Tapping into the historical Battle of Kohima, the Second World War Sandwich by Digonta Bordoloi highlights the complex web of ideologies, cost of war and sanctity of peace
Not many of us are aware that the Second World War (1939-1945) was fought in India as well. The Imperial Japanese Army had crossed the arduous mountainous terrain and reached a tiny British garrison in the remote town of Kohima. This battle lasted for three months (4 April-22June, 1944). The battle was fought in three stages, among that was the siege of Garrison Hill which lasted 16 days (3-16 April 1944). The Japanese were defeated. A war cemetery in Kohima commemorates the bravehearts.
With this deadly battlefield as the backdrop, Second World War Sandwich takes us through the life of four men who bond during the 16 days. Captain Timothy Hastings and his cook Raan, Chetri is the courageous Nepalese Gorkha and Mongseng is a native headhunting warrior. Their chance meeting turns into camaraderie as they try to save their lives amid the raining bullets.
In these two weeks, Bordoloi takes through their emotions, background and aspirations. Timothy is no braveheart, Chetri has been working on resolving his own ego issues, Raan lands in the battlefield as a loyal servant and Mongseng, the Naga head hunter, is baffled by the waste of human life and the damage to the land. We experience their personal loves and losses and we also experience the trauma that war brings.
What I liked is the emotive angle, the eco-friendly tribal way of life where Nature is the provider and the taker, the bonds that surpass man-made borders. There are many truths in the book such as some bonds last only till the situation lasts, there is no future. Each one longs for a home and a family and a community of their own. The vicious cycle of power and greed ruins everything. And how we ought to felicitate our lives, harbour genuine relationships and not get obsessed by physical objects. The language is rich. The details are fascinating and the gory of war spelt out. The glory of peace and return to the roots is pretty real too. Calamities change hearts and minds. and the message of learning and evolving is clear too.
The author has lived in the northeast of India, worked as a copywriter in Mumbai and is fluent in six languages. He has worked in Uganda, Swaziland and Tanzania. Now, his wife Susie and he shuffle between India and Australia. In an email chat, Digonta Bordoloi shares about the writing process, the research and the future:
What inspired you to write this book?
It was 2013. I had just published my first book, Slow, and was toying with an idea for the next book. We were living in Darwin, Australia. I was cycling around town and saw a sign pointing to a World War II museum/memorial. The objects and photographs there were from the Japanese air raid of Darwin on 19th February 1942.
Browsing through the objects and photographs, I was in awe at how well preserved and documented the single day’s events were for everyone to experience and remember. That reminded me of the Second World War Cemetery in Kohima, a town where I spent 10 years of my childhood. The Cemetry is located in the actual grounds of the battle where the 16-day Japanese siege of the Kohima garrison took place, around which the story of my book revolves.
For three months in 1944, Kohima was the seat of one of the most intensely fought close quarter battles during the Second World War. Yet, except the war cemetery, there is hardly anything else to remind us of the gruesome realities of war.
I remembered the line under the memorial cross in the cemetery: ‘When you go home, tell your near and dear ones, we gave our today for your tomorrow.’ We are at one of the most peaceful times on this planet, we need to cherish that and not forget how gruesome an all encompassing war can be. I decided I need to tell that story and through that the general realities of senseless violence.
How much is fact and how much is fiction in the book?
The main characters in my book are fictional. I have woven their story around the actual events of the Siege of Kohima which began on the 4th April 1944. An entire division of the Japanese Imperial Army comprising some 15,000 soldiers encircled the Kohima Garrison that had hardly a 1,000 fighting soldiers.
A minuscule percentage of the Naga population, still follow some of their ancient practices, which go way beyond just hunting for heads.
Konyak were the last Naga tribe to give up headhunting. My wife and I stayed for a few weeks with a Konyak village chief near the town of Mon, close to the India-Myanmar border. I speak Nagamese, so that really helped to break the initial apprehensions the elders of the village had. Around the communal hearth, over innumerable cups of strongly brewed tea, from leafs plucked and dried from tea bushes grown around their homes, they opened up and gave me some juicy stories that really helped to enrich my book. Also, they shared details of some of their rituals that have not been documented.
There is some recorded history around the war–first hand accounts from British and American soldiers who fought there. There is also some passing mention of it in a few books dealing with the bigger picture of World War II, and a handful specifically written around the Battle of Kohima. But in comparison to the importance of the battle, how it impacted the Second World War, there isn’t enough written about it. And not anything from the Indian perspective. Second World War Sandwich is the first attempt in that direction.
