To be an army kid in the Fifties

“The teacher did not have a watch and the school did not have a clock.” Anecdotes of a simpler time

ByLt Gen H S Panag
To be an army kid in the Fifties
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I live on Titar Lodge Farm, named so due to the abundance of Black and Grey Partridges that once nested there and still do in smaller numbers. The landscape is typical of “rurban” Punjab – dotted with tubewells, crisscrossed by power lines, extensively cultivated with a limited number of trees, well-developed link roads and villages at par with developed cities except for the central sewerage system. As I cycle through my village for my daily 30 km cycling on link roads, I marvel at the progress that has taken place over the last 60 years since my childhood in the Fifties. My thoughts are also flooded with a swell of memories of an idyllic pastoral way of life lost forever.

In the newly independent Indian state there was no provision for separated family accommodation for the army personnel who were deployed in field areas and they had to make their own arrangements. Limited pay allowed only our older brother to be sent to a boarding school. So, every 1.5 to 2 years when our father moved to forward areas, our mother and three siblings (all born between August 1947 to May 1950) were dispatched to the village. This was a blessing in disguise as we spent those idyllic years tasting and savouring the sights and aromas of country life in the Fifties.

Ours was a small village built on the ruins of Sirhind, a flourishing pre-BC town with a diameter of 3 kos or 10 km, which was razed to the ground by the Khalsa Army in January 1764. There were 150 households and a population of nearly 600. The houses of the landowning Jat Sikhs were single-storeyed, part-brick and part-mud with mostly earthen floors and roofs plastered with a paste of cow dung, mud and wheat chaff. The others were landless workers who did agricultural labour and other menial jobs and lived in mud-house clusters as per their castes. There was no electricity, and kerosene lanterns and lamps were the source of light. The two popular brands were “Goodman” for lanterns and “Coleman” for lamps. The poor used open flame divas/diyas or a bottle with a wick to which water was regularly added to push up the kerosene. Early to bed and early to rise was the norm. When my father came on leave and lit a Petromax – a pressurised kerosene lamp – on the roof of our house, the whole village would light up due to the prevailing relative darkness.

Eight wells under huge Banyan, Peepul or Neem trees were the source of drinking water. Drawing of water from the wells by the ladies, peppered with laughter and gossip was a colourful spectacle. As children, under the guidance of our grandfather, we poured potassium permanganate in the wells every week to keep the bacteria away. Each landowner had a well on his land with a Persian Wheel for drawing water, which was operated by using bullocks or camel. Around these wells, shady fruit trees had been planted over the years. The village was connected to other villages and small towns by zigzagging cart tracks with the surface reduced to powdery sand thanks to bullock hooves and carts, making them unfit for movement on foot for which footpaths along farm wells were used.

Life in the village was of total abandon, freedom and novelty. Our country cousins and other village urchins looked forward to our arrival as for them it was a novel experience to hear about city life, train and motor vehicle travel and cinema etc.

We were always so keen to do everything fast, so we just ran and never liked walking. Running to and fro to school and back home for lunch created a keen competitive spirit. During the evening, we criss-crossed through the village many times, playing “Patikka” (Handicap). Team A was given a handicap of 50 yards and Team B chased them with blood-curdling shouts till all were tapped. No wonder all of us became good athletes.

During long summer afternoons we would look for big shady trees to climb or rest under. The rainy season meant enjoying huge swings strung 30 feet high on neem or peepul trees. There were vast stretches of tree-and bush-covered scrubland to explore. There was ample wildlife too. Peacocks, partridges, sand grouse, tiliar (starlings), rock & green pigeons, other common birds and variety of migratory birds were a common sight, and so were black buck (deer), rabbit, fox, jackal and wild boar. Hyena laughter could be heard at night. Snakes of all types were common and so were a variety of lizards and iguanas. In the summer, we slept under the skies with mosquito nets with swarms of fire-flies settled on the nets.

