Instant Haiku

1013377_10200525929885131_1107096263_n1hush!

ripples, quiet mirth

stolen glances

 

spirit soars,

plummets, takes flight

swoops down again.

 

All turnings

new beginnings.

 

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dewdrops, smiles

tears, glisten in

winter rain.

 

snapdragon, fireflies

crackles and –

pop goes the corn.

 

10830644_10204533984803999_4058154318518532604_ofreedom’s ways

love’s  goodbye

death,  mere nothingness.

 

number crunching

democracy, marches

overwhelming

 

171805_1682378773703_8375429_ocalendar days

dawn of childhood

noontime manhood

supper in the evening

goodnight, tune off

 

Old age

a race

to the finishing line.

 

negativity

morning doom, positives fly

in the face.

 

traveler hear

the distant roar and wander ………….

just wander.

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Along an Eastern Seaboard

 

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Going by bucket lists this was a long time coming. My Lai, Gulf of Tonkin & a terrified little girl running naked under a shower of napalm bombs. Remember? And, Bob Dylan singing ‘Blowin’ in the wind’?

So, to the land of the Dragon, the Tortoise, Unicorn & Phoenix.

Sen Chiao Vietnam. Hello, how do you do?

It is a casual, rhetorical greeting that need not be answered. But what follows in rapid, quick fire succession does & must be answered. Namely –

How old are you?

Are you married?

Yes? Do you have children? How many?

If not. Why not? And, Holy of Holies –

How much do you earn?

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Poor language skills can be a hindrance anywhere but can never deter a keen, avid traveler. Communication therefore never really breaks down, for the Vietnamese are a friendly chatting people. Engage in banter and conversation that is in any case going nowhere, dissolves in laughter. There is no Vietnamese script, yet reading road signs is simple & easy – not only because of ‘Translate’. Mind your words though for each takes on a different meaning depending upon the scale – high, low, flat.

My ‘Umbrella Hat’ is an instant hit, inviting friendly smiles & stares. The reason I am certain, is to do with the traditional concept of beauty where girls must be very fair (Yellow race?) & have long black hair. Which is why you see so many peering eyes from beneath the body,hands & face ,all swaddled up against the sun.

A typical Vietnamese home will have one large bed in every room. It is used both for eating & sleeping. The toilet is the ‘happy’ place. Ask me why? Because, everyone goes in unhappy & come out relieved.

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Local Beauty

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World heritage site, Halong Bay.Volcanic outcrops rising 250 meters above sea level

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Elephant Eye Fish

One can survive on the great variety of tropical fruits but this is a food paradise. Vietnamese eat everything that walks, crawls, flies or swims. The menu at ‘Diem Phuong’ a restaurant on the Mekong had – among other things – a rice paper wrap with filling of Elephant Eye Fish, pineapple, salad & dip. The pancake had duck eggs & pork. Not much of a Foodie I was the only one asking probing questions until someone shut me up with a ‘ never mind. Just eat’. And  I did & it was delicious.

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railway platform, Hue

An overnight journey by train is highly recommended. I did Hanoi – Hue/ Hue – Saigon with a halt at Hue, most charming of medieval cities, steeped in culture & history.

Train stations/ GA are clean & orderly. There is a waiting area as gates to the platform open half an hour before the train arrives. You simply show your ticket & board. No rush, no porters, no fuss. I didn’t know what to expect & ended up having a great time. A food trolley would come by every now & then laden with everything from meat, chicken & fish to beer & wine. And there was 24 hour cold/ hot water for coffee, tea, instant noodles.

The two & half-hour ride from Hue to Danang  is stunning & can be ranked among the most spectacular in the world especially, the 21 km segment where the train goes through seven long tunnels & crosses the Hai Van or the Ocean Cloud pass. So named as it evokes the mist that rises from the sea. The landscape alternates between mountain & sea, at times both on either side, mountain on the right, ocean to the left. It is magical.

