In supreme act, eternal hero

Sumedha Sharma

Thirty-nine-year-old Lt Col Robert TA was a loving son, husband, officer, friend, comrade, dear senior and so much more. He bid the world adieu for his second innings, leaving behind a tale of camaraderie, brotherhood, compassion, and an envious smile few can boast of!

Col Robert was martyred when an avalanche hit a patrol party in Lugnak La area of north Sikkim on May 14. Hailing from Senapati district in Manipur, he was the first officer from the Maram Naga community to join the Army’s technical wing.

“I am deeply aggrieved to learn about the sad demise of Lt Col Robert TA of the 3rd Engineers Regiment of the Indian Army. Apart from serving the Indian Army in different capacities in different parts of the country, he was associated with different sporting events and brought laurels to his regiment… May his soul rest in peace,” the Manipur CM, N Biren Singh, said in a tribute.

A heated confrontation recently took place between the Indian and Chinese soldiers in north Sikkim, resulting in injuries to troops on both sides. Despite a warning from the Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment of an avalanche in the region, ground commanders knew that keeping all roads open was an operational necessity. With this objective, Col Robert and his team went ahead with snow clearance, while planning for weather and enemy contingencies.

“The news of the avalanche flashed and we learnt that Robert was missing. The other soldiers had been found and evacuated. We hoped that Robert would be all right. When the news of his supreme sacrifice came, it was hard to believe. The ever-smiling, the ever-enthusiastic Robert was no more,” a close friend shared.

They weren’t there hiking or trekking, but to open a road axis rendered non-operational due to snowfall. They knew their life was at stake, yet they went about their task with unflinching devotion. Col Robert was a highly motivated officer, leading from the front. A football wizard, he could ‘bend it like Beckham’.

Robo, our hero, will live in the hearts of friends and family. “An irreplaceable loss, our God of football, humane and compassionate… he was like a big brother,” said another grief-stricken friend.

Like many who gave up their lives for their motherland, we do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens.

In all this din, when the country is busy combating Covid-19, some other heroes have bid adieu forever, silently. They are not just Indian soldiers; they are the true pride of every Indian. We citizens must remember all those brave souls whose sacrifices went unrecognised — they were as brave as the ones we honoured.

Dear Robo, your impressions of life will forever colour the journey of those who came across you.

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A system that gave food for thought

Mohan Singh

There was a long queue of eligible interviewees outside the office of the Deputy Commissioner, a British ICS officer, in 1943. World War II was at its peak. The troops were supplied essential commodities as per requirement, but that brought about a food crisis in the country. It was to tide over that exigency that the government set up a brand new rationing department, and the DC was to recruit staff for Amritsar.

My brother, senior to me by 21 years, and who had just come into the new milieu after our return from Burma in 1942, was looking for a job. However, when the information reached him, it was too late, as it was the date of the interview. Still, he wanted to try. He reached the venue and wrote an application on a plain paper, and through a peon got it placed on the DC’s table. The DC was impressed with the flawless English written in a cursive hand, and called the candidate, who also had some experience of working under White officers in Rangoon. Surprisingly, he was the first to be selected, even before the interview started!

My brother did not have any certificate, though he had matriculated from the Anglo Saxon Khalsa High School, Rangoon. But he soon earned a reputation for drafting and typing mistake-free letters on his exclusive E-carriage Remington machine. This is how the new department, which looked after the supply of essential commodities like wheat, sugar, rice, pulses and kerosene, came into being. Even matchsticks were given only on ration card — one box of 60 sticks per month.

Ration cards carried the number of family members. Actual enquiries were made, from door to door, to check the veracity thereof. There were no photos then, but the card was a document and depot holders kept a meticulous record, fearing punishment, which was inevitable in case of any irregularity. Every family in the city had a ration card, though villages were excluded. Ward rationing officers looked after any queries from the public. There was a well-oiled system to check smuggling into cities, thanks to a chain of octroi barriers at all entry points, including the railway station.

