- NL Sena
“You do what we men cannot and you lead us. That’s Supermen.”
“Havaldar, where’s my magazine?”
“Where the bloody hell have you been?” Three minutes later.
“Saab (Sir), I was with the new recruit, Jharna.”
“Who the hell is Jharna, fellow? Am I the Company Commander or you? I don’t even know that a soldier, with a female name, has been posted in my company?” Frowns.
“Saab, you forgot, saab? Jharna is that pup, we picked up near the cascade the other day, while on the Long Range Patrol (LRP).”
“Oh, Shut up. A Company Commander never forgets. Now, scram and get my magazine.”
“Saab, both ready.”
“Ji, saab. The one you read and the one you fire.”
Sepoy Havaldar Singh was a soldier, extraordinaire. My first Batman, signalman, runner, buddy pair—all rolled into one. Despite being on an Officer’s duty, I did not notice his absence from any parade or find him lacking in any critical training or tests. As a soldier, he was an ace of my company and one of the best in my battalion.
His forefathers had served the country with elan. His father and brother, Subedar Kaptaan Singh and Lance Naik Nayak Singh, respectively, were both serving in different paltans (battalions) of the same regiment when he joined the ranks.
Yes, you read this right. Kaptaan, Havaldar, Nayak were their names and this made him the butt of most jokes. I never realised what made Havaldar a serious chap until I was told why. How would you feel if your father was called Sepoy Kaptaan Singh once, your brother Naik Subedar Nayak Singh and you would be called Havildar Havaldar Singh, for a long time in the future? Jokes apart, in his ancestors’ time, it was a matter of pride to name the male children on martial ranks. I have, indeed, come across a certain Colonel Jarnail Singh and Major Kaptan Singh, of course, was a Vir Chakra awardee.
I have been humbled by Havaldar on quite a few occasions like the Battle Proficiency Endurance Test (BPET), where he was consistently marked excellent and I, satisfactory. Who else but the same man would bear the brunt of my irritation, on having been embarrassed in front of the whole unit. Being the simple soldier he was, he could never decipher my exasperations during the evenings of such days. The poor soul would simply drop a hint in the langar: “Saab wants me to be off-duty tonight because I was excellent in the BPET parade today and he is angry with me because I am not resting. Don’t disturb saab.”
By the way, BPET reminds me that Google is yet to get many abbreviations, including those I have used above, right. I will probably pull up Google Inc., after Havaldar, now.
Havaldar was a rustic bumpkin but was hands-on when it came to his duties. I don’t remember putting him on a Pithu-Parade much, though it was my speciality. Having served with me for a long time, he developed a keen interest in English and would use it as often as possible, especially in his barracks. He enjoyed showing off his newly-acquired language skills to his innocent comrades and relishing the air of superiority amongst the Hindustani-speaking infantry company. Then, one day, he tried it on me.
“Johnny, why doesn’t my weapon cock properly?”
“Saab, I have rogered the Kote NCO Major for the same.”
“Major? If a non-commissioned officer has been promoted to a Major, I should relinquish my command, handover the company to him and salute him. Isn’t it?” Frowned the Captain in me.
“Err…saab, we…we all call our seniors M…M…Major like Company Havildar Major (CHM). It’s sort of a practice. Sorry, Saab.”
“Aah! I know that Charlie but not in front of me? You piddly Sepoy? You rogered the NCO! He is several ranks senior to you?”
“No S…S…S…aab. I mean, I made him understand that your weapon is not cocking and he should look into it.”
“Oh! I see. Do you know the difference between roger and rogered, you bloody chap?”
I don’t know what he made of my-weapon-not-cocking but that was, perhaps, the last day when Havaldar Singh attempted English with me, in person. I confess to the attempted murder of his spoken English.
Being a core infantry soldier, however, he was committed to not quit till he was dead (virtually). He exercised his English with me, yet again, via an inland letter while on leave. The letter was in Roman Hindustani, seeking an extension of leave and ended with rum-rum saab.
RIP Old Monk but this was not exactly for you. It was our regimental salutation gone English: “Ram-Ram!” Do I need to say what was made out of Sepoy Singh, when he reported back on duty?
They say discretion is the better part of valour. Where most of us had the latter in abundance, Singh was a follower of the proverb in totality. He was the last risk-taker on earth, always careful and apparently timid to my eyes. I would often ridicule him for his lack of courage and religiously motivate him to meet the standards set by his fellow soldiers and brave-hearts of a Param Vir Chakra-decorated regiment. He would maintain a stoic silence on each such occasion and carry on with his duties, unassumingly. This takes me to a winter of the early 21st century, Northeast India.
A breeze had sprung up and our tents were braving its onslaught. The surroundings were pitch dark and the trees were humming. The moon was away on its honeymoon with the cloud. The owls sang along with the crickets. A leopard must be out hunting. The silhouettes of shrubs were shivering.
A perfect setting for Frost to pen: The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep…
In fact, I was scribbling a short story myself on the langar chai when I heard the sound of boots and rifles. I sat up straight. I was right. The rifle had been cocked. I rushed out to find an innocent looking young lad, surrounded by my quick reaction team. He was barely 16 or so. I gathered that he was caught quite a few yards inside the platoon area of responsibility (AOR). He was clean, though.
