Sunday, 24 July 2011



This incident happened in 1992. We were located in Delhi at that time and my elder daughter had qualified to be admitted into the engineering college at Hyderabad. She had put in painstaking efforts to achieve this and we, as a family, felt extremely happy and elated. The results came in the middle of March and she was to join the college in June.

After the initial sense of euphoria wore off it became slowly and painfully aware to all of us that she had to be away from us quite soon. To me that was the inevitable beginning of the end; by which I mean the first step in the dispersal of the close family of ours. I took solace in the fact that this was the way of the world and I should not let my personal and selfish interests curtail the career and ambitions of my daughter. I kept reminding myself of a song by Paul Anka, which my daughters and I had made it into some kind of an anthem of our house. The song is called ‘Papa’ and one line in that goes, ‘your children grow through you; their growing needs you too.’

Throughout this period of waiting and preparing for the eventual departure of my daughter, she was her normal exuberant self. At times, even when melancholy descended on the atmosphere at home, it was she who kept the spirits up by her ebullient behavior and positive attitude. There was not even a trace of apprehension or fear in her. To all intents and purposes she appeared extremely keen to join the college and become an engineer.

The days passed insidiously and soon enough the day of the little one leaving us dawned. I was to escort her from Delhi to Hyderabad where she was to be staying with a friend's family till the time the hostel of the college opened. Departure from the house and later parting at the airport was an emotional roller coaster for my wife and my younger daughter. The elder daughter, who was the one going to the college, appeared totally unfazed and cool about this whole process. Never once did her eyes well up nor did she ever show any signs of sadness. I felt quite proud of her and thought that her mother and I had brought her up in a proper way and that some genes of my ancestors’ known, or rather notorious, for their hard- line attitude towards life had percolated down to her.

Soon we boarded the aircraft. Even though her sister broke down at the airport she seemed unaffected. We landed in Hyderabad and I had made some arrangements for our overnight stay in an officer's mess. The next day was spent in buying certain essential items for her use at the hostel. It was towards 4 PM that we decided to go to the place where my daughter was to stay for a few days waiting for the hostel to open. And by the time we reached there, met my friend it was already becoming dusk. I was booked on an evening flight back to Delhi and therefore I had to say bye-bye to my daughter.

She stood up, hugged me tight and told me not to worry and that everything will   right etc. etc. I too told her that she will be taken care of by my friend and his family and they will ensure that she is properly ensconced in her hostel. After kissing her I bid goodbye to my friend and his family and started walking towards my waiting military vehicle. It was then that I had a muted scream, “Dadaaa!” Turning around I saw my daughter running towards me. I stopped and took a few steps towards her. She ran towards me and clung on to me for dear life; and she was crying. All those tears that she, perhaps, held back over the past two months gushed out of her in a torrent. It took all my composure and logic to hold myself from taking this little one along with me back to Delhi. It took me a fair amount of time to console her and calm her down so that she could become a normal self, or at least somewhere near it.

I got into my vehicle and instructed the driver to take me to the airport. It was already dark and the neon signs along the road were all lit up. Gazing casually at them I found that they were all blurred. I was wondering as to why the advertising people do not put up legible signboards rather than smudging and obfuscating them. But soon I realized that all the signboards were appearing the same. I do not know what happened but involuntarily my hands went to my eyes. To my surprise, I became aware that my eyes were full of tears. Realization hit me like a ton of bricks that the signboards were not faulty but they were appearing to be so to me because of the tears in my eyes.

And it was then that I knew what the pain of separation from one's daughter is all about! A pain that refuses to go away even now when both my daughters are living with their spouses and children.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011



Paratroopers and Special Forces personnel all over the world are notorious for their idiosyncratic behavior and extreme unpredictability. This, coupled with extraordinary physical fitness, esprit de corps and a no-nonsense approach to every problem make them stand out from the rest of the Armed Forces. In the Indian Army also this dictum applies. The system encourages this kind of individualistic, and sometimes even aberrant, behavior especially among officers of the airborne and Special Forces units. Perhaps these become the bedrock of the operational efficiency of these elite units because these foster a self-image in the officers that they are something different from the rest of the Armed Forces. Such a feeling of superiority is vital for success in the kind of difficult operations wherein such personnel are employed.

Even amongst these specialized personnel there is a bit of class differentiation between regular paratroopers and Special Forces soldiers who are also fully trained paratroopers in addition to other specific training peculiar to their vocation. So it is but natural that Special Forces troopers consider themselves to be at the top of the food chain. In the rigid hierarchical pecking order of the Army these troopers were at the apex.

It was with great trepidation and apprehension that I joined 9 Parachute Commando Battalion as RMO in the early 1970s. I was not even a paratrooper at that time. It was imperative that I had to successfully complete one month's probation to be accepted in to the battalion. This probation was, and is, a mandatory requirement before anyone who has so volunteered is accepted into the fold of airborne troops. As mentioned earlier the special forces boys considered themselves, and rightly so, to be something more than the regular paratroopers. And here I was who had to first become a paratrooper and then hope to become a commando. So the going was really tough and it was made tougher by the superior attitude displayed by officers in the unit. The rigors and struggles and travails that I had to undergo to pass this probation and later on complete the ‘commando course’ will form the pith of another piece of written work. Therefore, I leave it for that.
Soon, I did complete my probation although I am sure that in many of the physical tests I might have looked quite ridiculous in the eyes of my probation officer who used to be all the time supervising my activities with an eagle eye. Granting of the maroon beret, which is the trademark of paratroopers all over the world, followed this. I was then dispatched to Agra for the initial training and jumps. When I returned back I had to undergo a severe commando course of 40 days duration. By this time I was physically quite hardened and was as good or as bad as any other young officer in the unit. I was also legitimately quite proud and excited that I have passed the rigorous tests and have now become a qualified Special Forces commando. It was only much later that I realized that I was the first doctor to be so trained in the Indian Army.

I was officially accepted into the unit in a small ceremony held in the office of the commanding officer. And I was told that my formal dining in in the officers' mess would soon be conducted. Sure enough I was given the official invitation to attend my dining in party in the officers' mess along with my wife. It was early March and the hilly cantonment of Bakloh where we were located was quite nippy in the evenings. Being a formal officers' mess function we had to don our winter mess dress, which is called in the army as ‘the blue patrols’ because of the navy blue color of the tunic. By the time my wife and I arrived at the mess as the guests of honor for that evening all other officers and ladies including the commanding officer and his wife were already present in the officers' mess. We were received with due courtesy and escorted to the anteroom. The commanding officer was all grace personified. I was asked as to what I would prefer to drink. In those days, rum was not served in officers' mess. And even though Scotch whiskey was becoming more and more difficult to obtain, that was the drink of choice during dining in of officers. Therefore, when I was asked my preference of a drink I said that I would have a scotch and soda. This was promptly brought to me and the commanding officer led the toast to felicitate me on my successful induction into the Special Forces.

The peculiar traditions of the Indian Army, most of which have been taken from the British Army, entailed that the officer who is being dined in was a guest in his own mess for that evening. Hence it was mandatory that the other officers should look after him and his wife during that evening. Since I was the guest of honor for that evening I expected that once I had finished my first drink it would be refilled expeditiously. But even after a few minutes of my finishing the first Scotch and soda, which was offered to me I found no one taking any initiative to refill my glass. After waiting for a few more minutes I sauntered across to the bar where most of my fellow junior officers had congregated. They were all enjoying themselves and none of them cared to ask me whether I needed another drink. And I was not supposed to ask the barman to refill my glass because, as mentioned earlier, I was the guest of honor that evening and not a member of the mess. I was getting quite perplexed and a bit angry when the second-in-command and the commanding officer also joined us in the bar. I then told the commanding officer,

“Sir, why am I not being offered a second drink?”

