Christmas has come early for Paratrooper Manchu. After six years’ service in the Indian Army’s elite Special Forces, Manchu, a young Naga warrior from the Konyak tribe, will be celebrating the festival at home. Though he was home at Christmas last year too, there were no celebrations then. Manchu’s world was full of darkness. He had survived a
terror attack, acquitting himself well in the fire-fight and saving two of his comrades. He was later awarded the Shaurya Chakra. But shrapnel injuries sustained in the attack had cost him his eyesight.
However, today, he has near perfect vision, thanks to successive and highly innovative surgeries at Lucknow’s Command Hospital. And most important, his smile is back. “I will be making a testimony in church before Christmas to thank everyone who stood by me in my dark days,” says a beaming Manchu, who is presently recovering in Lucknow. Topping the list of people he will thank in his testimony is Colonel Sanjay Mishra, the eye surgeon who has restored his vision.
When Manchu came to Col Mishra, he had already gone through multiple surgeries in a specialty eye hospital in Chennai. The surgeons there had removed innumerable splinters from his eyes but had not been able to save Manchu’s vision. In fact, on 25 January 2018, the news that he was going to get the Shaurya Chakra had to be read out to him. But today, when he sits in the doctor’s office, he can read the entire eye chart down to the last line with the smallest letters. When he had smartly marched before the President Ram Nath Kovind for his investiture ceremony, he was wearing the soda-water-bottle thickness spectacles. Today, the only glasses he carries are smart shades.
The day that had left Manchu’s world in darkness began like any other day. It was 6 June 2017. He was posted in Nagaland. He and his comrades had spent the day doing their routine duties and then burning off steam with a game of football in which their officer, Maj David, had joined them. “As everyone gathered for dinner, our names were called out. We left our dinner untouched and just ran to get our equipment. Soon, we were at the place (Tizit village) where intel reports suspected some terrorist movement. There were eight of us. We were in position at a checkpoint when we saw two three-wheelers hurtling towards us. We tried to stop them, but they charged on. They opened fire and also flung grenades at us. As the fire-fight went on, I was on the ground, reloading my gun when a grenade burst very close to me.
I was hurt in the shoulder and my reflex action was to check my back for an exit wound to assess the damage. But there was none. I realised that I had not been hit by a bullet, but by shrapnel. It was already past 10 and everything was pitch dark. I continued fighting and even dragged two of my comrades to safety. It was only when our relief came and I was unable to make out anything except the blurry halo of the headlights that I realized that my eyes were injured,” recalls Manchu.
Manchu and his team had taken out the terrorists but paid a heavy price. Maj David made the supreme sacrifice and several soldiers were injured. Manchu and the other injured were heli-evacuated after first aid – half-sitting and half- lying in the cramped confines of the chopper, they each held up their own bottle of saline and in their midst, lay the body of Maj David.
“All through this, I felt that I was sitting in a dense fog. I could not see anything. Everything was cloudy. I put my hands on the shoulders of the person in front of me and moved. After tending to my shoulder wound, the doctors checked my injured eyes. They sent me to Chennai to the civil hospital,” recalls Manchu.
After a series of surgeries, he was given spectacles so thick they could be used like a magnifying glass to set paper on fire. “When I got the Shaurya Chakra, I was happy. I met our Prime Minister Modiji. He asked me if I could see. I told him that it was impossible without glasses and even with glasses it was very blurry. I met our Chief of Army Staff. His wife met me at the reception after the investiture ceremony and said that hearing my citation had brought tears to her eyes,” says Manchu.
His father Yaei Konyak had travelled by train and air – leaving his village for the first time ever – to be with him for his investiture. His chest swelled with pride every time he looked at this son. There was much to be happy about. But Manchu was not happy. “I often thought that living like this – unable to see – was unbearable. Every day I felt that the darkness was worsening. I often felt that life was not worth living. I met the Army Chief General Bipin Rawat again after the investiture ceremony in April at the time of the Independence Day. At this meeting, I approached him and requested him to do something to help me regain my vision. He referred me to Col Mishra,” says Manchu.
And that day changed everything for Manchu. He reached Lucknow on 17 August and his first surgery took place 10 days later. “Manchu’s case was extremely challenging. The splinters had pierced the retina, lens and cornea of both eyes. In one eye, he also had secondary glaucoma that affects the optic nerve,” says Col Mishra.
He had a plan for the surgery – he could replace the shattered and scarred lens with artificial lens. But to implant the new lens, he needed a base – some kind of frame to affix the lens on to. “It was a technical challenge. The iris was torn. There was no frame. So using a safety guarded knife, I made two small incisions in the white part of the eye – to
act as a bracket – and slid the lens into position between these two incisions. I then fixed the lens with Fibrin glue which is used to stick body tissues. It was very critical to ensure that the lens was centred properly. There was also the ever present danger that the entire eye may just collapse. In addition there was the pressure of expectations –from Manchu and from the Army Chief,” says Col Mishra.
After the first surgery, Col Mishra waited for a little over a month before conducted the operation on the left eye. “We needed to wait to see whether the lens was holding. But even with one eye, Manchu was able to see. He was very excited and during the daily follow-up examination, he would keep asking me when I would do the next eye,” recalls Col Mishra.
The successful surgery of the second eye has left Manchu beaming. Today, as he makes his testimony in church, his list of people to thank includes Paratrooper Gurjeet. Through his year-and-a-half of darkness, it was Gurjeet from his regiment, who held his hand. It was Gurjeet who was with him during his long hospitalisation. Gurjeet was in charge
of his medication – diligently putting in the eye drops at the correct intervals. “No man left behind” is not just a phrase for the Indian Army – it is a way of life. Even when Manchu was down, his comrades-in-arms, his army doctors.