Padma Vibhushan, Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, Military Cross (MC) remains one of the most enigmatic persona of our times.
Popularly known as Sam Bahadur a name purportedly uttered by a Gorkha soldier after failing to recall his tongue twister Parsi name, literally means Sam, the fearless; and remains his most easily remembered name till date.
Sam cheated death on a few occasions, both in a battlefield and away from it. He, however, lived on to be a sprightly nonagenarian. Sam wanted to be a doctor much like his military doctor father but ended being a Field Marshal.
As a young Captain, while posted in Burma and fighting a war with the Japanese in 1942, he was critically wounded with as many as nine bullets lodged in his body. While battling for life, his valiant Sikh orderly Sepoy Sher Singh came to his rescue and saved him from certain death.
The valiant Sikh soldiers of his platoon had proclaimed: “Captain Manekshaw is the crown of our head and has to be rescued at any cost”. Sam’s orderly, Sher Singh, carried him on his back a good distance to the medical aid post where the army doctors were forced to treat him on priority.
Sam Manekshaw was decorated with a MC for his exemplary courage during this period as it was feared he might die. MC, it may be known, was not awarded posthumously until 1979 . Sam not only survived the ordeal but lived on to be 94.
Sam Bahadur would eventually leave all his admirers on June 27, 2008, peacefully in his sleep in his Conoor home Stavka in the Nilgiris hills, surrounded by family members and well-wishers.
Towards the latter years of his life, Sam Manekshaw, who otherwise enjoyed robust health despite his grave injuries early in life, needed medical help to overcome some respiratory problems that he began facing.
That was when an army doctor, Colonel BNBM Prasad, a pulmonary specialist, who is now a Major General, was assigned to attend to the Field Marshal.
The two would eventually share a bond beyond the usual doctor-patient relationship that lasted till the end, and curiously enough even beyond his death.
Much of the virtues of the late Field Marshal and his exploits, wit and compassionate nature are all too well known and documented. His final years when health began failing him would also be a period of his personal struggle with his illness that he faced as bravely and resolutely as he did as a young officer facing enemy bullets.
Sam Manekshaw would often relate many tales from his life to his doctor as they spent considerable time together during recuperation. He often spoke fondly of his darling wife Silloo, who preceded him on February 13, 2001, after a brief illness.
He would also speak of his doting daughters Sherry and Maja, son-in-laws Dinky Batliwala and Dhun Daruwalla, and grandchildren who also called him ‘Sam’ lovingly.
Above all, the Field Marshal’s favourite talk would invariably revolve around his dear Gorkha soldiers who were more than just a family to him. Such was his endearment with them that the household and the pristine elegance at Stavka are preserved as Sam would have loved it by the trusted Gorkha families residing at his quarters.
Gen Prasad easily reminisces 1971, the year when he was a student at Mysore Medical College as a period charged with patriotic fervor. India had defeated Pakistan decisively and a new country Bangladesh was created. Gen SHFJ Manekshaw, then Army Chief, was the toast of the nation.
“Many like me were motivated during our formative years to join the armed forces instead of seeking a lucrative career elsewhere,” alluding to the enigmatic Sam Bahadur aura.
“Though I joined army as a doctor in 1977, I got the first opportunity to see him in person and listen to him in early nineties during the passing out parade at Indian Military Academy in Dehradun when he was invited to address the young officers,” states Gen Prasad.
He would eventually be appointed personal physician to the field marshal.
It would, however, take Col Prasad a whole decade more before meeting up his all-time hero. The year was 2003, when the field marshal first visited Army Hospital (Research and Referral) in New Delhi for his respiratory ailment.
“What impressed me the most on my first personal meeting with him was his magnetic charm. He was a star attraction as he slowly walked in the corridors of the hospital. People in the vicinity used to look at him with bated breath and admire silently despite his age and ill health,” recalls Gen Prasad.
“As a doctor serving in the Indian Armed forces for past three decades, I have come across all types of patients. Some of them are very demanding while some are very humble who readily follow my advice without any murmur. Field Marshal Manekshaw was an exception.”
A gritty fighter till the end..
A year later while staying in a Mumbai hotel, Field Marshal Manekshaw developed acute chest infection due to exposure to chill from the air conditioner. He was air dashed to Delhi and was brought to Army Hospital (R&R).
“When I examined him on his arrival, I found him quite sick and weak, barely able to walk. “
Despite his illness he politely declined to sit on a wheel chair and walked all the way to the radiology department for a chest x-ray. He was found to be suffering from a severe chest infection and required immediate hospitalization.
“As he was not inclined for an immediate hospitalization, I took the risk of treating him at his younger daughter’s residence in Delhi after convincing hospital authorities to permit domiciliary care” recalls Gen Prasad.
To his doctor, Sam Manekshaw would recount his father Dr. Hormusji Manekshaw’s concern for his health and of the letter his father wrote asking him to give up smoking and drinking with a stern warning “Son, if you drink and smoke any more you will be dead soon.”
Sam joked: “Doctor, had I listened to my father and stopped drinking and smoking as I did initially while I was in the hospital, I would have died long time back.” He would never let his illness come in the way of humouring all those who looked after him.
On one occasion, when Dr. Prasad visited Sam Manekshaw in his daughter’s residence in Delhi, he noted that his doctor wasn’t wearing a watch. He promptly asked him, “Doctor where is your watch?” Dr. Prasad said, “Sir, I was in a hurry to meet you and forgot to wear my watch”.
Whether it was providence or merely a coincidence, it is difficult to tell but the Field Marshal had pre-planned to present his doctor a gift in the form of a watch and promptly took out an attractive wrist watch from his pocket and presented to him.
Dr. Prasad told Sam Manekshaw: “As a doctor I don’t accept gift from patients. Sir, you are something special; I have no choice but to accept your gift as a treasure for ever since it is given to me by the Field Marshal.” Both had a nice hug and thereafter drank coffee together. The watch is now a prized possession with Gen Prasad.
Both advancing age and weak lungs by now began to progressively decline his health. He wished to spend last part of his life in his favorite house – Stavka in Connoor.
He was relatively at ease in his own surroundings amidst Gorkha orderlies, pets, garden and local people.
Final days with his doctor
“The last time I saw him was on an emergency visit from Delhi at Military Hospital Wellington, Nilgiris following sudden deterioration of his condition on June 22, 2008.”
This time I found a pale self of the ageing field marshal. He was gasping for breath and was bedridden and was barely able to open his eye lids.
“My long experience of dealing such cases, who have chronic lung disease complicated by a deadly broncho-pneumonia which the frail and 94-years old field marshal was suffering from, made me sound alarm bells and alert all concerned expecting an inevitable in next few hours,” recalls Gen Prasad.
Given his condition, Dr. Prasad feared that their most illustrious patient would not possibly survive the next 24 hours. Killer pneumonia was getting the better of the gritty warrior.
Grandson Jehan and son-in-law Dhun Daruwala had lost hopes and were praying at his bedside for a miracle. His daughters, Sherry and Maja were on their way from Chennai and Delhi.
All were fervently praying and hoping he held on till their arrival. Defying odds as he did in the past, the wily field marshal held his own against the deadly infection for the next few days till his affectionate daughters were at his side before end came.
When his daughters came, he recognized them and spoke to them for the last time. He timed his death like his famous military operations at his will, and emerged triumphant in both his life and in death.
Moments before the end, those present around him would witness an amazing happening.
Sam Manekshaw’s younger daughter, Maja Daruwala, while trying to control her emotions, spoke about the life and times of her illustrious father to her near comatose father, acknowledging her love for him.
The moment she mentioned the name of her mother Silloo, he responded despite his state. The monitor which showed his oxygen saturation precipitously low and falling, suddenly shot up briefly while his breathing and pulse remained stable.
He passed away during wee hours peacefully on June 27, 2008, while his daughters held his hand and prayed.
He perhaps had the premonition of his death. He told an attending doctor few days before his death pointing at a skin rash on his forearm that he will be dead once the rash disappears. Sure enough the rash disappeared, and so did the iconic legend.
Despite debilitating illness, the field marshal had once asked: “Doctor, why can’t you have a scotch in my name? My sincere apologies that I just can’t give you company for the reasons better known to you.”
A week after he passed away, Col Prasad would have a surprise visitor. The field marshal’s grandson, Jehan, dropped by his office in Delhi to deliver a small gift a bottle of scotch under instructions from his grandfather with the following note:
“Col Prasad, FM sent his apologies that he could not drink this with you.”
The enduring spirit..
As fate willed, two years after his passing away, Col Prasad on promotion as Brigadier would once again return to Wellington as Commandant of the Military Hospital where Field Marshal Manekshaw had spent a considerable period convalescing. He felt was as if it was the Field Marshal’s spirit that had brought him back to Wellington.
“When I visited the ICU of the hospital, it reminded me of this legend who kept medical fraternity of this hospital motivated and in good humor till the very end by his majestic presence despite disabling illness. As a token of my respect to late Field Marshal and for posterity, I named the medical division of the hospital as Field Marshal Manekshaw Block,” says Gen Prasad.
“The garden in front of ICU where the Field marshal used to sit while was in the hospital was also developed, to honor the sentiments of Field Marshal who was very fond of flowers. I feel extremely fortunate and proud to be associated with him during his life not because he was a Field Marshal but because he was great human being. The memorial built at HQ Southern Command, a humble tribute to the legend reinforces the indelible foot prints he has left in the hearts and minds of the people of this country and beyond.”
On the occasion of the centenary celebrations, Sam’s physician, Gen Prasad had this to say to Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw: “Dear Sam, please accept my sincere thanks and immense gratitude from the bottom of my heart for all you have done to me through your both visible and invisible presence.”
Group Captain Tarun Kumar Singha
VSM & Bar is the Chief Public Relations
Officer (Def), Kolkata. Maj Gen BNBM
Prasad, SM, VSM, is presently Senior
Consultant (Medicine) in the office of
DGAFMS, MOD, New Delhi.
Photo courtesy, Maj Gen BNBM
Prasad & DPR