War is cruel. It’s not usual for an Indian author to bravely step into a difficult subject.
I have always preferred reading books that have a universal appeal. So when I started writing, it came naturally to choose topics that would have universal appeal. Yes, war is a cruel sight and in times of peace, like we are in for the last few decades, we tend to forget the cost of war. It is both physical and mental. That is why in the book it is about the battle they are fighting with the enemy and also about the battle they are fighting within, in their minds.
The research for the book took me about six to nine months. This included revisiting the battle ground, visiting retired headhunters in their village, then bookish research in the Kohima library and other reference books. Then it took me another four years to write a few drafts, before I was happy with it to send to Pan Macmillan.
Though, I have to admit, I wasn’t writing continuously for those years. My wife and I love to travel for at least three to five months every year and I just can’t write when we are moving. So actual writing must have involved two and a half to three years.
Naga head hunter Mongseng is a compassionate man, much ahead of his times, looking for peace and unable to comprehend the reason for war. Have you met anyone from the region who has these traits and became an inspiration for this character?
The best part about creating fictional characters is that the inspiration for a character needn’t come from a single source. The village chief of Hamphui, who hosted us was one such down to earth human being. He left an impression on me by the way he conducted himself in the village affairs, and while managing his household of two wives and the multitude of children and grandchildren.
While visiting another village elder, he was sad about the way the younger generation dismissed their traditions. He remarked, “We were not cold blooded murderers. We killed only when it was necessary. Head hunting for us was like Christmas, an occasional event. But the other traditions which our children have given up, had kept our society much more in balance than it is today.”
Then there was another elder who was a doting grandfather. We always found him carrying one of his grandchildren on his back. When I asked him how long back did he stop being a warrior, he smiled and as a matter of fact replied, “The day bravery left my heart.”
My attempt has been to portray a bit of these gentlemen through Mongseng.
When fleshing out old and new and changing ideologies and different characters, what does a writer need to keep in mind?
When I am writing each character, I try to get into their shoes and heads. I become them and transport myself into the environment they are supposed to be in. Then I write from their perspective, how he or she would behave in response to that particular situation, or in that environment.
So for a writer it is important to be well-versed with the canvas on which they want to paint their story, or else the story might fall flat.
You have described some parts of the war in detail, did you meet anyone who was part of any war?
During the time I was researching for this book, I hadn’t met anyone in person. But over the years, I have had the opportunity to meet a few war veterans and hear their stories. Also, I read a couple of books that were from fist person accounts. They were not very well written books, but they had some good details in them, which greatly helped me delve into the scene and write from there.
Who narrowed down on the name?
When I conceptualise a book, even before penning the first paragraph, I finalise how the book will begin and how it will end. And I come up with a working title. Those three things give me a framework to write the book within. Because the story in the middle develops as I go, I don’t plan it. So the beginning, end and the name helps me keep focus. And since my editors had no issues with the name for this book, we kept it.
Is writing a profitable career in the times we live in? Now, that people read ‘characters’ and not sentences, do you feel short stories do better than novels?
Yes, that is a question I have pondered about. And I have come to the conclusion that a writer should write for the love of writing. If someone starts writing thinking he or she is creating a best seller, chances are they will be in for a disappointment.
These days there are too many distractions for a potential reader of fiction. That is why a writer of fiction should always have a different income stream, so he or she can write from their heart and not from the head, thinking what will sell. If a writer starts writing picking up a ‘trending’ topic, he or she wouldn’t do justice to their subject or to their readers.
I feel the greatest competition for a writer these days is from ‘smartphones’. But I hope that is a fad and books that have been there for centuries, will outlive people’s fascination with their phones. Too much screen time has adverse effects on health, whereas too much reading I don’t think has caused any ill effects on anyone for centuries.
In the matter of long novels vs. short stories, I have always preferred reading a novel. With a novel you can be a part of the story for a while. With short stories, just when I enjoy it, get into it, it’s over.
You can’t do much about people with short attention spans. Like you said, a vast majority only read a few characters, not even full paras, for them even a short story might be too long! Only hope for us writers is that one day they will realise what is good for them and settle down and calm their minds to get into the good habit of reading, or maybe listen to an audio book.
What are your plans for the future?
The next book I am planning to write will travel through four generations of a community. It will be about how each generation is effected by the introduction of an element from ‘modern’ life. The ground work and research for that story is done. Now that this baby is out, I will start conceiving that one soon.
Publisher: Pan; 1st edition (4 April 2021)
Paperback: 244 pages
Price: Rs 399
Kindle edition available
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