The year was 1971 and I was barely 15 years old when Pakistan suddenly declared war against India. Prior to this there had been 1962, 1965 and 1968 wars as well and I carry some faint but indiscernible memories of all that we went through at those periods.
It was evening time when suddenly the blaring of hooter took all of us by surprise. This hooter was a regular feature of Shimla as it would blare at ten in the morning without fail and seemed to run the lives of the people of Shimla by its regularity. But this untimely blaring made everyone listen to it, first with curiosity, and then with indifference. It was assumed by all and sundry that some mechanical problem was the root cause of its untimely sound. Once again the hooter was sounded but now the sound became too jarring to the listeners as it was something that had spoiled the ambience of the place by breaking a practice. How irritable we all become when an established practice is broken! For us, the children, it was a exciting moment. A truth has dawned upon me today, after almost 35 years that what irritates the adults, is taken in an exciting spirit by the children. We all were playing outside and assembled to discuss the probable reason for this sound and making more noise than was ordinarily made by us. We were excited by the unconventional!
Suddenly the lights went out. Now there was real commotion all around. Mothers starting calling their children to come back home. Some adventurous children had gone to the Telecom office, the source of the excitement, to collect first hand information about the eventful happening. As it was the month of December and the darkness had suddenly enveloped whole of the town, people became anxious of the, unwarranted, power break down.
As it was a period when LPG stoves were not at all common and coal hearths were the lifeline for all Shimlaites. The evening was fast becoming dark and many small kids of the neighbourhood were still untraceable and moreover the evening food was to be cooked in all homes, so the level of commotion all around can best be imagined. We were assigned the job of finding the children and make them sit quiet till the cause of sudden power failure could be ascertained by the elders who suddenly took responsibility upon them. People started putting fire to the coal angeethis so that the homes could be made warmer as well something could b cooked as well.
It was at this point that someone came with the shocking news that Pakistan had declared war against India and has started the air strike. To be more specific, Pakistan had launched a premediatated air strike at 5.45 pm on a number of Indian airfields. As Amritsar airfield is considered close by hence the power cut was enforced as a precautionary measure and more so as the earlier hooter warnings had gone uncared for.
This news changed the mood from pure commotion to grave concern and people started shouting at others who had either lighted candles or had fire glowing in the angeethis. As if on some cue, even the small children became quiet. Such is the fervour of love for nation that personal concerns evaporate and general concerns take over.
As children of my age group had had prior experience of war, we became hyper active in instilling “do’s and don’ts” among the younger children. And suddenly all the prior memories came flooding to my mind as they have come today after such a long gap.
The earlier wars had made us learn certain things that would come handy if somehow there would be some calamity like air strike. All the residents of Shimla were taught about the hooters and the two different mode in which it was to function. A sudden rise and fall in the frequency would mean a danger of an air strike and all precautionary measures were to be implemented immediately. The sound of the hooter with a consistency in frequency conveyed that the danger was over. How would my little heart tremble when I would listen to the first kind signaling danger and how relieved it would be when the second hooter was heard!
Practice drills became a common feature of all schools and institutes and the home-guards became a common feature of all localities. All the window panes in homes as well offices were criss-crossed with strips of paper so that in case of an air strike the glass splinters don’t do much damage. We were instructed to stand still against the retaining wall, if the hooter would go, while we were on roads. Lessons in basic nursing were given to all school students, house wives and others. In case of emergency, the way to revive a seriously injured person, was instilled in us. We became so confident!
Though the war times made all people come together and a new camaraderie developed among all, there was one negative impact as well. It is only during these testing situations that the best and the worst of the human nature comes to light. I regret to say, with all humility, that I had become so suspicious of the Kashmiri Pathans who lived in Shimla in large number. So much so that we would run away on seeing a Khan (as they are addressed). Rumours mills were busy bringing out new rumours day in and day out. We as children learnt about Pakistani spies, Transmitters and even poisoning of water sources in Shimla.
If war experience taught us to come together as a people, it also taught us to distrust others. This was first time in my life that the concept of the “other” was introduced to my mind and honestly confessing, it has stayed there till date.