The Creative Section (Vol. 5, No. 1) is on its way and will be published by the end of May, 2024.







-         Bina Sarkar Ellias (India)


The wheels turned.  A split-seconds’ decision found my companion and me quickly  boarding the unreserved third-class ladies compartment of the Bombay-Lucknow Express, just as it lurched out of the station. Not having made it past the wait-list in the air-conditioned sleeper, it seemed the only option to not missing the “Gender Issues” conference we were heading for in Lucknow.


The tiny Ladies Only compartment was a bees’ nest of women and children, all of whom buzzed at the same pitch –– several decibels higher than what we might call a normal conversation key. Looking visually incongruous in our casual-chic, we were briefly appraised by our co-passengers and offered ten inches of space each, as a concession for being such rare species in their midst. It was a “class” issue. While my companion shrank into a corner seat and shut out her discomfort with a book, I did a quick survey of the situation. It held promise and crackled with electricity. 


Across me, sat a portly woman in the ubiquitous black burqa scolding a gaggle of children from the Dharavi slums. She was Noorjehan Bibi. From atop a trunk near my seat, a middle-aged woman held forth. She was Leelaben, a Gujarati Hindu who ran a beauty parlour in a shanty town near Jogeshwari. Leelaben would regale us with stories of havaldars, the local cops who hound her parlour in search of hafta, their weekly commission, and how often, in lieu, settle gleefully for a nubile beautician. And the aisle, all the way to the door, bustled with tribal vendors squatting with their vegetable baskets on the floor, shifting and moving until a comfort zone was located.  This was secular India, in cacophonic co-existence.


Beyond, sat a young woman and child and with them was a boyish-looking young man in army fatigue! A man? In a Ladies’s Only compartment? Shripal Singh had obviously made peace with the outraged women before the train had left the station, for he seemed perfectly at ease, in sync with the rhythm of the turning wheels.


“I am a soldier,” was his answer to my polite enquiry “Aapyehankaise? (How come you are here?), “and this is my family. My wife is too young to care for the child alone on a journey. I'm also concerned about their safety,” he said, waving his arm in the general direction of the raucous bunch of harmless women. “I'm a soldier,” he emphasized. I was to understand that gave him special privileges. Indeed, she looked barely sixteen and he appeared not more than eighteen.


It was post-Kargil, just after the 1999 war involving the horrific deaths of hundreds of innocents on both sides of the Line of Control between India and Pakistan.  Every news channel on television showed funerals of young soldiers –– those whose lives were dispensable for our respective governments. 


I watched the callow youthfulness of the little soldier as he played with his child. He was returning from a long, demanding stretch at the Cutch border and said how much he looked forward to visiting his parent’s home in a village outside Lucknow.


What did he think of the war?


“Kargil?” said Shripal Singh, “The Pakistanis deserved it.” His soft face hardened and he continued as if by rote. “They are butchers…


“They killed thousands of Hindus during Partition. If a thief enters your house, must you not defend it?” Having heard echoes of this sentiment even among the educated and privileged, I ventured, “Did Hindus not kill as well?” “But that was in self-defense!” he exclaimed. “Is it not true,” I asked, “that violence inhabits all of us? That it can manifest itself in any individual, people of any religion, community or tribe? As an Indian Hindu soldier, did you not kill?


“Is it not true that you have been trained to believe the Pakistani soldier/civilian is an enemy who threatens your home and nation, just as a Pakistani soldier is similarly programmed? And if you did not believe so, you would not be able to kill….


“Enemies are created and wars engineered to benefit a few. Religion and nationalism are invoked to seed anger and lies are fed to stoke the anger. They believe many lies become a truth. And people can be bought with that dubious truth.


“Those who engineer wars are untouched by its brutality and suffering. And soldiers are their pawns, trained to hate so killing becomes easy, and death for a nation is celebrated as the ultimate in heroism.”


Sripal Singh sat still for a long time. Then, his face softened and he said, “What you say is true. Actually, we do not talk about these things. And we soldiers do not think too much. We are simple people. We do what we are destined to do. Kill, or die at war.”


Then he dropped his voice and said, “The truth is, I have killed. Because I hated the enemy, because we are made to believe they are evil; fanatics, invaders and rapists. Recently, we captured five Pakistani men who had strayed into our territory. We tormented them in custody for five days. Then we had orders to shoot them down in a barren area.


“They were innocent. They were probably herdsmen. We had no reason to kill them. “Bus, yoon hi… Just like that…” he said in a dead-pan voice, “The officer was bored and ordered us to kill. I had erased this from my mind but now it comes back. Now I understand, we are also butchers.”


The wheels uncannily turned slowly to a halt.