I am no Tony Curtis, dimples and all. I am, also, no he man Charlton Heston with muscles even on his mouth! But I am passable.
I am so extremely passable that, if rumours are to be believed, even Amitabh Bachchan (a leading Indian filmstar) is said to be going around town stating he is but me!! Though Amitabh is not being fair to me – he is much older than me and I sure have less wrinkles and I don’t use L’Oreal, Ponds or any of the anti ageing products!’
Yes, by Indian standards, I am a heartthrob!
Girls fall at my feet!
If you don’t believe me, ask my wife!
Let me narrate an incident to establish my credentials.
It was in the famed dusty, one horse Frontier town of the Punjab – the romantic, mysterious town hugging the Hudiara Drain, where the entertainment was in abundance with the shady bars peddling Punjab’s best – theke ki sharab (country liquor) and possibly ladies of easy virtue thrown in for effect, if one went by the ‘Out of Bounds for Military Personnel’ boards placed every few metres or so! It indicates the number of Bars and the hours of overtime the CMP (Corps of Military Police) put in – outside and, most probably, inside these Bars!
That being the sum total of the town’s entertainment share, it sure did not classify to be in the TLC’s ‘Most Attractive Destinations’ show.
Pitiable as it may have been, it did not dampen the Army’s penchant to make even the Desert come Alive with lights and song and dance. So, we had these parties, in house, out of house, in the Club and within the Brigade. They were so frequent that it did appear to be overdone. Yet, who would bell the cat? Our Commander was, what they call, ‘the Page 3 party Animal’. He loved parties, the more the merrier and loved to dance, shake a leg and guzzle. He was called, behind his back, Chevrolet! Chevrolet? Yes, because these American cars can guzzle and Chevrolet was a good enough and a famous brand!
It was one of these parties that was organised at the behest of ‘Chevrolet’.
Chevvy loved a late entry. He was a drama master personified and he had learnt that all important people came in late since it made a great effect on the people and more importantly, to the important person’s ego as they had everyone squirming with discomfort and in anticipation of the Exalted’s arrival!
We had arrived on time. The music was on, and some people were dancing. We were awaiting the arrival of Chevy. While the youngsters were having a ball, it was us Commanding Officers who were furtively keeping one eye on the entrance, where the runner (long red carpet made of jute) had been placed all the way to the dais, where the Exalted One would sit, partake in his beverage and munch on the fatted sow which was being barbecued! The dance floor was adjacent to the runner that had been laid, and just below the dais.
My wife was from a civil background and though a CO’s wife, she was still not quite the fidgety, imperious Old Lady of the Ball types these CO’s wives tend to be. In fact, she was a positive embarrassment to the stereotype CO’s wife image.
Keeping to her wayward civil attitude, she wanted to know why we could not have a dance before the Exalted One came. Poor thing, my wife, did not know what a sacrilege it would be if I were not there to do the Mugal courtier rituals when the rather tubby and flushed pink Chevvy, the Mugal Emperor, dropped his weight from his car and onto the runner!
That was one reason to avoid the dance before the arrival of El Cid aka Chevvy.
The other reason was more important. While I was quite a good ballroom dancer, I was petrified of entering an Indian Army dance floor. I had once been kicked so hard on the thigh, yes the thigh, that I had to be hospitalised! These dance floors were a veritable battlefield. People thrashed their hands and legs in wild abandon in all degrees of the compass, and at times, pointed their middle fingers heavenwards, in tune with obscene gyrations of their shoulder blades! And the music! It was horrifyingly loud catering for the artillery chaps I presume, who were mostly deaf (because of their thunder and shot), even though not dumb. And Chevvy was an Artillery convertee to better climes (to Infantry)!!
That being reasons to avoid the dance floor, my wife’s dancing prowess too did not quite flatter my sensibilities. She danced in a most weird manner. It was one of the new dances or maybe it was her copyright dance. She moved forward and backward on her feet, with her hands moving horizontally forward and backwards from the elbow straight at you. Frightening! Her hand movement was almost as if they were the steel links between the wheels of a steam locomotive. I would not be too sure if her dance style was inspired by Kylie Minogue’s hit number – Locomotion or not. What I did know was that I found this type of a railway dance very monotonous and it gave me a giddy feeling even if I had only been on Coca Cola that day. And I don’t think Coca Cola is heady!
Therefore, given all the inhibitors to dancing, I told her that I would prefer to wait for Chevvy than dancing. She was sorely disappointed. And as they say, hell hath no fury than a woman scorned. Under bated breath she hissed: “OK, so you don’t want to dance. Have you seen your face? No one would even want to dance with you’.
Now, that was mean! Would that mean than no one would like to dance with Amitabh Bachchan? Remember, he was going around town saying that he was me?
I was a sophisticated chap, more so, when I was in public. As a CO, I was no hoi polloi and instead, I was a very public figure. Almost like King Louis XV – after me the Deluge like attitude that all COs seem to acquire.
”Who says that I am not good looking?” I said with my haughty best.
Óh really? You are just slim and that is why you look passable!”
