Colonel Kizhakayil Kotiath Arun, Sena Medal


Cadets at Sainik School, Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu) were divided into four houses named after four Tamil Kingdoms – Chera, Chola, Pandya and Pallava. .  I was in Pandya House.  Reminiscing through the good old Sainik School days, a thought came to my mind about my many visits to Chera House dormitory in my Grade 11 days (1978), walking through the back alley of Chola House  dorm.

The most prominent object that would catch my eyes was the wheel of a trolley that lay unmoved in the Chola House back alley.  It was black cast-iron wheels, surely weighing over 80 kilos, from  one of the trolleys used during the construction of Amaravathi Dam.  It had a solid axle with two wheels, akin to the wheels of a railway wagon, but a bit smaller.  It obviously resembled the ‘Barbell with Plates’ used by champion weightlifters.   I used to try moving it and many a time realised that it has not moved an inch since  1975.

These trolleys used during construction of the dam found their resting place behind the old Cadets’ Mess, now the Gymnasium and Cinema Hall on completion of the dam.  The Gymnasium building was the workshop during dam construction days, hence these trolleys were abandoned there.

How did this barbell find its way to the back alley of Chera House dorm?

It was brought in by Veteran Commander Ponnar and his friends who managed to pick up the trolley-wheel from their ‘graveyard’ behind the gym and carried it over a kilometer long trail and brought it to its current resting place in the back alley of Chera House.

The toughest senior cadet I came across during my Cadet days at Sainik School Amaravathinagar was Cadet  KK Arun of 1975 Batch.  He was tall and well built, quiet and unassuming, always with a smile on his face.  I realised he too was a Malayalee who found his moorings at Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu like me.  I hardly ever interacted with him – he was too senior and I belonged to a different House – the Pandyas.

It was a matter of pride, sense of achievement and a dream  for any Cadet at Sainik School to be selected to join the National Defence Academy (NDA).  It involved passing a written examination with a qualifying rate less than a percentile or two.  Then was the five day Services Selection Board (SSB) interview and then a stringent medical examination.  Cadets of the graduating  year (Grade 11 then) used to work out mentally and physically to qualify through this rigorous and grueling procedure.

Cadet KK Arun too had set his aim to join the NDA.  He found the weights and exercises at the gym and the morning Physical Training (PT) inadequate to stress and strain all his muscles.  One often found Cadet KK Arun lifting it with ‘Clean and Jerk’ or a ‘snatch’  in the evenings after the Games Parade.  Whenever I walked past this ‘Barbell’ during my NDA preparation days in 1978, the idea to lift it germinated in my mind.  Obviously, I could only lift it from a side, that too with both my hands. I always had a ‘Hero Worship’ for Arun as to how come he could lift this monster many a times at my age.

Arun joined NDA in 1975 and I followed suit in 1979 January.  We never met since our school days.  Arun remained a fitness freak throughout his Indian Army career.   He was an Instructor at the Commando Wing of Infantry School – an appointment any young officer will even trade his ‘girl friend’ for.

As a senior Major he landed in a coveted appointment – The Adjutant of NDA – an appointment any Cadet who passed out of NDA will sacrifice anything and everything for.  It was a reward for Major Arun’s soldierly qualities, his love for his soldiers, dedication to duty, physical fitness, gentlemanly qualities and so on.

Drill is the bedrock of discipline – thus goes an old saying and it is the Adjutant who meticulously oversees the Drill Training at NDA.  It culminates with  the Passing Out Parade (POP), a spectacular event which marks the  culmination event of another successful semester.  POP parade held at the Khetarpal Parade Ground comprises over one thousand cadets bidding farewell to their senior colleagues and will remain etched in the memory of anyone who has witnessed it.  Passing Out Cadets march past the Quarter Deck to the  haunting strains of ‘Auld Lang Syne’.  The Adjutant on his charger accompany the passing out cadets to their Final Steps.

This entire spectacle is the culmination of five months of rigorous drill training imparted by the Drill Instructors under the watchful eyes of the Adjutant.  It is purely an Adjutant’s show.  Please click here to read more about the Academy Drill Instructors.

Who will ever forget the ‘Josh Pep-talk’ delivered by the Adjutant prior to the commencement of POP, exhorting all cadets to put in their best to make it as spectacular as possible.  A young Officer on commissioning  to our Regiment narrated an anecdote.  He was trained by Major Arun at the NDA.  He said “While delivering the customary Pep-talk by the Adjutant, his Charger, a well built white horse, delivered an anal salute.  Major Arun immediately said ‘SORRY’ and continued.  That was our Adjutant, an epitome of decency.”  I felt very proud of our Alma Mater and did not miss the opportunity  to declare with pride in my voice “I attended the very same school from where Major Arun graduated.”

