Pen Pushers


My post ‘Where’s the Creativity?’ was prompted by a remark from a Veteran Regimental officer that  I am a good ‘pen pusher.’ During my regimental service, I often heard  Staff College and/ or  Long Gunnery (LGSC) qualified officers being referred to as pen pushers or at times as ‘paper tigers’ – mostly by the other senior officers who had neither qualification to their credit.  A ‘grapes are sour’ syndrome.  This in no way means that those ‘unqualified’ officers were not good officers, some were even better than many ‘qualified’ ones.

When I was a Battery Commander (BC), our young officers asked me “You keep saying that we must do LGSC and Staff College.  You tell us to read five pages daily and write one.  When we travel with you, you keep posing questions on gunnery and administration for which we hardly have an answer.  In fact, we are a bit scared of travelling with you.”

To answer their question, I painted a scenario “Our Regiment is equipped with 155mm Bofors Gun and we need to conduct a lecture-demonstration on the gun.  We have one Staff College qualified  BC, one LGSC qualified BC and one BC without any.

My question now was “Who will conduct the lecture?  Who will conduct the demonstration?  Who will do the tea and administrative arrangements?

The answer was obvious!  They said “The Staff College qualified BC will conduct the lecture, the LGSC qualified BC will conduct the demonstration and the third BC will be responsible for the tea.”

I concluded “You can select what you want to do.  So, you better qualify the entrance exam for  both.  It could well be that the third BC is better than the other two.  Remember all three BC s were afforded adequate opportunities to study and clear the entrance exams.

When we were young officers, our mentor was Captain Desh Raj (now a Veteran Colonel.)  He was an excellent sportsman and led all the Regimental sports teams.  A true soldier that he was, with excellent sense of humour – obviously all Subalterns homed on to him.

Captain Desh Raj and I moved with the advance party of the Regiment in 1987 and that was when his transfer to Intelligence Corps came through.  The evening before he left, he called me aside and said “Reji, you must qualify for both LGSC and Staff College.  Look at me!  I failed to make the grade in both – mainly because I was more interested in sports and did not care to read at all during my young days.”

His parting advice was “I applied for transfer to Intelligence Corps not because I did not want  to serve with this great Regiment, but an officer without any qualification would not be heard or taken seriously.  I made two attempts at both LGSC and Staff College, but failed.  I want you to qualify for both LGSC and Staff College.”

For the next one year, I read all the books prescribed for the LGSC Entrance Examination – gunnery,  survey, tactics, mathematics, physics and so on.  Three months before the examination, our Commanding Officer (CO) Colonel Mahaveer Singh asked me “Reji, do you need any leave to prepare for the examination?

Sir, please grant me two months leave the day I finish the examination” I replied.  With his usual smile our CO said ‘Granted.”

LGSC Entrance Examination consisted of two papers held on two successive days.  Arrogance or stupidity – I booked my tickets for the Srinagar-Delhi flight scheduled for the afternoon of the day of the second test.

On the second day of the examination, I had to leave one hour before the scheduled finish time of the exam to make it to Srinagar Airport to catch my flight.   I spoke to Major VN Singh, Second-in-Command who was also an invigilator for the exam.  He said “Knowing you very well, you are not going to reschedule your flight.  I am sure  you will answer all the questions well before time and will qualify.   Let me speak to the Presiding Officer.”

Whatever it was, I managed to sneak out of the examination hall as per my plans.  Though the Presiding Officer objected, Major VN Singh managed to convince him to let me go.

As I was about to board the vehicle to Srinagar, Major GR Kaushik, our Adjutant, came running and said “Sir, CO would like to speak to you before you leave.”

I dashed to the CO’s office.  Colonel Mahaveer Singh said “I need not ask you how the examination went – you will surely qualify.  All the best.  Do well in life.”

He got out of his chair, walked to me and hugged me and saw me off.

While travelling to the Airport, I thought “Why did he call me to his office at the nick of the time?  Why did he wish me well in life?  Above all, why did he hug meWhy did he have to see me off?

