Sunday, 26 June 2011

'Wife in the Front Seat'

This incident happened when I was Regimental Medical Officer of 9 Parachute Commando battalion. It was in 1973 and my wife was heavily pregnant with our second child. We were, at that time, located in a beautiful and quaint hill station called Bakloh nestled in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, which overlooked the plains of Punjab. Our officers’ mess was located on a sheer cliff face and, therefore, we could get a fascinating view of the lights glimmering in the little towns which were spread out in the plains up to as far as the eye can discern. It reminded me about as though all the stars in the Milky Way have been laid out on an immense dark blue carpet. The officers’ mess was constructed in the days of the British Raj and, those people really knew how to get the best out of any hill station. There was an immense glass paneled corridor facing the cliff face with wooden paneling and exquisite fixtures. After a day's hard work we all looked forward to spending evenings in this corridor savoring a drink of your choice and admiring the glorious sight that was in front of us. Our perch was indeed so high that one got the feeling that one was sitting in an aircraft or in the gondola of a balloon.

Despite the scenic beauty Bakloh was an isolated place with rudimentary facilities. And so when it came to any kind of reasonable modern medical care we had to, per force, take the recourse to going to the town in the plains. In our case it was the large town of Pathankot, which was basically the last railhead before getting into the enchanted Valley of Kashmir. There was a sizable presence of the Army and the Air Force there. As a natural corollary, that was a fairly well equipped military hospital. And, when we found out that another baby is due there was no other place other than Pathankot to go for my wife's confinement.

The journey from Bakloh where they were located to Pathankot was indeed a backbreaking one given the condition of the army vehicles we were forced to use. The Indian Army has certain quaint rules and regulations which many a times seemed quite ludicrous, especially for young officers like us. One of those rules stipulated that no lady can travel in the front seat of a military vehicle, whatever be the situation. My wife was not a good traveler and, in fact, even now she is not. The pregnancy with its allied problems did not make the situation any better. And so when I had to take her down to the ‘city’ of Pathankot we faced a major problem of sorts. A journey in the rear part of a military vehicle would have perhaps made her part with the baby inside the vehicle. Getting in to the back seat of a military jeep was also a near impossibility for her with her light frame and a huge belly swollen with our child. As there was no other alternative, I decided that I will make her sit in the co-driver's seat and take her down to the military hospital at Pathankot.

There are checks and balances in every system in a place. But we used to feel that in the Indian Army of early 1970s there were far more checks than balances. It was the primary task of the Military Police in those days to nab the so-called offenders of ‘MT Discipline’. ‘MT’ in the Army parlance meant ‘Mechanical Transport’; in common man's dictionary this meant a vehicle. And what was this ‘discipline’ about? It was basically to find out as to which hapless driver was not carrying the necessary papers validating his trip or another poor soul who was exceeding the so-called speed limit, or it could be that the Military Police guy is on duty at every Traffic Check Point was simply feeling at war with the world and was wanting to take out his irk on someone.

There was another curious regulation those days. That was that only officers of the rank of lieutenant colonel and above where permitted to drive the military vehicles. Those officers of lesser rank were condemned to bear the drivers who sometimes drove in such a way as to put the fear of God into our minds! It always bugged me that how a higher rank can make you a better driver! I was a mere Captain at that time and, therefore, I was not eligible and entitled to be sitting behind the wheel of a military vehicle. The problem in this instance was that if I did not drive my wife will not be able to sit in the front seat. So in effect, I had to commit a double sin firstly, by driving the vehicle and secondly, by making my wife sit in the passenger seat. There is an ever present, distinctly palpable element of daredevilry and devil-may-care attitude in all of Special Forces personnel. I was no exception. So when the day came for the two of us travel to the military hospital I decided to drive myself with my wife in the passenger seat.

Coming down the steep and winding hilly roads was something, which was not the least enjoyable for my wife in her advanced stage of pregnancy. Slowly and gingerly I maneuvered the jeep down the zigzag roads till the time we hit the comparatively straighter roads of the planes. By the time we neared the military hospital located in the cantonment I sensed that there was something unusual happening in the station. All the paraphernalia of a VIP visit seemed to be on. The Military Police chaps wearing their full regalia were at every major road. These guys always reminded me of the peacock given the way their ceremonial uniforms looked like. Unlike the normal Indian Army vehicles, our vehicles in the Special Forces always had a distinctive light blue numbering on maroon background. Therefore, it was quite easy to spot any vehicle belonging to our unit. While I was driving with my lady in the front seat there where few eyebrows raised of the Military Police personnel. But seeing my red beret, the proud badge of a paratrooper all over the world, they snapped to prim salutes, which yours truly promptly returned while zipping through.

It all went well till we were about a couple of kilometers short of the military hospital. All of a sudden I was confronted with a cavalcade of pilot vehicles, limousines, radio vehicles etc. that normally form the motorcade of senior generals. The blaring siren of the pilot vehicle and the inpatient gesticulations by the Military Police guys in that vehicle forced me to slow down and pull to the kerb. The motorcade zoomed past just giving me time enough to salute the car with the stars & the fluttering flag proclaiming that the occupant was a three-star general. I was about to get back to the main road when, looking at my rearview mirror, I discerned the motorcade coming to a stop because of the bright red lights on the rear of every vehicle. Instinct told me to stop, and I did that. Through the rearview mirror I could see the officer of the pilot vehicle jump out and rush towards the general's car. I did not know what transpired but soon enough he was coming to my Jeep at a trot. He came near me and told me, “The general wants to see you”. He thought, perhaps, I will get down from my Jeep and rush with him to the big man's car. I don't know what came over me at that time for I decided to reverse by Jeep and bring it parallel to the general's vehicle. I got out and gave as smart as salute as I could muster. The rear window of the car rolled down and I saw the face of the commanding general of the region. What pleased me most was that he was wearing the same cap as I was; the maroon colored paratrooper's beret.

“Who are you, young man?” the general asked.

“Captain Kainikkara, Sir! Regimental Medical Officer 9 Parachute Commando.”

“And what do you think you're doing?”

“I'm taking my wife to the military hospital, Sir!”

“Don't you know that it is not permitted for the ladies to be sitting in the front seat of military vehicles?”

“Yes Sir, I know.”

“Then why is she sitting in the front seat?”

I moved aside and pointed to the bulging belly of my wife. The general had a look at her and broke into a broad smile. He said, “Carry on!”

With a huge sigh of relief I went back to the Jeep and proceeded to the military hospital.

It was after a few months that I again came face-to-face with this general. That was when he came on an official visit to my unit. During the course of conversation in the officers' mess he mentioned to my commanding officer that he had met me earlier and proceeded to describe in great detail the whole episode. All of us had a great laugh and the matter ended there.

This kind of bonhomie and camaraderie that epitomizes them can surprise many people who are not conversant with the ethos of the Special Forces of the Indian Army. Years after, when I sit and write this I still feel the excitement and the sense of belonging which binds me to 9 Parachute Commando. I will carry those feelings to my last day.

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