My article on the Italian town of Monte Cassino – the site of a famous WWII battle – was published in the Times of India Crest Edition in November 2012.
In a little corner of Italy, far away from the tourist trail, lies a small town with an Indian connection. It’s a place I first heard of a decade ago, and finding myself sick of Rome’s crowds, a visit to Monte Cassino is something I just can’t pass up. As the train sets off from Roma Termini, my thoughts keep coming back to all I’ve heard. Barely a two-hour train ride from the capital, this town is where scores of Indian troops gave their lives pushing back the Germans in one of the fiercest battles of the Second World War.
I’ve always been fascinated by history, and of all the times when human endurance and spirit has been tested, it’s the Second World War that stands out. Not just for the hopelessness and despair that seemed to enshroud our race like a dense fog, but also for remarkable tales of courage and selflessness. And nothing exemplifies this triumph of human spirit over seemingly insurmountable odds more than the Indian troops who fought for freedom thousands of miles away from home. In an alien land, alongside men who, it hurts to say, would have regarded them as less than their equals. Alongside men who professed to defend freedom, as long as the freedom wasn’t for Indians. However, our countrymen came through this dark period with distinction – their showing cementing the Indian soldier’s reputation for gallantry, toughness, and sheer effectiveness.
The train seems empty. There don’t seem to be many people heading in this direction, and watching the Italian countryside flash by, my thoughts turn to what it must have been like 60 years ago. It’s hard to believe that the gorgeous Italian scenery that surrounds us could have been the setting for the deaths of thousands of young men.
At the Cassino station, I’m the only one who gets off. It’s a quiet place indeed. Peaceful. Sleepy. Walking into a café by the station, I ask for what’s become my staple breakfast in Italy: Cappuccino and a croissant. The café owner, who doesn’t speak English all that well, guesses I’m Indian. A grin and a handshake later, he directs me to the museum. There seems to be a unique warmth in his manner – perhaps a certain nod towards the sacrifices my compatriots made helping this beautiful land regain its freedom.
Yes, the world may have forgotten the battles of Cassino, but the town hasn’t. That’s because in the early months of 1944, Cassino was the epicentre of perhaps the hardest-fought battle of the Second World War. Over a nearly five-month period, as the Germans tried to stem the Allied advance to the north, fierce fighting saw most of the town turned into rubble. It was perhaps the town’s misfortune to be placed smack bang on the Gustav Line. The battle for Rome was, in fact, fought here, and by the time peace came, there was so much damage that the few surviving buildings had to be torn down and a new town built. That explains the grid-like layout of post-War Cassino – the American influence is striking, and admittedly, surreal. One doesn’t expect a small Italian town to look this way – the Fiats and Alfa Romeos amidst the grid-like streets and art-deco architecture just add to the cognitive dissonance.