THE PRAETORIAN GUARDS
Excerpts from the Autobiography of Captain Dick Head, a peerless Army Officer
That tenure of duty was like a dream sleep in a sunlit garden. My mud hut was some shepherd’s sheep yard of old. It was made of mud and stone and the coarsely dealt table was likely the work of the village carpenter who came to my company. I had a charpoy on which I had put slats to give it a hard surface. I had a kerosene lamp on the table and about twenty books that I was determined to read to give my persona a literary veneer. I had Jeffrey Archer and Sidney Sheldon from Western Literature; Twinkle Khanna and Shobha De would illuminate me with Indian literature. I was quite prepared for my personality transformation, living in the lap of coarse luxury under canvas, wood and tin. As far as I was concerned, this was the best sort of life. Far away from my battalion headquarters, seldom disturbed in my verdant paradise by the elevating intrusions of either the Commanding Officer or the Brigade Commander or the other worthy notables who wear scissor insignias on their shoulders. The whistling cannonades from Pakistani artillery had stopped. General Qamar Javed Bajwa was preserving the EFCs (equivalent full charge) of his ordnance, much of which harked back to the Iran-Iraq war and American Vietnam surpluses. Peach trees were in blossom around my mud cottage. Kashmiri nightingales sang and streams gargled past my two-roomed mud-and-beam cottage. I drank a carton of tetra pack milk and did two hundred pushups every morning. The words of my old father rang in my ears, “A Jat is a Jat only till the time he can do his pushups. If you can’t do your pushups, you are un-jatted and no better than a woman.” The Walnut trees were laden with green nuts. This delicious sojourn, like that of the poet Rumi of Lulla Mulla Ridge, soon threatened to get over for me. Rumours started flowing up the field telephone cables. I started hearing whispers that I was to go with the advance party of the battalion to Jhandbaba Cantonment in the hot plains of Punjab, our next station.
Presently, our company was deployed on the Line of Control and a few furlongs down the ridge was Lulla Mulla village. Don’t ask me the meaning of the village’s name. I didn’t keep it. I once asked a Kashmiri about the antecedents of the village’s peculiar name. He said that before the partition of India, in antiquated and unrecorded past, there lived a resident fakir in these parts whose real name and identity nobody knew. He was a very handsome, virile man. Childless couples from far and wide used to come to take his blessings, and they were gifted with bonny, robust children. Such was his fame that barren couples from as far as remote Samarkand and Bukhara, Peshawar and Dera Ghazi Khan used to make the pilgrimage to Lulla Mulla to seek the touch of the Fakir’s wand. This improbable tale that seemed to be lifted straight out of the Old Testament, left me wondering about the real child creating processes that might have been adopted by Lulla, the Fakir. There was a mazaar on which even the CO went to offer the chador.
When the battalion’s advance party reached Jhandbaba, the OC of the advance party called me and said, feigning fake warmth, the kinds that majors put on when cajoling juniors up the slippery path. “Look here my dear Dickhead, I am going to entrust you with a task of the greatest significance for our battalion. Next is our battalion’s turn to provide the guard at the Brigade Commander’s House. Why don’t you go and have a discreet look at Jhandbaba Flagstaff House and the present guard, just to get an idea? Then you can get our own guard ready. Drill them and practise their Salaami Shastras and all the jing bang and fart of drill. I will leave the job to you. It’s your baby henceforth.”
The commander’s house was a rambling old British Raj bungalow with old ghosts living in its pantry. Acres of khulla maidan on all sides; space enough to play polo chukkers in the front lawn itself and drill an infantry battalion. Old trees with thick trunks and grand canopies stood like old time’s sentinels on the boundaries of the bungalow. The long verandah stretched cool and spacious behind thick Doric pillars. The sepoy on duty at the grill gate stood on one side sucking at a beedi. His uniform had seen better days and was now a dull shade of lemony green by repeated washing. The sunlight had sucked all the olive green out of it. His boots though clean, stapled with thread, had received too many lifesaving interventions from the unit mochi. The toes looked as if they had tramped through the Icchogil Canal and been through the battle of Dograi. The soles of the boots spoke of long and honourable service to the Republic of India and had been reinforced with strips of auctioned Boeing aircraft tyres that cobblers all over India purchased from Karol Bagh godowns.
This villain-like apparition of soldierly excellence saw me and threw away his beedi, came to a casual ‘attenshun’ and drawled in sluggish, murdering, crocodilian Haryanvi accent, “Ram Ram Saabh” Here was our own private MacAuslan of the Jat Regiment. I wondered whether George MacDonald Fraser had drawn inspiration from a similar soldier when he created his funny and peerless fuckup master, Private MacAuslan of the MacAuslan trilogy, named “The General Danced At Dawn.” I went closer to this lethargic specimen of martial weediness. The dangling name tab pronounced his name as Sepoy Bhoop Singh (the same Sepoy Bhoop Singh whom all officers of Indian army greet in the pages of their YO’s precis, the JC precis, then in Senior Command lecture halls and I am told even in HDMC and NDC.)