Two months after my vacation, I returned to the Regiment and all my questions were answered.  (No cellphones those days.) Colonel Mahaveer Singh was posted out after five years of commanding our Regiment and Lieutenant Colonel VN Singh had taken over command.

About my Technical Staff Course Entrance Examination – reserved for another post.

Indian Army Water Bottle


Water is one of the most important elements of a soldier’s life – it is vital for all human beings, animals and plants.  Our body is made up of almost two-thirds water. Blood contains  92 percent water; the brain is 75 percent water; muscles are 75 percent water; and bones 22 percent.

Hydration, or consuming enough water is crucial for humans: to regulate body temperature, keep joints lubricated, prevent infections, deliver nutrients to cells, and keep organs functioning properly. Being well-hydrated improves sleep quality, cognition, and mood.

Soldiers used to carry water for personal consumption in a water-bottle, attached to the belt. Today’s soldier needs a hydration system that is effective, allows freedom of action, and is easier to carry and use than the current water-bottles.  An ideal hydration system will encourage the soldier to drink more water, resulting in better performance in battle and facilitate in delivering personal combat power- surely not an obstruction.


My tryst with the water-bottle began on joining the National Defence Academy (NDA) in 1979.  We were issued with the Field Service Marching Order (FSMO) with the all important water-bottle.  In the Scale A version of FSMO with the bigger backpack, the smaller haversack was attached to the belt on the left  and the water-bottle on the right.  Most soldiers were right-handers and for easy access the water-bottle was placed on the right.  In the Scale B version where the small haversack became the backpack, the water-bottle was attached to the back of the belt.

Scale B was used for most training as a cadet – for endurance runs, weapon and tactical training, etc – and the water-bottle hanging by the belt at the back kept pounding one’s butt as we cadets ran.  It was more of an encouraging tap on the butt that kept many of us going and the wet felt outer casing did cool our butts in the warm Indian afternoons.


This water-bottle, officially known in the Indian Army as  Bottle Water Mark 7, owed its origin to the British Army’s 1937 Web Equipment.  Made of blue colored sheet metal welded at the shoulder and at the bottom with outer side convex and  the inner side concave to fit with the contours of the human body.  The spout was closed with a cork stopper and the stopper was attached to an eye on the top of the bottle  with a string. The outer felt cover protected the metallic bottle and when kept soaked, evaporative cooling kept the water inside cool.  These enamelled water-bottles were manufactured in India mostly by the Bengal Enamel Works of Kolkata and also by the Madras Enamel Works of Chennai.

The British Army originally called the water-bottle a Canteen.  A canteen is a place outside a military camp where refreshments are provided for members of the armed forces. This very ‘place of refreshment’ became the water-bottle that the soldier carried on a march.  This canteen’s design and use have remained the same since 1937.  It appears that the technological revolution marched right past one of the Indian soldier’s most vital personal equipment – the water-bottle.

After we were commissioned in 1982, the Indian Army introduced the plastic cousin of the age old enamelled water-bottle, officially known as Bottle Water Complete M83.  This water-bottle continued with us as late as 2002.  While in command of the Regiment in operational area in Rajasthan when the Indian army was deployed along the Indo-Pak border in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, we ordered for the water-bottles, but the Ordnance Depot did not supply us with any.

The new plastic water-bottle consisted of a green, plastic, square shaped bottle  with a  screw-on cap.  It had a plastic cover on top with  handles made of aluminium, and could be used as a cup when detached. The whole set was inserted into a canvas carrier lined with a thin layer of foam. This helped to keep the contents of the bottle warm in winter and cold in summer .  Though the water-bottle had straps to be attached to the belt, most soldiers carried it in their backpacks,


These plastic water-bottles were manufactured by some unheard-of  private plastic manufacturers, located in and around Delhi.  Though it was supposed to be made of food-grade High Density Poly Ethylene (HDPE), the water stored inside these water-bottles had unpleasant odour and left an after-taste.  Cracks developed as a result of any accidental drop or extra-pressure exerted by the soldier on the water-bottle, especially while resting after a tiring long march.  That was why our soldiers carried their water-bottles in their backpacks.  By 2003, the Indian Army withdrew this plastic water-bottle.

