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!