Memories of 1971

Memories of 1971

The recent conflict between India and Pakistan brought back memories of the Indo-Pak war of 1971.

I was a primary school student in Mumbai, then known as Bombay. Being the financial capital of India, it was a prime target for the enemy country. People strictly adhered to the instructions issued by the authorities. Headlights of vehicles were half-painted black horizontally, to deflect their beams downwards to the ground.

Blackouts were conducted to minimise outdoor light to prevent enemy aircraft from being able to identify their targets by sight. At night, when the siren was sounded, people would voluntarily switch off all lights. The blackout would end after an all-clear siren was sounded. Whether there really was an air raid or it was an exercise for the citizens to be alert, we would never know.

There used to be mock drills in my school, St Anthony’s High School, in Santacruz, located not very far from the airport, a potential target for the enemy. St Anthony’s Church was flanked by two blocks of school buildings. We were instructed to rush into the church when the siren (in this case, the school bell) was sounded. On hearing the mock drill ‘siren’, we all would run to the church as instructed. Whether there would be divine intervention in the event of a real bombing was something I could never really fathom. I find it amusing when I think of it today.

I had no fear of enemy attack on the city, until one night fear gripped me with its icy hands as it did all the residents in Vakola locality of Santacruz. The reason: a series of red balls of fire had floated in the air moments after a blackout, and this was something the people had never before witnessed. Many thought it was the enemy bombing the city.

Although it was dark, I was still playing in the bylanes with a neighbourhood friend when I saw the red balls of fire. I was scared stiff, as also my friend. This is our end, I thought. We both decided to rush to the nearest shelter, which happened to be a Hanuman Mandir.

We waited with bated breaths, until we heard the all-clear siren and the lights were switched on. Next day, the fiery red balls were the talk of the town.

A few years later, I came to know that these orbs of fire were part of an anti-aircraft warfare to scare the enemy away during air raids. They were directed at a hostile aircraft to destroy them or chase them away. They posed a collision risk, making the attacker’s approach more difficult.

The war ended within 13 days. Pakistan had surrendered. The boys in the neighbourhood made an effigy of Yahya Khan, the then President of Pakistan. They took the effigy on a procession and later burnt it while shouting the slogan, “Hazaar din ladnewala, terah din mein murdabad.” Loosely translated, it meant, “The man who swore to fight for a thousand days, has been vanquished in 13 days.”  

The slogan is still ringing in my ears.

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