I joined in the Indian Army basically as a matter of routine. Coming from a family of naval officers, which included my father and three maternal uncles, it was almost a done thing that my younger brother and I join the uniformed services. I remember that, at the behest of one of my uncles, who was at the time an admiral, application forms for joining the Armed Forces Medical Services were sent to me from the Defense Headquarters. Somehow, I did not want to join ‘The men in whites’, and to be known as ‘Pillai's son or Nair's nephew’. Therefore, I wrote all my three choices of the service that I wished to join in the application form as Army, Army and Army. The tumult that ensued in the family is worth describing in another article. Suffice to say that surmounting all these obstacles I found myself as a captain in the Army Medical Corps in November 1969.
After a few months in a military hospital in Punjab I was posted to the eastern sector into a medical battalion of one of the infantry divisions which was facing the then East Pakistan. War clouds were ominously visible over the horizon and it did not require a rocket scientist to discern that there was going to be a war in the near future. I was made the medical officer in charge of an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) attached to an infantry brigade. This entity could hold 20 patients and administer specialized first aid and resuscitation to the wounded before transferring them to the field hospitals located in the rear. It took me some time to get to know the 40-odd persons in this small outfit. We went through innumerable cycles of training which conditioned all of us to act as a cohesive whole. I was well aware that the success of such specialized medical sub-units in war depended totally on smooth teamwork.
The preparatory activities for the imminent hostilities were at full swing throughout the infantry division, of which we were a part. Soon enough, during one November afternoon orders were given to me by the commander of the infantry brigade to move into the then East Pakistan along with a battalion of the Punjab Regiment. We soon reached the location of this battalion. I went and reported the arrival of my unit to the commanding officer of this battalion. He welcomed me and asked me to be part of the vehicle convoy which was to cross into the then East Pakistan after last light. To the uninitiated, ‘last light’ in Army parlance indicates a few minutes after sunset before the real darkness sets in.
It was then that I heard an ear splitting bang far too close for comfort. This was followed by four or five similar sounds. I suddenly remembered some of the information given to us during our initial military training. One of them was that such very loud sounds are normally artillery firing. It was also drilled into us that the safest way of minimizing physical injury when confronted by artillery shelling is to hit the ground as fast as possible and stay like that till the time the shelling stops. When I heard these sounds I assumed that we had come under enemy shelling and promptly hit the ground. The sounds continued for quite a while. After what seemed an eternity they ceased.
I was about to get up from my prone position when it started all over again. I hugged the ground with fiercer intensity than I was doing before, convinced that we had come under intense enemy bombardment. Suddenly I felt that someone was standing very close to me. I looked up by tilting my face and head to find my Subedar Major standing next to me and requesting me to get up. I was horrified and literally screamed at him to hit the ground. But he kept on nonchalantly standing there with an amused smile on his face and said “Captain Sahib! Please get up!”
In my trepidation I told him, “SM Sahib! Can’t you see that we are being shelled by the enemy?” The smile on his face turned to laughter and he replied, “Captain Sahib! These are our guns firing at the enemy and not vice versa. The gun positions are located just next to us. So get up fast we have to go.”
You can well imagine the pathetic figure I cut in front of the troops who I was supposed to lead into battle. This old soldier, a veteran of World War II, then proceeded to instill some typical military philosophy into my befuddled mind. He told me that, after having gone through more than three wars, he was convinced that there was nobody who was brave. According to him every one was scared. He insisted that what really mattered was how fast and how well one conquered his fear. He also stressed that unless a bullet or a shell was made with your name imprinted on it, it will not hit you. This may sound odd to those of you who have not gone through the unsavory experiences of a war. But this ridiculous sounding wisdom is accepted the world over by all fighting men who have faced bullets from the enemy.
In my case, the shame of this incident prompted me to make assiduous efforts to get over my fear. I must say that I was quite successful in this endeavor. Soon I developed a steely frame of mind where nothing affected me or scared me. And that was what that made me quite a success in the Punjab Regiment battalion to which I was attached. It did not come overnight; but it did not take much time also. Soon I was nicknamed ‘The Mad Doctor’, who did not care about exposing himself to enemy fire when tending to the wounded. I have always considered that title precious and have worn it as a badge of honor because it was given to me by the fighting troops of an iconic regiment like the Punjab Regiment.