I felt like freezing to attention in front of His Sterling Excellency, The One and Only, The Most Exalted, The Most Studied man of Indian army lexicon, Sepoy Bhup Singh himself. Long years of remorseless front-rolling in NDA had given me a core of stoic sangfroid. I overcame the altruistic urge of grovelling up to Sepoy Bhoop Singh and shaking hands with him. I had always wanted to meet the real Bhup Singh all these years. He was a personal hero to me. All I managed to croak out when meeting this celebrity figure however was, “Well, where is the JCO in charge of the Guard?”
“He’s gone to the battalion; will come back late.” answered Bhoop Singh.
“Tell me Bhoop Singh, any problems in the Guard duty? Next is our battalion’s turn for providing the guard here.” I said trying to give Haryanvi inflexions to my sentences, rolling my tongue nasally over the N sounds.
“Ye dooty toh kuch nahi saab, mamooli kaam, maza aawe sey (Sir, this duty is nothing, routine stuff, absolutely relaxed).”
I was impressed by the eye-catching slovenliness of the kacchas drying on a cable JWD clothesline in front of the guards’ room barrack, partially shielded by a perforated jaafri screen wall. Instead of a rifle, a brown bamboo laathi stood in the sentry box, leaning in a corner. A pie dog muzzled through the yellow potato curry and stale chappatis scattered on the ground next to the guardroom. Two jawans in khakhi shorts slept like stone on sagging newar beds. A poster of a voluptuous Bombay starlet scraped on the walls as the ceiling fan disturbed the fetid air of the barrack.
I came back that evening smug with the secret knowledge that it was a certainty that our guard would be better than the present guard at the flag staff house. Ours was a 200-year-old, blue-blooded Rajput Battalion claiming descent from the Sun God himself. Our standards were proudly stiff and sue generis, carrying the gilded edge of history and provenance. I felt miles above those slovenly and uncouth, dung-smelling, pastoral troops of the Jat Battalion deployed at the Flag Staff House. The Jats would not be able to light a candle to the platoon I would handpick for the Flag Staff House. Ours had been the Rashtrapati Bhawan battalion and we had many silver salvers for winning Army Drill Competitions on the walls of our Officers’ Mess. Our battalion had the record of sending the maximum number of drill Ustaads to IMA, Dehradun and other academies. Every company boasted about twenty mustachioed men, who were above six cubits tall, Drill Qualified from IMA Dehradun.
I had a month’s time to handpick the Praetorian Guard for the Brigadier. This practice was as old as man himself. The commander of the army had to be protected from sorties that were directed at him by the enemy. As generals stayed in campaigns for longer periods, the bodyguard would sleep close to the commander whose tent was known as the Praetorium. The handpicked guard became known as “Cohors Praetoria”. In battle, these cohors were a general’s final reserves too. Convinced that I was engaged in a very old military tradition and undertaking that the Romans had done, I put in the sweat of my knee into the job. Soon the guard was ready.
The sacred boundaries of Jhandbaba Cantonment went abuzz with the tramp of ammunition boots when our platoon of Rajput Guards marched down the Mall Road to the Flag Staff House. The asphalt grated with sparks as the marching sepoys dug their heels hard into the black tar. They marched like stiff machines in which springs had been wound up. They looked very ceremonial, taut-faced, blank-headed, unthinking and obedient. I felt a glimmer of pride very much like what the Roman Emperor Augustus might have felt, when he first saw his Praetorian Guards march in front of his palace in Rome. They soon took charge of the house and stood like grim, unblinking statues in front of the gate.
Soon the Commander’s black Ambassador car came purring along, the red pennant waving over the gleaming bonnet. The Rajputs came to attention like jerking barrels of tank guns after firing an FSAPDS salvo. They screamed an earth splitting “Ram Ram Saab.” Startled parrots bolted out of the hollows of the Peepul tree, crying in alarmed protests. The black Ambassador passed inside. We had made adequate provisions of Cherry Blossom boot polish, Rin ‘sabun’ and even a press table with electric press for the Guard platoon. Nothing could go wrong. My administrative planning was more thorough than Montgomery’s before the final battle of El Alamein. It was to be my lot to pluck the sweet fruit of success. I was so smug, so confident, so sure. My nine-pointer for that year’s ACR was assured. Being from the RIMC, I knew how to extract the maximum milk from the teats of my day today actions. That’s something that came naturally to me.
Imagine my stupefaction when the CO called me to his office and said to me with a grave face. “Dickhead, I have just received bad news from Brigade Headquarters that the Commander is not at all happy with our Guard at the Flag Staff House.” I was stunned to hear this. This was the best goddamn guard the battalion had rigged up in a decade. The best of Indian cannon fodder was there doing saavdhan-vishram, even if the Brigadier’s pug dog came out to do potty in the flowerbeds. I was alarmed. I saw the CO’s pen running over my ACR columns and making inauspicious figures of sixes and sevens where the beautiful number nine should have been engraved.
