By: Mohana Gill
It was a day like any other day, nothing special. She fed all the children breakfast; there were five to be fed and her husband. As with every breakfast, there was the usual chatter, arguments over who wanted to eat what, the spilling of milk, and the clinking of spoons and forks.
After all the children were fed, dressed and were ready for the day, she sat down for a quiet cup of tea and toast. What would the children do today, she wondered, and how would they spend the day.
It was the war years and the family had moved from the town to very large gardens that belonged to some rich businessman. About 10-15 families had moved there to get away from the bombing attacks in the city. Each family was allowed to build a little thatch hut and they all lived there.
There was a makeshift school and for a few hours every day, the children went for classes there. It gave them something to do, to catch up with their friends and learn a little something.
It was not a structured school; it was run by adults who were educated and found now that they had nothing to do. It was a good outlet for them to be away from home, and spend time with the kids. The children were taught how to read and write and some basic math. There were no books to teach but they improvised with whatever was available.
The mother went about her daily chores of washing, cleaning and cooking. Although there was a maid, she still wanted to do the main chores herself. The baby who was about two years old slept peacefully while the mother was busy. She was also a very good seamstress and an avid knitter. During the day, when she had time, she would cut and sew the clothes that they had and repair them so that all the kids had clothes to wear.
She sat thinking of her life over the last few years. The war had broken out, there were no schools for the children and no job for the man of the house. Food was scarce and what was available was expensive. There were many to be clothed and mouths to be fed.
In the garden, they planted some vegetables so there was enough food. There was plenty of rice available as Pathein was in a rice growing country. They planted corn, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and other vegetables like spinach and lady’s finger. In the rivers nearby, there were many fish that people caught and sold. The river fish was always fresh and it was quite delicious when prepared by the women in the community.
She was a very good cook, always innovating and preparing a variety of food so that the family would not get bored. She was also mindful of the health of the family, making sure there were enough fruits and vegetables.
The gardens itself had many fruit trees and families were allowed to pluck the fruits for their consumption.
She started to plan her day, aware that she needed to have a little time with her husband in the evening when the children were in bed.
Before she knew it, the baby was awake and needed to be fed. Luckily for them, there were many cows in the gardens, which supplied sufficient milk for everyone. It was the duty of the father to get the milk, rice and vegetables for the house and for now they had enough.
But she worried about how long the war would last and when the food would run out. What little savings they had had to be managed properly so that there would be enough to feed the family.
She wondered why people fought; why there was so much discontent and unhappiness; and why one country had to invade and bomb other countries. Why were there Japanese soldiers and officers occupying Burma?
Sometimes after dinner, when the children were asleep, she would ask her husband these questions. He would try to explain to her the reasons for the war and why it was happening. But all this was a little more complicated for her to understand and, at the end of it all, she would say “Oh all right” and go to bed.
It started to rain and the incessant rain made her worried. There were so many holes in the roof and when it rained heavily and continuously, the roof would leak. She started to gather pails and buckets to collect the rain water.
Soon the children were back from their makeshift school, hungry and tired. The oldest was 12 and she helped feed the younger ones. She also helped her mother clear things away and tidy the little hut as much as she could.
As it was raining, the children could not go out to play. Each found something to do to occupy their time. She had always taught the children to keep themselves busy with whatever was available around them. The little ones played with some building toys, some read a few books that the father had managed to find and bring home. The evening went by with storytelling, some whining and a few arguments. She was always there to stop the children from quarrelling and to resolve their little arguments.
After the children went to bed, she and her husband would go for a moderately long walk to unwind and talk about their future and all the things that worried them. Today, it was raining so they were not able to go for their walk. Instead, they sat on the makeshift verandah, watching the rain as it fell pitter-patter on the thatch roof. They held hands and were thankful for all the things they had. The children were well and growing up. They were generally good children and did what they were told. They learned to adjust to the present circumstances.
They talked about the future, when the war would be over.
“Where shall we go and live? Perhaps Rangoon will be a good place. There will be good schools for the children and work will be easy to find?’
