A Fauji Love Story
I do not remember how a Gurkha Johny came to be attached to my squadron. Now let me first explain some of these military jargon to make it palatable for my civilian friends. ‘Johny’ is an affectionate term the officers use in the army to refer to the lowest ranking soldier variously known as Sepoy, Gunner, Signalman etc, in different arms and services (whose lot make up the bulk of army’s manpower and is yet to be promoted to NCO – Non Commissioned Officer – rank, like Naik, Havildar etc). A ‘squadron’ is the basic subunit (3or 4 subunits make a unit) of an armoured (or cavalry) regiment made up of about 100 men, equivalent of an infantry company. A soldier is said to be ‘attached’ to a unit when he does not belong to it, but is temporarily brought under it, when assigned some duty in the area the unit is located which is far from the location of his parent unit. For example, a soldier belonging to a unit located at Chandgarh on a temporary assignment in Pune can be attached to a unit in Pune so that his boarding and lodging are taken care of. Now having clarified that part let’s get to the story.
My squadron was located outside a village by the name of Vairengte in the foothills of Mizoram, 50-odd kilometres from the Assamese township of Silchar in the plains. Ours was an independent squadron operating away from our regiment which was in Punjab and we were equipped with armoured scout cars and not tanks. We were brought in there in early sixties, when the Mizo insurgency was at its peak, to provide protection to the road convoys, much before I joined the squadron. By the time I joined it in late sixties, the insurgency had been generally contained and the army no more considered it prudent to blow up whole lot of money on petrol our scout cars guzzled as they raced up and down the hills with every other convoy. Our operational role thus was restricted to a periodic road patrol (which was more of a flag march) and protecting VIP convoys carrying some senior brass. Consequently, we found ourselves enjoying a rather leisurely routine; PT in the morning, couple of hours’ office work and equipment maintenance, a nice siesta and good about two hours basketball in the afternoon before we retired to our sundowners and dinner. This was a godsend change for me who had hardly had a breather in my service of little over two years as a young officer who, as the army’s traditional norm went, was someone to be perennially kicked around. At this instance, I was particularly lucky because I was also in command of the squadron, a rare honour for someone who could be taken to be still wet behind the ears in service. What happened was that our regiment had a terrible shortage of officers and was forced to promote many like me, who had just about completed two years as second lieutenants, to captains skipping the four years we were supposed to put in as full lieutenants before we made that rank. Thus I had ended up as the second-in- command of a squadron, a post normally held by an officer of six or seven years service. On top of that, the major who was commanding the squadron had to go on his annual leave of two months, leaving me to officiate in his post. Consequently, I found myself holding a post which should have been held by someone at least ten years senior to me. Imagine my elation at the freedom and authority it bestowed on me. It was only slightly diminished by the fact that instead of the four lieutenants who should have been there under me as troop leaders there was just one, the remaining posts held in lieu by JCOs (Junior Commissioned Officers who hold ranks like Subedar, Risaldar etc, the highest an enlisted soldier can rise to, and form a second line of command after officers). To cut to the chase, there I was, a young officer in his early twenties with barely two years of service, in command of a 100 soldiers, deployed in a remote village of Northeast India, with nothing much to occupy myself by way of either work or play and no one around in close proximity to boss over me. It was necessary to paint this background to put you firmly in saddle with me to take the story forward.
One fine morning I was at my office desk and, having swiftly finished signing whatever papers the squadron clerk had wanted me to (these being mostly meaningless papers like weekly ‘reports and returns’ which no one probably looked at), was waiting for the tea and pakkoda which appeared without fail at mid morning when the whole squadron took a ‘tea break’. This was also the hour the SDM (Squadron Daffadar Major, a Daffadar being the cavalry equivalent of a Havildar), the kingpin of the squadron in all matters that concerned discipline (as his counterpart, the ‘Sergeant Major’ is, in all armies of the world), marched in, offered his smart salute and formally apprised me that one of the soldiers had sought a personal interview with me. Now, quite unlike what the army is in popular perception outside, it is quite democratic in its HR management. A soldier is free to seek a personal interview with his commanding officer without revealing the reason and he has to be granted the same within 24 hours. I was a bit surprised because ours was a more or less contended unit with hardly any grievances that needed redressing. I was even more surprised when the SDM mentioned who the individual was. It was Bahadur (don’t remember his full name again; we all called him Bahadur), he said, the infantry Johny attached to us. I couldn’t imagine a single reason why Bahadur, of all the people, should have felt aggrieved in the squadron. Although I had spoken to him only on a couple of occasions, that too just cursorily checking on his welfare, I had found him to be a cheerful fellow much liked by everyone in the squadron. For one thing, our men were all Sikhs and the short squat form of Bahadur with hardly any facial hair among these tall, bearded men made for a rather interesting contrast. But a Gurkha being a Gurkha, he had endeared himself to the entire squadron, voluntarily lending a hand to any work at hand and always appearing with a broad smile, never giving any indication of being aggrieved in any manner. I gave my nod and, on a word of command from the SDM, Bahadur marched in with perfectly drilled movements, stamped his foot hard and gave me a super smart salute that had every sinew in his muscular arms and neck stretched. ‘Jai Hind Shaab’, he greeted me loudly in that typical Gukha accent.
The SDM remained outside to grant Bahadur his privacy with me and I asked him, ‘Bolo, Bahadur, kya bath hai?’ (Tell me, Bahadur, what is it?) ‘Mohobat ho gaya Shaab.’ (Fallen in love, Sir.)
I could barely hide my smile at the way he spoke without a subject, while I fully understood he was speaking about himself only. All the same, I asked, ‘Kis ka mohobat hua?’ (Who has fallen in love?)
‘Mera Shaab.’ (I have Sir.) Prompt came the reply.
‘Phir, problem kya hai?’ (So, what’s the problem?)
‘Shaadi karna hai, Shaab.’ (I want to get married, Sir.)
‘Bahut badia, karlo shaadi.’ (That’s great, go on and get married.)
‘Ladki ka gharwala nahin mantha hai, Shaab.’(The girl’s family doesn’t approve, Sir.)
‘Phir kya ho gaya? Ladki tayyar hai to jakke shaadi karo.’ (So what? If the girl is agreeable, go ahead and get married.)
‘Usko bahar nahin chodtha hai, Shaab. Us ka ek sala hai; vo paisa mangtha hai.’ (They don’t let her out, Sir. She has a brother-in-law; he demands money.)
‘Dhahro, tumhara matlab hai ki us ka gharwala vaisa samiat hai; lekin ladki ki sala paisa mangta hai?’ (Hold on, you mean to say her family as such agrees, but her brother-in-law demands money; is that right?)
‘Ji Shaab, bahut kharab aadmi hai Shaab.’ (Yes Sir, he’s a very bad man Sir.) By now Bahadur was almost in tears.
‘Hoga zarur, kitna paisa mangtha hai vo?’ (I’m sure he is; how much money he’s demanding?)
‘Das hazar Shaab.’ (Ten thousand, Sir.) That was a shocker. Where could a poor Johny earning a hundred rupees or so a month (those days a second lieutenant started off at a monthly salary of Rs.400 and a senior captain drew below 1000) raise that kind of money? I wondered what the boy wanted from me; maybe he expected the squadron, or me personally, to back him with funds, both of which were beyond the realm of possibility.
‘Har is men ham kya kar sakta hai?’ (So what can I do about it?) I asked seriously with apprehension.
‘Baat karna hai Shaab.’ (You have to speak Sir.) Bahadur answered without hesitation as if he was absolutely prepared for the question.
‘Kis se baat karna hai?’ (Speak to whom?)
