This is the story of a very inspirational 98 year old Indian World War II and army veteran whom I met in Bengaluru. He led an amazingly difficult life but was still a very cheerful and happy person. His story is truly uplifting and touched everyone he met.
by PS Prakruthi
In the month of May 2008, I made another cherished trip to India. Unlike other trips where I would mostly spend time in my grandmother’s home, talk and laugh with my relatives and friends, explore the local areas and tour the famous sites of the South, during this trip my family and I went to see the awe-inspiring Himalayas. Having lived and grown up in the U.S., to touch the soil of the Rishis and visit Vyasa’s cave, see the origin of the Saraswati River, and visit the very last village at the Indian border was overwhelming that cannot be articulated. I felt at peace and rejuvenated. Later, I went back for a few days to Bengaluru, to Vyalikaval extension, 4th main road. What more could this visit have in store?
Down the road, adjacent to my grandparents’ home is an old nondescript house. Among all the bustle and clatter of busy the 2nd main road, living alone, not in the nondescript house, but in its 10ft x 10ft shed, was a quiet and elderly gentleman. This man sat serenely in a small chair with a japa mala in one hand quietly doing japa. The shed was extremely austere, but the gentleman, looking younger than his 98 years, always wore a tranquil smile. He carried a worn pocket-sized copy of the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit with him always. If you happened to notice him, and took time to ask, he would tell you his compelling and unbelievable life story.
Born on May 5, 1910, in what was known as British Malaya, he had a peaceful existence until he was 12 years old. Without warning, his parents were tragically killed in their home by a bomb. A war was going on then and bombings had become commonplace. The young child had been to school and came home to find his parents killed and his home destroyed. This horrific incident sent him into shock and he had to be taken care of by a neighbour. His mind had erased the memory of who he was and he could not recall his name or that of his family and life. While he was thus recuperating, the British came in and without a hint took him away to serve in the British army. At the age of 12 he lost his parents, his home and his freedom.
“The Britishers asked me my name and when I told them that I did not remember, they gave me one,” he said on the day I met him in 2008, sitting behind a desk beside a picture of Shirdi Sai Baba. “So, they said ‘OK, from now on you will be called Shankar Rao,’”. Ripped from the only family and home he ever knew, Shankar Rao at the age of 12 was put to work in the British military. He had to live and move with the British army soldiers, wherever they were encamped and engage whomever they battled with. Rao said that he and other Indian children were used as workers to help in the battlefields, helping to load ammunition and to be at the service of the British soldiers during battles.
When he turned 14, Rao was then forced to fight in the British army. He fought in battles of wars that he knew little of much less why he was fighting. He fought in Burma; he describes how, as a child soldier, he walked with other children soldiers from Singapore to Thailand and from Burma to Manipur to Assam. In Burma and Thailand he fought under the command of Lord Wavell, the Field Marshall for his unit. When they had reached Assam by foot, the British took the Indian soldiers to Kabul and then Kandahar. Then the British decided that he would fight for them in Europe during World War II.
Having survived the battles in Asia he was sent to fight in the Middle East, then onward to Tunisia, Africa, and finally, to the Italian warfront. Rao recalled how the British, Americans, and Russians had pushed the German forces back. He vividly remembered the Indian freedom fighters who were being held in the Andaman Islands being released. Among them was Subhash Chandra Bose, who was the leader of the Indian freedom forces. Rao animatedly described that he witnessed many of the unspeakable horrors that were prevalent in World War II. He sadly stated that there was so much blood and destruction that he had witnessed unceasingly since his childhood and now in the worldwide conflict that he became seriously ill. He was weak and in need of serious recuperation, his mind once again had come under the constant onslaught of violence. In 1944, with the war coming to a frenzied end, he was finally sent back to India with barely any strength, his body and mind exhausted and broken. He spent the next three months recuperating in the General Hospital in Delhi. Mercifully perhaps, some of the atrocities he had once again witnessed in the long war were erased from his memory.
