Colonel Neeraj Bali


Of Sudama, a Gorkha, and a one-ton truck
Of Sudama, a Gorkha, and a one-ton truck

There was an era when officers of the Poor Bloody Infantry looked up at their counterparts from the Cavalry with the awe and envy reserved for rich cousins.

The razzmatazz of a cavalry officer's life --- fancy uniforms for all occasions embellished with accoutrements in golden and silver threads, well-appointed officers' messes boasting wares and lineage from centuries long-lost in history's pages, expensive liquor and the glamour of horses --- all stoked our imagination. It was part myth and part reality.

The chasm between Them and Us has since been bridged by that great leveller --- inflation.

More than two decades ago, when my battalion --- a PBI unit --- arrived at Babina for field-firing, I discovered that one of my batch mates was posted there in an old cavalry regiment. I fixed up for an evening together at his mess.

PBI battalions are not authorised large fleets of vehicle. I reached in a one-ton truck that appeared to have rattled straight out of an artillery barrage in a World War I movie. But even young subalterns worry about their image and I carefully left the vehicle outside the mess compound, suitably camouflaged behind a hedge, so my poverty did not receive undue advertisement.

Johar, my friend, greeted me outside his room with bone-cracking warmth. I noticed with awe that he already was the proud owner of a mobike that gleamed at me cockily from a one-legged stand. Back in the unit all I had was a bicycle that split its life equitably between the local puncture-repairer and me.

My world view took another severe knock when we entered Johar's room --- a distempered cabin, two works of framed art (none of them being a close-up study of Ms Samantha Fox in her famous side-view, unfortunately), a neatly made bed and, as if all these inflictions on my tender senses were not enough, a music system with obscene wattage and a million cassettes sitting compliantly on the shelf.

Now don't get me wrong. I am not into masochism --- self-flagellating infantry with joyous abandon. But facts are facts. And fact was my lifestyle was so far behind Johar's it would have taken many frantic Great Leap Forward revolutions to catch up.

We PBI lieutenants stayed in quarters that any self-respecting cloakroom would have been ashamed of, our big black trunks piled one atop the other pretending to be the WTC towers, and our beds seldom made or unmade even when we went away on leave because the subalterns returning from leave had to sleep in them.

A tour of the cavalry mess dented what was left of my confidence. I silently vowed to do something about it when I got back to my mess (I did --- 20 years later). After the dinner came the moment of truth --- Johar came to the door to see me off.

"Where is your gari [vehicle], Neeraj?"

I panicked. I shook his hand warmly. I told him there was no need for him to see me off beyond that line. I could do with a walk anyway.

But Johar was not about to be robbed of his bit of hospitality.

"Sentry," he yelled, "Saheb ka gari lagao [Bring the vehicle]."

Just beyond the hedge I heard my driver insert that wonderful piece of start-up technology called 'handle' into whatever those things go into and give it an almighty crank. The vehicle stood silently in sullen disdain.

Crank after crank followed and after a while the music became so predictable I could have sworn my driver was playing it from a score-sheet. The only sounds that punctuated the Symphony in D Major were some husky under-the-breath expletives from the driver, the tone and tenor of which did not augur well for the vehicle mechanic's immediate nocturnal social life.

All this while I was repeatedly trying to shake Johar off. More colours had risen into my cheeks than Nerolac cards could handle. All in all, I felt like Sudama whose sattus were about to be discovered.

Finally, after a faltering purr, the one-tonner came to life. Slowly it lumbered into view, like a pirate, relying on one good headlight, its tarpaulin the tattered flag of a new and impoverished republic, its rattle enough to send hordes of elephants running for cover.

It came to what appeared to be an involuntary halt in the porch with an air of absolute finality. Ah, it belonged about as much to the ambience of the manicured, softly lit lawn as did the Queen Mother to the Jalandhar bus-stand.

I scampered aboard, only to find the door handle was missing and had been replaced by that delightful piece of indigenous innovation called 'hook-and-eye' latch. Johar helped me close the contraption as I sat feeling completely vanquished.

Johar sensed my disquiet. Sensed? By now I was carrying a neon sign describing my discomfiture.

"Hey, this vehicle is not bad," he said. "I have seen worse."

"Where?" I asked.

Johar told me he had recently been called over by a local infantry battalion. The vehicle sent for him was a decrepit one-tonner that had crossed all decent definitions of antiquity.

When Johar sat in the co-driver's seat, the Gorkha driver went on to crank the vehicle to life --- maybe that is the normal method for starting those vehicles and the key thing is only for emergencies.

Once this manoeuvre was successful, the Gorkha, said Johar, marched up to his side, saluted smartly, and said, "Sir, you have to come down. The door on my side is permanently jammed and I also enter from this side."

I have not stopped loving Gorkhas since.

Colonel Neeraj Bali still doesn't own a mobike.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

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