“Passable?” I was getting a trifle irritated. Had she been a jawan (trooper), I would have had her put in the Quarterguard immediately for being indiscipline on parade. But then she was not a jawan and in those days, there were no women in the Army and so I would not have had the excuse of mistaken identity either! So, I controlled myself.
“Passable? Let me tell you, woman, slim or not slim, girls fall at my feet”.
“Hah! Girls fall at your feet? That will be the day!”
We were still arguing with bated breath and each wearing a smile, hiding our clenched teeth and hissing our chitsy chatsy (Indian way of explaining a more intimate chit chat than chit chat itself!), something appeared to be approaching us.
It was one young thing who had approached us. She was one of the fancier ladies of the Brigade and a youngster’s wife of another unit.
She had come alongside, almost like a ship undertaking a perfect berthing!
“Colonel, would you like to dance with me?”
Imagine that! I was being asked for a dance when actually the man is supposed to ask for a dance!
It boosted my ego that has been so far crushed underfoot, as a offensive bug would be, by my worthy wife!
I smiled a smile that would equal a Victory Dance of the bush pygmies – a radiant and a defiant one and flashed that smile in full radiance at my wife. The pygmy drum beats were the only thing missing!
If looks could kill, the young girl was killed by my wife’s look, that beatific smile of my wife still in place, as if measured to engineering precision with an inside calliper. The smile did nothing to kill her scathing and disdainful look.
“You want to dance with my husband”, asked the Battle Axe of my home.
“Yes, ma’am, if you don’t mind”, the young thing replied.
“Oh I don’t mind, but don’t let me tell you that I did not warn you”
“Oh yes, not in that way, but it is just that he dances with the exciting agility of an Army mule. He is a trifle rigid in his movements and his feet moves not nimbly, and instead like the plod of Army mules as they move up the hill. And of course, he is also going on in years. Let his slimness not fool you. He is out of breath the first five minutes and he then breathes like a she bear going into labour. Very scary!! Now, you want to take the risk, then please go ahead!”
“But, I saw him the other day at the Commander’s party. He was such a pleasure to the eye. So graceful and not wild at all. His steps were so perfect and classy. And he danced for about 30 minutes till the band took a break! I don’t think he was breathing hard. He is ever so classy. That is why I wanted to dance with him.”
“Really? He was not breathing like a panting water buffalo? That’s surprising. But then snakes don’t pant, do they?”
The girl was totally confused.
My wife realised that this young lady would not be taken in by her stratagem to leave me in the cold.
“Oh well, if you think he can dance, please go ahead. He is however waiting for the Commander. You know, how the Army is. He has to go and pay his salaams.”
As she said this, the young lady looked at me.
To spite my wife, I took her hand and was about to move to the floor.
It is then when she fell!!!!!
The jawan in charge of having the runner perfectly straight and without any folds, had given the final hefty tug to make it perfect.
And so the girl fell………….right at my feet!
I looked at my wife and with my eyes guiding her to the lady at my feet.
I gave a mischievous smile signalling my victory.
My eyes said it all to my wife.
Girls do fall at my feet ----- mostly, young ones!!
This happened. The General Officer Commanding’s (GOC) bottom was blemished!
It was in the spring of the 80s.
It was providential it was not in our time. It came about in those days when the preceding unit was holding the posts along the Line of Control in Kashmir. It is an interesting story and so it has to be unravelled in the correct perspective and not sensationalised, it being a historic event.
All was calm and quiet on the northern front as it was all quiet on the Western Front in World WarI ……till it was discovered that the Pakistanis were slowly inching forward with their posts and were in the process of violating the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. The locale of this shenanigan was the forbidding heights of High Altitude somewhere on the Northern borders – as the tabloids tend to weave mysterious anonymity to the formidable frontiers to garner enigmatic background to their stories.
Flag meetings took place to resolve the issue. It was to no avail. Right as rain was the Pakistani skulduggery of claiming that the Line of Control drawn on the map was done with a thick pencil wherein the thickness of the pencilled line equalled quite a few yards, if not kilometres on ground! Crafty little devils!
The dispute not being resolved, each side stood by in an armed peace. They had always stood in armed peace, but this was more armed and less peace than the usual!
It was still calm. Then some Pakistani madcap opened up with a Heavy Machine Gun (HMG)! All hell broke loose! It was an unfortunate thing to have happened but then the Pakistani soldiers were usually on Afghanistan’s best and consequently the trigger mechanisms tended to react to their itchy fingers causative of the hallucinations that Afghanistan’s best tends to encourage.
The hell became an inferno and then there was no stopping it from becoming a full-fledged war. With no holds barred, the environment was savage.
While the exchange of fire continued unabated, the saving grace was that it was confined to this battalion’s area of responsibility and had not spilled over to the remainder of the Brigade and the Division. More Flag meetings took place, but to no purpose. And, as it is with most Indo Pak conflicts of all dimensions and size, it took on a permanent indelible signature!
