A few summers ago I bought a painting at a yard sale in Vernon, B.C. It’s acrylic on velvet; almost like one of those velvet Elvis pictures you see hanging in someone’s creepy wood-panelled basement. Except it’s not Elvis staring back at me, it’s a soldier. This soldier is nameless and nationless but his story may have been revealed by a click of a mouse.
The painting appealed to me: the colours, the texture of the “canvas,” the subject, and I brought the piece of art home for four dollars. The unknown soldier has travelled with me around Western Canada and now lives in Calgary. Even though we’ve been living together for about seven years, I don’t know anything about him.
One friend who met the soldier thought he was a Gurkha, a fearsome soldier from Nepal. Their famous motto is, “Better to die than be a coward.” Gurkhas still carry their traditional weapon called a kukri, an 18-inch long curved knife. An interesting speculation but I don’t think this guy one of these warriors.
The other day I was wasting time online when I clicked on a BBC News link: Why the Indian soldiers of WW1 were forgotten. The article’s main photo was in black and white but I immediately recognized the uniforms: my soldier’s kit. Was he an Indian solider in the First World War?
I don’t know. But through the article by I learned that the feats and the losses and the stories of these soldiers are missing from most of our history books. Some people, including me, have no idea of the contribution of the Indian units. It also makes me think about the time when I lived in The Gambia, West Africa. My roommate and I walked past the Fajara War Cemetery a couple of times and I wondered why we don’t hear about Gambian veterans. Where are their stories?
There’s no signature on my soldier’s likeness. No markings to tell me where he is from or where he belongs. Nothing to identify him. However, his silence spoke to me and opened a new portal into the past and introduced me to some forgotten sacrifices.