Vultures

By Alexander Wallace



On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).


The theme for the 40th contest was Gerry Anderson


Nagaland June 1944​


Mounish had no idea that the imperialists painted their planes in such garish colors.


The fighter slaughtering his comrades was colored in a gunmetal grey with blue accents and a scarlet nose. The dive bomber that tore apart gun emplacements and foxholes was as red as a rose.


He was shooting at them, but not with a gun. He wasn’t trained for that. Instead, he held a bulky film camera. The Provisional Government wanted propaganda films of British terror.


Mounish knew that all too well.


Even so, he was afraid. He knew the Japanese weren’t coming to help them; Imphal and Kohima were doing a good job of turning Japanese (and, in fairness, British) soldiers into paste.


The Indian National Army was left to fight this rainbow squadron all by its lonesome. The pound of the anti-air guns rattled his bones.


A tremendous whirring came from overhead. He pivoted the camera over. If nothing else, it would make a good scary visual.


A massive cargo plane with four engines with all propellers spinning coasted over him. On its side it bore a large inscription:


THUNDERBIRD 2 . . .​


“Stay still for just one more moment. Look up just a bit.”


“Oh, come on, Mounish! I know how to pose for a picture!”


Captain Hawkins scowled for just a moment, then resumed the dignified blankness that British officers always had when they wanted to impress upon ‘coolies’ that they were superior.


Mounish sighed. He pressed the button, and the light flashed. He’d have to deal with the negatives but he was used to that.


“Put them away and get me some tea.”


“Yes, sir.”


In Captain Hawkins’ staff, Mounish was the ‘coolie with the camera.’ He knew he only had this position because the Captain could get away with paying him less than a Briton.


Hawkins was both self-absorbed enough and cheap enough to hire Mounish when no other officer in the British Indian Army would.


It was another long day. He did all the grinding tasks as he was told to.


When he returned to his quarters for the evening, he was pleased to see that he had received mail from his wife back home in Chakdaha.


He opened the letter with anticipation. The letters from Samudra were one of the few things that brought him joy.


He was shocked to see how much of it was blacked out by the censors. He tried to puzzle out the meaning in light of how much was redacted.


What he found worried him. Samudra talked a lot about being hungry. There was much talk of food in this letter, but so much of it had been removed.


The fact that the British felt the need to redact so much about food worried him.


. . . ​

The big green plane opened its hangar - which, interestingly, opened towards the front of the plane - and released some sort of winged contraption. The wings held up a big yellow box, the purpose of which Mounish couldn’t determine. The construct glided into the rolling hills and vanished.


The assault tapered off. The planes flew away. The stench of the slaughtered filled the air.


Mounish filmed the ruin. If nothing else, there would be good stills from this.


After a certain point, he waited, sitting near one of the anti-air gun emplacements. Its crew was drenched in sweat. One of them fell asleep, leaning his head against the gun.


Without much preamble, the emplacement ceased to exist.


Mounish was thrown back by the explosion. Fortunately, his camera was intact.


Over those rolling hills trundled a tank with a hideously large gun mounted on its turret. It was painted a shameless yellow with a red stripe running over its front plates. It had a dozer blade attached to its front.


On its side was the name ‘FIREFLY.’


Methodically, it ended the continued presence of the anti-air gun emplacements. The INA troops came out with their anti-tank guns.


And then the buzz of propellers filled his ears again.


The grey plane strafed.


The red plane dropped bombs.


And Indians died on the lush hills of Nagaland.


. . .​


Mounish was worried. He had not heard from Samudra in months. The British continued their slugfest against the Japanese.


The rumors he had heard from Bengal were dire. There was starvation everywhere.


But not a white man felt any hunger.


It was taking a toll on Mounish. Every picture he took and every deed he did for the British made him hate himself.


One day, he heard the sound of brash orchestral music from outside the tent in which he slept.


“DA BADABA - DA BADADA BAAAA - DA BADABA BA BADABA DAAAAAAA”


Following that was a stentorian voice in a received pronunciation he could only ever associate with sneering officers:


“In the fight for the cause of human freedom, the United Nations have formed a new organization dedicated to rescuing those trapped within the clutches of the Axis Powers. That organization is International Rescue.


“International Rescue is headed by General Jeffrey Tracy, a veteran of the US Army Signal Corps Aviation Division in France in the last war. He and his five sons barnstormed the United States during the Depression, and all volunteered after the attack on Pearl Harbor.


“International Rescue has been deployed to the Bay of Bengal. If any Allied forces in the area are in a tight spot, use any long-range radio in the area and call for International Rescue. Further details are classified, but be assured that if you’re ever in a tight spot, International Rescue can help.”


Mounish had to admit that he was moved (he’d never admit it to Captain Hawkins, though). He mentally filed that information away.


He was reminded of the story of Jatayu, from the Ramayana. He was a vulture that rushed to save the goddess Sita from the vicious demon Ravana.


Ravana won in that story. Perhaps it was not the best comparison.


It also occurred to him that vultures feed on corpses.


. . .​


Once, there was a conference of officers. Somebody important was coming from London. Hawkins didn’t say much, but he expected Mounish to do some catering.


It was a strange day when a pink Rolls-Royce rolled into the camp. Even stranger, the guest of honor seemed to be a woman.


Mounish delivered the food to the conference room on a cart, along with many other Indian servants.


He wondered how many Bengalis starved while the Britons feasted.


While they ate, the lady’s driver stayed with the Indian crew. He began to help with the catering.


“You’re the first white man I’ve seen willing to work with us,” remarked Mounish.


“HI’m just trying to do what m’lady pays me to do.”


