Friday, July 1, 2011

The Real Story that Defined Anand Family

Every family has a tragedy that defines them. Somebody's illness, someone's losing their way, someone's breakup and someone's death. Our family was defined by the death of my uncle Mohan, my father's younger brother, in the Bangladesh war in 1971. I was very young at that time and vaguely remember the family gatherings and hushed discussions at that time, which on hindsight appears odd because Indian families usually do their grieving loudly.

I grew up under the shadow of this rather heavy story, which started and ended with uncle Mohan's death on the day of ceasefire, during a routine helicopter reconnaissance across the border. Later, there were some offshoots of the story, mainly to do with my uncle Mohan's widow remarrying and my grandfather's persistent attempts to maintain contact with her and Mohan's two kids. What I didn't know until just a few years ago was that a big story like that had overshadowed and hidden another smaller, but equally powerful, story- the real story that defined this family...

My uncle died on Dec 10, 1971 at the Bangladesh border, shot through the heart by a sniper on the ground. On Dec 10, 1971, my grandmother, grandfather and their three other children in Delhi went about their daily lives as usual. In fact they did nothing different even on Dec 12 and 13. On Dec 14, my grandmother had a visitor, a distant relative of Mohan's wife. This visitor saw my grandma wearing her nice satin salwar kamiz, enjoying the sun while her radio blared Punjabi songs. Shocked, she quickly left the house and went to see my father, a doctor who worked in a nearby hospital. It was only then that a blood relative of Mohan's first heard that he had died. Four days after the event! Three days after he had been cremated.

They learned that Mohan's wife had received the news of her husband's death on Dec 10, had flown to Jessore where his body was, and cremated his body the next day. She said that she had sent a telegram to my grandparents, but went ahead with the cremation when no one from the family contacted her back. His parents, who had doted on their handsome and charming son for 34 years, seen him through the ups and downs of life, educated him despite financial hardships and the trauma of the relocation during the partition in 1947, and adored him as only Indian parents can adore their sons, did not even get to see his body. How much deeper the wound of losing him would have been? What did this lack of closure do to them? Did my grandma ever feel he hadn't really died and would return some day?

About 20 years later, long after both my grandparents had passed away, my father had some of his students over for dinner at our place. He was a Professor of Hospital Administration and his students were mainly senior Army doctors. One of these officers, Col. Kanikera, got talking to my mother about mysterious incidents and coincidences. He mentioned a strange medical case he saw during the Bangladesh war. An officer had been shot straight through the left ventricle of the heart from the ground, while he was inside a helicopter with three other officers, none of whom were hurt even slightly, on a day there should not have been any shooting because war had ceased.  My mother looked at him in shock and said "Are you talking about Lt. Col. Mohan Dutt Anand?".  Yes indeed. Talk of mysterious coincidences! 

It so transpired that this doctor, Col. Kanikera, had been the surgeon who had performed surgery on Mohan to try to save his life that fateful day in 1971. From Col. Kanikera, my parents learned more about  that day, how Mohan was clicking pictures and talking excitedly to three of his colleagues in the chopper when suddenly there was a "thump" sound and silence from Mohan. Shocked at what had just happened, they rushed the chopper to an army hospital nearby. The surgeon noted that Mohan's wallet kept in his chest pocket had been nicked and had somewhat deflected the bullet, but the damage to his heart was too much and he couldn't be saved.

There was finally a closure of sorts to Mohan's death, at least for the surviving members of the Anand family.

So why this story? Not just because its an interesting story, but because of a deep message hidden inside it. The heavier story of my uncle's death had a clear powerful message- that war destroys families, that when a soldier dies, his family goes through unspeakable pain, that no political cause can justify this type of loss.

The smaller story behind it had another equally powerful and universal message, that of forgiveness, kindness and magnanimity of the heart. In the context of this story, my grandfather's actions take on a totally different color. His attempts to stay connected with his daughter-in-law and her children, his baking of birthday cakes for them and then delivering them to their doorstep miles away and his constant good cheer towards his daughter-in-law despite such a tragedy and betrayal are all legacies for his children and grandchildren. T
he entire family's dignified conduct in this matter, so much so that I didn't know about this parallel story up until just a few years ago, is inspirational. In the face of what they went through and how they conducted themselves, my own unforgiving anger towards people who have at most insulted me or undermined my authority is small-minded and pitiable, isn't it?

When you are fortunate enough to be born in a family like this, you have a responsibility to perpetuate this legacy. When the story that defines your family has such a powerful message, regression is not an option.


  1. I really like ur story but more then dat i like ur love for ur family..... my family was a family of 5 members but know.....only 3 people r left....

    my mom,my dad,my two lil bro and me.....this was my family picture till 28th march'2011 but know only me,my mom,and my 1 bro....

    lost everything in fraction of sec......

  2. Pooja, sorry to hear about your loss. I hope and wish that you become the strength for your mother and brother now when they need it most.