“Yes,” he murmured, “we have a lot of things to think about but the priority is schooling for the children.”
They had dreams for their children; they would become doctors and engineers and, perhaps, teachers. Their conversation steered through many topics as they planned and wondered if their dreams would even come true.
Today, she was feeling very restless. There was something bothering her that she could not put her finger on. It was a feeling that she had never felt before, like a feeling of impending danger or that something was lurking around the corner.
He sensed her fear and tried to reassure her that everything would be all right and very soon the war would end and then they could lead a normal life.
It was getting late and the rain did not show any signs of stopping, so they decided to go to bed. She tossed and turned, woke up to see that the children were sleeping and crept back into bed. He was sound asleep and snoring, and seemed to be at peace.
She finally tried to sleep as she knew the next day would be another day where she would be required to carry on the household duties.
She drifted off to sleep but awoke suddenly to the sound of barking dogs and the light from a torchlight shining outside. Fear gripped her as she heard some noises outside. It was still dark and the clock showed that it was only 5.30. Why were the dogs barking fervently, and who was outside flashing the torchlight?
Very soon, there was a banging on the door and loud voices shouting “wake up, wake up”. Both of them got out of bed and went to the door. There were Japanese soldiers with torches. Very gruffly they pushed their way into the hut. This woke the children up and they began to cry because they were afraid.
Three or four soldiers stormed in and started to ransack the house. They were looking for something. When asked, they replied in halting English that they were looking for transmitters and guns. “But, we do not have any guns or transmitters,” the man explained.
The soldiers paid no attention and continued to look in all the rooms and cupboards.
The mother looked at the faces of the intruders. They looked ruthless and stern. She knew they were not going to believe what she had to say. She tried to keep the children quiet and held them tight.
When the men had finished turning the humble house upside down, they asked the man to put on his shoes and come with them. She was petrified and asked, “Why are you taking him? Where are you taking him?” They pushed her aside and in a few seconds they were gone, taking her husband with them.
For a moment she thought it was a dream. She felt numb and could not think. She wanted to cry, to scream, but no tears came and no sound emerged. For a while, she clutched her children in disbelief and assessed the situation. How still it was now that the soldiers had gone. She stood, looking and listening, almost afraid they would come back.
The dogs had stopped barking but it was still quite dark and there was a slight pitter-patter of rain. She tried to look from the window but could see nothing, there was darkness all around and she began to panic.
What will they do to him? Will they kill him? Torture him? Will she ever see him again? What can she do? What will the future be like?
But she was a very determined woman and did not want to panic. What would she do? What could she do? She was not sure but she was determined to do whatever it took to find out what was happening.
She managed to put all the children to bed again and began to think. Her heart was beating very fast, her mouth dry and she was trembling.
There was not a sound in the big gardens that had 10-12 houses. She tried to sleep to calm down, but she could not shut her eyes as her mind was racing. She pinched herself to make sure that she was not dreaming. It had all happened so fast that there was no time to even think.
Slowly, the sun rose, there were sounds of the cock crowing, a wake-up call for all. She crawled out of bed and made herself a cup of tea. One by one, the children woke up and wanted to know what was wrong and where their father was.
They had no idea what had happened and she did her best to console them and answer all their questions.
The eldest, at 12, understood that something was wrong. She asked her mother but the mother had no answer. All she could say was “All is well”, and that everything would be all right. She tried reassuring the children and talking to them.
She showered and got ready. There were so many things to think about and so many things to do. Her priority now was the children. Somehow, she had to reassure them and behave as normally as possible. She asked the maid to get the children ready and feed them. That in itself was an exercise. There were five – the elder three could bathe and dress themselves but the two younger ones needed help. She had a cup of tea and began to think of what she was going to do and how she was going to do it.
She stepped out of the house and looked at all the other houses which dotted the extensive gardens. All was quiet and not a sound came from anywhere except the chirping of the birds and the occasional bark of a dog. There was no one outside any of the homes. She began to wonder, had they heard anything, did they see anything and why was there pin-drop silence.