The soldier of the future will have a heads-up display on his helmet, a sophisticated weapon and a computer wired to his pack frame.  The soldiers operating in such an environment will have little time for a nap or to get a drink of water.  A quickly accessible hydration system close to the soldier’s mouth will help the soldier take small sips on a regular basis.


In 1989, a former paramedic preparing to participate in a bike race was concerned with getting enough water to sustain himself during the race. Reaching for the water-bottle mounted on his bike was dangerous, and water stops were two or three hours apart. So he designed a portable hydration system using a medical tubing attached to an intravenous (IV) drip bag. He stuffed the bag into a sock and sewed the sock onto the back of his T-shirt. Thus the idea for the commercially available CamelBak® water bladder hydration system was born.


The CamelBak hydration system is a plastic water bladder connected to a length of hose that fits into an insulated bag that can be strapped on the soldier’s back or attached to a backpack. The mouth of the hose is positioned close to the carrier’s mouth for easy access. The ‘bite’ valve at the end of the hose makes the water readily available to sip or drink.

The Indian Army could develop its own hydration system that would be less expensive than a CamelBak system.  A change to the current water storage and delivery system is long overdue. A potable, palatable, easily available hydration system that allow soldiers to move easily and quickly on the battlefield and encourage water consumption would be an important force multiplier.  Importantly, soldiers under fire on the battlefield should be able to get a sip of water without taking their hands off their weapons.

Wind Can Blow Both Ways


(With Santosh the evening I  hung my boots in July 2004)

Great experiences make military life marvelous – even for the family members of soldiers. It lasts a long time, much after we hang our boots and even after we migrate to another continent.

Marina emigrated to Canada in March 2002 and I took over command of the Surveillance and Target Acquisition (SATA) Regiment in June 2002. For someone who served his entire regimental life  in a Medium Regiment operating Bofors guns to suddenly land in a Surveillance Regiment equipped with radars, drones and survey gadgets – it was an altogether different experience. I had to learn everything from scratch and had to familiarise with the officers and soldiers.

The regiment was an excellent outfit.  I set off with training on various surveillance equipment, starting with radars.  I had to convert from a Medium Gunner to a Surveillance Gunner. The officers and soldiers helped me to imbibe both the art and the science of surveillance, many a times explaining the procedures and drills repeatedly.  I read all the operator and training manuals of all  equipment and in two weeks time, I was proficient enough to handle them.

My Radio Operator Santosh Kodag a Maratha, took charge of the household, but was surprised that my family had not come along.  Commanding Officer living alone in a fabulous peace station like Devlali – Santosh realised something was wrong.

Devlali is one of the most relaxed military stations located near Nasik city – about 150 km from Mumbai.  It has a colonial charm and is clean with fresh air and lots of greenery and open spaces.  The climate is fabulous all through the year.  The schools in the area are well known for their educational standard.  The Cantonment offers all recreational facilities like horse riding, swimming, squash, tennis, golf, club, etc – all that goes with a good military station.  The School of Artillery is located here where all Gunner officers are trained.  Hence, it is always abuzz with Young Officers and also newly married young couples.

A week after landing in Devlali and when Santosh felt that I was well settled, one evening, handing over a glass of whisky to me said “I know your wife is away in Canada and your children are in Kerala. Why don’t you get the children here?

Our daughter is in Grade 4 and our son in LKG. I will not get adequate time to take care of them. My mother is taking care of them well in Kerala,” I replied.

To this Santosh said “Why don’t you get your mother and your kids here. I will take care of everything. I know your mother is pretty old. You do not have to worry.”

