Murals of Fauji Life: A tribute to a dear friend, ‘Piyush Midha’

An autobiographical narration of an army officer about military life will be presented in a series of two parts. The story begins with the childhood days deeply rooted in the military culture and gives a glimpse of the making of tough Indian soldiers. Here is Part 1 of the series

By Wing Cdr Siddharth Kharbanda

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Back in the 80s, when dad was GE at Ichhapore, a census town in Barrackpore near Calcutta, we never expected to live in a house with so many rooms which remained unexplored. House 47, dubbed The Park, was the official residence of Lord Dufferin. It had furniture of Mahogany. The compound had several tamarind trees. Later in Ranchi, families lived in the close-knit association of regimental brethren. Faith was relied on with trust and loyalty. The arm of Sappers was known for a unique family spirit, connected by a community of relentless pursuit, with intimate social and cultural ties. The families relished and lived each moment with timeless tales to cherish, even today. When societal rules took birth, we lived each day enjoying a bond that we fondly remember to date.

Each child knew to ride a bike, swim, dance, skate, strum an instrument, run, hike, trail, and trek, the hard way! Of course, we could scale heights. Drama and declamation were our potent force. You name it and we could do it. Nothing was a waterloo. Exploration was deep-rooted. Hobbies were plenty and interests were countless. Small-scale discoveries and inventions were copyrighted. Discipline and decorum were a part of life. We were hardy and upright. We had roots cultivated deeply in the military culture, planted swiftly and surely.

We were quintessential. Patently ingrained was a self-proclaimed ingredient of self-confidence and charisma of a higher tick. This gave way to a larger belief and greater good of succeeding in all facets of life. It assured us of doing things right. We were resilient, rather antifragile. The possibility was determined by nature and reality. There was never an age bar in making friends. Elder children played the role of mentors. Experiences were varied and exposure was phenomenal.

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It was a way of life, accepted as a blessing of indoctrination and grooming. It taught us to accept challenges, face hardship, be flexible, and live a life less ordinary! Happiness was found in the smaller things and in the modest path we took. It is with this familiarity and understanding that generations of Army brats lived through the toughest of times and braced life with courage and fortitude, and learned to survive, independently. 

Fascination with wheels 

Let me begin this autobiographical narration with the wheels with which we were always fascinated. It was the establishment of the MT, perceived as ‘empty’, at close quarters. The Jonga and the Jeep that once rolled the high altitude were rugged and all-terrain utilities. The Japanese Nissan machines housed a 4 x 4 abode. The 4WD lever was thought to be a magic tool. The gun-carriage assembly produced a peculiar sound of road friction. Snow-clad traction with chained wheels was a normal phenomenon. Common vahan entailed muscular, Nissan one-ton goods carriage. It was a sight to imitate the front manual ignition. ‘Shaktiman’ emboldened three-ton. Awe-inspiring convoys included multi-beaconed Tatra trailers ferrying tanks. Matadors were still in use. Hindustan’s Ambassador was king of Indian roads. The DR (Despatch Rider) always made his bullet a royal two-wheeler. Gasoline always rewarded the brain and activated the pleasing mesolimbic pathway.

Each child knew to ride a bike, swim, dance, skate, strum an instrument, run, hike, trail, and trek, the hard way! Of course, we could scale heights. Drama and declamation were our potent force. You name it and we could do it. Hobbies were plenty and interests were countless 

Born in MH Roorkee; there is always an attachment to the place of birth. It was home to Bengal Engineering Group (BEG) & Centre, founded in 1803, as King George V’s Own Bengal Sappers and Miners with its motto ‘God’s Own’. Situated in the Shivaliks on the banks of the Upper Ganga canal where Sappers trained on bridge laying and other specialisations. In the Afghan war of 1839, the battle of Ghazni, Bengal Sappers and Miners laid explosive charges and stormed the Ghazni Fort. November 6 is celebrated as Group Day wherein son-et-lumière is displayed. BEG has the unique distinction of being affiliated both with the Navy and the Air Force. Dad was in Trg Bn. He was an oarsman, a boxer and a golfer, a lone commando from the Corps of Engineers, and an alumnus of CME. Mom joined him during the degree course whilst they owned a Honda, which they bought and later sold for the same price! 