Major Arun served as a Commando Instructor.  He was a real ‘tough’ instructor and was well known for his teaching abilities with love for his students – A real GURU in all aspects.  Some even say the Nana Patekar’s Hindi movie ‘PRAHAR‘ (please click here for more about the movie) was inspired by him. He was awarded Sena Medal for gallantry.


He rose to the Rank of Colonel and commanded a Rajput Regiment.  There are many anecdotes from his army life worth mentioning.  He hung up his military boots and is now settled with his family at Greater NOIDA near Delhi.

I was lucky to come in contact with him, courtesy Colonel TM Natarajan, our batch mate from Sainik School.  It was a rewarding experience sharing our journey experiences and also relent that we two never met after leaving school.

Pongoes


On 13 January 1979 I joined the National Defence Academy, Pune India as an Army Cadet.  National Defence Academy is a Joint Services academy of Indian Armed Forces, where cadets of the three services – Army, Navy and Air Force train together.   This is to ensure jointmanship amongst the three services.

We, the Army Cadets, were often referred to as Pongoes or at times Grabbies, especially by the Naval fraternity – both officers and fellow cadets.  It often intrigued me as to from where these terms originated. In fact, I disliked it, like every other Army Cadet at the Academy.

The word Pongo is seemingly used in a somewhat derogatory sense evoking a sense of both stupidity and a bad smell, something like a ‘stinking moron’.  Although a bit derogatory, the word is often used by the Naval guys in a friendly manner when they refer to the Army guys. It is interesting to go into the etymology of the word.

Pongo is a British slang dating from the mid nineteenth century, meaning soldiers. The word itself stems from expressions used by comedians in theatres and music halls to get a cheap laugh. The two most common quotes were “where the army goes the pong goes”, or “when the wind blows the pong goes” – pong meaning smell. This quickly became pongoes meaning soldiers (plural) and pongo meaning an individual. Another possible explanation is that the soldiers were being likened to a large, hairy, smelly ape called a pongo. The expression is still in use today although not common, confined mainly to those who saw service in World War II or Korea or who did National Service in Britain while this was still compulsory.  (www.urbandictionary.com)

There is another explanation given in a blog post ‘Be Proud to be a Pongo’ at www.theobservationpost.com. During the Napoleonic wars, the British Army was based in Portugal from 1807-1814. The Portuguese word for bread is written pão (this could also be the origin of the Indian street bread – the Pav पाव), and pronounced pong. British soldiers coined the term pongo as there is a letter from a soldier complaining about the lack of pong. One of the distinctive differences in service between the sailors and soldiers of the time was that sailors lived on biscuit while, the army lived on bread. So a sailor meeting army soldiers, and hearing them complain about the quality or quantity of pong might reasonably refer to soldiers as pong-goes – meaning bread eaters.

As per Appendix: Glossary of British military slang and expressions, an  Army soldier is referred to as Pongo meaning “Everywhere the army goes, the pong (stink) goes”; derived from the supposed inferior washing facilities in field compared to those on a navy vessel.

Pongo was also used by members of the Royal Navy or RAF.  Sailors noted the similarity of the sand-apes’ colour to the rough brown (khaki) uniform of the British Army.  They believed that a Pongo was an ape that when alarmed did not climb trees, but would dig holes and hide itself on the ground reminding the onlooker of infantrymen.  They said a pongo dug holes and filled it for no rhyme or reason.  However, the only mention of Pongo – the ape – I could find was in National Geographic website which refers to a new orangutan species, Pongo tapanuliensis, or the Tapanuli orangutanthe rarest great ape species on the planet – found in the high-altitude Sumatran forests.

The term Pongo comes from the days when soldiers were stationed on board ships to protect the Navy when sailing abroad. Usually the first to be sent ashore when the ship docked, soldiers would carry out all sorts of different tasks.  One important (the most important… surely) task being the setting up of a brewery. The main part of it still being called a pongo. Hence the nick-name given to the soldiers who would be sent to do the job “send the pongos ashore”. The name seems to have filtered down through the years and is used today by the Navy towards members of the Army.  (www.arrse.co.uk/wiki/Pongo)

Our childhood adventure series – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five – in its fifth volume, Five Go Off in a Caravan (1946), has Pongo as a main character who is a circus chimpanzee.   In David Foster Wallace’s novel – Infinite Jest – refers to Checkpoint Pongo, a border post of the Concavity near Methuen, Massachusetts.