“But Kenny, you've not finished your drink. How can we pour another one when you are not finished.”

I looked at my glass once again and found that it was empty and bone dry. I held it up to the commanding officer and said,

“Sir, this glass is empty.”

He had a look, took the glass away from me and showed it to the second-in-command. The second-in-command then told me that the glass was not empty. I was getting more confused and was starting to doubt whether even the first drink given to me was spiked and that I was seeing things. I did not have to ponder about it much because the second-in-command said,

“Yes Kenny, I agree there is no drink in the glass but there is the glass. You have to do justice to that!”
I was about to ask him what he meant by that when without much ado he promptly broke the rim of the glass he was holding in his hand and started chewing the broken piece of glass. I was aghast and my jaw dropped. As if on cue all other officers but the commanding officer started doing the same. They seemed to be apparently enjoying this. I cannot fully describe what my feelings were at that time. I was petrified with the prospect of chewing the glass because, as a doctor, I was fully aware of the dangerous consequences of even a small spicule of glass piercing through the intestines which could lead onto dangerous if not fatal peritonitis. I decided not to do this and told the second-in-command,

“I'm sorry Sir, but this is madness. You guys don't know the complications that can happen if even one small piece of glass gets through to your intestines. I don't think I'll be able to do this.”

“Well Kenny, you cannot be dined in unless you follow our example. So, go ahead. Nothing will happen to you. After all don't you know that glass is essentially made of sand? Don't bother. Break a piece of the glass in your hand, chew it and swallow it down with some whiskey.”

I do not know what became of me at that time because I decided that having come thus far and having endured nearly unimaginable physical stress over the previous five months, I was not going to be denied the final formal entry into the special forces just because I was afraid to eat glass. So, with grim resolve I bit down on the rim of the glass I was holding in my hand. To my unpleasant surprise I found that it was extremely difficult to break the rim of the glass. So I used more force and finally the glass broke. But unfortunately the sharp broken edge did not show any mercy to my upper lip. It was cut at two places fairly deep and blood started flowing out of the cuts. By now I was far too gone into the exercise for me to worry about anything. I had the broken piece of glass in my mouth and started chewing it for all I was worth. The mess waiter and some officers thrust a few napkins into my face while I was chewing.

All the time vividly remembering the complications of a piece of glass entering my intestines, I chewed and chewed till the time my jaw muscles started aching. By that time the piece of glass in my mouth was pulverized into sand that was giving a tingling sensation to my teeth. The glass I was holding in my hand and from which I had taken this bite was removed and a new glass full of scotch and soda was thrust into my hand. Gratefully I took a deep swallow and unmindful of the severe pain caused by the alcohol touching the raw areas of my cut upper lip, twirled the liquid in my mouth and gulped it down. To be honest it basically tasted of my blood mixed with the sandy residue of the glass piece. The moment I did this there was a big shout from the officers and each one started congratulating me beginning with the commanding officer. I was then escorted back to the anteroom where all ladies were sitting. I can never forget the look of utter disbelief and consternation of my wife seeing my dripping blood from the lips yet laughing away along with the other officers. Later on many times she told me that it was a horrifying scene for her. I was then asked to perform the mandatory six ‘Para Rolls' that were taught to us at the Parachute Training School. Once I did this on the large carpet of the anteroom in front of all the ladies and officers, my induction to the Special Forces was full and complete.

I never indulged in this horrifying activity of glass eating ever again in my life. But surprises never stop. Years later, I was witness to another such glass eating episode in another special forces battalion in which some ladies also participated. I do not know whether such customs are still extant in the Special Forces battalions. Maybe this was caused by the extreme desire to be someone totally different than others. I for one have to only close my eyes to experience the taste of blood, sand, and whiskey, which was a mixture I swallowed on a cold evening in Bakloh. Of course, now I reminisce about this incident with a bit of pride. Perhaps, that pride is well deserved!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011



Amongst all animals it is only the Homo sapiens who have the predilection to assign names for every individual. One is not aware whether the great apes, which are so close to, us in intellect and appearance also have some such method in the various calls that they use to communicate with each other. Be it as it is, this piece is not about animals. It is about the most intelligent animal of all human being.

In all societies a newborn child has got no say in the name that it is given, whether male or female. Usually it is left to the choice of the parents or grandparents. These worthies indulge in their unexpressed fantasies in naming the new arrival in the family. The results are sometimes quite ludicrous, sometimes painful for the bearer of the name, sometimes thought provoking, sometimes philosophical etc. At time of the naming of the child hardly any thought is given to the situation that he or she is likely to face later on in life. 

In certain parts of India it is an accepted practice to add the name of the father plus the name of the family and in some cases even the name of the village to the name of the child. Therefore there can be a first name, there can be a second name, there can be a third name and a fourth name for the same person.

I think that the Srilankans are the unquestioned champions in this. Look at the names of their cricketers. In abbreviated form it is common to find W.D.H.P.X.A. SENANAYAKA. If anyone takes the trouble of finding out what this stand for it comes out that the father, the grandfather, the family and the village are represented in this name.

I have been a sufferer of the flights of fantasies of my father when naming me. Being very proud, and naturally so, of our lineage he insisted that the family name should be attached to the first names of all of us three brothers. Of course his name had to be also there. The end result was my name as ‘Premnath G Kainikkara’. Little did I realize the implications of this name till the time was commissioned into the Indian Army. One of the first forms that I had to fill instructed implicitly that the full name should be entered with expanded initials. So there I was from ‘Premnath G.Kainikkara’  to ‘Premnath Govinda Pillai Kainikkara’, ‘Govinda Pillai’ being my father’s name. The Armed Forces bureaucracy in India is in a different class by itself. There are no comparable systems anywhere else in the world to the best of my knowledge. That system, in its own wisdom, decided to name me as ‘PGP Kainikkara’. The word ‘Kainikkara’ is difficult to pronounce even in Kerala, where I come from. It was virtually impossible for my colleagues from all other parts of India to pronounce and spell this name. But there was no choice and I was ‘Lt. PGP Kainikkara’ in Military Hospital, Ambala in the autumn of 1969.

Things were going on in a routine way when suddenly the information came that the General Officer Commanding In Chief of Western Army Command was to inspect the Military Hospital. The army dictum of salute if it moves and paint it if it is stationary was applied in full force in the hospital to prepare for the visit. Soon the day arrived and we officers were all lined up to be introduced to the visiting general. Introductions on such occasions are choreographed to perfection in the army wherein the commanding officer of the unit moves down the line of the officers standing as per their ranks and telling the names of each one to the visiting dignitary. The visiting dignitary is then given a salute by the officer followed by a perfunctory handshake and some inane questions by the dignitary and monosyllable answers by the officers. Being the junior most officer at that time in the Military Hospital, Ambala, I was standing the last. My commanding officer, tall, handsome, Sikh belonging to the Royal family of Kapoorthala Punjab was introducing the officers to the General.

I had seen the pictures of this general and I definitely knew his name. He was Lt. General K.P. Candeth. He was a short stocky man with huge moustache and a booming voice. He was known for a no-nonsense approach and notorious for his sticky attitude as far as military etiquettes and discipline was concerned. History hails him as the victor of Goa because he was the general who led the troops into Goa during the short campaign to oust the Portuguese from there. Later on in 1971 Indo Pak war, General Candeth exhibited his brilliance on the western front.