She remembered the stories she had heard about the Japanese. They were ruthless and very uncouth and rough. Surely the soldiers she met early this morning were not very friendly. They were gruff and very short. In fact, they did not want to have a conversation with anyone. They were on a mission to search, discover and arrest. When they did not find anything, they were cross and very bad-tempered. Perhaps it was their job that was making them behave in that fashion. She thought that maybe deep down they might be more humane, have a little time, a little compassion and not be so cruel.
Her heart was thumping and her head was spinning as these thoughts raced through her mind. She was a great believer in humankind and somehow she was sure there would be some compassion and humanity in them. There must be, she convinced herself, and it was reassuring.
Outside the house and in the gardens she knocked at the first house. There was a slight movement and the door opened gently and slowly, the people at the door leaving it only slightly ajar, enough to see who was knocking. When they saw her, the door opened wider and they asked her to come in.
There was gloom, fear and sadness in the house. She could feel it as soon as she entered. She saw it in the eyes of the terrified people, in their jittery movements and whispered tones. When they spoke, she learnt that the same fate was dealt to them. The head of the family was taken away by the soldiers after they ransacked the house, yelling for answers on a radio and transmitter. The people in this home were all afraid and did not know what to do. The remaining family members were children and women, all of whom were helpless and terrified.
Soon, they found out that every household in the gardens had had the same fate. The soldiers had gone in and, after searching the house, had taken the head of the family with them. All the families grouped together and talked about what action to take.
After a lot of talking, suggestions and arguments, it was decided that they would do nothing. The consensus was that they could do nothing. There were no men, or rather the only men who were left were old and frightened.
They talked about faith and destiny. They talked about cruelty, the stories they had heard, of rape and torture. No one wanted to do anything and they felt that whatever they could do would amount to nothing.
She came home more depressed than she had been when she left her home that morning. She tried to distract her thoughts by doing the house chores and taking care of the children. The children did not understand and needed to be fed. They needed to be cuddled, loved and, most importantly, they needed to feel safe.
Like a machine, she did what was necessary and what was expected of her. All the time, her mind was spinning with thoughts and ideas on what she could do. She could not give up. She would not give up. She was determined to do something. Somehow she would get to the bottom of it all, but she did not know how.
The day came to an end and night fell. There was still a slight drizzle and a light breeze. The sky was dark and there were very few stars visible. The children were all put to sleep. She could not sleep, wondering what to do, how to do it and where to begin. When she thought of her husband, she was gripped with fear. Was he alive, had they killed him, tortured him, was he hurt, in pain? All these thoughts made her more afraid, yet at the same time, more determined to do something. She was going to fight for him, no matter what.
She tried to sleep, told herself that she had to be brave, that she had a big task ahead of her. She had to eat, get enough rest so she would be physically fit to do the things that needed to be done. She could hear her heart thumping and her laboured breathing.
She woke at dawn, packed a bag with food and some drinks for the children; some fruits, biscuits and milk. She took a change of clothes for the baby. She got dressed; got the youngest daughter who was about six years old and the baby dressed.
She told the older children to take care of themselves, instructed the maid to feed them and look after them.
She walked out of the gardens onto the road. She really did not know where she was going. People looked at her, a lady in a sari with a baby in her arms and holding the hand of a little girl. She had a Shan bag that she hung over her shoulder and she walked to the bus stand. She was going to the city to find out where the headquarters of the Japanese army was.
She made some enquiries and made her way to the office of the Kempeitai.The Kempeitai were the military police arm of the Japanese army. As such they were a harsh branch of an intransigent service. In occupied territories that were placed under military jurisdiction, the Kempeitai had police jurisdiction, which they exercised ruthlessly. The Kempetai likewise had jurisdiction over military prisoners. Among Allied internees and prisoners of war, as well as among subject people, the kempetai acquired a reputation as vile as the German Gestapo.
The organisation and methods of the Kempeitai resembled those of other historical secret police organisations. Officers and men with at least six years of service were chosen for their superior intelligence, physical fitness and political reliability, and they were given advanced training (six months for an enlisted man, a full year for an officer) and exercised sweeping and arbitrary powers.
