It was a warm afternoon in early September 1971, and I had ordered fried fish ‘n’ chips with tartar sauce at the Sky Room Restaurant on Park Street. I was happy with the work I had already done, with Headquarters Eastern Command in Fort William, the prestigious nerve centre of military activities. It would soon become the Centre of Gravity for the 1971 War and for the Liberation of Bangladesh.
Fort William, the citadel of Calcutta (now Kolkata and named for King William III of England) has a great historical significance. The original fort was perhaps first built at the Esplanade, in 1756, but then demolished and rebuilt at its present location in 1773, near the Princep jetty, close to the river. This facilitated easy loading and unloading of troops and material for the British East India Company as also the British Raj of the Bengal Presidency.
FW is magnificent and was originally defended by a moat of water all around it, with bridges to enter the fort from numerous gates. These were the East Gate (The main entry), George Gate, Treasury Gate and the Water Gate. The last of these had the best view overlooking the river. Fort William boasts of having legends like Warren Hastings, Lord Kitchener, and Sir Robert Clive, amongst some of the legacy and iconic personalities of old Indian history. Another rich British heritage is the Victoria Memorial, a marble building and a magnificent monument, which is now nearly 100 years old.
I had had a glass of beer with my coursemate, and good friend 2/Lt Gashi (Harbaksh) Gill in his field officers mess on Red Road, where his regiment was camping. I had politely turned down his request to join him for lunch, because I had a luncheon date in Sky Room, my favourite restaurant, which served excellent seafood.
Task at hand
I quickly changed from uniform to civvies, by the simple expedient of removing my olive green cotton shirt with my one lone single star of a subaltern, and replacing it with a light blue shirt. That went with my olive green trousers and the brown boots. At that time, there was no combat dress, and except for the rifle regiments, all others wore brown boots. Since it was operational conditions, we all wore field cloth epaulettes.
My artillery regiment had just done a three months stint of Aid to Civil Authorities in Calcutta in February 1971, for Internal Security Duties (ISD) and then returned in April back to NEFA/Assam. The City of Joy had had its woes and had been joyless due to the Naxalite trouble and the Army had been requisitioned, as is always done. We had been located then on Red Road as part of the force that had built up for ISD.
Due to the deteriorating situation in East Pakistan and the refugee influx from there, a lot of mobilisation had commenced since August 1971, and that brought me in the Advance Party of my regiment in August, to Barrackpore first, from where we were later diverted to Kanchrapara, about 50 km from Calcutta. My Battery Commander (BC) was Maj Sudhir Misra and Capt Robin Das was the other officer in our Advance Party. All of us were bachelors.
Preparations were for dual tasks, possibly operations and/or for ISD, since the city had yet to stabilise. Calcutta had gradually started swelling into a military base. Additional formations and units of the Army had moved in a calibrated manner, and the splendour of the city had a mixed blend of the civilians and army personnel in olive greens. It reminded one of the Second World War, when London and its outskirts in England, had been filled to the brim with formations and troops from other nations, mainly from the US, preparing to invade Northern France in June 1944.
Plenty of liaison and communication was required to be done with the Eastern Command for various logistics and administrative requirements which needed personal meetings. Our immediate higher HQ was in Ranchi, though some elements had stepped up to Barrackpore.
Fort William, the citadel of Calcutta (now Kolkata and named for King William III of England) has a great historical significance. The original fort was perhaps first built at the Esplanade, in 1756, but then demolished and rebuilt at its present location in 1773, near the Princep jetty, close to the river.
A subaltern is a person who could be effectively deployed anytime, anywhere and made the “errand boy,” just as Jerry Lewis was in a movie of the same name. My CO (Commanding Officer), Lt Col RP Sahasrabudhe, had telephonically liaised with HQ Eastern Command to accelerate our logistics support, so that once the Main Regiment would arrive, we would perhaps immediately get deployed. For personal interaction with the HQ, I was the errand boy.
“Ajit, you need to go to Barrackpore first, then ahead to Calcutta, meet officers in the Command HQ, coordinate for civil hired transport (CHT) for the Regiment, for its smooth induction and arrange for maps and other items that are essential; is that clear” said my BC. “Yes Sir,” I said and marched out.
Robin Das, an excellent person would share the duties and we both deployed ourselves independently, unless required to be together. Maj Misra was handling the other important tasks in Kanchrapara. I was doing the indenting for the unit, awaiting the arrival of the Quartermaster, who was also a new arrival to the Regiment.
By September 1971, it was becoming clearer that the build up of the forces would finally lead to some big event. But no one at our level could realise what would unfold. I was told to carry a change, and to stay back in Calcutta for a few days if required to complete the tasks. Vehicles were not available for plying to Calcutta, because of security concerns, but even if they were, there would have been none for me!
