Wasteland

Tanmoy Goswami loses his way in no man’s land.

 

“When the sniper reached the laneway on the street level, he felt a sudden curiosity as to the identity of the enemy sniper whom he had killed….He wondered did he know him. Perhaps he had been in his own company before the split in the army. He decided to risk going over to have a look at him…. A machine gun tore up the ground around him with a hail of bullets, but he escaped. He threw himself face downward beside the corpse. The machine gun stopped.

Then the sniper turned over the dead body and looked into his brother’s face.”

 

I first read Liam O’ Flaherty’s war story The Sniper in 1999 as part of my tenth board syllabus. I could swear the dead brother in the climax felt mine, such was the awe and shock of that last line which stayed with me for years. Events around the world only added to the macabre feeling. On 1 March 1999, days before my final exams, Rwandan Hutu rebels killed and dismembered eight foreign tourists in Uganda. On 24 March, while I was cramming up the history of the Irish civil war (1922-23) to prepare for ‘reference to context’ questions based on O’ Flaherty’s story, NATO started bombing the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. On 7 April, even as I was mourning the end of my favourite language and literature section of the exams, Serbian forces were sealing Kosovo’s border crossings to prevent ethnic Albanians from leaving the region. And on 26 July, when I was trying to convince reluctant parents that I mustn’t be forced to study science, India declared victory in the Kargil war because our army had supposedly killed more Pakistani soldiers than they had ours. In the middle of all this, some people were predicting the end of the world owing to some computer bug. I was struggling to make sense of things. The twentieth century was drawing to a close.

In the final reckoning, and in spite of the best efforts of the global media, it was war and not Y2K that claimed the twentieth century as its own. In the process, it picked up many adjectives, ‘absurd’, ‘insane’ and ‘needless’ being only few, but the truth is this: war was the only phenomenon that had stayed relevant right through those 100 years. Nothing had managed to unite human beings with greater finality than war, not man landing on moon; not the fall of the Empire; not the progress from vacuum tubes to microchips; not even global warming. It was war that had birthed the twentieth century, and only war had the right to lay it to rest.

So the war in erstwhile Yugoslavia and its aftermath (1992-99) came at just the right time, giving the century an apt laying-to-rest as it were. Decades after the world thought it had seen the end of ‘ethnical cleansing’ with the dismantling of the Concentration Camps, thousands of Bosnians (and later, Kosovar Albanians) were murdered in a systematic genocide. The UN, that delicate angel born out of monstrosity, was reduced to nothingness. And the once-formidable Yugoslav nation splintered into tiny pieces ill-equipped to do anything but maniacally wage war to assert their sovereignty, each piece a little no man’s land lobbed about along the trajectory of violence.

Right after the end of the century, Danis Tanovic chronicled a part of the spectacular madness of it all through No Man’s Land (2001), which won the 2002 Oscar for being the best foreign language film. If there were any doubts about war’s continued stranglehold over public imagination, that victory over four feel-good films from India, France, Norway and Argentina should have annulled them. By the time I watched the film five years later though, I was tiring of war. I had realised that war was a pretty good bet to stupefy anyone who had grown up in the twentieth century, a most unfortunate revelation because it immediately deflated the awe and shock of reading the O’ Flaherty story. I had also realised why ‘absurd’, ‘insane’ and ‘needless’ had gotten the better of ‘relevant’ as an adjective for much of what war came to be associated with.

That is not to say No Man’s Land is not a relevant or a well-made film. It is very relevant, if only as a document on the Bosnian crisis, and there is no denying the richness of its dark comedy. But in a world where war has become the ultimate metanarrative, the film’s little jokes and allusions appear staid, like a déjà vu which actively tells you it will show you nothing new.

Three soldiers––one Serbian and two Bosnian, one of them lying on a bouncing mine––are trapped in a trench between their lines, inventing charades for help that never comes. It is not too difficult to read the parallels with a certain pair of tramps waiting for Godot (Beckett’s existentialist outcry was published in 1952), or with the marooned American and Japanese soldiers forced to partner each other for survival in the World War II film Hell in the Pacific (made by John Boorman in 1968). There are other references straight out of a soldier’s diary: sample the scene where an anxious guide asks a bunch of lost soldiers to put out their cigarettes in order to stay invisible in the night fog. Remember Hector Hugh Munro and his alleged last words before being shot dead during World War I: “Put that bloody cigarette out!”? Or for those who have read it, even the sniper in O’ Flaherty’s story who gives in to the temptation of lighting a cigarette in the darkness of the parapet, only to be shot at from the opposite terrace? Then there’s UN bashing galore, a glimmer of friendship between two bitter adversaries, soldier banter around women and their photographs, media inanities over war and even a joke on another war (the one in Rwanda)––all of which together feel like a point stretched too far, even straight out of a JP Dutta canvas. Yes, war is evil, and yes, no one cares for the puny soldiers stuck in no man’s land, but is that really an education for someone who has studied a history textbook half-full of accounts of Nazism and Fascism? Or who used to have nightmares after reading Eliot’s Waste Land?

But perhaps I am being harsh on the film because I am generally done with all things war. Perhaps the point is exactly that war restricts expressive choices, stunts your ability to receive the ‘message’ and drowns you in fatigue. You set out to write about an acclaimed war film, and you end up rambling about the wars you remember from your lifetime. So you give up, and you wait for the next emblem of apocalypse, and you can only hope it rides on a different evil, one that can shock like the face of the first brother you killed.

Published in the UTV World Movies Magazine, December 09 issue, as a companion piece to the cover story on No Man’s Land.

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