A wall at the Kargil War Memorial in Drass, one of the many zones caught in the crossfire of the 1999 blood barter, is full of photographs of letters, handwritten by soldiers in haste, blurred by time and cheap printing.
Major P. Acharya, in one of the letters, writes of a recurring dream—his baby daughter nibbling at his ear. He asks his wife about her pregnancy and lists the cautions she must take. The tone is stern but loving. To his father, he writes about the “unkempt beard [with] Vaseline cream all over my ugly face to counter the icy winds”. Here, the tone is yielding, yearning, coaxing his father that war casualties are “a professional hazard beyond our control”, buttressing that inevitable evasiveness with: “At least it is for a good cause.”
As you walk along the gallery, full of thick wads of text, unedited captions, and pixellated photographs, you hit upon another wall, with the names and photographs of decorated men. That name comes up again—Major P. Acharya—but this time, it is his death that is confirmed. His penetrating almond eyes glaring directly, his pointed ears, his horizontal hairline. I try to find traces of Vaseline in the photo, wondering where his family is today and how they have absorbed his loss into their routine.
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At the entrance of the memorial, there are busts of many jawans—Major P. Acharya included—who were awarded government medals for their bravery, with a plaque. The subjectivity is turned upon them, upon Major Acharya, and he is written about in third person: “Captured enemy position, seriously injured when he crawled up to the enemy bunker to lob a grenade. But he urged his men to charge at the enemy while he provided fire support.” In providing that support, he succumbed to his injuries and lost his life. For this “supreme sacrifice”, he was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra, posthumously.
Grief and pride jostle for space—that a life was lost, that a life had to be lost. War is madness, and there is no rational, equanimous foundation to it. At best, we can hope to buy into that madness, as the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani wrote after the 1987 Intifada:
“O mad people of Gaza,
A thousand greetings to the mad
The age of political reason has long departed
So teach us madness…”
What are memorials for?
Is it not odd how words can bestow an act with so much meaning, so much wadding, that the act itself loses its vitality? A soldier dies on duty because two states decide they need access to inhospitable patches of land in the dry and cold rain-shadow of the Himalaya. That death is now recast as a “supreme sacrifice”, and the loss of life is suddenly spun into something grander, woven into the tapestry of patriotic pride. The life lost becomes a symbol so powerful that it replaces life itself. War produces an abundance of metaphors, bubbling with symbols for the taking.
“A soldier’s death on duty is recast as a “supreme sacrifice”, and the loss of life is suddenly spun into something grander, woven into the tapestry of patriotic pride. The life lost becomes a symbol so powerful that it replaces life itself. ”
At first glance, it is odd. That you would, so willingly, so arbitrarily, assign life a value. There is a makeshift patch of land at the memorial with gravestones of the fallen soldiers. It is silly because no one is buried there. It is a spectacle, one that is striking, seeing so many gravestones so densely planted; a spectacle that completely reduces the value of a life by reframing it as something more abstract, more idealised, with a greater purpose; a life that transcends itself. Wrapping their coffins in the tricolour, the gun salute, the coordinated marching. Just as rituals help you cope with grief by turning the personal into the social, here the personal is elevated to social and then to spectacle.
But then, suddenly, the oddness clicks into place. Pride and purpose are not inherent. They have to be cultivated consciously, to make war make sense, to make madness make sense. It is a policy. It is practice. To turn a person into an idea.
But the question still rankles, is pride enough? When the war is over and the dust settles over the conscience whose madness has now calmed into a stable sentience, do we still need to turn people into ideas, to make it all seem rational, a valid nation-building exercise? What purpose do memorials serve if they are only interested in extending that madness, in burnishing that pride?
In Alice Winn’s binge-flipping First World War novel, In Memoriam, the prose is ruptured with a school newspaper’s reportage, a list of men from the institution who died or were wounded in war—their names, their ranks, and most tragically, their ages. It is the age that breaks the heart: 18, 19, 20, 21. These are men who had full lives ahead of them, now memorialised in papers, remembered through the rose-tinted frame of martyrdom, reduced from a fleshy human to an ethered symbol of a useless war. (The Kargil War Memorial neither states the age of the dead nor lists those who survived them. It helps retain the illusion of the men being a floating, prized, proud idea, not flesh and bones.)
Those who survived the war were posed with a complication. They were whipped into men, cast into a new personality, burned by bravery, sunken by a shell shock that they must endure for the rest of their lives, a ghostly pall that throttles it until, sometimes, it caves in. According to the Costs of War Project at Brown University, the number of American soldiers who lost their lives to the “War on Terror” was 7,057. On the other hand, the number of active soldiers and veterans who died by suicide was 30,177—more than four times that of those who lost their lives on the battlefield. Be it Gaza, No Man’s Land, or Kargil, the wounds linger beyond the site of impact, always. The worry is whether we are even looking.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.