The unit improved their defensive posture by occupying areas to their advantage. The new posts that mushroomed were rough and ready as the area was high altitude and no natural resources to bank upon. Defence stores had to be man-packed from the valley to these high heights. Therefore, stone bunkers and Sangers was all that was immediately feasible, but dangerous they were, fraught with the ever present hazard of soldiers becoming casualties through flying splintered stones. Over the weeks with the advent of defence stores, brought up by ropes and dangling like monkeys, the bunkers took shape of permanency. All this was constructed under intense and heavy enemy firing. The Pakistanis being on higher heights, even before the conflict, had an advantage.
With the conflict escalating in ferocity and with all flag meetings with the opposite side having failed, the situation was becoming another festering boil for the Brigade and the Divisional HQs.
First-hand knowledge was essential for those who were responsible for the overall strategy. To have this first-hand experience of the operational situation, the living conditions, the morale of the troops and the state of defences, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) decided to visit the forward most posts.
It is one thing for a unit to be fighting the front line battle and it is quite another thing for a GOC to be hanging around as shot and shell traipsed around randomly in a high density mode. While one could statistically predict the accuracy of bullets of Marksmen, it is those bullets of those classified as ‘Standard Shot’ and ‘Failures’ which were most unpredictable. Pakistanis appeared to have a surfeit of the later variety. Fortunately, God was with this unit. However, there was no guarantee that God would smile favourably on the GOC and that was what made the CO break into cold sweat at the prospect of the GOC visiting the forward most posts of his unit.
The CO was not ready to take the risk. He took advantage of the fact that the GOC was a once the CO of this very unit and tried to dissuade the GOC; but the GOC was adamant as a mule!
And so it came to pass that the GOC arrived at the unit’s Battalion HQ located on a lower ridge and relatively safer than the forward posts.
The CO once again tried to dissuade the GOC. The GOC exhibited true mulish resolve. He would go, come what may.
With total resignation, the CO prepared the escort party and as soon as the sun set, the party along with the GOC and the CO, set forth for the arduous climb to the next ridge where they would spend the night. This area, though under fire, was no hell hole like the forward posts and so the night passed ‘peacefully’ for the CO, though the nocturnal exchange of fire and it hitting the various bunkers kept the GOC awake and going a long way to his acquiring a ‘first-hand experience’. This post was there before the current conflagration and hence was well fortified and could stand many an assault of shot and shell.
The morning broke, but none could move. The GOC hung around moving behind the brestwalls and through the communication trenches and observed the day battle as it waxed and waned. He had lunch at the troop’s cookhouse (lunger) and the party set out to the forward posts as soon as it got dark. The track leading was a registered target and so it was being flayed by HMGs describing random arcs that were discernable because of the indiscriminate use of tracers. The tracers allowed one to judge the trajectory and where the firing was terminating and so it was actually an aid to avoid being in the firing line, that is, if the gunner was not an addict of Afghanistan’s best! That risk had to be taken in one’s stride!
Running the gauntlet, the GOC finally reached one of the forward most posts, which had only a platoon. It was one of the hurriedly constructed posts under fire. It had no amenities or adequate bunkers. Most had to make good sleeping in the communication trenches, when they could grab the time by day, when the intensity of fire was lower and the OP (Observation Post) could watch the area over a longer distance. It may be mentioned that this being High Altitude, there were no trees and so the observation distance was fairly long.
On arrival, the GOC got a warm steaming dinner from the lunger. He was most satisfied since he was not one to stand on formalities when he was in his own unit. He ate out of a bashed out, though scrubbed shining, mess tin, the food receptacle issued to troops and officers. Being an Indian, he had no qualms or difficulty in using his fingers to eat the food. For dessert, a syrupy fruit was served from a tin since rations were basically tinned. A vitamin pill was also handed over as that was routine when one took tinned food.
The GOC then hit the Communication trench to observe the battle!
That night it was hell. Worse than before! Somehow, the Pakistanis had got an inkling that some VIP had come avisiting! The GOC was not worried. The others were. Bullet streaked endlessly and the thump and rattle of the HMG resounded all over. A couple of RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenade) also came the post’s way, as if to give it a shake, rattle and roll. While the bunkers shook, rattled and rolled, the GOC was not amused. He was beyond the age for Disco Dancing!
He had more than what he had bargained for, in the quest to have a first-hand experience of the operational situation, the living conditions, the morale of the troops and the state of defences.
The fireworks went on through the night and the GOC got accustomed to the ‘scenario’ and the ‘effects’. He then went for his nap. Initially, he kept waking in fits and starts as the thumps kept falling close but later, it is reported, he snored away merrily. It was also mentioned that his snore was near in decibel as the noise of the battle ensuing outside.
The dawn broke and the ‘war’ took a break. It was apparent that though different countries, the habits were the same. Timings for ablutions for both the countries were historical and as ancient from the time of Mohenjodaro.
After a steaming cup of tea in an enamelled Government Issue mug, the GOC wandered around the post. It was as if he had come to check the ‘stand to’. He chatted here, he chirped there with the troops and the troops were distinctly happy and proud that a GOC had the spirit of a soldier to have come where danger is the norm.
The GOC wandered a wee bit more and then, not being able to take it anymore, asked the CO as to where the toilet was.
That was rich! Who had the time to build a toilet when the bunkers are yet to be built?
