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COMING HOME A STRANGER

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BY GANESH SAILI

‘This is Reiner Vollers,’ he said over the phone. ‘My grandfather and father were German civil internees at the POW Prem Nagar camp. Do you think I could visit the place?’ ‘Given the current security situation I don’t think that’s a good idea.’ ‘Can we meet? May I come see you?’ he asked. And a few days later, he came knocking on my door. He had with him a sheaf of documents which told his story. As enemy aliens, his grandfather and father were picked up in Batavia – as Jakarta in the Dutch East Indies was called up until 1949.Put aboard a ship in Indonesia on a voyage that lasted several months, they berthed in Bombay and travelled by train to Dehradun. ‘By now, my father had just come of age, and was separated from my strict grandfather – much to grandfather’s disgust but to my father’s everlasting glee!’ he chuckles. ‘Look Ganesh what tolerant times those were! Our British captors brought in other prisoners-of-war from overseas. They were folks who knew the German language and were able to teach the boys in captivity to give them a proper education. ‘He played football and hockey and ended up befriending a fellow German. They were allowed visits to Astley Hall but always under escort.’ We would do well to remember that between 1940 and 1946, there were almost 80,000 soldiers and civilians who were put into six internment camps across India. The Central Internment Camp or CIC as it was called, was in Prem Nagar and had civilians and senior military officers. ‘Of course, father met the Austrian, Heinreich Harrer, who’d been picked up in Karachi,’ Reiner tells me. Harrer’s escape made him the poster-boy of the Prem Nagar Camp, even as he made his way across the Himalaya to Lhasa. You can read all about it in his best-seller Seven Years in Tibet. ‘Wherever I live,’ he later wrote: ‘I shall feel homesick for Tibet. I often think I can still hear the cries of the wild geese and cranes and the beating of their wings as they fly over Lhasa in the clear cold moonlight.’ Meanwhile in 1936, an Italian priest, Father Clement had his hands full trying to set up a housing colony for Anglo-Indians in Clement Town. But the government ‘temporarily’ took over the land. ‘I do hope to come back and see you all once again in the spot, which is dear to my heart,’ Father Clement wrote to a friend on July 24, 1952. But it was not to be. Three days after reaching Italian shores, he passed away. And Clement Town’s ‘temporary camps’ were never restored to their owners. Father Clement’s dream lay in shreds. ‘Father Luke, the Catholic chaplain thoroughly deserves the grateful thanks of his flock,’ writes author A. R. Gill in his Valley of the Doon (1952). He persuaded the Italian artist, Nino La Civita, to paint the interior of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi abutting Parade Ground. Of course by 1944, the war was coming to an end and back in Ward 12 of the internment camp, Hermann Voller made plans of returning home. ‘I’m am going back to Batavia. That’s where I’ve left my heart. Germany is not for me,’ Announced father’s young friend, slipping into his hands a letter to his parents just in case he visited them. ‘Armed with that letter, my father met the boy’s parents, who were the milk of human kindness, welcoming him with open arms and gifted him a piece of land that had been kept aside for their son. That was the beginning of our lives in post-war Germany.’ ‘Did they ever make up – your father and grandfather?’ I ask Reiner. He laughs: ‘At the end of his life, the years of pain rushed back at him, making Grandpa a bitter man. He had lost everything – twice over. Angry and broken, he never got over it. He received the news of my parent’s engagement with a dreadful silence, refusing to attend their wedding. But it was not as if my mother and father seemed to miss him either!’ I guess some men come home strangers.