Let us revert back to my predicament. After standing in line for almost fifteen minutes, finally my turn came to salute the general. I did that with as much as smartness I could master at that time and looking straight ahead I suddenly realized that because of the disparities in our height I was looking well over the gold-braided cap of the General. By that time my commanding officer was trying to introduce me to the general. The words went something like this, “Sir! This is my new officer” “His name is Katakada!” By that time the general had his hand extended and I was grasping it. The general tilted his head looked up to my commanding officer and asked him “Jasbir! What did you say the name is?”  “Sir! Kinnikkara”! Still holding my hand the general turned to my commanding officer and asked “Jasbir what is my name?” “Sir! Candeth Sir!” “Like hell! It is not bloody Candeth” “It is Kunjiraman Palaat Candoth! Can you ever pronounce that Jasbir!” and coming further closer to me he said, “Don’t worry son! Do so well in this army that people will be forced to spell and pronounce your name correctly”. His words were of great motivation for me to excel in whatever I did later on to ensure that what he prophesied in 1969 became true in the later years.

It is not only in the defense bureaucracy that mutilations of names occur. Some do it on their own and change the names to fairly unrecognizable ones. Let me give a few instances that I have personal knowledge. Long years back while working in the main street of Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) holding the hand of my father I read a board hanging that said “GO Pal”. I read it out loudly as any young boy who has learned recently to read well. My father then told me how this name came. This worthy doctor had his given name as “Gopalan”. When he went abroad for studies he modernized it as ‘GO Pal’.                 

Years later while attending college I opted for French language as the second language to be studied. The lecturer who taught me was ‘Mr. Madhavin’. That sure was an unusual name. Soon I was made to understand that this gentleman has his original name as ‘Madhavan Nair’. When he went to Paris to learn French, off went the tail of ‘Nair’ and from ‘Madhavan’ he became ‘Madhavin’.

After graduating from the Medical College and having served in the Indian army for more than 20 years I took voluntary premature retirement and went to the United States for Post-Graduate studies. Knowing that more than twenty of my erstwhile classmates were settled in US, I made earnest efforts to locate as many of them as possible. With a fair amount of difficulty I was able to obtain the contact numbers of most of them. The majority still answered to the name that they were christened, but two individuals were dramatically different. There was one classmate of mine whose name was ‘MK Kumar’. He was fairly a close buddy of mine and I was therefore, quite keen to meet him after almost about 25 years. I got his number and rang up. The lady who picked up said “Good morning! Dr. Madom’s office! Can I help you?” I was taken aback and thought that perhaps I have dialed the wrong number. I rechecked the number and dialed again, with the same result. I then contacted another classmate of mine and verified the correctness of the number that I was dialing. He assured me that the number is the correct one. This put me in a quandery. I thought about it and suddenly it dawned on me that I have reached my friend Kumar’s office only. Let me tell you how. The ‘M’ in the name ‘MK Kumar’ stood for his house name, which was ‘Mecherimadom’. When he went to US married a Norwegian lady he decided that he should thenceforth be known as ‘Dr. M.K. Madom’. He was very sheepish when I confronted him; but there it was.

Yet another classmate could not be located by the name he was known while he was my classmate and that was ‘RP Venugopalan Nair’. I knew the hospital and the department where he was working. Try as I might I was stonewalled by the sweet talking lady in the department who finally told me that there was only one doctor of Indian origin working in the department and that he was the head of the department. I asked the name of this gentlemen and I was told that he is ‘Dr. Rama P Venu’. It took me sometime to realize that from ‘Ramachandran Pillai Venugopalan Nair’ he converted himself to ‘Rama P Venu’. Of course I did meet him and he said that he had to change the name because this name made easier for his friends and colleagues in the hospital to call him!!
So, after all, what’s in a name?

Monday, 18 July 2011



This incident that I am going to narrate is a bit strange and may not agree well with many people. However, I thought that I must not hold back telling this story just because it may not get the aesthetic approval of some people. I'm also sure that some others may find this quite interesting and out of the ordinary.

This happened while I was the RMO of 9 Parachute Commando battalion. We were located in the quaint cantonment of Bakloh nestling in the hills of Himachal Pradesh. It was an old cantonment, which was literally perched on a fairly steep hill facing the plains of Punjab. The scenic beauty of the areas surrounding this cantonment defied description. The hills were heavily wooded and had a pristine character about them. There was an omnipresent delicate aroma of pine oil all over the place because of the abundance of pine trees in the area. As part of the rigorous training of a commando battalion it was an imperative for all officers and men to be proficient in the use of firearms. Actually, it was not only proficiency but we were expected to be sharpshooters with our personal weapons.  Being a doctor did not give me any leeway to get any exemption from attaining this level of expertise with a firearm because the doctrine of commandos did not differentiate whether one was a doctor, specialized engineer or any other such professional when compared to a regular fighting soldier. So it was necessary for me also to spend time in the firing range so that my skills in using my firearm were honed to perfection.

Being surrounded by unpopulated hills it was fairly easy to create firing ranges for various kinds of weapons in the cantonment of Bakloh. It was mandatory that at least once, if not twice in a week, for all officers to utilize the firing range. The standard routine was that we reached the range by about 7:30 AM and kept on firing and maintaining our weapons till about noontime. Of course, there were breaks in between. By noontime the whole practice used to be over and the arrangements in the firing range where wound up. Since there was nothing more to be done in the office it was more or less a regular affair that after the practice was over we used to laze around in the firing range for some time while demolishing a few bottles of beer and relaxing. After an hour or so we used to troop back to the unit.

On one such day of practice we finished firing just before noon. The arrangements were wound up and the troops returned to the unit. We were four officers including me and we decided to have a few beers before getting back to the unit. I distinctly remember that it was in the month of August and the weather was really salubrious. We were sitting on a small hillock sipping a beer and indulging in the usual banter of young officers, which normally centered on the ‘villainous and negative attitude’ of the commanding officer and the other senior officers. Then one of us noticed a few vultures circling around in the sky fairly close to the hillock on which we were sitting. It was very obvious that they had seen and/or smelled carrion rotting somewhere in the vicinity and that sooner or later they will descend for their lunch. Since this was not an extraordinary spectacle we never paid more attention to this.

But as they say, alcohol can cause personality changes in people. It seems to have been the case with one of our colleagues who suddenly came up with an idea of shooting down one of these vultures circling high overhead. Although initially the remaining three of us dismissed this, this officer pricked our vanity by challenging us for a game as to who will be the first one to drop one of the circling vultures using our weapons. Suddenly the idea became quite appealing to all of us and we picked up our weapons. All four of us fired aiming at the circling vultures. Even though we did not know whose shot it was but, all of a sudden, one of the birds dropped to the ground. It was an eerie and peculiar sight to see this happening and one had to see it to understand. The bird which was soaring in the thermals with its huge wingspan suddenly folded its a huge wings and started plummeting to the ground. We heard the sound of the bird's body hitting the ground somewhere nearby. Each one of us claimed that it was his shot that dropped the bird. We toasted to the good shot with our beers and soon forgot about the whole matter.

After about 30 minutes or so the guy who had initiated this issue suggested that we go and see where the bird has fallen and also as to what was that animal that was lying dead nearby which attracted these birds of carrion. We trooped in the general line of direction where the bird had fallen. As we neared the place we could smell the stench of rotting carcass that we soon found to be that of a donkey. The bird that one of us had shot was also lying a few meters away from the carcass. We were about to turn away and walk back when the same bright friend of ours asked us to wait. He suggested that we skin the bird and see how it looks like. In the commandos all of us were used to carrying our commando knives every time we went out for various activities. These knives were razor sharp on one side and on the other side had a serrated edge. This gentleman went near the dead bird and, apparently unmindful of the putrid odor, started skinning it using his commando knife. I must hasten to mention here that this gentleman was an expert hunter and was quite used to skinning birds and animals that were his victims. Therefore, he accomplished this task without much of fuss. After taking out the entrails and internal organs and cutting off the feet and the neck what remained looked very similar to a big chicken. The areas around Bakloh had an abundance of jungle fowl and it was not an uncommon practice for many of us to try and bag a few of them for the pot whenever we could. Seeing the skinned version of the vulture, which looked very similar to a large jungle fowl, we decided to take this to the officers' mess. It was more or less a combined decision by all four of us. I was the only one who was married at that time and therefore, was not dining in the officers' mess.