After the war ended in 1945, the department was disbanded and the staff retrenched. When 1947 presented similar problems, the new department of civil supplies emerged with extended activities, and some of the old staff were re-employed. I remember that if you needed a bag of cement for repair in the house, you had to apply to this department, and after a month or so, you were intimated through a self-addressed 15NP postcard. Alas! The system fell into disrepute and extreme corruption. No effort was made to resuscitate it.

Inspector Raj soon saw the end of almost all depots. Nobody had the vision to appreciate the existence of an efficient public distribution system in emergencies like the one we are now facing, in the form of the coronavirus and extended periods of lockdown.

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The latest on gurdwara loudspeaker

Rameshinder Singh Sandhu

Ever since the lockdown began, I have been staying at my maternal village, Butala, with my octogenarian grandmother. Like many other villages around, the gurdwara here leaves no stone unturned to roll out the latest on the coronavirus through announcements over its loudspeaker. Sometimes, a panchayat member addresses the villagers, while at other times, it is the granthi.

These announcements don’t just fill the air, but are seem to be taken more seriously than even TV news. Many go running to the rooftops to clearly absorb the announcement. If children are playing around, they are instantly gestured to remain silent.

Staying here, I also got addicted to the announcements, and patiently unfold them to my grandmother. At times, I may forget to share, but rarely does she forget to repeatedly ask if anything was announced.

This is not a recent development. Announcements from gurdwaras have been a norm in villages for ages. It is rooted deep in their culture, to which I have been a witness for nearly three decades. I remember, as a child, we also had to put a finger on our lips at the time of any announcement. We imitated them during our play hours.

Besides regular updates on upcoming celebrations in the gurdwara or any meetings of the panchayat, they roll out bank notices, especially pension calls, information about any medical camps, bhog, and if people have lost something — be it a child or cattle head. Amusingly, long back, it was only when we knocked for help at the village gurdwara were we able to find our little dog, apparently stolen by someone in the village itself.

In the old days, the loudspeakers were used to gather beds and utensils from everyone in the village for weddings. If government schools had to declare holiday due to any emergency, they took the help of gurdwaras. During the harvest season, weather presentation was a daily ritual that either shattered many hopes or weaved them. In border villages, many old tongues carry tales from war days, and some still remember every word.

In my village, the gurdwara’s loudspeaker, one morning, became ‘historic’ forever, credit to its only priest, who, like every morning around 4 am, before leaving for his walk, played a CD of religious hymns. But that morning, after a few hymns, Punjabi songs began playing, enveloping all in both shock and laughter! Thankfully, within minutes, the CD was removed. The priest blamed his teenaged son for copying songs on it. It may have been years since this happened, but with every retelling, it becomes comical.

For now, we hope the loudspeaker of the WHO soon announces what we all wish to hear: the world is free from the shackles of coronavirus.

But to make that happen, no doubt, we all have to follow every guideline conveyed to us.

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When one needed permit to cycle!

NJ Ravi Chander

In the old days dominated by the Licence Raj, it was an offence to wheel down the roads on a bicycle without a valid permit. Though traffic was sparse, one had to apply to the municipal offices for a licence to enable one to hit the road. It came in the form of a small tin plate with a number inscribed and a hole punched in the middle. Once this adorned the ‘chariot’, you were ready to go!

‘Halt’ boards stared at riders on the major roads in an age when there were no traffic lights. The board was a sign notifying the drivers to come to a complete stop and then proceed if the way ahead is clear of vehicles and pedestrians. The police would lurk around corners to check if the riders were halting. Many errant bikers paid for their follies with a fine or were marched off to the nearest police station.

In the pre-dynamo age, the classic lamp with a wick and kerosene adorned bicycles, as riding without light after dusk was an offence. It had an adjustable wick. One could turn the flame down or up. The lamp was detachable and kept indoors during the day. Some vintage bike lights had a convex lens on the front to improve visibility. They also had a small red rectangular glass on the left and a green one on the right. Periodical cleaning of the lens and the glasses made the flame appear bright. One had to be cautious not to ride over a bump as this caused the oil to spill, and result in an inferno. If the policeman caught you when the light died midway, he would often accept your explanation that the wind put it off, provided the lamp felt warm to his touch!

