FOOD AT FAR-FLUNG FRONTIERS: NOSTALGIA

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A Peep into Sino-Indian confrontation era post ’62

Maj Gen R Karthikeyan (Retd)

Location: SHAKTHI POST

Guarding Tulung La Pass at erstwhile Kameng Frontier Division, NEFA. A far-flung, high-altitude, air-maintained post, reachable by a mule track after a few days trek. Self with a truncated training and early commission (nicknamed Chou en lai Commission), accelerated promotion to Captain due to shortage of mid-rung cadre, the post commander and Emperor of all we can survey, but at the mercy of angels in the garb of Air force Fairchild Packet planes, for our vittles and winter survival. We were trained in DZ (Drop Zone) Marking with RIGFA PANELS and conditioned to patient and prolonged stare into the horizon to get a glimpse of the airdrop mission approach. Radio sets were ANGRC 9 (American Army Navy Ground Radio Communication) with LOTCT ( LETTER ONE TIME CIPHER TABLE ) Coding. First pass was for warning and confirmation followed by second for Dry Rations, Kerosene, fresh and tinned stuff and lastly, MOH (Meat on Hoof), acronym for live goats in wooden crates! Some landed astride the DZ and few went into the deep gorge of the mountain stream! We also got mail (at the speed of a snail after traversing Censor and many FPOs). Notwithstanding, it was Celeb time. The mails also contained appropriate GREETINGS from the dispatching agencies to boost our morale. Inevitably, tragedy struck once in a while; like getting a batch of tinned Tinda and no other variety for a month. Our cook and family-trained men went on overdrive discovering how Tinda can be manipulated into Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner entrees day after day, till next airdrop.

WATERMILL MASAL DOSAI

When monotony and repetition killed our appetite and also eroded our morale and zest for life, something drastic needed to be done. Since nothing much was inside the Ration Box, we had to think outside the box!

During my occasional evening stroll and visit to the local Gompa (Buddhist place of worship), to tone up the civil military bonhomie, I used to pass a river bend where the water current was harnessed to run a watermill. Since there was no power, it functioned 24×7, except during the frozen season, with a very rhythmic “ Dhadak Dhadak” sound, pleasantly breaking the eerie silence bar the stream’s lilt of the flowing water. I wondered about the purpose of the watermill and after a long and assorted communication of local dialect matched with our sign language and Fauji expressions, it was learnt that the watermill drove a wooden plank forward and backwards over the riverbank’s flat rock-surface. Every full moon, the barks of an oak-like tree were shaved, wetted and fed into the rock top to be ground into a paste by the plank. The paste as then made into cylinders like our putty and fed into a hand press that produced noodle-like sticks, which were dried for a while and these, possessing a very nice and natural divine aroma, were the incense that were lit in the Gompa till the next full moon.

After paying much obeisance and cordial confabulations over Yak Butter tea, fondly named “Gudgud Cha”, due to the Gudgud noise of their tea press, we were able to conclude a MOU, placing the services of the watermill at the disposal of the garrison post for a few days with the condition not to commit any sacrilege with it.

My Senior JCO, hailing from Karnataka-Maharashtra Border, rose to the occasion and issued op instructions. Rice and Dal in well-discussed proportions were soaked overnight, wrapped in issue blankets due to ‘high alti’, as the men referred to high altitude and, when field trials failed, soaked for one more night. After a prayer at our Mandir inside one Arctic tent, and a prayer at the watermill and posting lookouts to ensure no disturbance from birds or pests; the rock surface was cleaned to the satisfaction of Subedar Sab and the wet grains fed into the surface to be ground as per expectation. Luckily, the mill patriotically produced good results in little time with no manual effort. The cook and honorary consultants decided on fermenting time and once again, put the batter under blankets. At last, the batter was declared fit for consumption and Dosas were spread on our Chappathi Tawa with great flair and elan. Thus after many months of monotony, the whole post including the Invited Lama Gurus enjoyed the feast of Masal Dosas. Thus, the very common Tiffin was elevated to Himalayan Heights!

Maj Gen R Karthikeyan
Maj Gen R Karthikeyan is an infantry officer and a battle-hardened veteran, who had had an illustrious career spanning nearly four decades, participating in every war India fought from the Sino-Indian confrontation of 1962 to the Kargil conflict of 1999. He lives in Chennai and can be reached at: karthikala@yahoo.com
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  • Subhash Anand
    Reply

    Very well written Karti. Really enjoyed going through your article. It reminded me of our early days in the submarines and the monotony of Russian food . Our first CO managed to persuade the GoI to despatch Indian spices ,dals and pickles by merchant ships to Vladivostok and thus made life bearable . Andy

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