The other three officers dutifully delivered the skinned carcass of the vulture to the cook in the officers' mess. They told him that this was a jungle fowl shot while they were on the firing range for weapons practice. The cook had no reason to disbelieve the statement because as mentioned earlier, it used to be a frequent practice for officers to bring in game birds. He was asked to cook it and serve the dining in officers in the evening. The cook made a curry of this meat and it was served during dinner that day. The three officers who knew what the bird was did not partake of the food giving some excuse or the other. While eating this curry some of the officers mentioned that the meat was very tough and stringy. One or two even mentioned that there was a bit of foul odor coming out of the meat but they discounted it stating that it could have been due to some delay in cooking this bird.

Everything went off well for a couple of days more when it was weekend and as was the custom all officers and ladies assembled on the Sunday morning for breakfast-cum-lunch, fancifully termed “brunch” in the Army. During the conversation one of the officers mentioned that a jungle fowl curry was served a couple of days back for dinner. The three officers who were dining in the mess and who knew the truth about this ‘jungle fowl’ kept silent with a straight face. The commanding officer, who was also present along with his wife, then casually asked me as to who shot this jungle fowl. I could have, perhaps, made up a story and told a lie that it was one of us.  Somehow I did not feel like doing so and told him and others present about what really happened. Most of the ladies present were appalled and started making appropriate noises of disgust accompanied by supporting facial expressions. The commanding officer and the other senior officers were quite tickled by this and started laughing loud. One of the officers who ate this curry at dinner a couple of days before came to me and asked me, “Doc! Tell me what you just know said is not true.” He appeared quite upset about the whole issue. I said that unfortunately all what I told was true and that he had the 'privilege' of eating a vulture made in a curry form. His expression changed for the worse and he excused himself and went to another room in the mess.

We did not notice anything untoward for some time when one of the waiters came running to me to tell me that the officer who had excused himself was vomiting in the bathroom. I, along with a couple of other officers, rushed to the bathroom to find this officer retching and puking his entrails out. He started swearing at all of us in between his vomiting bouts stating that it was grossly unfair and incorrect that he, who belonged to a noble family from Gujarat, was made to eat the flesh of a bird which eats putrefying flesh of dead animals. Our efforts at consoling him and calming him down were not very successful. He continued vomiting to such an extent that I, as the doctor in charge of the unit, had to finally sedate him with tranquilizers to stop his vomiting. He recovered in a couple of days and no one spoke about this issue ever again in the mess. This officer subsequently rose to the rank of Major General and retired after an illustrious career. I met him on a couple of occasions when he came for parachute refresher training at Agra when I was commanding officer of 60 parachute Field Ambulance and he was commanding a parachute battalion. During one of those visits, I invited him for dinner at my place. While the dinner was being served he asked my wife, “Bhabhijee! I hope this time it is proper chicken and mutton being served not what I was duped to eat by this husband of yours in Bakloh years back.” My wife told him that he need not be apprehensive at all about this matter. All three of us had a good laugh at this.

Well, I believe that it is a matter of aesthetics; religious beliefs and perceptions that make us eat, or do not eat, certain types of food, particularly non-vegetarian food. In this officer's case he vomited after a couple of days when he came to know that he had ingested the meat of an abhorrent variety. It was purely a psychological effect because after 48 hours nothing could have been left in his body of whatever was consumed. It also proves that ‘one meat is as good or as bad as another’!

Sunday, 17 July 2011



This is about gentlemen who I had the privilege of being associated with during my sojourn in the Army. It goes without saying that I will not be mentioning the name of this extraordinary person but those who had come into contact with him will be able to recognize him when I describe his appearance, mien, and unique behavioral patterns. He was well known, or rather notorious, for his unpredictable approach to most of the problems he faced. But the saving grace was that he was an honest, hard-working, brave and sympathetic man whom the troops held in great esteem.

He claimed his pedigree from one of the small erstwhile Rajput ruling families from Gujarat. An imposing and handsome man with bushy eyebrows and fair complexion, he wore his impeccably made uniform with great pride and élan. The distinguishing feature of this worthy was his great mustache. Huge and thick this covered his entire upper lip and spread over to both his cheeks where it was shaped to resemble an upward coil. Army, traditionally, encourages this show of so-called manliness and virility and this kind of outrageous mustache was also appreciated by very many. It is another matter that most of the officers in their heart of hearts thought this to be not acceptable. But there was no rule preventing such a display of hirsutism. So people got away with it.

I recall three instances below that shows how this gent behaved in various situations. After reading them you may also tilt towards what I always felt when interacting with this person that there was a studied method in his madness. All these incidents relate to the time when this officer will was a lieutenant colonel and was commanding an infantry battalion.

One day he decided that the cooks are the most hard-pressed category of people under his command. Factually speaking also this is a truth because the cooks have to invariably get up much earlier than anybody else so that the morning cup of tea is ready for the troops when they awaken before going for physical training. And at night, the cooks where the last to sleep after serving dinner, cleaning the utensils and winding up the kitchens. Coming back to our story, this officer decided to give one day off every week to all the cooks in his infantry battalion. When this order was passed and when it percolated downward there was consternation in most people. One of the junior commissioned officers [JCO] had the temerity to ask him as to who will prepare the food for them in case all the cooks are given a day off simultaneously.

I have to digress a bit here to let the reader know as to what is a JCO. This category of people is peculiar only to the Indian Army and the Pakistan Army. They are a hangover of the days of the British Raj. During those days most of the officers were from Britain whereas all the troops were Indian. This created a wide chasm in communication. In order to tide over this, persons from the zamindar class were recruited into the Army as officers. They were expected to bring their own horses and helpers and provide for them from their pockets. But the superiority of the British officers had to be maintained and, therefore, these gentlemen, though officers were placed a step lower than the British officers as Junior Commissioned Officers [JCO]. Since they were from the privileged class of society it was easier for them to assert their superiority over the troops and thus control them with ease. The British officers used this category of people as the interface between them and the troops. Outwardly they were given trappings of an officer like insignia of the rank, separate mess to dine in etc. and the British officers addressed them as ‘Sahib’. This category of personnel carried on after independence in both the Indian and Pakistani armies, and are still very much there.

So when this JCO expressed his apprehensions the reaction of our hero was to immediately summon all the cooks of the battalion to his office and give them a day off. He then called the senior most JCO and ordered that a 'BARAKHANA' should be held in the battalion within three hours. 'BARAKHANA' is a kind of celebratory feast, which is held to mark occasions like Raising Day of the unit, Battle Honors day etc. in which special food is made and served and all ranks from the commanding officer downwards, participate in the community eating. The literal translation of the word also ‘Big Feast’. Orders by the commanding officer cannot be disregarded or disobeyed. The 'BARAKHANA' was organized within the stipulated time and our hero partook the food. After he had finished he called the same JCO and asked him whether he had any more doubts as to whether food can be produced without the cooks being present or not!

On another occasion our hero had passed the orders in his battalion that any soldier applying for leave should be granted this privilege within 12 hours. Most of the readers may not know but the fact is that obtaining leave when you want it is the biggest motivator for all Army personnel. Our hero had understood this fact and hence he passed this order. After a few days, while on his routine rounds in the battalion, he came upon a soldier who, on questioning, blurted out that even though he had repeatedly requested his JCO he was not granted the leave that he wanted. This officer sanctioned the leave of the soldier on the spot and directed that the JCO responsible for denying this soldier's leave be produced before him immediately. It was then told to him that this JCO was himself on leave. Our man ordered that he should be recalled from leave with immediate effect. When this hapless JCO appeared before him after a few days the officer told him that he was not anymore welcome in the battalion since he had knowingly failed to comply with the commanding officer’s orders. He was given an option either to resign from the Army or accept an express transfer to another battalion. The JCO chose the latter and was moved out of the battalion within 24 hours!

