CAMARADERIE?

I am an alumnus of RIMC, ‘Ranjitian’, 1962-66, and from 37/F in NDA. I joined the Air Force. Afterwards, I led an uneventful life doing ‘this & that’, ‘here & there’, and never had a chance to visit ‘Rimc’ till 1996, or even remembered that I was a ‘Rimcolian’. None asked me, and hence I never told these ‘nones’ that I am a Rimcolian, till I retired from AF in 1994. One ‘L’ is sufficient for ‘Rimcolians’, in Hinglish, don’t you think?

MY JOB WAS SIMPLY TO INDUCT THE FORMIDABLE GROUND ATTACK HELICOPTERS, MI-35S, INTO 104, MOVE THE UNIT TO BHATINDA, INTEGRATE WITH ARMY UNDER JIP-87 AND PREPARE THE SQUADRON FOR HIGH INTENSITY, HIGH DENSITY BATTLE ON THE WESTERN FRONT ASAP. THE EVENTUALITY OF WAR SEEMED VERY REAL AT THAT TIME. PHEW, HUFF & PUFF, ONE HELL OF A JOB. I WAS BEING LOVINGLY GOADED, AND PURPOSEFULLY PRODDED, ‘FASTER, FASTER’, BY A SUPERIOR ‘ARMED KAUR’ RIMCOLIAN (THEN BGS IN 10 CORPS, LATER VCOAS).

Sometime in mid February 1988, I took over as the CO of 104 Squadron, then equipped with AS-11 anti tank missiles on Chetak helicopters, located at Sarsawa (Saharanpur). I had neither been to Sarsawa earlier, nor to Manali, by foot, car, or flying, flapping my wings like the Biblical Icarus. My job was simply to induct the formidable ground attack helicopters, Mi-35s, into 104, move the unit to Bhatinda, integrate with army under JIP-87 and prepare the squadron for high intensity, high density battle on the western front ASAP. The eventuality of war seemed very real at that time. Phew, huff & puff, one hell of a job. I was being lovingly goaded, and purposefully prodded, ‘faster, faster’, by a superior ‘Armed Kaur’ Rimcolian (then BGS in 10 Corps, later VCOAS).

Just a few days after I had taken over the squadron in Sarsawa, there was the usual rounds of welcome parties. My subordinates bestowed their affections by insisting that I have Patiala, – ‘one for the road, and then one for the gutter’. So, on one weekend, a Sunday night, when it was raining cats and dogs, I had more sycophancy than what I could imbibe, even in the gutter, and was just falling asleep, when the doorbell rang at 0230 hours on Monday morning.

My wife immediately turned over in bed, pulled the blanket over her head. ‘I have a migraine’ she said, and then commanded, ‘You handle this’. Obedience is drilled into all Rimcolians, even if they are filled to the gills with rum & molasses. Hence, I had no choice but to obey.

I hitched up my lungi to half-mast and ran bare chested to open the door with much irritation since someone was persistently and continuously ringing the bell. ‘What the phokes?’, I roared, like a zebra turned tiger turned ‘Gadha’. There was lightening, thunder and heavy rain in the background.

‘Hi, you bugger’, said an apparition when I opened the door. He was in uniform, with pips of a Lt Col, soaked to the skin, water dripping even from his W-front ‘chaddi’. There he was, Sec Cdr Ranjit, winner of the President’s Gold Medal, ‘Swapan Bhadra’. My classmate, whom I had not seen since we passed out of NDA in 69, almost two decades earlier. Swapan was just the same, tall, handsome, suave, sportsman extraordinaire, didn’t need an introduction. The chap has a record of winning all the medals clean sweep, along with the sword of honour, in IMA.

“What the phokes”? I mumbled again meekly, giving him a zestful hug “What the phokes”? I mumbled again meekly, giving him a zestful hug. Immediately he did commando style deep penetration into my drawing room, dripping water all over the carpet and sofa. I should have closed the door on his face and told him to ‘phoke off’ when I had a chance. It was too late now.

‘What are you doing here, at this time of the night’? I asked out of curiosity. After all there is a limit to civility at 0230 hours, on a Monday morning.

“I have to reach Manali by 0730 hrs“I have to reach Manali by 0730 hrs or I will be court martialed”, he announced unceremoniously. “And you are going to take me there”, he commanded. “Give me a drink, champagne, and something to eat, I have not had anything to eat since lunch yesterday”, he ordered ‘Din-Fast’ (dinner + breakfast, on the quick, double march). I don’t blame him, I was dressed worse than a ‘masalchi’ of the Madras regiment on holiday in Kovalam. I poured him a drink and went to the kitchen to make ‘masala dosa’, with my lungi at half-mast. While I was making dosa and warming refrigerated sambar at 0245 hours in the morning, Swapan told me his story, hanging on to the kitchen door, sipping my champagne, directly from the bottle. He does everything in style.

