Commanding Officers (CO) of all Artillery Regiments travel by a Jeep (light vehicle) which is identified by the alphabet ‘Z‘ painted on all its sides. Most other arms/ services have ‘COMMANDING OFFICER’ written in the front of the CO’s vehicle. Needless to say, that it is the most decked up and mechanically fit vehicle of any unit, driven by the most competent and disciplined driver. It carries with it an air of sacred and infallible exclusivity.
Our unit was a cooperating unit of School of Artillery, Devlali. We had to provide equipment and soldiers for smooth conduct of training of students of various courses. This was at a time when I was a single parent CO as Marina had migrated to Canada by then. The responsibility of bringing up our children now rested solely on me.
My residence was about 400 m behind the unit with the Officers’ Mess in between. Thus I could walk to the unit or Officers’ Mess at any time and hardly ever used the Z.
One day our daughter Nidhi, a grade 6 student, returning from school asked, “Dad, are you a CO?“
“Yes,” I replied “What ‘s the matter?“
“Everyone in my class tell me that you cannot be a CO,” she said.
“But why?” I queried.
I was taken aback by her reason. “They say that if I am a CO’s daughter, I would be dropped at school on a Z and not be cycling down to school,” she replied quite innocently.
“OK. I am not a CO then. You continue to cycle to school,” I justified.
One morning I received a call from a senior Staff Officer at the School of Artillery Headquarters. His concern was that our Regimental officers travelled in jeeps while Colonels of Tactical and Field Wings – many approved as Brigadiers – were travelling on their scooters. It was not that our officers were travelling on Jeeps, even their ladies used it. Surely it was an eyesore for those Colonels who had commanded their regiments ‘well’; else they would not have been posted to School of Artillery.
I explained to this Staff Officer “When some of these Colonels were commanding their regiments, they had five Jeeps – one for the CO, one for his wife, one for his daughter, one for his son and one for his dog. I have only one and the rest are shared by other officers. It is my command, and I will decide what to do with my jeeps and henceforth please keep away from my command functions.”
On a Saturday I was informed by our Adjutant that the in-laws of Captain Vikrant, who joined us just a week before, are in station.
“Then let us have a get together in the evening at the Officers’ Mess. Please invite them too,” I suggested. The CO’s mild suggestions are invariably directions to be implicitly followed.
During the evening get together I asked Captain Vikrant “What are you doing tomorrow? It’s a Sunday.”
“My in-laws want to visit Shirdi,” he replied.
“How are you going?” I enquired.
“I have booked seats in the School of Artillery bus leaving from the Club tomorrow morning.“
“When our officer’s parents or in-laws visit Shirdi, they take the Z. Havildar Suresh, my driver will report to you tomorrow morning.”
Hearing this our Quartermaster, Captain Subhash passed the customary instructions to Havildar Suresh to include carriage of adequate water, soft drinks, sandwiches and a spare jerrycan of petrol.
Sunday morning at five, I was quite rudely awoken by the telephone ring. It hardly ever rang unless there was some very very important information to be conveyed to the CO, which was indeed a rarity.
It was Captain Vikrant at the other end. “Good Morning Sir. Sorry to disturb you at this hour. Your vehicle is standing in front of my residence.”
“It’s there to take you all to Shirdi,” I confirmed.
“I thought you were not serious when you told me that,” he said, embarrassed and apologetic.
I shot off a volley of choicest profanities in my vocabulary ending with, “Now you take the vehicle to Shirdi and on Monday morning see me in my office.”
On Monday morning Major Suresh Babu, our Second-in-Command escorted Captain Vikrant to my office and said “Sir, please don’t get angry with him. He is only a week old in our unit. He is yet to know you.”
I looked at Captain Vikrant and he said “This is my second unit. Before this I served only in a Field Regiment for five years. There the Z was regarded as something holy, something of an institution. I have never travelled in a Z till now. That is why I called you early in the morning to reconfirm.“
I dismissed both with the words “The Z did not come as a dowry to me when I got married to the Regiment.“