Return of the Native

Return of the Native

The barbed wire was the beginning of the world for the inmates and end of life for the ones sheltered outside.

Surely, a barbed wire couldn’t be a boundary! 


The well-protected area was a classic example of ‘where devils too didn’t dare.’

The electric barbed wire with a wooden gate, a huge lock, and two iron bars fastened securely across the wooden frames, served as a deterrent to anyone who contemplated an escape. Vigilant guards, alert supervisors, stern higher officials, stringent punishments, made it impossible to flee from the wretched place. The hilly terrain, the deserted look, and the uneven track, made the surroundings intimidating.

The unpruned grass, the cobbled path, the low-roofed dilapidated barracks, leaking taps, rusted bore well pump, clothes washed and hung on the flimsy lines… it was a perfect picture of deprivation.

The set routine was bugging – lining up in the ground before dawn for daily exercise, yoga, and meditation; queuing up for the much-awaited breakfast which usually was a half-roasted sandwich with kaadha (herbs brewed and served) and if they were fortunate enough, half apple (the stale piece of apple was better not have).

The post-breakfast schedule was the dreaded twelve km jogging within the campus. Any faltering was immediately reported and stringent action was taken against that inmate. Terrorized by the ogre-looking officer and the punishment, everyone conformed to the rules of the regiment. There was nothing to look forward to; the little pleasures of a stroll near the stream, a walk into the nearby village (nothing less than 10 kms away), a cup of hot tea instead of kadhaa, a sumptuous lunch, would have filled the void in their lives. Whatever the weather, scorching heat, heavy downpour, or bone-biting chill, there was no respite from work. Lapses were not tolerated. The supervisor and the caretakers felt they did not deserve even any sympathy.

However much the twelve inmates tried to come to terms with the present situation, they ended up feeling distraught and helpless. The memories of their families were fading away. Life outside the barbed wire was becoming unfamiliar. They were forgetting to live. 

The days dragged on endlessly, giving them a feeling of monotony and purposelessness. Would they ever see the outside world? Was it possible to integrate themselves with the flow of life once again? Won’t the society brand them as traitors and shun them?

Such questions troubled them, routine annoyed them, dullness irked them. 

The only saving grace amidst the abysmal living conditions and the set-routine was Capt. Singhal, their mentor and counselor. They waited eagerly for those two days that brought hope and light into their lives. Capt. Singhal, a psychologist and a counselor, was appointed their mentor and his visits to the camp twice a week were filled with fun and frolic. These two days were the ‘freedom’ moments for them; the release from the monotony was like a flight into the open skies. It made them forget the trials of the rigorous work, the harsh treatment by the supervisors and the miseries of living in a military prison. 

A Reformatory in name and a prison in deed, the inmates were kept in constant fear of severe punishment for violating rules and defying authority; stringent disciplinary actions were a terror and maybe that was the only reason that stopped them from planning an escape.

Under such grim circumstances, Capt. Singhal’s enthusiasm and jovial nature were like a whiff of fresh air. His gentle and caring disposition made him approachable and soon the inmates started looking forward to meeting him, spending time with him. Their liking for this army officer grew as the time passed. His encouraging words stirred the buried emotions; his pleasant talk brought forth the forgotten vigour and reinstated the desire to reinvent themselves.

Capt. Singhal, the army officer, had become their saviour. The ‘Dirty Dozen’ was inching towards turning a new leaf in their lives.

The camp supervisor, Capt. Malhotra, the caretakers, Subedar Ranjeet Singh, and Virendra Sanghvi, who were trained specially to handle the traitor prisoners, were initially astonished at the way ‘the dozen’ responded to Capt. Singhal and gradually developed a dislike for him and resented his efforts to reform the prisoners. They felt their crime was too intense the prisoners deserved the harsh treatment for the crime they had committed against the nation. It was a breach of trust and faith that the nation had vested in them. Capt. Singhal’s gentleness and caring could be misinterpreted by the prisoners. Capt. Malhotra decided to talk to him and convince him to be a little strict and maintain distance from the traitors.


Capt. Singhal’s mission was not to exacerbate the vice in this bunch of miscreants. It was to make them accept their crime, make them humane, alleviate the sense of guilt that they hadn’t expressed. Perhaps they would never. The frustration and the bitterness had to be released and replaced by gratification., Joining hands with the enemy country and passing on defence secrets for money was disloyalty towards their nation, an unpardonable crime against the motherland, and a sin against humanity. It was not just treason against the nation, it was a violation of values; a punishable offense as per judicial law. The military court found them guilty of treason and sentenced them to rigorous imprisonment in a special prison which would either make or break them. Depending on their behaviour during the term, the next course of action would be decided. 

The hard core ‘dirty dozen’ had no remorse. They mocked and questioned the moral sense of the corrupt elite class, the government, and the politicians. They laughed at the umbrella morals of the modern gurus; ridiculed 

the lack of human values among the business class…. even the hard-hearted in-charge couldn’t deny the allegations, the outside world was ridden with corruption and vices. But he was not there to judge anyone; he was there to implement the orders. He certainly did. 

Unless the dead spirit of nationalism was revived, a strong sense of guilt was established they would never feel the pangs of remorse. He felt as a psychiatrist and mentor, he had to make them accept their guilt and atone for the sin.


The incessant rain plunged the surroundings into darkness, and the slushy ground was impossible to walk on. Capt. Malhotra did not want to be late for his luncheon appointment with Capt. Singhal. It was almost 1.30 p.m., and he knew this officer was known for punctuality. He saw the attender had already fetched the umbrella; he escorted Malhotra to the dining hall. Rain drops trickling from the umbrella and wet his overcoat, the slush dampened his Wellington boots. 

He saw the gang working in the rain, plucking out weeds from the garden and eyeing him with a strange expression. It wasn’t resentment or fear. He had not seen this expression earlier. To his utter astonishment they smiled. 

Over lunch, he broached the subject, “Captain, how are things between you and the prisoners? All good, I hope. I see they are quite close to you. The freedom you have given them to talk to you, express themselves, pour out their feelings, and maybe complain against the remaining staff, does seem a little overboard. I have a feeling that this could make them undermine the purpose of this camp. Let not the objective be humbled.”

Capt. Singhal smiled at his colleague and said, “Sir, you are the in charge here and you and the staff have been instructed to treat these prisoners in a particular way. The harsh life, lack of facilities and the loneliness is a physical punishment; it could only make them long for a better treatment, but this alone will not get us the desired results. The change has to come from within. They should feel compunction about their wrong deeds and plead for forgiveness; they owe an apology not only to the armed forces but the whole country. For that to happen, there should be a person in whom they can confide. I am building a rapport with them; reaching out to them to assure that despite the betrayal, they still are fellow Indians and we care for them. They will be given a second chance and a golden opportunity to reform themselves. Let us unlock the gates and open the windows.”


“Singhal sir their metamorphosis is incredible! Your belief their strength, your trust their stimulant, they are ready to scale new horizons. They were prisoners of their own vices. Released! I am happy to see them cross the threshold, open the gate and walk into the yonder world where a new life is awaiting them.” Malhotra’s voice choked.


As the train started moving, they opened the window and stared at the beautiful world which was all set to give them the missed life.

Life is beautiful!


Author’s note: 

The title is inspired by Thomas Hardy’s novel -The Return of the Native.

The Dirty Dozen – 1967 movie

During World War II, a rebellious U.S. Army Major is assigned a dozen convicted murderers to train and lead them into a mass assassination mission of German officers.

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