‘Vo sala se, vo aap ka baat maan jayega’, (To the brother-in-law, he will listen to you.) It was ridiculous of him to expect that I, an officer, would act as the mediator with some villager in the love affair of a soldier. If I didn’t get annoyed, it was only because I had spend enough time in the army by then to be well-aware of the exalted position an officer was held in the troops’ psyche in general, especially in that of the Gurkhas. An officer was a kind of demigod to them, who would never fail them – there was nothing an officer couldn’t accomplish if he put his mind to it! I realized that there was no way I was going to plead helplessness and order Bahadur out of my office. I would have betrayed the very faith that cemented the officer-soldier bond. I had to help him, come hell or high-water, though I didn’t have a goddamn clue how to go about it. Bahadur was waiting, still in attention, watching me expectantly.
‘Dhik hai,’ (Fine) I told him formally at length. ‘Line mein jakkar indazar kijie; aap ko baad mein bulaya jayaga.’ (Go to the barracks and wait; you will be summoned later.)
‘Dhik hai Shaab.’ He once again gave me a powerful salute and marched out smartly, brimming with happiness as I could see, as if his whole problem had been solved by my merely agreeing to consider his case. I called in the SDM and asked him to summon ‘Risaldar Sahib’, the Senior Sardar (JCO), my chief adviser and guide on all matters of command, as well as the only other officer, a lieutenant. I was going to hold a war council to explore how Bahadur could be helped out in his romantic quest.
The Senior Sardar wasn’t very enthusiastic about our getting into unnecessary hassle on what he felt was essentially the personal matter of a soldier, that too an attached one. He needed some convincing that we had a moral obligation to back a soldier who had reposed his faith in us. His own unit would certainly have done that. It is not that I needed consent of the Senior Sardar to do what I wished; but that’s not the way the army worked. Age and experience were always respected; the man was almost as old as my father; he was already a soldier while I wasn’t even born. As for the lieutenant, he immediately endorsed my view; more because he found the brother-in-law an outright villain who needed taming. Fed on crime fictions he enjoyed reading, he instantly propounded a theory that the fellow eyed the girl amorously and longed to keep her for himself, which was his sole motive to block her marriage. The SDM, a trigger-happy guy if ever there was one, jumped to the support of ‘Lieutenant Sahib’ immediately and even suggested that he go to the girl’s house straightaway, haul her troublesome brother-in-law out and present him in front of me, so that I could order him to lay off. The Senior Sardar checked his enthusiasm with a mild rebuke and advised caution, suggesting that we discuss the matter with the Gaon Buddah, the village elder. We had been having a fairly good rapport with the old man, the squadron having had done a lot of good work in the village by way of laying a football field as well as helping to build extra classrooms for the local school and suchlike, as part of the fraternization drive the local army formation had taken up. An occasional football match between the local youth and our men promoted much goodwill. The Sardar’s argument was that we shouldn’t do anything that upset the social customs of the locals which would run contrary to our fraternization objectives. I had to give into that logic and a delegation headed by me with the Sardar in tow set off to meet the Gaon Buddah. Since the old fellow spoke only the local dialect, which we weren’t too conversant with, I roped in the assistance of the headmaster of the local school, a Shillong-educated gentleman who spoke impeccable English whom I had befriended, to act as the interpreter (Liberal in his outlook, he readily threw in his lot with us, agreeing that a girl should have her freedom to choose her life partner). Though the Gaon Buddah seemed none too happy with the development to begin with, he gradually gave in, since quite apparently he valued his relationship with the squadron (and the occasional bottle of booze we gifted him) as well as the recommendation from the headmaster, whom he held in high esteem, being the head of the only educational institution in the locality. However all that we could extract from him was that he would assume a laissez-faire stand should the girl walk out on her family to marry Bahadur and the family lodged a complaint with him. Yet it was something; at least we needn’t be worried about any hostile reaction from the local community if we engineered the marriage to take place somehow. I was certain that there wouldn’t be a problem from the higher-ups in the army either, if the word got around. The army actually encouraged officers and men getting married locally, subtly though. It was considered a welcome move to win the hearts and minds of people.
