Transcript of a conversation with a retired colonel in the Corps of Engineers

NB: This is an extract from my novel Revolution Highway, published in 2010. This is a true story, related to me by my dear maternal uncle, Lt Col Ivo Pinto-Lobo, a few months before my manuscript went to press. I decided to include it in my book, which was also – in a way – about fathers and sons. And what his story told me was a simple truth: history as written is different from history as experienced by ordinary human beings.

Most, if not all of that is lost, and it contains no Grand March of Progress, no story of National Glory; just the beauty and grandeur and tragedies of the lives of little people. This story would have been utterly lost, had not my uncle told it to me. I place it here as a token of love and esteeem for him; and in remembrance of a young man who was looking for his father. May God grant him peace. DS


‘It was an afternoon in early November 1971. First Corps were camped in Pathankot area awaiting marching orders. I was posted at Headquarters. I received a call from my boss, who told me to contact the local Intelligence Bureau, who had sent information about the capture of a suspected foreign spy. I proceeded to Pathankot police HQ where I introduced myself and was immediately led to an IB officer, who took me to another building, the place where prisoners
were remanded for questioning. The man had lines of cruelty across his jowls, thick brows, glowering eyes. I remember being struck by his face – there was something bestial about it, like a hyena. As we walked down the corridors, he told me the background. Two days ago, they had captured an English-speaking white man loitering around the army transport depot. He had an unlikely explanation for being there, and was probably an agent for the Pakis. They had informed Army HQ, as part of procedural obligations.

‘We entered a small room – a torture chamber, I soon realised. There was a young man laid across a wooden rack, his arms in chains, his feet in stocks, so he couldn’t get up. He couldn’t have been much older than in his early twenties. I sat down next to him. The IB fellow was hanging about, so I asked him if we could be alone. It’s all right, sir, he growled, I can take notes for you. I told him there was no need, I’d prefer to talk to the prisoner by myself. I asked for the handcuffs to be unlocked – his legs were immobile anyway, what harm could be do? He left after reluctantly doing what I told him.

I turned to the boy and asked him who he was. Was he English? He said yes. He squirmed now and then, to relieve his limbs, and rubbed his legs with his hands. His face had a pleading look about it, he had light brown hair and eyes and aquiline features. A sweetlooking boy. What the hell was he doing here? I asked, didn’t he know this was a war zone? Why was he so far from home? He said there’d been a misunderstanding, he wasn’t doing anything wrong; he was just
looking for his father. What? I asked. He told me his story. His Anglo-Indian mother had been a nurse. She had worked a couple of years in Kashmir just after Partition, and had fallen in love with a Kashmiri politician. The boy was born out of wedlock, and the politician had disowned the nurse. She had migrated to the UK soon afterwards, and had never revealed to her son who his father was. Of late, she had been stricken with cancer. On her deathbed she had told him the whole story, and given him a photograph of the three of them. But she never said his name.

After she died, he determined to find his father, and came to India with very little money, and just the photograph to help him in his search. On his first visit to Srinagar in October, he was told the leaders were in Simla for a security conference. He went there, roamed around government offices and was told to go back to Kashmir. Two days ago, he had arrived in Pathankot and somehow found himself near the transport depot, he didn’t have any idea where he was, and didn’t mean any harm. He just wanted to meet his father, and show him the photo.

‘I was dumbfounded. The story was so strange it had to be true. I could see it in his eyes. He had been tortured, he said, the police were convinced he was lying. He had been beaten on the soles of his feet, and was in extreme pain. He then reached into the insides of his clothes and produced an old black-and-white photograph of a middle-aged man and a young woman with a child in her arms. It must’ve been taken with one of those early Kodak box cameras. The man was clean-shaven, tall and good looking, the woman had a charming smile and yes, maybe she was Anglo –
Indian. Somehow the cops had missed the photo when they’d searched him.

As I looked at it and wondered who the man might be, the boy pleaded his innocence: please sir, get me out of here, I didn’t mean any harm, I promise. I rose after sitting with him for nearly an hour. I patted his shoulder, told him I’d see what I could do, and left, bumping into the IB officer in the corridor. The boy looks harmless, I told him, he’s just wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time. I returned to HQ and reported my assessment to the general.

‘Things got busy after that. War broke out in early December and took up all my energy. We captured a Pakistani Second Lieutenant in the tank battles in Shakargarh, turned out to be a descendant of Sikandar Hayat Khan, you’ve heard of him, the famous Punjab leader? But that’s another story. After the ceasefire, the general asked me to check up on the boy. I called the IB and asked to speak to the officer in charge of the case.

The hyena came on the line. Hello sir, he said, and I asked what happened to the English prisoner? Oh him, he said, he was shot while attempting to escape, soon after hostilities broke out. I banged the phone down. I knew right away what had happened. The IB must have seen the photo and identified the Kashmiri politician. He must have been an important man, and an illegitimate son too inconvenient. So he was disposed of. In all the horror of war, I’ve never forgotten that terrified face in the interrogation chamber. A boy in chains. Looking for his father. Shot while trying to escape.’

Pp 309-311, Revolution Highway, (2010)

Lt Colonel Ivo Pinto Lobo (1929-2021). Farewell beloved Uncle