I thought for a while and then called up my mother about my plans to shift her and children to Devlali. She said “I was also thinking about it. My duty is to take care of the children and it would always be better that you are around.

I booked the tickets for my mother and children to travel to Devlali and Santosh went to Kottayam, Kerala to accompany them.

Santosh now took over everything – handing over the medications to my mother and also taking her for her regular medical  appointments with the Military Hospital – getting our son Nikhil ready for school (Nidhi was independent by then)- serving breakfast for all, packing up lunch boxes, etc.

After two years, I relinquished command and also hung up my boots and migrated to Canada.

Now Santosh is married with two kids, serving in the regiment as a Havildar (Sergeant). Every year when we visit India, we send a parcel of gifts for him, his wife and children.

February 2018, we travelled to India to attend the Golden Jubilee celebrations of my parent unit – 75 Medium Regiment. The SATA Regiment  deputed Havildar Santosh to receive us and accompany us to the Medium Regiment.

Marina was busy shopping for gifts for Santosh and his family. Marina had met Santosh only twice – when we traveled to India – and she has been ever thankful to him for taking care of the children in her absence.

I recently asked Nikhil as to whether he remembered anything of Devlali days and he said “The only person I remember is Santosh Bhaiyya – the poor guy, I gave him a difficult time – especially when he tried to feed me and get me ready for school.

On 01 November 2018, our SATA Regiment celebrated its Diamond Jubilee. We could not travel to India for the occasion as our daughter Nidhi was expecting our grandson’s birth. I got a silver trophy made for the occasion and it was presented to our Regiment on my behalf by Havildar Santosh.

Wind can blow either way in the Indian Army. A soldier can soothe the pains of his Commanding Officer too.

Mischievous Memoirs by Veteran Colonel Gora Sarkar : Book Review


The author has succeeded in painting his childhood with a brush of childlike innocence which every reader can easily connect with.  I developed an instant connection with the author as I too grew up at home with my three brothers with I too being the third and our pranks were as good.


(Author seated second from left with his Mom, Caesar, Dad. Bonny at the back with Nar Bahadur)

The anecdotes of children’s innocence of marriage at the beginning of  the holidays, tickling and kissing followed by  baby crawling from beneath the bed, divorce at the end of the holidays with the baby disappearing beneath the bed;  Franco-English battle; chocolate deprivation; census enumerator risking his life; holy-dip in the pond; the (un)parliamentary debate  – all stand testimony to the author’s ability to recall the incidents in his growing up years with such finesse and humour. I felt it was as realistic as it could be.


(Author in Nagaland with his soldiers)

Incidents of a soldier’s diplomacy at its best is displayed  with a peg of Sacramental Wine that made two warring sides – the Catholics and the Protestants – come to truce – especially if they are Mallus , that too preaching amongst Nagas. Postponing the cow slaughter in Sri Lankan Army camp  to respect the sentiments of his soldiers establishes it further.  Ensuring that the French Brigadier’s wife netted a good bargain with the Delhi jeweller is another.

The author has displayed his humaneness and love for fellow human beings through his description of the mental state of people of a conflict ridden zone, first Rakhi, dealing with the rudeness of the American Army officer; the parting advise by his helper at the Indian Military Academy to be like Netaji,  empathy towards the Pakistani Prisoners of War; ensuring that the girls did not get hurt during a hockey match.

The most important lesson for a child (and also for an adult) what the book brings out are:

  • ‘When you grow up, I don’t care if you don’t earn a lot of money, but you must be scrupulously honest.”
  • “The most important quality a boy must possess is character.”

You can purchase the book in India on Amazon,in by clicking here.

International readers can purchase it on Amazon.com.  Please click here.

 

 

 

How it all Began?

TNIn June 2002, I took over command of our Regiment in its operational location on the India-Pakistan border in Rajasthan.  The Regiment was mobilised from its peace location in Devlali (Maharashtra, near Mumbai) on that year’s New Year Eve.  In November 2002, we returned to Devlali.