“Sir, there is no toilet in the strict manner of speaking”, the Company Commander was bold enough to say and clear the GOC’s fanciful thoughts.
“Really? Then where do you go?”
“To be frank we just sit in the communication trenches and use a used fruit tin and then chuck it towards the Pakistanis and it rolls down to them!”
“OK, then where should I go?” asked the GOC incredulously.
A part of the communication trench was cleared and with gunny sack it was screened and the Company Commander regally led the way. It was a historical event after all. No GOC ever emptied his bowels in a communication trench in history. Sadly, there were no representatives of Guinness Book of World Records to note this unique and singular feat in the history of warfare!
And so the GOC repaired to this hallowed part of the communication trench duly screened.
If the Company Commander could help it, he would have even sat alongside to help him on the way to nature’s release of bodily waste. No sir, the GOC did not want to have such devoted observation and assistance and he made that crystal clear.
Disappointed not to be of assistance to the GOC, and that too an ex CO of the unit, the Company Commander was disappointed. He soulfully handed over a used and empty fruit tin, duly wiped of all remnants of the syrup that accompanies, to the GOC and left.
He left, but hovered in the vicinity so as to be of assistance in case required.
Obviously, in a communication trench, there was no toilet bowl and so all had to squat and use empty fruit tins. The General was not used to squatting or substituting the toilet bowl with a used fruit tin. He was hard put to relieve himself. The only consolation was that there swirled a cool breeze through the gaps in the boulders and it had a very pleasing effect in this unique manner adopted to release bodily waste in the morning.
The General was getting used to this style of operational readiness.
He GOC was enjoying this activity since the exertion ever since he arrived had transformed all the food into bodily waste.
Then there was a sudden and sharp yelp from within the ‘toilet’!
The Company Commander rushed. He then hesitated. He could not muster up courage to peek in lest the General was still in the raw. He realised that it would do him no good if he caught the General with his pants down.
“Any problem, sir?” he meekly enquired.
The General’s reply was a mix between anger, pain and surprise!
“Yes, it is the fruit tin”.
“So sorry, sir. Was it not up to the standard?”
“You bet it. I have cut my bottom. It’s bleeding. The Godforsaken thing has jagged edges and my bottom is a jigsaw puzzle!” Wincing, he added, “Get a damned bandage and antiseptic”.
Of course, the General’s desires were attended to and his bottom was salved.
His bottom may have bled, but his bottom made the troops lives a happy one.
The first thing the GOC did when he went back to his HQ was send a long missive on improving the Quality of Life on the Posts!
Dr Kurien may have done a miracle with his White Revolution by flooding India with surplus milk and diary products, but my Company Second in Command (2IC) was no less a miracle man. It is unfortunate that his feat was not publicised. The Army PR has always been and is notoriously bad and so this is my attempt to allow him his place in the sun!
Meerut, as those who are aware of this city know, is in Uttar Pradesh and is famed for its burning sun. Apples, on the other hand the world over, require a temperate climate to grow; and yet he grew in Meerut! A miracle no doubt!
My experience of this miracle was experienced on a post (Forward Defended Locality), along the Line of Control with Pakistan, in the Pir Badesar area in the Rajauri Sector . I was the B Company Commander and the 2nd Lieutenant was my Company 2IC. He was nonetheless an old army hand; he having been an ASC Staff Duties Clerk before being commissioned. He was good company and I enjoyed his quaint English pronunciation, where “I mean to say” was staccato-ed out as “Aam 2 say” and things like that. His speech may have been quick time, but he was a real laid back person, as if with no care in the world! Good chap was he and jolly as Old King Cole!
He had just returned from his spot of annual leave. Surprisingly, he was not full of his usual cheer. It is true that one is not one’s perky self when one returns after annual leave, but was he a troubled soul? Rumour had it that he had overstayed leave!
In the field area where we were deployed accounting for leave was a complicated process. Officers’ leave was controlled by the Battalion HQs and the documentation was a convoluted procedure since leave commenced from the last of the series of Transit Camps that one went through before one hit the Railhead at Pathankot . And none could predict how long it would take to reach the Railhead via the various transit camps since there were but finite number of trucks that took the transients. Those who could not be accommodated had to await their turn at the Transit Camp the next day. The Battalion HQ alone received the second copy of the leave certificate duly endorsed by the Transit Camp at Pathankot. The Company HQs was out of the loop.
Hence, when my 2IC returned from leave, I knew of the AWL (Absent without Leave) only as a rumour. I did not broach the issue with him since it was an embarrassing issue.
And, so for a day or two, it was mums the word for me on the issue and he too did not appear to be in a ‘gushing to spill the beans’ mood.
As I said two days had passed and still the 2IC’s cheerful demeanour had not surfaced. One would have blamed the weather but then it could not be because of the weather. Contrary to the predictions, the sun had shone bright thorough the dark winter days ever since he had arrived! In fact, the world at large was full of good cheer. Even the Pakistanis felt son top of the world as they had not fired ever since my 2IC had returned! Yet, the poor man, my 2IC, wore that hangdog, ‘tomorrow we shall die’, look.
