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.

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