“Steady your breathing Naba. You are one with the forest. The jungle is an extension of you, an amplification of your senses. That which grows, creeps, crawls, and moves in it – you are aware of its presence. The night is your prowl and darkness your element,” whispered the ninety-year-old warrior Akoijam to his prodigy. War was in Naba’s blood. For generations, the stealthy fighters of his secret sect were selected from birth and trained to silently guard this region of the northeastern mountain frontier of the Indian subcontinent.
Sucking in the cold forest air of the Shirui Hills through his nostrils, stretching and filling his lungs to the maxim, Naba blew hard into his bamboo blowpipe. A needle-like poisoned wooden projective split through the pitch-black and deathly jungle night and lodged itself into the neck of a Japanese death squad soldier, who instantly fell to the ground and twitched for a few seconds before breathing his last on the wet and cold forest floor far away from his home in Japan’s Kyushu region.
At the height of the Second World War, in March 1943, when the Burma Area Army of the Japanese Imperial Army was created under the leadership of Lieutenant-General Masakazu Kawabe, Lieutenant-General Renya Mutaguchi was appointed to command its subordinate formation, the Fifteenth Army.
The Fifteenth was responsible for the central part of the front, facing the Indian states of Imphal and Assam. From the time Mutaguchi took command, he forcefully advocated an invasion of the Indian subcontinent to cripple the southeast Asian supply lines of the allied forces. It would take more than a year to finally set in motion Mutaguchi’s dream.
Using haragei, an unspoken form of interpersonal communication with gestures only, General Mutaguchi addressed Toshiro Yamamoto the captain of a secret and specialised infiltration unit of the Fifteenth Army known as the Menimienai-ryoku or the ‘Invisible Force.’ Both the men bowed at each other, and Captain Yamamoto exited the bunker located on the Burmese side of the Japanese offensive.
“Nihon wa Indo o seifuku shimasu (Japan will conquer India),” softly spoke captain Toshiro inaudible to anyone but himself, contemplating the gist of the Lieutenant-General’s unspoken communication to him. He knew that he and the men of his death squad were the only hope for the Japanese to win.
Back in March 1944, the Japanese had finally embarked on their India offensive. For the next three months, warfare disrupted the serenity and the scenic beauty of this jungle-mountain domain. Brutal guerilla combat had broken between the Japanese Fifteenth Army and the Allied forces comprising of British, Gurkha, and Indian men.
Within three months, by May 1944, when the Japanese had realised that perhaps they could not win the battle, they had a sudden breakthrough that could change the tides. Lieutenant-General Mutaguchi had finally found a winning strategy that could possibly secure a Japanese victory.
Captain Yamamoto and his death squad of Menimienai-ryoku (The Invisible Force) was the spear-tip of this winning strategy but no one could know anything about it. Highly skilled duos of Turban clad Sikh wireless operators and Japanese speaking British officers of the Allied forces were always listening. Hence the clandestine meeting in person without words was necessary between the Lieutenant-General and the death squad captain of a nearly defeated army.
Addressing his men using the wordless gestured communication of haragei, Captain Toshiro Yamamoto conveyed that the Japanese offensive at both Imphal and Kohima was not working. There was however a way to perhaps change the tide of the battle. A tract of previously unconsidered dense forest in the home of the Tangkhul Nagas in the Ukhrul district could be the path to Japanese success. Pointing out the mysterious hilly forest on a hand-drawn map Captain Yamamoto let the soldiers memorise the possible location and route before throwing the chart into a crackling fire that had been giving a little warmth to him and his men.
Only if the Fifteenth Army could penetrate this unguarded forest, they would land right in the middle of the Allied supply line between Imphal and Kohima. They could easily cut the Allied reinforcements. Now the Menimienai-ryoku only had to secure and open up a funnel of a pathway through the forest for the Japanese to enter into the subcontinent and acquire a strategic stronghold in this northeastern jungle-mountain domain.
Toshiro Yamamoto was a man of honour. From as back as the twelfth century, his ancestors had been Samurai warriors, well-paid retainers of the great feudal landlords, the daimyo. Like his forefathers, the army captain believed in the bushido codes of martial values. Unflinching loyalty and indifference to pain were two of his strongest virtues. The Katana that he carried on his hip, made from Japanese Tamahagane Steel, was passed down to him through the generations, and he knew how to use it.
Keeping his warrior lineage aside, Toshiro San had a gentle soul and a kind heart. Back in Japan, before the war, he led the life of a farmer, working his small patch of land at the foot of Mount Iwate. Like many other Japanese, he was against the war but had to take part in it to defend his family honour and stick by the choices that his nation made.
