April 1944. Japanese forces attack the British colony of India. Traversing on foot through Burma, the Japanese troops reach and lay siege to the garrison town of Kohima. The purpose is to create inroads into the Indian mainland as well as disrupt the supply of arms and materiel from India to Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese troops. The initial plan is hijacked by over-ambitious Japanese Generals who want to conquer the whole of India; it leads to over-extended supply lines, poorly equipped soldiers, and ultimately a defeat that sees the Japanese abandon all plans of dominating the sub-continent.
War and politics make strange bedfellows, a fact abundant in Digonta’s Second World War Sandwich. The four central characters are the unlikeliest of people to ever meet, let alone be friends ready to die and kill for each other. Captain Tom Hastings, the CO of the newly formed Assam Rifles regiment, is a tea estate manager turned soldier. Raan Singh, his cook from his manager days, is now his batman. Bahadur Chetri is a Gorkha soldier in the Assam Rifles, who but for a twist of fate would have never left his village in Nepal. And Mongseng is a Konyak Naga, a headhunter who finds himself in the middle of a fight not because of what it means but what it offers.
Digonta begins the tale in the present day. Mongseng’s grandson, a history teacher in Kohima, gets a phone call from the former, asking him to meet. The guilt over not having seen his grandfather for more than a decade and the knowledge that it may be the last has him hasten to obey. On arriving, however, he finds Mongseng has a different motive for asking him to come; the old headhunter wishes to pass on his story and the story of the happenings in Kohima in 1944, and who better to tell it to than a history teacher.
The paths of Mongseng and the other three cross in the April of 1944, when Tom is ordered to investigate reports of Japanese infiltration in the jungles around Kohima. Chetri and the others discover the advance scouts’ bunker, but even as they prepare to attack, they find them already dead, their heads chopped off and Mongseng standing proudly with his trophies. Tom orders Chetri to bring the Naga warrior back with them, figuring he could be useful in the upcoming battle against the main body of the Japanese forces. At the Kohima base, Mongseng is housed in Tom’s bunker and Raan is ordered to try and communicate with him.
This works in Mongseng’s favour; he has arrived in Kohima after a nine-day walk from his village to fight, and more precisely to collect heads. As the eldest son of the Konyak tribe’s Wangba (chief) – albeit from his third wife – he was next in line to become the Wangba himself until the meddling machinations of a missionary created strife between him and his younger stepbrother born of the first wife. A competition is proposed, with whoever collects the most heads in the span of a year to be crowned the Wangba.
For Mongseng, with a ten headcount already, this isn’t a problem as his stepbrother doesn’t even have one yet. But with underhanded help from the missionary, the younger man quickly surpasses that count in a matter of weeks. The suspicious Mongseng uncovers the truth, but instead of exposing them, he decides that if it is a competition they want, a competition they will get. Having heard of the inevitable fight to come soon, he travels with the intention of amassing such a headcount that even the dishonest methods of the duo won’t help them.
Tom, meanwhile, is sick of the war even before it has begun. Having used his family’s influence to get a commission in the army and then the same influence to stay out of any actual training, he is content to play the white officer with all the accompanying perks until the time he must fight. Then, he finds himself woefully lacking, and only the battle-readiness of Chetri and his other troops prevents him from failing in his assignments. And as for Raan, he has no intention of ever entering a battlefield.
The Kohima garrison is manned lightly, mostly with civilian soldiers trained in the recent past. Only two additional companies, the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment and the 7th Rajput Regiment can make it to the garrison before it is cut off completely by the arrival of the Japanese division who no one expected for another couple of days at least; the usual case of war-time intelligence. Though numerically superior, the Japanese have lost much of their ammunition and food supplies during the arduous journey on foot, and it is a bedraggled lot that is now tasked with taking over Kohima. The objective is to cut off the road leading to Imphal, thus blocking a major supply route.
As Kohima is besieged and the battle lines are drawn, neither side gains a decisive advantage initially. The British forces have more and better arms than their adversary as well as supporting fire from the troops trying to break through the blockade, but the sheer number of Japanese troops throwing themselves bodily at the trenches negates that superiority. Even as almost every bullet finds a target in the onrushing wave of soldiers, there is yet another man to replace the one just shot down. Slowly, the numerical superiority of the enemy begins to tell, and the noose around the Kohima garrison is squeezed tighter.
The only advantage remaining to them now is elevation – they control the hilltops from where they can easily fire into the advancing Japanese, while the latter have no choice but to climb upwards into the hail of lead. But while all this is going on, Tom’s company hardly engages the enemy. Having decided beforehand that self-preservation is more important than glory, he is pleased when the additional companies insist on taking over the front lines, relegating him to the secondary line of defense. He even chooses to move his troops further into the protective cordon without orders, ensuring his CO cannot locate him if he wishes to.