Man Friday 

The inescapable entity was a sahayak, a buddy, a friend, a mentor, a guide; we fondly called ‘bhaiya’. He was Man Friday. Going to school on his ‘Hero’ bike was routine. We still fondly inquire about his well-being. Life was never a place so woebegone. We rather made every place a distinct part of our personality. In Abohar, we lived in mud houses (known as Basha) adjacent to the Sirhind canal. The environment gave a deeper meaning to life and the suburbs of the Fazilka border. Mess premises became common playing grounds. The flank of houses connected outer premises through a footbridge. Once, houses caved in during incessant rains and the canal water overflowed. We communicated using sound waves that travelled on wool made with matchboxes using NATO call signs with transcripts to perfect telephony. Interacting with the local populace at Gobindgarh village gave me a better understanding of livelihood. These memories had an impressionable impact that is still crystal clear.  

Every transfer made a new beginning, we had no control whatsoever. Packing and unpacking were a part of the journey. Trunks were painted and stencilled to perfection. Luggage was opened in spells and stored in yards. We knew the odour of naphthalene balls. It reminded us of the exact location of a treasure trove. Canvas bedding rolls with tightened buckles were carried during journeys. There was excitement in exploring dad’s gizmos in his Academy trunk. It contained a blue patrol side cap, a dagger, used scarfs, anklets, camouflaged jacket, tactical backpack, camp kit, poncho, b/w photographs and stationery, golf tees, binoculars, mess tin, précis and notes, holster, cane, jungle boots, slings, OG jersey to OTA tie including old gifts and souvenirs that were never opened. We lured his old DMS and handmade ankle boots. Dad was hardly seen around, although his homecoming was celebrated and rejoiced. He loved bluffing us with his thumb removing and longer finger tricks.   

Epic journey 

We moved to Ranchi by train, which was an epic journey. The first-class bogies housed families and pets. Train Adjutant authorised train stoppages that allowed families to recoup the spirit of camaraderie. We had a dear affinity with the erstwhile Inland and the postcard. In the absence of mobile phones and rare trunk calls, soliciting snail mail was a shot in the arms. APO was reliable and brought epistolary nostalgia. 

Happiness was found in smaller things and in the modest path we took. It is with this familiarity and understanding that generations of military brats lived through the toughest of times and braced life with courage and fortitude, and learned to survive, independently 

We adapted to bare essentials. Accommodation ranged from mud houses and temporary scaled quarters to colonial-era bungalows that outlived their period. Polishing mementos were insisted on. The inventory ranged from camel chairs, study tables, lampshades, cane, and iron swings. Antique charpoys were used as trampolines till the netting gave way. Jute mat, horns, pot planter, flower vase, saddle, hammock, brassware, sword, handicraft, woodcraft, shell-based table lamp, ashtray, and artistic driftwood were prize possession that cased homely interiors. Cap stands were a scaled fitting. MES sofa with super springy cushion was a traditional luxury. Trunks were used to make settees padded with bolster pillows. Carpets were mandatory possessions. Peg tables had embroidered covers bought from Old Market in Calcutta. Glass flamingos pecked on a timer. Few owned aged skulls, brass metal, cuckoo clocks, and other artistic wall hangings. Mothers used handheld fans made of bamboo strips and mulberry paper. Cutlery ware was widespread. Bars were old-fashioned with imported glassware to serve beer, wine, and scotch. Handcrafted liqueur, homemade wine, and showpiece miniature bottles were common.  

Regimented life 

Times spent at Deepatoli were regimented. Functions were combined and conducted by the team of ‘Sahas Aur Yogyata’. The clan of 53 Engrs was known as ‘Maujis’, named after Maj Gen S Majumdar (Retd), its first CO. ‘Sarv Dharm Sthal’ was statutory. Mandir parades and visit to the Gurdwara was regular and pious. We studied at Bishop Westcott Boy’s School at Namkum. Toys were wooden and limited and preserved. ‘Rover’, our Doberman, was trained to run along our white Lambretta. He could predict the seismic activity and one day, he barked before we felt the tremors. He was a companion. He was trained, fetched the newspaper, and even thwarted two burglaries. We embraced nature with grandma remedies and wore hand-woven cardigans. Parks were RV points. We witnessed car rallies that trespassed on the outskirts of the unit. Classic animations were centrally screened in Anteroom on the VCR. Outings were on potluck. Mothers were engrossed in event management, unit picnic, and playing croquet. YOs played a pivotal role in laying the foundation of teamwork, humour, and anecdotes being mischievous, playful and full of vigour. We fondly confer their glory and share good times. Holi was made special by their stint of pranks and tricks. The quarter guard gave shivers. On posting, regiment officers bid goodbye while Jawans garlanded train bogie with marigold. The officer was garlanded and was hailed ‘Jai ho’.  

