Bhagawan (God) Shoot

 IdliVada

Late Colonel Avinash Chandra and I joined the Regiment in January 1983.  He was a Captain then and was returning to the Regiment after a staff tenure and I was joining on commissioning as a Second Lieutenant.  He, on promotion to the rank of Major was appointed the Battery Commander of the Jat Battery – 752 Medium Battery.

All the officers – both seniors and juniors – addressed him as Guruji.  He was indeed a Guru on all matters, especially for us, the young officers of the Regiment.  For us, he was the go-to man for all our problems – military, administrative, personal, promotion examination – and all the activities we young officers indulged in.  He was always ready to help, but the only catch was that it came with a liberal dose of advice, anecdotes and stories.

It appeared to us from all his sermons that there was nothing under the sun which Guruji was unaware of and there was no activity Guruji had not indulged in.  As expected, in all his adventurous stories, he was the pivotal character.  We knew the percentage of truth in all his stories, but we all looked forward to listening to them.  Whatever may it be, he had a solution in hand for all our problems and we all did enjoy his sermons.

During the Winter of 1985, the Regiment went through a training exercise conducted by the Brigade Commander.  Next day, during the officers’ tea, Colonel Mahaveer Singh, our then Commanding Officer ordered that henceforth Major Avinash Chandra will not be addressed as Guruji, especially by his junior officers.  It was all because our Brigade Commander during the exercise was peeved at a senior Major of the Regiment being addressed by his nickname.  Guruji immediately said that he loved everyone addressing him as Guruji and if need be, he was ready to meet the Brigade Commander with this special request.  That was our Guruji for all readers.

Guruji would take on any task everyone would find uncomfortable with.  He would make such tasks appear simple and easy and conveyed an impression that he did enjoy executing it.  His body language and mannerisms always added colour to such occasions.

One such task was engaging a target with Artillery fire using the infamous Range Finder DS1,  The equipment is now obsolete and in my view should have been declared so even in those days.  Everyone was literally scared of the invisible floating diamonds and no one wanted to touch it with a barge pole.  Here now appears Guruji, full of confidence, to execute the arduous task.  I always failed to understand as to how he would have executed the task with a failing eye-sight, corrected with glasses.  Did he ever catch a glimpse of the five diamonds, mostly invisible to people with perfect eyesight?

The aim of engaging a target with artillery fire is make the shells fall on or as close to the target as possible to destroy it.  The guns are placed well behind at about 10 km or more and the Observation Officer is located with the attacking or defending infantry unit.  The Observation Post Officer (OP officer) is responsible to direct Artillery fire on to the targets, keeping in mind the safety of own troops.   The Gun Position Officer at his Command Post near the guns would calculate the bearing, distance and other technical parameters to the target, based on the coordinates passed to him by the OP  Officer  and apply corrections to compensate for the prevailing metrological conditions like wind speed and direction, temperature, etc and fire a single shell called a ranging round. If the initial shell is not ‘on target’, corrections to move the fall of shot is ordered and is applied on the guns.  This procedure called  Ranging is continued until the shell lands within 50 meters of the target. He then calls for ‘fire for effect’ by ordering six or more guns to fire in unison until the target is destroyed.

During all the Artillery firing practices, Guruji would setup the monstrous looking Range Finder well before the commencement of the practice.  When his turn to engage the target came, he would wipe his glasses clean, wear them and move to his trusted Range Finder.  He would then instruct his radio operator to pass the target coordinates and other details to the guns with an order for a single gun to fire a shell. The use of the rangefinder, supposedly, was to eliminate the ranging process to the extent possible, and directly order ‘fire for effect’, to improve what in gunnery terms is called ‘First Salvo Effectiveness’. But the problem was that the range Finder DS1 was infamously unreliable and everyone other than a handful of personnel specially trained on it, kept a safe distance from the instrument.

Five seconds before the shell was about to land, his technical assistant would cry “Stand by” and Guruji would place his spectacled eyes on to the eyepiece of the Range Finder.  After the shell exploded, he would look at it over the Range Finder and then through it.  He would then pickup his pad and write down a few calculations and would order a correction to bring the shell to fall on the target – Right 275, Add 375- with an order for six guns to fire in unison.

Captain Desh Raj, the senior most among us Captains at that time would order us to summon all our Gods to ensure that the shells landed on the target.  Believe it not, in almost all cases the shells did land on the specified target.  Was it because of Guru’s gunnery skills or our prayers?  Whatever it may be, the entire act did impress everyone present, especially the senior commanders.

