There is inevitably a strange, almost laboured disconnect between the urgent, distinctive ‘pop’ of the speeding bullet as it whizzes past you and the apparently languid, disarmingly slow movement of those around you. A sardonic, yet glowing affirmation of Einstein’s theory of relativity, if you will. Those who have been in active combat and had the privilege of being fired at, would know. Deependra Singh Sengar surely did. More than just a couple of times. But let me rewind just a little bit.
A day after Valentine’s Day, 1998. Sengar had just been received at the Guwahati airport by the unit’s escort team. At 5’6” and 52 kgs in weight, you could easily mistake him for the average postgraduate student at Guwahati University. A white tee, regulation denims & sneakers. No shades though – He scarcely had the time, inclination or the tolerance for show biz. His travel clothes reflected his persona. Practical and as unassuming as unassuming could get. Sengar was re-joining the unit in active operations in the Northeast, after weeks of pleading, screaming and struggling against the orders of Col Ivan Crasto, the Commanding Officer, to man the administrative rear echelon of the unit in a cosy, sleepy town in Himachal Pradesh. That is who he was – a man of action. And men of action, as you would know, abhor routine administration.
The first message he overheard, 15 minutes into the drive, on the secured communication radio link was garbled. 5-6 senior militant leaders in a house, armed with automatics, pin point location, high credibility of info, apparent transit profile, likely to move out soon. The Quick Reaction Team (QRT) from the unit was starting out, but could hit target only in an hour. Sengar quickly realised that with a short detour, he could be at the target in 20 minutes. Saving 40 minutes could mean the difference between success and failure. A flurry of messages later, Sengar had convinced the battalion HQ that he and his escort team were best positioned to get there and initiate contact with the militants before they disappeared. The QRT could follow up, later. Now, escort teams are usually a rag tag team of whoever is available, put together to stay within bounds of the directions imposed by the brigade HQ. Fully kitted out, sure – weapons, ammunition, secured communication, the works. But still, certainly not the first choice of guys for going into combat with. But that didn’t deter Sengar. He swung in, picked up the spotter and hit the target in 20 minutes, as planned. A short, sharp exchange of fire ensued. 2 reds down, 3 had fled. It is then that Sengar realised he had been hit. Two bullets had pierced through his abdomen, making a clean, almost unnoticeable entry in the front and a classic, disproportionate exit wound in his back. What they call in the medical world, rather disparagingly, a ‘clean’ shot.
The rest was a blur. The flurry of the evacuation process. Hand carried, on four wheel drive and by chopper. Through the local hospital in the neighbourhood, and then to the Base Hospital at Guwahati. The long, unending line of surgeries commenced. From specialist to super specialist. Cut, sew and cut again. At the end of about 15 days of chopping and pasting, the docs were confident of partial recovery in a time frame of about 18-24 months. A miracle, they called it. But then, they hadn’t seen miracles – as yet. Sengar was no pushover, who would, or could be tied down to a hospital bed. He was up and about in 45 days. He read books on his condition called colostomy and realised that psychological recovery was as important as the medical one. That’s what he needed to know and he started doing what was in his reach – whether strict army hospital rules allowed or not. Sneaking out of the hospital, hobbling along to the theatres to watch practically every movie worth watching – and some which didn’t fit even that bill. 60 days on from that fateful day, a unit officer was getting married. Sengar, attired in a lungi and a kurta (he couldn’t wear anything else – the scars were still raw), with tubes and bags (If you must know – A colostomy bag) practically but immodestly hanging out of his modest frame, hired a car and travelled 5 hours one way, halfway to Dehradun. “Huh? To attend a fricking marriage??!!!???” Well, consider yourself forgiven, because Sengar wasn’t the type who’d let anything – certainly not 25 grams worth of random molten lead that burnt independent, solitary furrows through his intestines come in the way of having the pleasure of seeing one of his mates being led, willingly to the gallows!
Sengar hated hospitals. Much to the deep dismay of a bevy of nurses there. He was back in the unit by early May, 98. The docs, fed up with his constant supplications to be released, grudgingly tore down the baneful baggage of precedence, and allowed him to get back to the unit, with the solemn promise that he would not exert himself, and stay confined to the battalion HQ (chuckle chuckle). Now, that is a tad difficult for someone who was called “Rocket” by the junior officers – Sengar was the recipient of the coveted “Dagger” on theCommando Course, the one who was the undisputed King of the different competitive runs in a battalion, known for having amongst the most physically fit officers and men.
Around this time, a training exercise was being conducted in the eastern sector and Sengar saw a chance to prove his fitness. He pleaded with Col Crasto to be allowed to get there, to ‘man the telephone’. I was not present there during his pleadings, but I can almost visualise Col Crasto’s plight. Once Sengar started with his requests, he stayed at it, wearing down his ‘enemy’ with nauseatingly nagging perseverance. Crasto finally caved in after Sengar was able to convince the doctors to pronounce him “fit” for active duty. He pleaded, he struggled, he nagged, he nudged, he begged, he threatened, and he resorted to blatant emotional blackmail of the vilest means known. Sengar had amazingly, defying every single precedent of recorded medical recovery in cases similar to his, convinced the docs to upgrade his medical category to SHAPE1.
In the middle of the exercise, news broke about the Kargil conflict and the unit was to airlift a team for the Kargil war. Sengar was back to doing what he loved best – back to action, leading a team. He led his team to capture Neelam post in the Kargil war which was the highest post captured in the whole engagement by the Indian Army. By August 99, officially, the Kargil war was over, but escalated engagements along the LOC still required the unit to stay in the area. And Sengar’s team was in the middle of action – again.
In September 99, Sengar was hit again. A violent fire fight with a group of freshly inducted militants. A burst of fire from an AK-47 tore through his upper thigh and hip. The story of that encounter is fitting enough for another chapter or two, but let me stick to Sengar for now. Bleeding profusely and his hip bone in tatters, we knew if we didn’t evacuate him in time, we’d lose him. The sub plot to this story is of a paratrooper in the divisional HQ, a chopper pilot, who was on a routine training mission, flying a Cheetah helicopter, who had coincidentally touched down at a helipad in the divisional HQ, while this fire fight was going on. He learnt of Sengar having been hit, and without waiting for authorisation, violating every rule in the book, flew in, landed at a hastily secured patch at the base of the hill feature and evacuated Sengar to the hospital through a route not allowed for Indian aircraft – all this to save some time to reach hospital; to increase chances of survival for Sengar who was losing blood despite the best possible patch up by the soldiers of his team during the firefight. From the time he was hit, Sengar reached hospital in 45 minutes. A couple of more minutes of delay, and he would have been history. Back to the ‘cut n sew’ story; of gentle, well-intentioned butchers with medical degrees and lovely, disarmingly pretty nurses. Only this time, it was more serious than the first. To cut (sic) a long story short, he survived. Barely. He was transferred to Delhi’s super specialty Army Hospital two months later and it was then that his parents were brought to Delhi and the news broken. All this while he was told that he would recover and be back in action in a short time. It took him another month to finally learn from the docs their verdict – He would never walk again. This was a body blow even for a man with the kind of resilience and strength of character as Sengar. He decided to quit the Army. He had no interest in serving in those fabulous Olive Greens, consigned to peddling files at theback end. Once he had waded through the rivers of emotion, which lasted all of 24 hours, he decided to take charge of his apparently fragile destiny, determined to chart out its fresh course, held firmly by its proverbial horns.
Sengar started aggressively researching options of an alternate career path. He was 30, single and had the energy of a bull – or three. It didn’t take him long to realise that he needed to tame the beast called ‘CAT’ – the Common Admission Test, to take a shot at passing through the portals of the premier business schools. So he did. He went about diligently identifying the best coaching classes in the business of preparing for the exams, 11 months away. In this process, as he did a SWOT analysis, he identified that his analytical skills weren’t what they once were, dulled by constant exposure to the high life – gunpowder, standard issue army rations, and the scum of the earth called militants. Not necessarily in that order. So, he decided to take on the mean ask of conquering Arithmophobia – his paranoia of numbers. He got hold of all the math books available and diligently went through them – NCERT, class four to class 12. For starters, a class eighth student – son of his physiotherapist, helped him. He then enrolled for classes. Minor hiccups like the fact that he had to be carried from his hospital bed to the car, or the fact that they had to make special provision for him at the classes, so he could recline on an ad hoc chair and take notes didn’t bother him one bit. He laboured on stoically – eleven months of excruciatingly painful days and long, midnight oil nights.