By Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
“ I was all of 22 years in the army. I was an officer. I met this tall,gangling man. He was a Jawan. There was something unique about him. He had, what we call, a ‘presence’. Others looked to him. He was undoubtedly imbued with leadership qualities. He did not deliberately lead. He behaved differently, distinctly. And he ‘led’ by conduct. His proactive presence, behavior and interactions revealed his qualities. I will illustrate his ‘presence’ with two poignant anecdotes, I was privy to.
I was his group leader. We were in a height climbing competition within the forces. We were six of us. Five of us included him. One was an elder havildar. We had our backpacks weighing 30 kilos. It was a tough climb for 3 days. We had to reach 21,000 feet above sea level. A steep,sharp climb with only hurdles and no help. On the fourth day, we accidentally saw a Sherpa with a few ponies. We felt that with just two days of climb, if we could ‘shift’ the baggage to the ponies, for a few rupees, we could make it faster and beat the competition.
Five of us ‘negotiated’ with the Sherpa and hurriedly ‘shifted’ our backpacks. This man, the sixth one, was unmoving. He chose not to. He stood there. Transfixed.,He did not say a word. But his eyes communicated. The body language said it all. That the ‘shifting’ was not ethical. It was amoral. No display of integrity, as a ‘competitor’ an ‘armed forces man’ : it was compromised. He did not say a word. But his silence was eloquent.
We were shamed. As group leader he made me look smaller than I was, to his height already. We got the message and quietly ‘reshifted’ the backpacks to where they belonged.
Then, closer the peak, the Havildar revealed the ‘unthinkable’. The radio contact was missing. It may have fallen off. We were close to the finish line.,Yet, we could not move on. Without the Havildar. And he could not , without the instrument. In our forces, it was our lifeline. More importantly, if lost and traced to enemy line, end of story. Our locations and movements could be tucked into and lives would be on the line.
Even as ‘we’ were debating on the next course, he moved on. He was getting back on the way we came. On the same path. And after heavy rains, the backpack was weighing a double heavier. He did not care. What mattered was team spirit. The havildar was old. But part of the team. He rescued not just the havildar but our team and its spirit. Went back, traced the radio instrument and was back as quickly he could. That lifted our spirits. Leadership lesson he inspired, enabled us to win . And honestly at that.
It all happened in 1980s when I joined the forces after chucking not ducking IIT, which exams I had cleared with 13th rank. But this man was teaching me lessons I may never have learnt in or after IIT. HE was desperate to buy his mother ‘Kajal’ a market leader then, ladies’ watch from HMT. And a Sumeet Mixie to lend kitchen support to his hard working mother. And his father the shiny ‘patented shoe’ which was a rage then, and required no regular polishing. When we mocked that his village was sans electricity, he responded gustily that it will come one day and his mother must be ready.
After grueling training sessions, he gained a well earned leave and was traveling by train to his village with 11 of his group mates, which included me. Early morning, we got a SOS that a waiting room at a station was burning. And help was needed to rescue a few that may have been caught inside. And as I took to my heels to the accident spot, I found it was smoldering hot. Fire had been put out. But it was bloody hot and tough to enter. As I looked in, I saw a tall man coming out with a package- what we call a ‘baby lift’- on his arms. It was a young lady in need of immediate treatment. A few minutes later he came out with a little package. Fully wrapped in wet bedsheet, wherever he got that from. An infant of 7 months, we learnt later. And then he was back again with a bigger package, grandmother of the infant. All three saved in the nick of time, at great personal risk as he badly wounded and bleeding all over.
And even as he handed me the last package, he collapsed. He had no safety equipment. He had braved the heat and fire and falling fire from smoldering roof. We rushed him to nearest hospital where the rescued were already taken. He lasted but two days. He succumbed.
The duty fell on me to take the ‘mortal remains of the martyr’ to his village, which we often read as words in a newspaper or reported on television. The simple and brutal fact is – we carried his dead body to his near and dear ones. A tough task to even a military man, supposedly unemotional. It was late evening. Instructions were to not reveal the face or the body, to the parents. It was gory. That must not be the last look for the parents in the death of their dear 22 year old with many a dream. Forget it, it cannot get any worse. No reel life can depict this real life.
The mother went mad. Which mother would not. It was a village with about 40 households. But the assembly was of 700 plus, from multiple villages across Barmer in Rajasthan, close to Pakistan border. It seemed he was already a ‘hero’ among the villagers as a ‘helper’. It was no wonder, he had joined the forces. The mother got straight to me, on being identified as the ‘leader’.
She caught hold of my dark green combat army uniform. Pulled hard at my collar and two buttons gave way. She was sobbing. Inconsolable. The frail, little Fathima Bee asked me, well above the Azaan , as it was Magrib time of prayer for Muslims, from a distant mosque in the sun set hours, just outside the cremation ground.Sun was setting amidst a riot of colours of red , crimson, gold and blue, as if the lord was paying tribute and obeisance to his or her favourite son. This does not happen often. “Mara Kaisa Meri Betta “ , asked the mother. How did my son die?
What do I say? What words do I utter. How could I console this mother. I was stunned into silence. I stood still with moist eyes.
Then, the father dressed in spotless white kurta-pyjama saw it. He came in. Quietly stood next to me. Put his hands around my shoulder. He was a retired jawan. He addressed me. But was looking at his wife. Somehow, he managed to keep calm. Composed. God knows how. And asked, to the hearing of one and all.
“ Betta,Yeh Mat Batao, mera betaa Mara kaise. Yeh batao mera Betta Jiya Kaise”. – Son, don’t tell me how my son died. Tell me how my son – Zamindar Khan – LIVED.
My God! What an expression in that deathly hour of grief. These are the parents who send their young wards, all of 16-17 years to the armed forces. These soldiers, men and women of the armed forces, perform their duties 365 days 24×7, with humility, honesty, discipline and integrity to keep the nation’s peace. They keep awake on the borders so that YOU may sleep peacefully at home.
If I say, there were many a moist eye on 7th Jan,2023 at the Vivekananda Auditorium, Anna University, Guindy,Chennai, at 11 am, I would be lying. There was not a dry eye.
Grapple with what Lieutenant General A Arun who took over the reins of Dakshin Bharat Area as the General Officer Commanding on January 2,2021, spoke on the occasion of Marathhal Thagumo- Would it be Just to Forget?
That was the event put together by S Foundation, a Trust devoted to the cause of our armed forces. And it was a fitting finale of debates for colleges in Tamil Nadu, in English and tamil, on our Real Heroes from the Armed Forces.
Dil Mange More & More.
(Author of Sam Manekshaw’s Beloved Armed Forces – practicing advocate in the Madras High Court)