I love humour and mirth all around. Can’t do without it, as some cannot do without their sundowners! I get seriously affected by gloom. My 2IC was affecting me. I had to brace up. It took me two pegs of whiskey that night, and I hate the stuff, to muster embarrassed courage to ask him the inevitable – was he AWL or was he not and why was he moping, like a withered bat?
The poor fish, my 2IC, stared blankly into the bukhari (wood and coal burning stove to heat the bunker) that was given the warmth to our bunker. He opened the lid through which the pine cones and wood were fed and looked into it, perched as if he would jump into it to add to the burning effect, adding more heat within the bunker! I leapt up and restrained him and yanked him back. He fell in a heap and didn’t get up. Christ! Was the yank too much and he was dead? No, he was not dead. He was softly moaning. I thought I had hurt him, but no, that was not the case. He was softly weeping!
I lifted him up even though he was very heavy and sat him on a chair. Then I started a clamp down session of cooing him over cups of tea. After half an hour, he regained his calm.
Then he blurted out the story and took it off his chest.
He was returning to the unit after leave when the dacoits (armed brigands) had kidnapped him and had taken him into a forest (one wonders where forests were en route!). They lit a bonfire and sat around it, contemplating what to do. At last they said that they would let him go since he was a soldier defending the country (damned patriotic dacoits were there in those days I must say!). They, however, had drugged him so that he would not be able to give away the location of the dacoit’s hideout! And so he had passed out like a light. The next thing he realised was that he was lying on the platform at the Pathankot railway station! But my 2IC, as we all know, was a good soldier and so he did the correct thing. He went straight to the Transit camp and reported his arrival. And from there he came to the unit!
I am no film buff, but this was real box office hit stuff, with all the drama of crime, drugs, patriotism and all that! Just the type that succeeds at the box office!
What a cock and bull story! I felt sorry for him. Had he been a soldier, it would have been 28 days in the clink and end of story. As an officer he sure would have a minimum of one year loss of seniority.
I couldn’t help it, but I blurted out in wonderment and enquired if he had a relative in the Bombay film industry! He was not shaken that I disbelieved every word of his. In the most innocent of tones, denied any connection to Bombay or its film industry. In fact, if one were to believe him, he said vehemently, he had never stepped South of the Holy Ganges! Even Allah is his witness! Secular chap was my 2IC.
The Court of Inquiry was ordered and my 2 IC left the Post.
After two weeks my 2IC returned.
He had, it transpired, been taken to the Brigade HQs and then to the Divisional HQs in the process of the investigation. A very odd thing, but then with my 2IC, everything can go wrong!
However, the manner in which my 2IC was handled, not only perplexed me, but also inflamed my sensibilities. The General Staff Publication on handling of PsW (Prisoners of War) states that it is the procedure PsW undertake and so it was very very odd as to why my 2IC took the route that is honoured by PsW alone! Could it be that my 2IC was an unusual cove and after the Bombay movie like dacoit story, the bizarre that was my 2IC alter ego, was not so bizarre after all?!
My 2IC stayed two days in the Battalion HQ and then he came back to the Company.
Obviously, as a Company Commander, I went through the drill of interviewing him as is done for anyone away from the Company for a length of time.
He was cheerful and that was the saving grace. The man had stoic. He could be cheerful even after the ordeal of a military enquiry!
My interview of my 2IC was short. He said that the inquiry went off well and they believed him, even though I, as his company commander, had been stunned into disbelief. This type of a thing happens in UP, Rajasthan and MP, he told me. Commonplace, he emphasised. And anyway, both the Brigade Commander and the Divisional Commander were from the same place or nearabouts where his village was and so they understood. And hence, the inquiry was over. He was a free bird!
So, that was it. While I was happy that my 2IC had escaped becoming a cadet, since loss of seniority would only be minus in service as he had only had six months of service. I was despondent. It was not because my 2IC escaped, but because there were none from where I came from to understand that I, too, could get late from leave because of gheraos and bandhs . In those days, the horrendous impact what these instruments of “peoples’ power” was capable of was unknown to the rest of India, my State being run by the Communists. Therefore, I had no chance of being as lucky as my 2IC.
My 2IC went to his bunker and said he would join me for dinner later, and did I not get the crate of apples that he had left for me?
I am not too fond of eating, nor am I one of those fruit munching type. So, while I thanked him, I forgot all about it, till after three days when my orderly produced some of those apples for lunch. My 2IC was also having lunch with me.
“I say old chap, rather delicious” I said to the 2IC for politeness sake, even though I didn’t relish apples.
“Thank you, Sir. I got one peti (crate) for you, my company commander, one peti for the CO and one peti each for the Brigade Commander and the Division Commander since my father knows them from earlier times! These apples are all from my orchard.”
Aha! That much for military law!
And then I forgot all about this conversation.
A week passed when I suddenly recalled that my 2IC was from Meerut, the area of the burnished sun as burnished as from where Othello belonged!
I was astonished! Burnished Meerut produced apples?!
I collared my 2IC during the evening Stand To.