Low hills & rolling plains with men & women in non lai, (traditional conical hat) working fields & vegetable patches. Dense forests, orchards, picturesque homesteads, paddy fields,  family tombs whiz by. There’s  never a dull moment. Gazing long hours out of the window has never been such a real & simple pleasure.

The train arrives at Ho Chi Minh City early next morning – to the strains of loud revolutionary music. A rude wake up call that is in itself an experience.

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Entrance, District Halong

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French era bridge across the Red river, Hanoi

Vietnam has moved on after the ravage of war. It has world class infrastructure, super highways, roads, water & electricity. There are coffee shops, bars, massage parlors, gardens & parks with varied gym equipment for free public use.

Sets one wondering on the significance of the lotus in  national psyche. It is found abundantly & has a Buddhist connect, but the reason for it holding prime importance in local culture is because it motivates. Mired in slime & muck it inspires to rise above circumstance.

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Flower Seller, on a Cyclo

The young are not religious. Mammon is God & most homes have altars where incense is lit, for prosperity. The government, no less, runs ‘Humanity’ Centers that are located  along the tourist trail. These showcase hand made weaves, arts & crafts created by the physically & mentally challenged – victims of American aggression, chemical warfare that maimed & killed over 3 million. The products are beautiful but smacks of rank commercialization. One comes away feeling sad at the crass milking of human misery.

A bus ride into the countryside has us gawking at a church like structure with a Swastika on top. It turns out to be a Cay Di place of worship. Cay Di, being a new faith that purports to combine the best from all religions.

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The Museum

And what of the ugly war that continues to fascinate & attract? There is little talk about it for though it belongs to the recent past, the past is history. The world however loves to remember, the only country to have defeated three super powers. Is it now gearing up for another round, in the South China Sea, perhaps. “That’s not what we call it”, says an official correcting me. “It is our Eastern Sea”

A motorcycle ride through the broad, tree lined streets of Saigon brings us to the war museum. It is on three floors & is an unabashed no – holds- barred display of the futility & ugliness of war. Heavy duty, full on stuff with documentation that makes one cringe. Unspeakably moving, there is pathos, real politic, heroism, tragedy, crime & bestiality. Along with lessons – on patriotism, the necessity of peace & respect for the tradition of war (when an absolute must)

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Cu Chi tunnels

And so, to the Cu Chi tunnels. In the middle of thick green woods it owes its inventiveness to the inhabitants of Cu Chi itself & to the genius of Ho Chi Minh. Constructed at three levels, underground, it is an over 200 km labyrinthine. A network of design both intricate & simple, like a spider web. Only the puny can enter; which is what an average Vietnamese in any case is. (Also noticed: puny bees that do not sting & a historic obsession with Bonsai)

The day ends with a drink at the ‘Gecko’ a backpacker favorite in the Old Quarter. I order ‘Sorrows of the War’ – a cocktail of Cointreau, gin, lemon, sugar, cinnamon, aniseed, cardamom – that is priced at a whopping 88,000 Dong. (Don’t be aghast, works out to very little.)

Maggie loves it all. I encounter her in the back lanes of a Saigon alley, sitting on an armchair, reading a novel, unmindful of the hurly burly surrounding her. At 70 plus, this old lady from New Zealand has been here for 5 years.

How did she like it?

“ Love it”

Learn Vietnamese?

“No need to. A snap of the fingers & everything’s there”

 

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Eastern Sea/ South China Sea: view from the train

 

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Punky Funky Monk: Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue

Roady Toady

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national highway

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Bombay – believe it or not

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Heritage train Matheran

Vroom, vroom…… off we go, full throttle. The car surges onto NH 22 which becomes a 6 lane a short distance further. Hazy mountain outlines hover into view then become large, dark looming shapes.The first glimpse of approaching destination is always an adrenaline rush. Strange as it sounds, this to me is love of country. Gripping patriotic mania. Nothing quite like a road trip to bring it on.

Needless to provoke & annoy with forced vande matarams & bharat mata jais? Do a ‘Bharat Darshan’ instead. The countryside is beautiful.

“Vindhya, Himachal, Yamuna, Ganga……

Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha

Dravid, Utkal, Banga”

I could be on the road forever. Taking in colour & sound, meeting ‘real’ people – away from it all.

Whoever called us lazy? We are most industrious. Seriously. Imagine another country with our kind of weather & see if they could slog it like us.

I have seen Biharis break stones on the heights of Ladakh. Sleeping out in the cold, eating ‘khichri’, laying roads. Stretches of highway with milestones marking the distance to the farther most posts.

Mana:100 miles

500 miles to Mana

Mana:1000 miles.

In the cities traffic is chaotic. Adding to the cacophony is dust, heat, noise, pollution & people. Hordes of them. Men & women, full of zest, energy & drive.

Trust an outsider, a foreigner to point this out & who better than Kristoff, a third time visitor who revels in the chaos.

After getting his fill of madness he will return to the dreary orderliness of existence back home. The soap opera meanwhile…….

(He was outside an ATM, patiently waiting his turn, knowing fully well that the machine may soon run out of cash, as it had, all over Goa that season. Sundance, X’mas, New Year, peak holiday time – no matter.)

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inside a restaurant – no kidding

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India: could be anywhere

 

Step out of the national capital & notice the stark rural – urban, agro – industrial divide where Bharat, not India wins.

Ever seen a Maruti 800 or an aircraft upon a rooftop? You never will until you begin to stir out, for both these are prestige & décor items in rural Punjab. So is the truck parked inside a restaurant with headlights on. Free interior decoration tips, anyone?

Never heard of ‘Maruta’?

A contraption used by farmers, it is in effect, a cross between tractor & car – the ubiquitous Maruti once again.

Make no mistake both Bharat & India are changing –  fast. Hop on to the bandwagon, join the roadshow, take a trip – physical & metaphorical & witness the change.

There is a new cockiness in the air.

A Rabari woman in Gujarat, begging for alms, gives up with a disgusted “eh, mara Babo ne chocolate aapo na”. Don’t miss ‘Babo’ – her darling son. And what does Babo want? Chocolates. Not milk.

In Chakrata, I go scouting for a medicine the lone chemist does not have. He cannot provide a substitute, nor does he think it’s available anywhere up in those hills.

Try Dr. Joshi, instead.

I walk down the road & ask for Rosave 20 or anything else the doctor can recommend.

“You won’t find it ”, says he.

Why not?

“Because nobody here has high cholesterol. Take my word. ‘chiknai kam karo’.

And yet. Some things never change.

In the Prime Ministers constituency there is round the clock activity involving infra structure. All day one hears, the roar of engines going up & down the river, dredging & cleaning the Ganga & the ghats.

Getting off a rickshaw at Assi ghat, I ask, “ how much’?

Adjusting a mouthful of swish n swim saliva, he answers ——

“Don’t spit,“ I yell, seeing the intent “ you are not to spit”.

Yes, he nods in agreement & smiles.

And out comes the spittle. Jet like. Right there, next to me. Juicy red stains on the floor.

Kya karein!

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time on my hands

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Homestay

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still hoping

Journeys in time

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Honors for ruthless efficiency must go to El Al. Despite before – hand warnings we were shell shocked. Gawd, what a grilling!

A Moshe Dayan look alike, on that Delhi – Tel Aviv flight added to the mystique. He was curious about everything including my reason for not flying my national carrier & went on to explain his country’s focus on ‘terror’ & ‘security’. This was pre 9/11. Early days, yet Israel was all on edge. We touched down at Ben Gurion to loud claps & cheers. Unfamiliar & a bit unnerving but quite the norm apparently. Glad to be home safe, I guess.

Two hostesses met us with placards & food coupons, escorting us to the transit lounge, to rest until the onward flight to Cairo that evening.

But. But. But.

Was there a problem? With multi entry visas, we had no intention hanging around the airport. There was a full day in hand with plans for Jaffa.

Exiting the terminal taking a precise number of steps (as instructed by “Lets Go”, our bible on the move) before us lay ‘this’ ‘that’ & the other. Everything as described – exactly. To our right, was a bus stop, from where we could take Egged bus no: 495/ 3.90 Shekels/ 40 minutes to Jaffa. The landmarks along the way came as mentioned, the lighthouse our ‘get off ’ point.

Wandering around Andromeda fort, St Peter’s monastery & Museum of Antiquities we were back at the airport in time for the flight to Egypt.

Yafo, as the Israelis called it, was a gem. What a beautiful sight, watching young artists sitting & sketching on the stone steps leading down to the waters. Digging into fresh tuna sandwich and the sea, a perfect blue.

Flying El Al was a mistake. It was a pain, entering Israel or exiting. If latter the question sternly asked was whether one had visited Palestinian areas. If yes, the next question was why?

Israel’s a remarkable country notwithstanding. I shall forever carry memories of Yad Vashim, the youthful zest & energy of Tel Aviv, Ein Geidi the perfect relax by the Dead Sea & soul stirring Masada.

Not to forget Jerusalem. It touches like none other. The pinkish hue of your stones Jerusalem – early morning, late evening & into the night.

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Zion Square Jerusalem

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Ein Geidi

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There was no such fuss at Cairo International. Touch down at midnight & Zafar, to meet & escort us to our hotel – ‘The President’

Egypt was tremendous. The size & scale of monuments truly mind boggling. But there was something strangely out of sync too. A kind of historical disconnect. As if the present didn’t quite flow from the past. This, said with the benefit of hindsight no doubt but the feeling was constantly there.

A pity we didn’t make it to Alexandria but lucky we did to Cairo, Aswan & Luxor.

Cairo to Aswan by train is an overnight, 15 hour journey. The smiling attendant on board could not figure out temperature control; hence we were left freezing or stewing to death, depending upon whether the AC was switched on or off. The matter was resolved by keeping it permanently on. Sleeping bags were rolled out (shivering Sahara) and we went silently to sleep.

There is something fascinating about rivers. A kind of magic that uplifts & delights, be it the Mekong, Ganges or the Nile. We did the mandatory Nile cruise of course, though it was disappointing to see a placid & tame river. The Nubians along the banks invited us to their home – invitation declined as intentions suspect.

Tall, handsome & appealing they looked splendid in plain white attire.

And the children with the donkeys, ambling along playfully, calling out to toss them a coin.

 

On ‘Captains Night’, I slipped into a Gallabiya, to surface as queen of ancient Egypt. My prize? A queen. No less. A hand crafted, long necked, elegant Nefertiti.

Sailing into Luxor billboards exhorted us to smile.

“ Smile – you are now in Luxor”. Big, broad, tree lined streets. Houses with ivory white exteriors & colonnaded verandahs. A wind – surf swept promenade along the bend of the river. It was a typical colonial town.

Think Egypt & one thinks Giza, Sphinx, Pyramids – naturally

And Amal, our gorgeous guide – if I may.

On the way to the airport, there was a sudden, fierce & sinister darkening of the sky with winds at over 60 miles blowing sand into the face & eyes. Uprooting everything along its path. We are lucky we discover, for this is the infamous khamaseen – desert storm,  not to be missed phenomenon.

My one lingering memory remains the taste of fresh Hibiscus juice that was served by the gallon, day & night.

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Cyprus happened for one reason alone. AKG. The entire 5 country trip in fact was courtesy him. Rather late in the day for an acknowledgement but a ‘thank you’ is in order, so thank you, Ashok Kumar Ganapaty. Out on a lark for a month & a half, without credit card or insurance, one wonders today at the audacity. What if ? ….. Such ignorance! It turned out was bliss.

Arriving at Larnaca past midnight, my friend Denise breezes past immigration while I am asked to step out of line & wait. The fault is in my stars. The snag, in the passport, where I am ‘male’. How come nobody had noticed? Not even all knowing – all seeing El Al? The joke on them, finally. It was nice to get even.

The moon is up as we hit the 4 lane from Larnaca to Nicosia, Ashok’s brand new BMW adding to the exhilaration. We have three nights in Cyprus with Ashok & Mo who show us around the little isle, everything from Kykkos monastery up in the Troodos to beach resorts at Limassol & Agia Napa.

Cyprus is pristine, pure, and idyllic. A country with zero pollution (UN statistics). State of the art roadways with miniature orange trees planted as road dividers. Does nobody ever pluck the fruit? Or is it mere ornamental?

What surprised one most were the number of Philipinos working as maids, in every second household almost.

Also, the large number of hunchbacks. What could possibly be the reason?

Any guesses, anyone?

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With Mo & Denise: Amphitheatre Cyprus

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As the aircraft began its  descent the outline of the Greek archipelago hovered into view. It was like an atlas laid out before the eyes. The waters of the Aegean & the Mediterranean mingling into a dramatic expanse of blue. Athens – 1997 was an exciting place & time to be.

An airport taxi brought us to 75 Damareus Street. The number 75 emblazoned boldly on the door & Yannis there to open it. He did so with a little Anthony Quinn style flourish.

To find our bearings –  first a recce by tram & bus before exploring the city on foot. In the next 10 days we were to cover every inch of ground almost, much as a local would have done.

Greece is  gorgeously hedonistic. A place where one feels no embarrassment. Where Epicurus thrives & survives. It was once a Phallocentric society & though it has long moved on to several denominations of Christianity, one does not feel the kind of disconnect that one does in Egypt.The Greeks know how to live it up. Athens is alive & bustling with musicians, dancers, street performers, theatre & festival. What to say about finding a real life Organ Grinder on the streets – never expected to see one, ever.

The 70 kms drive to Cape Sounion runs entirely along the coastline. Low hills descend to pine groves on the beach. It is spectacular.

Sixteen Doric columns of the Temple of Poseidon {6BC) is all that remains on the promontory. Sitting on the rock jutting out into the sea there is the Aegean deep down below, blue skies & howling winds above. Did Shelley actually drown here? Or is it, as some believe the site of lost Atlantis? Clearly visible in the far distance is the Bay of Corinth. Breath taking!

Timeless beauty marred as usual by the mundane. The last few days saw strikes & demonstrations. Demonstrations outside parliament & random strikes as buses went off roads & garbage piled high. Greece was in turmoil. It was a mess.

As were we.

After that many days of being on the road, a day was set aside for general admin. Yannis allowed us the use of his antiquated washing machine in which a coin had to be dropped for it to take off with a roar. There was no washing powder but we managed a bar of soap that was grated & used. This, from Maria’s shop. ‘Namaste Maria’, as we called her. Having lived some months in Delhi she knew a smattering of Hindi & always loved to greet us with a ‘namaste’

At 75 Damareus meanwhile, Yannis continued to regale. On May 15, Denise’s birthday, he danced a ‘Zorba the Greek’, offering to teach us the steps. But we were off, to a celebratory dinner at ‘La Bonita’ where Poulos would serve the choicest wine & cuts.

And what of Yannis? One didn’t quite know what to make of him. Much like the graffiti on the walls. The zaniest ever:

“create your own space”

“ forget the housework, come to Greece”

“the same shit – another day”

“no girl, no job, no money – no problem”

and ……..most intriguing –  “Greek men made easy”

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Hajipir 1965

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We proudly celebrated 50 years of the 1965 war this year. It is therefore befitting to recall the valour & sacrifice of those who made the victory possible.

 

Some reminiscences then, of the capture of Hajipir – Pt 13620, straight – as it were – from the horses’ mouth.

 

Code named Operation Bakshi, 68 Infantry Brigade was tasked with the execution. The orders went out on Aug 15,1965 & Hajipir was in Indian hands by August 28.