The third incident in which our hero was involved was during a party in the officers' mess of the battalion where he was the commanding officer. The commanding general of the formation was the chief guest. Everything was going smoothly when suddenly the general made some disparaging comments regarding the battalion and the regiment as such. The huge mustache of our hero twitched ominously in anger and he called his adjutant and told, “Get the general's vehicle!” He then turned to the general and told him that he was no longer welcome in the mess as he had made such derogatory statements against the battalion and the regiment. Everyone was aghast. He then added that the general's vehicle was already lined up and he expected the general to leave immediately. The general had no option but to make a hasty exit.

From these incidents that I have narrated you may think that this officer would have gone home in the same rank of lieutenant colonel, which he held while commanding the infantry battalion. You will be surprised there because he rose to the rank of Major General in the Army and was a successful commanding general of an infantry division. Not discounting the element of luck, I feel that such an officer could be promoted only in an organization like the Indian Army of those days where even people with highly angular personalities like our hero were appreciated for their professional capability, honesty, integrity and dedication to the welfare of troops under their command. I am not sure that such an ethos exists in the present day Indian army. Of course, I may be wrong!

Sunday, 10 July 2011


The airborne element of the Indian Army is permanently located in Agra. In Army parlance Agra is the KLP [Key Location Plan] of the parachute brigade. You need not be a rocket scientist to appreciate that without dedicated Air Force support by way of transport aircraft, airborne troops cannot function. Therefore, the Air Force station at Agra also has a dedicated transport squadron existing specifically for the needs of the parachute brigade. In addition the Air Force has the responsibility of conducting the initial training for all paratroopers. These two responsibilities are saddled on one squadron called PTS Squadron, PTS standing for ‘Parachute Training School’. The Parachute Brigade of the Army and the PTS squadron of Air Force function in very close cooperation.

It is a routine matter that on every working day the personnel of the Parachute Brigade will be conducting training jumps in the morning at the PTS squadron. For highly specialized troops like the airborne troops it is vital to keep in practice, and all ranks of the Parachute Brigade from the commander down to the lowest jawan went through this training diligently. Since the flying of the transport aircraft was directly related to the meteorological conditions all the units of the Brigade kept a close tag on the weather conditions every day. In addition, the airfield was located at some distance from the cantonment where the Brigade was. Therefore, it was prudent that early information was obtained as to whether the aircraft were likely to take off on a given day rather than dispatching the troops to the PTS for training jumps, which might get canceled due to bad weather.

In the late 1980s, I was the commanding officer of 60 Parachute Field Ambulance, 60 Para for short, a unit with such a pedigree and history that it was an honor to serve in it, leave alone being the commanding officer. This was the famous Indian Army Medical unit that served as a part of the UN Peacekeeping Force in the Korean War during the 1950s. The citations and decorations earned by this unit during the Korean War and subsequently made it the crown jewel of the Army Medical Corps. So you can imagine the elation and happiness that I felt when I took over command of this unit. I was only in my late 30s then when I was handpicked by the DG of the medical services to command his unit because he felt that it was in need of a young commanding officer.

Brimming with confidence verging on arrogance I set about the task of re-shaping the unit to cope up with the changing operational scenario and realities. I must confess that all the methods, which I employed to get the work done, would not have passed the test of modern management. Most of the times it was autocratic. Orders were issued and people under my command were expected to comply with them. Those who did not suffered dire consequences. I'm not a person who has been blessed with a placid attitude. On the contrary I have been notorious for my brittle temper in my family. This negative aspect of my personality came to the fore more often than not during the initial phase of my command of 60 Parachute Field Ambulance. All my officers did get a taste of my tongue lashing some time or other during this period. I also realized some other home truths about being a commanding officer. The first and foremost was that you are entirely alone and that you cannot keep taking counsel from your juniors in the unit all the time when taking decisions. The hierarchical organization of Army units encouraged this aloofness and fostered it. Perhaps, this made it easier for the officers and men to obey what the commanding officer ordered. The second was that irrespective of one's age when one assumed command of the unit one was known as ‘THE OLD MAN’ and referred so by all the officers. So there I was in my late 30s being referred to as ‘THE OLD MAN’ by my officers!

Once the hectic schedule of the reorganization of the unit slowed down a bit and once I felt that the things were generally under my control, I loosened up a bit. But the damage was already done. My officers more or less stayed clear of me during office hours. Unless there was some express official issue none ever came to my office. Socially though it was a different proposition with great bonhomie and camaraderie which are the hallmarks of airborne troops all over the world. On the days when there were no conferences and meetings at the Brigade Headquarters I used to be free after finishing the routine office work by about 11 AM. Rather than sitting alone in my huge office I used to prefer to walk around the offices and other areas inside the unit during this time.

The incident I'm going to narrate happened during the hot summer month of June. Barring the desert countries of the Middle East, summers in the Gangetic plains of India are amongst the hottest. Temperatures normally soar to the high 40s right from morning. Slight respite comes only in the early hours of the morning. Since there were no clouds visible anywhere in the horizon, the mornings provided ideal weather conditions for takeoff and landing of aircraft. As a routine, training jumps were conducted regularly early in the morning during the summer months. On one such day in June I came out of my office and sauntered across to the office of my adjutant, which was next door. I wanted to have a cup of tea with him. As I was entering his office I saw a black board placed near the door on which it was written in white chalk “TODAY'S MET FORECAST”. Below that was written “CLOUDY! THUNDERSTORM PREDICTED!”

Since it was a cloudless sky I was quite intrigued by this notice on the blackboard. I went inside the adjutant's office and asked him to get me a cup of tea. He had some minor issues to be discussed with me, which he did by the time the tea arrived. My second-in-command also landed up at about that time. He too discussed some official matter with me and then all three of us started taking our tea. All the time I was wondering as to why such an incorrect met forecast was displayed outside the adjutant's office. So I asked my adjutant as to whether the morning training jumps were taking place in the PTS. He replied in the affirmative and added that all the personnel of our unit who had been for the morning training jumps have already returned after completion of the jumps. This added to my confusion.
I asked him, “Then why have you placed a board outside your office about the met conditions in which everything is written wrongly? I cannot see even a speck of cloud anywhere in the sky and you have written forecast is ‘cloudy’. You are also predicting a thunderstorm. Where the hell did you get this forecast from?”

The young captain went pale. And I could see a lesser degree of color change in my second-in-command also. The adjutant said, “Sir, that's nothing. It's just one of those routine notices.”
“If that be so why is it so grossly inaccurate?” I asked.
In the meanwhile I could see the adjutant frantically gesticulating to his office runner to remove that blackboard. I ordered him to get the blackboard inside his office so that I can have a better look. My second inspection of this blackboard confirmed what was written. And true to form I was getting a bit annoyed because of the incorrect information written on the blackboard. No answers were forthcoming from both my second-in-command and my adjutant. I admit that it took me a few minutes to understand that there was more to this notice than what it appeared. I became determined to dig out the truth behind this and started questioning both these officers more closely. Initially they were very embarrassed and did not give me cogent replies. But when they knew that my temper was rising the adjutant said, “Sir, begging your pardon, this has nothing to do with the weather conditions.”
“Then what the hell is it supposed to mean?” I almost shouted.
Surreptitious glances were exchanged between these two officers and when my second-in-command spoke up, “Sir, please don't mind it but this notice is an indication of your mood on each day.”
I sat there dumbfounded. Then I queried, “But how do you know about my mood before I even land up in the office and start interacting with you all?”
Glances were again exchanged between these two officers and the adjutant, who had by now gained courage, said, “Actually Sir, your senior orderly speaks to me on telephone every day immediately after you leave for office from your bungalow. He tells me whether you have left in a good mood or bad. Based on this information I write this ‘MET FORECAST’ and keep it outside for all officers to see. Then it is for them to decide whether to come and meet you or not.”

