Published in Daily Times / Jul 21, 2012
Under the title: So You Think You Can Escape?
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
‘In this game there are no second chances. You either win or you die.’
The man who penned these words 41 years ago was busy planning his escape from an Indian POW camp that was not really supposed to exist. Today, as a defence analyst who owns a successful business empire, he sits amiably on a stage flanked by officers from his old command, some well-known personalities from the media, and at least one fierycricketer-turned-politician who aspires for the premiership. (See Pix Here)
The extraordinary tale of a Pakistani army captain adrift in enemy territory who went knocking at the US Consulate gate and theAmerican Marine Sergeant on duty who saved the day (part of it anyway) appeared in print a few years ago. That, however, was not the end of the captain’s ordeal. What happened in the interval before Sgt Frank Adair stepped on the stage and after Ikram Sehgal became an escapee from Panagarh prison camp and ended up as the object of a nationwide manhunt is equally extraordinary.
The author spent 99 days in captivity. On the 100th day, he escaped. He was the first prisoner to do so from an Indian POW camp. His wrenching account of the prison break, reproduced in Escape to Oblivion was written in the intermission taken during an 84-day grilling session by the HQ ISSC-Inter Services Screening Committee, in Dacca 1971. The details were purposely kept from the public because of that little thing called the Official Secrets Act, among other things.
Ikram, who heard the laments of a splintering nation, describes himself as a living witness to the direct interference of Indians in the internal affairs of Pakistan (a ‘no-no’ at any time). He remembers life as a detainee in the backdrop of a particularly gruesome chapter from our history. Years after the event, his tone remains guarded. As he returns to the scene of the crime, he finds memory lane teeming with angry ghosts and remnants of faded hopes. While his crisp narrative resurrects the debacle, the spectre of a parallel war that raged on within the captive men rises unbidden. There is some insight into the workings of RAW (Research & Analysis Wing) — the Indian intelligence agency and its special brand of interrogation tactics these prisoners were unprepared for.
Escaping from Panagarh was not easy and the writer narrates how their vigilant captors would check for tunnelling.“They had probably read the same books that we had,” Ikram wryly observes. The Pakistani prisoners somehow manage to find moments of levity during the recurring flashes of danger. Upon seeing Sikhs they exchange Sikh jokes. When they go around telling one particularly observant guard how they would not dream of escaping when he is on guard, they mean it.
Ikram releases the hitherto unknown cases of ingenuity and derring-do from their tragic confines as he thumbs through his old survival guide. To fear is human, he announces calmly. “The meaning of fear is often lost in the wholesome embrace of the word courage.” “We eulogise courage,” he continues, “and deride fear, forgetting in our enthusiasm that courage is actually the control of, and is drawn out of fear.”
As the leading star of a prison break, he confronts the numerous barriers to escape. “Only those who can think of doing the impossible can achieve the impossible.” As a ‘destitute optimist’ he roams through the streets of Calcutta — an 80 percent communist city, occasionally slipping into Yoda mode; “a fugitive has usually nothing left except hope. His hope can lay a solid foundation, for even an inkling of hope can snowball into an avalanche.”
The Indians, according to the book, were “not sparing any expense in ‘not interfering’ in Pakistan’s internal affairs.” “Pakistanis for them were dreaded creatures,” observes Ikram, who skirts the edges of horror without sending readers down the inevitable chasm of darkness waiting at the end of every 1971 saga. By his own admission, the local intelligence-walas remained unsatisfied by the circumstances of his escape. The traditional hero’s welcome got lost in that suspicion.
Imran Khan, the keynote speaker at the book launch, though discomfited by the role our favourite ‘agencies’ played in the young Captain’s lengthy ‘debriefing’, thought that Ikram was lucky to be picked up then. Had this taken place now, Khan quipped, you would have simply become a ‘missing person’.
The passage of time does not make these excursions into the past any less unsettling. “I could have done without this experience,” Mr Sehgal confessed at the launch. But he is glad at having gone through with it nonetheless. Nevertheless, where he unearths darkness in the hearts of men, he also strives to show humanity. This winding road to freedom ripples with dramatic tension and eerie twists. Throughout his ordeal, Ikram remains magnanimous. The few good men he encountered during his incarceration, even when they happen to be his captors, earn his gratitude. Escape from Oblivion is a sleek little book whose spirited core is forever bound with an acute sense of sorrow. The Urdu version of the book is available under the name Azadi (freedom).
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