So I took the Lalgola Passenger/Express from Kanchrapara to Sealdah via Barrackpore. Switching from civvies to uniform and vice versa was an art that I had perfected. In Barrackpore, I met my senior, cricket colleague, 33rd NDA, Capt Prakash Ghogale from the Guards battalion. He was the Adjutant, and he gave me a 1x ton vehicle for getting the local work done.
After beer and lunch with him in his officers mess, I pushed ahead to Calcutta by the next train. I did work that afternoon at the Eden Gardens for the CHT, since all vehicles for impressment or hiring were parked and indented from there itself. I had to plan for these vehicles for our impending operational tasks, including the war, should it take place, though at that time it was mere speculation.
I managed a transit room in one of the local Unit Officers Mess in Fort William, and stayed there. Dinner for me was in Trincas, which meant Louis Banks, Braz Gonsalves, Pam Crain or Usha Uthup (Iyer) with the live band. They would be at Blue Fox also. Flurys was a good attraction also on Park Street. Sahib Singh was a good store next to Kwalitys. The old Ambassador yellow & black taxis were the hallmark of the city. The Sikh drivers were excellent and had great respect for Armed Forces personnel.
The many charms of Calcutta
I was familiar with Chowringhee, Esplanade, New Market, Park Street, Red Road and the good restaurants there, including the Great Eastern Hotel which had good “Floor Shows”. My holidays from the NDA and the Indian Military Academy would be spent in this very lively city, which reflected the “British Raj and its culture”. The staid Bengal Club and the Calcutta Club epitomised the culture of the “Brown Sahib”.
He gave me extra attention, made small talk with me and then asked “What is likely to happen now in the country”.
The Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC), The Tollygunge Club, were elite Golf Clubs, and only reserved for the distinguished few who had the due credentials to be there. After the day’s work, mainly in Fort William, I went to the Sky Room Restaurant, for a meal of Bekti fish. I had preferred this to the Nizam’s Kathi Rolls, which incidentally, are also a delicacy to relish.
The “Maitre de Restaurant,” more of a manager, presumed that I was from the Armed Forces, since perhaps, my attempt in trying to look like a civilian, hadn’t worked with him. He gave me extra attention, made small talk with me and then asked “What is likely to happen now in the country”. I had no clue myself, but I didn’t want to exhibit my poor knowledge or ignorance then, so I just said that it was “Only on need to know basis, hence I cannot divulge anything”. He agreed with me, and left me on my own.
The food was superb. The dessert was a lovely lemon soufflé with a chocolate tart, none of which I had ordered. He insisted that it was complimentary from the restaurant, and I must taste it. I didn’t disappoint him at all. I thanked him, the bill was a mere Rs 21/- and that included a coca cola! Most likely he had given me a discount!
While I was leaving the restaurant he said, “Sir, please save the country”. I assured him that I would definitely do that. As 2/Lt we were to be only seen and not heard. Nowadays there aren’t any 2/Lts, since that species has become obsolete. Perhaps he didn’t know then, that I was at the lowest rung of the ladder of hierarchy in the Army officer ranks.
While enjoying lunch, I had realised that there was about Rs 3000/- in my bank, the savings of eight months arrears of pay which was Rs 450 per month. The regiment canteen contractor, known as the ‘Baniya’ was our Bank. This person is an essential ingredient in the fabric of all units in the Army. He is always very helpful. He had taken a cheque from me and given me Rs 500/- so I was very rich and extremely happy.
The world was in my pocket. There were no credit or debit cards, no NEFT, or Google Pay then. It was great money, and as a bachelor it was plenty. I finished my work that Saturday afternoon and decided to spend the Sunday in Calcutta, then return, with all tasks accomplished. The New Market was the Mall or Multiplex of those days and had to be visited, to purchase some items for taking back to the location.
The senior most people I had met were all Major rank, who answered my queries and did my work. Lt Cols were a rare commodity and Cols & Brigadiers and above were too precious to be seen easily. I learnt a lot, was independent, took decisions, irrespective of the consequences, but felt great. No mobile phones to seek real time clarifications in taking decisions and thus nobody could contact me. I had to give no Situation Reports (SITREPS), to anyone at all. I didn’t have to give any Report Lines, as to where I was, or where I had reached at what time and so on. There was no STD phone service then, and Trunk Calls had to be booked from the Post Offices.
I spent Saturday evening at the Moulin Rouge on Park Street; it was good, but no match to the one in Paris, which I was to see much later in 2017, during my visit there. I enjoyed the evening. The band, music and dance were excellent and the City was living up to its name. Long back, my dance partner had told me that, Army Officers danced nearly as stiffly as they marched. Her remarks had stayed with me ever since, and I had no intention of dancing.
I finished my work that Saturday afternoon and decided to spend the Sunday in Calcutta, then return, with all tasks accomplished. The New Market was the Mall or Multiplex of those days and had to be visited, to purchase some items for taking back to the location.
