I don’t have a sister so no one’s ever tied a rakhi on my wrist.

Except for once. I had recently been commissioned as a 2/Lt in a battalion of the Rajput Regiment deployed on the LC in J&K. One morning I was summoned by the Adjutant. I entered his office apprehensively, wondering if I’d done anything wrong. After all, the Adjutant is responsible for maintaining discipline in a unit. He acknowledged my salute with a brief nod of the head. It took him a while to look up from the bumf on his desk. We’re releasing you in the wild, he said, smiling at his own joke. I stared at him in consternation. What was he on about? Never mind, I said to myself, all will be revealed in the fullness of time. The Adjutant got up and led me to the wall opposite him, where he drew back a curtain to reveal an operational map of our area of responsibility. The location of our units and formation HQ, as well as those of the enemy, were marked in blue and red respectively.

“You will lead a long range patrol of ten men in this area”, he said, sweeping his hand over a wide expanse of land.

Gosh, so that’s what it was all about! “Your march will begin here, near the unit rear, and end here on the Akhnur — Rajauri Road,” he continued, placing his forefinger on two spots on the map. “You will report your arrival at various points on the way, to help us keep track of your progress. I shall give you the grid references and code words you need, in a minute. Apart from that, you will observe radio silence, unless you wish to report an emergency. The whole thing should take you about five days. Needless to say, you will be self contained for the duration. At the finish point you will find a 3 ton vehicle that will bring you back to the unit. The aim of the LRP is to give you practice in exercising independent command of a sub unit, however small it may be. You may select the members of your patrol from your platoon. You will carry your personal weapons and on weapon scale of ammunition. Have an early lunch and leave for the battalion rear, where the Quarter Master (QM) will provide you with all your administrative requirements. In case you need anything more, don’t hesitate to ask him. You should start out first thing tomorrow morning. Do you have any questions?”

I didn’t have any, for the excellent reason that I hadn’t yet fully comprehended the complexities and implications of my impending task. “Right then, the CO will have a word with you now.”

“The CO!” I asked in alarm.

“There’s nothing to worry about”, said the Adjutant. “You are barely out of your teens and still wet behind the ears. The “old man” would like to assure himself that you will be fine.”

I entered the CO’s office, saluted and stood rigidly to attention. “Relax, my boy,” he said, “take a seat”. I sat down gingerly on the edge of a chair.

“Right then,” he began, “look after your men, arms, ammunition, equipment and yourself. While on patrol, do terrain analysis and note down anything important or useful. The area is hilly and thickly forested, so don’t move after dark. I don’t want anyone falling down and injuring themselves. You can ‘harbour’ for the night at a suitable place.”

There was no insurgency in Kashmir then, but the CO rightly insisted that I observe all security precautions during the LRP. He advised me to move tactically and follow battle drills as though I were in enemy territory. After he’d dismissed me, I selected my team, got our stuff together and left for the rear. We embarked on our LRP the next morning at the crack of dawn. At the end of the first day’s march, we went into harbour and had dinner. I was offered a plate of rice and vegetables. After the first mouthful, I felt as though my mouth was on fire.

“Are you all right, sahib”? asked one of my jawans anxiously.

“I think so, I’m still breathing,” I said, wiping the tears from my face.

My benefactor rounded on the others and shouted, “I told you not to use “tadka”! Sahabs don’t eat tadka. I know, I’ve worked in the Officers’ Mess. They eat bread and jam, without chillies, and things like soup and pudding”.

I suppressed a smile and said, “It’s all right. Cook the way you want to. Just take out a little bit for me before you add the bomb… I mean, the tadka”. The next afternoon we reported to an infantry battalion on the Line of Control (LC), as scheduled. We climbed up a steep hill to a forward company locality, from where we were shown the enemy positions. The Adjutant pressed me to have lunch with them but I declined politely as we were running late.

On the third evening, at the end of the day’s march, we halted in the open, some 500 yards from a village. I disposed my men in a defensive position and made out a sentry duty roster that included myself. Once again, this led to protests from my chaps, who said it was undignified for an officer to do this kind of work. I reminded them I’d already done it during the two previous nights. There weren’t enough of us to go round so we all had to pitch in. A little while later the village headman and a few others came to meet us. They asked us to shift to the village where we would be comfortably accommodated. I thanked them for the offer but said we were quite happy where we were. The VH then looked at me in some perplexity and said, But you are a sahab. I cannot let you sleep on the ground just outside my village. At least you should come to the village. We promise to look after you well. Don’t worry, I said, this is our third night out. In fact, I rather like sleeping under the stars.

They left reluctantly. We had barely started preparing our dinner (quite a scratch affair) when the villagers returned, accompanied by several curious women and children. One of the men carried a charpoy, which he placed on the ground before me. The VH invited me to sit on it. After the trouble they’d taken, I could hardly refuse. They had also brought some chapattis and cooked vegetables for us. This placed me in a bit of a quandary. If I offered to pay for the food they would be greatly offended, as it would suggest that poor people can’t afford to be hospitable. If I declined their offer, they would be equally upset. So I quietly accepted our surprise dinner. The villagers sat down in a semi circle before me, as though I was a ruler holding court before his subjects. The men spoke eagerly about various matters close to their heart. The women asked me when I would get married. After we’d chatted for some time, a small girl sat down hesitantly beside me on the charpoy.

Whenever our eyes met she would giggle and look away. Then she asked me shyly to stretch out my right arm. I did so though I wondered what she was up to. She pulled out a rakhi from her salwar pocket and tied it round my wrist. The women and children clapped and cheered. I was taken aback. I didn’t even know it was Rakhi Day. However, I knew very well I had to give the girl something. I had a beautiful fountain pen (there were no ball pens then) in my shirt pocket that I treasured greatly. I took it out without hesitation and presented it to her. She gazed at me in surprise but accepted it with a smile. The other children crowded round her excitedly to take a close look at her gift. As dusk fell, the villagers took our leave and went home. That was my first and last rakhi. At the end of the LRP we were duly picked up at the RV and brought to the unit late in the evening. I checked my men and found them in good physical condition. Arms, ammunition and equipment were all correct. After dismissing the patrol I reported to the Adjutant to be debriefed. At the end of our one to one discussion, he asked,

“How was the experience?”

“Not half bad, sir” “Glad to hear it. Anything unusual happened?”

“Yes, sir, I got my first Rakhi.”

“Really! Come on then. Let’s go to the Mess and have a spot of dinner while you tell me all about it”

Col Arun Sarkar was commissioned in 5 Rajput on 31 March 1972. He has seen active field service in J&K and in the Northeast and also took part in Op Pawan in Sri Lanka. He speaks French fluently – a language he learnt on his own and in which he passed the Interpreters Examination with Distinction from the SFL.

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