Letter to an Unknown Soldier was a project initiated by Kate Pullinger and Neil Bartlett to create a memorial of words. For me, the best kind of memorial.
I felt a need to write my letter, not because I celebrate war, but because I empathised with the suffering of individuals amidst that carnage and wondered how they managed to keep their values and beliefs. And for the other Unknown Soldiers, the ones ignored by British history, who came from distant parts of the world.
London. 31st July 2014
Dear Unknown Soldier,
You represent so many. Though not all of them look like you. Their skin may be different, their language unknown to you and their Gods worshipped by different names, but they stand next to you. Fighting the same war, on the same side, suffering the same horror and violence.
As you read your letter, my grandfather, Bir Singh Randhawa, from the 25th Punjabis, seconded to a Punjabi Regiment in France, may be reading his also. Are you both thinking of the homes left behind? As you remember the peace of your English streets, he is remembering the light of his sun-drenched fields in the Punjab. As you wonder if you’ll ever see your family again, he is wondering the same. As you shout your war cry and run into battle, he shouts his war cry and runs into battle. Fighting the same war, in the same terrible fields, he is your unknown soldier.
I abhor war and see it as the greatest tragedy we inflict upon ourselves, and believe that if we so willed it, we could evolve pathways to peace. I can only imagine the suffering and desperation you endure and honour your’s and my grandfather’s principles, sacrifice, strength and courage.
From wars to words: three decades later, my father rides his horse through the dark and dangerous countryside of partition Punjab, risking his life, to deliver to safety five copies of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. Villages, which feared the atrocities and brutalities unleashed by the partition have entrusted their copies to my family’s care.
In both cases, it’s the commitment to an ideal of goodness, to beliefs that transcend barbarity and savagery that I admire and am grateful for. Beliefs which have allowed me access to education, civil liberties, dignity, the freedom to pursue my vocation and develop my own ideas and philosophy. Known and unknown soldiers: thank you.
Wars and words, I’m a descendant of both. As we all are. Wars and words are instruments that define us, but I would prefer that words overtook wars, and individuals no longer needed to suffer its tragedies. Wars are tribal, they run their cycles, come and go, but they leave a legacy, a template of enmity and violence; which gives the illusion that wars are the only process and violence the only truth. I beg to disagree.
I believe that words and ideas are the pathways to peace, and peace is the pathway to ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’
Wars come and go, empires rise and fall, but words turn the engines of change and like underground rivers, words endure. The following phrases sum it up.
“…many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills.” Hamlet, Act 2,scene2.
‘Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword.’
(Bulwer-Lytton 1839, Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy)