THOSE WERE THE DAYS

There could be no better advertisement for the Indian Army, and indeed for the Indian Armed Forces than this book by General Baljit Singh. A melange of 101 short stories, written with consummate passion and skill, takes the reader to places very few have been privileged to see and brings forth vivid experiences of life in uniform, in all its resplendent multicoloured hues. Only a person as erudite as the General, with his love for nature, his passion for the uniform and his literary skills could have put forth his experiences in such a unique manner.

The very first story, “Two Voices from Kargil Battlefield”, gets the reader hooked to the book. Told with charming simplicity, the first of the ‘voices’ was a telephone call from his erstwhile sevadaar in 1982-84, who had by 1999, risen to the rank of Havildar. Over the telephone, he proudly related how he had led his team of soldiers from 3/3 GR to capture the feature assigned to them in the Dras Sector, during the Kargil conflict in 1999. The second voice was another telephone call, this time from a young captain, who had directed artillery fire on to the enemy positions, while perched at a height of 15,000 feet atop an exposed mountain top! “You fire a round at him and sure enough, you can expect him on your location in precisely

one minute”, said the young Captain with disarming candour. Somewhere in the middle of the book is an equally gripping story titled, The Long Road to Siachen, which gives out a vivid account of the race to the Siachen Glacier, which culminated in the capture of the Qaid post by Sub Bana Singh, who was awarded the Param Vir Chakra for this feat, the Qaid post thereafter being renamed as ‘Bana Post’.

Equally compelling are the stories penned of famous personalities. The authors meeting with General Jameel Mehmood, when the latter visited him in his retirement home in the pristine forests of the Adivasis, making the locals wonder what the strange bird was that had landed in their midst, throwing up a cloud of dust! Or of his account of the life and times of Brigadier Sir John Smyth, which gives the reader a peep into history and of life in the Army a century ago. The short story of Adela Florence Nicholson (1865- 1904) also makes for fascinating reading. Adela was the first woman, admittedly not a native but Indian domiciled, who published poetry in english, long before Sarojini Naidu!

The personalities covered in the book are diverse. Subedar Major Umrao Singh, a Victoria Cross winner, the indomitable Air Commodore Mehar Singh, DSO, MVC, who flew the first Dakota in to Ladakh, landing at Leh on an unprepared surface, along with General Thimaya, to “ prevent the fall of Leh”, are but two heroes written about in this book. Also cov-ered is the life of General EF Norton (1884-1954), a great soldier and an iconic mountaineer, a story on Queen Elizabeth, another on General Jacob and a most captivating story of India’s beloved President, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.

But the book is not just about famous personalities. It is also replete with stories which bring out the authors love affair with nature and wild life. His abiding commitment to the promotion of nature conservation in general, but more so both within and by the Armed Forces found recognition, when he was invited to serve on the Board of Trustees, of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s India Chapter. Anecdotes of the authors travels are interspersed in the book, which make for delightful reading. These include visits to the Kanha National park and stories of a variety of birds and animals, butterflies and other tales of wildlife. Being in the Army gives a soldier a myriad number of opportunities to interact with nature, but one does need a discerning eye and a passion to truly revel in its beauty.

There are also stories of a general nature, interspersed in the book. The topics are diverse – from talking about ‘Siachen Allowance to Soldiers’, the author shifts to ‘India’s Vanishing Birds’, and then on to ‘Earliest Dalliances with Everest’ followed by ‘Vignettes from the Swat Valley’. This is what makes the book endearing. It is a collection of stories written by the author over a period of time, some of which have now found their way into this book. A most interesting potpourri, which the reader can flavour from whi-chever page she or he chooses to open.

Priced at Rs 2995 in hard cover, the book is perhaps out of reach for the young reader and would most likely find a place only in libraries. Perhaps a cheaper soft copy edition, priced at under Rs 400 would make for a wider audience, comprising largely India’s youth in our schools and colleges across the country. It also suffers from some minor infirmities. The copy editing could have been far better, as wrong spellings occasionally mar the enjoyment of the book. A simple spell check could have dealt with most such issues. The title also is a bit long winded, which does not catch the eye. But that notwithstanding, it is a book which makes the Army come alive. What is it that captivates young men and women to give their all for the uniform, in service to the nation? After reading the book, the answer becomes self evident. This is a book which will be enjoyed by the veterans and those in uniform, and also by India’s youth, which will enable them to see the personnel of their Armed Forces in a different light.

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