The Commanding Officer and the subaltern : 9 PARA
Col Ranjit Singh, Retd
With most officers in the Army it is a Rite of Faith that your first CO is normally your military hero. I am no exception; my first CO was Lt Col OP Sabharwal. It was a pleasure to get a call from him today; I was watching Dojokivic’s French Open replay, lying down totally relaxed in this lovely weather when the phone flashed OPS. It happens to most of us, when your first CO rings you up, even after 51 years plus, the natural tendency, reflex, is to straighten up, stand up. That is what I did.
‘Hullo Ranjit’ the baritone voice drawled. Since the day, I joined 9 till when I was his G3 he had never called me by my name, it was something else. We exchanged pleasantries and had a long conversation about various things, the latest about our plots in the DLF land north of Chandigarh, his daughter in Dubai who was my little friend in Bakloh, my daughter in Dubai who stays a stone throw away from his daughter’s office there, etc, etc.
I first met him in Jindrah, he was away for a few days when I joined the unit. I was playing Basketball during games period, the game was about to end, the whistle blew and one of the Ptrs in my team whispered to me ‘Saab CO saab khare hain, Game dekh rahe the’. I looked behind, there he was, ran up to him and stood at perfect shun, smart and all of 66 Kg then and said ‘Good Afternoon, Sir’. There was no smile on his face, a steely, deep penetrating stare, looked me up and down and after what seemed ages he drawled, very slowly ‘Hullo Boy’ and after a scary pause he added, ‘ You play well.’
That is the name he always called me by. In those days a 2nd Lt rarely saw the CO and so was the case with me. Even the 2i/c, Maj LM Jain from CIH was seldom seen, once in a blue moon, when some odd task was to be delegated. We moved to Bakloh, in a peace station life was different. Every first Tuesday of the month was CO’s day, a two mile run in FSMO followed by the Bn inspection after breakfast and the visit to training area.
The first CO’s day in Bakloh was preceded by some serious thinking amongst us in the bachelors quarters the night before, let’s keep the water bottle empty, stuff news paper in the big pack, why put a blanket in, everything should look full and heavy but empty inside, our juvenile minds led us to the right answers as the guiding principle was, it is kind of silly running around with all that weight. Could we take a chance?
We all know that 2nd Lt’s minds are very fertile and we had plenty of 2nd Lt’s. The CO’s reputation as a disciplinarian was well known, so in the end we decided that this being the first run we should take it seriously, study all the loop holes and hoodwink the system in the subsequent month.
The next morning the CO arrived at the PT ground, after the report he went around from the rear of the rank and file, it was announced before he started his dress inspection that whomsoever he taps will have to lay his complete kit out, we heaved a sigh of relief, thank god we were carrying everything.
The only person out of the complete Bn he tapped was a field officer, poor soul, he was saved a lot of embarrassment as the CO never came back to check what was laid out. But believe you me; the CO had driven the message home that ensured every one carried everything for all future runs. You know CO’s are very erratic and unpredictable, next time he may tap you, why get caught? No system is fool proof, I am sure some diehard’s still managed to run light.
On one of the subsequent days, ‘A’ Group was on training, I was the only officer present in the Group, normally when Jr Kariappa was present, he sat at the Gp Cdrs table laid out under the tree, we joined him when tea and snacks were served during tea break.
That day Sub Zile, walked up to me, I was smoking as was the norm with all us young officers; we smoked just for the heck of it as the ‘Marlboro’ cowboy was all over the magazines. Now most of us don’t smoke, follies of our youth, I guess. With respect he told me, seriously at that, that the CO may ask me to take over a WT class so he suggested I may like to scan the précis. He was a great veteran S JCO and decided to warn me and have me prepared.
That ruined my happiness. I went through the lesson so many times and even memorized it backwards, before the CO arrived. I was raring to go. Come the CO with the SM, I was standing on his left behind the squad when after a minute or so he told me, ‘Boy, take over’.
I must have done a great job as after a few minutes he seemed satisfied, he never smiled on duty, and you had to move a mountain to make him do that. He was about to leave and said ‘Good’, Good Lord; at that precise moment the Grenade launcher cup affixed on top of the 303 rifle which I was holding in kneeling position in front of the squad fell off.
It was a most silly and stupid contraption, you had to take a bayonet, loosen a screw inside the cup, fix the cup on the rifle, adjust the clamps and tighten the screw again. Everything had been done properly except that the screw was not tightened well enough.
I was looking at the cup lying on the ground sheet, the rifle and then at the CO. Oh heavens, I thought, why was this ordained? This disaster didn’t seem to bother the CO, I was relieved. But in my mind I wanted to dig the inventor out of his grave in UK and bash his skull in for letting a 2nd Lt down.
A few months later the CO decided to play Squash in the AN’s. One day I got a message from the Adjt to be at the Squash courts at a particular time, the CO would like to play with me, I dressed up in the best of whites and was there, with him as far as turn out went you could not take a chance.
Whether in uniform, games dress, casuals or a suit. He was meticulous. I am sure all in 9 will agree that the dignity and grace he carried in his appearance and attire was the best we have seen. That day I was not bad in appearance and attire so half the squash battle was won.
The problem was the other half, the actual game. I had not played since college, about three years, but it did not bother me. It would be a cake walk, I was young and fit. That AN was terrible, I lost all 5 games, it seemed only one of us was running around the court, the other was standing plumb in the centre. No marks for guessing who was really sweating.
Of course, we all are educated and intelligent and we have our reputation to save, so we will understand that in the evening when I was asked in the mess how the game went, my answer was ready, ‘The CO plays extremely well but you know it is not proper to beat your CO’.
