IN JUNE 2007, Manoharlal S Bahanwal received instructions from the Commonwealth War Graves Commision to locate the grave of Thomas Evans. Evans, a British mercantile marine, died when his ship was drowned by mines near Bombay in 1917, during the First World War. The only information Bahanwal received about the grave from the CWGC’s head office in London was that it lay in a cemetery by the sea, somewhere in the vicinity of the city of Shrivardhan and the island-fort of Janjira, roughly a four-hour drive south of Mumbai.
“So we started at Janjira,” Bahanwal said, “enquired through the octroi at Adgaon village which led us to the synagogue at Alibaug, who told us to enquire at the Mary of Nazareth Church in Chandre Chowk. They told us about the cemetery at the village of Warsoli, three kilometres from Alibaug,” on the Konkan coast. There, on the third day of the search, Bahanwal found Evans. “It took us an hour to find the grave,” he recalled. “The inscription was hardly visible.”
Fifty-six-year-old Bahanwal, a small, calm and methodical man, is the manager of the Kirkee War Cemetery, a memorial in Pune maintained by the CWGC. The organisation works in 153 countries, and is tasked with safeguarding the memory of servicemen from Britain, its allies and its colonies who died in the two World Wars. Today, counting graves and memorials, Kirkee serves as a monument to about 3,500 of them. Some of the men died in the area, while the remains of others were transported here from places where the permanence of their graves could not be assured. As part of his job, Bahanwal also looks after servicemen’s graves all along India’s western coast, where his records show 666 casualties buried in civilian cemeteries. Of them, 653 have been located so far. Whenever new information turns up, Bahanwal also goes searching for the graves whose exact locations the CWGC does not yet know.