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The Making of a True Leader

Generals come in all shapes and sizes. Some never jump from the millimetre board and some never quite tire of jumping from ten thousand metres up in the sky. Some go to the mandir and distribute revdees on their birthdays. Then there are some who climb up into the high heavens to say Hello to their Gods and then skydive to the earth on their birthdays; not once but six times, one free fall for each decade of their lives, leaving the vivid air signed with one’s honour.

The farewell of General Invictus broke the crust of old memories of those days when I was a boots-end second lieutenant in a Gorkha battalion, doing my infantry attachment. As a one-pipper I stayed in a rathole up in the rocks for two years, much as a rodent would. Had it not been for the lifesaving annual leave entitlement, I hadn’t a hope of getting a break from the tiresome honour of protecting the bleak Jelep La Pass.

On one such escape to victory, I mean leave, I had dragged my ass down from the post. I stood on the roadside waiting for that chariot to freedom, the Shaktiman that took the leave parties down. It was the snow season and one’s leave was dependent on the availability of transport going down from the mountains. I heard the clank and crunch of a truck with snow chained tyres; sweet music to my ears. A bulldog-nosed 3 tonner came and slowed down, its skid chains cracking the ice on the road like glucose biscuits.

“Going to Gangtok or 17 Mile?” I enquired. “Neither,” came the stoic reply. It was a JAK Rif 3 tonner that had come to drop the Dak at the Brigade HQ in Kupup.

“We are going to Sherathang Saabji.” The hirsute Sikh driver said as the air escape valve of the Shaktiman farted in Germanic disdain and the Shaktiman sped on.

Sherathang was just ten kilometres down the road, the Nathula battalion base. They allowed the down traffic only till a certain hour. I looked at my watch anxiously; slim chance that I would hitch a ride down. The narrow road was silent and vacant. I went and sat on a derelict coaltar drum left on the road by the GREF people. The grey mist was drifting in and out with portents of a fresh snowfall that would again close the road for weeks.

Moss and snow mountains stood on all sides like piebald elephants. After what felt like an age, the distant noise of a vehicle was heard. It didnt sound like a Shaktiman. Was it coming towards us or receding? I started hearing the second music of the morning. In the mountains, noise could deceive. The rattle grew louder and around the bend emerged a flying Jonga with its snow chains going ting ling, ting ling, ting ling over the road. I stood up. You stand up at every light vehicle that passes when you are a second lieutenant. I saluted the M 65 jacketed eminence in the Jonga. I realized that it was the alpinist Brigade Major; the officer who climbed upto forward posts for fun sake.

“Hey dude, where to?” asked the Brigade Major. “Sir going on leave, waiting for the adm Shaktiman.” I replied. “Hop on,” he offered. “Sir I am not alone; two boys of my battalion are also with me.”

“Ye tell them to squeeze in, I am sure there’s plenty of space back there. A Jonga is good enough to carry a platoon,” he said jerking his thumb back towards the cab of the Jonga. The Gorkhas dived into the already full jonga, going flat on the knees of the occupants, second half of their bodies hanging out.

The BM started driving, the jonga with ten people skidded and careered on the rutted ice, swinging often dangerously loose and out of steering control. The BM was enjoying himself immensely.

“Just like driving on sand eh,” he summed up. We came down into the plains of Siliguri in record time. I had never tasted such a rapid leave dash down the watershed again.

Montogomery, the infamous or famous, depending on your taste, British Field Marshall, had said that the first duty of a leader is optimism. How does your subordinate feel after meeting with you? Does he feel uplifted? If not you are not a leader.

One sees plenty of sterile-souled, sour-eyed, Dettol-washed, senior officers, envious of each other as pigeons in a ventilator. They sit in their dark-glassed airconditioned sedans, pop a blood pressure controlling pill and pick up their mobile phones. Not General Invictus. Time and technology cannot influence him to leave his passions.

He loves to be in the driving seat of his open Gypsy.He waves, smiles, has a word of cheer for everyone. No salute ever goes unanswered when the army commander passeth by. Just the act of being acknowledged by the army commander feels like Dionysus’ wand touching you personally.

The scope of my piece is not too large. I wanted to write something on the great man’s retirement day. I will sum it up quickly with one more anecdote. General Invictus was the GOC of the Armoured Division in Jhansi. The Corps Commander was General Kanitkar and when General Kanitkar came visiting the division, General Invictus said, “Sir, if you don’t mind, we will get Inside a tank.” The two officers, both from the Armoured corps, got inside a T-55 and closed the hatches. The Corps Commander asked, “What now?” “Sir, now if you permit our tank will be under fire and hit by our own guns.”

“But Kler, I hope it is safe.” “Sir, that we shall find out soon enough, how good is this old soviet armour.”

The interior of the T-55 tank started clanging like a cymbal as 30 mm canon shells fired by BMP cannons hit it from all sides. Like a super heavy weight boxer taking a pummeling by a feather weight, the T-55 took the knocks uncomplainingly. Scabs of loosened old rust fell from joints in the interiors like plaster off an old wall. The canonade stopped and the generals came out poking index fingers inside their ears and blowing air out from their noses.

“Oh my, what a mad din it was while it lasted!” said the Corps Commander. Lieut Gen Alok Kler retired today as South Western Army Commander. He did everything in style and good cheer and stood for the best values of the Indian Army.There walked a man alive, never bowed by anything. I will end with these lines from a Stephen Spender poem

“He remembered his soul’s history
His spirit alive from head to toe
What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of blood drawn from ageless springs
And never to allow the traffic to smother
The flowering of the spirit.

Fare thee well General Invictus. I wrote this to say thank you for that lift in the Jonga 25 years ago.

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