smile that only he could. He waved me over. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and sat next to him. He looked like he had just stepped out of the bathtub, and there wasn’t a drop of perspiration on his face. I put the unlit beedi back into the roll.

‘Not going in, eh?’ he said.

‘No sahib,’ I said. ‘What about you sahib? Found your future wife?’

He laughed. ‘No lad. There will never be one.’

I asked him if I could try an English cigarette. He offered me the one he was smoking. I took it without hesitation. As I put it to my lips, the faint aroma of the lieutenant reached my nose. I breathed it in deep, letting the smoke fill the whole of my lungs, and held it in for as long as I could.

I woke up to the sound of gun fire. The truck driver slammed hard on the brakes, almost sending me out of my seat and into the windshield. I leant outside the window to get a better look at what was going on. The convoy had come to a dead stop. Shouts and gunfire came from the front as the lieutenant’s jeep pulled up behind us. I ordered the rest of the men to get off the truck and ready their weapons. But it was too late, two whole battalions of Italian troops were upon us.

There was nowhere to hide in the desert, so I clambered onto the lieutenant’s jeep and screamed at his Batman to drive. We got about half a mile before we came across two Italian soldiers standing in the middle of the road, rifles pointed at us.

I leapt off the jeep and put myself between the vehicle and the Italians. I could hear the lieutenant ordering me to stand down, but I raised my arms in surrender and moved towards the soldiers, blocking their line of fire. They hesitated for a second, enough time for the jeep to speed away. The soldiers fired a few desperate shots at it, to little effect. Then they pointed their weapons at me.

‘Indiano?’ said one of them. I said I was.

‘Indiano, no kill,’ said the other. ‘Indiano, friend.’

The soldiers lowered their guns and soon I was a guest of Italy.

My days had been filled with labour, digging trenches and breaking stones. My body had been fuelled by real butter, juicy chicken and well-cooked roti. I don’t know what drove my hope for one more glimpse of the motherland. There wasn’t much to go back to. A prisoner of war has no wages to send home.

But when the Indian army officer came to our prison with his Japanese colleague in tow, I had found myself drawn to war again. They had promised a route back home. Not the same home, but a different one, free from the yoke of the Englishman. I had signed up on the spot.

In the unfamiliar jungles of Burma, I found myself separated from the rest of the army. My map told me I was within walking distance of the Indian border. I could have gone back, to my Japanese commanding officer and the lashes from his cane, but the call for home was stronger.

I trekked towards it, over hills and through rivers, until I came upon a small fire. A lone figure was crouched next to it, casting a thin shadow. I approached the man from behind, gun drawn, and was within bayoneting distance when he turned around.

For a moment I thought he was a countryman, his skin being the same colour as mine. Then I noticed the blue eyes and the smile on his face. There was only one man I knew with a smile like that.

‘I told you not to worry, lad. Said you’d be back in your missus’ arms soon didn’t I?’

I stayed silent for a moment, not knowing what to call him. The insignia on his uniform had been torn off. His blond hair had turned black. I let the rifle drop to the ground. There is no word for the sounds we made.

 Word For Sounds by Arun Das 

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