Though officially Japan entered World War II when it seized Manchuria in 1931, it was not the starting point of their aggression. This seizing spree of hostility began as a land-grabbing power when Japan gradually started to take over one island after the other close to its homeland without having to fight for it. All this while its modern navy and army were slowly growing. In July of 1894, when Japanese naval guns fired on Chinese ships without warning, it marked the beginning of the next fifty years of conquest and absorption of Asia and the islands of the Pacific.
War with the weak and ageing Chinese Empire in 1894-1895 added Formosa and Pescadores islands to the empire. Defeating Russia in 1904-1905, it annexed the southern half of Sakhalin and the southern tip of Manchuria, known as the Liaotung Peninsula. In 1910 it conquered Korea. Post, World War I, by 1918, victorious powers handed the Japanese a mandate over the former German islands north of the equator, the most strategic Pacific geographies. Twelve years later, in 1931, the Empire of the Rising Sun began carving out sections of China, starting with Manchuria, securing a strong foothold in the Pacific.
At the dawn of the Second World War, Japan seized control of Mainland Southeast Asia or the Indochinese Peninsula known as Indochina from defenceless France and made Thailand or Siam its puppet. Through shrewdness and bloodshed in just less than half a century, the daimyos of Japan had multiplied their lands from around one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand to one-million square miles.
It took more than three days for the soldiers of the Menimienai-ryoku to reach the edge of their targeted jungle region. No wonder this territory was void of both the army’s presence. It was too remote and possibly impregnable. They had, however, never seen such a beautiful yet haunting place.
By the light of their hand-crank-powered torches, the soldiers of the invisible force saw human skulls impaled on stakes, lining up the edge of the forest. On closer inspection, the group found a personal artefact, under every skull, that once belonged to the soul whose severed head was now mantled on the stake. Japanese dog tags were also hanging below many of the fresher skulls on display.
The Tangkhul Nagas tribes had been living in this region for thousands of years. Every Tangkhul village, with its unique unwritten constitution made of age-old conventions and traditions, was a small republic like the Greek city states. Except for salt, every Tangkhul village was self-sufficient. An elected or hereditary Chief assisted by a council of elders was the Judge, administrator, and commander of these self-governing little communities.
Captain Yamamoto was fascinated by the Tangkhul Tribe of polyglots. His limited knowledge about these ancient people was through the little intel that he had gathered during the past one years of his Indo-Burma deployment.
Toshiro San was astonished by the diversity that existed among the Tangkhul people. Take for instance their lingo, which changed into a new dialect every twenty kilometres, adding up to hundreds of practically different languages. He was amazed that irrespective of similar cultural and social mores, how each tribe were often different in their ornaments, attire, headdress, and weave of their famous colourful shawls. He knew his research was inadequate to judge the response of any sect of these Tribes if he encountered them in the forest.
The thing that bothered Yamamoto San the most, was the fact that the Tangkhul were historically headhunting people. He had heard that the head-hunting Nagas believed that vital and creative energy resided in a human head, which when brought back to the village, granted fertility to life and agriculture in their community and hamlet. Now he and his men were standing right in front of a gruesome display of this custom. In this case, however, the impaled heads on the stakes were a clear warning to outsiders – not to enter the forest.
He and his men were warriors too. Not only did they also have a historical lineage of warfare but were trained and battle-hardened combatants. Though he was confident that they could eliminate any possible resistance in this place, he worried about the unnatural darkness in the forest, which neither he nor any of his men had ever before faced.
The hour was right before dawn, and Captain Yamamoto knew that there would be light in the next few minutes. He looked forward to the sun, as it not only symbolised his beloved Japan but was also necessary to illuminate their pathway through the jungle and help them cope better with the unearthly darkness waiting for them inside the forest.
As the first rays of Helios fell on the war-torn region, the Menimienai-ryoku (invisible force) death squad entered the forest. They were, however, surprised to find how dark was this place. Though there was daylight above the wooded canopy, it was pitch black inside the belly of the jungle. They had never seen a place so devoid of light in the wilderness.
The men slashed their way through the darkness. The only light source they had was from their electrical torches. As they advanced, they left behind signs to mark a traceable pathway. By an hour of their intrusion into the forest, the soldiers nearly lost all their bearings. The darkness seemed to be their greatest enemy at the moment. They had never seen a forest devoid of natural light to this extent. It became harder and harder to gauge the direction and their path to success.
