Translated by Donald Abcarian
With the approach of the centenary of the Armenian genocide ever new incidents and details continue coming to light, these often touching on unexpected subjects and geographic settings. Last year, in a visit to Yerevan to take part in the "Strategies of (Un)Silencing" conference,(*) the famous contemporary Indian writer Amitav Ghosh presented a lecture from his work, "Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-Ain, 1916-1918," and it came as a major revelation to all of us.(**)
We learned that in April 1916 a large number of British-Indian troops fighting in Iraq fell prisoner to the Ottoman army. Some of them were sent to the prison camp of Ras al-Ain in northern Syria to work on the railroad line, this at a time when thousands of Armenians filled the deportation routes. Indian and Armenian prisoners crossed paths and their lives sometimes intertwined. Years later, Sisir Sarbadhikari, who had been a volunteer in the Bengali emergency aid organization, wrote a memoir based on his diary of his years in the Middle East. This Bengali work, published in 1958, received little attention at the time and was soon forgotten. Amitav Ghosh presented us with some of the contacts Sarbadhakari had with Armenians in those years.
This reality, previously unknown to specialists in the Armenian genocide, found an echo in a July 13, 1919 article published in Zhoghovurt, an Istanbul newspaper. It told the truly moving story of an Armenian orphan boy whom an Indian soldier had rescued from Turks and delivered to the director of an Armenian school. The author of the account was Mesrob Sahagian (1889-1968), a lawyer and editor from Malatia who, under the pen name Sahag Mesrob, contributed to the Armenian press of Constantinople (Istanbul), France and the United States between 1910 and 1919.
We here offer Sahag Mesrob's account, especially for those interested in the Armenian genocide and Armenian-Indian relations.
The Indian's Gift
Suddenly a tall Indian soldier entered my room. He had a noticeably robust bearing and showed signs of being fresh off the road. He held a folder of papers in one hand and in the other the hand of a boy barely five years old who, like him, seemed quite travel weary. With his feeble hands fixed at his sides and his head hanging down, the child seemed to be fatalistically waiting to see what the soldier had in store for him.
I looked up, breaking off my reading of a letter that had come to me from an untimely world, a cry loosed from the boundless sands of the desert, a ghost, a storm--a plea for help for those wasting away on burning sands, for those Armenian orphans and martyrs languishing unprotected under tents, for those sacred souls snatched away from their lives.
"What do you want?" I asked.
"You are the director of the Armenian school," he said.
"Mr. Director, take this little Armenian orphan given to me by a Turkish officer in Kirkuk. He spoke Turkish and at first we thought he was the officer's child or relative. We only discovered that he was Armenian later. One day, when we had an Armenian interpreter with us, we stopped near a camp of Armenian prisoners and suddenly this little fellow burst out sobbing and crying 'mommy, mommy!' in the Armenian language. With that cry of 'mommy, mommy' he revealed his true identity. I heard that you were searching for the remnants of your people, so I offer him to you as a gift from an Indian soldier who came to these far off deserts to fight against tyranny in the name of civilization and freedom."
I was struck dumb. I couldn't say a thing. I couldn't even manage a thank you. I could only listen wide-eyed to what this kind Indian soldier said and his words, spoken in his flowing, Indian accented English, echoed in my ears after he fell silent. He stood there before me for a long time while I returned from that world of sorrow to the present moment. I was shaken and I begged his pardon.
"I am very grateful to you for this immortal and moving gift. I'd like to have your name so that the donor may always be remembered."
"That isn't important. I don't want anyone to know. All you need to know is that the donor is an Indian Christian."
"But the boy should at least know some day who saved him so that he can always remember," I pressed. "Please give me your name so that I can record it."
"It is not at all necessary," he insisted. "Just remember and tell him that an Indian Christian found him in the desert and delivered him to his own. That is enough," and, so saying, he hugged the little boy, pressed him tight against his breast with parental love, kissed him on the eyes and left. . .
The little child stood before me in my room, now completely alone. He looked at me looking at him with a thousand emotions surging through my heart. I was shaken to the core of my being. I was trembling and felt hot tears clinging to my cheeks.
This little orphan, this little fragment of his people, suddenly began to break down too. What transpired between his heart and mine no one can say. It is enough to know that he had a good, long cry. A couple of hours later when he began to feel hungry he barely raised his troubled head to accept a piece of bread.
Today, a month later, he is in the care of an American orphanage and attending one of the Armenian schools of Baghdad, this gift from an Indian soldier. In just that one month he has made considerable progress in learning his ancestral language and is very enthusiastic. He is always singing, singing away, seeming to find in the waves of song a way to dispel the worries of his childhood. He sings without understanding the words, but he seems to gain a lot of meaning from the melodies, for it must surely be the spirit of his people in those melodies that moves his lips to flights of yearning song. And today he has a name, a name I gave him: Hratch Hntgazadian.(***) All his little classmates and everyone who meets him know him by that name and he, unconsciously, seems to be very pleased with it: Hratch Hntgazadian!
And to think that one day a son of far off India would come to Mesopotamia to find and rescue an Armenian orphan boy out of the hands of a Turkish criminal and return him to his own, saying, "Take this little boy. Let him be a gift to you from an Indian soldier. . ."
Indian soldier, may your gift be blessed. . .
"Hayastani zrutsakits," April 20, 2013
(*) Organized by Armenian American art scholar Neery Melkonian.
(**) See the text of the paper in amitavghosh.com/blog/?cat=23.
(**) See the text of the paper in amitavghosh.com/blog/?cat=23.
(***) The root of the name "Hntgazad" means "freed by an Indian."