Way back in 1965, my unit was deployed on the ADL (Armistice Demarcation Line), which defined the border between Israel and the Egyptian controlled Gaza Strip. We were then a part of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). The ADL was marked on the ground by a ditch one foot wide and deep and on both sides of it, two mud tracks were running parallel to the ditch, which were patrolled regularly by us and the Israelis on our respective sides.
The Israeli border patrols used to have a mix of men and women from the nearby Kibbutz, called Sabris. The women wore short shorts—what we called hot pants. The Sabres were a delight to our eyes and looked like the women in Rubens paintings.
Every time an Israeli was seen approaching, there would be a rush of volunteers from our side to be detailed as a patrolling party—and that included the married company commanders! As the situation was peaceful and as we were a part of the UN, there was no tension between our forces, so on holidays like Holi, we took it easy and except for manning the OPs, we did not send out patrols.
Holi in the paltan then, as it is now, was a time for much mirth and merrymaking, when prodigious quantities of rum would be consumed. Whilst most of us, though nursing a sore head would sleep it off after a bath and lunch, there would be some enterprising soul who would have a bottle or two hidden away for post-lunch celebrations. One such enterprising soul was Guardsman Sarwan Singh.
He was a big burly Sikh and calling him hairy would be an understatement; he looked like a cross between a gorilla and a grizzly bear. In the afternoon, whilst everyone was in blissful alcoholic sleep, Sarwan was nursing his hangover with the bottle he had hidden for such an emergency.
Having finished half the bottle, he tucked it under his arm and took a walk towards the ADL, hoping to meet a Sabri and invite her to join in the celebrations. Not finding anyone on the border, he did something which was absolutely forbidden. He crossed the ADL and walked to the nearest Kibbutz. On spotting some Israelis, he waved to them with his half-empty bottle, inviting them to join him in his Holi celebrations.
The Israelis promptly surrounded him and took him for interrogation, but he had them flummoxed! He was in his kachchas, with Holi colours over all his hairy body, looking like a multihued entity from outer space! To make matters more perplexing for the Israelis, Sarwan, with all the alcohol inside him was totally incoherent. Anyway, the only languages that he could understand were Punjabi and Hindi, none of which the Israelis knew.
By now, news of Sarwan being missing from his post was received at Battalion HQ by Nicco, who was the Adjutant—but here his title was more grand—It was Operations Officer and I, as the Battalions Intelligence Officer was Assistant Operations Officer.
On us fell the onerous task of informing the Commandant, Smokey Malhotra of Sarwan’s disappearance. Smokey, who was the epitome of rectitude and discipline was not pleased and gave us both a withering look! “Find him,” he said.
Sarwan was untraceable so we suspected that he must have crossed over to Israel. There was no way we could verify this with the Israelis as we had no direct communication with them. Therefore, the matter had to be reported to the UN HQ and also to our HQ in India. The incident was no longer amusing and by the time our message reached New York, the Israelis had also sent a message saying that some unknown entity had crossed the border from the Egyptian side in violation of the peace agreement.
The UN put two and two together and correctly assumed that the multicoloured hairy unknown entity must be our very own Sarwan. A Hindi speaking UN representative was sent to meet him and on verification, it was arranged to have Sarwan handed over to us at the Eschalon border check post.
This was done and Sarwan’s multihued kachcha had been replaced by Israeli army fatigues. Sarwan, unaware of the flap he had created, with a beatific smile on his face, walked across the ADL, to the arms of our reception party and fourteen days in the quarter guard.
Sarwan could have had it much worse, but behind Smokey’s stern exterior, was a soft heart and Sarwan escaped lightly. Perhaps Smokey realised that it was only a bit of celebratory Holi high jinx brought on by a bit of excess rum— something pardonable on Holi.
Smokey may also have been influenced by what Sarwan had to say about his escapade. When in their custody, the Israelis wanted to present him to the press as an Indian defector to Israel, to score some propaganda brownie points. Sarwan refused all inducements which included citizenship and a job, and also the hope that he could perhaps marry an Israeli girl.
To convince him of their sincerity, they brought two Sikhs, who during the tenure of their battalion in Gaza had defected to Israel and were now settled there. They tried their best, but Sarwan was true to his salt, his paltan and his motherland. He told the Israelis that he wanted nothing more than to rejoin his unit. It was a Holi that Sarwan and all of us in the unit are unlikely to forget. Happy Holi
Commissioned in 4 Guards, Major Chandrakant Singh, VrCis a veteran of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, where he was wounded and awarded the VrC for conspicuous gallantry and courage displayed throughout the war. Popularly called ‘Paunchy’ by his friends, he took premature retirement in 1977 and is now involved in writing and speaking on environmental and defence-related issues.