Next day, Sunday, I saw a matinee show “Irma La Douce” a good English comedy (Jack Lemon & Shirley Maclean), at the Globe, followed by lunch at Firpos. Sunday mornings were always reserved for jam sessions, where cocktail sausages would be served “gratis with the beer”. It is a sign of the times, literally and figuratively, that restaurants today serve only peanuts. After doing hard work and enjoying myself, I then started back to my location in Kanchrapara. On return to base, my work was appreciated by the battery commander.
Build-up to the war
The next week, Capt Robin Das and I were detailed to do reconnaissance at the Dum Dum Airport, for a possible IS Duty task, if required. We were given a jeep with an escort. The task completed Robin said, “Ajit let’s have lunch in the Airport Restaurant”. I agreed with him, and we trooped in, in our uniform. We were welcomed and seated with dignity at a table.
Incidentally, later when war became imminent, one of our Air Force Gnat Squadrons from Kalaikunda, was located at this Airport on Operational Readiness Platform (ORP). Two months hence they would perform brilliantly in a dogfight, shooting down the first Sabres of the 1971 War, having taken off from Dum Dum Airport. Our Fighter Pilots would then outmanoeuvre the enemy pilots and we would witness that dogfight, as also be part of that historic moment in November 1971, being on the spot there.
We would come to know much later after nearly 46 years, in December 2017, (when we would meet Gp Capt Don Lazarus and Gp Capt Sunith Francis Soares, over beer and lunch in the Rajendra Sinhji Army Mess & Institute—RSAMI in Pune), that on 22 November 1971, after executing that Victory Roll over our Gun Areas, in Boyra on the Eastern Front, that they had a date in Blue Fox next evening on Park Street in Calcutta.
The Fighter Pilots of that famous dogfight had been on the news channels, and on Doordarshan (DD), soon after having shot down the enemy Sabre jets. On 24 November 1971, after being introduced earlier to the Defence Minister, and then having had drinks first with Maj Gen JFR Jacob, Chief of Staff Eastern Command and then with the Eastern Army Commander, Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, they trooped in a little after 8 pm to Blue Fox, the famous night club on Park Street. They made a great impression in their Flying Overalls with Revolvers.
The Calcutta crowds went mad and welcomed them, and swarmed for their autographs to be taken on anything that was available including on currency notes and on whatever else was available, including the menu cards at Blue Fox.
Despite the Black out in the city, the place was packed like Sardines, to hear Braz Gonsalves and Pam Crain perform live, in the midst of our fighter pilots, who had suddenly become national heroes, and rightly so. They became honoured guests of the Blue Fox management, with drinks and dinner on the House. Calcutta would absorb just anything that you had to offer it, and the men in uniform were in demand everywhere.
In a little while, four pretty air hostesses came and sat a few tables away from us. Capt Das and I were having a coke, waiting for the lunch order to materialise. We called the waiter and told him to give each of the air hostesses a coke (25np was the price of a coca cola then). A Rupee as advance tip was given to him, to tell the young ladies that this was kind courtesy from the Captain Saheb from the Army.
Despite the Black out in Calcutta, the place was packed like Sardines, to hear Braz Gonsalves and Pam Crain perform live, in the midst of our fighter pilots, who had suddenly become national heroes, and rightly so.
We saw the air hostesses enjoying the drink, but they didn’t bother to look at us. They were looking elsewhere. On our questioning the waiter, he told us that the ladies were thrilled at the cokes. In his exuberance he had told them “General Sahib Ne bheja hai Coca Cola Aap ke liye”. No wonder they never looked towards us. Perhaps we should have given him a smaller tip, and “he wouldn’t have promoted us to General rank”. They didn’t even thank us.
Going with the flow
Soon thereafter, the build up and deployment for the impending war started in Calcutta and adjoining areas. Capt Jay Sapatnekar, Adjutant of my Regiment ordered our battery to move ahead first to the front line. I fired my first salvo on 28 September 1971, ordered by Capt SK Sharma, the Forward Fire Controller, and the Regiment as a whole fired its first concentration on 23 October 1971.
The War commenced on 3 December and we liberated Bangladesh, which is nearly Half a Century ago. That was our Moment of Triumph. Many heroes made the Supreme Sacrifice in the line of Duty for the Nation. Our Salute and Tribute to them.
We would very briefly halt in Calcutta in December 1971, soon after de-induction from the new country Bangladesh, and get deployed on the Western Front. However we would be honoured by the City at a special function at the Calcutta Race Course in the Turf Club, in the presence of the Governor, and the Eastern Army Commander, for the Command Cup of that Racing Season. Firpos would arrange an excellent 5 Star Complimentary Buffet Tea for us the Armed Forces, which we were to enjoy.
In the drama, that had unfolded “The City of Joy had stood steadfast in its pristine glory”.