Bombay’s discoveries of the possible would come faster than the leeches in Burma’s crepuscular jungles. At first, Bombay’s tasks were limited to mule driving and porting baggage. If there are people trying to kill me, it would be stupid of me not to be in a position to kill them also, he repeatedly grumbled to his superiors. To shut him up, he was posted to a combat unit.

The campaign to recapture Buthidaung was in progress. Bombay’s unit was deployed to a swampy pass of the Kaladan Valley where they got isolated from the main army for weeks. Their situation got dire and it seemed they would have to feed on wild bananas lined with pawpaw-like seeds but tasting like detergent. Then Bombay’s squad ran into enemy ambush. They had no option but to dive for cover as hostile gunfire reduced the vegetation above their heads to shreds. Their ammunitions had already gone too low to mount a credible resistance but Bombay thought it wiser to go down fighting and his squad agreed. They charged shrieking at the machinegun position with pangas raised, their common howling and bawling coming as if from a primeval horde of lunatics hell-bent on murder. The firing stopped. Perhaps a freakish mistake damaged the enemy’s equipment mid-operation, anyone would have assumed. When the manic charge Bombay led reached its destination, the enemy was gone. The squad met three machineguns and several abandoned magazines, the operators of the weapons long melted into the greenery like frost crystals blown into the jungle’s humid oven. To Bombay’s astonishment, all the firearms were in excellent working condition. The captured guns ensured the squad’s return to base. On arrival Bombay was made a lance corporal, the first of the promotions that would elevate him to the rank of sergeant and carrier of the regimental flag, and given the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery, one of the three medals he would be awarded on the front.

Shortly before the decoration ceremony, Bombay protested to his Lieutenant that he had taken his action not because of bravery but out of fear, and deserved no honour for valour. The officer smiled. That was the first time Bombay had seen him grinning. Oh poor you, so you don’t even know why the Japs fled, the Lieutenant said. The stories that preceded you to this war said that the Africans are coming and that they eat people. We fuelled those rumours by dropping leaflets on the enemy, warning them that you will not only kill them but you also will happily cook them for supper. The Japanese, as you very well know, are trained to fight without fear of death. They don’t mind being killed but, like anyone else, they are not in any way eager to be eaten. Their training didn’t prepare them for that. That was why they scrammed when they saw you screaming towards them like bloodthirsty savages. But anyway, that you know nothing about the situation only makes your action more courageous. Report in an hour to receive your decoration. Okay?

Bombay saluted. The normally stern-faced Lieutenant, recalling the incident, was tickled out of his reserve. He started chuckling as he walked away, finding the comedy of the engagement with the Japanese so hilarious that tears streamed down his cheeks as he burst into outright laughter. He contemplated the emotions experienced by the Japanese soldiers as Bombay’s squad bore down on them and the terror that must have gripped the enemy on concluding it was a clan of cannibals from Henry Rider Haggard’s gory tales making a sortie for lunch. His laughter was still sounding a minute later when he made his entrance into the canteen, desiring to calm the mirthful paroxysms rocking him with a drink.

In the Lieutenant’s wake, Bombay stood perplexed for a long spell, trying to come to grips with the revelation he had just received. Perhaps human flesh may be prime grade meat but he had never imagined eating anyone for a meal or even as a quick snack. Thinking more about it, Bombay’s stomach got queasy and he had to steady his rising urge to puke. That people would imagine he was a cannibal was something he had not thought was possible.