The inventive among us manufactured paper or cardboard cone lamps. These were half-filled with sand and a lighted candle placed in the middle. Holding the light in one hand, we navigated the cycle with the other.

A maternal granduncle who possessed a rickety old cycle always carried a matchbox in his pocket. Whenever gusty wind or pouring rain blew out the kerosene fuelled-lamp, he stopped, struck a match and reignited the wick before proceeding on his way. He would repeat the exercise countless times during the ride if windy conditions persisted. Dynamo-fitted bikes spawned a new breed of thieves who plucked out the small electrical generators and made a minor fortune by selling them in the scrap yard.

In the 1950s, owning a cycle was a luxury few could afford, and therefore considered a status symbol. Factories in Bengaluru ferried their employees in buses, easing the need to possess a bike. The bride’s family gave away bicycles as dowry. My late father received a Raleigh bicycle as a wedding gift from his in-laws. The bike cost an unbelievable Rs 200 then, and he considered it priceless, taking care of it as if it was his child. Those were the days!

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Not without his master

Wg Cdr JS Bhalla (retd)

During the lockdown, the things that mark our day — commuting to work, sending kids to school, having a drink with friends — have vanished. Life has come to a standstill. However, stray dogs, who have the roads to themselves, can be seen sunbathing in golden silence. I observed a few enjoying pollution-free vatavaran in front of my house. This reminded me of Boozo, an adorable pet of Flt Lt TK Chaudhuri.

I was posted at the Ambala Air Force Station in 1961. Chaudhuri, a fighter pilot and a teetotaller, was my next-door neighbour. After days of flying, he would relax in the corridor, playing guitar. In squadron parties, he would render soul-stirring melodies of the past, keeping the audience spellbound.

His brown dog was a companion who brought joy to his life. It was a delight to watch the dog delivering the newspaper to his master. The dog would wag his tail to express his happiness whenever Chou, as he was called, was home.

In early 1965, when tension was brewing across the western border, we moved to our operational locations. The Air Traffic Services were made operational in a wooden hut, where one could barely squeeze in with the equipment neatly stacked. Trenches were dug all around to jump in during air raids. Choudhuri, along with his squadron, flew to Halwara. He gave the custody of Boozo to his trustworthy sahayak, Gopi.

In the beginning of September 1965, Pakistan attacked Akhnoor sector, destroying the Akhnoor bridge — a vital link of communication for us. The induction of the Indian Air Force into the battle at that time ruined the well-thought-out plans of the Pakistan army. During an air battle, Flt Lt Trevor Keelor was credited for the shooting of a Sabre by his invisible Gnat. We yelled and welcomed the news by thumping the tables. We were still in the midst of our rejoicing when news trickled down that we had lost Chou in an operation. Words froze in my throat; I couldn’t budge an inch.

Things were not normal with Boozo either. He was no more playful, and wailed a lot for his master to return. He refused to eat anything. It took him some time to realise that Chou had gone forever, and when he did, his health declined rapidly, leading to a frightening visit to the vet. We were told that he may not last long. As he lay dying, Boozo went quiet, but his eyes expressed the pain he was going through. We were all sad when he passed away. The demise of his master was too harsh for him to bear. His death exhibited the sacred bond that existed between the master and his pet. He was given a befitting burial.

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Banished from bhadralok

KC Verma

This small town that I was posted to as the Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) was not even a one-horse town. It was but a huddle of huts and farms, bestowed with the status of a sub-divisional headquarters for no good reason. It was a village really, which had never seen the finer things in life. No stage plays, no musical soirees, and not even a satisfactory cinema hall. Unfortunately, I fancied myself to be a cosmopolite, a connoisseur of the arts and music, and an epicure to boot!

My life soon fell into a rut. My duties left me with little spare time, but to spend even this became tedious. My cook could prepare only tasteless dishes, which hardly evoked a desire to live. I had nothing to read, except old newspapers, and I missed books, music and intellectual company that one could enjoy only in a city.

