Nobody is a fan of loose talk and I am no exception. What boils up every drop of blood in me are misinformed conversations that give birth to misinformed opinions.
I recently overheard two so-called ‘educated, suited-booted gentlemen’ discuss the Pathankot terrorist attacks that killed seven of our brave soldiers. In a matter-of-fact manner, they discussed how the slain soldiers’ families will get ‘mota paisa‘ (a big amount) as compensation.
“Hume bhi fauj mein hona chahiye tha, bhai (We should have also been in the army)” – the conversation ended with a smirk and a smouldering cigarette butt on the floor.
I should have reacted, given it back to those guys, but I stood there – completely numb. How and what could I possibly tell those men for whom the Army seemed to be just a four-letter word.
The year began on a tragic note for the nation. Waking up to the news of terrorists attacking the Pathankot Air Force station shattered me. What followed were innumerable attack theories, high-level government meetings, blame-game and questions being raised on the country’s security mesh – things that typically happen after an attack in our country.
My father served in the Indian Army for 32 glorious years. Growing up, I always had my set of complaints. He never made it to even one of my parent-teacher meets, never saw me participate in any sports event, never took me school book-shopping. I do not have a count of how many of my birthday parties he missed. Why did it have to be my mother holding my finger and seeing me off at the school gate? Back then, I detested his attitude towards me.
I could never understand why dad spent hours gazing at an already shining uniform laced with glistening medals. I could never understand him staring at every fold of the uniform, trying to look for imperfections and then scolding batman ‘bhaiya‘ (designated Army help for an officer) for not doing his job well.
I could never understand his anger over a microscopic layer of dust on his uniform.
I tried hard to understand what was so different between my school uniform and his Army uniform, but could never really find an answer. For me it was a dark green dress that dad wore to office.
My father had a major share of his postings in field areas. This would mean that we would live in separated families’ quarters and not see him for months.
I still remember that winter afternoon, that red sweater, and my father at the door. He was on a month-long break. I was on cloud nine, 30 days of dad not going to work, 30 days of family time, 30 days of not suddenly going to mock drills at odd hours.
Bearing my non-stop rant, dad paused and suddenly asked me what class I was studying in. With a gulp down my throat and a shock in my tone I said, ‘papa, class 6.’
There was an uneasy calm between the two of us. I was in disbelief to see my inexpressive, yet affectionate father hug me for a long time. That evening we went to eat ‘golgappas‘ and chicken soup on our tiny-puny scooty. Life felt real that evening.
I was in class 7 when the 1999 Kargil operation took place. Though posted in the North-East during Operation Vijay, he was intensively involved in the intelligence corps.
My mother and I were once again in separated quarters in Ambala cantonment (Haryana). For an entire year, visuals of bodies wrapped in the tricolour being carried in official vehicles, almost on an everyday basis, haunted me.
Screams of Army wives who lost their husbands still reverberate in my ears. Gun-salutes, a blanket of grief and an unspoken shared pain were a major part of our lives.
A year later, when dad came home, he had stories to tell me, stories of his ‘fauji experiences’. Something he had never done before. Maybe I was grown up to understand him, to make sense of his absence.
Episodes of young militants carrying AK-47s in milk containers, him getting frostbites in Kupwara district, being shot in the arm several times during combing operations – intrigued me. I could see the light in his eyes, the soaring passion which made me realise he wouldn’t trade any of this for all the glitter in the world.
He retired in September 2007. Sitting on the couch he said, “That uniform there, it is my pride and honour, a well-deserved fruit of 2 years of rigorous military training, a commitment to my nation. Something only I can understand. It was more than a job for me.”
I see that passion in every man in uniform. For me disrespect to that uniform is personal. Yes, I see my father in Late Lt. Col. Niranjan Kumar, in Garud Commando Gursevak Singh, in Subedar Fateh Singh, in every NSG commando, in every soldier.
Yes, it hurts when people casually comment on the free ration, the pension and the so-called perks that Army personnel get. Remember, most of them don’t live through their entire life to avail them.
One cannot expect every Indian to forcefully respect the forces, but remember– an officer dying in the line of duty cannot be fodder for a casual conversation – remember he had a family like you, aspirations like you, unluckily life didn’t give him another chance.