Nepali Times
375 mouths and handfuls of raw rice

This fortnightly column continues with Man Bahadur Rai's narration of fighting the Japanese in Burma during World War II. After the rout at the Satang River, most of the British leave by plane and tell the Gurkhas and other Indian regiments to get to Calcutta on foot. The men begin a long, bloody march till they reach the Irrawady. With no other option, they hijack a steamer and cross the mighty river. Rai's story appears in Lahurey ko Katha, a collection of memoirs based on oral testimonies of 13 retired Gurkha soldiers, all but one above 75 years. It has been translated from Nepali by Deb Bahadur Thapa for Nepali Times.

Nothing of consequence happened on the way. We disembarked at Katha. We didn't pay the steamer because we had no money. As we marched ahead we saw somebody had burned bundles of Burmese currency notes. Their money looked like ours except for a little more red. When we reached Katha, we saw a heap of new rifles and rations with no signs of any troops. Only a number of Burmese families with their children were there. The men had gone to war. The British had left them there with future plans to shift them to Machina, but then fled without making proper arrangements. Only six or seven family members were from our regiment and more than 1,500 were families of soldiers from other regiments.

They implored us to take them with us. We had just escaped death and chances were slim that we'd let them tag along. We told them that they could not keep pace with us. The babies had to be carried and they would need food and clothing. We marched on. They followed. The bombardment started three or four miles out of camp. Since only women and children were in the column, they must have been torn to shreds.

It was an exhausting march to Thavettu. There was a river, a pier and boats. The Burmese boatman did not bring in the boat even though we kept hollering. I asked the bren gun operator to fire a few volleys, which he did. After that we asked him in Burmese whether or not he would bring the boat to our side of the river, if not we would set his entire village on fire. To substantiate our threat we aimed the tracer towards the sky and produced an enormous ball of fire. That display of firepower killed three people, and made him bring the boats. We joined four boats together with bamboo to make a barge and crossed the river. The moment we reached the other side, we received word that the Japanese were only two miles away. To prevent the Japanese from using the boat we hacked it with khukuris and set the pieces adrift on the current. We came upon a village and ordered the locals to bring rice and chicken. We were dead tired but had to take care of ourselves. Eating rice and chicken curry, it felt like Dasai.

We left very early the next morning, each of us carried about 2kg of rice in our bags. We walked till 10 in the morning and then entered the forest. We were in a fix about how to cook our food since we had no pots. Each of us made something like rice pudding in the mess tin, ate and then off we went. We had gone about six or seven miles from the place where we ate our meager meal when we came upon heaps of rations dumped by Americans in the sal forest, left for retreating troops. They brought food in fighter planes and dropped it along with the troops. Rice, dal, sugar and tinned meat were stored in thick layers of sal leaves. They also left instructions for the approaching troops to eat properly and carry food with them. They had even thoughtfully left a big pot behind for cooking.

The following day, we agreed among ourselves that we'd carry only rice and salt, till we saw the new uniforms. We decided to put those on and leave the rest behind but a few opted to carry big bundles of clothes. How far could they carry that heavy load in the heat of April? There was no rain and the atmosphere was dry. We marched on and reached the foothills of the Naga range the following day. We had to protect ourselves if we encountered the enemy and so gave priority to ammunition over rations. We had less than a kilogram of rice left per person. We had to trudge nearly a week to reach the top and descend down the other side. We ran out of food in the middle of the ascent. There were 30-32 British servicemen walking along with us. Sometimes they went ahead of us and sometimes we overtook them. They were weak. They would climb and as soon as they saw a pond, they would undress and swim around like water buffaloes. They contracted cholera, diarrhoea and began vomiting. They even smelled bad. But they were determined and continued walking with the help of sticks for three days. Later, we found them dead on the way. We decided that since the British soldiers had cholera and since it is a contagious disease, it was prudent to keep a safe distance from where they stayed.

When we reached the summit of the Naga hills, there was nothing to eat. There were 375 of us and a handful of raw rice. The hunger was unbearable. These days the Naga hill people will talk to strangers, but in those days as soon as they saw us they muttered incomprehensible words and disappeared.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)