In the concluding part of Man Bahadur Rai's oral testimony, the Gurkha soldier on the Burma Front looks back at the end of World War II, his two decades as a soldier and recalls fallen comrades. The 91-year-old Rai now lives in Pokhara and his story is part of Lahurey ko Katha that records the lives of 13 retired Gurkha soldiers, most of them over 75 years old. Published by Himal Books, this fortnightly column has been translated from Nepali by Dev Bahadur Thapa for Nepali Times. Next fortnight, we begin the story of 89-year-old Bharati Gurung of Lamjung.
In a sense it was a war of deception, especially when attacks came from the air. The Japanese swarmed in batches of 25, 35 or 40 planes that flew silently but shook the ground beneath. After the ceasefire, the king [King George VI of England] gave his word that even though thousands of Japanese troops confronted a single British soldier, they would not be harmed. This made the fighting troops lose their spirit and tears fell when the Japanese set prisoners of war free. The Japanese too had been taken prisoners: the British captured Japanese and vice versa. They were assigned work as prescribed by the law of their country but those captured by the Japanese were invariably required to work with human faeces. They also had to dig ditches and plant cauliflowers in soil fertilised by human excrement that they had to carry. War is the worst of all things.
We went to Burma twice. On our second visit we saw the trees planted in our barracks and parade ground had grown very fast in just four years. It took us one entire week of working day and night to clear the grass. Once the war was over, those who survived the onslaught retired on pension. Those who were too young and whose services were too short to deserve pensions were given about Rs 400 each and let go. The British used them and then bade them goodbye when they were no longer needed. Quite a few soldiers went missing. Rumours say they became guerillas, very similar to our Maoists today. I heard it but did not see them for myself. We heard that Gurkhas, Japanese, Sikh Punjabi and British soldiers made up the group and retreated into the jungle. Till today we hear how they are looting various parts of Burma.
We were still in the army when the division of British and Indian troops took place. The division forms were sent to each unit of Gurkhas only. The letter with it said Gurkha soldiers would be taken straight to the United Kingdom and that salaries and allowances would be the same as that of British soldiers in accordance with their rank. They would be entitled to family and children allowances similar to that of British troops.
At first I wanted to join the British Army but I had problems at home. My parents were very old and every month I'd get a letter from my father asking me to come home. I left the army, returned home and after being a bachelor till 37 years of age, I married. My first son, born out of wedlock, followed my footsteps and joined the army. He is now on pension. The eldest son from my second wife died a few days ago. He was a retired Subedar in the Indian Army.
All in all, I served in Burma for two decades. Many of the soldiers I fought alongside died in battle. Under unavoidable circumstances we even hid ourselves behind our fallen warriors or used them as shields. Nobody knows how many died in the operation. I nearly became a casualty of war when, on one occasion, instead of lying flat on the ground during enemy fire, I raised my heel. A bullet pierced the heel of my shoe and I thought my leg was gone but thank God it wasn't. He saved me.
I was awarded a certificate of honour, but I lost that document in Burma. Although I sent various letters about a copy, I never received any response. This made me feel sorry for quite sometime: I went through unbelievable hardships as a soldier, took pride in what I did, yet there was no compensation. Perhaps this is the way life is.