I asked Rao how he was treated by the British who needed him and others like him to fight their wars. Rao said that the Indian soldiers were mistreated and discriminated against; there was a lot of racism, and in battle, that made things even more perilous. Rao recalled that the world and Indian history of that time lucidly, a unique historian that one would be hard pressed to find nowadays. He remembered pivotal moments not only in WW II but also in the quest for India’s people gaining their much fought for independence. He described how at that time he was in the hospital in Delhi, Subhash Chandra Bose was captured and his personal assistant SA Iyer was released. After his brief rest at the hospital, the British weren’t finished with him; he was sent to Jabalpur to work in the armoury making guns and weapons for the British. But by this time, India’s people had risen. Once again Rao would be called upon to fight and risk his well-being and life. But this time was different. Now he would finally be fighting for his own people and for his country. During the violence that marked the days of the Indian partition, Rao fought to defend India against Pakistan’s attacks. India was finally free of the British despot and so was he. He went on to defend India against China in 1964 when the Chinese attacked Indian Territory.
Rao served and sacrificed for his country again and again and was unsung, unheard of, and unknown. There are few Indians of my generation who know of or can comprehend it. I imagined him as a young boy, losing his family, forced to work and fight for the foreigners that were ruling his land and finally being able to fight for his own people. My journey to the Himalayas, to the borders of India, everything that I was able to see and revel in is only possible because of the tremendous sacrifice of heroes like Rao who fought to make freedom possible. Most of them are totally unheard of and their life stories cannot even be retold to the younger generation because so few are alive now who can tell it. So much has gone unrecorded. The history books banally repeat the same tired and prosaic litany of ‘events’.
Moreover, I was astonished to note that Rao told his story without any bitterness or contempt for those who had taken everything away from him and brought so much turmoil to his life. His eyes have compassion and understanding in them as he detailed his past tribulations and those of others he knew. In fact, if one had seen him one would not even guess that his life had been touched by anything untoward. One might wonder how this is possible – for a 98 year old man without any living family who has to live alone on his military pension and whose living arrangements are literally ascetic. He called his small room with a cot, a bookcase and a desk his home. There was no running water in the room, only one cold water faucet behind the shed where he took his bath. Yet, he never complained and looked happy and peaceful.
How, I wondered, can a person who had sacrificed and suffered so much, went totally unnoticed and unappreciated, who was elderly and alone, got that kind of contentment and insight? Rao himself provided the answer. He said his immense strength and implacable serenity came to him directly from a Higher source. He was a very devout man and he believed there was only good in this world. “Of course everything is fundamentally good,” he said, as though it should be obvious to everyone. “If you think everything is good, you yourself are God. Paramathma lives in you. “ I asked him if he had any family that he knows of, I was startled by his reply: “Everyone I meet is my family, whoever talks to me, I see them as a member of my family.” He said with a smile on his face. Rao firmly believed in the power of good thoughts and was constantly doing japa. “Instead of thinking nonsense, or gossiping, I do japa. Even when I have a few minutes with nothing to do or if I’m waiting for someone or something, I do japa.” He stated. Throughout his life, his unshakeable faith in God and his deep-rooted Hindu values kept him grounded and saved him from anguish and despair. “Certainly, that faith in Him is what has kept me so long and so well”.
I thanked Rao profusely for taking the time and effort to share his remarkable story with me; to this he replied “I am so happy to see a young person such as you, who wants to know and learn about our past. It is so important that everyone understand their history and past and not forget. For the present generation life is different; they want money and enjoyment, they care not for other things. But if everybody is willing to learn the world will be a beautiful place. God Bless you”.
And I do feel truly blessed that my remarkable journey which took me to the peaks of the Himalayas and down South to Bengaluru ended with my finding out about this extraordinary 98 year old veteran gentleman who personified sacrifice, kindness and everything our Hindu and Vedic knowledge embodies. My husband says Rao reminded him of a Kannada poem by D.V. Gundappa which means: “Let me be like a flower in the dense jungle that blooms and is fragrant even when no one is there to appreciate its beauty; let me bloom for the sake of the Lord.”
Shankar Rao passed away peacefully in his sleep on Vishu/ Tamil New Year day (April 14, 2009) at the age of 98. He donated his eyes and his body to hospitals for the benefit of others.