That is one of the general principles of Mil service. If anyone has a better answer do let me know. I must be frank in that as much as we played over a period of time, I could just take a game or two off him. He was an excellent player; perhaps I should have had a better chance in billiards.
In those days, CO’s were humane but never really close. To make the youngsters get that family feeling the CO’s wife played a very important role, Mrs Sabherwal was so perfect and natural in that she made us feel so nice. What else do 2nd Lt’s want, just some family affection, with her we always felt at home.
The CO normally trusted me with the most arduous and difficult tasks. I was entrusted with tasks that people twice my age would shy away from. I guess he had full faith in me. So when he called me to his office and said he has a task for me, I was convinced that I was the trustworthy one. He asked me to go to his house, his wife would brief me.
There I was tasked to drop his little daughter to their relative’s house in Delhi. So on the fateful day when I went to the CO’s house to pick her up I was briefed twice over, I can understand a mothers concern and assured them that she would reach the house in Delhi properly; everything would be done, even at the cost of my life.
When I saw Mrs Sabharwal hugging her daughter good bye, it was a do or die mission for a 2nd Lt. We were on our way from Pathankot and then the only thing which I was not briefed about happened, Anu started crying, slowly at first and then she would not stop.
For me it was the most perplexing situation I had faced in my very short life, I tried my best to please her, did everything, but Anu wouldn’t stop. I was on tenterhooks when we reached Jalandhar Cantt and I thanked God when I saw Mrs Bounthiyal, a classmate’s mother (Her son is now running a big Nursing Hospital in Clement Town), praise be to God, the moment she and her daughter held Anu, Anu stopped crying, was all smiles as if nothing had happened. Some Girlie talk amongst the three, and a most complex problem, which I was not able to comprehend, or handle, was solved.
Life is certainly strange. On the onward journey, it was night. Anu was now fine and fast asleep. Had my problem ended, No, a new one sprung up in my mind and was looming large, what if Mrs Sabharwal somehow found out that her daughter had been crying and I was unable to do anything to make her stop? I could see a fledgling military career coming to a very premature end. It was an uncomfortable night for me.
The following morning we reached Delhi and I handed her over and returned. I was very apprehensive for a few days, awaiting summons from the 1st house but there were no comebacks, so all was well. I have never been more relieved.
Time passed, I got posted to Agra, Brig Sabharwal was by then was the Bde Cdr, I was in the Centre which is a different world in every aspect. You have so much time that you have to look for things to do, my passion was to get maximum books from Time magazine’s bestseller list and read them, there was all the time in the world for that. I was going on leave abroad in a few days. So the preparations had begun, meaning that I had started growing my hair. Lt Col LM Jain our ex 2ic and then CO 2 PARA came for his refresher; I had an Ambassador car so we went around calling on everyone we knew, just the two of us.
One day in the Centre Bar, having a drink and talking about old times, he mentioned that we should call on Brig Sabharwal the next day, that old fear of your first CO lingers; I had not had a haircut for some time now, so the Cdr seeing me with long hair would invite some action, all the effort I had put in to grow my hair would go waste. I wriggled out giving some vague excuse and got the centre car for him, the car arrived and I was escorting him to the car, he looked at me, winked and said, ‘So, you managed to saved your hair’.
These seniors can somehow see through everything.
One evening we bachelors were at the centre Mess, having a great time when the Comdts car screeched to a halt, this was followed immediately by the Cdrs car. I was in a suit and Brig Sabherwal, while literally running up the stairs snapped an order at me, ‘Boy, put on your uniform and come back in a minute’, my party came to an end, I was back in uniform in no time.
I was a Centre officer, the Centre Comdt was there but Brig Sabharwal had taken control, he told me, ‘There has been an air crash, rush to the airfield, find out what you can, we will come shortly’. I reached there, everyone swarming around, no one seemed to know what to do; The lesson I learnt there was that in any crisis when there are a lot of officers present, they all collectively do not know what to do. Brig Sabherwal arrived, and I conveyed whatever little I could gather at my level.
A C119 full of Ptrs on a night sortie had started to roll, on full power, at a runway crossing a vehicle jumped the red light and the pilot yanked the stick back , stalled and turned turtle, caught fire and all perished, there were no survivors, my Skydiving instructor, Sgt Govindan was also in that Ac. At the airfield I bumped into Awdhesh, Gods ways cannot be described, he was supposed to be on that aircraft but was taken off at the last minute. I hugged him, he had an incredulous look on his face.
After all he had stared at death in the face, the Gods had been kind to him at the last minute. The burnt and mutilated bodies strewn around, the horrid smell of burning flesh, it was a ghastly sight. The Cdr and Centre Comdt got into a huddle with the AF senior officers who had arrived there. Brig Sabharwal took overall charge in his hands, got complete functionality restored in a hopeless situation which no one knew how to handle.
A few months later, I got posted to the Bde HQ as the G3, the first day I reported, I was to meet the Cdr, he told the BM that there was no need for anyone to be present and he would see me alone. There were no taking chances with him, I had had a new uniform stitched, and everything on my apparel was sparkling clean and shiny. I marched in; he was looking at a file.
“ Good Morning Sir’ I saluted, after a few seconds he looked up from the file, that look, as steely as ever, ‘Hullo Boy’, he looked at me up and down, then addressed me, he said that I should always put my best foot forward, how to behave also whom not to behave like and what not to do. Bali and Taskar were also in the HQ with me.
It took a couple of minutes in his office and I was back to active military life, the good times at the centre were over. I had eleven years service then, though a Capt, in those days a Capt was a Capt, 6 years or 13. Somewhere in my tenure with him at the Bde HQ, I got my original name back; he started calling me by my name.