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Frozen in time, soldier’s voice comes to life
Aditi Tandon
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, November 29
For years, Mall Singh languished in the archives of Germany’s Humboldt University as a ‘dead sound’ file. His sole identity was “Sound Recording no. 619” , the one given to him by German scientists after capturing his voice on Shellac records. He was to be part of the Museum of all Languages of the World, nothing more.

But after 90 years of having remained frozen in time, the voice of the dead soldier is coming to life. Within days of the Tribune detailing efforts by German filmmaker Philip Scheffner to trace the histories behind the sound files of Indian soldiers detained by Germany during World War I, Mall Singh’s descendants are here to claim his legacy-his sound.

And the man asking for the inheritance is Sikander Singh, his grandson from village Mallena in Moga.

This village was part of Ferozepore when World War I was fought - a fact that has led researchers of Scheffner’s film “The Halfmoon Files” to believe this soldier could well be the one they had been looking for.

In fact, several details dug out by Scheffner at the “Halfmoon Camp”, the German PoW camp that housed over 2,000 Indian soldiers, match Sikander Singh’s account of his grandfather. According to Sikander, Mall Singh’s father’s name was Uttam Singh and his mother hailed from Ludhiana - details that figure in Mall Singh’s sound recording.

However, Mall Singh’s name does not figure in the official grave list of Halfmoon Camp, which means he could have returned to India. His grandson Sikander Singh now tells researchers that his grandfather did, indeed, return to India. This has helped solve the puzzle Scheffner and his Indian colleague Liet-Col Perminder Singh Randhawa had been grappling with for years.

“When he returned, he was in bad shape. He had been hit by four bullets in the leg and could barely walk. But he survived till the early seventies. We have his medals - the George V Medal, the Great War for Civilisation Medal and one for the Services for the King and Empire Rendered,” says Sikander Singh, who is overwhelmed to learn about the sound recording.

His statements are corroborated by village elders and Subedar Jagir Singh Dhaliwal who knew Mall Singh since he was a child.“Mall Singh had two brothers. We still have his ration card, which is in Urdu. The card was valid till 1950,” he explains.

For the researchers, this could well be the “discovery”. Says Liet-Col Randhawa: “More important than the fact that we have traced Mall Singh’s family is the interest the knowledge of his sound file has generated in Punjab. I have received several calls but Sikander Singh’s is the closest. This ripple effect shows the keenness of people in helping the rootless get back to roots.”

Scheffner’s team is in Uttaranchal, filming the family of another soldier, Bhawan Singh ,whose sound recording is also part of the film.

But to Scheffner, Mall Singh is the most important as he appears in the anthropological study on “ Racial Elements of the Sikhs” published in the German Journal of Ethnology in 1920. The study defines racial elements by comparing biometric data taken from 76 Sikh soldiers and seeks an answer as to why the Germans just couldn’t match these hardy men from Punjab.

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