After about two or three such experiences, I confronted Guruji to explain as to how he managed the show.  He explained that he neither saw the floating diamonds nor the target through the Range Finder.  He was mostly successful as he knew the firing ranges like the back of his palm.  He knew the lie of the ground and could predict accurately how the shell would move with each correction.  The most critical moment for him was when he looked over the Range Finder to catch the glimpse where the shell exploded.  He would then assess the deviation from the target and order the necessary corrections to the guns.

My question now was that even though the entire procedure was based on shear guess work, how come it succeeded every time.  Guruji with his characteristic smile on his lips replied “All because of your prayers.”

Who will Play the Butcher?

In 1997 after the Technical Staff Course of 18 months, I was posted back to my parent unit 75 Medium Regiment. In those days the unit had three batteries, each with different class composition of soldiers. Now it has men from all over India, comprising of all classes. A battery is a sub-unit of an Artillery Regiment consisting of six Guns and about 125 soldiers to operate them along with vehicles, radio sets and other technical equipment.

The Regiment then had an interesting class composition. One battery was of Brahmins (other than those from the Southern and Eastern States of India), the second had Jats and the third was manned by the soldiers from the four Southern States. Management of soldiers in all the batteries differed as their reactions to various situations, their needs, their languages etc were different.

In those days, any Young Officer posted to the Regiment served with each of the batteries for one or two years in order to make them familiarise with the soldiers. I too went through this rotation until I moved out for the Long Gunnery Course for 13 months. On my return from the course in 1990, I was appointed the Battery Commander (BC) of the Brahmin Battery. After two years I moved on posting to a staff appointment and returned after two years, again I was handed over the reins of the Brahmin Battery until I moved out for the Technical Staff Course.

On my return to the Regiment in 1997 after the Technical Staff Course, the unit was located in the high-altitude area (10,000 feet above Sea Level) of Sikkim, where families were not permitted to live with the soldiers or officers. After the customary ‘Dining-in’ in the evening at the Officers’ Mess, our Commanding Officer (CO) Colonel PK Ramachandran spoke welcoming me back into the fold and ordered me to be the BC of the Brahmin Battery. “Oh! Not again” was my instant reply and the CO was a bit puzzled.  He later spoke to me in person and I requested that I need a change and I wanted to have the experience of commanding another battery. The CO had his own logical reasoning for his decision and I did accept the same without any remorse as I too got convinced. Col Ramachandran had earlier served throughout his army career with a Regiment which had only Brahmin soldiers and I realised the he exactly knew the ‘horse for the course.’

The first week I spent at the Regimental Headquarters, carrying out the acclimatisation drills laid down for any soldier on arrival in high-altitude area. Our Battery was located about three km from the Regimental Headquarters. I luckily had two energetic and hardworking officers – Captain Samya Saurav, the Second-in-Command and Lieutenant Manish Wahi, the Gun Position Officer – both are presently Colonels, who effectively commanded their units. I delegated all my duties to the two and they did an excellent job that I hardly ever visited the battery.  Our CO wanted me to stay with the Regimental Headquarters to assist him, hence I had to delegate most duties to my junior officers.

After the week long acclimatisation, I decided to pay a visit to the Battery in the morning. When I reached the kitchen area, I found six sheep grazing there. In high-altitude area live sheep are supplied as rations in place of dressed meat. These sheep are called ‘Meat on Hoof (MOH)’ but are mostly ‘Meat on Knees‘ as the sheep are nearly dead after traversing through the difficult mountain roads from the plains.   The soldiers usually feed them well for a week to bring them back to life before they are slaughtered.

On inquiry I realised the problem of the sheep – the Brahmins did not want to slaughter the animals, but like good soldiers, wanted to partake the meat. I ordered the Havildar Major (Sergeant Major) Kanti Prasad to assemble the entire battery at 12 Noon in front of the kitchen and the BC will slaughter the animal in their presence. After that I went back to my room in the Regimental Headquarters.

In my youth, our household had fowls and animals and whenever I went on vacation, my brothers entrusted me the task of slaughtering. I think I did a good job of it as Amma, a stickler regarding the way the meat is cut, was pretty happy about my job. That was why I was sure that I will do a smart job of slaughtering the animal – if my mother could not find anything wrong – I was damn sure no one on earth could.

By 11 AM, our Havildar Major knocked at my door and reported that the sheep was stewing in the pressure cooker and I need not return to the battery at 12 Noon.

Poor Banian or a Wife Beater

One day our teenaged son came up to me and asked me if he could borrow my ‘Wife Beater.’ I lost all my balance and composure and I told him that I neither ever had beaten their mother nor ever intend to do so. I stopped short of telling him that the idea did sprout in my mind a few times, but good senses always prevailed over my impulse. Our son understood my predicament and explained that he wanted the sleeveless white vest I used to wear while in India. Hardly seen anyone wearing it in Canada; could be something to do with the weather and reduced perspiration level.