Swapan had been posted to DRDO’s Snow & Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) at Manali and had gone to Meerut to pack and dispose off his baggage, which perhaps consisted of several GFs too. He is such a handsome, suave, irresistible kind of chap that all neighbourhood birds watch him. Baggage is easy to dispose off, but not the birds. So he had over stayed his leave and had just few hours to join his unit, or be ‘court martialed’ as ‘absent without leave’. He was asking me to demonstrate camaraderie. Old boy’s ‘esprit de corps’, to do or die, simply mumbling ‘Itch Dien’, whatever.

While I was making the third dosa, at 0255 hrs, I evaluated the odds. I was drunk and not fit to fly. I could get court martialed, grounded, all of which were worse than what could happen to Swapan, if he didn’t reach Manali at 0730 hours.

The weather was bad, there was no way I could help him reach Manali, where I had never been to before. We could kill ourselves doing what he wanted me to do.

I would lose my command before I even got used to having, ‘one for road and one for the gutter’, war cry of the boys under my command. None of it sounded good. They sounded like laments of an old woman. I was a Rimcolian, got punched, ate vitamin XXX, scotch eggs and then was made to run round and round the quadrangle to imbibe camaraderie and esprit de corps. It was time to show it, not act like a wimp.

So, Swapan and I got into his jeep at 0330 hours, and went to my Squadron. There was only one of my airmen on guard duty.

‘Tham, Kaun Aata hai’, he challenged with his ‘danda’, holding it like a rifle doing a bayonet charge. ‘Tera baap’ I told him. ‘Come here and help me push the hangar door open’.

We pushed out a Chetak helicopter which had its fuel tanks full. We kept pushing it down the taxi track till the ARC dumbbell, far away from the AF habitation.

At 0415 hrs, we got airborne as quietly as possible. It had stopped raining and the clouds had lifted. It was still dark with the eastern sky beginning to glow.

‘You do the map reading’, I told Swapan. He was holding the million map upside down. ‘Yar, I have never seen such a map, do you have a ¼” or 1” map like the army’?

I was in serious trouble, the clouds were sitting on our head at about 500’. I drove the helicopter like a ‘Jonga’, terrain following using the landing lights, heading for Manali, knowing fully well that I can never reach Manali in such weather. But I had to show Rimcolian camaraderie, esprit de corps, didn’t I?

To cut a long story short, we did reach Manali, somehow, never once going above Jonga driving height at full speed, around 140 kph. Swapan went into Champagne induced sleep despite all the excitement and his batman kept jabbing my head from behind when I nodded off, rum induced sleep. The helicopter flew by itself and had more camaraderie than I. Moses used godly powers to part the sea. With same zest I used willpower to try and part the trees, hills and the clouds. The helicopter knew where to go and what to do. Actually I didn’t do anything, I was feeling very sleepy.

I dropped Swapan at Manali, refuelled and came all the way back on my own, just like I went, parting trees, hills and clouds like Moses. I had learnt to do all that and more, because of Swapan. I arrived back at Sarsawa as my colleagues were assembling for the monthly ‘Station Parade’ at the opposite dumbbell. So I quietly landed on the ARC Dumbbell and switched off. ATC began making frantic calls to figure out the mad man approaching at low level and landing at Sarsawa, so early in the morning, in bad weather. I switched off the radio to get the irritating ATC off my back. I ran to my office, instructed my men to push back the helicopter from ARC dumbbell, changed into uniform and ran to attend the parade.

‘Did you go somewhere early morning?’ my boss, the Station Commander asked me later. I winked at the OC Flying, ex NDA few courses senior, seeking his tacit cooperation. ‘I was just doing an early morning ‘dooshang’, I told my boss with a straight innocent face, ‘Just helping the compass to find the North, Sir’. Waffling was an art I had learnt in Rimc, and refined to ‘fine art’ in NDA. In love and war, always waffle, do Kathakali to win, that was my belief.

Nothing more was said or heard from Swapan, till we met a decade later in school on 13 March 98. We only hugged and said cheers, the Manali escapade remained forgotten. It was not anything special to remember.

Nothing more was said or heard from Swapan, till we met a decade later in school on 13 March 98. We only hugged and said cheers, the Manali escapade remained forgotten. It was not anything special to remember.

Rimcolian (1962-66), Ex NDA (37th Fox) and afterwards a QFI and Experimental Test Pilot in IAF for 23 years, Wg Cdr Unni Kartha raised and commanded a MI35 Squadron. He retired from IAF in 1994

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