 

There were casualties, feats of endurance & bravery but the hero undoubtedly was Gen RS Dyal MVC, PVSM.

 

I have had the honour & the pleasure of meeting the General & distinctly recall a misty November morning, 4 years ago when veterans got together at Nahan for yet another Hajipir Day celebration.

 

A small close knit group had collected around their former Commanding Officer & one of them was heard saying “chalo Saab, assi phir Hajipir chalein

This has been the general lament. A constant refrain heard over & over again, of veterans wanting to know why Hajipir was returned.

But that is another story.

 

On August 28 this year, there was chai & pakoras, joy & bonhomie as Mrs Dayal inaugurated the auditorium named after her late husband. Former comrades in arm reunited. Some limping, some hard of hearing, they back slapped, joked & talked, graphically recalling tales of glory & of their ‘famous’ victory.

 

Col Bindra

Col JCM Rao

Brig AS Baicher

etc etc etc the roll of honour rolls on.

 

All, young 19-20- 21 year olds then & mostly without a clue except, for their inspiring Company Commander Maj RS Dyal who urged his men on, displaying outstanding leadership for which he was awarded the MVC.

 

While Col Bindra gave a presentation with complete military details the others talked of lighter moments like playing volleyball with the enemy prior to hostilities or of engaging him in fierce hand to hand combat when it came to the crunch. They had shared ONE toothbrush & had eaten half cooked meat sans salt or spice – the taste, still lingering in the mouth. The same old war stories ad nauseam but quite different when hearing it from them.

Minor details: On the final assault the soldiers walked 4000’ on foot.

Their field rations were soggy ‘shakarparas’ & biscuits. Soggy, because there had been unexpected showers the night before.

Hajipir was captured at 1100 hrs on August 28,1965. The enemy thereafter, made repeated attempts to recapture the pass, but was successfully thwarted. In recognition of its indomitable spirit & gallantry 1Para earned one MVC, one VRC, 2 SM & 4 Mention in Despatches, along with Battle Honour Hajipir & Theatre Honour Jammu & Kashmir.

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Major RS Dyal

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The Tricolour atop Hajipir

Post Script

 

One may well ask, what manner of men are these? The following story narrated by Maj Gen VB Batra may just provide an inkling.

 

“Two years later, in 1967, the Indian army conducted Exercise ‘Betwa’ in Central India

It was a 45 day affair intended to test new methodologies in mechanized warfare.

1 Para – then part of 50 Para Brigade – was commanded by Lt Col RS Dyal.

I, was a Capt, a Battery Commander then & was affiliated to him. Watching him operate at close quarters, was for me a learning experience. There were lessons pertaining not only to military training but life as well. He’d explain Infantry tactics over a drink……. I still have a book he presented -The battle of Dien Bien Phu’ “

 

Gen Batra also mentioned a 3 day training capsule they were part of.

In a loud booming voice he had heard CO 1 Para exhort his men to go hungry, to stay without sleep & to march, move & dig from position to position.

Most importantly he led by example. Baton in hand, Lt Col Dyal would make the rounds, checking each detail every night. If anyone were caught napping he’d poke & shove the fellow in the rib, startling him out of sleep.

The Capt asked, “ Sir, how do these chaps let you do this to them? what if someone were to snatch the baton or stall you. Would it not be an embarrassment? “

 

mein kabhi kisi ka pate nahin kaat taa” replied the man. Meaning that he neither meant, nor ever did anybody any ‘real’ harm. That was his philosophy. Earthy & elementary. Like the man himself. He was a simple, self contained person, much loved & respected by the soldiers he commanded.

 

Add to that the formidable reputation he had acquired post 1965.

 

His only indulgence it turns out, was the pleasure of good quality Scotch. He liked his drink & the story goes that Chokharam, the barman had remembered to carry it right up to Hajipir that day.

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Mrs Indira Gandhi with troops

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The indomitables Continue reading