The ideal solution in such a situation would have been for Bahadur to elope with the girl. The lieutenant even suggested that we give him some leave so he can do just that. But there were problems; his parent unit alone could give him leave of any long duration sufficient enough for him to move the girl to his home in Nepal. I couldn’t possibly permit him to be absent without leave. Bahadur wanted to marry the girl and keep her in the same village where he could visit her while on out pass from the squadron. He had already found a small basha (a bamboo house) that he would rent for her to stay. He did not foresee any problems once the marriage was solemnized. That was what he wanted my help for. Tricky issue it was, since the Gaon Buddah wasn’t coming forward to talk the girl’s people into it. Nevertheless, we drew out an operational plan to ‘execute’ the wedding. It helped that Bahadur still met the girl on occasions at a secret rendezvous.
On the morning of the ‘wedding day’ we set out with the ‘barat’ led by me riding my Squadron Commander’s jonga with its pennant flying (Though I was only a puny captain, by virtue of our being in an operational area, I could show off flying the regimental pennant which was supposed to be flown by tanks in battle), with the bridegroom seated behind in the passenger section with a Sowar (Rider or Trooper, the cavalry equivalent of a Sepoy) of ours for his escort. Following us was a 1-ton half truck carrying the SDM and another six Sowars. We screeched to a halt in front of the girl’s house which was situated right beside the main road and the SDM and his 6-men detail stepped out of the1-tonner. The SDM then briskly strode up to the door and knocked. A man opened the door, who we knew was the spoil-sport brother-in-law of the bride, since Bahadur had given us to know that there was no other male member in the family. Nevertheless, the SDM took a couple of seconds to verify his identity before gesturing towards my jonga and asking him to move over to the vehicle since I, his Commanding Officer, would like to have a word with him. The man, caught unawares, walked over nervously to the jonga. I kept sitting in the vehicle and greeted him with a ‘Good Morning’ and a cheerful smile. Then I told him in Hindi, which I had been told he understood well and spoke, that I had come to personally invite him for a wedding reception to be hosted at our squadron area that evening for one of our soldiers who was getting married and his bride. While I was speaking, the bride stepped out of the house, and escorted by the SDM, walked swiftly to my jonga, to be helped into the passenger section by Bahadur in a jiffy (He had met her secretly in advance and given her the exact time and date to be ready). Even as her brother-in-law realized what was happening, I continued to give him the cheery smile, telling him that, as he should know, the bride was none other than his sister-in-law. ‘Here, I have brought a gift for you’, I told him joyfully handing him a bottle of Hercules xxx Rum, which my driver passed over to me. ‘Enjoy yourself; have a nice day’. Our 2-vehicle convoy moved off quietly, as the man stood there statue-like holding the bottle.
The convoy headed straight for Silchar, little over an hour’s drive away. That town being a district headquarters, we were certain that we could arrange a ‘registered marriage’ for the couple there. However, preoccupied with the nitty-gritty of extricating the girl unobtrusively, it hadn’t struck us until too late that we didn’t really know how and where exactly a marriage was to be registered. While I had heard of registered marriages so often, I had no idea which civilian authority officiated the process. To my bewilderment not a single soul in the entire squadron, half of which consisted of married men, had a clue how to go about it (which led the lieutenant to lament for the squadron being so unromantic that it didn’t have a single fellow who had eloped with a girl and got married); let alone Bahadur who had assumed that once the girl left her house and joined him they were as good as married. On a blind guess we chose to go to the court of the district magistrate which we located easily by asking around. Only when all of us had stepped off our vehicles at the court premises, I saw the bride properly for the first time; and I was shocked by what I saw. Pretty as she was, to me she looked a school girl, all of fourteen at best. A shiver ran through my spine; I could be booked for kidnapping if anyone lodged a police complaint. I took Bahadur aside and asked him how old she was. The bugger had no idea – as far as he was concerned, ‘mohobat ho gaya’ and he could get married! I cursed my own folly and lack of prudence. Commonsense told me whoever the officer responsible for registering the marriage was, he was bound to demand the proof of age of the couple; and I was informed enough to know that a girl should be 18 before she could get married. For that matter, I wondered whether even Bahadur himself was 21, the minimum age for a male to marry, a detail I could have easily checked from his documents (My suspicion was soon confirmed when the SDM checked the boy’s date of birth in the pay book he was carrying and reported that he was yet to be 20). I was left with no doubt that I had landed myself in deep shit playing myself the Good Samaritan in such tearing haste. Nevertheless, there was no turning back now.