Our son explained that in the TV show ‘COPS‘ had a lot do with the creation of this word. Every time they showed a guy getting arrested for beating his wife, he was shown wearing one of those sleeveless vests.

Some say that in 1947 in Detroit, Michigan, when police arrested a local man (James Hartford, Jr.) for beating his wife to death, the local news stations aired the arrest and elements of the case for months after, constantly showing a picture of Hartford, Jr, when he was arrested, wearing a vest and constantly referring to him as ‘the wife beater.

I always marveled the simple in design white sleeveless vest for all the services it rendered. It never even cared where it ended up after its owner threw it out after clinging to his skin and exploiting it to the hilt. They mostly ended up as a shoe-shining cloth, a mop, a duster, etc. Why should someone discard such good quality pure white cotton cloth?

I never understood why any more layers than absolutely necessary are worn in a hot climate, but I always felt that it absorbed the sweat. It absorbed the sweat, got wet, making me feel a bit uncomfortable at times, but it always stopped the passage of the sweat to the outer layer of the Olive Green (OG) Uniform. The white salt left on the shirt after the sweat dried up was rather un-soldierly. My skin never felt comfortable touching the thick clothed OG shirt. The poor banian maintained an impregnable gap between my skin and the thick shirt.

Some of my friends in the Army wore a banian with sleeves. I always preferred the sleeveless version to avoid ‘Sunday is longer than Monday‘ syndrome. This happens when you wear a short sleeved shirt or T shirt, under which you have worn a sleeved banian and the sleeve of the banian creeps out of the shirt sleeve.

On joining Sainik School Amaravathinagar (TN) at the age of nine, my box had a dozen banians. We had to wear the banian for the morning Physical Training (PT). The aim was to observe the physical development of the body and to ensure that there were no skin infections. This practice of wearing the banian for PT continued on to the National Defence Academy (NDA) and the Indian Military Academy (IMA), till I was commissioned as an officer, after which I started wearing the white T-shirt as was the practice for all officers. The men still wore the faithful banian for PT. I still enjoyed the banian clinging to my skin and ensured that I had it on at all times.

My sahayak (helper) in the regiment was Sepoy Hukum Chand, who served me with at most dedication, love and care. He was my accountant, my personnel assistant, my bodyguard, my radio operator, my buddy in all aspects. He ensured everything for me – from when I got up, my morning tea, my cigarettes, my uniform, my room, my wardrobe, my outfit for the evening party etc. This continued for long seven years until seven year itch erupted – I got married and Hukum Chand refused to be dictated to as to what dress I wore for the evening party. My wife did not approve the suit Hukum Chand had chosen for me to wear that evening as it did not match her saree. My wife won and Hukum Chand lost.

Sepoy Hukum Chand had observed my keenness to wear the banian at all times and every six months he bought a dozen of them from the regimental canteen (he paid for it with my money as he was my accountant and I had no clue about the expenses). On enquiring as to why he bought new banians every six months, he told me that they become yellow on washing repeatedly in brackish water used by the waherman. He used to snip off the shoulder straps and cut open the trunk and it became a shining cloth for him to polish the leather boots and the belt and also the brass badges of rank. He said that the yellow shining-cloth available at the regimental canteen left yellow lint on the OG uniform and the black boots and looked awesome and he had to put in extra effort to clean-up after polishing. Used and many-time washed white banian was best suited for it and one did not have to pay to buy the shining-cloth – What a costly saving?  He had the thin cloth for the leather boots and belt and the thicker ones for the brass.

After five years of postings on staff and various long courses, I returned to the regiment at Sikkim as a Battery Commander. Sepoy Sri Chand was this time assigned as my Sahayak and Hukum Chand was by then promoted to the rank of a Havildar. A few days after I rejoined the unit, Havildar Hukum Chand came to my bunker while I was having my afternoon siesta and started admonishing Sepoy Sri Chand as he had not maintained the Saheb’s bunker as per standard. Hukum Chand started advising Sri Chand about my likes and dislikes, my preference of tea, food, clothes, cigarette, etc. At the end he said “Saheb likes wearing a banian at all times, even while he is sleeping.” That was the time I observed that I was sleeping in my favourite lungi-banian. He added that I preferred wearing the thick banian under the uniform and the thin ones under the civil dress. A preference I never had and may have been cultivated by Hukum Chand to ensure that he had a constant supply of thin and thick cloth for polishing the leather and the brass.

Many a times your preferences and habits are not self-developed, but thrust upon you by the environment.