“Old chap, where did you get these apples from? They were rather good. I hope you did not have to pay a fortune for those four crates of apples. They must have cost you a King’s ransom!”
“No, sir, they were from my orchard as I told you”
I pottered around. Re-laid an LMG’s fixed line. Told a chap to ensure his bunker was clean and so on. I peered at the Pakistani post which was but a few hundred metres away.
My 2IC followed me as any good 2IC would.
I swivelled on my heel and asked my 2IC, “Say, aren’t you a Thakur (small time satraps) from Meerut?”
Now, these thakur chaps love to impress all about their fiefs! And they love to twirl their larger than life moustaches, which they all sport. Well, almost all.
My 2IC chest puffed up to indicate this thakur pride. He tried to twirl his moustache as per the Thakur drill and failed. He had forgotten that he had none! He opened his mouth and very grandly said, “Of course, sir. My grandfather is known in the Meerut district as also the neighbouring ones. The Chief Minister regularly comes to pay his homage!”
“How wonderful! Splendid! First class! Totally capital! And the Chief Minister comes to pay homage. Good going, I must say. But, just tell me one thing, notwithstanding these great happenings, how is it that you grow apples in Meerut? I have never heard of such a miracle happening!”
He looked sheepish.
He broke into a mischievous smile and said, “Oh sir, as per the unit drill, one had to bring a book or something when returning from annual leave. I had forgotten all about it. So, when I got down in Pathankot, and because the Transit Camp bus was leaving, I had no time to go and buy a book. I did the next best thing. I bought these petis from outside the Transit Camp gates!”
So, that was how Meerut grew apples and that is how that miracle came to pass!
Commissioned in the Indian Army, my first posting was to Banarhat in Bengal. The unit located amidst adjoining tea gardens, was housed in bashas , which meant slatted bamboo huts on mud foundation. Some had cement floors.
Greenhorn that I was, the army life routine was as Greek as it could be.
The day I joined, the unit looked immensely busy. Apart from the customary pleasantries, I was left to roam with the freedom lost cows groping in the dark are accustomed to. That is till someone waved his hand towards a group of bashas and sent me ‘A’ Company bound.
The Senior JCO (Junior Commissioned Officer) met me and was the first one to indicate some heartiness in the welcome, but was quick enough to inform me that apart from the welcome and handing me over to another man, he had little time at hand since he was busy preparing for the ‘Adam’ inspection.
The new man in whose charge I had been assigned explained. It had nothing to do with the Bible, but was equally momentous though! It meant the unit was being inspected by the Brigade Commander, an annual phenomenon that decided that unit’s efficiency! A Big Deal actually. That is what he told me. He also advised to stay clear lest I messed up anything. Frank chaps, they were I must say.
I was never too lazy a person and so soon I was on my own ‘inspection’. To me it was equally a momentous moment. I roamed around the unit. All were busy and so none really cared. I was as conspicuous for attention as the lizards on the bamboo walls.
There was the Adjutant strutting around pompously yelling orders than none seem to obey and the Quartermaster busy dipping his finger in tinned cans to ‘check the freshness’ as he desperately updated his ledgers!
The JCOs (Junior Commissioned Officers and factotums of the unit) were the sole souls mimicking eager beavers as they ‘guided’ the troopers or jawans in their task, their abuses intensifying in decibel with the approach of any officer! In short, everybody was busy.
I continued my ‘inspection’.
I espied a beautiful garden in front of the SP Company office . It was a glorious display of colours amidst the drab military utilitarian surroundings. The garden was in full bloom. I paused to admire it. The breeze blew gently and the flowers and plants sway in delightful ecstasy.
In the other corner of the garden, the troops were frantically digging in front of the office while some others were busily cleaning the Medium Machines guns, 3-inch mortars, the 106 Recoilless Guns and other heavy weapons. The incongruity was stark. There was beauty on one side and there were the weapons of war on the other!
Then came Judgement Day. The day of the inspection! It had by now been made clear to me that it had nothing to do with Adam, and instead was Adm, a short form of ‘Administration/ Administrative’ and so on that I learnt from the GS publications, Staff Duties in the Field, Appendix C that was shoved right under my nose!
The Brigade Commander arrived. The Officers and JCOs were introduced to him in front of the CO’s (Commanding Officer) Office. I was a bit surprised. It seemed incongruous that the Brigade Commander did not know the officers and JCOs except possibly me. But then having seen oddities of life during my cadet days, I just added another for the memory lane.
The Brigade Commander was pleased as Punch seeing me. He devoted as much attention as one would to a new daughter in law in the family. Like any new daughter in law in the family, while delighted at the attention, it did make me uncomfortable too. He asked me if I had any idea of the Army. It was obvious that I had none and I mumbled it so.
“Aha! Then you must come along with me as I do the turn. See how a unit should run first hand with me”. I could perceive that my Commanding Officer was not pleased at all, but I saw another aspect of the army that has deluded me so far – how to say “Yes Boss” with the contrived delight of a Cheshire Cat!
So, I followed them.
The Brigade Commander started ‘doing the turn’. He asked apparently innocuous questions. They must have been loaded since quite a few stumbled to answer.