A Kempei was empowered to arrest personnel of rank up to three grades greater than his own. An enlisted Kempei was at least a superior private, and lower-ranking enlisted men were temporarily attached from other units when needed. In wartime Japan, there was no concept of habeas corpus and the Kempeitai could arrest whomever they liked and hold them for as long as they pleased.
There was also no presumption of innocence under Japanese law; the burden lay on the one charged with a crime to prove his innocence, rather than on the Kempeitai to prove his guilt. The Kempeitai held their own trials (gunritsu kaigi or martial law proceedings) at which the defendant had no right to mount a defence and was sometimes not even told the nature of the charges against him. There was no explicit legal authority for these trials, which differed from the regular court martial (gunpo kaigi) prescribed by Army regulations.
The Kempeitai made frequent use of torture. The methods most commonly reported included suspending a suspect by his wrists in a way that partially dislocated his shoulders or forcing a suspect to kneel and putting heavy timber on his calves on which the interrogators stood, partially dislocating the victim’s ankles. Other forms of torture included water torture, burning and electric shock. Beatings were frequent. Kempei were encouraged to be creative in developing new methods of torture.
These were the stories that they were told and that she had heard. Thinking about it made her afraid, but she was determined come what may that she would go to their office.
After several bus rides, she finally took a rickshaw to the Kempetai headquarters. It was in the old secretariat building and there were people from the Japanese army everywhere. She entered the compound, her heart thumping, frightened, but she gave the impression of confidence and walked through. All the Japanese men looked at her with curiosity. An Indian woman, clad in sari, carrying a small baby and holding onto a six-year-old girl. They were amused, confused and did not know what to make of it, but they did not stop her as she climbed the stairs to the main office.
At the top of the stairs, one officer stopped her and in a very rough voice demanded why she was there and what she wanted. Language was a problem – they spoke very little or no English, but she managed to convey that she wanted to see the officer in charge. One look at her they knew that she could not be persuaded or threatened to leave so they told her to sit on a bench in front of the main office.
She looked around her, there was not a single face that had any compassion and no one came to talk to her or even look at her. Now, she was really afraid. What if they don’t see me? What if they refuse to talk to me? What if they force me to leave? Her heart was pounding and she could hear it. The baby began to cry, he was hungry. She took a bottle of milk from her bag and fed him. That pacified him and he stopped crying and drank his milk, gurgling and making baby sounds. The little girl was given some biscuits from the bag and she sat and ate her biscuits and did not make a sound.
The atmosphere was tense. It was very quiet and all around her were soldiers in uniform with very stern looks who went about doing what they were supposed to do. They all avoided looking at her and pretended that she was not there.
She waited for what seemed like an eternity with no one coming to ask what she was doing and whom she was waiting for.
But they say God has his ways and there is always someone whom he sends when everything seems hopeless.
One young officer with a very kind face and smile came to her and said hello. He brought chocolates for the little girl and asked the mother why she was there. She was reassured with his gestures, broken English and friendly facial expressions. In her broken English and enough for the officer to understand, she uttered that she was there because she wanted to know the whereabouts of her husband. He gave her a piece of paper and asked her to write his name and from where he was taken.
She wrote with trembling hands “Hari Dutt Kadrikhan” and “gardens” and handed the paper to him. He smiled, asked her to wait and went into the room where there was an officer in charge. After a while, he came back and reassured her that Hari Dutt was okay and that he would be released after they had questioned him.
This did not satisfy her and she kept asking in the most polite and almost pleading manner if she could talk to the officer herself. He must have known from the look on her face that she was not going to go away without her mission accomplished, which was to talk to an officer in charge.
Maybe he felt sorry for her, or perhaps he was amazed at this woman who had been sitting in front of the office for so many hours. He looked at her face, frightened but determined. He looked at the baby, then he looked at the little girl. Something tugged inside him.
He went back to the office and half an hour later came out and told her that she could go in. She walked into the office. Col. Yamamoto sat inside at a large desk. She looked at his face to see if there was a hint of humanity, compassion and perhaps the willingness to listen. He pointed at the chair and asked her to sit down. She explained to him that the soldiers had taken her husband away and she had not heard anything from him since then.