The men kept on advancing, hacking away at the ancient branches and the newer foliage. After seven hours of trekking through the impregnable wilderness, they reached a spot where they could finally rest. The canopy in this patch of the forest was porous and allowed rays of the sun to penetrate through the surrounding darkness. It filled the clearing with a mosaic of laser-like sunbeams. It was like an island of subtle illumination in a sea of unimaginable blackness.
The men put down their gear and settled, lighting fires for better visibility, warmth, and for preparing food. Right when the group relaxed a bit, letting down their guard, the first of them, a young soldier barely nineteen years of age from Japan’s Kyushu region, fell on the forest floor and twitched for a few seconds before taking his last breath.
Few of his comrades rushed to him only to discover a sharp wooden projectile lodged in his neck, and froth flowing out of his mouth as he lay there lifeless. Then like the leave of a dying tree in face of a sudden tempest, members of the death squad fell one after the other, with wooden projectiles, arrows and spears piercing them.
It was a frenzy of death. The men fired madly all around the darkness. They sprayed molten led from their overheated Model 1 submachine guns, Type 99 Arisaka rifles, and Mauser C96 semi-automatic pistols. All their efforts seemed futile as they saw lightning-fast shadows moving in the darkness, throwing projectiles at them.
Darkness had become the greatest enemy of the Menimienai-ryoku as they could not see those who took them down one after the other inside a pitch-black forest on the northeastern jungle-mountain frontier of the Indian subcontinent.
Seven more gruelling hours passed as the soldiers of the Japanese invisible force scattered and died in the darkness till only one of them was left.
Captain Toshiro was now on his knees, all alone amidst a sea of human carnage. All around him lay the lifeless bodies of his men. He could not believe that darts, bows, arrows, and spears had triumphed over guns and modern weapons. Another thing that he simply could not comprehend was that how could the natives fight in complete darkness when he and his men could barely see a few feet in front of them even with the light of their torches. It was scientifically impossible for the human eye to be able to see anything in this kind of darkness.
Little patches of fires caused by the volleys of gunfire, sunbeams from the openings in the forest canopy, and light from the hand-crank-powered torches of his dead comrades lying on the forest floor illuminated the place. Suddenly the darkness was no more there.
A gaping wound on his face was causing Yamamoto San to gradually lose his vision. He contemplated harakiri to honourably end his life but was too weak to perform it. Through the veil of blood filling in his eyes, he finally saw those that had annihilated his men. The natives looked very different from the usual Tangkhul Nagas that he had previously seen. They were clearly a secret and unique warrior breed. Clad in tightly hugging red and white shawls wrapped around the midsection of their bodies, they were camouflaged in mud and leaves. Then he fell on the forest floor losing consciousness.
Yamamoto San woke up with severe pain in his forehead. His world was totally dark, he panicked not being able to see anything with his eyes. He tried hard to get up from his bed but was calmed down and held back by someone. He could not however see him. Feeling his face with his hands he realised that he had lost his eyes. Still healing and mutilated flesh now covered his eye sockets.
Gradually he gained back his strength under the care of those that had annihilated his men. Over time he even started understanding and gradually speaking the native language. Captain Toshiro was slowly learning to live with these tribal men. He was devastated though to lose his vision. Blindness was simply something he could not accept and craved to end his life and not being able to do it felt miserable.
Then one day sitting around a fire along with the ninety-year-old warrior chief Akoijam and his prodigy Naba, Yamamoto San finally asked, that how were they able to defeat him and his men in complete darkness. Akoijam took Yamamoto’s hands in his and made him feel his ancient face. Then he made Yamamoto feel young Naba’s face.
Toshiro San was shocked to feel fused eyelids covering both Akoijam’s and Naba’s eyes. It felt like their eyelids were permanently stitched shut when they were just infants and now the eyelids smoothly covered the eyes that could perhaps see but were forever hidden.
In a broken and mixed language, which now Yamamoto San and the chief could communicate in, the ninety-year-old warrior spoke up to say, “blindness is not a curse my friend, it is a gift, a doorway to open up a whole new world of unimaginable senses. Our forefathers understood it and in order to survive and protect our lands in this forest of impregnable blackness, many generations before, our ancestors realised that we had to give up our vision to see beyond the darkness, learning to heighten and use our other senses. Do you want this gift, we would be happy to teach you the ways of the ancient Bat Brigade.”
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. Some characters, incidents, places, and facts may be real while some fictitious. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at email@example.com or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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