“She must pay you well.”


“I get to live hin ‘er mansion, which his admittedly quite nice. Hit’s a shame that the west wing was destroyed by the Luftwaffe.”


Mounish nodded. The cost of war was visible everywhere he could see. This man, this white-haired white man with thick sideburns, looked haggard. His wrinkles may well have been of a man older than he was.

“Why is she here?” asked Mounish.


“She ‘asn’t told me much, but hit’s something habout the food situation hin Bengal. She’s hadvocating hon the behalf hof certain hinterests who want a change hin policy.”


Mounish nodded.


“I wish her success in her efforts,” he said to this weary white man.


. . .​


As the war went on, Mounish learned more about International Rescue. He had overheard snippets from the officers, Hawkins most of all, that they had a base in the Andamans, and that they used an aircraft carrier called Thunderbird 5 to deploy planes.


The other Bengalis on the staff kept on saying that their relatives no longer responded to their letters.


Something had to be done. Mounish wracked his mind for something he could do.


Inspiration struck.


He had to look through the camp a bit, but he found the long-range radio that they sometimes used to communicate with General Slim.


In all honesty with himself, he had no idea how the radio worked, but it was worth a shot.


He fiddled with wires and buttons and all the little widgets on the radio set, trying to make this thing transmit.


Here goes nothing, he thought.


“Calling International Rescue!” he bellowed into the microphone. “Calling International Rescue! Come in!”


Seconds passed. Each one felt like a massive weight.


“This is International Rescue. We hear you loud and clear.”


Mounish’s eyes lit up. “I am an Indian auxiliary to the British forces defending His Majesty’s Raj. I, and a number of other auxiliaries, have heard reports of starvation throughout Bengal. Being from Chakdaha, near Calcutta, I have not heard from family in months. Would it be at all possible for you to deliver some food aid?”


“International Rescue does have stockpiles for emergency assistance. We can certainly deliver some to Chakdaha.”


Mounish’s eyes lit up. “Thank you so much! This will mean so much to so many Bengalis, and-”


For the briefest of seconds, Mounish felt something on his left ear. Before he could say anything, he found himself hurtling to the floor.


He was dazed for a moment, and then heard the voice of Captain Hawkins speaking into the radio.


“International Rescue, this is Captain Jesse Hawkins of the British Army. My apologies for the annoyance; one of the servants wandered into the radio room. Tell me, what is the nature of the food aid you will be bringing to Chakdaha?”


“It’s mostly bread and other wheat products.”


“Oh, that won’t do! Bengalis don’t eat wheat! It would all go to waste being given to an underdeveloped people like them. Instead, please deliver the aid to British soldiers at these coordinates near the frontline. They will put it to much better use.”


Hawkins rattled off a set of coordinates. It was then Mounish noticed that the Captain had a pistol pointed at his head.


. . .​


There was dissension brewing in the ranks of the Indian troops and auxiliaries. There were rumors that the Indian National Army had emplacements not too far from their position. Mounish was approached by one such potential defector, and he rapidly joined the planning.


During one clandestine meeting, he proposed that they make themselves useful to their countrymen fighting for their freedom from Britain.


One night, a number of them brandished pistols and rifles and barged into Captain Hawkins’ room. They disarmed him, bound him with rope, and gagged him with a bedsheet. At a certain point along their line, the guns were manned by sympathizers. They snuck out, their captive in tow.


They wandered over those lush rolling hills, heading generally eastward by the sun, but Mounish didn’t know much else. He just followed the ringleader. Hawkins moaned and tousled and soiled himself, but they did not allow him any respite.


He had not earned it.


At one point, they saw a large encampment. It smelled of smoke and gasoline and sweat. Through the machine guns they saw a flagpole. The flag was limp, but there was a clear orange stripe hanging down from it.


The ringleader pulled out a knotted bedsheet from his pack. He waved it as a surrender flag.


Men came from the encampment, all dark-skinned like Mounish and his crew.


From then on, Mounish was a cameraman in the Indian National Army. They gave him that duty because of his service under Hawkins.


They were very interested in Hawkins. They tortured him mercilessly. When Mounish tried to sleep, he heard the screams of the captain in the night.


Mounish was questioned about International Rescue. Apparently, there was someone in the Japanese coalition that was very interested in them.


They called him the Hood. There wasn’t much known about him, but he was known to be Malay. The rumors swirling around said that he had a hand in the fall of Singapore, and that he had some sort of magical ability to read the mind of somebody at International Rescue.


Mounish didn’t know the truth of any of that. But he was informed that there was an order from General Mutaguchi to draw in International Rescue. The Hood was said to be involved.


The plan was simple: Captain Hawkins’ cell was to be left unguarded, and a radio would be left nearby. He would call International Rescue, and they would come for this encampment.


They would see their planes and clip their wings.


. . .​


The hills of Nagaland blazed around Mounish. As the planes delivered their grisly payloads he kept the camera at the sky. This needed to be documented. The perfidy of International Rescue had to be known.


It might even help some Indians defect.


A bright light erupted disturbingly close to Mounish, followed by a tremendous roar. He was flung to his feet.


He opened his eyes. Miraculously, the camera was still running. He tried to find something to film, but there were only flames.


But then came two white men in blue uniforms. One wore spectacles.


The bespectacled one noticed the camera pointing at him.


“Hey, Sc-c-c-cott, I found one of them!” He gestured to Mounish, still on the ground.


The other white man, Scott so it seemed, walked up to Mounish. He drew his pistol and pointed it right at this hapless cameraman.


“Remember, Brains, the first rule of these missions: no pictures.”

Discuss this Article