LIFE & TIMES OF A CENTENARIAN: THE GRAND OLD “FIRST LADY” OF THE INDIAN ARMY

“Please feel free to say Hello”, she uttered, ever so gently in almost a whisper but in perfectly smooth diction, looking straight into my eyes and her face wreathed in a gentle smile. I had approached her with great amount of trepidation because I was transgressing into her privacy in a manner, but she was quick and gracious to put me at ease. She appeared at total peace, both with her own world and the world at large as two devoted maid servants take her over various pathways of the Chandigarh Rose Garden, cushioned comfortably in a wheeled chair, almost every evening.

At past one hundred and one year, she is unlikely to be the oldest Indian lady but she is certainly the oldest living “First Lady” of the Indian Armed Forces’ fraternity. She was one of ten siblings of a middle class Punjabi family who had laid great stress on providing progressive and emancipating education to their children and her father, Major JR Kochhar of the Indian Medical Service had no qualms when he chose for his eldest daughter, Rajkumari (Kummu) a groom from a Maratha family. Likewise, the Shrinagesh family too had had their sons’ schooling in boarding Public Schools in England followed by Cambridge University but their eldest, SM Shrinagesh (Shri) had opted for and secured a merit-entry into The Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (UK). The prospective bride and groom knew not the mother tongue of each other but their eclectic education had helped bridge that gap first with English and later Hindi as the lingua franca in the Shrinagesh household!

The couple had had their first sight of each other on 24 July, 1934 (Rajkumari, a few months shy of her 20th birthday and her groom a decade older) when their marriage was solemnised. Captain Shrinagesh had a surprise wedding gift for his bride, that is, he would take her to London for their honeymoon and even though it would be a few weeks past their wedding when the ship would dock in London but they would celebrate nevertheless with Champagne, in a suite in the Savoy Hotel! Captain Shrinagesh was a KCIO (King’s Commissioned Indian Officer) and as such governed by same entitlements of pay and leave as the British Army officers; so Shrinagesh had opted to avail of eight months “Home Leave” in UK as he would successfully utilise the time to concurrently prepare for entry (on merit) to the Defence Services Staff College. Lest wrong inferences of extravagant life style be drawn, Rajkumari had asserted a few years ago to Shrinagesh’s biographer (Brigadier Satish K Issar) that they had lived and brought up their five children on their salary alone and the one and only time they had looked up to their parents for finances was on superannuation from the Service to build a dwelling, in Chandigarh!

Much like the Armed Forces wives of those times, while her husband, father, brother and a brother-in-law were inducted on battle fields in the Middle East, Europe, Singapore and Burma she moved home between Lahore, Shillong and back to Lahore and following armistice to Tokyo where Shrinagesh was placed in command of the 268 Infantry Brigade Group during the reconciliation and reconstruction phase of post war Japan. She set up home inside a villa that had belonged to an aristocratic family of Tokyo whose sole survivor, a young girl in her late teens would carry the scars of war for life, particularly as she was now one among the household’s domestic staff in what was once “Home” to her. The Shrinageshs’ humanitarian instincts were deeply touched by that cruel paradox of war and they promptly shifted her out of the staff quarters, set her up in a room of her choice in the house proper, accepted her as a member of their family and appointed her as their interpreter and mentor for Japanese culture and history; it evolved into a life-enriching experience for both parties.

However, the Tokyo interlude was far too brief because the Brigadier was promoted to Major General and appointed the first “Native” General Officer Commanding, Madras (Chennai) LIFE & TIMES OF A CENTENARIAN: THE GRAND OLD “FIRST LADY” OF THE INDIAN ARMY Lt Gen. Baljit Singh, AVSM, VSM MOTIVATION Area and Rajkumari was down to set up house afresh in the general precincts of Fort St George, a space hallowed by some two hundred years of Indian military heritage and tradition.

Among the hilarious episodes of the early years of marriage of a Punjabi with a Maratha, one of Rajkumari’s recalls is worth recounting. She had heard her maternal grandmother advising her daughter-in-law once that “Never argue with your husband, because you will never win, so just say Achcha ji and do what you think best! Their fire extinguishes very fast, if you leave them alone”. Not long after, there was a moment of much laughter between the newlyweds when one day, Rajkumari’s Maratha born, English speaking spouse said “Tell me Kummu, what is the meaning of this word Achcha ji? I find you say Achcha ji to everything I ask you. But most of the time, you do the opposite of what I want”. Naturally, Kummu happily explained the lexicon to Shri as also the sage advice of her grandmother and concluded with a chuckle “…..and I generally find my solution to the problem is more workable than yours, so I go ahead and do it…. they both burst out in peels of laughter.”

The reason that their Tokyo assignment was cut short was because, following Independence the British Officers left for UK and the handful, serving Indian Officers were promoted to fill vacant key posts in the restructured Indian Army. So by August 1948, Kummu was not only the spouse of a Lieutenant General but also that of the Independent India’s first Corps Commander in J&K and by mid October set up home in a lovely cottage which has ever since been the Flag Staff House of the “Chinar” Corps. Close to midnight on 30 October, 1948 Kummu found Shri getting into his Battle Dress and after kissing each of his three children in their sleep he next hugged Kummu and whispered in her ear “Kumari, today, either I will be made a man (Sic. a “Complete” Combat Soldier) or would be done forever”.

Rajkumari had no idea as to what was afoot and her mounting anxiety was compounded by the surprise visit of Wing Commander Moolgaonkar (later the IAF Chief) who called unexpectedly just past breakfast time and most apologetically stated that “the IAF in Srinagar are unable to support the attack on Zoji La due to the prevalent dense fog and that the General should have postponed the mission”. But luck always favours the brave hearts on battlefields and by mid day 01 November, 1948 the world learnt that the Indian Army’s first Combat Corps had captured the Zoji La and were galloping forward to liberate Kargil, followed by Ladakh!

Rajkumari had once remarked somewhere that “Not a single commander was decorated with any public recognition or National award after this brilliant victory and display of supreme human bravery” and went on to further state that “If Shri had been alive today he would have told the officers that your greatest reward is your own satisfaction of the tremendous achievement; the fact that you were alive at the end of the war and could say to yourselves – Thank God I did my duty for my Country….” Is anyone listening?

We don’t know for sure how Rajkumari had acquired the idea of the Army wives “Collective” to work for the greater good of the entire community of wives and their children but we do know that no sooner when General SM Shrinagesh became the third Chief of the Army in 1955, she set about in right earnest to institutionalise the Army Wives Welfare Association, on permanent footing. In the course of their meetings, whenever they broke for a cup of tea the conversation would almost always veer to the goings-on in the Army Headquarters concerning the forthcoming promotions and postings. Rajkumari found it odd that the Chief’s spouse had simply no inkling of such matters and felt a degree of humiliation. Unable to restrain aroused ill-feelings, she surprised Shri with tongue lashing at lunch one day stating “… what a fool and dim wit I had looked …..” but the devoted spouse calmed her at once with “Look, Kummu, leave my office to me…. please just mange our home and children… don’t worry your pretty head with all that goes on in the Office…..”; but what a pity that in recent times, the separation of Office from domesticity has been prettymuch messed up.

When I spotted her for the first time wheel chair borne around 2004 in the Leisure Valley, she was being trundled by a teenager, probably a great granddaughter. Momentarily parked at a spot from where the upper storeys of the Punjab & Haryana Secretariat and the roof of the Legislative Assembly buildings were clearly visible, the old lady was in lively articulation with the teenager. As I went by, I overheard her explain how parachutes open and how their unfurled canopies arrest the breeze to enable soldiers to float and touch down safely. I had no idea of what was afoot till shortly, I heard the drone of aircrafts above the Chandigarh Capitol Complex (now a World Heritage Site) and the sky full of Indian Army’s Paratroopers in a superb demonstration Parachute performance for some ongoing Government sponsored celebration!
And the grand old “First Lady” was simply in her elements, clapping with all her might!

Commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in July 1956, Lt Gen. Baljit Singh, AVSM, VSM, retired on 31 July 1992 after 36 years of distinguished service. A keen sportsman, accomplished writer and noted environmentalist, he is an active promoter of Conservation of Nature, more so within and by the Armed Forces.

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