Grave Responsibility

Caring for the final resting places of World War veterans

S Bahanwal maintains the Kirkee War War Cemetery in Pune, which commemorates servicemen who perished in the two World Wars. DINODIA
Elections 2024
01 October, 2014

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.

In Evan’s case, once the grave was found Bahanwal made sure it received a three-foot-by-six-foot kerb to outline it, and a marble headstone like those at every grave maintained by the CWGC. Bahanwal has returned to the site several times since—he takes a trip to a different area every month, to check that the gravestones are in good condition, and that the foliage around them is trimmed so that visitors can reach them easily.

But there are few visitors anymore. When Bahanwal started his job in 1992, the names on the gravestones still lived on in the memories of their wives, children and relatives. War widows still came on trips sponsored by the Commonwealth. But the last time a relative of one of the fallen visitied Kirkee was in 1993. Now a few curious tourists or sentimental soldiers occasionally stop by, but most are intrigued less by the history the cemetery represents than by its orderliness.

And yet Bahanwal perseveres. When graves sink due to the monsoons, he has them pulled up. When he sees that a gravestone is chipped or broken, he orders a replacement. Often he nurtures relationships with locals and officials who maintain records and care for war graves. When I joined him on a visit to the cantonment town of Ahmednagar in central Maharashtra this August, he visited 49 graves in the Christ Church cemetery, which is looked after by the local parish. “Kaam me pyaar dikh raha hai” (You can see the love in their work), he said, appreciating the clean gravestones.

Undiscovered graves lie heavy on Bahanwal’s conscience. He spoke of a particular grave, of one Private R Kendrick, which he is still trying to find in Bhusawal, in north Maharashtra. “There are no records of him anywhere,” he said. “We went looking for him in 2007 and then again in July 2014. … We searched for the Bhusawal grave all day. We didn’t even eat because you don’t feel hungry unless you find who you are looking for.”

Bahanwal approaches his work with great dedication. “I don’t feel the need to go to any temple,” he said. “My work is my worship, to serve those who died for their country.” He has a passion for landscaping, and the borders around the graves at Kirkee are a matter of personal pride. “With everyone I meet, whether it’s work or personal, I talk about the graves,” he said. “Perhaps they will go and talk about it to their family and colleagues. The conversation must never die—it must continue. That’s how the martyrs will live on.”