Then he came to the Support Company lines.
The Brigade Commander was an Anglo Indian. He obviously had the British fondness for gardens. He saw the SP Company garden that I had been equally enthralled with – the garden in full bloom, swaying lazily with the breeze.
He was smitten by the garden.
He paused in admiration. It was as if a lifetime passed, the wait being that long!
The Brigade Commander bent down seeing a gorgeous rose blooming in its full magnificence. He was a tall man. He bent down to smell the fragrance of the rose.
He tried to resume the upright, after a great sniff of the blossoming rose and he sort of jerked!
The rose came into his hand, the stem, the roots and all!
It was then the truth dawned.
Subedar Suradkar, the SP Company Senior JCO, who was known for gambols and gimmicks, had planted already blooming flowers and produced an instant garden, practically overnight, just for ‘one-upmanship’!
The expected bollocking never came. The Brigadier broke into guffaws that resounded through the adjoining tea gardens.
“Oh my, Suradkar sah’b , wonders will never cease. Ap badlenge nahin [you will not change]. Ap number one Guru Ghantal hain [you are a Number One smart pants].”
The day was saved.
But Suradkar earned his lifetime moniker - Guru Ghantal sah’b.
Even jawans who came later to the unit, well after Suradkar sah’b had retired, knew all about the Guru Ghantal sah’b; but they could never recall his actual name!
So, if you go to my unit and ask about the Guru Ghantal sah’b, you will be regaled with stories, but don’t ask for the actual name.
General Sunderjee of the Mahar Regiment had taken over as the Chief of the Army Staff. He was a ‘sci-fi’ solider and apparently ahead of the time. He had done a course in the USA and so imbibed some egalitarianism that sent shivers through the military relics of the British Raj. His celebrated ‘Dear Brother Officer’ letter to all officers of the Army exhorting us to be ‘men’ and quit the cult of sycophancy was blasphemous in military protocol, to say the least. It was blasphemous because Generals NEVER wrote to the rank and file and never ever with any ‘Dear Brother Officer’ salutation!!
The General had kick-started the Army the computerisation way. In addition, he was cranking in new fangled ‘concepts’ to make the uniform more ‘practical’, shorn of the frills and trappings. In short, the Army was on the road to various ‘experiments’.
Sunderjee’s mobile brain was too électrique for the plebeian. Of the experiments with the uniform, one was to have Regimental insignias on the collar. The Adjutant General was exhausted and out of his depth with whether to have the Regimental insignia on the collar or have it not, since some British relic Colonels of the Regiment were having serious misgivings in having their officers lit up like Christmas trees while some others liked the idea – if only to show ‘solidarity’ with the Chief for obvious reasons. The result was like Alice in Wonderland. Instead of the heads, the regimental insignias were ‘on’ one day and ‘off’ the next day. The only thing permanent in this exercise to ‘practicality’ in the uniform was the ensuing holes in the collars where the insignia jumped off and on like cats on the hot tin roof. Further, it was ‘impractical’ financially to have sets of uniform to suit the mood of the day of the Adjutant General!
The Mahar Regiment, to which I belonged, opted not to have the insignia. Hence, they had holes in their collar since the insignia was no longer there. Notwithstanding, the Adjutant General remained confused as to what he had ordered and what he had not! And we preferred to keep the holes on the collar – lest there was another change of heart for the collar insignia.
During this ‘momentous’ era of the Indian Army, I was an instructor at the College of Combat, Mhow in the Junior Command Wing.
Since he was an enigma, General Sunderjee was touring the Army and was projecting his thoughts first hand so as to have a closer interaction with the officers and ‘feel the pulse’.
It was a balmy day when General Sunderjee arrived at Mhow. There was interest amongst those who did not know him since they wanted to know yeh kia cheez hain (what type of ‘thing’ is he?) After all, in the rigid military hierarchy, no Chief had ever written a letter to all officers or had so openly talked or admitted about the growing cult of ji huzoor-ness [the ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ syndrome]. Sunderjee had already had a fan following, thanks to the ‘dear Brother’ letter. Further, his fondness for things ultra modern had made him Mohamed Tuglak-ish (the crazy, but way ahead of his time, Emperor of India). The anticipation was as keen as would some be elicited for some unique specimen brought to the zoo from a strange part of the world!
While the General nestled in Guest Room No 1, the instructors and the students were all hustled into Lecture Hall No 3. In spite of the Madhya Pradesh heat and the profuse sweating, none really realised the discomfort; such was the excitement!
The lecture was still a good one hour away, but like all good things of the Army, we were herded with a large time cushion that Army husbands normally don’t insist even of their wives when they are going for an important social event! The time lag was preposterous which matched the ‘Havildar Major timing’! For the uninitiated the Havildar Major is the Non Commissioned Officer who is responsible for the discipline of the troops who congregates troops two hours before an event, if he is a bit soft in the head, and six hours earlier, if he was not!
We arrived in the Lecture Hall No 3.