My platoon commander got hold of a jawan—an Indian private soldier—who was fluent in the local language to interrogate the boy. We were given to understand that he was a local villager and had, supposedly and inadvertently, strayed into our area while looking for his younger brother, who had left for the nearby pond to net a few fishes for dinner.
The boy appeared frightened and lost. He was offered a fauji blanket—an entitled winter clothing—with a cup of hot tea to ease his senses. My sixth sense, somehow, couldn’t believe his story. A fishy story, it seemed! I knew that the villagers hardly used that pond and the border, not far away, was porous. I parked my gun and gave him a long, cold look. He glanced at me. That was enough to tell me that I had my boy. A clap usually works when claps don’t. I offered him a tight one. The effect was stunning.
The chap made a bolt for my weapon and was about to pull the trigger when Havaldar pounced on him like a bolt from the blue. He caught him by his hair and pulled him in a flash, throwing him quite a few metres away from me and my weapon. Of all soldiers, Sepoy Singh? I remained in denial till I was apprised that he deserved an award for his presence of mind and bravery. That son of a gun did.
“I am thankful and proud of you, Singh. You saved my life.”
“Saab, you and all paltan officers are our Supermen. It’s my privilege to have executed my duties efficiently in the service of our nation and Supermen.”
“Supermen? How?” Chuckles.
“Saab, you do what we men cannot and you lead us. That’s Supermen. I saw in the film.”
“So, a Batman saved a Superman, eh?” Havaldar humbled me again.
Operation Parakram officially ended and Singh was due for his promotion. To my surprise, he did not clear the mandatory weapon’s test. I summoned him to understand if he had turned into an “I’m-all-right-Jack”. Jawans do get complacent, at times, after prolonged field posting sans due periodical leaves, especially if they have been commended for a task well done.
He stood quiet, as usual, with his head bowed.
“Are you looking down on me or am I too ugly to look up to?” Question.
“How could you let your platoon-company-unit, down?”
“Saab, I couldn’t understand Major saab?”
“You were not supposed to understand your senior officer. Only his question. What was it? Who was it?” Questions.
“Saab, Parminder Singh Cheema Saab. He said, “Kuttar, kahan hai Puttar? I knew Kuttar but not Puttar. I remained silent.”
This time, I looked down upon Singh. Sepoy Singh, I mean, not Major Singh.
For the uninitiated and Google Inc: “Kuttar” is a Hindustani word for the rifling in the barrel of a rifle and “Puttar” means a son in Punjabi.
I proceeded on a course to Mhow, shortly thereafter. Mhow is unofficially and popularly known as Military Headquarters of War. It is officially known as Dr Ambedkar Nagar. Like most countrymen, I love the former. During the course, I learnt of a terrorist act which had befallen one of our regimental units. A platoon commander and quite a number of troops were killed in action. The course took priority, meanwhile and I returned to my unit only after about half-a-year.
Havaldar was detailed back to me—to detail is to assign or arrange, in Army parlance and am pretty sure that this word is used in this fashion only in the Indian Army. I found him to be quieter than before but diligent as ever. He seemed disturbed. I asked my CHM about this and was told that Havaldar’s brother was from the same section of the unit which had come under attack. Almost the entire section was wiped out except his brother. It was both painful and relieving. During this period, I also observed a pattern after every retreat—a military signal for the end of the day.
“Havaldar, what’s this song you keep humming at sunset daily?” Probing.
“Hmmm?” Raised eyebrows.
“Dil na-ummeed to nahi, nakam hi to hai, lambi hai gham ki shaam magar, shaam hi to hai.”
“I have heard that. What’s so special about it that you have turned it into a drill?” Eyebrows raised further.
“Saab, it’s for my brother. He is not a Naik or Nayak. He is Nalayak.”
“Did he desert his AOR or his brother soldiers?” Probing.
“Yes, saab. He reported sick the day before and couldn’t join the patrol. That’s cowardice, saab. He should have either died with his buddies or killed those militants.”
“Havaldar, I was told that your brother was down with jaundice and malaria, together and subsequently put on a seriously ill list. Why blame him, unnecessarily?”
“Saab, it is you who taught me: one for all and all for one. Why has he or his battalion not avenged their killings, yet? Are we weak or meek? How can he eat without his family? An entire nation sleeps because we are awake. If my brother sleeps over the dead bodies of his brothers, he can sleep over my dead body as well.”
That’s an Indian soldier for you. Sepoy Singh. My Batman.
A few monsoons later, while I was deployed in an operation ex-unit, my runner delivered me a postcard with an invite. It ended with…
“…aur Saab, Old Monk wala antim pag aapka hi hoga (apologies for my inability to translate this).”
Old habits die hard. This time it was the sacrilege of the coveted “antim pag” (the final step) of the Academy, which had been sacrificed in the name of English and an Old Monk peg, by the prospective groom.
The wedding invite read:
Naik Havaldar Singh, S/O Subedar Major Kaptaan Singh (Indian Army)
Sherbati Singh, D/O Sher Singh (Civilian).
B/O Havildar Nayak Singh. (Indian Army).