I rushed to the blighted flagstaff house. The tall JCO in charge said “Sir we do Napple Touch saavdhaan and Vishraam, but Shrimaan, the Brigadier saab yells at us, “Chootiyo, tumhaarey bass kaa kuch nahi.” The JCO was almost in tears. Imagine a man with a kilogram of black moustaches on his swarthy, aquiline, Jodhpur Rajput face going to pieces because his squad’s drill movement has been criticized. “Saab, Brigadier saab’s language is rude. We are trying our best. Even today morning the Brigadier saab stopped his car on the way out and said,” “Salon badee badee mooch rakhi hui hain, kuch kaam ke nahi ho (You buggers have big moustaches, that’s about it).”
I was devastated, depressed and puzzled. My best laid scheme was not proceeding as per plan. The CO would chew my balls if one more complaint came about the fucking guard. I rushed to Major Black Adder, another Rimcollian in my battalion doing his AE after four years in the UN. “Sir I am in a fix.” and I unrolled my bistarband of problems in front of him. Black Adder had a better understanding of Indian Army brigadiers than my paltry three years of service had imparted to me. He started laughing loudly. “Go and meet my course-mate, Major Ziley Singh, in 3 Jat. They had the previous guard at the Flagstaff House. It’s obvious that you have missed out on something big. I will tell him to give you PCK (previous course knowledge) about the Commander.
Major Ziley Singh was drinking a glassful of Langar Daal and his eyes were darting on the flickering TV screen and studying the Share Market Values. He waved me to sit down without taking his eyes off the TV screen. After fifteen minutes, he put the TV on mute setting and started listening to my tale of woes. After I had finished, he said “Look here Dickhead, Brigadier Ram Niwash became Colonel by fighting a court case, he became a brigadier by fighting a court case. He has no interest in the clatfart of your drill. You must change the profile of your Praetorian Guard. Send the shabbiest, least educated boys of your battalion, with a total village background to the Flag Staff House. I think that should resolve your problem. Now off you go, I have to monitor the share market. Taa Taa.”
I came back and related the information to Black Adder. We collected the MacAuslans of our battalion, guys who were the dimmest and least educated; village lads basically. Off they went to replace the six-cubit fiery manhood of our paltan.
After about a week the CO summoned me. I thought again the Flag Staff House problem had crept up and I was in for another rap. I stepped in and saluted. The CO was beaming from ear to ear. “Dickhead, my boy, you have surpassed all expectations. The Commander is extremely pleased with the Flag Staff House guard. Shaabash! I received a personal call from the Commander; he was praising the excellent conduct of the Guard, well done.”
I could sell my mother for a nine-point ACR, I was the best sort of army officer. I was so fuckin relieved that to see that nothing threatened my ACR now. The Commander was happy and so was my CO and I would pluck the sweet Alfonso mango of success in the form of a nine-point ACR. I had no doubts that I would become a CO and a Commander one day myself. And then I would have my own Praetorian Guards as well.
Curiosity and a grateful heart took me to the Flag Staff House. I wanted to pass on the CO’s Shaabash to the Guard Platoon. A shabby looking man wearing Rajput Regiment epaulettes stood smoking a beedi at the Gate of the mansion. His uniform was so faded that I thought that Afrika Corps had worn it during the battle of Alam el Halfa. His boots seemed to have endured many bypass surgeries by the unit cobbler. The soles seemed to have climbed the heights of Zojilla Pass and were reinforced with Boeing aircraft tyres. A mangy pie dog slurped and ate the spilled leftovers next to the Guard barrack. Striped underwear fluttered in the wind on the cable JWD clothes line. The sepoy’s name tab was undone and hanging downwards. I read his name; Bhoop Singh. I blinked my eyes and read again, Bhoop Singh. Evidently every battalion had a fair sprinkling of Bhoop Singhs.
“Go and call the Guard JCO.” Bhoop Singh walked off clumsily and returned with a pot-bellied, red-eyed JCO who was reputed to be the heaviest drinker in the battalion. I asked him bemusedly, “Saab what magic have you done on the Brigadier Saab? He is pleased with the guard.”
Subedar Hanuman Singh said, “Saab nothing much. Brigadier saab has kept a few buffaloes in the backyard. Sepoy Ram Singh milks them morning and evening. He takes one bucket of milk to Brigadier madam; Brigadier madam brings back two buckets of milk in turn. Then Sepoy Hawa Singh takes those to the halwai in sadar bazaar and sells the milk. There are one hundred hens and Sepoy Anda Singh goes and sells eggs in the market. Sabb badhiya chall raha hai saab. Aap CO saab se kehna chintaa naa karen. Maamlaa fitt hai. Brigadier saab se abb shikayat nahi ayeygee.”
This is a work of fiction