In front of us we found whole lot of gizmos and arrays of wire and some sort of a contraption that was to project the slides. Remember, in those days we did not even know what ‘slides’ or ‘view-foils’ were! Music was also coming out of the battery of weird machines that were still being set up. In fact, I thought RK Film Studios had arrived to show us some film like Satyam Shivum Sunderumjee. Only Zeenat Aman (a shapely and 'bold' female movie star) in the near raw was missing! In her place it was only Lieutenant Colonel UB Ghosh, who I knew during my cadet days. He was sticking various things into place and was to be the Master Of Information Technology Ceremonies. Since we were not allowed to move out of our seat, we watched the proceeding with bated breath. It was as if we were to witness the launch of the Apollo satellite from Cape Canaveral!
Then on the appointed hour, the Chief arrived, duly escorted by the Commandant. People craned to have the first glimpse of this man, who was already an icon like Hema Malini, the comely female film star. He was lean, thin and tall. He bettered Malini. He was smart and handsome too! The best part was that he ran up the stairs to the lectern on the dais. The man was really in a hurry. If that dash were anything to go by, then the Army was really on the move!
The usual banality of introduction of the guest speakers done, we were informed how fortunate we are that the Chief had ‘so graciously deemed it fit to grace the College of Combat’ etc etc. The Commandant was at his eloquent best. He then gave way, smug as a bug, for the Chief to give his ‘two penny’ bit.
The Chief commenced. There was none of the ‘Good morning, Gentlemen and Officers’ sacrament of commencing the address. He got underway with ‘Brother Officers’. Had he been a politician addressing an election rally, there would have been instant and spontaneous ‘Sunderji ki jai. Bharat Mata ki Jai (Halleluiah to Sunderjee. Victory to Mother India)’ and all the other things the guys, at these election rallies, are paid to shout with total insincerity. However, the difference was that if we were allowed sloganeering, this would have been totally sincere!! Such was the charisma and hope he had generated with his ‘Brother Officer’ letter.
He spoke of innovations that were on the anvil and what was expected of the rank and file. He told us not to overdo the ‘Sir’ part of our life and there was no need to say ‘Haanji, Sirjee, Sir’. He assured us that saying ‘Sir’ once was adequate. In fact, he strongly advocated calling seniors by their rank, giving an example that it was absolutely adequate to call him ‘General’ without adding the ‘Sir’; just like US Army. The stuffy British could take a running jump! The shackles of the British Raj were finally becoming a hoary past!!! The Boston Tea Party so to say – true Indian style.
He was candid. He said that sycophancy could not be got rid of overnight. He exhorted us with an example of two men who were chased by a Tiger and had climbed a tree. One had to come down and face the Tiger and maybe die. But, the other guy would be free. Someone had to sacrifice.
That did not go well with the audience, though. It proved that he had no idea of the Indian mentality. Catch a modern Indian sacrificing for community good! That ethos had finished with the struggle for Independence. The current struggle was to find a place in the sun, by hook or by crook and most likely, by crook. I think his over exposure to the US caused this ‘thought-mismatch’ wherein he had lost the touch of reality. It was rather odd for a Tamil Brahmin (TamBrahms) to have a mismatch since they are known to be shrewd blokes who always had their ear close to the ground and nose in the air and reacted as per the situation for the maximum payoff.
Anyway, the Chief continued and having finished the address, he was given an enthusiastic and warm standing ovation. The standing up and clapping was not a ‘done thing’, but this form of recognition was creeping in. I don’t know if it was a sycophant phenomenon or the loose disciplined US ways.
Then, the address was open to questions from the floor.
There was silence.
Notwithstanding my reputation of asking questions and being awkward, I thought this was a chance to test whether he meant what he said. So I got up to ask a question.
There was a petrified look writ large on the Commander JC Wing’s face, who was my boss. It was OK to be awkward in-house, but with the Chief…..! But it mattered to me not, at least for the moment. I was like the Gorkha. Having taken out my khukri (battle half sword), it could not return to the sheath un-bloodied.
“General, it’s all very well to take the Army from the bullock cart age into the space age. But, is it possible to do so when such a simple decision as to whether we are to wear our regimental insignia on our collar or not keeps changing practically daily? One day, we are to have holes on the collar to fix the insignia, and, the next day not. It will be appreciated that we can’t continue to have two different sets of dress to suit the mood for the day of the Adjutant General”.
I knew I was being obnoxious. After all, no Chief is capable of answering simple questions. I really wanted to see if the man who climbed down from the tree (namely, me) could survive.
People froze. Sacrilege had been committed! One, a cocky question; and two, instead of addressing as ‘Sir’, the addressing was with just ‘General’ and that too rather cockily that was too close for comfort!
“Hey, aren’t you Ray of the Mahar Regiment?”
“Yes, General, it’s me”
“It had to be you. Well, as far as you are concerned, irrespective of the order and the mood of the day of the Adjutant General, you have my personal permission as the Chief to keep all your holes open. I mean all your holes!!!!
Indeed, he proved that he was a Tamil Brahmin and not lost his touch! Next day onwards till I retired, I was provided enough evidence that the Chief was right. Ever since, it has always been ensured by the Army that I have all my holes opened!!!!!!!!