After the unit got re-established at Devlali, I said to our officers “I owe you a party from my side as  you all have performed extremely well during our operational deployment.  Above, all, you carried me along as your Commanding Officer.   This Saturday, there will be cocktails at the Officers’ Mess to be followed by a dinner at the Dhaba.”   (Dhaba is a roadside restaurant mostly frequented by the passing truck drivers.)

Why at the Dhaba Sir” queried our Second-in-Command (2IC), Late Colonel Suresh Babu.  “Our mess staff have toiled hard for the past eleven months and taken good care of us.  I do not want to stress them anymore,” I justified.

That Saturday evening, officers with their wives and children, all assembled at our Officers’ Mess and the party commenced.  After the cocktails, I got on to the driving seat of the Jeep with all children in tow and ordered others to follow.

I drove to the Taj Hotel, Nashik and after we got off the vehicle, Captain Subhash asked “Sir, so this is your Dhaba?

As we sat down for dinner, the waiter enquired “Buffet or A-la-carte?”  “ A-la-carte” I affirmed.  Suresh was not at all amused with my choice and he said “It is going to cost you a fortune – at least one month’s take-home-pay!”  “That’s fine.  You guys deserve it,” I replied.

A few days after the dinner, Captain Mitra asked me “Sir, you need not have treated us to a dinner  at the Taj.  We could have had it at our Officers’ Mess.  It would have saved a lot of expenditure for you.”

What I paid at the Taj is much less than the efforts you all have put in till now.   Above all, you guys cared for me for the past six months with a smiling face.  I am really indebted to you all,”   I said.

Mitra was not convinced.  He asked “But why the Taj Sir? It is obviously the costliest place one can think of in a hundred kilometer radius of this place.”  I declared  “I do not want any of our officers to be sold for a dinner at a Five-Star Hotel like that Brigadier of the Tehelka incident of last year (Operation West End – 2001)Henceforth, all our celebrations will be at the Taj.”

Whatever it was, it resulted  Mitra coining the term ‘Dinner at the Dhaba’.

In December 2002, Southern Army Commander visited our unit and it was an overwhelmingly successful event.  It surely called for a celebration, especially as Christmas and New Year was approaching. So we decided on a dinner at the Dhaba.

It all commenced with cocktails at the Officers’ Mess and as we reached the Taj, Mitra went to the bar and returned to report “Sir, they have an excellent bar out here.”  “Let us all have a drink then,” I said.  Surely, it did not stop at one drink.

As we were all parading out of the bar for dinner, Suresh, like a good 2IC said “Sir, we have run up a  bar bill that is at least  five times that of the cost of the cocktails at the Officers’ Mess.”  I replied “Do not worry.  We will take care of it later.  Let them all have fun and enjoy.”

The next day in office, I had a file waiting, showing the expenditure for the dinner with a noting sheet.  Captain Subahsh, our Mess Secretary,  had opined “Every Officer to pay Rs 1000.  Rest to be paid from the entertainment fund of the Officers’ Mess.

Below that was the noting of Suresh.  He wasn’t that ‘magnanimous.’ Like any good 2IC he wrote “Each officer to pay Rs 2000.  Rest to be paid from the entertainment fund.”

I scored through the entire noting with a red ink pen and wrote “Each Officer to pay Rs 100.  Rest to be charged off from the entertainment fund.”

As soon as the file reached Suresh, he came charging in to my office and said “Why are you putting your head under a Gillette? Haven’t you read my noting.”  I calmly replied “Yes.  I have overruled it and written my decision with my hand.   Don’t worry about my head; it has been under a Gillette many a times before.”

Be Worthy of Your Soldiers’ Love


(With Suresh, Ranjith, Santosh and Thapa during my farewell party at the Regiment)

While commanding our Regiment at Devlali, I was a single parent taking care of our daughter Nidhi, then aged 12 and our six year old son Nikhil as Marina had emmigrated to Canada.  It would not have been possible for me to take of our children alone and the soldiers at home did a marvelous job.  I remain ever thankful to them.