Then one day, I met this amazingly soft-spoken person, who I shall call Mr Bhaduri. He practised criminal law in the local court and was the epitome of the Bengali bhadralok. He was an anachronism living in this small town, possibly because his ancestor zamindars never thought of moving to Patna or Kolkata.

The Bhaduri home was full of books, stacked in innumerable wooden almirahs, all carefully dusted. There was also an ancient gramophone in working condition, with a huge stack of records, ranging from Chopin and Rabindra Sangeet to Kundan Lal Saigal. And the pride of place in the very Bengali drawing room was occupied by a veena — one that Mr Bhaduri could actually play!

I was mesmerised by this oasis of culture and learning in the otherwise drab town, and over the next few months, whenever I felt like it, I invited myself to his house. Here, I enjoyed a bit of music, a stimulating discussion on current events or some philosophical concept, culminating in a dinner to tempt the gods.

But it was too good to last! One day, quite sheepishly, Mr Bhaduri requested me to stop visiting his house. Seeing my confusion, he explained that it was a small town that we lived in, and people knew that I, the ASP, was a frequent visitor to his house. He said for this reason, he had started getting such criminals as clients who he did not want to defend. Quite disappointed, I acceded to his wish and stopped visiting him. For the rest of my posting in that god-forsaken town, I missed the refined company, the books, the music and the food of the Bhaduri home.

It is now almost 50 years since I last visited Mr Bhaduri. In these many years, I have wondered more than once whether he really started getting undesirable clients or did he find me too much of a boor — and in his bhadralok fashion, he had got rid of me!

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Tracing contacts to unlock the lockdown

Raj Kadyan

WE are living in the jungle of technology. New gadgets and apps are assailing us by the day. These simplify life for some, but for others, these innovations have come too late, when our minds are already jaded. Barring exceptions, most of us live in the comfort of the past and consider technology an irksome intruder.

Lockdown has been hard. The nothing-to-do status is causing ennui. Though for retired folks of my vintage, who otherwise also had nothing to do, there is little to complain.

The other day, I decided to re-establish contact with my Army peers, now in their late seventies and plus. I picked up the course directory prepared for our golden jubilee reunion in 2012, and began dialing. The conversations had almost a set pattern.

‘Hello’, the gruff military voice would say. I would identify myself. ‘Hold a minute’ was invariably the reply, as he went searching for his hearing aid. Being the caller, mine was already hooked. ‘Sorry for the wait, who is it?’ After I repeated my name, it would take a few seconds for his brain to fire, and for recognition to dawn. Then, ‘Arrey Raj, tu …kahan se bol raha hai?’ Use of cuss words endearingly took us back to our happy teens in the academy.

It was invigorating to connect with them after so many years. Perhaps the longest had been with Inoubi Singh Chanam. We had last met in early 1965 when we were both admitted to the military hospital at Delhi Cantonment. He was overjoyed when I called him up in Imphal. Sarabjit is managing his farm in a village at Yamunanagar, and disclosed that the rooms in his house are big enough for walking. ‘The village did not have a bank. I managed to get one set up last year.’ Habitat improvement had always been his forte.

Gurmit Randhawa has switched from growing roses to real estate in Ooty and insisted we visit them. A similar invite came from Seshu Rao, living in the idyllic Aamby Valley. Joe Prabhu of the Signals Corps in Bengaluru had just been on ‘Zoom’ with his children abroad when I called. ‘Look Joe,’ I said, ‘as a non-technical mind, the only zoom I know is when someone drives by, speedily raising dust.’ But he was one up. ‘Ha! But you Pongos’ — he said using the slang term for infantry soldiers — ‘captured the Kargil heights!’

And the calls continued, bringing back memories. In some cases, where the officers had passed away, I called up the ladies. These calls were sombre. I would ask them if they had any problem with pension etc. Fortunately, all are being well looked after.

The colleagues were upbeat and enjoying their evening years. I couldn’t have utilised the lockdown period better. I have given this app of mine a name — KIT — for keeping in touch.

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