That is all about the poor Pongoes, but how did they get their nickname Grabbie?

It is said that the poorly fed soldiers on boarding a ship would scramble to the Galley – the ship’s kitchen – and would grab anything and everything edible

Here I would quote from The Sea Regiments published in The Navy and Army Illustrated MagazineOctober 1806, where it says ‘ The Marines, in a word, are a military force maintained by the Admiralty for service in the fleet.  “What’s the good of ‘aving leather-necked grabbies aboard ship?”  said an ordinary seaman once to a private of the Royal Marines.  “To keep you flat-footed, ginger-whiskered swamp rats from eating one another!” was the prompt and unexpected reply.’

Another reference to grabbies I found was from the book The Cameronians – A Concise History by Trevor Royle.   ‘Amongst the officers of my Regiment, nice fellows as they were, only a few cared for the Army as a profession.  All were proud belonging to splendidly drilled Light Infantry Battalion – drilled according to the practice of War in the Peninsula, before the introduction of the rifled musket.  They thought themselves to be socially superior to the ordinary Regiments of the Line, which were always spoken of as grabbies.’

In the book Seven Sailors by Commander Kenneth Edwards ‘The history of British Empire is rife with examples of devotion of British sailors to their brothers in army.  These reached their zenith at Dunkirk, not only among the matelots and the grabbies, but all the way down from the Admiral and staff to the over tired infantrymen.

Matelots, a Naval slang, refers to a sailor and originates from 19th century from French, variant of matenot, from Dutch mattenoot meaning ‘bed companion’, because sailors had to share hammocks in twos.

Whatever you call a soldier, especially an Infantry Soldier, Victory is still measured on foot.

 

Elephant’s Teeth


Our home state Kerala in India which the tourism department very glibly calls ‘God’s own Country’, has always had an enduring love affair with elephants. Children romanticise the elephant with several fairy tales, nursery rhymes and moral lessons with an elephant as the main protagonist. The Indian elephant (Elephas Maximus Indicus) has been declared as the State Animal and the state emblem symbolises two elephants guarding the state  insignia –  the Shankh (conch shell) of Lord Padmanabha – and the national insignia – the famous Lion Capital.

It is estimated that Kerala has more than five hundred domesticated elephants.  They are used for religious ceremonies in and around the temples, and some churches and mosques also, and a few elephants work at timber yards.


For all the festivities in Kerala, Tuskers are in demand, obviously for their getup.  They are attired in all finery and caparisoned.  Nearly a hundred elephants are paraded during Thrissur Pooram (during the month of May), the largest annual temple festival in the state. Despite protests from several animal rights organisations and quite a few incidents resulting in human fatalities /serious injury, the love affair seems to continue.

Elephantine dentistry is of some interest. Elephants have a total of 26 teeth, their tusks counting for two. Unlike humans, elephants may erupt only two or three sets of molars at birth. When teeth that have erupted get worn out, another set will erupt behind the existing set. So perhaps it is impossible to find an elephant with all 26 teeth as they come out sequentially,  Each time they lose these teeth, the new ones that grow are larger, allowing them to chew even tougher vegetation like tree bark, palm leaves, roots, etc. A single molar in an adult elephant may weigh as much as a humungous 5 kg.

Like most mammals, elephants have teeth called incisors, which eventually become tusks as they grow into full-grown adults. Male Asian elephants have long tusks (hence called Tuskers), but for the females, the incisors barely protrude out. In the African species both males and females develop tusks.   As the tusks are made of ivory, wild Asian male elephants become a target for merciless poaching. The tusks are used as an offensive and defensive weapon in both intra-species and inter-species fights, for lifting weighs and for stripping bark of trees to be used as food. Elephants are also known to dig for water in dry river beds using their tusks, trunk and feet. Besides all this the tusks also serve to protect the sensitive trunk which is a multi-utility organ of great significance.

Perhaps the mistaken belief that the elephant’s tusk is not of much use to the animal, has given rise to the Hindi idiom ‘हाथी के दांत दिखाने के और, खाने के और – Hathi ke dant dekhane ke aur khane ke aur’. Literally translated it means, ‘Elephant has two set of teeth – one to show off and the other to chew with’. Figuratively it means that what is obvious may not be the truth.