You can imagine my consternation at this piece of information. Then I realized that on that particular day when I was putting on my uniform at home the buttons broke twice both in my trousers and in my tunic. I was annoyed at this and conveyed my displeasure to the senior orderly in no uncertain terms. That was the reason that the ‘MET FORECAST’ was written as ‘cloudy with predictions of thunderstorm’. I also realized then that on that day even the adjutant, who has to closely interact with me many times a day, came only once to my office. My second-in-command and my adjutant were closely observing my reactions. The humor of the whole issue was so great that I burst out laughing. I could see a sense of relief on the faces of both these officers. They too joined join me in my laughter. I then told my adjutant, “OK. I really appreciate what you're doing. Keep at it. I'll make sure I'll will live up to your forecasts.”

When I went home for lunch there was a sheepish grin on the face of my senior orderly. Perhaps he already knew that his sneaking to the adjutant everyday did not annoy me. I told him that he should keep on doing the same and that it is OK with me. After that day, I used to keep a watch on this ‘MET FORECAST’. Whenever it was gloomy I made a conscious effort to get out of that mood. In other words, this ‘Met forecast’ helped me immensely in being less painful to my officers and men for the entire duration of my command of 60 Parachute Field Ambulance.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011



This is a strange incident, which happened to me when I was a toddler. Whenever I have discussed this with anyone, most people have told me that it is not humanly possible to remember things that happened when one was about four years old. I cannot explain why I remember vividly this little happenstance even though I was just about four years old at that time. I am at a loss to figure out as to why my father decided to instruct this four-year-old about an aspect of deep philosophy of life.

It was in early 1951 when my mother, heavily pregnant with my younger brother, and I were sent back to our village in Kerala for the impending delivery. My father was employed in the BB and CI Railway [now Western Railway] and could not get long leave of absence to stay with my mother during her confinement. It was also a kind of a custom in those days that the wives were sent to their maternal home for delivery in case the couple was staying outside Kerala. Since we were located in Bombay [now Mumbai] my father dutifully escorted us to our village and went back to Bombay to resume duties. I have no cogent memories of the train ride from Bombay to Kerala. What I do remember is the dark and odd smelling corridors and rooms of the large house of my grandparents and also of many other people who were trying to be friendly with me and carry me around. Another thing etched in my memory is that I was unable to understand what these new people were talking because the language I could follow was Hindi.  My only comfort was hanging on as close as possible to my mother and refusing to get separated from her. As she was in the last stages of her pregnancy she too was not physically fit enough to look after my needs and me. But she tried, as every other mother, to make me as comfortable as possible.

All of a sudden the rains started. It was pouring day in and day out. Rains in Kerala are quite different than elsewhere in India basically because of the near-tropical climate in that state. The mornings usually are fairly present and the sun is normally out and shining benignly. On many days one may not be even able to spot a speck of cloud in the sky. But towards early afternoon the rain clouds come in with alacrity and within a span of a couple of hours the downpour starts. This can go on till late in the night or even sometimes till early morning. All but the extremely vital outdoor activities stop and everyone is confined within the houses. A word about the traditional houses in Kerala will be appropriate at this juncture. Houses were made of laterite slabs held together by locally produced mortar which was obtained by grinding the shells of a type of oyster found in the back waters of Kerala. Since there was no dearth of timber, the roofing structure was entirely made up of wood over which baked tiles were paved. To facilitate the drainage of water the roofs were made in triangular fashion with the apex of the triangle being the highest part with the remaining roof slanting downwards. Invariably the houses were made in a square fashion with an open area in the middle. Depending upon the size of the house and the wealth, position, and status of the owner these squares could be one, two, three, or even four in some houses. So when the rains came these open courtyards used to be flush with water draining from the roofs. The sound of the rain falling on the roofs along with the sound of the copious drainage into the central courtyard have to be experienced to believe. For a Malayalee like me it is a soothing sound almost akin to the gurgling of water along the miniature gardens of the Zen practitioners of Japan.

But it was not so when I experienced it the first time. It is not because of the sound of water or because of the rains. Having been living in Bombay, I was no stranger to rain. The problem was the thunder and lightning which invariably accompanied the rains in Kerala. The sound was so extraordinarily loud that the whole house shook. The flashes of lightning, reddish yellow in color, looked as though they wanted to enter inside each room of the house for that fraction of second when it was generated. The primitive electricity connections during those days [I believe, things have not changed much over the last 55 years!] invariably broke down at the first lightning strike each day. The overcast sky, the lack of electrical lighting and the generally dark walls and roof of the houses created an eerie feeling of something surreal. This was accompanied by the incessant rumbling of the thunder and the sporadic brilliant illumination by the lightning. The overall effect of this audiovisual assault was indeed frightening to me. As a child, my reaction was to cling as close to my mother as possible and scream and cry at the top of my voice. All efforts by my grandparents and my uncles and aunts did not succeed in pricing me away from my mother. The screaming and crying went on till I was really tired and dozed off to sleep. This drama was repeated every day when the rains came. I distinctly remember starting to be in physical contact with my mother the moment the rains started; and it was raining every day.

Soon came the day when my younger brother decided to enter this world. I have only vague recollections of that day except the fact that he came out late in the evening when I was being held by one of my aunts outside the closed door of the room where my mother was in labor. The issue became more and more complicated because I was not permitted to sleep with my mother for obvious reasons for the ensuing few days. No one could console me and, ultimately, on the third day after her delivery my mother had to keep me on one side while having my baby brother on the other. I can only visualize now what a tough time she must have had because of my behavior. My mother was being given the traditional post–delivery care and I used to insist on being around all the time because I was mortally scared of the thunder and lightning. And I was not aware as to when it will start every day.

My father came after about 10 days on leave. I remember jumping onto him when he came and also that it was in the morning that he arrived. I can still smell the mixed odor of his after-shave and cigarettes when he held me tight that day. By the time my father had freshened up and exchanged pleasantries with the other members of the family it was time for lunch. I remember taking lunch sitting on my father's lap and he feeding me while he was himself eating. Being a joint family, my grandmother was acting as the majordomo in serving lunch to my grandfather, uncles and my father. After the lunch was over we retired to the front part of the house where there was an open area something similar to a large veranda. I was still perched on my father when the first crack of thunder was heard swiftly followed by an iridescent glow of lightning. As if on cue I started screaming and clung onto my father. He could not understand as to why I was doing it. Immediately my grandfather and my uncles started recounting the harrowing time they have been having because of my incessant hollering every time thunder and lightning started. My father listened in silence and suddenly got up. He took me along to the room that we were occupying in that house. He quickly changed into a pair of shorts and picking me up came back to the place where my grandfather and my uncles were sitting. By that time the rain was pouring heavily. Before anyone could react, my father put me behind his neck with my legs straddling his neck and walked out into the rain.

You can well imagine my plight at that time. I started screaming the loudest I could but my father held me back with one hand and started walking further and further away from the house. I screamed and screamed but my father appeared to be unconcerned and not even listening to it. Within a few minutes we were completely drenched. I was clutching the already–thinning hair of my father with my legs locked around his neck. The thunder and lightning was going on incessantly. Maybe it was sheer fatigue that I soon stopped screaming and became silent. My father kept on walking around the huge compound to the house with various kinds of gardens. After quite some time, time that I thought was more than eternity, he asked me,

“Son! Why are you not screaming now?” I did not answer. 

“Are you still scared?” I did not answer that too.

“You can see that the sound and the flash which comes after the sound have no effect on both of us. So do not be scared of these. Do you agree with me?” I mumbled something in answer. He then proceeded to tell me a few words that still ring in my ears after all these years.

