The Mystery of Missing Soldiers: An excerpt from Nowhere Man by Shivalik Bakshi


3 December 1971

War between India and Pakistan seems likely—the two have been provoking one another for months and now there are reports of foreign embassy staff being ordered to leave the two countries.

If fighting does indeed break out, Captain Kamal Bakshi knows he will be in it, for his battalion is tasked with defending a key section of the border. What he does not know is that his post lies in the dead centre of the largest offensive already set into play by the Pakistanis. Along the 24-kilometre-long border that defines the Chhamb sector, Pakistan is about to unleash fifteen infantry battalions, 130 artillery guns and 129 tanks.


“In recognition of his valour in battle, the military

will announce a medal for him. But he will not accept

his award in person…


Nor does he know that when the war ends, the Battle of Chhamb will be proclaimed among the deadliest of the war of 1971, in which scores of men will have perished.

In recognition of his valour in battle, the military will announce a medal for him. But he will not accept his award in person for he will have gone missing. Although no one from his battalion will see him get killed, none will be able to locate his body either. Then, eight years after the war’s ending, a government minister will announce the names of soldiers that the Indian intelligence agencies believe are still being detained in Pakistan and one of the names will be his.

This book is his story, recreated from letters, diaries and recollections of those whose paths crossed his.

Early Years




It is an ordinary spring day for most residents of Rawalpindi, but for the Datta household, it is anything but. Much excitement brews there, for Nanak Chand Datta has invited Bakshi Hari Chand Chhibber and his family over for tea. Although the reason for the invitation was not expressly stated, it is understood by all involved that the meeting is to explore the possibility of marriage between Nanak Chand’s daughter Shanta and Hari Chand’s son Om Prakash.


When the guests arrive, Shanta is absent from the living room as per the norm of the time. Also, per these norms, it is only Kartar Devi, Om Prakash’s mother, who is invited deeper into the house to meet Shanta. And while Om Prakash’s mother conducts the most fateful meeting of his life on his behalf, Shanta’s father does the same for her.

‘I hear you were deployed overseas?’ Nanak Chand asks Om Prakash.

‘Ji—I have recently returned from Italy.’

‘How was it over there? As bad as we read in the newspapers?’

‘Ji. My unit lost many fine men. I was one of the lucky few to get away with just a couple of bullet wounds . . .’

‘His wounds have healed completely,’ Hari Chand interjects, not wanting to leave any doubt about his son’s fitness.

More questions follow from Nanak Chand: What had Om Prakash been up to before joining the Army? Which subjects had he studied in college? What were his personal interests? And so on . . .


“ ‘Badi changi kudi hai…


Later that day, after returning home, Om Prakash asks his mother to recount everything that had transpired between her and Shanta. He wanted to know everything Shanta had said, how she had said it, her demeanour and on and on. To Om Prakash’s final question—‘Is she nice?’—his mother answers in the affirmative. ‘Badi changi kudi hai (she is a very nice girl),’ she says.

Over in Nanak Chand’s house, Shanta, being Shanta, has an even longer list of questions for her widowed father and every other person who was present during the meeting. To her relief, there is near-unanimous approval of Om Prakash. The lone objector is her adopted brother Darshan, who suspects that Hari Chand was not being forthright about his son’s physical condition, for Om Prakash had worn tinted glasses during the entire visit, even while indoors.


‘I have never seen anything like it. Surely he has some kind of a problem with his eyes,’ says Darshan.

To allay Darshan’s concerns, Nanak Chand makes a polite inquiry through an intermediary about the condition of the prospective groom’s eyes.

‘Fully operational,’ comes the reply. The dark glasses are simply a modern fashion accessory that Om Prakash had picked up during his six-month-long convalescence in the field hospital in Bagnacavallo, Italy.

So it comes to pass that Shanta and Om Prakash are betrothed. Soon after, the two families consult a priest for auspicious dates in the months ahead and settle on a day in August for the wedding.



In Holy Family Hospital, Rawalpindi, a boy has been born to Shanta and Om Prakash. Besides being their firstborn, he is also the first grandchild in the family. And so a big celebration is planned and everyone is invited—neighbours, friends from the past and the present, relatives from near and far.


“But when it comes to naming the boy, his father is

determined to have his way, for he has thought long

and hard about it.


Although it is too early to tell whom the boy resembles most, the general consensus is that he has taken after his mother—the shape of his mouth and his piercing eyes are a dead giveaway. His father accepts that outcome good-naturedly. It is better the boy looks like his mother than like me, he says. But when it comes to naming the boy, his father is determined to have his way, for he has thought long and hard about it. He wants to name his son after Sepoy Kamal Ram, a brave young soldier from his regiment who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his courageous actions in the battle for Monte Cassino in Italy. When his father recounts all the daring feats of the fearless soldier to his mother—how he had volunteered without hesitation to single-handedly silence the machine gun post that was holding back his company’s advance, and then had gone on to attack a second post until the men there surrendered—she readily agrees to naming their son Kamal.




It is his first birthday today, but no big celebration is planned, just a small ceremony in the prayer room of the house with only the family in attendance. While cradling him in her arms, his mother sings an aarti to invoke the gods and to seek their blessings for him. Then she distributes home-made sweets to the family and neighbours whose houses abut theirs. It is all over quickly.

The reason for keeping the celebration subdued is to not attract attention to the house, for it has become unsafe to step outside where marauding mobs troll the neighbourhoods looking for their quarry—everyone not of their faith. If the mob comes across a household of a faith other than theirs, they set the house alight. And if the occupants choose to run out of their burning house, a vengeful swordsman stands at the ready to turn them back.

In their case, a Hindu family living in a region where people of their faith are in the minority, their situation would have been dire were it not for Amjad—a brave Muslim man who is their neighbour and friend. Each night, Amjad parks himself on a cot outside their house and keeps vigil until the early hours of the morning. When a marauding mob approaches, he stands tall and calmly waves them away.


“Exactly where the boundary will fall, no one knows.



Punjab, the land of his birth and of his forefathers’birth, is to be cleaved into two along religious lines—the Muslim-majority western half will go to a new country called Pakistan, while the Hindu-Sikh-dominated eastern half will remain in India. Exactly where the boundary will fall, no one knows. Many residents of Rawalpindi have decided to wait for the government-appointed Boundary Commission to demarcate the border before making a move, but his father is not among them. With permission from the commanding officer of his unit in Jullundur, where he is posted, he has requisitioned a medium-sized truck to move his family from Rawalpindi to safety in East Punjab.

‘Pack only the essentials,’ his father tells his mother when he drives up in the truck. ‘We will return for the rest when matters calm down.’


After gathering some clothes, a few cooking utensils and enough food for the long drive, they are on their way.

Their plan is to first head to Lahore to spend the night in the relative safety of a big city and then continue on to Jullundur the following day. But their progress is slow, for it is the monsoon season and the roads are flooded in many places.

His father sits up front in the driver’s cabin with a revolver at the ready to engage any troublemaker, while the rest of them—he, his mother, two young aunts and their adopted brother Darshan—sit in the back.

Out of caution, his father has pulled down the canvas cover of the back of the truck so as not to expose the sensitive cargo he is ferrying.


Excerpted with permission from Nowhere Man by Shivalik Bakshi

Publishing/ Penguin Random House India (2023)

You can buy your copy here




Shivalik Bakshi was born in Amritsar. He is a microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) engineer. When not building microscopic-sized machines in a cleanroom, he likes to investigate the case of the men who went missing during the 1971 war. He can be contacted by email at [email protected].