I was going out into the desert with my own group of scorpions; my first independent reconnaissance.
We had two jonga-s and one jeep. Canvas water bags (chaugals) hung around our four wheel-drive jonga-s like garlands. The Jonga was a notoriously powerful jeep that skimmed over the dunes with ease. It was the hot season and only those who have lived in the Thar desert know what real heat is.
The desert scorpions had to be on friendly terms with temperatures over 120-degree Fahrenheit. We started during day, a little party of three jeeps and our job was to explore the whole area running along the Radcliffe Line that formed our western border. When we entered the dunes, the vehicles began overheating. Their tyres had been half deflated. They ran well over the sand but the heat was all-conquering. Where was water to pour over the scalding radiators? I realized the folly of being out in the day. So, we began avoiding moving about in the hottest hours.
There is a desert plant that grows a lot around Jaisalmer. Called Bhui Bhui, it’s quite a wonder plant, which looks like congress grass with snow-flake-like flowers that flower in cold season. We sucked on Bhui roots and it did help to slake the thirst. Lots of it cut and thrown in a sand pit, even works as a good bedding.
So, we progressed every day, marking our routes on the maps, relying on prismatic compass to get our bearings. Navigation is an engrossing study in the desert, which lacks definite landmarks. The stars are also very helpful guides to those who can read them.
As our reconnaissance progressed, we crossed Baap La Talao. Then we came across a mud brick fort in the middle of nowhere called Bacchia Chor Ka Quila (The Fort of Bacchia The Thief).This was a cattle smuggler’s haven where livestock used to be exchanged for opium and other commodities in the frontier-less, free trade of bygone years.
We kept going westwards hoping to spot a border pillar. There was no sign of a border pillar. We saw a mazaar (grave) at a distance and drove up there. It was a simple grave exposed to the sun, wind and sand. A green chador with a filigree border lay over the grave held in place by stones kept over its borders. We decided to take a break there. Somebody took out the stove and brewed tea quickly. I looked around as I sipped my tea and my eyes fell on the currency notes and coins that lay about the mazaar. I bent down and picked up a ten-rupee note. Noticing my expression as I kept staring at it, Subedar Bairam Khan, my Second-in-Command, came over to enquire. His eyes nearly popped out of their sockets when they fell upon the karakul capped picture of Qaid E Azam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, on the currency note.
“Sahab, hum to Pakistan ke andar ghussey huey hain – Sir, we are well inside Pakistan it seems.”
I nodded and did a 360 degree sweep of the horizons. For the time being, there were no speeding jeeps coming to capture us. I walked over to the bonnet of the Jonga and taking out a fountain pen from my breast-pocket, wrote on the Pakistani currency note:
1.Captain Angrez Singh
Then Subedar Bairam Khan wrote his name under mine in his own hand, followed by every member of our troop. When all the autographs were done, I drew a scorpion on the note and left it on the mazaar, with a little stone over it for a paperweight.
In a few more days, we completed all the tasks that we had set out for. Everybody was sworn to silence by the omerta code of comrades. The incident of the stray gallop inside Pakistan and back never happened; it was buried and salted and all mouths tamped shut. It felt nice being back to the unit and taking a bath and scrubbing off two week’s layers of salt, sweat and dirt that had formed black halfmoons under the nails. To eat fresh chappatis and daal and have a cool bowl of curd, felt blissful and gave utter joy to the senses. To sleep on a clean and nice-smelling bed, after days and days of fetid smell of unwashed bodies and sweat-caked clothes, was heavenly.
The next day, I reported our return to the commanding officer. He asked about the reconnaissance and our day-wise routes and distances covered and drawn on the map. And then he asked,
“All went well I suppose?”
“Yes Sir, couldn’t have gone better. Everything as planned.” (That’s the golden operative phrase of the army-speak that make all seniors happy.)
“Anything unusual happened?”
“No, nothing at all sir.”
He pulled open the drawer of his desk and laid a Pakistani currency note on the desk. Then he picked it up and read out aloud.
“We Came. Number One, Captain Angrez Singh, Number Two. Subedar Bairam Khan etc, etc.”
I stood impassive and my mind raced in circles. How the hell did the CO come to know? Who snitched? I quickly ran my radar over all my team mates. They were all solid chaps. It couldn’t be anyone from my troop.
The CO said,
“And did you really think I will leave a young captain on his first independent troop-level recce unobserved? Dismissed.”
I came out scratching my head. A few local, leather-faced Rajasthani men in dhoti and thick leather juttis hung about the Subedar Major’s office, and then the riddle fell open. Of course, the CO had his favourite desert dogs trailing us, the Khoji-s. They had visited the mazaar after us and brought back the incriminating currency note, to make its way to the CO’s drawer.