There were several questions that she asked – why was he taken, where was he taken and how long would it be before he came home. She reiterated that he was not a British spy, that he did not have a transmitter and that he had no contact with the British.
Yamamoto listened to her patiently, tried to reassure her that her husband was okay and that he was being detained for questioning and would soon be released.
She was unflinching in her perseverance. Everything that Yamamoto said did not reassure or satisfy her. She told him that her husband was sick (he had diabetes) and needed to take his medicine.
Col. Yamamoto told her that they would see to it that her husband was given medication but she was not convinced. It was a very aggravating and frustrating meeting, and Yamamoto was beginning to lose his patience.
At the end of it all, he said she could bring his medicine and that he would make sure that Hari Dutt got the medicine. She also asked if she could bring a change of clothes for him. Yamamoto agreed and she left the office.
The young officer who had smiled at her was Mr Haruki or as he pointed to himself and said “Haruki-san”. He escorted her to the gate, smiled and reassured her that all would be well. He played with the baby and shook hands with the little girl. He also made sure that they got a rickshaw to take them back. As they left, he smiled and waved at them.
In the rickshaw, she began to think. Was Yamamoto telling the truth? Where was her husband and why was he not giving any information about the prisoners? She heaved a sigh of relief that at least she had managed to talk to someone of authority, who perhaps knew what was happening.
She came home, exhausted, but made sure that all the children were all right. The elder children wanted to know where their father was and when he was coming home. She steadied her voice, did not want the children to panic, and told them that all was well and that their father would be home soon. The children felt reassured and went about doing what they had to do. She fed the baby and put him to bed.
She was too exhausted, mentally and physically, to eat anything, but she knew she had to keep up her strength as the battle to get her husband back was going to be long and difficult.
She could not talk to the neighbours. She had no one to confide in as these were times when no one could be trusted. You never knew who was a spy and who would spread rumours, so she kept quiet and did not say anything.
She went to bed but could not sleep. Her mind was thinking and planning what her next move was going to be and how she was going to handle the situation single-handedly.
She began to plan. She was a very good cook and she also knew that most people love to eat. As a child, she was always told that the best present you could give anyone was to prepare some delicious food and feed them. She had heard stories about how enemies became friends over food, and how it was easy to break barriers between enemies since everyone enjoyed good food. The more she thought about it, the more determined she was to prepare something delicious to take with her on her next visit to the Kempeitai headquarters. Her mind was full of ideas and she began to dream that if she prepared something really delicious it would be welcomed and she would get some answers. Or, at least, it would help to break the ice.
A few weeks later, she got up and started to think of what to cook. She was not sure what the Japanese would like but she thought that if she prepared something different, they might like to try it. It had to be something sweet, as most people liked sweet dishes. She decided to prepare a sweet cake called sanwinmakin. It was a Burmese dessert but it had a little bit of Indian influence as well, so she thought that it would be a good dish to prepare.
She started to prepare the dish and the beautiful aroma from the baking filled the little house. The children were very excited and wondered why this special food was being prepared. She cooked enough so that the children could have some as well. She then packed two big pieces of the cake in two bowls, wrapped it in some nice wrapping paper that she found, and even managed to find a piece of ribbon. All in all, the cakes looked very pretty and presentable. She thought she would give one to Haruki-san and the other to Col. Yamamoto.
She got the children ready, took some milk for the baby and food for the little girl and packed the cakes in her bag. She also remembered to take two freshly-washed and ironed shirts for her husband and some medicine. She kept her fingers crossed that this little gesture would be welcomed and things would become a little easier for her.
Now that she knew how to get there, she got on the right bus and then took a rickshaw to the Kempeitai headquarters. As she got there, she found the same hustle and bustle of Japanese soldiers of various ranks going about their duties. No one even bothered to look at her and the children; they all pretended that she was not there. She found the bench where she had sat a few days ago and sat there knowing that it was going to be a long wait. After about half an hour, Haruki-san, the big roly-poly man with a very friendly smile, appeared. He was quite happy to see her and showed it by way of smiling and saying hello to the little girl. He offered to carry the baby, who was quite happy to go to him and made some gurgling noises.