I must narrate a story which brings out the full implication of this Hindi idiom. In January 2004, our Regiment located at Devlali, Maharashtra, was allotted a ‘Steam Jacketed Cooking System’ for the soldiers’ kitchen procured from special funds under the Army Commander’s Special Financial Power.


The Cooking System consists of four kettles used to prepare food items such as lentils, vegetables and meat. Each kettle has a capacity of about 60 litres.  About the lower two-thirds of each kettle is surrounded by a jacket that is offset from the main kettle body to provide space for steam to circulate and heat the contents of the kettle.

The kettles are permanently mounted on a pedestal and have a hinged lid or cover. They also have a tube at the bottom of the kettle with a faucet at the outer end for drawing liquids (used for cleaning the kettle) and a steam inlet connection, a steam outlet connection, and a safety valve.  They also have a handle on the side facilitating tilting the kettle to pour contents into a service container.  Kettles are made of corrosion-resistant steel.  At one end is the Steam Generator which generates steam for the system by heating water using normal cooking gas.  There are steel pipes that carry steam from the steam generator to the kettles.

Great! I visited five regimental kitchens in the station who already had the system installed.  Everywhere the system appeared hardly ever used. On inquiry the chefs revealed that the system was used for cooking only when there was any visit or inspection by a senior officer.  Their reason was that it consumed too much cooking gas, much more than the authorised quantity they could draw from the Supply Depot.  The Steam Cooking System was branded a ‘Gas Guzzler.’ Obviously it was only an elephant’s teeth to show off, with little or no utility.

After a lot of research, I realised that the equipment really had a lot of utility value if correctly used. I visited our Regimental Kitchen, summoned all the Chefs and announced the impending installation of the Steam Jacketed Cooking System.  During my interaction, I explained the following results of my research: –

  • Better Food Quality in Better Hygienic Conditions. Standard cook pots used in military kitchens over an open burner heat its contents from the bottom where as this heats from all sides, providing a gentle, uniform heat that allows you to cook with minimal labour. It also reduces the risk of burning or overcooking your product.
  • Better Productivity.   This system cooks faster as two thirds of the cooking surface comes into contact with the food being cooked at a much lower temperature, compared to cook pots that use a much higher temperature only at the bottom of the pot.
  • Less Labour.   As the system does not require constant monitoring, stirring, it will save on labour.  The kettles of the system are extremely quick and easy to clean.
  • Safety.   A standard 40 Litre cook pot partially filled will weigh more than 30 kg, creating a significant risk to the chefs when moving them manually.  Transferring product inside a stock pot of any size can be potentially very dangerous, whereas tilting the kettles of the new system allow for safe, hassle free extraction of its contents.
  • Energy Efficient.  This system uses on average 35% less energy than cook pots on an open burner whilst also keeping kitchens cooler.

I tried explaining to the chefs about conserving gas using the principle of latent heat of steam, that is water as it boils at 100° C absorbs heat without changing its temperature.  The heat absorbed is called latent heat.  Hence, by turning down the gas supply to the steam generator after the water has commenced to boil, one can conserve gas.

All my scientific explanation was a little too much for the chefs to digest.  They still held on to their belief that it was a gas guzzler and hence could not be employed for regular cooking.

I now called up the manufacturer to inquire as to whether they had an Electric Steam Generator, which they confirmed, but it costs about Rs 15,000 and so I decided to foot the bill from regimental funds and accordingly and placed an order for the item.

Prior to installation of the steam cooking system, the kitchen had to be modified and work was initiated with the Military Engineering Service (MES).  The Garrison Engineer, a young Major, was surprised to find a request for a three phase electric connection in the kitchen, much different from similar work he had executed in the station.  He paid a visit to the Regiment to study the requirement projected and our Quartermaster took him around.  He was generally impressed by various equipment the kitchen had – flour kneading machine, potato peeling machine, freezers, coolers, power washer, microwave ovens and so on.  He was also shown our near paperless office functioning on an automated computer network where every soldier could update his records and also carryout day-to-day administration tasks. Probably he had an irresistible urge to chip in.

At the culmination of his round, the Garrison Engineer came to my office and said “You need to have a dedicated power supply to your Regiment with so many gadgets functioning.  I request you to take up a work for a dedicated power line from the power house located two kilometers from the Regiment.  I will ensure that it is executed immediately. I must chip in with my bit to facilitate the automation in your unit.”

