Article Published in PATRIOT
“Tell them of us and say….”
The roofs of the houses of Kohima are visible long before you reach the town. They appear and disappear as you twist along the serpentine curves of the road climbing the plains into the low ground hills of Nagaland. The last unexpected curve brings you into the heart of the hill. Glancing above, I stopped for a moment held by eloquent lines inscribed on granite:
When you go home, tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow we gave our today.
These lines mark the hill on which lies the Kohima War Cemetery. It would be difficult to imagine a more peaceful spot. It is November and the early winter sun is pleasant. Flowers and neatly laid down grass beds separate rows of identical gravestones. Young pines and firs stand as silent, solemn sentinels. Few local youngsters relax nearby wrapped in red and black shawls of the Nagas. The sound of guns and fury of battle seem very far away.
But these rows of grave stones and their epitaphs silently remind one that once upon a time here was fought a battle royal.
It was 1944. The world stood on the edge of destruction and men fought with irrational fury. The Japanese advanced rapidly on to the Indian sub-continent across the jungles of Burma. Stretching their communications across the forested hills, they reached Kohima.
In those days Kohima was “ a pleasant hospitable place, where drivers decorated their trucks with roses”. In this pleasant town, the Japanese met with unexpected opposition. The garrison, consisting largely of non-combatants, held the advance. For 16 days of fierce battle raged in the garden of the Deputy Commissioner-an unusual field for an unusual battle.
Then the supplies and medicines of the garrison began to run out. The injured received fresh injuries. Water was hard to come by and had to be got under deadly sniper fire. From a cherry tree in the DC’s garden, a Japanese sniper rained certain death. Today at the same spot a young cherry tree sways gently in the breeze.
The position of the practically unprepared garrison improved with the approach of the Second Division of the 23rd corps of the Indian Army. This Division advanced along the road from the base at Dimapur and cut the Japanese lines. The Japanese, fully determined to win or die in the process, fought hard for every inch of the open highway. Many battles were fought on the heights, places which are difficult to recognise today -Garrison Hill, Church Knoll… At one point of time, in fact, the tennis court of the two opposing armies! Today, these lines, etched in concrete, have passed into heroic history.
The grim rows of grave stones silently embody the courage and heroism of those who died here. On each block of stone is inscribed the name and age of the soldier along with the name of his regiment. On many of the grave-stones are inscribed epitaphs. The gravestones without epitaphs convey their tragedy simply with two dates - the date of birth and that of death. Many who died here were less than 19, and very few over 26.
The epitaphs lovingly chosen by wives, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters lead you from one gravestone to another. Some of these stand out plaintively: “If you had known our young boy, you would have loved him too”. And sometimes just a sigh: “One day we shall meet”. The epitaph embodying the spirit of the cemetery is repeated on many gravestones and consists of only four words: “Love’s greatest gift - memory”. The rows stretch out, each stone carrying its message. Near by stands the Memorial of the cremated Indians.
Narayan Pradhan cannot read these epitaphs. Having migrated from Orissa he has tended the grass and flowers of the cemetery for the last 15 years. He tells us that “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of every year” is the most auspicious time to visit the cemetery, and communicate with the dead. We are only a few hours late. It is the 11th of November but 3.00 in the afternoon. Glancing at the graves it seems that the dead have gone back to their eternal peace, far away from the restless reaches of this living world for another year.