“Son! Never be afraid of anything or any situation. If there is something, which you are scared of you have only two alternatives, either to run away from it or to face it. If you start running away from a difficult situation from the early days of your life you will keep running throughout your life. But if you turn back and face the situation either the situation can overcome you or you can overcome the situation. Both are acceptable because in case the situation overcomes you have the satisfaction that you made a serious attempt to get over the situation. In case you overcome the situation you have conquered one more fear in your life. In most cases you will be able to overcome the situation. Remember this, My Son,  and you will not be a loser in your life.”

As I mentioned in the beginning I am still unable to understand why my father chose to put this wisdom into my four-year-old brain. Later on I had asked him more than once as to why he did this. His answer was an enigmatic smile. Only once did he say, “Well! Are you not happy that you have been conquering fears? The fact that you have been decorated by the President while fighting a war for the country is the proof of what I wanted you to become by telling you those things when you were only four years old.”

This philosophy of facing a situation or fear which was drilled into my four-year-old brain by my father, has been one of the bedrocks of my life. I have tried it on numerous occasions and in very different situations and circumstances. Every time, or rather most of the times, I have been successful either in conquering that fear or in mastering and controlling the difficult situation, which I had to face. As an example, I had a very serious fear of heights [acrophobia]. I could not look down from a place more than 10 feet above the ground. Keeping my father's dictum I decided to become a paratrooper and a skydiver. The initial days of training to become a paratrooper and the first few jumps were extremely stressful to me because of the terrible fear I had. But now, after more than 100 descents from various aircrafts and in various places, I cannot even think that I had such fear of heights at one time of my life.

Thank you Dad.

Saturday, 2 July 2011


I was inducted into the Indian Army as a lieutenant in 1969 directly from the civic street. Belonging to a family that prided itself in wearing uniform of the fighting forces, I was somewhat aware of the vicissitudes of the new life that I was entering. With my mediocre knowledge of Hindi, and that too the grammatically and academically correct version, I had to blunder my way through many a faux pas in my day-to-day official activities. But those blunders are not the subject matter of this piece.

After receiving the elementary military training at the Officers’ Training School, AMC Center and School, Lucknow, I was soon shunted to a place called Ranchi, in the state of Bihar (Incidentally, Ranchi now is the capital of Jharkhand State) where I was to join a medical battalion that was part of an infantry division. I landed up in this unit in the spring of 1971. It was an alien place and I had all the apprehensions of interacting with unknown seniors as well as troops. You may wonder why I felt this. To appreciate you will have to realize that working in a hospital environment is similar everywhere whether in the Army or elsewhere. You were basically a doctor, immaterial whether you were uniform are not. But a field medical unit is a different proposition altogether. The conditions are harsh and the facilities are, at best, makeshift. Therefore, giving appropriate care to the sick and wounded was a task that required great ingenuity. Everyone, from top to bottom, had to participate as a member of the team for efficient functioning of these units. A medical battalion was basically meant to evacuate the wounded from the battlefront to the field hospitals located in the rear. Therefore, the stretcher-bearers, who formed the majority of the troops of that unit, had to be equally tough and battle trained as the troops of any infantry unit.

To be the commanding officer of such a unit was a big task. And it is to this worthy that I ‘reported’ for duty. ‘Reporting’ is an Army jargon for meeting with one's boss. He was a dark middle-aged lieutenant colonel with the face that would have been quite handsome in his younger days. He had slick black hair that was kept well groomed and oiled. The man was a chain smoker and his abdominal girth definitely pointed towards an over indulgence in food and alcohol, with marginal exercise. To top it all, he had an incessant tic in which he shook his head violently and blew out air through his puckered lips. Anyone seeing it for the first time was more likely to be mesmerized by this peculiar activity. Mercifully he used undergo this ritual only once in every five minutes! After muttering a perfunctory welcome to me, he handed me over to the adjutant with the instructions that I should be given a rigorous training in how to manage an Advanced Dressing Station [ADS]. In between the tics he told me that I would soon be made the officer in charge of one of the ADSs. He cautioned me that I should learn the ropes of handling this vital subunit as fast as possible because war clouds were hovering over the horizon.

Days passed; days that started with physical training in the early morning followed by rigorous drilling of opening and closing of the advanced dressing station. Rest followed lunch for about one hour before going for ‘organized’ games. Again ‘organized games’ in Army parlance meant that as officers we had to play games like football, volleyball and hockey along with troops. Although I did not understand it at that time, later on I realized that there was a method in this madness because the bonds between the officers and the troops under their command strengthened through these physical activities. Within the span of about three months I was confident that I could handle the ADS fairly well. One day I was told that the commanding officer [who is unofficially referred to as ‘The Old Man’ by all officers in all Army units] would come and inspect my ADS to gauge my proficiency. In about a week's time he came along with his second-in-command and the adjutant. I put in motion the well-rehearsed drill and, thankfully, the entire procedure went through fluidly. I could see that ‘The Old Man’ was pleased; a fact that was confirmed when he finally said “Well Done!” and walked away to his vehicle. Later on, the adjutant apprised me that ‘the old man’ was happy with my performance and me.

It came as a surprise to me that after a few days I was called to the adjutant's office in the morning. He told me that he was proceeding on his annual leave and that the commanding officer wanted me to replace him and officiate as the adjutant during his absence. In the pecking order of field units in the Indian Army, the adjutant is placed very high up even though he invariably is a junior officer of the rank of captain. This was because of the proximity he had with the commanding officer, a kind of reflected power. It was the dream of most of us young officers to be the adjutant. I was no exception. Perhaps my elation was apparent in my face that prompted the adjutant to say that the job is extremely tough especially with the present commanding officer who was very hard taskmaster. That statement somewhat chastened me and brought me down to mother Earth. He also told me that the commanding officer wanted to meet me immediately. I went in and met him and he told me that he expected me to start functioning as the adjutant within two days. He laced his statement with a warning that unless I performed to his expectations I will be shown the door.

It was a real experience to serve as the adjutant to this ‘Old Man’. In every sense of the word this grand ‘Old Man’ was my first true mentor in the Indian Army. He taught me a lot by his actions and his instructions. There was no denying that he was an exacting boss who did not tolerate any slipshod activity. He was quite brilliant in drafting letters and was extremely proficient in office procedure and the rules and regulations that bind the Army. He is the one who introduced me to the idea of ‘staff work’; a euphemism used by armed forces all over the world for office work and problem solving. In fact, years later, I was pleasantly surprised to find the management guru Steven Covey in his book ‘The 8th Habit’ espouse and argue the case of ‘completed staff work’ and suggesting it as an important activity for anyone wants to actualize himself.

Being the adjutant meant that I had to closely interact with the commanding officer during, and after, the office hours. I used to make sure that his office was kept ready and neat every morning before the commanding officer arrived. In those days it was a matter of prestige that the office tables were covered by blazer cloth, usually of green color. The commanding officer's table was no exception. Befitting his rank and status there was also a huge glass slab that covered the entire table over this blazer tablecloth. He used to keep nothing underneath this glass except for a piece of paper in which it was written in Hindi “ YEH BHI GUZAR JAAYEGAA!” which roughly translated meant “THIS ALSO WILL PASS”. I was intrigued by this statement and always used to wonder what is the connection this had with the commanding officer. I did not have the courage to ask him to find out the reason.

One day it so happened that a fire broke out in the armory of the unit. Although there were no human casualties few weapons were damaged. In the Indian Army of those days, for that matter even today, such an incident was sufficient to blight the career of the commanding officer. It was calamitous to have such an incident in any fighting unit; and it was catastrophic when the unit was preparing for war. Soon the bigwigs from the formation headquarters descended in scores into the unit for all kinds of inquiries. This carnival went on for quite some time. ‘The Old Man’ appeared nonchalant and put on a gnome-like facial appearance throughout this stressful period. After all the formalities were over he was handed down a ‘reprimand’. An official ‘reprimand’ in the Army is equivalent to a serious rap on the knuckles. When he received it he called me to his office and showed me the letter looking quite exasperated. He said, “This is what I get for so many years of diligent and meritorious service”. Then he looked at the piece of paper that was kept under the glass slab on his table and started smiling. He lit up another cigarette and the smile became loud laughter. He looked up at me and asked me whether I thought him to be mad. I did not answer. He soon dismissed me from his office. Even when I went out I could hear his loud laughter.

