The engine of the faded yellow Standard Herald came to life, with Wing Commander Ron D’Cunha behind its wheel, his complexion much like the car he sat in. It was Sunday morning – time for the D’Cunha family’s weekly visit to the Church and the botanical gardens. Five minutes after Ron started his car, each of the D’Cunha daughters would step out of the front door of their little house. The first three would get into the backseat of the car, while the fourth locked the door, unlocked the gate and waited till the car had descended onto the street. She would then lock the gate and jump into the front seat of the car, which would soon speed off towards the end of the street, take a turn and disappear into the city. Two hours later, the exact same process would occur once again, only this time, in reverse. By 2PM the house would look desolate once again.
Ron D’Cunha was an old man with a head devoid of any features but for a group of freckles on either side. He was usually spotted in a white cotton shirt, grey trousers and a pair of bright blue rubber slippers as he went about the yard of his house every evening. It was his lineage that gave him his light grey eyes, but his experiences that afforded him the incising look he treated every passerby to. In the 1971 war, D’Cunha’s fighter squadron was assigned to cover a 200Km strip of the India-Pakistan border. During the first air raids of December 1971, D’Cunha had led his Hunter squadron under the escort of two MiG-21 fighter aircraft towards the sand dunes of the Thar to destroy a brigade of enemy tanks moving swiftly into Indian territory. Mid-way, the squadron had engaged a group Sabres of
the Pakistan Air Force which promptly shot D’Cunha’s leading Hunter out of the sky. Crashing into the hot sands of the Thar, he knew it was far from over. D’Cunha spent the next three years in a Lahore prison, after being picked up a Pakistani tank commander. Shamsher Khan had carried him as prisoner through his brigade’s assault on the Indian lines, and their subsequent retreat. He had taken a liking to D’Cunha, and during a halt on the way back to Karachi, had narrated to him stories of his
daughters. Zainaab, his youngest had been recently married off to a handsome young man from an affluent political family in Lahore. Months later, she had written to Shamsher of the cruelty of her in-laws, and infidelity of her husband. His daughter was shattered, and there was nothing he could do. He had entrusted his precious Zainaab to a young man who had turned out to be the devil himself.
D’Cunha caught a glimpse of a tear at the corner of Shamsher’s eye as he narrated the story by a campfire on the outskirts of Mirpur Khas. There he was, a prisoner of war, in the enemy’s land, near the enemy’s tanks, listening to this enemy commander pour his heart out to him. They were at war, yet the only rage D’Cunha felt at that moment was for the deceiving
plunderers of Shamsher’s Zainaab. With every mention of her name he pictured his own daughters. At last, he spoke, “We’re fighting the wrong battle”.
The next morning, Shamsher Khan was ordered to deliver his prisoner to the command post at Hyderabad. As the jeep carrying them pulled into the army compound, Shamsher turned to D’Cunha and smiled reassuringly. He said nothing, but D’Cunha knew that he wouldn’t see the commander again.
D’Cunha was interned at Hyderabad for six months, after which he was moved to Lahore. He wasn’t allowed to write home, nor contact his commanders. He was, however, allowed visitors – a privilege he knew he would never get to enjoy. He spent his days thinking about his wife Mala, and how he’d met her during ballroom dancing lessons in Panjim in the early 60s. He wondered whether Mary Anne, Lisa, Linda and Linette had grown any taller, and if they had already started reading. Did they know where he was? He was sure his eldest, the six year old Mary Anne knew by now that her Daddy was fighting in the war. He tried to imagine what they had eaten for lunch, and how Mala had dressed them up each day. His solitude, in some way, kept him sane.
In October 1974, D’Cunha was put into a waiting truck with other Indian prisoners – the warring nations had agreed to a “prisoner trade”. However, only a few lucky ones found themselves a part of it. The prisoners were allowed a shower, and change of clothes before being marched down to
the Wagah border checkpost, where cheering crowds awaited the prisoners on both sides. As D’Cunha marched towards the Indian side, a little boy ran up alongside him and slipped a grey strip of Pakistan Army insignia into his hands. Crossing into no man’s land, D’Cunha turned to get a look at the boy, only to find the smiling face of Shamsher Khan staring back at him. A few seconds later, he had disappeared into the crowd. D’Cunha examined the insignia, and upon turning it around, found scribbled across the strip the words – “The battle has been won. Zainaab is free”.
D’Cunha had returned to Panjim in 1974 only to find his house locked, with no signs of Mala or his daughters. Walking to the city to call Mala’s parents, he had spotted Linette in the grounds of the local church. He soon found Mary Anne, Lisa and Linda inside with the priest, who seemed rather shocked seeing D’Cunha. Mala had suffered a stroke when she was informed that her husband was missing in action. She was somehow sure that he was dead. She passed away in the winter of 1972, leaving the girls to the care of the priest.
In 1975, D’Cunha moved the family to a little house in the suburbs of Bangalore. He bought a bright yellow car, and took his daughters out every
weekend to Cubbon park for picnics, and to the movies. He stuck to them, and they clung to him. They refused to go on school trips, choosing instead to stay with D’Cunha in their little home. There was nothing that could pry them apart.
As they grew older, they found themselves getting the attention of excited young boys in school. Having never been told of how a lady must respond to the advances of young men, they asked the only person they knew – their father. The story he had heard in the middle of the desert on that fateful night in December 1971 resonated in his mind, no boy was to ever come close to his daughters. He forbade them from talking to boys; having no one else to advise them, they agreed. And thus began the forever- unmarried lives of the D’Cunha daughters.
However sad this may seem to you, every Sunday morning when the D’Cunhas sit down in their old car, one thing never escapes your attention – they’re happy, always smiling and laughing with each other. And as they disappear into the city for those two hours every Sunday, you look back towards the locked gates of the D’Cunha house to see a lonely black nameplate staring back at you:
Written by Sumeet Kumar.