By the time the Steam Cooking System was setup in the kitchen, the Garrison Engineer had laid the new power line with an caveat to his power house staff that this line should be connected to the same feeder that connects the General’s Residence and power on this line will never be switched off without his express permission.

We changed our routine cooking to the new system. Now we had both Steam generators functional in the kitchen, one working on electricity and the other on gas.  This ensured uninterrupted cooking and saving on gas. I was gratified and pleasantly surprised at the remark of our Havildar (Sergeant) Chef “With the installation of the Steam Cooking System, life spans of all our chefs have enhanced by a minimum of ten years.

Thus the elephant now began to chew with the set of teeth that were meant only to show off.

Indian Cricket Team Honours Soldiers


Settling down this morning (08 March 2019) with a cup of tea in hand, I switched on the television to watch India-Australia One Day Cricket match at Ranchi.  the Australian innings had been completed and  highlights showing many blemishes in the field by India was being shown to the discomfort of any Indian fan with Sunil Gavaskar making a snide remark that the best fielder was the wickets standing at the bowler’s end.

Wait a minute! The Indian players were wearing  disruptive pattern Indian Army caps with the BCCI logo in front and the manufacture’s Nike logo at the back.  I scurried through the internet to catch the news about the new headgear Indian players were wearing.

It was Lieutenant Colonel MS Dhoni, a legend from Ranchi, the wicket keeper, who came up with the novel idea.  He handed over the cap to Virat kohli, the Indian Captain, and also to all team members and support staff before the start of the match.  Captain Kohli at the toss said “This is a special cap, it’s a tribute to the Armed forces. We’re all donating our match fees of this game to the National Defence Fund. I urge everyone in the country to do the same, donate to the families of our armed forces.”

This must be the first time the Indian Cricket team must have shown such a gesture to the soldiers.  Obviously, it had complete support from BCCI.


English Cricket Team that played a test match at Rajkot (November 9-13, 2016) were seen wearing the Red Poppy in honour of fallen soldiers to commemorate Remembrance Day (11 November).  Will the Indian Cricket Team ever do so for the Armed Forces Flag Day (07 December)?

Few years ago, we watched a baseball game at Toronto between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rogers Centre is the home-ground of the Blue Jays. The atmosphere was as electric as that of any cricket matches of the Indian Premier League.

During the  innings interval, a sixty year old Veteran from the Canadian Army who was a Captain and had served in many UN assignments was called on to the centre and the Team Management of the Blue Jays presented him with a team shirt with his name printed at the back and with the team captain’s signature in the front. The entire stadium stood up to give the veteran a standing ovation – no one instructed anyone to do it, but was spontaneous. This is what is called patriotism.

Our son then said that during all the matches, a veteran from the armed forces or the police forces, who is a registered fan of the Blue Jays, is honoured this way.

Can we ever expect such a gesture at Mohali from the Kings XI Punjab or at Chennai from the Chennai Super Kings? Why one veteran, we can always honour a dozen at every match.

Will this ever happen in any Indian city? Will this remain a distant dream?

 

 

Remembering a Valiant Soldier


(Regimental Photograph of 1990 with Colonel Rajan Anand, Commanding Officer.  Captain KM Mistry standing in the centre and I seated extreme right.)

Major Khushru Meherji Mistry, a Parsi from Bombay (now Mumbai) was my subordinate at 75 Medium Regiment, who saw action in the Kashmir Valley in 1999. I was then posted at the Army Headquarters, New Delhi.

When Mistry joined our Regiment in 1988 as a young subaltern, my first question to him was whether he was related to Late Colonel KM Mistry, widely regarded as the first great Indian all-rounder and acclaimed by none other than the legendary Ranjitsinhji, who called him the ‘Clem Hill of India’.  In the 1894-95 Presidency fixture at Bombay, he showed what he was capable of with the ball as he recorded figures of 5/11 in the second innings to help the Parsis beat the shell-shocked Europeans – who were bowled out for just 24 – by 120 runs.  Second Lieutenant Mistry was a bit taken aback by my question but he confirmed that he was indeed his great-uncle.  Our journey together as soldiers began that day.