It was when I reached my office and sat down that I realized the importance of those words. And I also realized why the ‘Old Man’ was in stitches after reading those words. The profoundness of the wisdom expressed in those few words has amazed me over the years. That whether it is happiness, tragedy, sorrow or elation they are all transitory and they will go away over a period of time. What a magnificent lesson indeed!

Kitchen Inspection

In the days prior to the 1971 Bangladesh war the Indian Army made meticulous preparations. Ever since the time the Pakistan Army in the erstwhile East Pakistan cracked down upon the people there in late 1970, it was apparent that a drastic solution was the only answer to the increasing burden of the refugees on India. While the political machine was cranking in its own way under the charismatic Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the Army was being thoroughly prepared for an offensive against East Pakistan by arguably the best Chief the Indian Army ever had. He was General, later on Field Marshal, Sam Maneckshaw. Infantry and Mountain divisions were being systematically assembled all around East Pakistan borders. I was also a very small cog in this giant machine in my capacity as the officer in charge of an Advanced Dressing Station [ADS] attached to an infantry brigade that formed part of an infantry division. Rigorous training was being imparted for every formation based on the role it was supposed to play when the war started.

After about 4 to 5 months of extremely hard training including various battle drills, our brigade was given a reprieve. We were allocated a huge area of land in a place called Kalyani, in the outskirts of Calcutta, where we were expected to pitch our tents and ‘rest and recoup’. There were three infantry battalions in our brigade. Each of them belonged to very proud infantry regiments with checkered history behind them; some even dating back to more than 300 years.  Infantry regiments in the Indian Army are named based on the region from which the majority of troops come from, or on the religious category of the majority of troops. For example we have Punjab Regiment which means that the majority of the troops are from Punjab or Himachal Pradesh. The class composition was also necessarily either Sikhs or Dogras. Similarly, there is the Madras Regiment composed basically of troops belonging to the four south Indian states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Therefore, each regiment had it's own special characteristics both in behavior and day-to-day activities.  Even the ‘battle cries’ of these regiments were significantly different from each other.  Each of these regiments proudly upheld their heritage, ethos and modus operandi. Their uniforms were also embellished in such ways that the identity of the regiments was strictly maintained. Of course, there were ‘composite’ regiments composed of a mixture of troops from all parts of the country. But, by and large, these were specialized regiments like the Parachute Regiment and Brigade of Guards. Although I used to get initially bewildered, I was convinced later on that the greatest strength of the Indian Army is this unity in diversity. In fact, our nation itself is a shining example of this principle.

Our infantry brigade was deployed under tents. The three infantry battalions formed the three corners of a triangle with the brigade headquarters and supporting units like mine located in the center. For the initial few days the troops were busy in pitching their tents and organizing themselves. It is an age-old dictum that if the troops are not kept fully occupied it will foment trouble. This has been the guiding principle of all armies in the world. Indian Army is no exception. Therefore, once the units were settled it was up to the brigade commander to devise ways and means to keep the troops occupied. It used to be quite a sight when all the troops came out for the morning physical training. To the people who are not familiar with the Army, each infantry battalion during those days had about 900 personnel. These, along with the supporting elements like my unit, made up the strength of roughly 3000 troops all congregated together in that area. Mornings used to resemble a crowded fairground with groups of hundred running and doing the other calisthenics associated with physical training in the Army.

The three infantry battalions we had in our infantry brigade belonged to the Punjab Regiment, the Maratha regiment and the Sikh Light Infantry, Sikh LI for short. As explained earlier the differing composition of troops in each of these battalions meant that there were differences in their behavioral pattern also. The brigade commander used to insist that such differences should not ever be a hindrance in the formation fighting as one. All the commanding officers of these battalions were excellent people and the cooperation between the three battalions was indeed quite remarkable.

One of the methods used to keep the troops occupied is to have various kinds of inspections. Since the entire formation was located under tents it was decided that a ‘kitchen inspection’ would be carried out in the infantry battalions. Troops' kitchens in Army parlance are called ‘cook houses’. Each infantry battalion had 6 of these, one for each company. Since hygiene is given great importance in the Army, my presence as the senior medical officer of the brigade was essential for evaluating these ‘cook houses’. The commander announced that the battalion with the best ‘cook houses’ would be awarded and rewarded appropriately. Therefore, this ‘kitchen inspection’ became somewhat like a competition. A schedule was drawn up and a team constituted and I was part of the team as the medical expert. To our pleasant surprise the brigade commander suddenly announced that he would be personally visiting each ‘cook house’ along with us.

Since there were six ‘cook houses’ to be inspected it was decided that we will visit one infantry battalion every week, spending three days with them thereby inspecting two ‘cook houses’ per day. We started one day with the Punjab battalion. As expected everything was spick and span in all the houses of this proud battalion, which traced its history to more than 300 years. The next week it was the turn of the Maratha battalion. Another ancient battalion, they also put up an immaculate show. The brigade commander was quite pleased with what he was seeing and he seemed to enjoy this reprieve. The third week was the turn of the Sikh LI battalion. As the pedigree of regiments go this regiment was relatively ‘young’. I must digress a bit here to say a few words about Sikh LI regiment. There is no denying that the troops who constitute this regiment are amongst the finest soldiers in the world; very brave, astonishingly fearless to the point of being foolish and extremely resourceful. It was not an easy job for any officer to control these hardy, tough, and down to earth soldiers and to gain their respect and obedience. But once an officer was accepted by these troops it was a pleasure commanding them. All my friends who were officers of this regiment have been unanimous on this point.  Although they were exceptional troops in battle the Sikh LI troops were not well known for their peacetime activities and standards of discipline.

Therefore, when our team went to inspect the ‘cook houses’ of this battalion, we were not anticipating the extremely high standards that we saw in the other two battalions in the previous two weeks. However, we were quite surprised to find all the ‘cook houses’ of this battalion maintained and displayed in high standards of comfort and hygiene. On the third day of our inspection, when we were halfway through the fifth  ‘cook house’, a military jeep screeched to a halt on the track nearby. From it emerged the commanding officer of the Maratha battalion who was himself a Sikh. He seemed quite agitated and had in tow his second-in-command and another officer. He started berating the commanding officer of the Sikh LI stating that the troops of the Sikh LI have made forays into the Maratha location and have pillaged the ‘cook houses’. The brigade commander interfered and then it came to light that since the previous night the embellishments of the ‘cook houses’ of two of the companies of the Maratha battalion have been missing. The commanding officer of the Maratha battalion was livid when he saw that the same items were now forming part of the proud display in the ‘cook houses’ of the Sikh LI battalion. After placating the commanding officer of the Maratha battalion, the brigade commander asked the commanding officer of the Sikh LI battalion the details of this incident. He was unaware and so too were his officers. Finally it came to light that this was a ‘night raid’ conducted by the enlisted men of the Sikh LI battalion who literally moved the embellishments of the two ‘cook houses’ during the night from the Maratha battalion location to the Sikh LI battalion location.

I do not know what happened later on but the brigade commander bust out laughing and said that even if the cook houses of the Sikh LI battalion were not in the same league as that of the other two battalions, he intended to give a consolation price to the battalion for the ingenuity shown in removing the embellishments of the cook houses lock stock and barrel surreptitiously! He also jokingly chided the commanding officer of the Maratha battalion for the lax security of his unit.