This retreat is naturally looked upon askance by Chetri and the other Gorkha warriors who are keen to be in the thick of the fight, but being staunchly loyal to their CO they confine their thoughts to themselves. Mongseng though has no such loyalty. He wants to collect heads, and the way to do that is to move forwards, not backward. Since Tom has no intention of doing so, he makes his own plans, slipping out at night at first for reconnaissance and then for hunting. On one of his excursions, he is accompanied by Raan. The cook-turned-batman has no delusions about fighting but instead wants to reach the only source of fresh water now behind Japanese lines, and Mongseng is the only man he trusts to get him there and back alive.
The days pass and the uneasy stalemate is gradually eroded. The front lines buckle under the waves of unrelenting assault, and with no distinction now between lines, Chetri and his men get their wish of confronting the Japanese. Tom’s sense of self-preservation now demands he fight for survival, which he does with every fibre of his being. Even Raan, who until then has only once fired a rifle, takes one up; the mere act of pointing and shooting giving him a kill, so numerous are the enemy. And in the midst of all this, Mongseng is a force of nature in his element, needing no gun but relying on his spear and dao with deadly effect. As the bullets run out, the others too resort to hand-to-hand fighting, stacking up the dead even as more keep running towards them.
The fight disintegrates into scattered groups as the sheer quantity of enemy troops separates and thins out the units. Tom, Chetri, Raan, and Mongseng along with one more Gorkha find themselves the only survivors of the latest strike, and arm themselves with knives, bayonets, and spears in anticipation of what they assume will be their last stand. But even as they prepare to commit themselves to the end, hope arrives in the form of fresh, armed British soldiers; it is 18th of April and the siege has been broken, allowing troops to reinforce the shaky lines and relieve those trapped.
It is not the end, however. Raan, with the inexperience of the uninitiated, mistakes the arrival of the troops with safety, and it costs him his life. As a teary-eyed Chetri cradles his lifeless form and the enraged Mongseng dispatches the sniper with his spear, Tom’s gora-sahib veneer cracks for the first and only time in his life as he embraces Raan and cries for his most loyal servant. The victory turned pyrrhic, the trio is left picking up the pieces. Even Mongseng is left questioning the senselessness of the battle, which serves no apparent purpose to his simple mind.
Relieved from the front lines, the remnants of the Assam Rifles recuperate at Imphal. They are accompanied by Mongseng; the headhunter though eager to return to his village with his trophies is at the same time intrigued by some of the trappings of modern civilization, his chieftain’s mind forever looking to better the lot of his people. His enthusiasm is dulled and soured after a few months of being treated like an exotic novelty to be exhibited by Tom, and he slips out of their lives the way he entered, silently, in the dead of night.
Bringing back his haul of forty-five heads, he is proclaimed the uncontested Wangba by his village, but there is a complication. In his prolonged absence, the missionary has connived to place his stepbrother on the throne already. Mongseng, with his altered perspective, refuses to usurp the title and insists he serve as an advisor. The action is not lost on the villagers, who see him as more powerful without the throne than with, and it also helps him ensure the missionary meddles no more. And even after many years, his record of fifty-six heads is unsurpassed, a fact his grandson observes when he returns for Mongseng’s funeral.
The main characters are so well fleshed out that the reader feels an immediate kinship with them. They may be soldiers, fighters, but none of them seem larger-than-life. Everyday people, thrust into an uncommon situation, who nonetheless do the best they can and then melt back into the everyday humdrum of life. One can see themselves in Chetri’s desire to make something of himself before returning to his village, in Raan’s conflict over choosing between right and easy, and in Mongseng’s ability to refuse power for the sake of power. And in doing so, you inevitably find yourself living their lives through the words of the book.
When talking about the Indian contribution to the Second World War, the conversation either revolves around Indian soldiers fighting in various theaters of war or around materiel supplied willingly or otherwise. There’s a third aspect to it, though; a battle fought right at India’s doorstep, a decisive one, one that has been described by some historians as the “Stalingrad of the East”. The Battle of Kohima has many similarities with Stalingrad – a small, beleaguered force surrounded by a numerically superior army, those under siege refusing to surrender and choosing to fight it out, and the relief forces finally breaking through to begin the end of the offensive.
Digonta brings history to life in his tongue-in-cheek titled Second World War Sandwich. His skill is evident as he weaves the past and the present, fact and fiction into a tale that is in equal parts funny, tragic, compelling, heroic, and insightful. It is at once a tale of finding one’s roots, of the thrill of discovering something that has always been a part of you, of the futility of any war, of the motivations that drive different people, and of widening one’s horizons through new experiences. The Battle of Kohima which initially feels like a backdrop to the tale of the central characters, reveals itself to be the catalyst that irrevocably changes their lives and worldviews.