Recently, I came across this photograph of Lance Corporal William Kyle Carpenter who was awarded the United States’ highest military honor, the Medal of Honor.  His citation read For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as an Automatic Rifleman with Company F, 2d Battalion, 9th Marines, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom on 21 November 2010. Lance Corporal Carpenter was a member of a platoon-sized coalition force. Lance Corporal Carpenter and a fellow Marine were manning a rooftop security position when the enemy initiated a daylight attack with hand grenades, one of which landed inside their sandbagged position. Without hesitation, and with complete disregard for his own safety, Lance Corporal Carpenter moved toward the grenade in an attempt to shield his fellow Marine from the deadly blast. When the grenade detonated, his body absorbed the brunt of the blast, severely wounding him, but saving the life of his fellow Marine. By his undaunted courage, bold fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of almost certain death, Lance Corporal Carpenter reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”

Acts such as the one above fully illustrate the expression “raw courage” Thoughts of Mistry came before me on reading about Corporal Carpenter. It was another time and another Kyle Carpenter. Mistry was a professional soldier who loved the men who served under his command.  When we were serving in the valley in 1988, his helper, a soldier from Tamil Nadu, reported that his mother was admitted to a hospital in a medical emergency and that he wanted to rush home.  The Srinagar-Jammu highway was closed due to heavy snowfall and landslides and the only way to reach Delhi was by air. Mistry immediately bought an air ticket for the soldier from Srinagar to Chennai from his own pocket and saw him off.  Yes, he was rich in a monetary sense but far richer at heart.

Mistry was a great orator with exceptional command over the English language.  He was tough, bold, honest and straight forward. We took a spontaneous liking for each other maybe because of our open hearted nature.

On a summer morning in 1995, I got the news that Captain Mistry had been evacuated to the Army Hospital, New Delhi due to injuries suffered by him in a grenade attack. At the time he was serving with a Rashtriya Rifles (RR) Battalion in the Kashmir Valley.   A terrorist had lobbed a grenade in front of the section of men he was leading.  Mistry dived forward and scooped the grenade with his right hand.  The grenade burst mid-air, taking the top two elements of the three fingers off his right palm.

I rushed to the Hospital to look him up and I found a cheerful Mistry sitting in the Veranda of the officers’ ward, reading a book. I enquired as to what happened and he said “let me explain to you in the very same words that I used to tell my mother about the incident, Like Mom prunes her Bonsai collection at home, God did a Bonsai on my Hand. By the way, I have already sent my motorbike for modification so that I can drive it with my Bonsai Hand.”

I was shell-shocked by his reply and we both really laughed it out.

After 30 minutes, while we were having a cup of tea at his bedside, a senior General walked in to meet Mistry to enquire about his welfare. The General commended Mistry stating that it was indeed a brave act which saved the men under his command. Mistry, as curt as he could be, replied “Sir, I did it to save myself.” The General gave a stare and walked off. Obviously, Mistry did not get any award or commendation for his brave act.

On 12 December 1997, while I was posted at Sikkim, Mistry re-joined our Regiment from another one.  He straight away moved into my room and left his belongings there.  In the evening I got my wisdom tooth extracted and due to anesthesia, went to bed early.  At about 8PM, while all officers were at the Officers’ Mess for dinner, my neighbouring room caught fire and in no time my room too was engulfed in fire.  Our exchange operator was the first to react and he took me out of my room.  Everyone assembled to put off the fire.  Mistry and I lost most of our belongings other than my computer and TV which our exchange operator managed to salvage.

Next morning as everyone was quickly going through what the fire had not managed to engulf, I hit upon a few currency notes of Rs100 denomination.  They appeared to have been forming a bundle.  Surely, I never had that money on me and my brain went into overdrive trying to fathom as to from where it came.  My take-home-salary then was much less than a wad of Rs100 currency notes.   Suddenly I realised that Mistry had left his belongings in my room.  I summoned Mistry to enquire and he nonchalantly replied that it was a bundle of notes which his mother had given him as a birthday gift before he left Bombay for Sikkim.  “My mother will give me another bundle if I say I lost it. She will send me another.  So, I am not going to tell her about the fire so that I don’t have to lie to her about her gift”

He passed away a decade later due to cardiac arrest. RIP my friend.

PS:  Have you noticed that both the heroes are ‘Carpenters‘; they share a common last name – the Indian ‘Mistry‘  translates to ‘Carpenter.’

 

Chai –My Favourite Brew


Recently I came across a video clip about TWG’s Yellow Gold Bud Tea.  This tea is believed to have been once the favourite of Chinese emperors and as precious and costly as gold.  In fact, each tea bud is lavished in 24-karat gold, which once infused, yields a delicately metallic and floral aftertaste.

