Courage & Resilience

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A Veteran’s Resolute Journey to being a Centenarian

This here would almost read like a story, one I feel compelled to write, because this is of a man I know very closely and has come to admire in more ways than one; and he is soon turning 100. Courage and resilience come in different forms. Here’s the story of a veteran who epitomizes those like few I have known; and I’m sure some of the senior veterans in Chennai would recognize what I am portraying. It’s about the life and times of Lieutenant Colonel G T Thampi of the Gurkhas, who lived in Chennai until a few years ago and was a lively member of the AFVOAC (Armed Forces Veteran Officers Association, Chennai).

G T Thampi began his military career in 1942 when he was 20 as a young officer with the Travancore State Force and saw action during WWII with them, in combat zones as varied as those of the Middle East, fighting Turko-Germans, to those of Burma, fighting the Japanese, with infantry units which were to earn fame in the Indian Army as the 9th & 16th Battalions of the Madras Regiment. An outstanding professional, while in the Middle East, he was assigned the task of providing orientation training in desert warfare to fresh British troops being inducted into the theatre. Post war, with the amalgamation of the Travancore Army with the Madras Regiment, he switched over to 4 Gurkha Rifles, since the officers of the State Forces were given an option to join a regiment of their choice, if they so wished, apparently in keeping with the army’s policy of mirroring the country’s diversity in its composition. He served with the Gurkhas with distinction serving in a number of hotspots across the Pakistan and Chinese borders, including Kargil and Galwan Valley in Eastern Ladakh; before retiring in 1977. Interestingly, some of his postings gave him unique opportunities to personally interact with the army’s greats of the times like later Field Marshals K M Cariappa and Sam Manekshaw. An eventful career indeed; that preceded the unfortunate trials and tribulations in his personal life after retirement.

Three years into retirement, he was a contended veteran, leading a peaceful life with a loving wife and two children, a son and a daughter, both married, gifting him a granddaughter each. In February 1980, his daughter-in-law had given birth to the second of these children barely a month ago, when tragedy struck. His son, a marine engineer, only 28 then, was killed in a maritime accident wherein his ship collided with another at Lisbon Harbour. His mother never recovered from the shock and passed away a year later. Widowed at an early age, Col Thampi persevered, finding happiness in the company of his surviving family. His daughter-in-law, although widowed young, never remarried, pursuing a career as a music teacher in a college, which she was qualified for. While Col Thampi worked for seven years as the Executive Officer of Sri Padmanabha Swamy Temple at Trivandrum, watching his two grandchildren grow up probably gave him the much-needed solace, as he aged.

Col Thampi was past eighty when I first met him. I was almost sixty myself and was doing my workouts one morning on the terrace of the apartment complex I live in, when I heard a voice with a distinctive military touch behind me, “You army?” Turning around I saw an old man with not-so-old a demeanour eying me with interest. “Yes Sir, I am”, I said. Our friendship grew in leaps and bounds, partially for our military affinity and partially for our two families taking a great liking for each other. It was a newly inaugurated complex and occupants were only getting to know each other. The colonel’s granddaughter (daughter’s daughter) and her husband (a working couple) had bought a flat in the complex as I had. The colonel’s daughter and her husband (a marine engineer who was no more sailing but was occupied as a consultant) also moved into the complex renting a vacant flat right opposite to the one where their daughter lived. Apparently, they weren’t too happy to leave their daughter, an only child, struggle with both office and household work, with only a maid to help, especially since she had a child to take care of as well. And as far as the colonel was concerned, he had ‘not much of an option but to go where the daughter went’. Although, he might have felt a bit disoriented in Chennai initially, leaving his familiar environment at Trivandrum, he swiftly found innovative ways to occupy himself. He was a regular at the AFVOA meetings, where he enjoyed meeting other veterans. An ace bridge player, he found a foursome who met at another veteran’s house nearby, off and on. A lover of classical music, he would attend all the concerts that go on in different music halls like Narada Gana Sabha, which Chennai has an abundance of. Most of all, he loved to move around on his own. He would easily walk distances as much as 8 kilometres. He complained to me of his daughter locking up the scooter he used to enjoy riding while in Trivandrum. He had two cars in the family, but he would turn down any offer of being driven around. He would shoo away anyone of his many friends or acquaintances who would offer a ride spotting him walking along the road. He would travel the suburban train and even buses. On one occasion, driving home after office, I spotted him at a bus stop. When I stopped over and enquired what he was doing there, he replied merrily that he enjoyed riding buses, preferably perched on the footboard! I remember accompanying him on a walk on a couple of occasions. It is during one of those walks that he conversationally told me about the loss of his son. It came as a bolt from the blue for me, because he had given no inkling ever of bearing so heavy a grief in all our interactions. Indeed, there was grief in his voice when he spoke about it; but I discerned pride also when he said, “He died like a man. He could have saved himself; but the captain of the ship was trapped below with his wife and he went to save them. All three of them perished.” That was the soldier in him speaking, stoical and positive. Shaken though, I loved him for that.

Once in a while, he would make a trip to Kerala to look up his daughter-in-law and her daughter, who was still a student and visit his ancestral home. He was seldom sick and the only instance I remember him being down was when he had to have a surgery of the prostate. He had given up alcohol, in reverence, as I understood, to the memory of his late wife, who was none too happy about his drinking habits when she lived. Nevertheless, his was a lively presence in any social gathering in our complex and whenever our two families had a get-together. His cheery smile with a twinkle in his eyes invariably elicited the affection of all those who came to know him. My daughter is so fond of him, he refers to him as ‘Appooppan’ meaning grandpa instead of the conventional ‘uncle’; no wonder since his grandchildren are just about her age. A consummate storyteller, he is always full of witty anecdotes, from the army, from old Travancore of the Maharaja’s era and more. Col N Viswanathan of the Bombay Sappers, a close friend from among his bridge foursome still admires his sharp memory and irrepressible wit. When I had completed the manuscript of a book on South Indian Soldiery I was working on, I casually asked him whether he could have a look at it, not too sure whether he would have the patience to read a 350-page document at his age. To my surprise, not only was he enthusiastic, but finished reading the whole thing in a week’s time and even offered me some suggestions that helped me polish it up here and there. Coming to think of it, I don’t remember ever having seen him wear glasses, or is it my impression, I wonder, because of his age-defying energy that was infectious! And oh, he hated looking old and dyed his hear black then.

As far as I recollect, he lived in our complex for quite a few years, during which period, his second granddaughter also completed her education, took up a job, got married and moved over to Bangalore with her husband. The other granddaughter, who was the cause of bringing the colonel to our complex, moved over to Mumbai over a period of time with her husband where their jobs took them, and her children being fairly grown up by then (she was a mother of two by then with a son added while living in our complex), her parents withdrew to Trivandrum; and the colonel with them. Our families still keep in touch and look up each other, while they visit Chennai or we are on vacation in Kerala, the former happening more often. The colonel kept up his brisk lifestyle, joining his friends for a game of cards every evening at the Sreemoolam Club in Trivandum, until Covid-19 forced him to withdraw indoors last year, where he has to be contended with walks within the complex he lives for an activity. Nevertheless, he strives on indomitably, with only three months to make it to his one hundredth birthday. An iconic veteran of his times; long live his breed!

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