She opened her bag and took out the packet that had some cake in it. She gave it to him and uttered, “For you, this I cook myself.”
Haruki was touched. He said, “Arigato, very nice. Thank you.” He asked the little girl’s name and, when he was told Rose he very quickly said “Lose” as he had difficulty in pronouncing the letter “r”. This amused the little girl and she laughed at being called Lose. He told her that she was his little Lose, like his daughter back home. He tried to talk to the mother, “Mr Dutt okay … home soon.”
Then he went in, and this time she did not have to wait for very long. After about half an hour, she was ushered into Col. Yamamoto’s office. She presented him with the cake in its beautiful wrapping. He was touched, “Ah. Thank you very much, yoroshi des ne …,” which means tasty. Then she gave him the medicine for her husband and the two shirts. He assured her that they were still making some enquiries and that the investigation would be over soon and her husband would be home.
This time she told him that she had five children and they were always asking for their father and were afraid and sad.
After a few minutes, she asked him if she could get the shirt that he was arrested in so that she could wash it. Perhaps it was the cake, the children or her genuine concern that melted his heart. He told her that he would make sure that her husband’s dirty shirt was given to her. This reassured her a little and she thanked him and left. As she was leaving, he came and said hello to the little girl and played with the baby.
Haruki-san was there waiting and he had some biscuits for the little girl. He made sure that they got a rickshaw to go home.
In the rickshaw, she began to think. Both Yamamoto and Haruki seemed to have mellowed a bit. There was compassion and friendship in their expressions and there were friendly gestures. She was reassured and thanked God, holding on to the hope that she was making progress.
Back home, it was the usual routine – the elder children asked her where she went, who she met and what they said. There was not very much that she could say nor wanted to say. It all seemed a little trivial to her, so she said that she was busy, that everything was all right and that they should do all the things that they were supposed to do so that their father would be happy when he got home.
She began thinking of her next move. She did not want to go every day because then she would really be a nuisance and they would get tired of her. She thought that the best thing was to space her visits and every time she went she should have something new to ask or to give.
Haruki who had befriended her from the very beginning touched her. She began to think, she wanted to thank him in a very special way and she began to think of how to do it. She was also a very good seamstress and an avid knitter. She found knitting therapeutic. It did not take much concentration, her hands were busy and she had time to think. Even when her husband was around and they would be talking, she would have her knitting nearby. While talking and discussing, she would be knitting. It gave her a kind of solace and peace, and she could think. He used to laugh at her and say that she could never go anywhere without her knitting, and she would giggle. She thought that she would knit Haruki a muffler, which she would give him the next time she went.
She foraged through her knitting bag and found enough pieces of wool that she could turn into a pretty muffler. That gave her something else to do and she spent a lot of time knitting and thinking.
Every night when the children went to bed, she would sit and knit. It kept her busy and gave her time to think about all the things that could happen. She began to think about him coming home, how happy they would all be as a family. She began to think and make plans of where they would live when the war ended. Then suddenly she panicked and began to think of what would happen if he did not come home. Very quickly she tried to allay those fears and kept telling herself that she had to be positive, reassuring herself that he would be home soon.
She tried to remember every word from her conversation with Yamamoto and analyse every word he said. Was there a hint that he knew that all was going to be all right and her husband would come home or was he giving her false hope? She stopped thinking for a moment and continued with her knitting until she felt that it was time for her to go to bed.
Some days later, the muffler was ready. She looked at it. It was really pretty and she knew that Haruki would like it. He had to like it, she told herself. She had put in a lot of time and effort into making it and she was sure he would be pleased.
The next morning she got the children ready, packed her bag and wrapped the muffler in nice wrapping paper. She took her parcel, the two children and made her way to the Kempeitai headquarters. On the way, she met some friends of hers who lived in the same gardens. They wanted to know how she was and where she was going. She uttered polite niceties and made her way as quickly as she could.
