Ballad of a Soldier

By NAVEED GILANI

My beloved father, a Topchi (Gunner) by training, served proudly and honorably for 29 years in the military. First four years in the Royal British Indian Army and the later twenty five in the Pakistan Army. Retiring at the rank of Brigadier he was commissioned in 1943 when the British had already been at war for four years in that deadly and brutal WW2. Luckily, he did not get assigned to any of the theatres of war though the training at the academy and post commission was never left short in prepping for the war. He did very well in his service and had the distinction of being the youngest captain to have ever been appointed as a platoon commander in the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun. This was just before Pakistan came into existence in 1947 and he then had the distinction of being a member of a team of officers who have their historical fingerprints on the raising of the hallowed Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) in Kakul. Quite an honor! Brigadier Francis Ingall was the first commandant of the academy whose eponymous hall at the academy is well known to all who were once gentlemen cadets. ‘The Last of the Bengal Lancers’ was authored by the Brigadier which includes chapters on the PMA and I must say the book is an interesting read.

Growing up, my siblings and I have heard many of the very interesting tales from my father’s experiences in the military, ranging from innocent faux pas to character building blocks to decisions impacting the national affairs. My father had a knack of telling them and he never failed in gripping the listener to full attention. Amusement always guaranteed.

Some time ago I decided to capture each of these stories one at a time and put it on this blog. Like everything else this too never got implemented till just now. I want to start with one and then from time to time add another one and soon enough will have a whole volume full of very interesting experiences and learnings from the life of a soldier.

Going back to the year 1945/46 Subaltern P. B. Gilani, that’s my dad who was fondly called Peebee by all, finds himself in Panagarh which is in West Bengal in India. Calcutta (now Kolkata) is only 95 miles away. Among other responsibilities given to a young officer in the regiment Peebee is also responsible for the motor pool. Motor pool is where all the vehicles are kept and managed. As luck would have it, Subaltern Saeed, a close friend from hometown Peshawar, is also in the same regiment. Saeed had recently been engaged to a beautiful young girl from Peshawar, who was later referred to as aunty Mumtaz by us all. Among one of the many promises a young man can be expected to make to his future bride Saeed had vowed a daily prem pattar. Mind it, from one end of the sub-continent to clear across the other. To honor his commitment Saeed’s daily routine, after the compulsory evening games at the regiment, was to ride his bicycle, Peebeein tow on his, to the Panagarh railway station to drop his pattar on the mail train heading for Calcutta. The dak would then be the responsibility of the very efficient postal service of the Raj days.

The train would leave the station around half past six, just when the sun would be setting in June of 1945. Ride from the regiment’s sports ground was about thirty minutes at a modest pace. Weather in the West Bengal during that time of the year was almost always humid and the road was not metaled. After the evening sports both would be hot and sweaty. The bike ride up and down the narrow dirt road would invariably add a cream of sweat soaked dust on their exposed skin. Never deterred by the dust and grime Abbu recalled the ride, weaving through the returning cattle after a day of grazing the lushy greens of rural Panagarh, as delightful. Then again, any young heart on a journey in pursuit of earnest romance, be it platonic as it was for Abbu, would find it delightful.

One evening the mandatory regimental game took longer than usual and the chance of Saeed keeping his vow was impossible. They would never make it on their bikes. Saeed pleaded Peebee for help. He couldn’t do anything unless he used his authority as in-charge of the motor pool. Without proper paperwork and authorization that was a big no-no. The pair knew it well. Overcome by his loyalty to his friend Peebee decided to bend the rules a little. Peebee, now with Saeed in tow, walks over to the pool and calls for HavaldarNair, the non-commissioned officer on duty at the pool, and asks for the keys to the commanding officer’s jeep, which needed to be taken for a 15 mile test drive. Nair could never challenge a decision of his superior officer, however young and green the supervisor. Off they go, Peebee in the driving seat of the colonel’s jeep with Saeed sitting alongside, raising a cloud of suspended dust in those hot and humid windless dusky hours. They made the Calcutta mail train. Saeed was happy and so was Peebee.

The next morning the regiment’s adjutant, a young Captain Davies who was generally fond of Peebee, wonders where Peebee was the previous evening after the games. Yada yada yada, Peebee tells him of the daily trip to Panagarh railway station. “But then how did you make it in time for the train on your bicycles because we finished the game much later than usual”, wonders Capt. Davies. “Sir, I used the old man’s jeep” says Peebee. The colonel was nicknamed ‘old man’. “Ha! Ha! The old man likes you a lot so he must have authorized you”. “No sir, he didn’t know about it, I took it for a test drive”, says, by now visibly worried,Abbu. “YOU DID WHAT” shouted Davies. He knew it all along that the CO’s jeep had been taken by the two rambunctious young subalterns but that was his way of enquiring into the true intentions behind the act. “God help you, young man” the adjutant said before dismissing Abbu.

Saeed was called separately and asked the same questions but he completely denied going to the railway station in the colonel’s jeep. Later comparing notes both Abbu and Saeed concluded that their short career in the Royal British Indian Army was about to come to an end.

The next morning, both Saeed and Peebee, dressed in their fatigues, marched into the old man’s office. On occasions like these the officers are dressed down signifying the gravity of the charge. The old man was a big moustached British officer with a chest full of ribbons including the DSO bar. The celebrated Distinguished Service Order (DSO) bar is awarded by the British Empire for uncommon valor during actual combat. Foreheads glistening with sweat both Saeed and Peebee stood atten-shun. The old man’s glare seemed never ending. He growled, and ranted, and raved all the military expletives that he had learned over the years of military service. Finally, the bloody this and the bloody that ended and the old man’s face returned from cherry red to his normal English white.

Walking around his desk the colonel comes straight to Abbu who is still standing atten-shun, sweating profusely with a racing heartbeat. Abbu, expecting a major punishment,is taken by utter surprise when the colonel gives him a big bear hug. “I am proud of you Peebee”, he says, “proud of you telling the truth”. “I am dropping the charge of unauthorized use of vehicle. Your judgement was clouded by your inexperience and loyalty to your friend, a value that is much valued particularly in battle situations”. Gesturing a small separation between the index finger and the thumb the old man continues, “You were this close to getting dismissed from service but I hope that you have learnt your lesson. Never do this again and always tell the truth”.

Saeed, on the other hand got a further heavy dose of military curses and was told to learn a lesson from Peebee and never to be anything but truthful.

Soon after the incident Abbu got his Captain’s bar but Saeed, though six month senior to Abbu, had to wait. Thereinlays another story which I will leave for another time.

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One Response to Ballad of a Soldier

  1. TG says:

    Very well written. You may wish to add the suspension of Saeed due to this incident and then reinstatement again because of Abbu’s principled stand of respect and honor of his senior.

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