We played endless rounds of Chor-Sipahi (Catch), Tippy Tippy Tap, Addi-Tappa, Pithoo (Seven Stones), Five Stones, Kotla Chapaki, Kho-Kho, Dog & the Bone, Heights, Marbles, Gulli Danda, Kabbadi and so on.  Another summer game was – leekan kadhna (‘drawing lines) – played by two teams of four to six each, where one team waited for five minutes while the other team drew as many small lines as it could with charcoal pieces, on stones, bricks and walls of ruins which the first team had to search, find and cancel out. The number of lines not discovered was the winning score. None of these games required any equipment, in any case we had none.

Studies were not to be neglected, so we were promptly admitted to the village primary school which functioned from the Dharamshala. The school had only a single teacher for all the five classes, so the students were often supervised by the class monitor inculcating leadership qualities. One table, a chair and four to five rolls of dusty canvas was all the furniture the school owned. We had one portable blackboard which was carried from class to class whenever the schoolmaster asked for it.  We had to carry our phati – a wooden board plastered over with gachni (Fuller’s earth), a kalam (reed pen), an ink pot and one’s own mat if one was particular about hygiene. The round ink pot was called chor dwat as it was spill-proof due to a hole in the centre and higher sloping sides. The last period was used for reciting “tables” in sing-song Punjabi, led by a choir of bright students. Most of us knew tables up to 20 by heart. Even today, 60 years later, I do my calculations based on the Punjabi tables. Corporal punishment was common. Notable of which was catching the nose with the left hand to prevent turning of the head, while slapping with right. The counter trick was to blow one’s nose into the hands of the tormentor.

The teacher did not have a watch and the school did not have a clock. Every 15 days my grandfather’s timepiece used to be borrowed to make a sun clock on the ground to coordinate the school routine. Since the lines were etched on the ground, we often tricked the teacher by modifying them for longer breaks or early closure.

Food was simple and wholesome – daal, roti, milk, curd, butter, buttermilk, occasional vegetable or meat and plenty of homemade sweets in winter because milk was in abundance. Soupy chana dal with roti, chutney and raw onions for a summer evening meal and saag and makki ki roti in winter was standard fare. Jaggery and ghee was available to us through the year, we just needed to tip toe to the wire-mesh cupboard and filch it. On rare occasions, when she felt particularly loving, mother even made a cake in the cow dung cake-fired oven called Harra which was otherwise used to heat milk and let it simmer for long hours so it could be set with curd and churned in the matka in the morning to make butter and lassi.

Fields surrounded the village on all sides and extended as far as the eye could see. Beyond that were the village-grazing ground, 2000 acres of scrub forest. All the cattle of the village numbering around 300 were taken early in the morning for grazing. The cattle spent summer afternoons in the village ponds with us riding them. The return of the cattle in the evening with dust plumes being kicked up was a sight to behold. Once in a while, there was a stampede which could be fatal if one came in the way.

Thanks to the guidance of my father, there were 40 serving Jawans from our village. At any one time, two to three were on their two-month leave. The Jawans organised team games. Hockey sticks were fashioned out of Kikar tree branches and a ball made of a round stone wrapped with old rags. Under the leadership of the Jawans, raids were launched on the orchards and cane-fields of neighbouring villages. The soldiers also taught us social equality. All taboos of caste discrimination were sent packing.  “Swach Pind (Clean Village)” campaign was vigorously pursued. Prabhat Pheris singing, “Kadam, kadam badhae jaa…” and “Vande Mataram” were taken out on August 15, January 26 and all weekends under the leadership of a retired soldier who had served in the band of the Azad Hind Fauj and had brought back a bugle.

I consider myself singularly lucky to have savoured and experienced the village life. When I narrate stories of village life in the Fifites to the children at the village school, the question-and-answer session of the curious children lasted over an hour. Like all people at my age say, “I am ready to give up all that I have achieved to relive my childhood”. But, alas, that way of life has been lost forever.

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