In the Sixties, during our childhood days’ back home in Kottayam, the regular morning brew was coffee.  Ripened red coffee beans were plucked from the coffee trees that grew around our home and after being sun dried their outer covering was removed.  The beans were then fried until they turned black and   ground to a powder at the nearby mill, to be stored in air tight containers. The coffee powder was put into a copper vessel with boiling water and was left for a few minutes for the coffee to be infused and the thick powder would settle at the bottom of the copper vessel.  The extract or decoction was now mixed with milk and sugar and then served to all. Just thinking about it makes one salivate.

The taste of that home-made coffee is now history.  With the advent of rubber plantations, all coffee trees were cut to make way for rubber. Thus the end of home-made coffee powder. We now source our coffee powder from various commercially available brands in the market. Sad change.

Happy change. I took to drinking tea on joining Sainik School, Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu, at the age of nine in 1971.  Tea was served to us early in the morning prior to Physical Training, at 11 o’ Clock between classes and in the evening prior to games.  Every cadet took a liking to this tea as everyone looked forward to it.  For many it served as a clock as none of us wore a wrist watch.  The tea had some magic in it as it had the innate quality to kick start all the important events in a cadet’s life!

CadetMessAmar22
What was so special about this magical concoction?  The taste of this tea is beyond words, and could never be replicated.  We tried hard to analyse the secret of this addictive tea. What was special about it? It could be the special blend of the tea leaves or the way in which it was cured. Or perhaps it was the sublime effect of the Amaravati River waters, the vessel in which it was brewed, or the cloth used to filter it – the possibilities were endless.  It still remains a mystery to all of us, but it attracts most alumni to the school every year and they gleefully indulge in consuming steaming cups of this divine tea.

Another most memorable cup of tea that I have had was the tea served by soldiers at the Sadhna Post at Nastachun Pass.  This pass is located at about 10,000 feet Above Sea Level at the entrance to the Thangdhar Valley on the Indo-Pak border.  The narrow one-way road from Chowkibal (about 100 km from Srinagar) was cut along the mountains to Nastachun Pass and then down into Thangdhar Valley.  The road being narrow could only accommodate one vehicle either way.  To ensure a smooth flow of vehicles, all traffic was regulated by a convoy system. The up and down convoys left from Thandhar and Chowkibal at about 8 in the morning and 2 in the Afternoon respectively.  The vehicles on reaching Nastachun Pass would park there, awaiting all vehicles to fetch up from either side.

During this wait, soldiers manning Sadhna Post would serve tea to all.  It was real refreshing cup of tea as one was both physically and mentally tired traversing up through the treacherous roads with many hairpin bends. It was a magic potion that invigorated tired limbs and ebbing spirits.


During winter, the road and the mountains got covered with over ten feet of snow.  The only way to cross over was by foot columns.  The foot columns operated at night, two days after a heavy snow storm to avoid avalanches.  The foot column consisted mainly of soldiers proceeding or returning from leave from their homes, porters carrying essential supplies – fresh vegetables and milk, mail, etc. It took about four hours of strenuous climb to Sadhna Post and was a sure test of anyone’s mental and physical abilities. It was a kind of surreal experience. Talking aloud was not permitted as the vibrations caused by human voice could resonate with layers of snow on the ridge face and trigger an avalanche. On reaching Sadhna Post, everyone was welcomed by the soldiers with a hot ‘cuppa’, a cup of tea that was the most refreshing and tasty—it simply was the best ever. To my mind, it could very well be compared to Amrit – the nectar of immortality in Hindu mythology. The climb down from the Sadhna post appeared easier but was just as treacherous, if not more, due to the tendency to slip and fall.

I have never tasted the Yellow Gold Bud Tea, the speciality of the Chinese emperors. But I am pretty certain that it would pale into insignificance when compared with the Amravati Special or the Sadhna Post Amrit!

 

Brigadier KN Thadani, VSM : An Accomplished Mountaineer


Brigadier KN Thadani and Mrs Sneh Thadani used to take me to the Defence Services Officer’s Institute(DSOI) at Dhaulakuan, Delhi every Sunday and we used to play cards and tambola (housie or bingo).  The evenings would invariably wind up with dinner in some classy restaurant in Delhi.

I also had some interaction with their two sons – Akash and Kailash. I remember signing the documents for Kailash for his adventure training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling.  That was the day when Brigadier Thadani taught me as to why the old rubber stamps had a drawing pin on one side – One needs to always ensure that that correct side faced the document when you stamped one, lest it would turn out upside down!