By asking around finally we were face to face with the officer who was in charge of marriage registration; cannot really recollect what designation he held. The man was quite courteous, but as much as I had anticipated, he demanded the proof of age of the bride and the bridegroom. Bahadur having already been instructed not to reveal his pay book, I vouched for him and the officer agreed to accept a certificate from me that he was above 21, the document having to mention my service particulars as per my identity card, which he made a point of verifying. But the girl’s case was altogether different because she was a civilian whom I had no authority to certify the antecedents of. He made no secret of his opinion that the girl did not appear to have reached 18; far too obvious a point no one in his right mind would contest and he wasn’t buying my lame argument that tribal people tend to look younger in appearance than those of other communities. I changed tack and enquired of him what the procedure was when someone couldn’t produce the proof of age; after all this might not be the first such instance. I also put forth an argument that I might well be competent to certify the girl’s age since I was a government official ranking equal to a civilian gazetted officer, and she lived in an area where I served. I knew it was a phony bloody argument; but luckily for me the officer was one of those civilian gentlemen who held the army in high regard. It also helped that the SDM had picked up a smattering of Assamese while on tenure with NCC some years ago at Guwahati, which he now put to good use trying to persuade the gentleman. Inclined to help if he could, the officer finally came up with a solution. Forget about any certification; I was required to submit an affidavit stating that to the best of my knowledge, both the bride and the bridegroom had attained marriageable age. We got to it in no time and, swiftly getting hold of a lawyer, had the affidavit drawn. I knew I was committing outright fraud – but didn’t they say that anything done in good faith is pardonable? Of course, even if the ‘good faith’ was merely about not letting down a Johny in love!
We were out of the court premises past noon, Bahadur and his sweetheart happily married. The first thing we did was to find a shop that dealt in ladies’ apparels. The girl had come wearing her ordinary daily wear and since indeed we had planned a reception that evening, it was only appropriate that she appeared in proper bridal costume. She being a Christian, we bought a white bridal gown of her choice with a veil and the rest of the paraphernalia. We also bought a complete bridegroom’s outfit of black suit and the rest for Bahadur. The lieutenant and I along with the JCOs and senior NCOs of the squadron had pooled funds to meet these expenses, while the reception would be taken care of from squadron resources, since it basically amounted to yet another ‘Barakhana’ (the traditional unit feast) only, the like of which we use to hold whenever an occasion to celebrate presented itself. We drove straight down to the headmaster’s house and, as we had fixed up earlier, dropped the girl there. She would be brought to the squadron location that evening for the reception in bridal attire, escorted by the headmaster and his two sisters, by transport we would arrange. We were back in squadron for a late lunch, mission accomplished.
The lieutenant was quite an event manager and the Senior Sardar a master administrator, and together they had organized a spectacular show for the evening. Almost the entire village was invited and so were a number of officers and other personnel of an infantry battalion, a JAK RIF one, located nearby, besides a brigadier who was commanding the Counter Insurgency School being newly set up in the locality. The reception in the evening was marked by great bonhomie with the villagers singing and dancing in a festive mood to the spirited cheering from our men, as the handsome newlyweds, elegantly attired, sat at a podium facing the gathering. The village girls performed a bamboo dance, and not to be outdone, our men staged a boisterous bhangra. The Gaon Buddah was there, and so was, to my great delight, the brother-in-law of the bride who had started it all, the three of us raising a toast to the triumph of love!