The staff at home was headed by Havildar Chef Thapa, two Radio Operators – Santhosh and Ranjith and Havildar Driver Suresh.  They took care of the children and the home like theirs and like a fortress.  It was as secure as it could be for the children and they did not want anyone else intruding into their fort.

Thapa hailed from Nepal and was the only married man among them.  It was said in the Regiment that when he went on leave to his native Nepal, he returned only when he ran out of cash.  He went on his two month annual leave and the staff at home took over the kitchen for they did not want any ‘intruder.’

After two months, on a Friday evening Santosh said “Thapa is back from leave.”

He was to report on Sunday to commence his duties on Monday.  Why is he here so early?” I asked and summoned Thapa to enquire about his unusual early arrival.

Looking into my eyes he said, “Who will take care of the children and you if I am away for long?”

I kept looking at him for half a minute as I had no words and said “Thank you Thapa.”  Did my eyes well up?

Suresh drove his Commanding Officer’s Jeep with pride and devotion that he never allowed anyone to touch the Jeep.  He was responsible for taking care of my itinerary for the day and instructed Santosh and Ranjith about various uniforms or dresses I had to wear that day and timing for leaving home for an event.  He always carried three ties, a coat and some toiletries  in the Jeep so that I could convert my informal attire into a formal one while he drove, especially when we were short of time.  When Suresh went on his two month annual leave, I mostly walked to office as it was 400 meter away, else I drove.

Keeping four year old Nikhil engaged through the day was the most difficult task they had.  They played cricket with him, ensuring that he always made a lot of runs. I had passed strict orders that Nidhi will not be helped in polishing her shoes, preparing her dress for the school next day, cleaning her cycle and similar chores as I wanted to prepare her for the life ahead in Canada – to live without help.  Santosh and Ranjith flouted my orders on a daily basis when I was away on my evening walks.

Santosh and Ranjith took turns to proceed on leave.  For that they had to approach their Radio-Operator Section Commander.  I had laid down strict channel of reporting for all ranks of the Regiment and my personal staff were no exception.  I came to know of their leave plan only when Subedar Major Thangaswamy said about it during our morning meeting.  He always had a replacement ready for the staff proceeding on leave, but I always declined it as I knew that they disliked intruders in their fort.

We had a large area around the house and along with the staff we decided to turn it into a beautiful  garden and we succeeded to a great extent.  One Sunday afternoon I was at the Mumbai airport while returning from a week long  training event when I received a call from Nidhi. “Dad, our garden was adjudged the best home garden in Devlali Station.  This afternoon I received the prize from General Jambusarwalla, the Commandant.”  I said, “Great job!  You received the prize, so you now arrange a party in the evening and we will celebrate it on my return.”

Recently Nikhil asked, “When we were at Devlali, I never heard you saying anything to your staff.  How did you manage it?”

They knew their Commanding Officer, his needs, likes and dislikes  well and did not need any orders or instructions.” I replied.  In fact they enjoyed their freedom of action.  When I invited guests home, I had to only give the number of guests and their food preferences.  All the guests were astonished by the sumptuous menu our staff laid out.  One vegetarian guest asked me twice to confirm, “Are you sure all these are vegetarian?”  Thapa with his culinary skills had laid out a vegetarian feast with all dishes looking like non-vegetarian ones.

This is a comment on my recent blog-post on Regimental Fund from one of our soldiers:
Walking down the memory lane truly nostalgic sir. We have learned a lot in those golden days. Nice to see old photographs of NCOs and JCOs of SAWA Lakh.  The order of roll call on T-shirt and Shorts was the most popular decision between us youngsters on those days.
I was fortunate to work as your stick orderly and learnt basic of computers at the IT cell you had created for data collection. Now after retirement I am heading security automation department of one of the India’s biggest conglomerate.’

Look at the friends/ followers on your social media accounts.  How many are your soldiers?