Brigadier Thadani was also a skilled mountaineer and both passionate and knowledgeable about his craft.  Many years later, while he was commanding 3 Artillery Brigade in Leh, he led the very first expedition of 16 soldiers to conquer Apsarasas I peak. The Apsaras group of mountains lies to the North of Teram Shehr Glacier and consists of a large massif with the ridge line running from West to East. The highest point is Apsarasas I, height 7245 m with Apsarasas II (7240 m) and Apsarasas III (7230 m).


The expedition left Leh on 25 July 1980 (four years before the Indian Army occupied Siachen Glacier), moved across the Khardung La, 18,360 ft (which is reputedly the highest pass in the world over which a road has now been built), and thereafter descended, to the Shyok river and on to the Nubra valley in Ladakh.  The team set up four camps with the base camp at the snout of the Siachen glacier.  The advanced base camp was sited near the confluence of three glaciers, the Siachen, Teram Shehr and Lolofond at a height of about 5180 m (12,000 ft).


A number of parties were sent out on various approaches to determine a suitable route to Apsarasas I. The Western approach along the ridge line was found unsuitable as it had a formidable overhanging glacier on the route to the ridge line. The South-Eastern approach was selected and summit Camp 1 was established on 7 September and summit Camp 2 the next day.

At this stage the expedition was struck by bad weather; heavy snowfall with occasional blizzards prevented further progress on the mountain. The fixed ropes between the two summit camps were buried in the fresh snow and the members had to remain firm in their respective camps. For almost a week, they had to endure extreme privation in the sub-zero environment. Meanwhile, the route to these camps was obliterated by avalanches.

A party of eight moved up to summit Camp 3 having used 15 fixed ropes to secure the route. The following day they reconnoitred the route to the summit and on 18 September, seven of them made an early start and reached the summit of Apsarasas I at 11.12 a.m. They hoisted the Indian tricolour and the expedition flag. They stood in prayer, expressed their gratitude to the Gods of the mountains for having given them the strength to reach the summit and offered oblation. The second summit party of nine members, seeing that the weather was clear and the route to the summit had already been secured, climbed 3000 ft at that altitude. They were fully aware that they could at best return to the security of a camp only after nightfall. They reached the summit at 3.30 p.m., took a few photographs and as the clouds were gathering fast, they hurried back and reached the camp at 9 p.m.


This added another glorious chapter to the history of mountaineering by these 16 gallant men of the Indian Army led by Brigadier KN Thadani. These peaks are now in the enemy held areas of the Glacier. When the line of control was delineated it was not clearly defined in these areas and so the Indian and Pakistani perceptions of the LOC were quite divergent. In those days the ground was not occupied by either army and both countries allowed in mountaineering in these areas. Despite all these circumstances, it was still no mean feat for him and his team to enter what was then palpably Pakistani held territory.  What happened in the years to come with the Indian Army occupying most of the Siachen Glacier is etched in golden letters in the annals of Indian military history.

Even though both his war experience and mountaineering took a toll on his body and mind, like a true soldier, he rarely spoke about it and when he did it was in bits and pieces. He was a man of few words and I used to be ever on the lookout when those pearls of wisdom came from his lips.

Brigadier Thadani loved sports and was a passionate follower of Cricket.  I fondly remember the days when we together watched the Benson & Hedges World Championship of Cricket, a One Day International tournament held from 17 February to 10 March 1985 in Australia which India won.  The most crucial match was the semi-final with New Zealand – India had to make 207 runs in 50 overs.  In the 32nd over, India was 102 for 3 and needed 105 runs to win in the remaining 18 overs – a difficult task then.   It was Vengsarkar and Kapil Dev who took the team to victory, both scoring half centuries.  The match was nail-biting and intense, and caused Brigadier Thadani and I to smoke two full packets of Wills cigarettes. By the way, Brigadier Thadani, stylish as ever, in those days only smoked his pipe.

As Brigadier Thadani sitteth on the right hand side of God, let me reveal an incident that always remained a fascination with me. Brigadier Thadani, while commanding 3 Artillery Brigade in Leh, had been close to His Holiness Dalai Lama.  In April 1985, His Holiness came to our Officers’ Mess to meet his old friend.  I too had the opportunity to interact and dine with His Holiness and I will always cherish the meeting till my grave.  I was destined to witness this meeting of two great personalities and two best friends who ardently admired each other.