When she arrived at the headquarters, it was almost noon. She made her way into the office and sat on the same bench with her daughter, as she cradled the baby. This time, she felt that the officers and people who were there and who passed them looked a little bit more humane, a little bit friendlier. She felt a little more comfortable and at ease.
Some of them must have told Haruki that she was there because he soon appeared smiling and said hello. He asked how little Lose was doing and made some small talk and more friendly gestures, trying to make her relax.
She took out the wrapped package and gave it to him. She said very softly, “You like my brother.” He was really touched. She thought she saw his eyes glisten for a second and then he was back to his usual self, smiling and nodding.
He took her in to see Col. Yamamoto, who greeted her with a smile. She could see that he was bogged down with a lot of work. There were papers strewn all over his desk and it seemed that he had put everything aside to talk to her. He handed her a bag in which was her husband’s shirt that he had been wearing the morning he was taken away. Seeing the shirt brought tears to her eyes but she quickly regained her composure and talked to Yamamoto briefly. She told him that it had been 30 days since her husband was taken away and tried to ask him as many questions as she could with her limited vocabulary.
In her broken English, she was not sure how much he understood. One thing that she was very sure of was that she was able to convince him of her genuine concern about her husband, her love for him, and the important place he held in the family. She tried to impress upon him that she had a very young family who were anxious and afraid, a family of five that had to be fed and who were waiting for the return of their father.
She felt in her heart that he understood and she knew then that he would do his best to make sure that her husband got home to his family safe and sound.
She left with the children. Haruki made sure that she got a rickshaw, thanked her profusely for the muffler, played with the children and then went on his way.
Coming back home was always an anti-climax. She was not sure that she had achieved anything, not sure that Col. Yamamoto understood what she was saying or trying to say. But one thing she was very sure of was that she was not giving up. She would do her best to find ways of getting information and finally getting her husband home. That gave her some solace and she went on doing all the things that she had to do.
Every morning, the sun shone and the birds sang sweetly and chirped. Outwardly it seemed that nothing had changed, the world was still turning and everyone was doing what he or she were supposed to do.
But for her, her whole world had changed. It changed the day her husband became a prisoner of war. Now, it was as if she was numb, she felt nothing, she went on doing the things that she had to do mechanically without even thinking. There was only one thing she concentrated on and that was how to bring her husband home. That was the only thing that she could think about, and that became her obsession and motivation. Everything she did was towards achieving this goal.
The days that followed were a mélange of incidents, underlying them was the tension, as one of the children got quite sick. The days were then filled with running to doctors, getting medicine and making sure that her child was getting better. It was a very worrying time as medicine was scarce and very costly. She was lucky because in the gardens where she was staying was a doctor. The Japanese did not take him as he was old. He was kind enough to come and see the child and reassure her that there was nothing to worry about. In a few days, the child got better and very soon was back to normal.
When the child got better, she began to think of her next move. It had been over a week since she had gone to the Kempeitai office. She felt in her heart that it was important for her to go regularly, at least to remind them that there was someone waiting anxiously for the prisoners to come home. She was afraid that if they were not reminded, they would forget these prisoners and they would become just another statistic.
She turned into the house and realised that there was so much work awaiting her. She had a lot of chores to complete. She did not want her husband to come home and find things in disorder. She started to do her chores without thinking; it was as if she was working like a machine. Sometimes she felt that she did not know the person that she had become, who worked mechanically around the house.
She felt that she needed to make another trip to the Kempeitai office. She did not have anything new to say or ask. But somehow going there was reassuring and perhaps a testament that somewhere he was still alive.
So, as usual, she got the children ready and made her way to the Kempeitai office. There was nothing unusual today. There were dozens of Japanese officers and soldiers going about their business. No one paid any attention to her; neither did they glance at her and the two children.
Haruki appeared in a little while. Amidst small pleasantries, he told her that they were all very busy and that Col. Yamamoto was away somewhere else and so he would not be able to see her. He tried to reassure her in the best possible way that he could that everything would be all right.
