Of Unspoken Bonds
Escorting is a boring and thankless activity. To feel how insanely boring it is, you had to have escorted a convoy on one of the mountain roads of Mizoram, way back in nineteen sixties and seventies. That was what my lot was those days, as a young officer of two years’ undistinguished service, riding one of the three armoured scout cars, crawling along with a mile-long convoy that moved at a snail’s pace along the narrow road that wound its way up or down through the hills. I could never understand the logic of having our three cars riding escort, one at the head of the convoy, one in the middle and one at the tail bringing up the rear. If the convoy was attacked, which the insurgents could at any segment of it, there was no guarantee that one of our cars could rush over and defend it, stuck as we were in our slots among the vehicles lined up nose to tail, and the road offering limited maneuverability. It would have been a far more sensible option to have the army vehicles, with armed soldiers on board, scattered intermittently among the civilian transport, which were far more in number; but the army wouldn’t have it. The army and civilian vehicles drove in separate segments, lest the troops got polluted, as the higher-ups seem to dread. There was no avenue for a chap like me to suggest a change of pattern either. We, the young officers, were ‘only to be seen and not heard’. Once when I dared to sound out to a rather amiable looking senior about the futility of our ‘armoured escort’ as it was, I was told we were there merely as a deterrent. So that was that and let’s leave it there. This story is not about the tactical use of scout cars on convoy protection, anyway.
One of the common routes I used to do the escort duty was from the village of Vairengte in the foothills to the capital town of Aizawl, 120 kilometers away, up in the hills, almost 4000 feet above sea level. Leaving early morning from Vairengte, the convoy took the whole day to make it to Aizawl, with a refreshment break at the town of Kolasib, roughly midway, subject to no landslides blocking the road, rendering us stranded in the open during the night, which of course would be another story of occupational hazard. We would take a normal uninterrupted, day-long trip for the purpose of our story. The detail of three scout cars, one troop, that escorted the convoy up, would return the next day down to Vairengte with a down convoy. For whatever reasons, our scout car crews were ‘attached’, meaning lodged and fed, for the night at the lone pioneer company of the brigade, the army formation for Mizoram those days, headquartered at Aizawl. This story is about our overnight stay at the Pioneer Company and its unforgettable Commander.
The pioneer company was commanded by an elderly Sikh major, probably in his fifties. What made him special was the enormous joy with which he welcomed us cavalrymen, into his outfit. He would personally come out of his office or residence, as soon as he heard our scout cars driving into the company’s transport park, to welcome us in his inimitable style, as if we were his children coming home on vacation. Fatigued and grumpy as we were, after the day-long monotonous drive, his enthusiasm never failed to lift our spirits. Indeed, he was a father figure for young officers and men of my outfit, since almost all of us were in our early twenties. He would soon be shouting out orders to his men to attend to our comforts. He could delegate such work to one of his JCOs or NCOs and there was no real need for him even to meet us, but that was not his way. Uninhibited in his outpouring of affection and camaraderie, he would go out of his way to make us feel at home. As wanderers on roads, my crew and I were not strangers to being put up with various army units stationed along our routes, none of which lacked in hospitality. But the pioneer company was unique, filling us with a feeling of homecoming every time we were with them.
The old man knew almost all officers and men of my squadron by name, since we kept doing the convoy duty in turns. Watching him, I realized that it was not just us, he treated the entire soldier fraternity as if we were all one family. Such feelings are easily put on words, but I haven’t seen a better demonstration of it ever. Men of his own unit loved him, and respect to him was automatic. He was a leather-hard soldier, who had begun his career in arms as an enlisted soldier and had seen many years of service. His self confidence was such that he universally addressed soldiers, often including young officers like me, ‘Oye Puthar’.
The entire pioneer company seemed to have been infused with the cheery spirit of the old man, every man jack of them happy, going out of his way, to give us the VIP treatment. He was the lone officer of the company, and he would join me for drinks in the evening; once I was billeted on arrival and was refreshed after a hot water bath. Over a couple of drinks and hot and spicy snacks, he would crack absolute bawdy jokes. Indeed, by the time I hit the sack, I would have forgotten the miserable saga of the convoy, buoyant that there was nothing and nowhere in the world better than the army.
Early morning, as our scout cars moved out, the old man would be there himself to see us off, hugging and wishing us a safe trip, sumptuous haversack breakfasts and lunches provided to all. He would stand there waving us off as a father would see off his children on a trip. As years rolled on, the old man became one of the many cogs in my memory, but I have always wondered what makes some persons so lovable, and how uninteresting one’s life would have been but for their lot. I feel guilty as I pen this that I cannot even remember the name of such a wonderful person, after so many years.