Of Bugles, Polished Shoes and Elephants : Musings of an Army Brat
The year was 2014. I was to fly on an early morning long haul returning home to Bangalore from New Delhi. The Delhi air being notoriously nippy in early Jan, I wore my leather brogue shoes instead of the denim slip ons that was de rigueur. Warm feet traps heat being the logic.
I came through the security lines quite early, hoping to get a spot of brekker. Picked up a hot and surprisingly tasty egg roll and moved back to sit in the lounge while trying to finish off a crossword in the Hindu.
A few minutes later I heard a set of squeaking wheels and didn’t give much notice till the wheels came to a stop right in front of me. On an usher assisted wheelchair sat an elderly gentleman wrapped up in a shawl. Twinkling sharp eyes poked through the brim of a fedora accompanied by a walrus silver grey moustache.
Accompanying him was an exceptionally delicate and pretty steel grey haired lady carrying her handbag and what was possibly his bag…a leather satchel, wrinkled, but one could note the top quality shiny leather it was made from.
She intended to sit in the seat on the right of me but then there would be no space for the bags. I unconsciously got up, moved one more seat to the left, and said…” allow me Ma’am”.. took the bags from her and placed them on the seat. I continued to stand till she sat and the usher had placed the wheelchair in the passageway next to her. I nodded as the gentleman smiled and said “Thank you” and went back to my crossword.
A few moments later I could hear the two mumble. The lady’s voice rose and said “I can’t. He will think we are nosy”. A few mumbles later she patted me gently..”excuse me…My husband wanted to ask you something. I apologize if you find us rude.”
I shrugged and said “sure”. I looked into those querying twinkly eyes…”you Army or NDA?”.. I laughed. ” Neither Sir. Something worse.” As his eyes quizzed up, I said “Army kid. Dad was an Infantry Colonel…but how did you guess?”. Almost simultaneously both spoke…He said ” the shoes” and she ” you stood up for a lady.”.
The next 45 minutes went on in a breeze. The gentleman was a retired Lt Gen from the army, himself an army kid. His wife came from an Air Force family and had lost a brother in 1971. We talked about the “old days and old ways” and how it was so easy to spot out faujis and fauji kids. The General then made a statement “army kids have more paltan in their DNA than their fathers who served the flag”.
Cut to November 2021 and one of our Banks sent in a wealth manager to talk to us. As the gentleman crossed the threshold of our home the thought was on my mind…”another fauji kid’, the giveaways being the shoes, the haircut and the way he addressed my wife.
It’s been decades since my Dad left the army. For him age has dimmed the ability to recall clearly many of his postings. But in no way has it dimmed the fervor for the paltan in my brother and me….and in millions of army brats who over time have moved into careers in civvy street and still bore their millenial children with tales and memories of days gone by.
Who can forget the early morning bugle call as you snuggle under the razai in the cold, damp walls of MES officers housing and your Dad grumbles and hunts for his blancoed PT shoes in the dark not wanting to wake up his unofficial CO from her bed,… or the cycle convoy as a Bhaiya leads a troop of eager beaver chatty brats from the unit lines on their way to school.. if you were in a larger station the there was the Shaktiman School Bus where you made friend for life, early romances and in 3 cases I know went on into marriages.
The Unit was everything to you. The cookhouse or langar being the start point for an addiction to rustic food…my Dad served and commanded a Madras unit and I still prefer Sambhar with Chapatis and another combination of Rotis/Dosas and fried eggs…and Yes…Chai is still tastier in a tall steel tumbler.
As you inched into your teens there was the shift to allowing you more liberty in the Unit lines… you got to accompany your Dad for PT and even the evening games and if you went into a private school, students there slowly got to respect the fact that you knew to play most games moderately well.
They didn’t know that you didn’t do it for the honor of the school…heck you changed schools every two years… but for the izzat of the PT ustads and company sportsmen in the unit who made your evenings hell teaching you everything they knew… “Tu Bravo Company Tiger ka beta Hai, tu CO Saab ki sherni ho”…. it was Bravo company, 4 Madras (Wallajabad Light Infantry), 121 Brigade… all the formation structures of your father’s unit, it’s demigods and its pedigree that had to be honored. It did not matter if your team. lost the match…what mattered was whether you played like a Sher or a sherni and gave it all you got.
And they would know it. The bhaiya who was your Father’s No 1 man was also the unit spook who would be the first line of information on your Father’s mood for the day to what were his kids marks in school…and woe befell you if you hit bottom line… I remember a time when my Hindi grades slipped and suddenly there was the Education JCO making a visit home and offering to teach me enough not to shame my parents… that was the sell in to Mom… the real issue of course being paltan ka izzat…
The army taught us kids something for free, what our Dad’s swotted and sweated out in NDA and IMA to imbibe…loyalty and bonding. All army kids grow up with a belief that their paltan was the best one in the Indian Army…. no questions asked.
The blind faith is unshaken even today. The Assaye elephant in the Madras Regiment crest became a charm. It extended to my always being a collector of Ganesha idols and elephant figurines. Maybe a way of staying in constant unconscious touch with what were the best years of one’s life.
Bonding was something that got ingrained as one spent time with the young officers of the unit… in a way they were the elder brothers and extended family…and funnily even today when in doubt…or a spot of trouble…they are the first port of call..not to mention the fellow fauji kids… siblings from another parent…and given a special place in one’s life way over cousins, aunts and uncles.
And then there was the etiquette one learnt from everyone in the unit. Love for the flag, respect for ranks and respect for elders. You stood up and wished when an elder person or lady entered a room…no questions asked. You combed your hair. You never wore un ironed clothes….and Yes, you bloody well polished your shoes to a mirror shine.
Years later even when I went into advertising and post that onto the client side, where informal wear and corporate attire rules blended and jeans became acceptable…my shoes were always a giveaway… as the General and his wife honed on.
Much water has passed under the bridge of time. One doesn’t hear the call of the bugle anymore. But 6.00 am is still wakey wakey time. The fetish for a neatly ironed and stacked clothes cupboard continues…even during Covid, which drove my unofficial lady CO round the bend as every evening I commandeered the ironing table at home. The Regiment stays in focus on the regimental fauji kids group.. the most recent excitement being one of a sister unit 7 Madras exercising in the US snows… Ganeshas and Elephants get their morning dusting…
And you will never catch me dead in unpolished shoes…
I am a son of the Paltan. I am a Wallajahbadi.