6 November 2010, 6:32pm, my bookshelf, Toronto, Ontario
"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row..."
-excerpt from In Flanders Fields, written in 1915 by Major John McCrae,
a Canadian military doctor stationed in Europe during WWI
How many poppies do you buy and lose, then buy again as the days lead up to 11 November? On the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour, we remember those that have fallen for our freedoms. The time and day marks the anniversary of the WWI Armistice, and yet we know, all too well, the many wars that have been fought since then in the pursuit of that very freedom.
When we learned history in school as children, the Remembrance Day lessons began simply - we would draw poppies and crosses on large posters beside the neatly printed lines of this poem. As the years progressed, I learned that I loved history, writing eloquent essays in high school about the cause and effect of art, literature, imperialism, revolutions and war in modern Western civilization.
In all those years, it never occurred to me that, by learning all this history and attending high school Remembrance Day assemblies, we were also honouring the many anonymous soldiers who came from the colonies of the conflicted Western powers, like the Indian subcontinent, but were buried across Europe.
Until 1996, when I watched the film adaptation of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, with Naveen Andrews as Kip, an Indian Sikh enlisted with the British Army during WWII. Then I read The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh, which includes storylines of Indian soldiers - Arjun, Hardy and Dinu - torn between their loyalties to the Indian Nation or the British Crown. I began to realize how little I had known about history and my worldview expanded.
More recently, I read The Tiger Claw by Shauna Singh Baldwin. I'm haunted by the story of Noor Inayat Khan, an Indian Muslim woman, who lived in England, moved to France and was shot by the Germans near the end of WWII for being a British spy. The novel's heroine, setting and themes show how the motivations of soldiers and the casualties of war are many, varied and deeply personal.
Literature has played it's part in opening my eyes to the larger picture of just who it is I honour when I pick up a poppy every November. And in the last few years, there's now a name and identity for one of these previously unknown soldiers. As Canadians of Indian ancestry, we can be proud of the knowledge that we now have a presence in the history of the freedom we cherish with the discovery of a Victory medal from WWI belonging to Private Buckham Singh.
Private Singh came to British Columbia in 1907 at the age of 14. He enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the spring of 1915, serving with the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion, making him one of nine Canadian Sikh soldiers who fought in WWI. After being wounded on Flanders field, he was treated at a hospital run by Major John McCrae. Private Singh spent his last days at a military hospital in Kitchener, Ontario, dying at the age of 25 in 1919. Since 2008, a memorial service has been held every November at his gravesite.
History is full of connections, sacrifices and unknown tales. As the stories continue coming to light, we learn more about who we are, what we are connected to and why those connections are meaningful. Our world becomes smaller with every story, yet the conflicts continue and our soldiers march on.
Lest we forget.