She was very disheartened and almost in tears, but she composed herself, said thank you and made her way home.
Once home, her mind started racing. She felt very uneasy and could not explain why today was a little different from other days. What had they done to the prisoners? Why were they so vague and seemed to be in such a great hurry? She did not know what to think or how to think, her mind was racing and she began to imagine all kinds of things. Some of it was really frightening and even gruesome, then she thought of better things, happy things, good times and was able to breathe a little better.
The next few days went by with nothing really happening except the old routine of children, food, bedtime stories and creeping into bed wondering what the next day would bring.
There were not many visitors as people kept to themselves, afraid; afraid of what, she did not know. But they were afraid to be seen together, afraid to talk to each other, and each one remained in their little silent comfort zone.
A few more days passed and, as the time got longer and longer, she became more frustrated, more worried and sometimes even a little glimmer of hope seemed to evade her. The days were long but there was so much to do, so it passed mechanically. The nights were what she was fearful of. Afraid of being alone, afraid of suddenly thinking whether this was going to be her fate for the rest of her life. Very often she slept for a bit and woke up suddenly, breaking into a sweat, another bad dream, and another nightmare and then it was morning.
It had now been 40 days since he was arrested and taken prisoner. What had she been able to achieve? Not very much. Her many trips to the Kempeitai office was something that kept her alive but now she felt that even going there was not producing any results.
But she was still determined that she would try some other means or try and find out if there was something else that she could do. In all these 40 days, one thing she never gave up was hope; hope that he would come home, hope that somehow something would happen to make things right.
This morning she got up and did the usual chores, and sent the children to school. In the afternoon, she sat with her knitting. That was the time for her to de-stress. It was also good therapy and calmed her. In the evening, she went for a little walk around the gardens with some of the children. They were still asking about their father, why was he not coming home, where was he and was he all right. She reassured them as much as she could and even while reassuring them, she felt that it did not sound right. She was using words but the words did not have any meaning and sounded quite hollow.
Then it was time for bed. She sat on the verandah and looked up to the stars. It was a dark night and there were only a few stars shining. She stared at the dark sky as if looking for answers, looking to see if there was a way in which she could get some answers or inspiration.
Finally, at about midnight, she decided to go to bed. Another night of loneliness and despair; another night of fear, disbelief and helplessness.
She fell into a deep sleep but woke suddenly to the sound of barking dogs. Panic seized her. What was happening now? There was nothing but silence and as she peered from the window all she could see was complete darkness. She was just going to lie down again when she thought she heard footsteps coming towards her home. It was also a time when there were many robberies and murders and she began to shudder. What should she do? Go to the children and see that they were all right or just sit and not make any noise? She dared not light the kerosene lamp. Instead, she sat quietly, listening out for the footsteps and hoping that whatever or whoever was there would go away.
As the house was just a makeshift thatch house, there was really no secure door. Anyone could push the door and come in. There was a shuffle of feet at the door and the door opened slightly. She got off the bed and went towards the door. She had to confront whatever or whoever was there; she had to keep her children safe – that was her immediate concern.
The door opened slowly and, as she watched, a silhouette of a man appeared. From the light of the window she could see a very thin man, almost a skeleton with a beard and almost uncombed hair.
She stood staring in disbelief. In a very soft voice, he said, “Lel.” That was the name with which her husband called her. She ran to him and hugged him and brought him in. She looked in disbelief at what was standing before her. He was very thin, almost bones, he had not shaved for a long time, he had long hair and was a shadow of the man who had left that house 40 days ago.
Those 40 days she had not shed a tear. She had controlled all her emotions and kept herself strong and composed. She looked around the room into which the morning shadows were creeping. She looked at the solitary figure that sat dishevelled, afraid and speechless.
She let her head fall on his folded arm and, finally, she began to cry. She cried, not softly, but with sobs that seemed to tear her very soul. She cried because she was happy that he was back. She cried because she could not bear to see the state he was in. She cried because she was able to hold him again. She did not notice that he had also started to cry and together they held each other tightly and cried.