There are rare books in Dayal Singh Library at ITO in Delhi. The Bridge on the Drina is a very powerful novel written by a Yugoslav doctor.
I was casually browsing through the books in the shelves. I would go through the opening paragraphs and if I liked it, I would take it.
The book opens with a vivid description of the turbulent river and the boatman, before the construction of the bridge. It ends with the blasting of the river by Turks, after withdrawal from Kosovo.
I got a clear picture of the Kosovo problem after reading the book.
The two powers, the Turks and the Russians, were at war frequently, with periods of rest, for the control of Eastern Europe in the fifteenth century. At that time Turky was in control of the whole of Europe, except Russian Europe.
After one such war, Kosovo, a Slav majority area, comes under the control of Turkey, when peace treaty is signed. The theme of the novel is the Slav resistance movement against the Turks. On one side of the river are the Muslims who favour Turkey and on the opposite side are the Slavs, fighting a guerrilla war against Turkey.
Three friends,” terrorists”, make a secret plan to sabotage the construction of the bridge. The Turks want the bridge for movement of troops against Russia, their leader warns. Shall we stand still, watching it come up?
Meanwhile, work is going on under the supervision of the Turkish commander, who conscripts the entire villagers for voluntary work and, after the piers are constructed, girders are being made.
Every day they find some tools go missing. After diligent watch, the three men are caught, but two manage to jump into the river, to face certain death. The third man is put on the stake.
Experts are hired for this work. A stake is inserted through the rectum and thrust into the body without damaging any internal organs like the heart, lungs, stomach etc., till it comes out of the mouth, and is put up in a busy place, until the man dies after several days….People watch helplessly, as any act of sympathy will invite punishment.
After his death, a close friend removes the body secretly in the night and performs funeral ceremony according to Christian rites.
When the work is over, it becomes public place, with gardens, tea shops etc. Lovers enjoy the sight from the bridge! Special arrangements have been made on the bridge for people to spend their evenings and it becomes a busy centre.
Movement across the bridge is closely watched by military officers. One officer is duped into falling in love with a not so young woman guerrilla activist, in veil, who escorts ‘her ill grandmother’ (a guerrilla leader), also in veil, several times across the river. When exposed, the officer commits suicide! This chapter alone can be published as a short story!
There is no hero or heroine. Each chapter is independent. Several important characters come and go.
After a long time, following a fresh treaty between Russia and Turkey, the latter withdraws from Slav areas and blows up the bridge after withdrawal, for which suitable holes had been secretly built into the piers. The novel ends here.
There are several gripping stories in between and the book is never boring. The reader will find it difficult to believe that it is written by a doctor!
The remnants of the bridge can still be seen.