Walking in central London late the other night, I came across a World War 1 monument dedicated to the Bomber Command crew. 55,373 men from this crew alone, from the British Army, the Commonwealth and the Allied forces combined, lost their lives.
When we talk about the loss of life in the language of numbers, it’s easy to lose sense of the humanity of the dead. With every statistic churned out, the ghostly figures of these men once as crisp and as clear as the monuments you see, start to retreat into the backs of our minds and further still into our textbooks until it’s hard to ever think of them as anything but dead.
So imagine instead for a moment each and every one of those soldiers lined up in front of you, all 55,373 of them in their military uniform strapped and buttoned to perfection. Imagine all the forgotten heroes of the war from forces beyond our borders, men like my great-grandfather with his glimmering cutlass and pleated turban, one of 1.3 million Indians who “volunteered” to serve the British Empire. Then you can at least grasp that these men were once living, breathing, three-dimensional human beings. They were all husbands; fathers; brothers; sons and friends to someone.
I wasn’t the only one stood at the memorial. An English man, clearly overdressed in a black suit and velvet bow-tie, had escaped the glamour of a city dinner for the solitude of the memorial. He was standing on my right, reading hand-written notes left amongst poppies strewn at the foot of the statues. After five minutes or so of silence, he said to me:
“It’s really something isn’t it?”
I agreed, because for me it’s in moments like these when history leaps out from the pages of school textbooks and into the present. For Diaspora generations like myself, there’s an added layer of loss. The trauma of war is compounded by the legacy of colonialism and imperialism which resulted in the rape of not only the people and the resources of our motherlands, but the very earth, the very spirit of those countries as well, the repercussions of which are felt to this day.
Looking at the both of us, a middle class white man and a working class Pakistani woman, what could possibly connect two strangers from two strikingly different worlds? Nothing, perhaps. But for a moment, our worlds merged if only for a few minutes on our shared sense of loss, as we gazed at those young men immortalised in iron.
After he left, I walked up to the memorial and caught sight of a small wooden cross placed on top of one of the poppy wreaths. It had three words scrawled onto it: “To my Dad.” Imagine how keenly the writer feels the loss of their father even now. What does it matter if 70 years have passed? Centuries can pass by, but some losses leave holes that simply can’t be filled. Loss is universal to the human experience. It’s not exclusive to one particular race or class, although as we know very well, some lives matter more than others.
The RAF motto proudly declares in Latin “Per Ardua Ad Astra”. In English, it translates as “Through adversity to the stars.” It reminds me of a similar verse in the Quran: “Verily after hardship comes ease.”
Even if loss does transcend time, even if some voids can’t be filled, perhaps the one thing we can cling onto is that time is a healer, it makes us forget. We might not be able to bring back the dead. Only God has the power to do that. But at least in remembering them, we resurrect them a little, even if it is just a memory.
Yesterday, two young children lost their mother, local MP Jo Cox to a senseless act of terrorism. May we never forget her, and may we never forget the causes she fought for so fiercely.