The moment we turned six we were sent off to pick up a hobby of interest. Ladies took the onus of tutoring and coaching us for dance, drama, music, and extra-curricular subjects. It inculcated independence. We performed at multiple AWWA forums and competitions, fests and fairs.  

With grandparents 

The next lucky leg was a home tenure to Dehradun. We stayed with our grandparents. Our grandmother was the President of the Arya Samaj. Everyone got hold of her vocal recording with major shlokas for conducting a havan. They were obligatory and participatory within the joint family. We firmly believed and preached the values of karma. We visited the Jhandewala wherein the legacy of Guru Ram Rai was carried forth by Shri Mahant Indresh, who led a life of celibacy and dedicated his life to the noble cause. We were fond of iconic drama plays like Dhoop Kinarey, Nijaat, and Tanhaiyan. Adjusting the TV antenna was a foregone conclusion.  

Jute mat, horns, pot planter, flower vase, saddle, hammock, brassware, sword, handicraft, woodcraft, shell-based table lamp, ashtray, and artistic driftwood were prize possession that cased homely interiors. Cap stands were a scaled fitting. MES sofa was a traditional luxury 

We visited Mussorie, Sahastradhara, Haridwar, Shiv Mandir, Malsi Deer Park, Lachhiwala, Ghari cantonment, IMA, and the FRI with umpteen trips on NH-58 where Cheetal was then the only pit stop. We enacted in-house drama plays. Tambola was inevitable. Sundays were spent watching epics as part of morality and upbringing. Dad was more than accustomed to the nook and corner of the township. Sugarcane stalks were chewed as a regular snack. Elloras in Rajpur Road was a known cornerstone. Our grandfather was a major shareholder in Anupam Shawls, in addition to working for LIC.  

Dehradun valley seemed truly picturesque at night. The lantern was handy during power cuts. We were amateur astronomers and learned the constellations that gave us a prelude to the zodiac. Mussoorie was synonymous with the Himalayan heaven. We purchased a Maruti 800, with a prominent front bumper. Many bought the Japanese version of 1984 with a rear windshield opening as a distinct feature.  

School days

I spent a brief stint at the Carman School where I once figured as the father of three daughters in the famous story of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. We subsequently moved to St Thomas’s College, located at the Crossroads. The school was headed by Mr R V Gardner, who happens to be the principal to date, with highly regarded faculty that ‘Build Ye High and Build Ye True’! We read ‘Noddy and the Naughty Boy’ by Enid Blyton and Champak. Other visual flicks included ‘Gods must be Crazy’, a South African comedy series, Flintstones, He-Man, Tom & Jerry, and eponymous stories by RK Narayan, Malgudi Days. 

We read ‘Noddy and the Naughty Boy’ by Enid Blyton and Champak. Visual flicks included ‘Gods must be Crazy’, a South African comedy series, Flintstones, He-Man, Tom & Jerry, and eponymous stories by RK Narayan, Malgudi Days 

Life was colourful in black and white and full of simplicity. Memories were relived through musical photo albums. Afternoon plays commenced with Doordarshan’s all-time classic signature montage. Flying kites, cycling the narrow lanes of Khurbura Moholla, visits to Bijapur canal, venturing to the Bindal Rao, Joy ice cream factory, Kanwali Road, Paltan Bazar, Philatelic Bureau, English Book Depot at Rajpur, Asiad, and Gemini Circus at the parade ground, witnessing effigies of Ravana set ablaze during Dasherra made the routine chores. Years of unimaginable monkey business and family gossip, an insatiable lust for mischief, and the life-family-affirming addiction to joy.  

New Year’s Eve was celebrated with Usha Uthup’s medley and the everlasting endearing charm. Instrumental competency instilled a life-long hobby. In the earlier days, teenage boys from the Jalpaiguri district in the East came for work and to join the armed forces. We got two Gorkhas, the former of which got enrolled. We knew the train tracks, linkages, connectivity, and timings at our fingertips.  

Maternal roots 

Kanpur had our maternal roots close to Arya Nagar and Swaroop Nagar. Grandparents taught us rituals, to be independent, and to muster the energy to strive for excellence. They left thy halls forever, never to return, still within our heart’s fond memories, steadily will burn. Much of the linen, cotton ware, and woolens in the house came from the famous Elgin and the Lal Imli mill. The association with domestic help was warm-hearted. The house had Kaner, an ornamental tree with a yellow trumpet-like flower, and Harsingar, the Night Jasmine.  

(Continued in Part 2)

 -The writer is a serving Air Force Officer. The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda