Not even old timers with long years in uniform can claim to know all the odd things that go by the name of ‘traditions’ in the Army. Then how could I, a young captain with less than five years of service?

Hardly had the dust settled on the salt pans of Rann of Kutch after the brief skirmish in April 1965, when Pakistan sounded the war bugle again in Kashmir valley. My formation (6 Mountain Division) was ordered to move to J&K. We had to make a staging halt at Ambala and our convoy reached Ambala Cantonment on a hot muggy August afternoon. Having found sleeping quarters for the night, two junior colleagues and I decided to go for an evening movie. After managing tickets we walked into an officers’ mess nearby, to sign up for dinner after the movie. This unit, a battalion of the Fifth Gorkha Rifles had moved to its assigned operational area but the mess was functional. Lt Pombra of this unit, my junior in NDA by a year or so recognised me, welcomed us into the anteroom and showed us the historic artefacts on display with great regimental pride.

While we were signing the visitors’ book as per protocol, the mess havaldar was called outside to the porch by the second in command of the battalion. He was seated on his pedal cycle, with one leg on the ground. After learning about us from the mess havaldar he called us outside. On seeing him friend Pombra disappeared through the back door. Being an insider he must have guessed what the immediate future held in store for us. The 2IC was in civil dress – shirt and trousers without a tie, just like us. Without returning our polite compliments he fired off, “Do you know this is the Mess of 5/5 GR (FF)? Even I, the PMC (President Mess Committee), do not enter the mess without a tie. How dare you?”

Our pleas of ignorance and apologies were summarily ignored. Instead a discourse followed on the customs and traditions of the famous ‘Frontier Forces’ (FF). “Do you know that we are the only Regiment that wears the brass buckles on the web belt three fingers away from the centre front?” How could we? To drive home the precious information he called one of thekanchas in uniform and showed us by measuring the distance with his fingers.

Duly awed by the high traditions, cinema tickets in hand we begged for leave but there was no way.

“How can a guest leave the Mess of 5/5 GR (FF) without a drink?”

He ordered scotch for all, to be served on the lawn. While awaiting that he educated us on his name and lineage.

“I am Major Hari Singh from the royal family of Bundi, a famous state in Rajasthan. My ancestors were great warriors!”

At this time, however, all we were interested in was getting to the movie on time. We anxiously looked at our watches and wondered why this great warrior was here, when his unit had moved to the front. There was still a chance to make it to the cinema hall, so we quickly downed the drink brought for us and made to go.

“Sorry, no one leaves the mess of 5/5 GR with only one drink in the belly.”

We sipped the second drink and again begged leave but it was refused point blank.There were more lessons on the way to complete our education on the Frontier Forces.By now our host had shed his officious shell and was all amity and charm. On his order, a big bowl of pure silver was placed on a table and two bottles of Scotch whisky poured into it. We were promised freedom only after the bowl was empty, the host agreeing to lend a helping hand. He explained the rules of the game. No water and no soda, and the bowl not to be touched except with the lips. Soon all four were on the knees, like three kittens and a mother cat sipping milk. The kittens worked hard. Finally the bottom appeared at about midnight. Bleary eyed and sleepy, somehow we zigzagged to our billets with empty stomach and unused cinema tickets in hand. On the way we were singing “Hari Singh of Bundi”, and “Long Live The Frontier Forces!” while our hands kept adjusting the imaginary belt buckle in keeping with the tradition of ‘The Frontier Forces’.

A Gunner to the core, Brig Onkar Singh Goraya was commissioned in1960, and retired in 1993 after serving in various command and staff appointments. A veteran of the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars, he also played an important role during Operation Blue Star. He has published two books, “Operation Blue Star and After” and “Leap Across Meghna- Blitzkreig of 4 Corps 1971”.

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